HC Deb 18 April 1973 vol 855 cc629-40

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Frank McElhone (Glasgow, Gorbals)

I thank Mr. Speaker sincerely for this opportunity to debate the dispersal of Civil Service jobs from London to Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

This subject is vitally important to my area when one considers that in Glasgow alone male unemployment is as high as 10T per cent., which must be wholly unacceptable to any Government with a social conscience. I must also tell the House—alas, not for the first time—that the West of Scotland is more than fed up with always being regarded as the industrial dormitory of the South, enjoying industrial expansion last, yet suffering industrial contraction always first.

The greatest investment that any nation can make must be in the education of its young people, yet this precious asset is being destroyed. In the city of Glasgow alone we have more than 2,000 school leavers wholly unemployed. Within the figure of 10.1 per cent. male unemployed in the city, there are, regretfully, many university graduates. Therefore, is it any wonder that so many of our brightest young people have to leave home, many to go to London, to attain that basic human dignity, the right to work?

It is also important that I should state that in our claim for a fair share of these jobs our arguments are not just economic. Before I come to that matter, however, it is only fair to pay tribute to the many people in the West of Scotland who have played a part in this campaign to get the jobs, not least the Lord Provost of the city of Glasgow, Mr. William Gray, who has led this campaign with splendid imagination and energy. This is not just a city of Glasgow exercise. The exercise concerns the whole of the West of Scotland. Indeed, the support of the four counties, the new towns and everyone concerned within industry, commerce and the trade unions should ensure that we get our rightful share of any dispersal recommended by the Hardman Committee's Report.

Coming to the other arguments, it is worth recording that the Civil Service Commission's Report published on 10th April states that in spite of every effort made by the Civil Service 400 jobs in the higher executive grade are still unfilled in the London area.

The cost of office accommodation in London is prohibitively high. When one compares rents in London of, for instance, from £6 to £12 per sq. ft. with rents in the West of Scotland as low as £1 per sq. ft. one can see the decided commercial attraction for coming to that part of the world.

On the subject of building costs, the new Post Office Savings Bank in Cowglen, custom-built for a staff of 6,000, cost about £7 million and provided 700,000 sq. ft. of accommodation. That should be compared with the recent acquisition at Whittington House in London occupied by the Home Office. Here, we have a building at a cost of £9.6 million, yet it provides only 71,000 sq. ft. as against the 700,000 sq. ft. in Cowglen.

Those figures prove conclusively that Glasgow can provide 10 times the amount of accommodation at two-thirds of the cost of such accommodation in London. This must be a compelling argument, especially as I can record tonight that in the city centre of Glasgow we have about 500,000 sq. ft. of new accommodation lying empty and ready for letting, and another 500,000 to 600,000 sq. ft. under construction or in the pipeline.

A very important aspect for any family involved in dispersal is the quality of life. One can state, with a certain guarantee, that people can purchase a house in the West of Scotland for half the price, or less, of a house in London of comparable size.

Regarding education, families which have moved to Cowglen and other Civil Service establishments will testify that the educational facilities are superior to those in the South. Apart from the many colleges of further education, there are two universities in the city of Glasgow and a total of five universities within a radius of 45 miles of the city.

As for recreational facilities, our Scottish National Orchestra is equal to the best in Europe, and our Scottish opera and ballet companies bear similar comparison. The facilities for golf, fishing, sailing and other outdoor participation sports are worth recording. The countryside is about half-an-hour's journey by car from the city centre.

The problem of dispersal is being tackled in many countries. In West Germany, the Anti-trust Corporation is in Berlin, the Statistical Office is in Wiesbaden and the Employment Agency is near Nuremburg.

It is worth recalling that in France decentralisation has taken place to the extent that the computer operations for the Statistical Office are being carried on at Bordeaux and part of the Foreign Ministry has been dispersed to Brittany. Holland, Eire, Sweden and nearly every other European country are going through or have gone through an exercise in dispersal. Much could be learned by the Government if they made a study of what is happening in those countries.

It is worth recalling some facts from the excellent Tavistock's Institute report on dispersal. Of the male higher executive officers and higher grades in group one departments, 89 per cent. in general terms would accept dispersal. This is a high figure, and it points to a much wider acceptance of the principle of dispersal than many would imagine. The greater the distance from London the dispersal location is, the more willing are people to elect to go there.

The report analyses four dispersals which have taken place in recent years— the Savings Certificate office to Durham; the National Savings Bank to Glasgow; the Stationery Office to Norwich; and the Civil Service Commission to Basingstoke. It is important to recall that in all these dispersals not one compulsory transfer was made of a Civil Service officer. It is vitaly important to the Government that any dispersal should be carried out on a voluntary basis as far as possible. This belies the fears of many Londoners that dispersal will be compulsory.

This leads me to my conviction that, given the right inducement, many civil servants would volunteer to come to the West of Scotland. I have no doubt that many expatriates would welcome the chance to return.

One cannot fail to appreciate the difficulties of this Government, or indeed of any Government, in attempting an exercise of this nature. Nor can one fail to appreciate the fears and apprehensions of many families which might be dispersed from London.

Nevertheless, for the Government not to act in a bold and decisive manner, especially in an area of such high unemployment as Glasgow, not only would be an act of political folly but would provide those apostles of separatism in Scotland, of whom we still have a number, with an even greater harvest of discontent than they at present enjoy through the failure of many of the Government's policies.

It is perhaps important to quote from a recent statement made by the Prime Minister, who is, after all, also chief Minister for the Civil Service: We refuse to condemn large parts of the country to slow decline and decay—to dereliction and to persistent unemployment in pursuit of old-fangled 19th century doctrines of laisse faire. We shall act to bring new life to these areas suffering from high unemployment or depopulation. That is an exact description of the problem facing Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

If the Government lack the political will to honour the pledge made by the Prime Minister or to make the necessary decisions, the long-term effects will be morally damaging, disastrous and serious for the people of Scotland. They will be even more disastrous and serious for the country as a whole.

The Minister will know that I have produced a plan which I think is worthy of consideration. I have given him a copy. I will not delay the House at this late hour by going into my plan in great detail. I will state a number of points briefly for the record and ask the Minister to give them serious consideration. Perhaps some time after the Easter Recess I shall have the opportunity of further discussions on the practicality on some of them.

We have been assured that housing will be provided not only in the cities but in the counties, and especially in the new towns. The Lord Provost has told me that he is prepared to support a plan for 100 per cent. loans for the executive officers required in Scotland if they need them. Civil Service representatives will be invited to the West of Scotland when we identify which Departments might be dispersed. It is important that those who might come, and certainly their families, should see what we have to offer.

We also intend to get together a team to come to London for at least a week to provide an exhibition and film shows. I hope that the Minister will assist us so that we may bring at least five or six civil servants who have settled in Scotland. They are the best testimony—far better than a thousand leaflets or a hundred speeches. Many people from the metropolis have settled down very well in Scotland and will never return. If some of them can speak to their counterparts in London, that will be the best advertisement we can have in a campaign to induce jobs to come to my part of the world.

I also intend to approach the media, especially television, to make sure that the families are aware of what we have to offer.

I have several somewhat novel points which I should like the Minister to consider seriously. First, I should like the Government to consider a weighting allowance on the salaries of civil servants who come to Glasgow or West Central Scotland—a London allowance in reverse. I can see no case against that. I have been told by senior civil servants that they are prepared to move voluntarily if the Government give certain inducements. If the Government will not give such London allowance in reverse, they could give an ex gratia or severance payment, much akin to the payment made in the dockers' redundancy scheme. If we are to bring people to the regions from London, inducements will have to be given, and in some cases they will have to be financial.

Another important point for consideration by the Government is in-service retraining for those who might volunteer for the regions but do not come from the Departments concerned. There would be no great difficulty, especially with administrative jobs.

I am making my speech brief because the Minister wants sufficient time to reply to the case, which I believe to be unanswerable, for a substantial number of jobs that might be dispersed from London going to Glasgow and the West of Scotland because of the high rate of unemployment that still exists there.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Edward Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone) on raising this important subject and on the splendid way in which he has presented the case for Glasgow.

So that all Ministers and hon. Members may examine all the facts, will my hon. Friend the Minister consider publishing the numbers of candidates who are successful in Civil Service examinations, the numbers who opt for jobs in particular areas, and the numbers who are successfully placed? I ask because a number of us in Glasgow come across Glasgow and West Scotland youngsters, graduates and others, who have been successful in Civil Service examinations but have been unable to find a Civil Service job in the locality and have been offered jobs elsewhere.

I hope that my hon. Friend will consider publishing such figures to give us a picture of the availability of suitable personnel for Civil Service jobs.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

I should like briefly to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone) said, and to congratulate him on the facts and figures he gave.

My hon. Friend spoke tonight for West Central Scotland, but he was also speaking for many other parts of the country which want Civil Service offices situated locally rather than in London. There are many indications of stronger pressures yet to come. If their object is to be achieved, a strong lead from the Government will be required, and that is what we look for.

I would refer briefly to two problems which are bound to arise if such a policy is advocated. One is a genuine anxiety by the staff. I inherited as Postmaster-General the decision to move the Post Office Savings Bank to Cowglen. The staff had not been consulted. I remember one big meeting which I organised in the Albert Hall, at which the Glasgow authorities put on a film. There was a great deal of anxiety at that time, but in fairness, if the staff are fully consulted there will be no problems provided that there is full discussion with the responsible trade union officials, and provided that people are treated sensitively.

The other problem is opposition from senior civil servants who will argue that they must be close to the Minister and that, therefore, all the offices must be located in London. I believe that this argument should be looked at much more critically, because if large bodies of civil servants are to be retained in London simply so that those in charge of them can pop in and out of the Minister's office the operation will never be carried through sensibly. Therefore, I hope that tonight we shall have some indication from the Minister of the Government's thinking. The Opposition will be watching to see how active a policy the Government intend to pursue.

10.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I add my congratulations to those offered by other hon. Members to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone) for raising this important subject this evening. Not only is it important. We had a short, interesting debate which is something in the nature of being an historic one in that this is the first occasion on which I have been able to find any record of a general debate on the dispersal of Civil Service jobs. There have been many questions but no debate, so a niche is somewhere being kept warm for the hon. Member for Gorbals.

The hon. Member was kind enough to give me his seven proposals before I entered the Chamber, and I assure him that I shall study them carefully. If he would like to see me after the recess I shall be only too pleased to discuss them with him in detail. He has made a powerful case for the dispersal of more office jobs, especially clerical work, to West Central Scotland. I appreciate his concern, and I appreciate also the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor). I can assure them both that the Government are also equally concerned. We are very well aware of the seriousness of the lack of employment opportunities, particularly for young people, in West Central Scotland and in many other areas. We appreciate the tensions and frustrations over the lack of jobs which well qualified people leaving school experience. The Secretary of State, as the House will know, is constantly seeking solutions to these problems. The House will also be aware that in October 1970 we commissioned the Hardman Review on the Dispersal of the Civil Service.

Areas like Glasgow should not regard dispersal of Government work as a panacea, because the supply of Government jobs is limited. Hardman has been looking at headquarters offices. The number of civil servants employed in headquarters offices would be about 150,000 for the whole of the country, of which 57,000 are already outside London and the South-East. The great bulk of civil servants do not work in London. Only three out of 10 of the people in the Civil Service work there. Of these three, one works in local offices of the Department of Employment or the Department of Health and Social Security, and two are employed on headquarters work.

So, Hardman has been reviewing a group which amounts now to some 86,000 posts. We are determined to disperse a sensible proportion but it would be wrong to suggest that it could be a major proportion. The scope for Civil Service dispersal alone overcoming employment problems in the regions, is, therefore, restricted. As regards the general campaign for West Central Scotland, I am glad to see that the authorities there are not pinning all their hopes on one employer. This must be the right course. Efforts must be made by Government, development councils and local authorities to attract new jobs from a wide range of sources in both the private and the public sector.

West Central Scotland is well placed. It is a special development area, manpower resources are there, and there are financial incentives. The very attractive countryside is there, and a well-developed social infrastructure exists. The idea can exploit these advantages, and I am glad to have this opportunity to congratulate the local authorities on the presentation they made on 28th March in London on commercial and industrial relocation, and the Scottish new towns on their initiative in opening a promotion office in Regent Street just a few hundred yards from my constituency.

It is fair to present the Government record and the record of previous Governments on dispersal. A previous Conservative Government set up a review under Sir Gilbert Flemming in 1963, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, then a junior Minister, was instrumental in getting that review off the ground. The recommendations of the review have resulted in 23,000 civil servants already being dispersed from London. Another 8,000 are due to go, and some 20,000 jobs have been established in new organisations of government outside London or are waiting to be established. Three quarters of the jobs dispersed since 1963 have been outside the "golden triangle" of the South-East and the South-West. That is an impressive achievement by any standard, and Scotland has not been forgotten in this dispersal. There are some 42,000 civil servants in Scotland, 8.6 per cent. of the total non-industrial Civil Service. They are in roughly the same proportion to the total Civil Service as the population of Scotland is to the population of Great Britain as a whole.

Apart from London, there are four cities in the United Kingdom with more than 10,000 civil servants, and two of them are Glasgow and Edinburgh. Scotland's share of dispersed work has been substantial. Already 4,700 jobs have been provided, and 3,500 more are planned. A total of 1,800 have been created in new organisations, and 1,000 will be created over the next few years, bringing Scotland's share since 1963 to some 11,000— one fifth of the total. In spite of this fine record, the Government believe that more can be done, as does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Gorbals referred to a speech that my right hon. Friend made, and I can assure the hon. Member that we intend to disperse more.

Perhaps I may answer the point about the nature of the work. By and large, the work that has been dispersed so far is essentially of a non-policy kind—for example, the National Savings Bank Savings Certificate Division to Durham, and the Teachers Salaries, Qualifications and Pensions Branch to Darlington. Although these branches have daily contact with the public they do not have much contact with the rest of Whitehall. They are not policy units. What Hardman has been looking at now is the policy "heartland" of Government. It follows from that that if this is to be dispersed some of the civil servants who work in that heartland will have to go as well. What Hardman has been doing in his study has been balancing on the one side the efficiency and economy of Government against the gain to the regions on the other. That is indeed a crucial balance for that sort of exercise. The House will also know that we have received the Hardman Report as a basis for discussion. It raises complex issues, and these must be considered carefully over the next few months. It will involve consultation with the national and departmental staff sides. We consider that to be essential. Our aim is to announce decisions as soon as possible after this full consultation.

I would also emphasise the point raised by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) about the importance of consultations with the staff side. Some people say that civil servants do not want to go and that there is a sort of conspiracy amongst them not to leave London. I have not found this, but one must accept that civil servants faced with dispersal have a natural concern for the work they are doing. They have a pride in their work and the efficiency of it, and they are concerned for fair treatment for themselves and also about the effect on their wives and families. All these factors have to be taken into account.

Previous dispersal exercises have been handled extremely well, and we are proud of our record. Many of those who have gone certainly do not want to come back after they have settled in and done their work. When I visited Cowglen I asked many Londoners whether they would like to return to the South, to "the Smoke". I did not have one taker.

I assure the House that we are well aware of the claims of Scotland in general and of West Central Scotland in particular. Representations have been received by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself far in excess of representations from other areas. In recent months I have talked to Glasgow Members in the House; I have travelled to Glasgow to meet the Lord Provost; I have visited Cowglen. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland recently received a deputation.

But it would be disingenuous of me to sound too optimistic about the degree to which West Central Scotland's claims can be met. Glasgow alone repeatedly bids for 20,000 posts. I cannot anticipate the review's outcome, but I take this opportunity to draw attention to one factor which is something of an inhibition. It is the policy heartland of the work we are looking at. We need to avoid reducing the effectiveness of that work. I am not saying that the work will be done less well outside London. In all cases we expect it to be done as well and in some cases better. I take my hon. Friend's point about the many qualified school leavers who cannot find jobs. I shall consider whether I can give him the information for which he asks.

The effectiveness of the various departmental machines depends on a series of formal and informal face-to-face contacts. This is a complicated pattern of communications in the policy area of Whitehall. It has developed in London because all the other interests historically have been in London—trade union associations, employer associations, cultural associations, business associations. I am not saying that those are the best in the country but they are the most concentrated. When we start disturbing this pattern of communication, this web, we must make sure that we do not upset and destroy the effectiveness of the machine. Dispersal imposes its price as well as bringing its dividend.

I recognise the force of many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Gorbals. I fully appreciate the importance of the problems facing the West Central Scotland area. But they must be seen against the general background which I have described regarding the limitations and constraints on dispersal and the many competing claims for, comparatively speaking, a small number of jobs. But I assure him and my hon. Friend that the claims of Scotland will be considered by the Government as thoroughly as they have presented them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.