HC Deb 26 March 1980 vol 981 cc1413-5
4. Mr. Armstrong

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many Civil Service posts have been left unfilled in his Department since May 1979; and what are the numbers, salary entitlements and grades of those left vacant.

Mr. Heseltine

This information could not be made available in the form requested without disproportionate effort. But between 1 May 1979 and 1 March this year the total number of staff employed in my Department fell by 3,505 or by 6.7 per cent. The number of vacancies in posts remaining on the Department's complement is constantly changing.

Mr. Armstrong

Does the Secretary of State recognise the very great damage that he is doing by his constant implication that those who work in the public services are somehow a drag on society? Does he recognise the personal tragedy to hundreds of boys and girls, young men and young women, in the Northern area who stayed at school, obtained extra qualifications, and who are now being forced to join the dole queue? Does not he understand that we cannot sack people and do without people in the public services without doing damage to the very services that the most vulnerable in the community require?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Member will be fully aware that I have not sacked anyone. All that I have done is not to replace quite as many people as have, of their own free will, or in terms of voluntary retirement, left my Department. However, if the right hon. Member believes that the solution to the country's problems is to enhance the scale of the public sector, he will have to explain to those young school leavers the benefits of living with interest rates of the sort that have become all too familar recently.

Mr. Emery

Among his activities, will my right hon. Friend consider the joint manpower watch figures that he published only this week and the very disappointing figures of the reduction in manpower in local government, in both Conservative-controlled and other counties? What further steps can he or we take to encourage a better use of manpower at local level?

Mr. Heseltine

There is a question about this subject later on the Order Paper. I did not want to anticipate that. However, I believe that the publication of figures for almost every local authority—the very few exceptions being authorities which have not submitted their figures—enables the debate about the number of people employed in local government to be extended on a very significant and sophisticated scale. I shall want those figures to be increased in sophistication later in the year, when I shall request local authorities to publish their manpower figures broken down department by department.

I think that what has happened conspicuously as a result of the initiative on Monday of this week is that now local authorities which thought that they were doing well are able to see just how well they have been doing as compared with other authorities broadly similar to themselves.

Mr. Oakes

How many of those unfilled posts are among the legal staff of the right hon. Gentleman's Department? Will he fill those posts to prevent him from making ultra vires decisions, as he appears to have done under the New Towns Act in regard to Stevenage and the disposal of new town assets?

Mr. Heseltine

I shall certainly find out how many are in the legal department, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will realise at once that the quality of advice is nothing to do with the quantity of advice.

Mr. Mellor

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is to be congratulated on effecting this reduction in manpower? This is the answer to those who are saying that savings are being made only at the sharp end of services. However, is he also aware that many of us on the Conservative Benches hope that similar progress can be made in each year of the present Government?

Mr. Heseltine

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that that is right. There is another general conclusion, that if I had announced that there would be 3,500 fewer employees when I first took over the Department, it would have been described by Opposition Members in the horrendous terms with which we are familiar. The fact that there are now 3,500 fewer people would, I dare say, not have come to the attention of the House if I had not answered this question today.