HL Deb 06 April 1987 vol 486 cc791-3

2.49 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether past and projected reductions in staff of the London Scientific Services are acceptable and accord with their undertaking on the Local Government Bill 1985 to safeguard scientific and technical support services and ensure that valuable expertise should not and must not be lost. (H.L. Debates, 15th April 1985).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, the Government have not departed from the commitments given during the passage of the Local Government Act 1985 that the valuable expertise provided by the London Scientific Services should be maintained. I understand that consultations are taking place with present and prospective clients for the services. These will provide a basis for the future level of staffing.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. In considering the future of the London Scientific Services and the likely demand for the services, can he say to what extent the London Residuary Body has been able to take into account the probable value of these services to local authorities, other than London boroughs and successor bodies? Can the Minister confirm that such options are not ruled out by the terms of Schedule 13 to the Local Government Act 1985?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, I most certainly can. Under the provisions of the Local Authorities (Goods and Services) Act 1970, the London Scientific Services may offer their services to any other public authorities.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in our debate on 15th April 1985, at col. 515, the noble Lord, Lord Plummer, with his great experience of what happens in London, said that the period laid down for the transfer of certain responsibilities was much too short? Is not that now becoming apparent in the fact that we started postabolition with 152 people in place and the present proposals mean, I understand, a reduction to 110? Is not all this rather too hurried? Would it not be better to make up the shortfall from the London Residuary Body's revenue income for another year and so allow time to sort out this centre of excellence by the best possible means?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, nobody has suggested that the final resting place, as it were, for the London Scientific Services has to be found with any great speed, although, of course, I recognise, as will the House, that residuary bodies themselves are, by definition, temporary phenomena. So far as the level of staffing goes, this stood at 162 on abolition and 145 on 2nd March this year. According to an assessment based on the likely level of demand for services prepared by consultants for the London Residuary Board, the likelihood is that during the course of the year it will fall to 117.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the London Scientific Services are both responsible for the day-to-day needs of the different successor bodies and also for the strategic planning of London's needs? How can London-wide issues be discussed and be seen to be monitored when the successor bodies—the London boroughs—are understandably only concerned with their own local needs? Did the Minister himself not read out the number to which the staff is now being reduced? How, then, can the strategic work be undertaken?

Is the noble Lord further aware that many of us from all parts of the House who were involved in the debates during the passing of the abolition Bill did not press our amendments and accepted the assurances of both the Leader of the House and the Minister at the time, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that these services would not suffer and that they would be able completely to fulfil their functions?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I must disagree with the noble Baroness. My understanding is that the London Scientific Services provide now that they have always done, a consultation service. As I said in answer to my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, this can be done now, as in the past, for any local authority body who so desires.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, does the noble Lord not accept that there was more to the scientific services group than mere consultation with the London districts, the London metropolitan boroughs? Indeed, investigations were carried out on a global London basis—if that is the right way of putting it—on matters of noise pollution and air pollution. They were not restricted to one particular borough. This was done not merely on the basis of consultation but actually looking at London as a whole. Is the Minister, in the reply he has just given, saying that that is no longer the case?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the London Scientific Services were, before abolition, employed by the Greater London Council. And the Greater London Council purported to be a London-wide body. Many noble Lords would dispute that "purportion", if there is such a word.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister forgive me if I repeat a question I asked in the House last week? Has the work of the residuary body and of the boroughs been monitored over the past 12 months, and are there reports available that we might see?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I recognise that I gave a rather off-the-cuff answer to my noble friend last week. I have since confirmed that the London Residuary Body is required under the Local Government Act 1985 to publish an annual report on the discharge of its functions. My right honourable friend is required to lay such reports before the House. The annual report and accounts for 1985–86 were laid before your Lordships on 18th November last.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord's statement that the services have not yet found a final resting place has no special significance. Would he repeat the assurance given by the noble Viscount in the relevant debate on the Local Government Act that the services would be sustained in full after abolition? The noble Lord has given no such assurance. What he has given us is a feeling of discomfort that the number of staff is being reduced. Can he say how he expects the services to be sustained not only in London but also outside London with a much reduced staff?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House said during the Second Reading on 15th April 1985 at col. 587: We agree that valuable expertise should not and must not be lost". That was the starting point for this particular Question. On 21st May 1985, at col. 224, my noble friend Lord Elton, replying to a debate, said: I have given an assurance that we shall safeguard scientific and technical support services through any potential difficulties in the transitional period, if necessary by ensuring that the residuary bodies actually take on the staff and the property on a temporary basis themselves". This, as we all know, has in fact happened. As regards staff numbers, these will go up and down depending on the demand for the services.