HL Deb 06 December 1979 vol 403 cc873-85
Department £ million (at 1979 survey prices) Staff (approximate)
Ministry of Defence Various economies and placing some work currently done in-house out to contract (in particular cleaning and catering); administrative economies from such measures as changing the arrangements for paying salaries and wages and for bill paying; further changes in arrangements for quality assurance, involving greater reliance on industry. 41.0 7,500
Foreign and Common wealth Office and Diplomatic Service Closure of some overseas posts; reduction in the size of the largest overseas missions and in staff numbers in the UK. 6.0 425
Overseas Development Administration Reductions in staff and programmes in headquarters and at the Scientific Units. 2.1 235
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Simplification of capital grant schemes and other minor savings. 4.1 470
Department of Industry Conversion of National Maritime Institute into a non-governmental Research Association or other industrial research laboratory; programme cuts at remaining Industrial Research Establishments; reductions in regional organizations mainly resulting from revised regional package; staff savings following expiry of Industry Schemes; and reductions in statistical, Establishment and support services. 7.9 1,290
Department of Trade Changes in companies registration; reduction in some export promotion and commercial relations activities and in various civil aviation and marine functions; continuation of transfer of work to the European Patent Office; abolition of the Metrication Board. 3.1 455

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for keeping me informed about this matter. As he knows, I was previously responsible for the Civil Service Department. I am worried that there might be savings at a cost to essential services. I hope that this matter has been considered carefully, and I should like to know what discussions the noble Lord has had and which unions are concerned. I get the impression that many members of the party opposite have always relished sniping at the Civil Service—conscientious men and women, many of whom will now probably lose their jobs. It is not easy for these people. I trust that there will be no endangering of essential occupations, and I hope that the noble Lord will comment on that.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, we on these Benches also wish to thank the Minister for the Statement and to say we hope that there will be an opportunity at a later date to discuss this matter in much more detail. The Statement that the Minister has made has roused a number of questions to which obviously he cannot at present give answers, but we hope that there will be an opportunity for answers later. The Minister has said that he will keep us informed. I feel that what the House needs is not merely information, but an opportunity to discuss what is going on. As I think is well known, there is great anxiety that economies may be made at the sharp end, out in the field, rather than in the administrative structure; and there is a very strongly held view, which may not be entirely justified, that the administrative structure is top heavy and that that is where a great many of the economies ought to be made.

The Minister has told us about reductions in size. He has told us that the Department of Transport has made a reduction of 18 per cent. I have done some very quick arithmetic, and it may well be wrong, but the overall reduction to which he refers averages I think about 8 per cent. It is open to question at least that we should know why in one department it is possible to make 18 per cent, reduction when the average is only 8 per cent. It suggests that in other departments there are further economies that could well be made. Even when the figures of the reduction are given, the reduced figure of Civil Service employment still represents 3 per cent, of the total of all persons employed in this country, and of course to this must be added the large numbers employed in local authorities.

The Minister's Statement referred not only to size, but to cost. Here I realise that I am on extremely delicate ground, but would it be too much to ask that at a later stage discussion can take place as to how salaries are arrived at? I know that the Pay Research Unit is doing a very thorough and conscientious job, but we are also interested in the way in which the findings of the Pay Research Unit are interpreted in the process of negotiation. There are many unanswered questions here, such as what adjustments are made for the security of the Civil Service, because we are told that in relation to this reduction it is going to be largely a matter of natural wastage. What adjustments are made for the fact that the pension scheme is non-contributory? What adjustments are made for the fact that the pension is inflation-proofed? There is a strong view—and this, too, is an argument for further discussion of this matter—that while, we all agree, we have a most excellent staff in the Civil Service, there are many people trapped in a system which greatly reduces its efficiency.

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I shall try to asnwer some of those questions. The noble Lord, Lord Peart, referred first to his anxieties that essential services might be cut. I can assure him that this is not the case. This has been avoided, I would say, almost at all costs. This has been a review by departmental Ministers throughout their departments, in response to a request, and the question has been asked: what would you have to cut if you were to cut X percentage out of the total of your staff costs? What would this involve? This was then looked at, and some things were immediately jettisoned, not even considered; others were considered and discussed and then jettisoned; some were accepted straight away and others were argued over, which is why it has taken a bit of time before I have come to the House. This has been an exercise which I think has been worth while. I also think that, certainly where I was concerned, and probably where the noble Lord, Lord Peart, was concerned, too, up till now Ministers (certainly this was the case for myself) have tended to concentrate on the policies of their departments rather more than on the administering of them, and to leave the administration to the Civil Service. What this exercise has done is to bring Ministers absolutely slap into this field, into the realisation of their being responsible for the administration and for watching over the efficient working of their departments. This is going to continue, and I hope have benefit in time to come.

As for sniping at the Civil Service, in my opinion there is a lot too much sniping at the Civil Service from all around the shop, and I certainly should not like to point the finger at any particular party. I think this comes from the body of opinion. The Civil Service is rather like mothers-in-law: it tends to be the butt for jokes. But, as I said at the end of my previous remarks, and I know the House will agree, I myself honestly believe (and I am lucky enough to have had the experience of seeing a number of civil services abroad at work) that ours is as good as any that can be found anywhere in the world—and I do not say that just because I am a Briton.

As to many losing their jobs, this will not be the case; many will not be losing their jobs. I cannot say that none will be losing their job—I cannot give a guarantee as to that—but certainly the major part of this exercise will be done by wastage; and, of course, if there are any who have to lose their jobs, then this will be done in as humane a manner as possible. As to what the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, listening to her I saw her point in asking for a debate on this subject, because she raised a number of points which, if I were to answer them, would really amount to my making the opening speech of a debate. So if the noble Baroness wants a debate perhaps she would go through the usual channels to get such a thing arranged.

Perhaps I could very quickly answer some other points. On pay, I really do not think that pay comes within this. This Statement is not about pay; it is about a reduction in the number of civil servants. The noble Baroness asked why the Ministry of Transport came out at 18 per cent, whereas the average, she said, was 8 per cent. Her arithmetic is pretty good. If you add together what we saved in the first few months and what I have announced now, it comes to something of the order of 8 per cent. The answer is that, as I said, we did not have a target. We did not say, "This is what we want to achieve and everybody has to hit that target". This was not what we said. What we said was, "We want each department to look to see where savings can be achieved and to judge what the effects upon the country would be in the event of those savings being made". It came out that this could be done more easily in the Ministry of Transport than in other departments. These reviews are being carried on, and it may be that others I may come into double figures, too; I cannot tell. But that is how it was done. It is not that one has done better or worse than another: it is how it came out at the end of the day after very long deliberations.


My Lords, may I, on a point of information, put this question to the Minister? He is aware, is he not, that already the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have over the past five or six years, pretty well voluntarily, effected very substantial savings in manpower and expenditure? Would he do his best to temper the wind of cuts to this already very shorn lamb, as the Diplomatic Service is already feeling inadequate to the purposes set to it? Secondly, on the question of a review of manpower and expenditure in the quasi Civil Service organisations—for instance, the British Council—were those included in this review, or are they being looked at separately?


My Lords, the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not been cut very substantially in this operation. The noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, referred to it as a shorn lamb. I must tell the noble Lord that, having held discussions with almost every departmental Minister in this operation, there was hardly one which did not consider itself to be already a shorn lamb.


My Lords, would the noble Lord answer my point about the quasi Civil Service organisations, such as the British Council? Do they come into this review?


My Lords, the British Council would have come under the Foreign Office review, I think—but do not hold it against me if I am wrong. I am now told, "British Council, et cetera, no".


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while I, like everyone else in this House, I think, am proud of the traditions and the service of our Civil Service, there is a general wish that there should be some relief from the very great burden of the existing staff of the Civil Service; that the review which my noble friend and his colleagues have carried out is one which everybody was expecting; and that the result of a reduction of about 8 per cent, seems quite reasonable? We are all aware that this will make for some disappointments in some places, but there are the classical aspects of the Admiralty, for instance, where we now have more administrators than we have naval officers and naval ratings. This kind of situation has inevitably grown up over the years, with Parkinson at work right through the whole scene. We all feel very grateful to my noble friend for the extremely difficult task which he and his colleagues have carried out in making even this 8 per cent. reduction, and we strongly support him in what he is doing.


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Nugent. Yes, we were absolutely convinced that this was a job which needed doing. It is not an easy one to perform. I am not saying that there are not areas where I am rather disappointed that we have not been able to go further, but this is not the end of the road. As I say, a number of reviews are still in train, and Ministers will be constantly watching to ensure the efficiency of their own departments, and for just the sort of situation to which my noble friend referred. I think this is a matter of balance. It is not as easy as it sounds, doing this operation. What had to be done was that tasks had to be taken away. There was a limit to how much you could do by, as it were, just cutting off fat, and tasks had to be reduced.


My Lords, I appreciate very much what the noble Lord has said, but I am worried about one matter. The whole question of government stands on law and order and defence. Will there be any cut-back there?


No, not in the front end, my Lords.


My Lords, in view of the desire of the Government to reduce the size and responsibilities of the Civil Service, will they review the decision to transfer the responsibility for monitoring the affairs of Rolls-Royce and British Leyland from the NEB to the Civil Service? These are major industries, and responsibility for so monitoring performance can add substantially to the numbers employed in these Civil Service Departments.


No, my Lords; we would not consider that to be right.


My Lords, will my noble friend not agree that it is often we ourselves, here and in another place, who create all these jobs which have led to the expansion of the Civil Service? Would he, as a little encouragement here and in another place, further agree that there are a great many silly Questions which waste a great deal of civil servants' time?


My Lords, they certainly cost a great deal of money.


My Lords, may I make a practical suggestion which is a very simple one: to transfer the civil servants who did the review in the Ministry of Transport to the other Ministriesand see what the result would be.


My Lords, perhaps it is funny, but I did not think it was. The answer is, No, because this is not the way it happened. All the departments came up with what would need to be done if they were to cut their staff costs by a certain amount. It so happened that in the Ministry of Transport it was decided that more could be done than elsewhere. It was not a question of the civil servants in the Ministry of Transport coming out with more ideas than came out of other departments. It was that we found that more could be done with less damage there than could be done in other departments.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House to what extent the savings in the Civil Service have been effected by transferring some of their functions to local government?—which will have the result of decreasing taxation but increasing the rates.


My Lords, I think if it had been that to any marked degree I should have been misleading the House. I would not wish to do that.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in 1939, when we had the greatest empire in the world, central Government had 100,000 civil servants in Whitehall, that today, with nothing but these small islands, the Civil Service numbers 800,000; and that, therefore, the majority of the country will fully back the decision of the Government in their action over this? In order that we employ some of these civil servants who may lose their jobs, can we not transfer some of them from the Ministry of Labour on to inspecting and trying to trace the thousands or tens of thousands of people who are evading tax by drawing the dole and other social benefits and at the same time working three, four or five days a week in lucrative jobs?


In answer to the first part of my noble friend's supplementary question, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is very much smaller today than was the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the India Office in times gone by. The increase in the Civil Service has come about by virtue of the fact that Governments over the years have to a greater extent increasingly, every year, touched the lives of the people at more points than ever before. That is where the increase has been and that is where we have had to look. In answer to the second part of my noble friend's supplementary question, the Department of Employment employ a number of people on a regular basis to do the job that he outlined so vividly.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the biggest cut has been in the Inland Revenue? But is he also aware that, compared to the United States of America, we still have four times as many tax gatherers as they have per 1,000 of the population? Is this not an argument for not only going on cutting taxes but, above all, simplifying taxation so that it is easier to handle our taxation more efficiently with fewer civil servants? Would he bear in mind that, although the intended cuts are satisfactory here, it is not so in the local authorities where in the last year they have added 30,000 people to their numbers? Could he see what persuasion could be put on the local authorities by the Government for them to make equal cuts and thus keep rates increases down?


My Lords, simplification of the tax structure is something which all Chancellors of the Exchequer have been after. They have not found it very easy. But simplification for the sake of simplification is an end well worth seeking and one which I have no doubt my right honourable friend will bear in mind. He is very well aware, from the expenditure point of view, how beneficial it would be if those departments for which he is responsible in the Treasury could be reduced. This is something that he has in mind.

As to the local authorities, as my noble friend will realise, there is a limit to which central Government think it right to impose their own views on local authorities. Through the working of the grant and so on, there are various ways (which we all know about) by which central Government can make their beliefs felt by the local authorities; but there is a limit. I do not believe that anybody in this House would think it right that central Government should tell each local authority how many people they should or should not employ.


Would the noble Lord the Leader of the House say whether the Government have given any thought to the idea of awarding substantial cash bonuses to civil servants who put forward specific ideas for cutting out waste and making economies generally, which are then adopted—as is frequently done in private industry by way of incentive.


My Lords, I had not thought of that. Frankly, and I am not being pi here, I think that those civil servants in the departments with whom I have had contact in this exercise have genuinely gone about this exercise with a will. I do not think that they would have looked kindly upon the idea of cash benefits for it. I think they did it in the line of duty. May I suggest—and I do not know whether I can defend myself on this matter—that perhaps it would be of convenience to the House that we move on to the ordinary business of the day?

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