HC Deb 21 February 1990 vol 167 cc996-1007

'All Civil Servants working within an area of work within a department where a Government Trading Fund is in operation shall be subject to the same general conditions of appointment, service and promotion as exist in the Civil Service generally. Where it is deemed to be necessary to vary those conditions a ballot must first be held of all staff affected and the result of the ballot must show a majority of votes cast for the changes contemplated.'.—[Dr. Mureki]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.47 pm
Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Opposition tabled the new clause because there is some anxiety about the conditions of service, appointment and promotion in the Civil Service. The service is likely to undergo quite a change in organisation, management and accountability to Parliament, and the new clause seeks to ensure that the same general conditions of appointment, service and promotion as exist in the Civil Service generally will obtain in any agency in which a Government trading fund is, or will be, in operation.

When those conditions are varied, we seek to establish a necessary condition before such variation. It is that a ballot must first be held among affected staff, and its result must show a majority of votes cast in favour of the contemplated changes.

Governments should be able to do certain things; certain changes should not be subject to negotiation with Civil Service unions or employees. For instance, a party might give a clear manifesto commitment to setting up a Ministry of Justice. If it won the general election on that manifesto, civil servants could be separated from, say, the Home Office and sent to work in the new Ministry. Any Government must have a right to do that.

It is difficult for the Opposition to draft new clauses, because they lack the expertise of parliamentary draftsmen. It could be said that there are some imperfections in the new clause, but the spirit of it is clear. I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on some of the questions asked by the Opposition.

Other conditions such as local pay, bonus schemes and promotion procedures could be varied. There is a clear case for making changes only after consultation with the staff, and some should be made only after the agreement of the staff. I am not suggesting that that must be the case, but if, for example, a Government proposed that the number of days of annual leave should be reduced for no good reason, the staff would have to agree to that and receive extra pay or other benefits. If the country becomes wealthier, a Government may never need to do such a thing. Staff should be consulted on a large range of matters and, of course, they should be consulted through the recognised channels, and that means through the recognised Civil Service trade unions. I shall say no more about that because it is only by way of explanation.

The meat of the new clause is in the first part. Promotion procedures, terms and general conditions of appointment that exist in the service now should exist in agencies. In future, better conditions could obtain in agencies, but we certainly do not want to see worse conditions.

There are persistent rumours about moves away from the traditional trade union negotiating machinery. Those rumours have not been substantiated. The framework agreement for the proposed Employment Services Agency does not mention any recognised procedures of Civil Service unions. That worries the Opposition. Civil servants who have an interest in these matters and certainly some people in Civil Service trade unions and people who hold office in those unions have the feeling that there will be changes. They are not spoken about at present, but there is a feeling that perhaps the traditional trade union negotiating machinery will not continue if the Conservatives win the next general election and are in power in the 1990s. Coupled with that, there is a feeling that there is in progress a gradual derecognition of trade unions.

Before going into those matters in some detail, I shall give some good news about Her Majesty's Stationery Office. The staff there are currently negotiating a new pay grading package and I understand from talking to civil servants that the negotiations are going well. I commend HMSO on its approach. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether such negotiations are envisaged for any other agency with a Government trading fund. If it is, many people will be much happier and will sleep much better tonight.

HMSO was initially set a financial objective of a return of 5 per cent. on net assets in the form of a current cost operating surplus. The framework document said that progressively more demanding financial objectives would be laid down by the Treasury. That has proved to be the case and the return of 5 per cent. has been increased to 8 per cent. Opposition Members are familiar with that process because it is similar to the one applied to health authorities which have to find efficiency savings every year, those savings being added on by the Department of Health as real increases in money available to the National Health Service. Only so much can be squeezed out of an orange or out of HMSO. It clearly can effect savings by producing Acts of Parliament with smaller print. No doubt that will be one of the options considered by the chief executive. It may go outside and perhaps print Jeffrey Archer's books so that it can make a profit to enable it to carry on with the standards of service that we have been used to. If it tried to get the contract for printing the Prime Minister's memoirs, that would be a retrograde step.

HMSO provides a quick and efficient service and prints on reasonable paper in a reasonable format because that is necessary for the public. I do not argue that no financial considerations should be applied, but one can push such considerations until they have a negative effect upon the well-being of the country. Similarly, the Central Office of Information is to have trading fund status if the Bill becomes an Act. We are worried about the exact conditions and procedures for the COI when it operates a trading fund. The cheapest way to disseminate public information is not to disseminate it at all. Questions will be asked and certainly the chief executive of the COI will ask whether it is worth publishing so much information. He will ask whether it will cost too much. The price of paper might rise. Will that mean staff cuts because at least some information must be published on paper?

There are other problems. The COI provides information for other Governments and shows visiting Ministers around the country and provides briefings for them. Hon. Members take part in that valuable exercise. Does that mean that, if the COI is short of money in February or March and has to make a 5 or 8 per cent. return on assets employed, it will think that perhaps if it charges too much the Department sponsoring the visit—the Treasury or the Department of the Environment—might not accept its offer? It might think, "We will not show the visiting Minister Cardiff or Swansea, but we shall make him put up with visiting Coulsdon or Surbiton." I do not know the answer to those questions, but they must be addressed. There are reservations about the operation of trading funds and clarity is necessary.

There are other management problems. Companies house in Cardiff had a strike for about one day last year after an employee was suspended for five weeks. The dispute was eventually settled, but it should not have occurred in the first place. My understanding, such as it is from reading about the matter in the papers and talking to some of the civil servants who were involved, is that it was a problem not of new prodecures but possibly of macho management and the breaching of existing procedures.

If a civil servant or other employee does something wrong that merits suspension, surely the proper procedure is for that employee to be asked for an explanation and to be accompanied by a representative when the explanation is considered. After that, management has the right to take action and, if it thinks fit, to suspend the employee. I understand that in the case that I have mentioned that was not done and that there was a hasty recourse to suspension. The staff felt that the existing well-tried and constituted procedures were not being used and, as a result, I regret that over-hasty industrial action occurred. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the Government have to make sure that only the best management practices are used and the best managers employed to be chief executives of agencies. We do not want any macho men.

I have some specific questions for the Minister, and they are topical because they relate to the Employment Services Agency that will be created on 1 April. Is it intended that the agency will have a trading fund? I suspect that it will, and that raises questions about how the agency will operate. There is much concern about that. If it has a trading fund, how will it operate so that it commands the respect of the Civil Service and of those people who are seeking jobs through the various organisations that will depend on the agency?

8 pm

Secondly, the first draft of the employment services framework agreement was received by the Civil Service trade unions on 16 February. I am told that management will want all discussions and consultations—the whole package—wrapped up and ready to be implemented by 16 March.

I know that the Financial Secretary gave a fair commitment in Committee that there would be meaningful negotiations at departmental level with management and the recognised Civil Service unions. However, a month is too short, because there is no time for the unions to circulate papers for discussion. Perhaps all this was in the pipeline, well before we had the debate on the Bill. Perhaps a slot in the timetable for all the various processes had already been made and management were reticent to extend that timetable. I do not know whether that is right, and I do not know whether trade unions are able to have meaningful discussions in a month. I hope that they will try and, equally, I hope that the Civil Service management will pay attention to what the Financial Secretary has said and will co-operate.

I hope that there will be no problems as a result of the timetable, and that there will be no complaints from the trade unions that they have been unduly stampeded and that they have been unable to consult properly about the framework agreement. Can the Financial Secretary assure me that adequate time will be given for those discussions?

Thirdly, there is no reference in the framework document to existing trade unions, or to existing negotiating structures. That is somewhat upsetting, and it gives concern to Opposition Members. The previous framework documents had references to existing Civil Service unions and negotiation structures. I do not know why the proposed framework document does not have such references. I should have thought that it would be sensible to continue to have them. Is there any reason for this? If it is an oversight, it ought to be put right, because it would help squash the rumours that there is a move away from the traditional negotiating structure, which is well tried and tested and has worked very well in the Civil Service. It would also squash rumours that perhaps there is a move to derecognise Civil Service trade unions. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Fourthly, if the Minister says, "Don't worry," and that the management of the Civil Service will consider the problems after the agency is set up on 1 April, my supplementary question is: if there is no reference to existing trade unions or negotiating structures in the present framework agreement, how will problems be patched up after April if the agreement is changed in the meantime?

It is important that there is some reference to those structures and I hope—perhaps as a result of discussions with Civil Service trade unions—that we can get this agreement right. I do not believe that previous framework agreements have been broadly right. I am not objecting to their content and coverage, but the new agreement seems to be a slight departure. For example, the same time has not been taken over discussions—some of the previous agreements took about a year. I know that we have had about three previous framework documents, so perhaps this one should be a little quicker. However, there has been a departure from the previous agreements, and hon. Members are worried about the change.

At present staff in agencies have remained civil servants, employed by the appropriate Department, and they are broadly subject to the existing terms and conditions that civil servants are subject to elsewhere. There are some changes. There are delegated personnel management functions, such as those at Companies house, Cardiff. There are performance bonus schemes on the horizon as well as salary grading structures and variations on those.

Another problem is that the management at Companies house, Cardiff sought to exclude the employees from a bonus scheme if they had more than 24 days sick leave. Women tend to take more sick leave than men, for various reasons. Clearly if one applies that 24-day policy it will be unfair and will discriminate against women. I suspect that we need to think about the type of management at Companies house, Cardiff, at the moment. I hope that they are learning, because we do not want that sort of upset to be continually reported in the newspapers, as has been the case with the problems at Companies house.

Certain principles need to be adhered to and they have been clearly put down by the Council of Civil Service Unions. I have here a document from the CPSA which lists seven points, saying that staff in agencies should (a) remain civil servants"— I do not think that there is any dispute between Members on the Front Benches about that, unless the agencies are eventually privatised, and I add that as a caveat— (b) remain available for transfer to other parts of the Civil Service;"— I must confess that the Financial Secretary, in Committee, gave a useful assurance on that matter— (c) remain covered by the Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme; (d) continue to enjoy the best possible promotion prospects by the continued limiting of direct recruitment; (e) remain subject to pay rates determined by National pay arrangements and agreements; (f) retain the protection of National rules governing recruitment, probation and dismissal procedures; (g) continue to be covered by National terms and Conditions of Service. I do not think that any hon. Member wants to see people on low pay in the north of England simply because there is higher unemployment there. I do not think that any hon. Member wants to see difficulties for civil servants in certain agencies because the management feel that they can employ staff on lower pay or lower conditions of service than management in other agencies.

We have a national Civil Service. We should be proud of it, and we should pay for it. I hope that the Minister accepts that that is an entirely reasonable demand, and that he can see his way, if not to accept the new clause, to give an assurance that the Government accept the intent of what we seek to achieve.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

The debate on new clause 2 is slightly different from the discussion in Committee not so long ago. However, I think that it is worth reiterating the fears and worries of Opposition Members about what will happen to the professional conditions of service and the value of the Civil Service. We can be given assurances that everything will be all right, but I and my hon. Friends believe that we need those assurances in writing. We hope that the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Government will honour the assurances and pledges that they have given in the House tonight.

We are discussing conditions of service, which are valuable to people in all walks of life, no matter what their profession, training or job. It is important that we ensure that we do not leave any uncertainties about what the future holds for the staff concerned. It is essential for professional civil servants to have the opportunity to enhance their careers and conditions of employment by being able to transfer to another division, which, as has already been pointed out, may be impossible if they are working in smaller units.

When staff are placed in separate units and individual funding is introduced, there is a danger of isolation and a "divide and rule" mentality. People who are now working in a large professional group in which the structures and financing are generally understood may find that, once they are working in small, isolated units, they are not only vulnerable for reasons of costing and funding, but isolated from colleagues in similar professions all over the country. Such financial pressures could worsen the conditions of staff gradually, group by group.

I have worked for large corporations—including the British Steel Corporation, before it showed me the door—and remember similar financial arrangements. Staff were organised into groups with their own operating plans, which they had to abide by in order to survive. I was working in research. My colleagues and I found ourselves in a financial straitjacket which, eventually, made us less efficient and less professional; as a result, the confidence and morale of the whole department became lower and lower. The agencies and funding organisations for which the Bill provides must not be isolated and forced to make decisions that will be detrimental not only to staff conditions but, eventually, to the entire service.

Many of us criticise some of the actions of the Civil Service, but it is still seen throughout the world as perhaps the most professional service anywhere. That did not happen by accident; it is the result of years of experience. Governments of all persuasions have used and appreciated the service in the past, and, we hope, will be able to do the same in future. I do not see the point of changing the system, but the Government are plainly determined to do so. All that we can do is to ensure that professionalism, efficiency and, of course, the work force are protected.

New clause 2 would ensure that that protection was provided through some form of national agreement. The Government do not have a very good record on trade union relations, and I hope that their aim is not to break down the organisations and then pick them up one by one, thereby lowering not only wages but professional standards.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I sympathise with the objectives of the new clause. It is designed to reassure civil servants who are involved in new and, in some respects, experimental developments in Departments in which many have worked for years, and to ensure that major changes are made only in consultation with them.

It is inevitable that the trading fund approach will—as it should—invite greater inventiveness by both management and staff in regard to how jobs can be done most effectively. In some circumstances, that is bound to mean larger rewards being ofered to attract staff to difficult jobs, or to give more recognition to effective performance than traditional Civil Service systems have tended to allow.

Anyone who doubts the need for such action should consider the experience of the tax inspectorate, which—as has been revealed in successive tranches of evidence to Committees of the House—has found it difficult to retain staff in the present competitive environment. Although the tax inspectorate is not a "next steps" agency, its experience demonstrates the difficulty of holding qualified staff with marketable skills when plenty of other employers are prepared to pay much more for those skills.

8.15 pm

I was surprised and concerned to find that Civil Service management had been so hamstrung in the past: a private operator has to act as a matter of urgency to avoid losing trained staff. If the training agencies do their job, there is bound to be more diversity. Like the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), I do not want whole areas of the country to be designated low-pay areas, and to become centres of primarily part-time employment, just because the Government suddenly see the possibility of a quick cost saving. Much could be lost, especially in the more sensitive spheres. Many of the bodies concerned are either dealing directly with the public on matters of great individual concern involving constitutional rights, or dealing with security matters or confidential information held by Government Departments about individuals. We do not want to lose the valuable concept of a public service.

The question is, can we marry two concepts? I should like to believe that we can obtain greater efficiency in every sense—not just economic efficiency, but an efficient service for the consumer. That may mean a Government Department—and hence the generality of taxpayers—or an individual obtaining a licence, a service, information, a map or a charter from the Government agency. It is essential to carry public sector workers with us, and the new clause is directed to that end. Whether it is slightly too cumbersome to achieve its object, or should be incorporated immediately in the Bill, is a matter for discussion, but I strongly support its general aims and hope that the Minister will find some way of meeting them.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) spoke of the need for assurances in line with the seven points cited by the CPSA which were quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek). I feel that those assurances are likely to be required in legislation.

I, too, would like an assurance: that the Government, if they do not accept the new clause because of drafting problems, will be willing to introduce suitable amendments later. I do not really trust general statements that this, that and the other will be protected when they are not written down in statute. Statute applies to the future and, although a future Labour Government may change a good deal of it, much will undoubtedly remain for a long time. There is nothing wrong with getting things right now.

I also hope that the specific assurances that we require will apply to all grades in the Civil Service, and not just to executive grades. Let me stress that the new clause requires a ballot on any planned variation in the conditions of civil servants. The Government are keen to introduce ballots, often of a peculiar nature, in certain circumstances—when they feel that it will benefit them to do so. If there are to be ballots, they should allow civil servants some say in, and control of, transfer arrangements as a consequence of any change in the agency in which they happen to work. It would be a healthy development if such provisions were added to assist the membership of Civil Service unions, by contrast with the kind of ballot provisions that are often brought before the House with the purpose of hemming in organised workers and restricting the development of their collective interests.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Peter Lilley)

I shall respond first to the points made by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), and in doing so, hope to answer the questions of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), before referring to other contributions.

The establishment of a trading fund will not in itself affect the terms and conditions under which civil servants are employed. Departments and agencies are increasingly tailoring their arrangements for personnel to meet their business needs. That process must include the possible introduction of changes in conditions other than those that apply to the Civil Service generally. I stated in Committee that Departments, like all good employers, should, and do, take every step to consult their employees when considering any changes that could have significant implications for them.

Announcing the next steps initiative, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: The Civil Service unions will be consulted about the setting up of particular agencies. They will also be consulted if any change in terms and conditions of civil servants is contemplated."—[Official Report, 18 February 1988; Vol. 127, c. 1149.] I reinforce my right hon. Friend's comments by confirming that we shall consult and seek consultations with Civil Service trade unions in sufficient time to allow for meaningful discussions before the introduction of any new agency or trading fund status.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Wrexham welcomes the developments and negotiations in respect of Her Majesty's Stationery Office and its employee representatives. The hon. Gentleman asked whether it will serve as a model for other agencies and trading funds. Clearly it will be up to their managements to make their own proposals. They will not share the same specific problems, situations and opportunities as have arisen in respect of HMSO, but I am sure that the spirit manifest in respect of the negotiations for that body will—in particular because of the warm response that it has received from the Opposition—be emulated by other managers. I am delighted that things have gone well for HMSO, for which I was responsible when it became an agency.

The views and comments of staff and trade unions are an important component in considering change—but ultimately management must take the decisions on how that challenge is met.

The hon. Member for Wrexham asked a number of specific questions, particularly about the Employment Services Agency. He inquired whether it will be transformed into or have a trading fund. At present, it does not fall within the powers of the existing legislation, or as it will be modified by the Bill. Therefore, it will not be possible for the ESA, as it currently operates, to have a trading fund.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there will he sufficient time for consultation with the unions on the framework document that is the precursor to the establishment of an agency for the employment services group. There have been several discussions with the trade unions since February 1988 on the intention to establish an agency. I am confident that there will be further consultation in line with the statement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in time for the completion of the framework document.

The hon. Member for Wrexham asked why the framework agreement does not mention trade union consultation. The Employment Services Agency and the framework document are matters for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. Although I acknowledge that the framework document does not refer specifically to trade unions, it makes the chief executive responsible for conducting "effective employee relations". I expect the hon. Gentleman to agree that that includes consulting staff and trade unions.

Dr. Marek

It will be helpful if the framework document refers specifically to that aspect. The problem is that it does not. If the Government's intention is as the Minister says, they will save themselves a lot of problems, and dispel many rumours, if they will state it clearly.

Mr. Lilley

I shall convey the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The important point is that the framework document spells out the chief executive's responsibility for ensuring "effective employee relations", which right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House want to see. Discussions are continuing between management and trade unions on the consultation document, and I am sure that the remarks made during today's debate will be considered in the course of them.

Dr. Marek

Unless a specific reference to trade union consultation is made in the framework document, after April no structure will exist for it. I repeat that it will be useful if that aspect is included in the finalised document.

Mr. Lilley

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but the absence of a specific reference to trade union consultation does not alter the substantive position and the natural relationship between management, employees and trade unions in any Department, which I hope will continue in a constructive and co-operative way.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) said that we have the finest Civil Service in the world and that we do not want to undermine it in any way—I entirely agree. My experience as a Minister has revealed and confirmed that we have a very good Civil Service, of which we as a country can be proud. I cannot agree that it should necessarily be petrified and not be subject to change to take advantage of the best management thinking and practice. I am sure that the Civil Service would not wish to be fossilised. The development of agencies is entirely compatible with the Civil Service's fine traditions.

The hon. Member for Heeley asked whether the Government are planning to erode the conditions under which civil servants work. We want the management of agencies and trading funds to enjoy flexibility. It is not our intention that that should be used to lower standards but to make standards and conditions more appropriate, where necessary. In many circumstances, change may not be necessary. In others, such as with HMSO, it may be desirable to make conditions more relevant to the type of agency and its function.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) supports the general objective of new clause 2, even if he thinks it is a little heavy-handed. I sympathise with the underlying principles that motivate the Opposition in tabling the new clause, but I have even stronger reservations about its effectiveness in achieving the Opposition's objectives and about its desirability. Therefore, I cannot recommend that the House accepts new clause 2.

8.30 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I apologise to the House because, although I was put on the Standing Committee, for reasons that the Government Whip understands, it took place at the same time as the Committee stage of the Property Services Agency and Crown Suppliers Bill, so I did not attend the Committee. The House should understand that if an hon. Member has been extremely active, and has taken up two thirds of the time in Committee, as I did on the PSA Bill, one cannot absent oneself.

I was curious as to what answer the Minister would give to the pertinent questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek). I want to ask two short questions and a long question. First, may we have clarification as to why the measure, like so many others, is being dealt with by the Treasury? What has become of the Minister for the Civil Service? It is not my nature to complain about the discourtesy of not being here. I am not in any way sniping or getting at the Minister for the Civil Service, who is one of the most courteous Members in the House, but I am curious about what has become of the Civil Service Department.

Am I right in assuming that, by degrees, control of all matters in relation to the Civil Service has gone back to the Treasury, that the Minister for the Civil Service is a Minister only in name on Monday afternoons to answer parliamentary questions, and that his real function and role are as Minister for the Arts? [Laughter.] Because of the ministerial mirth, I suspect that is about right. We should have explained to us why, over the months and years, the Civil Service Department has been eroded and, as so often before, power has returned whence it came and whence it always will come, the Treasury. Incidentally, I do not say that it is a bad thing, but I think it should be clarified.

Mr. Lilley

If I may clarify it briefly, the Bill is a trading funds Bill, although you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have allowed us to range more widely and to talk about agencies. That is only an indirect aspect of the Bill. The Bill is about Government accounting and trading funds. It has much to do with accounts and accountability. That is why the Treasury has taken the lead. I would have been only too delighted to hand the matter over to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Civil Service.

Mr. Dalyell

I take that with a pinch of salt. I do not think that the Treasury is ever delighted to hand over power, but we shall let that pass.

My second question is a gentle one. The Minister has said that every reasonable step is taken to consult, and I have no doubt that he meant it, but he also talked about consultation in sufficient time. One lesson that I have learnt from the saga, if I may put it that way, of the PSA and the Crown Suppliers is that consultation, where it has taken place, has been rather sudden.

Is the Minister sure that there is sufficient time for proper consultation on decisions that affect the lives of individuals? Trade unions do not complain for fun about not having time properly to consult. There are great difficulties for people who have to move, often in groups, from one part of the country to another. People have mortgages and children at school. Human problems arise. May we have the absolute assurance that there is sufficient time for consultation?

My third question was prompted by Professor Peter Hennessy, a professor at Strathclyde. On 9 February, when referring to the Public Accounts Committee and the performance of Parliament, he told a large audience in Glasgow: performance is very patchy and, in one case, that of the Public Accounts Committee, is invariably far superior to the rest. Why? Because the PAC has superb back up in the shape of the National Audit Office and the rest do not. I think it was the former MP for Canterbury, David Crouch, who said the difference between the PAC and a standard department-shadowing select committee was the difference between a management consultancy and a pressure group. He's exactly right. I hope the Procedure Committee under Sir Peter Emery, which is currently looking at the power and the back-up of select committees, will have something robust to say about this when they report—and about the ludicrously restrictive 'Osmotherly Rules' which give civil servant witnesses 60 ways of saying 'I can't answer that' when they appear before select committees. I want to take the opportunity to ask about the protection of civil servants appearing before Select Committees of the House.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the new clause before us. I do not think that it relates to that. I have given the hon. Gentleman quite a bit of licence.

Mr. Dalyell

I just hoped, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you would give me even more rope. I was straying into a question that interests me greatly. I suspect that I shall have to write a letter, drawing the attention of the Minister to the guidelines for giving evidence to departmental Select Committees.

Without going over paragraph 4 of the guidelines, I want to ask the Minister one question. Is he sure that civil servants, from agencies or anything covered by the Bill, have the protection that they should be given? The Osmotherly rules came at a time when Select Committees were less developed. There is a problem. I am not persuaded that the Opposition or I have a better answer because there is a question of flexibility. Has the Treasury given any thought to allowing civil servants to be more forthcoming and not to take refuge in those rules? I am not thinking particularly of the Select Committee on Defence and Westland, in which I am particularly interested. I am concerned about general flexibility for civil servants to answer questions as candidly as they would wish.

I see help coming to the Minister from the Officials' Box. I hope that the Parliamentary Private Secretary is fleet of foot. I suspect that the House may learn something interesting on the subject. As the PPS has arrived, I can sit down and await those words of wisdom.

Mr. Lilley

In response to the question about sufficient time for consultation, obviously the time needed will vary from case to case, but there would be no point in consulting if there were not time to carry out the consultation. Therefore, it is in everybody's interest to ensure that there is sufficient time for consultation.

As for the second point about evidence to Select Committees, I fear that my response to that is the mirror image to the first question put by the hon. Gentleman about whether I should be the Minister responding to the debate. I am not equipped to respond to questions about the accountability of civil servants to Select Committees.

Dr. Marek

We have had an interesting debate. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) and for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) for the pertinent points they raised, which demonstrate the Opposition's concern about the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) made some intriguing points. When he writes to the Minister, perhaps he will send me a copy of the letter, because I should like to see what points he has in mind. I am sure that they are pertinent and should be considered carefully by the Government. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for his support for the principle of the new clause.

We fear the Prime Minister's heavy hand and the Conservative dogma of cutting public expenditure and privatisation. There are some good points, however. The negotiations with HMSO are a case in point. The Minister gave useful assurances in Committee about consulting the Civil Service trade unions and about the movement of civil servants between agencies and other parts of the Civil Service. It would therefore be wrong for the Opposition to divide the House on the new clause. There is still concern, but in view of the assurances that have been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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