HL Deb 13 May 1980 vol 409 cc120-31

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on the efficiency and size of the Civil Service. The Statement is as follows:

"The Government have been reviewing the efficiency of the Civil Service in the light of experience gained in our first year in office. The work of the Civil Service divides broadly into two areas. The first is the formulation of policy and the direct support for Ministers in Parliament. The second, on which the great majority of civil servants are engaged, is carrying out the executive tasks which flow from the Government's policies in the manner and to the extent decided by Ministers.

"In the past, Governments have progressively increased the number of tasks the Civil Service is asked to do without paying sufficient attention to the need for economy and efficiency. Consequently, staff numbers have grown over the years. This Government arc committed both to a reduction in tasks and to better management. We believe that we should now concentrate on simplifying the work and doing it more efficiently. The studies which departments have already carried out, including those in conjunction with Sir Derek Rayner, have demonstrated clearly the scope for this.

"All Ministers in charge of departments will now work out detailed plans for concentrating on essential functions, and making operations simpler and more efficient in their departments. The preparation of these plans will be co-ordinated by my noble friend the Lord President of the Council.

"When the Government took office, the size of the Civil Service was 732, 000. As a result of the steps we have already taken, it is now 705, 000. We intend now to bring the number down to about 630, 000 over the next four years.

"I recognise that contracting the size of Government always causes staff both fears of insecurity and genuine anxiety lest important work should suffer. The Government are allowing time to produce the best possible plans, to take account of the legitimate interests of the staff and to encourage them to involve themselves in drawing up proposals for reform. I stress that each year some 80, 000 people leave the Civil Service on retirement or resignation. It should therefore be possible to accommodate a reduction of 75, 000 spread over four years without significant compulsory redundancy. We shall of course be consulting the Civil Service unions about implementing our plans.

"My experience from visiting departments, and that of Ministers and Sir Derek Rayner, is that the staff want to work in, and for, an efficient organisation. I have been particularly impressed by the quality and enthusiasm of the young people I have met. They want more personal responsibility for providing the country with good value for money.

"It is the Government's job to ensure that the structure of the Civil Service, its working methods and the rewards it offers for success bring on the right kinds of talent; give it scope for personal initiative; and offer conditions which promote loyalty and commitment.

"I believe that the great majority of civil servants will welcome the changes which I have described."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the Statement repeated by the Lord President. The Statement has of course been made by the Prime Minister in another place, and that emphasises the importance of it. The noble Lord said: In the past, Governments have progressively increased the number of tasks the Civil Service is asked to do without paying sufficient attention to the need for economy and efficiency ". Surely it is not the Civil Service who are at fault here, but rather Governments—whatever Governments have been in power—over a long period. I think that it is wrong to blame the civil servants in that respect.

There has been considerable press speculation about the further cuts in the Civil Service, and the Government have already made further cutbacks. When they came into office they introduced a ban on recruitment, which led to the loss of 20, 000 posts. On 6th December last year they announced the cutting of a further 39, 000 posts, and the pay settlement announced on 14th March included further reductions averaging 2½ per cent. to reconcile pay research and other pay bargaining arrangements, with a cash limit. This will amount to 15, 000 to 20, 000 jobs.

I should like to know more details relating to each department. I see no reason why the Government should not have given these details. I know that the noble Lord has been very busy elsewhere, and I am not chiding him. I blame the Prime Minister here. I believe that more information should have been given, and I should like to know whether the House will be able to learn of the percentage cuts to be made in each department. I think of my own former Ministry—and the noble Lord's former Ministry—the Ministry of Agriculture. I recall when that Ministry was attacked, and indeed the Agricultural Advisory Service was considerably harmed. Not only was it a useful service to the farming community; it was also a model for advisory services all over the world. I hope that we shall be given more details. I am sorry that the Statement lacks details and precision. There may well be a debate on this matter in another place, and perhaps Ministers will have to indicate what is to happen to specific departments.

It would be a tragedy if the morale of the Civil Service was affected. Morale is important. I have always considered our Civil Service one of the best in the world, but along with other organisations it has had to suffer attacks from people who decry public enterprise. After all, the civil servants make government work in the best sense. I hope that we shall be given much more detail about these proposals, and I regret that the Statement does not contain this.


My Lords, I am sure that the emphasis on simplifying the work of the Civil Service and carrying it out more efficiently is absolutely right. I am equally sure that the Government must have benefited greatly from the work of Sir Derek Rayner. Of course any reversal in the rate of growth is welcome. On the other hand, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Peart, I wonder whether the target of a reduction of 75, 000 posts over a period of four years is not in fact unambitious. The fault here does not lie with the Civil Service; it lies with Governments. I wonder whether, by reducing the number of tasks that we place upon the Civil Service, we could not in fact achieve an even greater reduction over this period.

I should like to ask two questions of the noble Lord the Leader of the House. First, when is it proposed to issue a further bulletin giving much more detail, particularly of the departments and organisations affected? For instance, is the Bank of England affected? Is the Foreign Office affected? We should like to know. Secondly, what arrangements will be made to ensure that the reductions in some departments are not offset by increases in others?

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, I shall try to address myself to the questions of the noble Lords, Lord Peart and Lord Byers. I turn first to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Peart. I hope that he did not get me wrong. I said: In the past, Governments have progressively increased the number of tasks the Civil Service is asked to do without paying sufficient attention to the need for economy and efficiency ". That refers to Governments. I was not blaming the Civil Service in that regard, and I should like to make that absolutely clear. The noble Lord has been a member of a Government that has been guilty of this; so have I—and in our own department, too. I recall the years that I spent in Government in the 'fifties. At that time Ministers tended to leave the actual management of departments to their permanent secretaries, and now the situation has grown to such a size that Ministers must take a grip of it themselves. This has not traditionally been done by Governments over the past years, since the war.

The noble Lord raised the question of morale. Here I quite agree with what was said. The noble Lord spoke of speculation in the press. I think that nothing is worse than speculation. Indeed, uncertainty is the worst enemy of morale. It was in order to make it clear at what the Government were aiming over the next four years that we thought it right to make an announcement to Parliament as soon as the figure had been decided.

I turn to the question of being more specific. In December when I announced what was, in effect, a cut of about 5 per cent. we were specific. At the time I said that there was more to come, and since then we have made the best judgment we could of the scope for further reductions over the next four years; that is, the four years from April 1980 to April 1984. We have not done this without evidence from, for example, Sir Derek Rayner's scrutinies and from staff insepction. I am not in a position to be more specific. We have been specific in regard to quite a lot, and as Ministers decide where savings are to be made, they will themselves make announcements to Parliament. There will of course be announcements to Parliament from time to time. The noble Lord, Lord Byers—


My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for interrupting? Will there be a time limit in regard to announcements?


My Lords, I do not think that I should like to commit my right honourable and honourable friends to any particular time limit regarding announcements. We announced quite a considerable chunk of reductions in the past, and we are now giving what we consider a proper figure at which to aim over the course of four years. I think that there will be announcements when Ministers feel it right to inform Parliament. This involves not just the Civil Service Department, but individual Ministers in charge of their respective departments; and I think that there will be announcements when they think it right to inform Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Byers, wondered whether we were going far enough in aiming at 630,000. One can never be absolutely sure. It will be a considerable reduction. As I say, when we took office a year ago it was over 730, 000. It is a reduction of more than 100, 000 over four years. We think that this is about the right figure. I cannot be absolutely specific or precise, but we thought it right to inform Parliament that after a good deal of heart-searching and examination in every department this, we thought, was about the figure for which it would be right to aim.


My Lords, I think the Civil Service will receive this Statement with great dismay, and what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has said with even greater dismay. What the noble Lord, Lord Soames, has said will not be welcomed by the Civil Service. I am not conscious that there are many young clerical officers and executive officers straining at the leash and reaching up to do better work, for this reason. It is only recently that we had the inquiry by the noble Lord, Lord Fulton, which in my view was somewhat of a mistake. There, the words used were very similar to those which the noble Lord, Lord Soames, has used. The Civil Service has suffered many commissions, Royal Commissions and inquiries into their efficiency over the last 35 years, and now, apparently, it is to suffer another one. Of course you can save staff, but what about the black economy? What about the unfortunate position in social security, and the checking that is needed? What about the customs officers, with more work to do in preventing arms and drugs coming into the country? If we reduce the size of the Civil Service, we are not going to give as good and effective a service to the public as we are giving now; and if we take short-cuts then of course we can reduce the size of the Civil Service, but at the same time we shall increase the black economy and, I believe, give less service to the public.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Plant, generalises a bit when he says that the Civil Service will be dismayed by this. There may well be some civil servants who are, but I think there will be a lot who are not. I think there are a lot who will be only too glad to see and feel that they are working in an effective and efficient machine which has been slimmed down and which has the prospect of being able to do its task efficiently and without undue waste. I think a lot of them will think this. In fact, I know a lot of them do and will. But this is not to say that all of them will, and this is not to say that there will not be personal anxieties. I appreciate that; but I really do not think it is right to say that it will not be well received.

I am sorry, but I am reminded that I did not answer one of the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Byers, asked me, and the noble Lord, Lord Plant, as well, as to the position in areas where there will need to be increases in the number of civil servants. This, of course, we have needed to take into account. About 11, 000 more will be probably needed this coming year—the figure may well be of the order of 10, 000 or 11, 000; I do not know exactly—for a number of reasons; but this we have taken into account over the course of the next four years. It is certainly not our intention to increase the black economy, but the argument that by increasing the number of civil servants in any particular area you necessarily catch more people who are trying to do evil things is not always true. Certainly it is something which has to be taken into account, and I can assure the noble Lord that it has been taken into account in our assessment.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether he is aware, as he must be aware, that for several years now, in certain quarters, there has been a demand for a reduction in the number of civil servants without any logical reason for it being offered? There has been almost a passion for cutting down. He is aware, no doubt, that in the mining industry a few years ago the notion was conceived that in order to improve the industry and make it efficient the best thing to do was to close down a large number of pits—only to discover, subsequently, that that was a blunder. Is he not aware that when Dr. Beeching was entrusted with the task ot promoting greater efficiency in the railway services he cut out a vast number of branch lines, only to discover that it adversely affected the people who wanted to use transport in the ordinary fashion?

I ask the noble Lord these questions for this reason. Does he not think that the Government should exercise a little caution in this matter? Is he not aware that those of us who have been Ministers of the Crown over a period of years have always had a great pride in the Civil Service? Occasionally there have been complaints, but more often than not we found ourselves understaffed, not overmanned. Why is it that civil servants are required? Is it because of Government demand?

The answer is, Yes. But why do Governments demand more civil servants? It is because of Questions asked in another place and in your Lordships' House, and demands that are made by institutions all over the country—the CBI, the TUC and a vast number of other organisations. That is why we require civil servants. Would it not be better, before a plan is conceived by consultation with Ministers of the Crown, for the organisations of civil servants to be asked themselves, in an effort to promote efficiency, to consider the situation and to suggest a plan, and for the Government to consider those suggestions of the civil servants before conceiving a plan and then asking the civil servants to accept it?


My Lords, I think it is a false analogy to look at the Civil Service in the same light as closing down pits or closing down railway lines. They are really not the same. What we are seeking to have here is a Civil Service which can do what government needs of it and can serve the nation well; but I do not think that anybody, not least the Civil Service itself, would like to think that there are more civil servants than are necessary to do the job. This is not an exact science. I do not know what the noble Lord thinks should be the right size for the Civil Service. What we are saying is that, taking into account the examination which we have given to this over a year in office, we think that 630, 000 after four years is the right figure at which to aim. I hope that the noble Lord will believe us in this, that this, we think, is in the best interests of the nation, including the Government. I assure him that his Questions will still be answered, as will the CBI's and those by all the other organisations. But it is not just that. Of course, it is a very broad area, industrial and non-industrial, that we are covering here. As to the civil servants being asked to co-operate in this and to make suggestions themselves, I assure the noble Lord that this is exactly what is happening.


My Lords, while supporting the principles which my noble friend has put forward, may I ask two questions? First, will the Government also relate this to examining carefully the tasks which the Civil Service are being asked to carry out? Following up what the noble Lord, Lord Peart, said, I am sure that Governments have asked civil servants to do more than their job has required them to do in certain cases. My second question is: Will the Government examine the classification which is used for civil servants? For example, the Post Office and all its workers were at one time civil servants, and I understand that when a change took place they ceased to be civil servants, causing a significant reduction in the total numbers. At present, the equivalent of this is in the Home Office and the Scottish Office where a very large proportion of the civil servants are prison warders. At the Scottish Office, it was my duty to examine the tasks of civil servants in relation to their numbers and I found that about one-third were prison warders. I was also hoping for the police to be successful in catching criminals. So on the one hand one was being successful with the police force and, on the other hand, it meant larger numbers of those who are technically civil servants. I ask that the classification of civil servants should be looked at so that it roughly corresponds with what most people in the country regard as civil servants.


My Lords, in answer to my noble friend, of course the tasks performed are a vital element in this connection. This is not just a question of doing things better; it is also one of how many things have to be done, of examining whether or not we are asking for an unnecessary number of things to be done or for some things to be done in a too gold-plated and Rolls-Royce fashion, and whether we could not do things more cheaply. I think the nation will be pleased about this. We are not doing this just for cost considerations, but cost has its importance. A 10 per cent. reduction in the size of the Civil Service is equal to about £500 million a year of taxpayers' money. The civil servants themselves think that they owe it to the taxpayer that it should be done rightly, and properly. I assure my noble friend that we are not intending to do this by any sleight of hand, by saying that from now on there will be no prison warders counted as civil servants and that therefore we have reduced the size of the Civil Service by x amount. I assure him that that will not be our intention.


My Lords, will the Government give us a little more information? It is a bit much to come along and say, "We know how many we are aiming for, but we do not know how we are going to do it". As does the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, I recall the Scottish Office very well. Are we going to cut anything at all in the prison service either in Scotland or in England?—because, if not, it means a heavier burden of cuts elsewhere. There can be no suggestion that this has never been done before. I remember that we had it when Mr. Roy Jenkins was Chancellor of the Exchequer, when we were going to cut the "Mrs. Mopps" in Whitehall. And how much money did we save? We then employed contract labour and probably got not such a good service at probably even more cost.

I am also concerned to know not just the savings in cost but also that we tell the public of the conseqences. I can remember very considerable concern—and I do not know if it is any better in the Scottish Office now—about the delays that people experienced in waiting for public inquiries, not big public inquiries but small ones, in relation to some change affecting a house. Sometimes it was over 18 months. If we are going to make cuts, then the public will have to wait for essential services. As my noble friend Lord Shinwell said, it is a popular cry: "Cut the Civil Service"—but we should tell the people the consequences. The Government cannot do that, because they do not know where they are going to cut. It is a bit much taking Parliament for granted in your Lordships' House by saying, "We are cutting by another 75, 000, but we do not know where". We ought to have a proper plan before us.


My Lords, I beg to differ from the noble Lord in that we have already expressed a lot of specific intentions where reductions are concerned. The saving of some 40, 000 posts which I announced early in December last year related specifically to various departments where the cuts would fall. I agree with the noble Lord that there is no question of everybody doing an exact 10 per cent. over four years. That cannot be so. Some will cut less, some will have no cuts at all, and others we hope may be able to cut more than that. I hope the House does not think that the Government should never seek to give information of where we are intending to go until we are ready with every detail of how we are going to get there. I assure the noble Lord that, as time goes on, announcements will be made to the House.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me one question, there is no mention of the industrial Civil Service. They are important from the point of view of defence in our dockyards. Why are they not included in the Statement?


My Lords, this will apply both to the industrials and to the non-industrials.


My Lords, as a fool I rush in where so many distinguished angels have been treading. I want to make three points. The first is that I think there was far more to the analogies made by the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, then the noble Lord, Lord Soames, was prepared to concede. There is a lot to be learned from some excessive cuts made in the past. My second point is that we must all concede that the Civil Service and local government services have swollen far beyond what is tolerable; and I think it is only right that we should look at this and set a figure towards amending it, a figure from which we can withdraw if it proves necessary. My third and last point is that we must all be aware of some fields where staffs have swollen ludicrously in proportion; and that one is the field of planning. You must now ask permission to put a window in your house. I have been waiting for 10 months for permission to put up a sign over a charity of which I am the chairman. This is one field, and there are many other fields where the "chop" is long overdue.


My Lords, what the noble Lord was talking of when he mentioned planning was an area which falls within local government. This is not what I am talking of today. I am speaking of the Civil Service and Central Government. But I do not in any way disagree with what the noble Lord has said. There are great areas in local government too where staffs have increased beyond all recognition over the years and the ratepayers are paying very highly for it. We would hope that the same sort of exercise will be done in local government as well.


My Lords, the noble Lord said that the Government propose to do two things; first, to reduce the size of the Civil Service and, secondly, to remove inefficiency in the Civil Service. Can the noble Lord indicate to the House where, in his view and in the Government's view, this inefficiency occurs and precisely what plans the Government have to improve the efficiency of the service?


My Lords, to improve efficiency, rather than to remove inefficiency, is the best way to put it. We all know that in an organisation of 700, 000 people there is always room for improvement in efficiency.


My Lords, may I ask whether the way to increase efficiency is to build up a bigger and bigger army of unemployed people? That is the very simple question that I ask the noble Lord.


No, my Lords, I would not agree with the noble Baroness that that is our thought, or that it would be right. The object is not to remove employment but to have an efficient Civil Service.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether the Government can circulate a detailed list showing, department by department, what reductions are being made? Will it show whether any reductions are being made, for example, in the number of income tax collectors?


My Lords, I have no doubt that the Inland Revenue is decreasing in size; but the size of the Inland Revenue depends very much on the structure of taxation. As to the publication, I will bear in mind what the noble Lord has said. Perhaps he will forgive me for not answering immediately.

My Lords, would not the House think that there is a good deal of work to get through—not that I am seeking to defend myself; for I rather enjoy it—and that it would be best to continue with that work?