HL Deb 26 July 1979 vol 401 cc2046-51

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, on 11 th June the Government announced that they were going to review the programme of Civil Service dispersal. The Hardman Report of 1973 had produced three possible options. Our predecessors then produced a plan which was significantly different from any of them.

When we came into office, we found it was proposed not only to disperse a further 21,000 Civil Service posts from London but also 4,000 from such places as Harrogate, Bath and Didcot. Such dispersal moves from places outside London were never suggested in the Hardman Report and it is not possible to see the justification for them. The present programme would cost over £250 million during the remainder of the present Public Expenditure Survey period to 1983–84, and we should be well into the 1990s before the benefits from dispersal began to offset the costs.

While I recognise that in the assisted areas the dispersal programme has been viewed as an important element in improving employment opportunities, nevertheless some of the important considerations which led to the setting up of the Hardman study no longer apply. In 1973, the Civil Service was expanding and the Government faced the prospect of providing more offices at high London rents. This Government intend to reduce the size of the service. Moreover, the gap between office rents in London and in the provinces has narrowed substantially since then and the long-term financial benefits of moving people out of London arc that much the less.

Having considered all these factors the Government have reached the following conclusions. Three moves should continue. These are the moves of the Manpower Services Commission to Sheffield, the Export Credits Guarantee Department to Cardiff and the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas to Salisbury, involving a further 2.500 posts. There are two further small moves which would increase the efficiency of the Departments concerned at very little cost. These are the move of the laboratory of Her Majesty's Stationery Office to Norwich and that of a small group of about 90 Customs and Excise staff to Southend.

The Government have also decided that some dispersal of Civil Service posts is justified to meet the particularly pressing needs of Glasgow and Merseyside. A total of at least 2,000 posts will therefore be moved to Glasgow and East Kilbride by the Ministry of Defence and the Overseas Development Administration. The Glasgow posts wiall be located at the St. Enoch's site. There will also be a dispersal to Bootle, where there is a large building available. The full composition of this has not yet been settled but the first tranche of 250 posts will be the Home Office Computer Centre and a unit from the Property Services Agency. All the posts in the revised programme will be taken from the London area.

Much of the dispersal programme which we inherited from our predecessors has been so altered from the original aims of the Hardman Report that it would have made no sense in terms of regional policy to proceed with those moves. In the light of all the altered circumstances we have decided to proceed only with the moves which I have just announced. This will mean a saving in planned public expenditure of well over £200 million up to 1983–84.

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I regret very much that the Government have altered the programme which had been agreed, I believe, by all sections. I never once had any attacks in this House or indeed the other House on this matter. The cuts will harm regional policy. I regret that on Teesside the Property Services Agency move is not to go ahead; and I am sorry that the move of the Government Chemist to Cumberland is also not to go ahead. I am somewhat embarrassed about that: although it was in my constituency that my successor, a Conservative Member, campaigned hard to keep that promise. So, I regret this very much. I believe that the Government are thinking of long-term savings for short-term aims. I am sorry, and I regret it deeply. This will harm regional policy and this is how it will be accepted in the country.


My Lords, we on these Benches are strong supporters of regional policies; but I must say that, in the changed circumstances, and while Civil Service manpower requirements are being reduced, surely it would be right not to proceed with a very large dispersal programme. Therefore, in principle, I cannot follow the noble Lord, Lord Peart. May I ask the Leader of the House if, in the case of those programmes which are to proceed, allowances have been made for further reductions in the manpower requirements of the Civil Service? Secondly, are there any dispersal programmes now in progress which may have to be reversed in part or in whole? If so, what arrangements will be made for the individuals so affected?


My Lords, if I may reply to the noble Lord, Lord Peart, from the point of view of regional policy of course there are other moves which the Government were tempted to take. What we had to do was to balance first the changing circumstances of today; secondly, the cost and, thirdly, the cost-effectiveness and the need for promotion of a regional policy. We have tried to steer a proper course between these three and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for having acknowledged this in the question that he asked me. Regarding the posts which we are moving —because it is posts rather than people—to Scotland and to the North-West, these are posts which under any circumstances we expect to see continued. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for his understanding of the manner in which we have tried to balance the various elements of national interest in this decision.


My Lords, once, when my noble friend's father-in-law had been accused of changing his mind he said: " The processes of my mind constantly adjust themselves to the movement of outside events ". My noble friend has followed in this tradition, and, as the circumstances have changed in this equation, the differential between the cost of offices outside London and within London having very much narrowed, it will be very welcome that he has taken an opportunity to avoid disruption of the private lives of the many people affected, and also to save the taxpayers £200 million. The statement is warmly welcomed from these Benches.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for what he has said. This was not the easiest decision to reach, for there were many arguments on both sides, but we have tried to steer a course in the greatest national interest.


My Lords, may I say that it is all right for the noble Lord to talk about past history; but here is an opportunity to provide jobs in the regions. I believe that the regions have a right to have a share in the government of this country.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord can guide us as to how many jobs are going to Glasgow and how many to East Kilbride. He said 2,000 to Glasgow and East Kilbride. Considering that the site on which the building is now being erected in Glasgow was to accommodate 7,000 civil servants, would he indicate what are the net savings, considering that they have already inherited substantial liabilities in the building of property to take the total of 7,000 civil servants that was envisaged? Will the noble Lord also accept that, apart from the financial saving, there are important social implications in taking fairly high-income civil servants to the city of Glasgow, which tends to be a depressed area because it is almost totally dependent on industries that are in decline? The mere fact that one was injecting these social categories had important implications for the survival of Glasgow.


My Lords, one must take some knowledge from history as well. It is not the first time that there has been dispersal to Glasgow and the surrounding districts. I was told that on almost every occasion various objections were raised by people who were having to move as a result of dispersal. But in fact once they had been there for some time they adapted themselves very much to the situation and wild horses would not have brought them back again to London.

Regarding the first part of the question, the net savings are the figures that I gave, not just for Glasgow but generally speaking. The plan that we, as it were, inherited was for £250 million, give or take a million, and we are going to end up with savings of something over £200 million. In other words, the total expenditure will be somewhat less than £50 million.


My Lords, I assume that, in calculating net savings, some assumptions are being made about the rental of the existing property commitment which there is in Liverpool and which there will be in Glasgow. It might be interesting to find out how one assumes one is going to recover some of the costs of unlet property which is being developed in anticipation of a substantial move of this kind. I subscribe completely to the Minister's statement regarding the acceptability of Scotland as a place to move to, having myself moved a Civil Service department to Edinburgh, as chairman of the Forestry Commission.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for confirming that what I said has been the experience in the past. All I can say is that the savings, as worked out by the Treasury—which, as noble Lords know, seldom makes mistakes—are of the order that I have indicated.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say what consultations have taken place with the Civil Service unions about the changes in the dispersal programme he has announced? Secondly, in view of the very substantial changes in the regional needs for new employment, and particularly the closures which are projected by British Steel, may I ask whether the programme is so hard and fast that it would be impossible to do anything to help areas such as Shotton and Corby, which may become ghost towns as a result of the British Steel closures?


My Lords, I do not want to underestimate the value of dispersal. Of course it is true that certain jobs would be thrown up by dispersal but, on the other hand, as it was post-moving, inevitably a lot of people would have moved as well in the initial years. It is only really when we come to wastage that the benefits of dispersal become very great. You have the wastage, then the jobs being filled by people coming in from the local areas. A number of areas of the United Kingdom as a whole were concerned. We considered various sites, as I say, and we have ended up with a balance between the necessary savings that we have to make, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the benefits of dispersal. So far as the unions are concerned, the general feeling—I do not say there were not some exceptions to this—is that we do not expect them to be hostile to this decision.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that at least a small section of people would have suffered a cataclysmic effect had they not been able to be dispersed to Sheffield? It would be a little ungenerous not to say " thank you " for at least removing some misery from people who now know where they stand so far as Sheffield is concerned.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies.