HC Deb 08 March 1978 vol 945 cc1417-8
18. Mr. Mates

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has to extend the direct labour powers of local authorities.

13. Mr. Body

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what discussions he has had with local authorities regarding the extension of direct labour activity.

Mr. Shore

I have no immediate proposals in this field, but it remains my intention to introduce legislation dealing with the activities of direct labour organisations. I have not had any further discussions with the local authorities since 1976 when the original Local Authorities (Works) Bill was being drawn up.

Mr. Mates

Since he dodged the question when he was asked it by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), will the Minister now say what such extension would cost? What does he say to the irrefutable evidence that where direct labour is used it is less efficient, more costly and less satisfactory than putting the job out to private enterprise?

Mr. Shore

The hon. Member is allowing himself to be persuaded by a lot of ill-digested and perverted information. The truth is that there is a great range of costs in the different building sectors, whether they are private or public. I do not believe that the measure that we have in mind—which has been discussed in the House—sensibly to extend direct labour powers would lead to any additional costs.

Mr. Flannery

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the Sheffield Metropolitan District Council, since long before it was a metropolitan council, has a direct labour department which is the apple of its eye and which it guards most carefully? Is he aware that many millions of pounds have been saved by this department and that it is acknowledged by the citizens of Sheffield, who vote Labour repeatedly in order to achieve a strong Labour council?

Mr. Shore

That is true. The experience of Sheffield can be matched by many other former metropolitan councils. Direct labour plays a very important part indeed.

Mr. Budgen

Will the Secretary of State please condescend to give the House some facts? Will he tell us what evidence he has that direct labour organisations, in any authority, are more efficient or more profitable than are private construction firms?

Mr. Shore

The hon. Member knows that the operating conditions under which direct labour organisations work are different from those under which building firms work in terms of house construction. One of the things that we wanted to do was to make it possible to sort out the different activities of DLOs so that the matter could be more sensibly judged in the future.

Mr. Heffer

Does my right hon. Friend agree that direct labour organisations, because of their size, have worked under great difficulties, and that there is a need to remove the restrictions from some of them? Will my right hon. Friend urge people to read the document on this question and examine the serious proposals for competitive direct labour organisations, for removing the restrictions, and for imposing serious control, which has sometimes not been forthcoming in every direct labour organisation as it has not been in many private enterprise companies which have gone out of existence?

Mr. Shore

My hon. Friend is right. There are unnecessary restrictions on a number of DLOs. As part of the general package to remove these restrictions, they should be put on an obviously competitive basis with private sector firms.