HC Deb 04 November 1977 vol 938 cc270-80

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

The House will be aware that the Hardman Report, published in 1973, advocated the dispersal of Government work from London. Since then the climate has changed and that policy is being questioned.

I wish to refer to only one small aspect of the report, and I am grateful for this opportunity of doing so. That aspect is the proposal to move the laboratoy of the Government Chemist, the headquarters of which is at present sited at Cornwall House, Waterloo.

The report suggested that it should be moved to Teddington, but that was not pursued. Discussions took place, as a result of which there was general agreement that a site within one hour's travelling time from London would be appropriate. After further discussions, Swindon was settled upon as the appropriate site which met the necessary criteria. The decision was accepted by the staff.

In 1974, when the present Government took office, that decision was overturned, without consultation with those affected, and the Government announced that the laboratory was to be resited in West Cumbria.

The laboratory of the Government Chemist has three main functions. First, it provides an analytical service for Government Departments, particularly the Customs and Excise Department. It also serves the EEC in the same way. Secondly, it offers scientific advice to Government Departments. The current work on the Windscale inquiry is a topical example of that work. Thirdly, the laboratory provides analytical research in chemistry.

The staff of the laboratory totals 450, of which 400 are employed at Cornwall House. Not surprisingly, 340 are officers in the scientific category. These people receive and analyse about 1,000 samples per day. The staff attend 2,500 meetings in London each year and about 100 in Brussels.

What will be the effect of moving to West Cumbria? There will be no employment advantage to West Cumbria The bulk of the staff are highly trained men and women who will move with the laboratory. What is more, their families will move with them. Some members of those families win be seeking employment and will add to the number seeking jobs in Cumbria.

A number of members of the support staff are non-mobile and will not move with the laboratory. However, even if it were possible to recruit suitable staff for the support jobs locally, the educational facilities in Cumbria are not available to provide the sandwich courses which are an essential element of training.

The present staff are not averse to the idea of living and working in Cumbria, which has many attractions. But they do not believe that the move would be an advantage for Cumbria nor do they believe that it would be in the best interests of the laboratory.

What will be the cost of the move? That is a question that I cannot answer. I do not know the cost nor does the Minister, according to correspondence that I have had with him. It is reliably estimated that it would cost about £10 million to rebuild a comparable laboratory on site. That is without the cost of the site itself, without the cost of moving the staff, and without taking into consideration the cost of moving the equipment.

It is interesting to note, for example. that recently an analytical instrument at the laboratory has been wired up to the computer—a very intricate and difficult piece of work which has taken two men 12 months to complete. One can visualise just how long the wiring work would go on for all the equipment that would have to be moved to Cumbria.

As I have said, it is difficult to make any accurate assessment of the cost of this move, but a fairly reliable guesstimate could well be about £30 million, and that is only the capital cost. What would be the running costs? These are bound to be increased by this move. To start with, most of the samples would have to be transported to and from the laboratory, and the majority of the samples originate in London and the South-East of England, including particularly Heathrow. There would be the added cost of the transport of staff and their subsistence, staff attending courts and attending meetings in London and in Brussels. If based in Cumbria, obviously those costs will be very much higher. There will also be the feature that the staff simply will not be able to make the very valuable contribution that they do at present to the various professional bodies based in London.

Therefore, the effect will be that while the costs of the laboratory will increase, the efficiency is bound to diminish. It will do so first because there will be delay in sending samples to and fro. It will dc so secondly because some samples must be analysed promptly. They undergo chemical or biological change during the period of transit. Thirdly, some types of analytical work could not be done in Cumbria at all because of the radioactivity associated with Windscale.

If the quality of the.work diminishes and the cost increases, it is likely that various Government agencies that at present use the service—but only by choice ; they are under no obligation to do so—will seek to have the work done elsewhere, and that will have the effect of increasing the cost of the work done in Cumbria even more.

Needless to say, the staff at present at the laboratory realise what will be the effect of the move, and their reaction is predictable. Some of them are leaving The sad thing is that it is not the senior people nearing retirement who are leaving because they will probably be gone by the time the move is effected, and nor is it the youngsters. It is the all-important middle range people who are going or certainly considering going. Meanwhile the morale of the others is inevitably affected by the Government's apparent intransigence in this matter.

The fact is that the proposal to move the laboratory of the Government Chemist to Cumbria does not make sense in terms of employment, costs or efficiency. I implore the Government to recognise that No stone has yet been laid. My most recent information is that the site itself has not even been decided. Nothing will be lost by the Government reversing a decision already taken, at however high a level that decision may have been taken. In the interests of common sense I urge the Minister to do just that.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) for curtailing his speech to allow me a minute or two to join him in his pleas that the Government should withdraw from a decision which is in my view nothing more than economic and social lunacy. That is not to say that London Members oppose the general principle of devolving civil servants out of London where that makes practical common sense. We are not against the policy in general, but everyone agrees that this proposal simply does not make practical sense, economic sense or social sense. It will increase unemployment in London and could increase unemployment in Cumbria, and it will generally leave everyone worse off and will leave the Government with more public expenditure to meet.

It is a decision that flows from the Hardman Report, which was drawn up at a time when there was a stark contrast between employment levels in London and the South-East and the development areas. The contrast as it applies to South-East London, from where the majority of the employees of the Government Chemist come, no longer exists. Parts of South-East London have unemployment rates that are as high as, if not higher than, those in many of the development areas.

On all the delegations that I have accompanied on this issue to the Secretary of State for Industry and to the Prime Minister, and through my Parliamentary Labour Party, I have obtained the clear and distinct impression that the sole reason for the Government seeking to do this is not that they deny any of the arguments about the lunacy of this decision but that they feel that to give way in this instance would mean that they were under pressure to give way generally on the policy of dispersing civil servants from London.

My view is that that is not the case. Time and again it has been shown that although, generally, the policy is sensible and has been accepted by the Civil Service unions to a certain extent, and certainly by both parties in this House, in this case it makes so little sense that the Government would earn gratitude, relief and even a few bouquets if they were to say "Swindon made some sense, but we agree that the plans for Cumbria make no sense at all. We agree that a mistake was about to be made, and we shall withdraw from that mistake."

I plead with my hon. Friend of many years standing to throw his weight within his Department in favour of sanity and against lunacy.

4.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Les Huckfield)

I commend the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) on again drawing the attention of the House to this important subject of dispersal, and particularly the dispersal of the laboratory of the Government Chemist to West Cumbria. The laboratory is an establishment of my Department, and I visited it in July of this year. I also take to heart the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), and I hope to reply to one or two points that he made.

The way in which the hon. Member for Chislehurst deployed his case shows that he takes the interest of his constituents to heart and that he has been in great detail into the case that has been expressed by the staff side at the laboratory. I congratulate him on the way in which he put forward his case.

A number of Acts specify duties that have to be fulfilled by the Government Chemist, either by the performing of specific analyses or by acting as a referee so that a decision may be reached in disputes between experts. The laboratory exists to discharge those statutory responsibilities, but it exists also to provide a comprehensive service of analysis, advice and study based on chemistry in the public sector and, where appropriate, in the private sector as well, and to conduct research in areas appropriate to those activities.

As the hon. Gentleman said, much of the work of the laboratory relates to environment, to health, to Customs and Excise and to the Inland Revenue. It will be seen from the spectrum of its activities that the laboratory is of great importance to many aspects of our national life. In so far as it can do so without prejudice to its independence, the laboratory works alongside industry in a number of fields. Indeed, for as long as I have had responsibility for research establishments in my Department I have encouraged them to broaden their contacts with industry. On the international scene, the laboratory is involved in work on EEC directives and is making a substantial input to this area of Community work. This work calls for meticulous accuracy and the highest integrity on behalf of the staff.

I wish to take this opportunity of paying my tribute to the very high quality of work that the laboratory undertakes. I feel often-I have said this publicly when I have made visits to the industrial research establishments—that very often the work done by laboratories such as this do not receive anything like sufficient credit for the painstaking and professional work that they do so unobtrusively. This applies particularly to the laboratory of the Government Chemist.

I was very impressed when I went to the laboratory in July and in the discussions I had with managers and staff about the work currently being done there. I was very impressed with the obvious pride taken by the staff in all their work and their determination at all levels to make the most effective use of the resources of the laboratory in the national interest.

This visit also gave me the opportunity of hearing at first hand the views of the laboratory staff on the prospects of dispersal to West Cumbria. Many of those arguments have been deployed today by the hon. Member for Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, and I know that a number of Members were made aware of these views towards the end of last year when some publicity was undertaken by their staff association.

A major study into the dispersal of Government work from central London was undertaken by Sir Henry Hardman, whose report was published in 1973. This report contained alternative solutions for dispersing about 31,000 Civil Service jobs from London, and it fell to the Labour Government to consider these proposals. We concluded that under the Hardman recommendations too few of the 31,000 posts would have been dispersed to the assisted areas.

In July 1974 the Government announced their intention to embark on a 10-year programme for the dispersal of 31,000 jobs. This programme, which included the dispersal of the laboratory to West Cumbria, put the emphasis on providing new employment in assisted areas where it would do the most good. The announcement of the programme, which must be regarded as an entity, was warmly welcomed on all sides of the House at that time.

Mr. Christopher Price

I noted that my hon. Friend used the words which must be regarded as an entity ". Does my hon. Friend mean that every dot and comma included in the programme in July 1974 must be considered the law of the Medes and Persians throughout the 10-year period?

Mr. Huckfield

I am not sure that it is the law of the Medes and the Persians. It is the record of Adjournment debates that we have had on this subject which I wish to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend. For example, on 11th March the House considered the proposal to move the Property Services Agency to Middlesbrough, and on 17th November it was the move of the Directorate of Overseas Surveys to Glasgow. Each proposals presents special features, and the laboratory of the Government Chemist is no exception. Apart from special features relevant to individual proposals, since the programme was announced in 1974, there have been obvious changes in the economic situation and in the employment situation in London to which my hon. Friend drew attention, though this has particularly affected manufacturing employment and traditional services such as docks and transport.

I want to assure the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend that the Government have indeed looked again very carefully at the whole dispersal programme, taking into account changes in the economic situation and all the other changes, including those in London, since the original decision was taken. It was as a result of the reconsideration that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department told the House on 23rd May that the Government had concluded that the programme should still go forward.

The Government are pledged to try to secure more even distribution of employment opportunities and a better employment structure throughout the country as part of their long-term economic strategy. I hope that my non. Friend will have taken note of the references to the inner city areas in places such as London to which reference has been made in the Gracious Speech. I think that the reference made in that speech and the general policy that has been enunciated by the Government shows that there is a recognition of the problems both of inner city areas and of areas such as the area which my hon. Friend represents. Dispersal will make an important contribution to the implementation of this policy.

The dispersal of the laboratory of the Government Chemist will take white-collar jobs into an assisted area, and it is the assisted areas in particular which suffer from a serious lack of such jobs.

I recognise what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have said about the varying levels of unemployment within the Greater London area. I hope, however, that both of them will accept that the laboratory of the Government Chemist draws its staff from a wide area in the London region. In fact, the overall level of unemployment in the Greater London area is only about half of the overall level of unemployment in West Cumbria.

Mr. Sims

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that most of the jobs are going to Cumbria with the laboratory? It will not be creating jobs.

Mr. Huckfield

Like my hon. Friend. the hon. Gentleman is anticipating my next point.

I recognise that certain hon. Members have expressed misgivings about the proposal to disperse the laboratory. These misgivings relate in part to the effect of dispersal on the staff concerned and in part to the effect on the future operations of the laboratory. I accept that we are considering the dispersal of highly special- ised work which demands a high proportion of qualified staff and the provision of special facilities. The requirements involved are very different from those of the dispersal of office jobs which make up the bulk of the Government's programme. This move is by no means the least demanding of those now in progress, but, given careful planning and good will, these problems can be surmounted.

It has been argued that to disperse the laboratory will not provide many employment opportunities for the existing population of West Cumbria, that many of the posts demand specialist staff who have been and will continue to be recruited from all parts of the country, and that when allowance is made for the transfer with the laboratory staff of those of their dependants who are now employed in the South-East there will be an increase in the number of persons seeking employment in West Cumbria. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will accept that hon. Members representing that part of the country do not entirely see it in that way.

Many of the problems that may arise are shorter-term issues, though I do not on that account dismiss the concern which the staff involved have undoubtedly shown about these issues. In the longer term, although the scientific posts will continue to be filled by recruitment on a national basis, the laboratory is expected to enhance the employment opportunities in that part of the country.

The dispersal of the laboratory to West Cumbria will broaden the spectrum of job opportunities available in that area. It is certainly a part of the country which has not been able to make much claim in the past to having a Government agency or institution within its boundaries.

The arguments against the removal of the laboratory on grounds of cost relate to the need to provide special facilities for the work. I accept that the facilities that the laboratory needs are necessarily relatively more expensive than the average for the whole programme of dispersal.

But this has been taken into account in assessing the overall costs of the dispersal programme, revised figures for which were announced by my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal on 29th July. That announcement showed that the Government have taken into account some of the revised cost estimates and some of the revised opportunities that now exist.

A great deal of detailed work has already been done and much progress has been made in planning the facilities which will be needed. Local authorities in Cumbria have co-operated in the search for sites for the laboratory. This search has been a particular concern of a project control team consisting of members of my Department and of the Property Services Agency. Several possible sites in West Cumbria have been visited and considered by the project control team and by management and staff of the laboratory. The most promising of these sites is in Cockermouth. An application for outline planning consent has been made, and the outcome should be known shortly.

Reservations have been voiced—the hon. Gentleman voiced them adequately again this afternoon—about certain parts of the work of the laboratory which present particular difficulties for dispersal. Two examples are urgent analyses of suspected substances during the limited time that a suspect can be held in custody and the examination of questioned documents which cannot be released from court for any extended period.

I accept, having visited the laboratory, that because of the special nature of the work and special demands made on the laboratory it may be necessary to maintain some staff in London as a residual capacity to deal with samples and other urgent work originating in the South-East. That is a possibility which has been fully taken into account in the detailed planning for the move.

I appreciate the very responsible way in which both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have made their representations this afternoon, and I appreciate the very responsible, comprehensive and detailed way in which the objections to the proposed dispersal have been put forward by the staff side at the laboratory. But that case must be balanced against the significance of the Government's dispersal proposals as a whole for helping assisted areas. I am aware that the departmental staff side has made further representations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, again in a very responsible way, and my right hon. Friend will have to give them careful consideration. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to prejudge what my right hon. Friend will say, but obviously we shall have to consider the representations and then present our reply.

I once more commend the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend on the way in which they have represented their constituents. This is a dispersal move with special features because of the very specialist and high-quality work that is being done. We are fully cognisant of those special features and hope that we can make provision for them. We want to see the excellent quality of the work maintained, as we believe it can be. I hope that my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman will be able to convey to their constituents that, although we have given careful consideration to the various representations, we have also to take account of some of the wider aspects of Government policy, particularly in helping the assisted areas. We have had a very useful discussion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.