HC Deb 09 March 1959 vol 601 cc1039-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.24 p.m.

Mr. Charles Grey (Durham)

I do not think I need make any apologies for raising the issue, even at this late hour, of the transfer of a Government department to Durham. It is true that this is not the first time I have raised the matter. I have done so both by Questions and by a speech made about a year ago when I raised it on the Motion for the Adjournment, as I do now. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury then replied to the effect that the search for a Department was still going on, with the result that my hopes were not dimmed. I felt then that there was, after all, some life in the Department. This promise, however, was not original. It had been made time and again by his staff and by his predecessor, the present Minister of Housing and Local Government.

At one time I felt some satisfaction with that statement, but now things have reached a point where it is wearing thin. I must tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that if I have the same reply tonight I shall be totally dissatisfied with it. I shall be driven to the conclusion that Durham is being fobbed off by his Department and that there has been no real attempt to arrive at a decision. I am now beginning to doubt the sincerity of the promises that have been made from time to time. It was in order to try to obtain a decision tonight that I chanced my arm and made the necessary application for permission to raise the matter on the Adjournment. I need not stress how glad I was when I learned that I should be able to do so.

I must also warn the Financial Secretary that if I have the same reply tonight as I have had before I shall continue to raise the matter on the Adjournment until something has been established in Durham, as was promised in 1948. Last week, in a supplementary question to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I mentioned that this case had been dragging on for six or seven years. That was an understatement. The problem has existed for at least eleven years. As he knows, it was in 1948 that, under the Government's dispersal policy, it was decided that the Land Registry should be sited in Durham. The establishment was to be completed by 1960.

I do not want to repeat what I said on the last occasion. The facts are only too well-known to the Financial Secretary by now, but I will restate one point, if only to show how much inconvenience has been caused to Durham County Council and to the City Council as a result of this dilatoriness. Is it really appreciated by how much the future plans of both authorities have been coloured by the knowledge that a Crown Department was to be sited in Durham? The city council, for instance, bought land over and above its normal requirements. A site sufficient to house officials and to meet local housing needs was acquired. As the Financial Secretary knows, it was estimated that if the Crown Department were sited in Durham housing accommodation would be required for 800 or 1,000 employees. This would probably mean that housing accommodation would be required for 2,000 people. That was a great undertaking. When the city council and the county council gat to know of it, they immediately took steps to meet the requirement. What reward has the city council received for acting so promptly to meet the need? How has it been compensated for making the necessary preparations for what would be required at the appropriate time? It has received nothing at all apart from a few promises, and after eleven years nothing has been established.

I appreciate that an offer was made that a department of the Ministry of Education employing a little over 350 people should go there. The staff would have been attached to the department, and the move would not have involved any local people at all. Both authorities in Durham were dissatisfied with this. The suggestion was so closely related to a palliative that they thought they were being fobbed off with something. They also felt that it was a "try on" and that if they accepted it nothing else would be offered. If it was an attempt at a "try on" I deeply regret it, and I hope the Government do not try it again.

The county council and the city council came to the conclusion that the department suggested was totally inadequate. This point of view was shared by the hon. and learned Gentleman's predecessor. A deputation was sent from Durham to his predecessor. When I last spoke on this subject the Financial Secretary read out a Press statement which he said was agreed on the occasion of the deputation. It was as follows: The deputation asked that some other Government Department of similar size should be sent to Durham in place of the Land Registry whose projected move to Durham had been cancelled. Mr. Brooke promised to give consideration to this request. That was supposed to be the agreed Press statement.

I want to give some other observations about what took place on that occasion. While I cannot honestly say that these observations can be regarded as official, I can say that to me they are a true impression of what happened on that occasion. The relevant paragraph from an impression which I have with me reads: Mr. Brooke then made the following statement— He feels a personal concern in this matter and has tremendous sympathy with the case put up. All the decisions were taken before he took office and therefore he cannot give the arguments against the transfer of the Land Registry. He suggested that the representatives should not hark back to the Land Registry but should consider something else. He was most anxious to secure an adequate substitute. He agreed that the proposed transfer of the Education Department was not an adequate substitute and he sincerely hoped that an office of comparable size to the Land Registry would be sited in Durham. He gave an assurance that the Treasury was doing its best to find an adequate substitute. He regretted that he could not say more at the moment. He felt that Durham City has a genuine need for a substantial Government Department and when there was anything to report he would take special steps to announce this in the House. That was an impression of a meeting which took place with the then Financial Secretary and representatives of both Durham authorities, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) and myself on 21st December, 1954.

A Press account of what took place appeared in the Newcastle Journal of 22nd December, 1954. Headed "Minister makes amends," it said: Durham City will get something at least as good as the Land Registry, which was supposed to go to the city, but never arrived, even after great plans had been made for it. The Government promised this yesterday after a deputation had seen Mr. Henry Brooke, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, writes Graham Cawthorne, our Lobby Correspendent. Mr. David Jones (Soc. The Hartlepools) and Mr. Fred Willey (N. Sunderland), the chairman and secretary of the North-East Labour group, took rerpresentatives of Durham City Council and Durham County Council to see Mr. Brooke to protest strongly against the switch in the Land Registry plans. 'Not Good Enough' Mr. Brooke promised to see that some Government department or establishment went to Durham, at least as good as—and perhaps better than—the Registry, which would have taken 1,000 Civil Servants with it, and would have employed 1,000 more, The deputation told the Minister that they were not prepared to be put off with the offer of a department of the Ministry of Education, made last September, which would only take 350 Civil Servants to the city without employing any more locally. And the Minister agreed that it was not good enough". The only omission from that report is my name, and I make that correction for the benefit of the Newcastle Journal even now. I hope that the Financial Secretary has absorbed that statement.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

I absorbed it, but I do not know whether the hon. Member can confirm whether the reporter was present with the deputation, or whether that was merely hearsay.

Mr. Grey

Whether it was hearsay or not, I was with the deputation and that was as near correct as to make no difference. The hon. and learned Member has been committed to something by his predecessor. Therefore, I hope that he will give us a promise of something for the near future.

The matter has reached a stage where we must know what consultations there have been over the past few years, and with whom. We have been told that there have been certain inquiries about Departments being moved, but there has been nothing specific and we have not been told which Departments have been considered with a view to going to Durham.

Could the Financial Secretary tell us what particular Departments have been considered for transfer, and, if there have been objections, what kind of objections were raised? It is only right that these questions should be asked, and only reasonable to expect them to be answered, if only to prove the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman's Department.

When the Financial Secretary replied on the last occasion, he gave one reason why we could not have the department at that particular stage. He talked about our economic position and said that we were not really solvent, that we were involved in financial matters and so on. Well, we are in election year now and I know there will be any number of nice things said about our economic position and tat we are now solvent. Therefore, the Financial Secretary cannot again use the argument which was used last year, namely, that it was no moment for incurring expenditure on Government Departments and Government buildings. In his speech over the weekend, he said how much better off we were under a Tory Government and how the economic climate has changed, so he will not again be able to put across the argument of financial stringency, that is, if the stories that the Government tell us are true.

I think the Financial Secretary will agree that the Crown Department in Durham will be a terrific asset to the county—and there is no finer county or place in the country than Durham. There is also a fine type of human material there to fill the bill, if they are needed. Even more important, there would be an avenue open for our young people in Durham, many of whom cannot find the job that they need these days. This kind of department would satisfy their ability, especially for the young men who want to have clerical jobs. Again, I hope that the Financial Secretary will do something to put an end to this uncertainty which has lasted so long. If he does, he will prove that our faith in his Department is not misplaced altogether.

11.44 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

The House has heard, as always, an agreeable and forceful speech from the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Grey). I know he feels strongly about this matter and has taken a great interest in it—an interest that I share, both as a Member for a north-eastern constituency and a close neighbour of his, and because I believe strongly in the maximum dispersal of government offices, not only from London. One of the disturbing things about the social development of England in the years between the wars was the excessive concentration of employment, particularly office employment, in greater London and greater Birmingham. I am strongly in favour of office accommodation going out of London. That has happened recently to a great extent with commercial concerns, and I am anxious to see that matched by the Government.

As the hon. Gentleman reminded us, in 1948 an agreement was reached with the staff side of the Civil Service National Whitley Council covering the dispersal of about 45,000 civil servants. It contained certain undertakings to the staff of which the most important was that the move would be made only to places where certain standards of housing and other social amenities, such as schools and transport facilities, would or could be made available. A great deal has been done. About 27,000 civil servants have already been dispersed. For example, the Admiralty have over 4,000 at Bath; the General Post Office has 1,200 at Enfield; there are over 1,000 from the Premium Bond Division at Lytham St. Annes; the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance has 3,700 at Blackpool, having in effect dispersed all except a small London nucleus, and there are 6,800 National Insurance civil servants at Newcastle. Other examples could be quoted, including that of the Air Ministry who have 3,000 at Worcester.

The dispersal is subject to two overriding conditions. First, it must not be such as to cause serious loss of efficiency in the public service. Some marginal loss of efficiency is acceptable because of the overriding social justification of the policy; and indeed there are certain residual benefits, which are not immediately apparent, in the way of reduced travelling time to work and so on. I shall not rehearse again the history of the Land Registry which it was originally planned should go to Durham. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is convinced that it would have been a serious interference with its function and efficiency to move what is, in effect, a London District and Home Counties Registry to Durham.

The second rider, which one must put in on the general desirability of a policy of dispersion, is regarding the convenience of the staff. It is true that any established civil servant renders himself liable to go where he is directed. But in this country we cannot push the staff of a large department into cattle trucks and send them off to some town in the North-East. We have to see that there is some department which can be conveniently hived off and that we carry the staff with us in that policy. I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees.

Subject to that, I am most anxious to find a department to go to Durham. Obviously, it would be wrong to select a department which had already been earmarked for some other authority which desired that department to come into its area. I know that Durham has been disappointed and, therefore, there is a moral obligation regarding Durham, but it would be wrong to take some other department from some other authority and switch it to Durham. Therefore I have been anxious to find some department, or some part of a department, to go to Durham.

I have been making inquiries, and long before there was any question of this debate I was pursuing the matter. I can assure the hon. Member that I am entirely at one with him as to the general desirability of a policy of dispersal and the specific desirability of finding a suitable department to go to Durham. I am sure he will understand this. I cannot say what inquiries I have been making and the discussions I have been having within the Government machine, but I can assure him that I have been prosecuting inquiries and shall continue to do my best. I cannot make a promise more than that I shall do my best in this respect.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned four points on the question of efficiency and convenience of the staff and two points about consultation with the Whitley Council—amenities of the staff and education for the children—as being deciding factors. Will he say how in his opinion Durham meets those four points or in what particular way it fails to meet them? He gave a list of transfers from London to Birmingham and so forth, but nothing seems to develop in Durham. Hon. Members from the North-East feel that Durham provides these amenities he has been discussing.

Mr. Simon

I shall gladly answer that question. As far as the efficiency of the service goes, it is really a question at this end to find a suitable Government Department which can be sent, as a whole and of convenient size, to Durham without damage to the efficiency of the public service. I do not despair of finding one, although I am not giving any promise, as the hon. Member will understand. So far as the good will of the staff is concerned, there is, frankly, considerable staff resistance to any move of this sort. I think the staff side was to be considerably congratulated on the amenability it showed in 1948, but it is necessary, as I indicated, to carry them with us in this respect. In the end we shall do what we conceive to be reasonable, hoping to convince the staff side equally of our reasonableness.

So far as Durham as a receiving station is concerned, I have no doubt that it is eminently suitable. The schools are excellent, the accommodation will, I understand, be provided—indeed the hon. Member reminded us that a site has been earmarked, and I take it that housing will be provided. So far as the general amenities, I find myself entirely at one with the hon. Member for Durham and the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell) in saying that any staff who get to Durham will be happy there. I know that nobody likes to have his life disrupted and does not like to move, but I am convinced that once he gets to Durham he will be happy there. It is a magnificent town with one of the most dramatic situations that exist in the country. The cathedral and the castle on the top of the hill, with the view from the bridge over the Wear, is second to none. The cathedral itself, with a great dramatic Norman nave, is quite incomparable. The town has a university, a highly cultural community of great interest as the hon. Member mentioned—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes to Twelve o'clock.