HC Deb 22 January 1990 vol 165 cc617-8
48. Mr. Fisher

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service when he last met representatives of the Civil Service unions; and what subjects were discussed.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

I meet representatives of the Civil Service trade unions from time to time. A wide variety of matters is raised.

Mr. Fisher

When the Minister next meets the unions, will he discuss with them the responsibilities and remit of the ombudsman? Will he particularly discuss with them why the ombudsman does not set standards or administer good standards in the public agencies so that the interests of the public are safeguarded? Why can the ombudsman deal only with maladministration when he could be looking into many other important matters on behalf of members of the public?

Mr. Luce

The hon. Gentleman's question relates to the ombudsman's terms of reference, which are a matter for wider debate. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the civil servants in the agencies will remain part of the Civil Service and will be under the responsibility of the Secretary of State of the day. There are no plans to change the ombudsman's terms of reference.

Miss Emma Nicholson

In the light of the report of the Hansard Society, under the chairmanship of Lady Howe, on the deficiency of women in public life that will be published tomorrow, when the Minister next meets the Civil Service will he address himself particularly to that problem? Does he have any women at senior level in his office, for example?

Mr. Luce

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the report which, I believe, will be published this week. Of course, I and my colleagues in Government will take the report seriously. My concern is to increase the number of able women in the Civil Service to as high a level as possible, based on merit, ability and fair and open competition. There has been an improvement in the number of women in the service and 60 per cent. of recruits into the service are now women. I am interested in ensuring equality of opportunity.

Dr. Marek

I welcome the Minister's statement to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) that increasing the powers of the ombudsman is a matter for wide debate. Will the Minister put away his dogma about agencies being the stepping stones for privatisation and a means of lowering the salaries of individual groups of civil servants? The public will not, understand the creation of agencies unless the agencies themselves increase public confidence in them and provide a better public service. Will the Minister ensure that the creation of any further agencies is coupled with service standards for the public so that the public have a better service? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman initiate that wider debate on increasing the powers of the ombudsman?

Mr. Luce

The hon. Gentleman appears to have muddled several points in his question. I do not know which one he wants me to answer. Whether the powers of the ombudsman need changing is an issue for separate debate.. The policy on agencies is clear, and the Government's first priority is to determine whether any service would be better managed and operated if it were not privatised. If not, the second option is to determine whether it should be made into an agency. That does not preclude the agency from being privatised if, at a later stage, the Government think that that is right. It is because it has been precluded from being privatised that it becomes an agency. Strict performance targets are now set for agencies, which the hon. Gentleman must support as it will lead to an improvement in services.

Mr. Barry Field

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that many retired civil servants earn much more than they did in employment, thanks to the indexation of their pensions? How can my right hon. Friend reassure the House and the country that the Government are receiving impartial advice on the defeat of inflation, given that civil servants have an inbuilt advantage enjoyed by no other employee in this country?

Mr. Luce

Whatever the terms and conditions of civil servants, I am sure that my hon. Friend did not mean to suggest that they do not give impartial advice. All the evidence suggests that the vast bulk of civil servants give loyal service to the elected Government of the day.