HC Deb 05 February 1976 vol 904 cc1576-88

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)

I am grateful to have this opportunity to comment on some of the criticisms of the Civil Service which have been made over the last six months. I think the House knows well my interest in the Civil Service as parliamentary adviser to the Civil and Public Services Association.

Civil servants, like mothers-in-law, are stock-in-trade for second-class comedians. Nobody worries very much about that, save perhaps the very sensitive civil servant, and even he probably enjoys the occasional episode of "The Men from the Ministry." However, civil servants are also stock-in-trade for those editorially in charge of the various organs of the media. Again, the occasional outburst, particularly by the more choleric Right-wing editor or the more irresponsible politician, can be borne with fortitude. However, the attacks by the media and by some politicians over the last six months have been virtually unparalleled. Their persistence has been exceeded only by their misinformation and distortion.

In a democratic society it is only right that the instruments of Government should be scrutinised closely, and at the present time no one should attempt to prevent a public debate both in this Chamber and throughout the country on current and future levels of public expenditure. But a debate about public expenditure is essentially a political debate. It is not furthered by an ill-conceived attack on the agents who carry out the will of Parliament. Those who refuse to face the real arguments about public expenditure—what proportion of money should be spent on the old, the sick, housing, the disabled and all the other costs associated with the development of a civilised society because they are afraid to talk in real terms—often take the cheap way out by attacking the Civil Service.

It is impossible, in the brief time available to me this evening, to deal with the vast amount of distortions and innuendoes which have been perpetrated on the public over recent months. Indeed, my purpose in raising this issue is to encourage Ministers and Members to spend more time defending their servants who, apart from their unions, have no other effective way of offering a defence. We expect of our civil servants a measure of circumspection in public affairs but the price of that should be an expectation that they will be defended against irresponsible or political attack.

There are three areas where attacks have recently been concentrated. First, there is the attempt to persuade the public that civil servants are grossly overpaid in relation to the rest of the community and have been feather-bedded against the economic difficulties experienced in recent years. Loaded statistics have been used and senior civil servants' salaries have been bandied about as if all civil servants are paid at this level. This has naturally caused some resentment among dedicated people in the lower ranks. A separate case can be made on top civil servants' salaries—and the salaries of Ministers—but I have not the time to develop it now.

The facts are that since 1964 the average civil servant's pay has increased by 196 per cent. while the average national wage has increased by 239 per cent. The permanent secretaries, whose pay and pensions have been quoted so much in recent months, number just 42 out of a total of 719,000. I hope that these figures help to put the matter in perspective.

Over 20 years ago, the Government of the day decided to take a long hard postwar look at Civil Service pay and conditions of service. The Priestley Royal Commision was appointed. Most of its recommendations were accepted by the then Government and have been faithfully followed, with the occasional hiccups because of incomes policy, to which I will return. Chapter 4 of the Report is well worth re-reading, because the arguments advanced there are not just of historical interest but are as relevant now as they were then. The Report stated: We believe that the State is under a categorical obligation to remunerate its employees fairly and any statement … which does not explicitly recognise this is not adequate. It went on to express the need for: the maintenance of a Civil Service recognised as efficient and staffed by members whose remuneration and conditions of service are thought fair both by themselves and by the community which they serve. The Commission made it clear what it meant by fairness in relation to pay: The primary principle of Civil Service pay is fair comparison with current remuneration of outside staffs employed on broadly comparable work. Such comparisons, it argued, would be fair to the taxpayer and fair to the civil servant.

But more important, however, was the Commission's firm view that this principle safeguarded the Civil Service from political pressure. We are now rapidly approaching a situation in which the Civil Service could be used and is being used by a few people in a devious way for possibly unscrupulous political ends. Those on the Opposition Benches who feel so inclined should remember the words of the Royal Commission: principles are needed to govern Civil Service pay and they must be principles that can be applied consistently by successive Governments of different political complexions. Otherwise the non-political character of the Service might well be impaired. These principles have been the consistent thread running through pay negotiations in the Civil Service for the last 20 years, through boom and slump. Anyone who criticises it might remember that the very principle of comparisons means that Civil Service pay inherently lags behind outside pay levels and that, as direct employees, civil servants bear the brunt of any Government incomes policy. Awards for various groups were delayed or cut by policies operating in 1961, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1975. Awards following pay research exercises were modified as a result of Government incomes policies in 1966, 1968, 1973, and the procedure is at present suspended.

I accept that it is not satisfactory merely to argue that because these principles have existed for so long they can never he changed. I do argue, however, that it behoves those who criticise to offer an alternative method of pay determination which can be consistently applied. Not one critic has so far presented such an alternative. Unfortunately, I suspect that, by their very nature, the critics would not want to involve themselves in serious discussion.

I must now turn briefly to pensions. A comprehensive and, until 1972, a statutory scheme for superannuation has existed in the Civil Service since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was the forerunner of practically all occupational pensions schemes in the country and for well over 100 years it led the field. In the late 1960s, however, it became clear that it was falling behind in a number of respects the occupational pension provisioning in this country. There was a lengthy review by the National Whitley Council and in 1972 a revised non-statutory scheme was introduced.

It is relevant to note, first, that the revisions and the associated annual pension increase provisions were proudly announced by Members of the Opposition then in Government and widely welcomed on all sides of the House. There were some criticisms in the Press, but most of these devoted themselves to areas, particularly provisions for widows, where they felt that the Civil Service scheme was less than generous compared with some private sector schemes.

A few years later, the Civil Service pension scheme is under attack, unfortunately by one or two leading Opposition Members who were a part of the Government who originally proudly proclaimed them. Any hon. Member who involves himself in the complexities of pension provisioning is a brave man. I therefore want to deal briefly with only two points.

First, the pension increase arrangements, which, it is pretended, apply only to civil servants, also directly or indirectly involve local government staff, teachers, firemen, policemen, National Health Service staff, the Armed Forces and, amongst a number of others, not least, retired Members. I find it very difficult to understand an argument in which the critics a few years ago welcomed inflation-proofing as a socially necessary arrangement but now decry it when it is most needed because real inflation has hit us. Perhaps they should have said at the time that they agreed with inflation-proofing but only when there was no inflation.

The second lie is that because civil servants have a non-contributory pension scheme they are not paying for it. The only time the Civil Service scheme was contributory was for a short period in the middle of the nineteenth century when the Government introduced it with the deliberate intention of cutting pay. It is necessary to state quite boldly and unequivocally that if arrangements were made to create a contributory pension scheme in the Civil Service, the resulting cost would almost certainly be greater. That is why the idea was rejected when the scheme was reviewed a few years ago. The salaries paid to civil servants are adjusted downwards on the independent advice of the Government Actuary to take into account pension provision.

There has been some very disturbing Press speculation in the last few days that the Government are considering breaking the commitment to increase pensions in line with inflation. Were that to happen, it would be a complete breach of faith and I should like an assurance from the Minister that it will not happen. The solution to the problem is for the Government to ensure the continuing success of their anti-inflation policy, and in this they will have my every support.

Finally, and this deserves and will undoubtedly get a debate in itself later, there is the question of Civil Service manpower. Here the media have a field-day. It is so easy to poke fun at the civil servant with his so-called safe job. In periods of prosperity he is treated editorially with contempt because he prefers a relatively secure job doing a worthwhile but often unrecognised public service instead of joining the thrusting, go-ahead rat race. In periods of depression he is treated with a mixture of envy and sometimes spite. It should not be a matter of scorn that the Civil Service does not hire and fire as peremptorily as some private employers.

Again, what are the facts? The Civil Service undergoes more staff inspection and manpower controls than any other comparable industry. This is necessary because hon. Members, including myself, are constantly scrutinising manpower figures. The plain fact is that the size of the Civil Service is almost precisely determined by the amount of work the legislature places upon it. Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than the Answers to the recent series of Questions I have asked Ministers.

Every Bill that comes up for discussion has the manpower and administrative implications detailed. Therefore, if the country wants to cut the Civil Service, it cannot do it by arbitrary measures, since the result will inevitably be that the legislation we pass will not be implemented. To cut the Civil Service will require a cut in existing services. Those who want cuts in the Civil Service should, therefore, join in the real debate about the size and nature of public expenditure and specify which functions should be abolished. They should not avoid the issues by choosing an easy and, unfortunately, popular target by blaming all our problems on the size of the Civil Service.

Again, there has been considerable speculation in the Press in recent days about massive cuts in manpower, with a figure of 100,000 redundancies being bandied about. Some security! I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on these reports and give an assurance that no cuts will be made without the fullest consultation with the unions and without the fullest implications being spelt out to the House.

The purpose of this debate is to take the opportunity to do the job that Members should all be doing—to defend their and the community's servants from the distortions that are now rampant. We have always claimed to have the best, the least corrupt and the most efficient Civil Service in the world. I think that that is as true today as it ever was. But if the morale of the Civil Service is continually undermined without any defence from us, that boast will no longer be true.

11.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Charles R. Morris)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) for raising this issue tonight. Equally, I was impressed by the reasoned and responsible manner in which he presented his case. This is not a debate in which I shall need to argue with him about the facts that he has so eloquently set out.

Personally, I welcome this debate, in so far as it affords me the opportunity of giving a considered response to the recent sustained barrage of criticism of the Civil Service—to which my hon. Friend has referred—to comment on the controversy surrounding the pay and pensions of civil servants and to explain the background to the Government's declared intention to review Civil Service manpower and staffing levels. I trust that what I have to say on this last point will go some way to allay the anxieties in the minds of civil servants—anxieties that appear to have been heightened by recent Press speculation about the possible outcome of the studies which are currently proceeding.

As my hon. Friend has rightly indicated, everyone is entitled to his views about the Civil Service, because it belongs to everyone, but no one is served by views based only on a taste for colourful language and distaste for facts. Bashing the bureaucracy, clobbering the civil servant, despite the description that I heard given to it the other day as Britain's fastest-growing spectator sport, is by no means a new phenomenon. Over the years, civil servants have learnt to live with the caricature of the civil servant created by the cartoonists.

But the volume of sustained criticism that we have witnessed in recent weeks is beginning to have an understandable impact on the morale of the Civil Service. This is not because civil servants think that they should be immune from criticism, or are too sensitive to it. They accept that fair criticism is healthy and a necessary feature of our democracy. They know that their actions on behalf of Government must be subject to public scrutiny, that the taxpayer must get value for money and must be able to see that he gets it.

I remind the critics that civil servants are people, too. They, too, expect a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, and public understanding of the realities with which they, as public servants, are obliged to live.

In the short time available I cannot deal with every aspect of the pay and conditions of civil servants, but I should like to follow my hon. Friend's remarks on the subject of pay. I share his concern about the extravagant claims that have been made about special treatment given to civil servants, with no attempt to look at the history of Civil Service pay to see whether the claims are in any way related to the facts.

The truth is, of course, that for over 20 years Civil Service pay has been based on a system recommended by a Royal Commission. This Government and, indeed, all previous Governments since 1955 have subscribed to the Priestley Royal Commission's basic principle of fair comparison. Following the recommendations of the Royal Commission an independent pay research unit was set up to identify the comparable outside work and establish the facts of what was paid for it.

The Royal Commission stressed that the Civil Service rate should not reflect the best—or worst—rate in the field, but should be at about the middle level of rates paid, taking full account of differences in other benefits such as pensions or perks, so that the comparison was full and fair.

The pay research system is designed to achieve one simple purpose which ought to be understood. That purpose is to ensure that the Government treat their employees no better and no worse than other employers and that Civil Service pay truly reflects the middle range of what is paid elsewhere for comparable work. The principle of fair comparison is a necessary one to which the Government remain committed—though I should also emphasise and remind the House that, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, the pay research procedures are at present in suspense because the £6 pay policy applies directly to civil servants as to everyone else.

My hon. Friend also referred to pensions and their inflation-proofing. I am glad that he dealt with the criticism of this at some length, because it is a subject which has generated so much heat in recent months. As he has suggested, much of the criticism has been fanciful and unreasonable. In reality, of course, the average increase given to pensioners last year was under £3.50 a week. The cost in respect of Civil Service pensioners represented a small proportion—just 1½ per cent.—of the Civil Service pay bill. As my hon. Friend has indicated, inflation-proofing of pensions is not a benefit which is confined to civil servants. As he recognised, it is enjoyed by many others both inside and outside the public service. As I have told the House previously, the pensions increase review due later this year will need to take account of the economic circumstances which then apply.

I turn to the subject of manpower and staffing levels. Here again a sense of realism has been sadly lacking in some of the most recent comments. A singular exception, however, was the editorial in the Daily Mirror of 3rd February which, with a lucidity and brevity for which that newspaper has a well deserved reputation, recognised that we can make major savings in Civil Service manpower only by cutting the tasks which we expect civil servants to undertake. As that newspaper put it: What is certain is that we cannot have more Government activity … and fewer people to run it. It is all to easy in this area to slip into a convenient contradiction: on the one hand, to press for more and more to be done by the Government for all sorts of groups in society and, on the other, to continue to press for less taxation and fewer civil servants. We really do need to recognise, as the Daily Mirror did, and as my hon. Friend did this evening, that these two propositions are incompatible and to set about the serious business of choosing what we do or do not want to provide—and pay for—in our society.

There has been much speculation in the Press recently about the Government's current intentions about the size of the Civil Service, and I want to deal with this and the background. On 1st October 1975 there were a few over 719,000 staff in post in the Civil Service. The 1st January 1976 figures are not yet available. We shall not know the precise figures for a week or two. But it will be about 750,000. That is a big increase. I acknowledge that. But it includes something over 20,000 in the Manpower Services Commission who were reclassified as civil servants on 1st January 1976. The real rise since last April is about 30,000. On present trends the numbers will increase further.

The Government have decided that this rate of growth must be restrained. There are to be no arbitrary cuts. The Civil Service must be properly staffed to carry out its work. We shall continue to do everything possible to improve efficiency and encourage the economic use of staff, but any signficant reduction in the Civil Service must mean a reduction in the work load.

We are not, therefore, embarked, as some Press reports may have suggested, on immediate cuts in the Civil Service. For some time yet the number of civil servants is likely to increase. We are, however, reviewing thoroughly all aspects of the work of the Civil Service so that we may decide what changes can best be made to cut back on growth so that by 1978 the Civil Service is much more like the size it was last summer, including the Manpower Services Commission. This will involve difficult decisions which are likely to affect Government policies and standards of service to the public. Reductions will be made by wastage to the maximum extent practicable, but I cannot guarantee that there will be no redundant civil servants over the next two years or so.

While this manpower study is proceeding, it is too early for me to predict where the savings will be made. Once the necessary material has been assembled, the Government will be able to consider the options against the background of our priorities, and we shall then decide where the cuts will fall. I must, therefore, urge hon. Members and civil servants not to be misled by wild rumour or speculation.

I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be full consultation as appropriate with staff side interests about changes that affect them. The precise pattern of consultation must be a matter for Departments to work out with departmental staff sides, but my own officials have been in touch with the National Staff Side and my right hon. and noble Friend is to meet it on Monday next.

I hope it is clear from what I have said during the course of this debate that what I think is most necessary in relation to the Civil Service at the moment is to get away from the excesses of recent criticism and to inject some reality into the discussion. I applaud my hon. Friend's initiative in raising this subject tonight because of the contribution I hope it will make to that objective. Indeed, if I were to quarrel with him at all it would be in relation to the title—Civil Service—that he has chosen for this debate.

I think that one of the reasons why realism sometimes fails to make itself felt is a concern with the rather abstract concept conjured up by the term "the Civil Service". The very words sound mysterious, stuffy and threatening. But if we think of the people up and down the country who are doing jobs the country wants done—in health and social security, environment or defence, or working as immigration officers, as prison officers, or printers in the parliamentary Press—a healthy breeze of reality blows in. It is much more difficult to talk glibly of axe men in every corridor in Whitehall when most civil servants are working diligently in the provinces and regions. It is much more difficult to propose cutting down on driving test examiners or re-training officers or Customs men than to talk vaguely of Civil Service cuts.

I would plead, therefore, for people to question the use of the term "bureaucrats" and to start thinking of the people and the work they do. More specific, informed, responsible criticism would be healthy. I hope that we can put an end to the vague, bilious hostility which simply undermines morale and mutual trust between civil servants and the public they serve.

Like my hon. Friend, I am only too conscious that civil servants make an essential contribution to many fields of our national life. They often face real difficulties in seeking to provide service to the public in the ways Parliament has willed. Their rewards are not excessive, but among them they have a right to expect that those they serve will judge them fairly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.