HL Deb 24 March 1977 vol 381 cc732-49

7.55 p.m.

Lord BEAUMONT of WHITLEY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they have taken towards obtaining agreement to the publication of the material for the comparability studies of the Pay Research Unit, as promised on 11th December 1975. The noble Lord said: My Lords, on 11th December 1975, 15 months ago, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, proposed a Motion, the purpose of which he stated was to elicit more information and more openness concerning the pay, pensions and perquisites of civil servants, and in order to try to see how these compared with those of similar people in the private sector.

In replying to the debate the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, when dealing with a suggestion that the studies of the Pay Research Unit should be published, warned us that such information was sensitive and had been obtained on grounds of confidentiality, and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, also reinforced that in his speech. But he said that he would consider what could be published and would consult the people who had provided the information on which comparability studies were based, to see whether they would allow this information to become public in some form or another. On 20th May 1976, five months later, I received an Answer to a Written Question in which I asked what progress had been made. I was again reminded of the sensitivity of the matter, but I was told that, the intention is to complete the study into the question, and to discuss it with the interested parties before the suspension [of the Pay Research process] is lifted."—[Official Report, 20/5/76; col. 1569.] By that time, because of the Government's incomes policy, the Pay Research Unit had become dormant, or much of its work was not being done.

So far, so good. I was pleased by that reply. I thought that progress was being made, and I waited for an announcement. Nothing happened. Seven months passed. I returned to the attack. I again asked what progress had been made. I was told by the noble Lord the Leader of the House that the matter was under active consideration. I was reminded that there was an arrangement of confidentiality, which I must say I did know by then, and that people had to be consulted. At that moment, despite all my respect for the noble Lord the Leader of the House, my blood began to boil slightly because it seemed not only that nothing was being done but that we were actually moving backwards. The answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Peart, seemed to be a step backwards from what the noble Lord. Lord Shepherd, had said.

Therefore, I have tabled this Question again tonight, this time as an Unstarred Question. It is a Question which I think should really read: "Has anything at all been done? If so, what; and if not, is there any real intention of doing anything? "I believe that the importance of the matter is considerable. It may seem a small point on which to go pegging away, but in the original debate considerable disquiet was expressed that comparability studies were obviously producing some rather odd results. Cases were quoted where it seemed that civil servants were being paid between 20 and 50 per cent. above the rate for the job outside. I am told that there are plenty of explanations for some of these matters. One is that it tends to be because the Civil Service has national agreements: that out in the Provinces, particularly in the further parts of the United Kingdom, it may be that they are being paid much more than the local people who get regional agreements—I mean here the local people in private industry. Another reason, I am informed, is that, in order to have something comparable to the Civil Service, the comparability studies tend to be made of the big companies. Good employers are paying a lot, and are therefore not necessarily matching the mean of pay for that particular job.

But, my Lords, even granting all of this, we had a situation where there was disquiet—and this is the point, my Lords. It is not that we are trying to say that there was anything wrong, but that people were worried and thought that they had a right to ask for an explanation. In fact, there were very knowledgeable people who were saying (not in that first debate in this House, but were saying elsewhere) that comparability studies were in some ways inadequate; and people were worried, again, by the fact that the studies themselves were prepared entirely by civil servants, who then produced the material for both sides of the bargaining.

My Lords, our Civil Service is uncorrupt, and we all know it; and I hope no-one will assume that I am making any kind of an attack. I am merely saying that when you have a situation like this, where to a certain extent people appear to be their own judge, jury and providers of evidence, it is the more important that it should be open as to what that evidence is. It was as a means of allaying this disquiet, I think, that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, undertook to see what could he done about making the results public.

The work of the Pay Research Unit, as I have said, is in abeyance under the present phase of the Government's pay policy; but there are two reasons why work on the confidentiality question should have been pressed on with—and, if I may say so with respect, all the more so if the Pay Research Unit did not have very much to do over the period. First, the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, in his Written Answer to my Question, stated that it ought to be done before the lifting of the suspension of the work of the Unit. That was a considered Written Answer. The suspension presumably will be lifted when free collective bargaining is restored. Both the Government and the Party to which I have the honour to belong, which are in sympathy on this as on a number of other subjects these days, believe we must have a sensible voluntary incomes policy; but the noble Lord the Leader of the House knows much better than I do the danger that this may not happen and that we may be flung into a free-for-all before very long. But by the admission of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, we should have an answer before that.

Secondly—I think this has possibly been missed in replies by the Government to my Questions for Written Answer—I think it is important that we are entitled, if it can be done, to have answers to the questions we were asking in December 1975 about what was happening then. We now come to the difficulties about producing the answers, and I am afraid I do not see why they are very great. In his Answer of 20th December 1976 to my Question for Written Answer, the noble Lord, Lord Peart, said that there would have to be full consultations with the national staff side. But the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, had already said on llth December 1975—over one year before—in col. 1166 of Hansard that there was no difficulty from the point of view of the Civil Service Department and the trade unions. Putting those two statements together, that seems to imply that in fact no progress was made during that whole year in consulting with the staff side.

Nevertheless, if we accept the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that there should be no difficulty—and I do not see why there should—that leaves the employers, the people who provided the information for the comparability studies. I, too, understand that this is extremely sensitive. I am perfectly aware of this; but I am not able to understand why, as my noble friend Lady Seear said in the same original debate, there should not be a generalised answer. I have been informed privately, but I believe it to be true, that in fact when these studies are processed into statistical form they are unrecognisable as to what companies they come from, and a great many civil servants deal with them without being in any way able to discover the sources. If that is so, why cannot we, the public, have the statistical results as well?

My Lords, I understand that it may be that the Government have not been able to crack the nut of confidentiality; and, if so, of course they must honour the promises they gave—and I am not for a moment suggesting otherwise. But I am still, 15 months later, rather dubiously asking: Have they tried? What have they been doing these 15 months since this was first debated, when they gave certain promising encouragement, later repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd? For instance, how many firms which have produced information have been approached and consulted about this possibility? These are specific questions which, although I have not given the noble Lord the Leader of the House specific notice of them, I nevertheless think are so implicit in my Question that I am entitled to ask him. How many firms have been approached and consulted on this? How many replies have been received? And what were the answers? If, as I suspect, the answer may be that in fact very little has been done, I think we are entitled to ask, on the basis of what we were told 15 months ago, "Why not?"—and that, my Lords, is what I am asking tonight.

8.7 p.m.


My Lords, as I think he has acknowledged, the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has been put on a somewhat narrow basis. Indeed, it was only when I came to examine the Official Report of 11th December 1975 that I found just how narrow the basis is. So, in fact, we are not, as I understand it, going into any of the matters except for this Question which the noble Lord has asked, which occupied the attention of the House when my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing raised the matters which he did in that short debate. I am bound to say that when I examined Hansard I could not find that the Leader of the House, as he was then, had made any promise at all, and I must say that I do not altogether blame him. I will go further than that and say that I think he would have been very foolish if he had made any promise. What he did was to give the same sort of undertaking that Ministers usually give in the situation in which the noble Lord found himself. He said that he would consider matters; and this, as I read his second speech in col. 1166, to which the noble Lord has already referred, is as far as he went.

I must say that in those circumstances I do not think I would have been very moved to take part in this debate, and I should explain my presence, which is, I hope, a two-fold courtesy, both to the noble Lord and to the Leader of the House, who is going to reply. Bearing in mind the reasons which were given by the Government for not doing what they were doing at that particular moment in time, and recalling the fairly trenchant and, I thought, pertinent observations of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in the speech which he made on that date, one asks: What has happened to change matters?

My Lords, inflation has continued. So has a pay policy of sorts. The Government are about to embark on a new round, and one assumes, as I think one must, that whatever the findings of the Pay Research Unit may have been (assuming that it has been in a position to make any) it is not going to be within the competence of the Government to put them into effect in the meantime. I see that the noble Lord the Leader of the House is nodding his head. I assume that he agrees with me in some measure. As I say, assuming the unit has been able to keep up its work, the Government are not really in a position to do very much about it.

One thing that has never been plain is whether in these studies the greater job security which goes with the Civil Service, in contrast with other jobs, has ever been taken into consideration. I understand that from time to time a number of noble Lords from these Benches have expressed the view—and I am going into generalities —that it would be desirable if at least one member of the PRU was to be someone from outside the Civil Service. He could be somebody who would be seconded from his firm for two or three years. I believe that such exchanges take place regularly in such other parts of the Civil Service as the Department of Industry. This would be something which, I think, would promote confidence in the eyes of the public; because it would be felt and understood that the Civil Service was being examined by experienced and confidential eyes, so to speak, from a position outside the Civil Service. This was not a matter which was dealt with in a comprehensive form in the 1975 debate, and it could be that the noble Lord the Leader of the House when he replies will give some consideration to it, because it might help alleviate any general unease that there may be.

So far as the main part of the noble Lord's Unstarred Question is concerned, I appreciate that information provided by individual firms, companies or even sectors of industry should be treated as confidential and not published if the companies make that request—as, I presume, they normally do. Indeed, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, appreciated and acknowledged, it would he grossly improper if those companies or sectors ever felt that any confidentiality would be breached. However, I was struck by the very brief remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in the 1975 debate. One assumes that eventually there comes a time when the unit makes up its mind and comes to some form of conclusion. Thereafter, one would think in terms of the publication of some form of generalised information—and one can think of instances of it, such as the average pay of a certain category of person, and such matters as those, which would be very broad in its scope. I do not believe that such publication could possibly cause any harm either to individuals, to companies, to a sector of industry or to the national interest.

My Lords, having, I hope, not criticised the noble Lord for asking the Unstarred Question which he has asked, I sympathise with his motives. I think there is here an opportunity for the Government to allay any public unease there may be. There seems to be, if I may say so, a certain passiveness in the Government approach to the Questions which the noble Lord has asked from time to time. I think that we should all be happy if the noble Lord, Lord Peart, were to put our minds at rest this evening.

8.14 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may recall that I was the chairman of the staff side of the National Whitley Council which negotiated the agreement for the setting up of the Civil Service Pay Research Unit; so that I have a very close interest in its origin and in the work it has done since. It was set up 20 years ago as a result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Civil Service presided over by Sir Raymond Priestley. Up to that time, the only guide that we had for fixing Civil Service pay was the concept of the good employer—and nobody knew who he was or where we could find him. This had led to serious differences in negotiation and great difficulties in arbitration; and the staff side represented to the Priestley Commission that something more tangible, more ascertainable, should be substituted for the concept of the good employer.

The Priestley Commission recommended the adoption of the principle of fair comparability; that is that the pay within the Civil Service, as a whole and as divided between the various grades and sections, should be determined on the basis of fair comparisons with suitable employment outside. The then Prime Minister, the late Lord Avon—Sir Anthony Eden as he then was—had to give the new Civil Service Pay Research Unit a send off by sending a letter to a very large range of outside employers of all kinds explaining to them that a new Civil Service Pay Research Unit had been set up for the purpose of ascertaining more satisfactorily and more accurately the sort of pay civil servants should get and to ask for their co-operation. At the same time, he gave the firms a pledge about confidentiality. That is how it started.

Ever since, this Civil Service Pay Research Unit has been conducting this exercise in fair comparisons over the whole of the Civil Service. Now, in order to bring this work within the resources of a unit of this kind, it was necessary to conduct investigations over different sections of the Civil Service by instalments; and the PRU has taken the various sections from time to time in a kind of programme. Then, when special claims were made on behalf of certain sections of the Civil Service that they may have fallen substantially behind the pay and conditions of comparable employment outside, there would be a special exercise undertaken by the Civil Service Pay Research Unit.

This involved looking at the pay of professional, technical and scientific classes as well as the broader executive and clerical sections of the Civil Service—a very wide range of employment, as the House will fully understand, in the public services. To obtain this information, it was first necessary, under the agreement, to have accord between the official and staff sides of the Civil Service Whitley Council as to the area to be covered in this particular comparability test. Agreement was reached as to where the PRU should go for its information; this was often accompanied by actual inspections, because the nature of the work done was vital to a proper consideration of fair comparability. And then there were many differences in the conditions of employment which had to be taken into account. Some were tangible, like free holidays; some were intangible. There had to be the best attempt at a scientific appraisal of the value of the differences: whether they had contributory pensions, noncontributory pensions, their hours of work, special subventions given to staffs, sometimes education fees paid by firms on behalf of employees. All these matters had to be taken into account. It was not a simple question of a list of pay scales; it was an examination of the principle of fair comparability. It was a very complicated matter.

There is not only the aspect of confidentiality in this matter, but the nature of the information obtained. I thought that the whole question of publication was so naive that people did not understand what they were talking about. This is not just a list of pay scales; this is an examination of the content, of actual operations undertaken by particular sections of staff in particular firms, with their conditions of service related to that, and then compared and brought into the wider comparison with the particular section of the Civil Service. My Lords, where do you go for fair comparability for inspectors of taxes? Where do you go for fair comparability for professional valuers?—bear in mind that the State is the biggest employer of professional valuers. These are the factors which have to come into this most complicated business.

With that description, I can pass on to the more practical issue of the present. The Civil Service Pay Research Unit is suspended for the present time because of the operation of the pay restraint policies, and so forth, which apply to the Civil Service as well as elsewhere. The Unit has been virtually disbanded and its work suspended. Therefore, it is not collecting current information. Any publication of what the Civil Service Pay Research Unit has in its possession must relate to the past. I do not think that publication of information relating to the past is of particular value at the present time. It would be a waste of public money to publish a lot of out-dated information gathered by the Unit in the past.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point, would he not agree that some information related to the past would usefully serve to allay any fears which were expressed, and give greater trust and hope for the future?


My Lords, if the purpose of this publication is to allay public fears, then I would put this debate on an entirely different footing. This is not a form of private detective work on the operations of the Civil Service Pay Research Unit, the negotiations upon that information and, in many cases, the decisions of arbitration tribunals upon disputes which have arisen; this is the complex question of negotiating pay scales over a very wide area in the public service. There may be different ways of doing this in the future, but I cannot accept the idea of publishing out-of-date information in order to prove to a suspicious public that the Civil Service were overpaid some years ago and are still overpaid because of that. This is not a sensible approach to this important matter. If I were the chairman of the staff side at the present time, I would not stand for it, either. We in the Civil Service have our rights. It takes two sides of the Whitley Council system to reach agreement on matters of such importance affecting the staff.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree to two things which seem to be relevant to what he has been saying? The first is that the principle of fair comparison, to which he has drawn attention, and on which, as he rightly says, the Priestley Committee based their recommendations, has been questioned as a valid way of deciding Civil Service pay. It has been questioned in connection with the reports of the Boyle Committee, of which I have the honour to be a member, and it has also been questioned before the Diamond Committee. By itself the principle is today too inadequate a way of trying to determine pay. May I also ask the noble Lord whether he agrees that, when he says that the staff side have very important rights in this matter—as they have—the public also have a great interest in it? It is a very great public concern and the public are well aware of the fact that the two sides which enter into negotiations are civil servants, as are the members of the Civil Service Pay Research Unit.


My Lords, I agree that this system of deciding Civil Service pay has been questioned in some quarters. In my humble submission they are quarters which are not important enough to justify a revision of the system without sending it again to a Royal Commission. This was a recommendation of a Royal Commission which ended a battle between the official and staff sides of the Whitley Council on the principles to settle Civil Service pay which had gone unresolved for 25 years, in my experience, and we at last settled the matter by reference to a recognisable and practical principle.

There has since been another Royal Commission; that is the Fulton Commission. If the issue is that there is suspicion regarding the evidence upon which fair comparability has been based, and that the public must have their misgivings allayed by disclosure or some other form of satisfaction of public anxiety, then this is not the way to settle it. It should be settled not by publication but by asking for the matter to be referred again to an independent body who can look at all aspects of this problem. I am astonished that this comes from the Liberal Benches. I can only say with great respect to noble Lords that they are touching a vital spot in the whole fabric of peace and harmony in the public service which is not to be lightly taken after all the trouble that we had for so many years.

What I am going to say in calmer and more constructive vein is that I am not concerned so much with publication, because I do not think that that matters. What I am concerned about is the use to which this information can or should be put in a wider context of fair comparability, not only as between the public sector and private industry but between private industry and the public sector. This is where my attention is fully justified; this information is collected wholly for the purpose of fixing pay in the public sector. Should that be the sole use of information of this kind? Why should this not be a two-way arrangement? Why should information sought and obtained in this way be confined for application to Civil Service pay? Other people who have supplied the information may have an interest, too, in the fair comparability of their own conditions of service, and the pay of their own employees. This raises a much wider issue, one upon which I have dealt very fully in a fairly recent seminar conducted by the Financial Times.

What is now in the minds of many people outside the Civil Service is the feeling that the Civil Service and local government are now better paid—grade for grade, class for class and work for work—than many people in similar positions in private industry. Many articles have been written to give examples which suggest that there may be some substance in this fear, especially as between middle management and people in executive positions in the public service. In the last 20 years we have seen a great deal more nationalisation. During that time, the expansion of the public sector has gone on apace, so it is not only the Civil Service but also the nationalised industries which in many cases are no longer subject to market pressures or market considerations. The railwaymen, for example, are not paid according to the profitability of the railway industry. I see the noble Lord looking at his watch, but when an issue such as this is raised I do not care what the hour is. If this important matter is raised, then I have an historic interest and a present duty, and I am going to discharge it. I am looking at the clock—


My Lords, it is fifteen minutes!


I do not know what all this gesticulation is, my Lords, and I am not going to take any notice of it. I am going to finish what I have to say. I believe there is an entirely new dimension to this question of comparability, and I think that before this Pay Research Unit is restored, probably it would be desirable to look at the wider issue of the collection of information which would be of use to all who might seek it in order to have the benefit of investigations already conducted for other purposes being applied to particular issues of their own.

However, I can only say to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that he is obviously an impatient man. He has been asking for things to happen during the last 18 months, when it was quite obvious that nothing was happening and nothing was likely to happen because nobody was doing anything. I think that very shortly the time may come when the wider issues should be considered, but I do not offer that in any representative capacity. However, when I see my own handiwork—something in which I played a very important part at the inception of this scheme—coming under criticism, or when I see noble Lords wanting the whole basis of the scheme to be changed unilaterally, then, since I am in your Lordships' House, I am going to come here to to defend it.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, surely the noble Lord cannot be so conservative as to think that because he fixed something 20 years ago it is fixed for ever?

8.33 p.m.


My Lords, this has been a rather interesting debate. We have had a debate in which the last few minutes have been rather exciting, rather like the other place. I do not regret it. I think it is good that people should speak frankly and honestly, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Houghton on what he has said, because he knows so much of the subject—probably more than any of us—and I pay great tribute to what he has done. Quite rightly, he feels passionately about something which has worked—something which arose out of the Priestley Commission and something which we see before us now. It is also something which has created, if I may use his words, "peace and harmony" in the public service. I do not know whether that will always remain, but nevertheless it has been created.

I also welcome the concise statement which was made by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield. He was very realistic: he knows the difficulties of Ministers. I do not complain about the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, having raised this matter. He has questioned me about it. He said that my reply in the House to a Question gave the impression that we were going backwards and that his blood began to boil. I do not really think I have gone backwards at all. I made those statements carefully and I have carefully looked into the matter. Obviously, as a Minister, I cannot reveal certain matters to the House until they are completed. I take the view that inevitably and naturally we have to look at our institutions, but there is always a danger of destroying something which is working well—and I think that the system has worked well—and so we have to be extremely careful. I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, if he feels, as I sense, that in past exchanges he has not received a sufficiently full response to his Questions. That is not unusual.

I shall try to do my best to remedy that this evening in my speech, which I hope will not be too long, at this time of night. First, it is right and proper that I should put this debate into context: indeed, my noble friend has also done that. I should like to remind noble Lords of the nature of the information on which the question of publication has arisen. My noble friend referred to that point. Noble Lords will recall from the very full debate on Civil Service pay and pensions a little over a year ago that, since the publication of the report of the Priestley Royal Commission in 1955, Civil Service pay has been based on the principle of fair comparisons. In recommending that this should be so, the Priestley Commission set out in great detail the way in which this principle should be applied.

Their basic view was that, to be fair to both the civil servants and the taxpayers, Civil Service pay should be fixed around the middle level of the remuneration received outside the Civil Service for work of broadly similar quality and responsibility. They recommended that a three part procedure should be adopted. This involved, first, fact-finding to collect the evidence on what was being paid for comparable jobs outside the service. Secondly, processing, to convert the raw data into a common currency, allowing for differences between hours and leave, pensions, perks—such as company cars, and other conditions of service. Mention was made of education facilities. Thirdly, negotiations between the management and the unions—subject, of course, to the scrutiny and final approval of Ministers.

So far as the fact-finding was concerned, the Royal Commission recommended that the facts should be collected for the management and unions by a body independent of the negotiating parties. They indicated in detail what evidence should be collected, and that it should cover the whole shooting match—not just basic pay rates but fringe benefits and other conditions of service as well.

So it was that the Pay Research Unit came to be set up, and it had continued its work for nearly 20 years until the suspension of the operation of pay research as part of the Government's pay policy in 1975. I want to pay tribute to all those who created the Unit and to the work done by those concerned. That work is limited to providing reports on the facts to enable the processing and negotiation to be carried out by management and unions. In obtaining and reporting the facts, the Unit operates completely independently under a Director appointed by the Prime Minister. That, then, is the background to the debate, and I think it is just as well for noble Lords to he reminded of it, as my noble friend Lord Houghton has already reminded us. I have emphasised the facts.

If I have interpreted him correctly, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has pressed two points on the Government, both in the debate a year ago and since then—quite rightly and I am not complaining, because he is doing the job expected of noble Lords in carrying out their Parliamentary duties. First, he has argued that Parliament should have access to the facts collected in the past by the Pay Research Unit, and he clarified this in the exchanges on 19th January this year. Secondly, he has suggested that in the future more information should automatically be made available than hitherto. On past information, the noble Lord has acknowledged—this has been accepted—that there is the problem of confidentiality. I would stress that over and over again.

When the Pay Research Unit has visited outside employers to collect data, it has always given an assurance that the information gathered would be seen only by the negotiating parties and would not be made generally available. I think that that was right. Otherwise there could not be negotiations. There could not be a development of the process which Priestley recommended.


My Lords, will the noble Lord give way for one second? I entirely agree with him. I am not pressing for the divulgence of the facts but of the processed facts, which I am sure are in unrecognisable form.


My Lords, the noble Lord says that he entirely agrees with me. Let us continue in that mood for the moment. I thought lie argued, first, that Parliament should have access to the facts, which I have mentioned. I thought he clarified that and he now develops it. That is fair enough. I think he has suggested that in the future more information than hitherto should automatically be made available. I think perhaps he is right here, and even my noble friend Lord Houghton said that one should look at this He is not averse to having an examination. On the past information there is, as I have said, the problem of confidentiality, and I think it is right to give an assurance that the information gathered would be seen only by the negotiating parties.

The noble Lord has suggested that this problem could be overcome by preparing summaries of the information, and consulting employers to seek theft permission to publish such information. The noble Lord nod;. But like my predecessor, whose commitment to consult outside organisations related to the future and not to the past, I assure him that I have looked carefully into his suggestion. When I give an answer in this House, I hope noble Lords will think that I am straight in the sense that I believe in what I have done. I have never tried to equivocate, and I hope that I am not doing so tonight. I have looked carefully into this and have concluded that it would be a daunting task to process and summarise the data in any way, which would at one and the same time be enlightening and preserve the confidentiality on which they have been obtained.

Such an exercise would be extraordinarily complex and costly. That is because the reports to which the noble Lord referred are working documents. They contain raw data on pay rates and all conditions of service unconverted to common currency. The reports for the surveys, on which 1st April 1975 settlements were based, alone contain information on 2.000 pay rates and extend over some 1,300 pages. This information, by itself, would be well nigh impenetrable to the lay reader. I dare say the noble Lord will reply that it should not be beyond the wit of my civil servants, over a period of months, to produce some kind of resume of all this information. But I say quite frankly to him that I do not believe the game would be worth the candle.

In my view, it would not be right or opportune now to reopen the question of the confidential undertakings which have applied to past data, and go through all the inevitable consultation with the interested parties on the form of publication. Moreover, if I understand the aim of the noble Lord correctly, and if he will excuse an analogy more appropriate to my time in another place as head of a Department, he would be trying to assess the quality of a crop of turnips from an aerial photograph. The kind of summary which could be produced at this late stage would certainly not indicate whether the processing and negotiation of past evidence had been fair. On that, I hope that the House will accept the judgments of successive Ministers of both Parties who have scrutinised Civil Service pay settlements and authorised the offers that have been made.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. This is, in a sense, a technical question and it is one which interests me very much. I am not trying to catch him out. The noble Lord said—and I understand this to he the case—that the comparability negotiations are based on payments made by the good but not the best employer. In order to do this, the findings of the Pay Research Unit must be summarised to some extent, because you could not determine what is the payment in the range of employer that you are looking for. The 1,300 items must be reduced for negotiating purposes to some statistical figures. Surely, you could not otherwise use them.


My Lords, I cannot accept the argument of the noble Baroness. I know that she follows this subject carefully, but I reassert what I have said. The kind of summary which could be produced at this late stage would certainly not indicate whether the processing and negotiation of past evidence had been fair.

So much for the past. As for the future, I explained to the House in January that the Civil Service pay system is still suspended under the rules of pay policy. Its reactivation will have to be considered in the light of developments in that policy. That is obvious. But, like my predecessor, I fully accept that in the future we will need to work out some way to ensure that the Civil Service pay system is not only fair, which I believe it is, but is also seen to be fair. This is the area where we want to have detailed consultations with those concerned. But these cannot, of course, usefully begin until we are in a position to talk about the future of the Civil Service pay system.

The difficulties of confidentiality, and the nature of the information which can be made available, will remain. But at an appropriate time—and I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont—this would need to be explored in consultation with the Civil Service unions with whom, of necessity, all such changes have to be negotiated. We should also need to consult the organisations then participating in the surveys. Whatever might be decided on publication, the Unit would then be aware of the requirements and this would enable it to plan its reports accordingly. I can assure the House that the question of greater openness will continue to be at the forefront of our minds, but it would be premature of me to say more at this time. I think that we have had a useful debate.