HL Deb 18 May 1990 vol 519 cc477-80

11.31 a.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Property Services Agency and Crown Suppliers Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—{Lord Hesketh.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I believe that this is the appropriate moment for me to say what I wish before the Bill passes from your Lordships' House. Those who have followed the progress of the Bill will realise that the official Opposition are not only unhappy at the progress of the Bill but are very angry indeed.

Events over the past few weeks and days reinforce all that we have said. It is an unnecessary, shabby Bill. It is more than that: it is a con trick. As we have sought to demonstrate over the past few weeks in this Chamber and in another place, the Government are not privatising any part of the business. Privatisations such as water, gas and electricity involved selling the business; but the PSA/TCS privatisation sells nothing but the staff and the assets. The business of designing, furnishing and maintaining the Crown estate will stay with the Government.

Let me illustrate to the Minister and to the House what is; causing deep concern. Only this week we understand, and it is fairly authentic, that the Ministry of Defence is undertaking a major review of its expenditure. I remind the House that the PSA is responsible for more than £2 billion of the MoD expenditure. We hear that there is to be a moratorium on its expenditure. As a consequence there will be a shortfall in the profits that have been earned by the PSA in the past. At the end of the year—during the period when the PSA is being sold on—it will be making a great loss.

One consequence is that the price that the Government will be able to obtain from any prospective purchasers will be depressed. However, what is. more important is that the Government's ability to lay down and insist on protective conditions will be so much the weaker. The trade unions involved forecast when the naval dockyards were to be privatised that there would be 6,000 redundancies; and so it came to pass. There were more than 6,000 redundancies. They now tell me that as a result of the Bill, and of what I have just told the House, we can expect between 5,000 and 8,000 redundancies. Of course they are very worried, angry and fearful for the future.

The Government have sought in an anodyne and very often patronising way to tell the employees that they have nothing to worry about; that there are arrangements in place which will protect them; that they will be no worse off in the future than in the past. Tell that, for instance, to some of the employees of the Skillcentres. In another place, Mr. Tim Eggar had to admit only this week that with regard to one of the Skillcentres that had been sold with arrangements comparable to these in place, the employer issued redundancy notices to all employees on the very day after he took prossession. The official record indicates the Minister's concern about this, and states that he will make arrangements for employees who are no longer employees of the Government to be given financial assistance to take legal advice. We do not wish those employees of the Crown who cease to be employees of the Crown to be given legal advice to protect their interests. They should previously have had those interests protected. We know of course who will be advantaged and benefit from this legislation. It will not be the employees. The normal people who benefit when the Government sell on are the merchant bankers, the property speculators, the public relation firms and the City.

I challenged the Minister about who he had been in touch with regarding the viability of the sales. The House will know the names: Price Waterhouse, Samuel Montagu, and many others. Those are the people who will benefit. When the ordinary employees consider the disadvantages of the package with dismay they will not be in the position of Sir Gordon Manzie who was head of the Property Services Agency. He retired early with a golden handshake. Within three months of his retirement he was able to take over a top job, taking over many of the facilities of the Property Services Agency. The Sir Gordon Manzies of this world have nothing to worry about. However, 22,000 overwhelmingly dedicated, long serving, and efficient civil servants wish only to continue to serve the Crown; or, if the Government are intent on flogging off their business to the highest bidder they wish their redundancy arrangements and pensions to be protected. They do not have the same assurances as the Sir Gordon Manzies of this world.

I asked the Minister whether he could exclude the Northern Ireland nexus on security grounds. He said no. The Government have excluded from this Bill the government car service. Ministers will still be able to travel in cars that are part of a public service. The quite proper security arrangements on Ministers' houses will be kept within a new government department. However, civil servants who work in Northern Ireland and who are often subjected to terrible threats will cease to have the protection of the security services. They will be left to fend for themselves.

Let us consider what the Government have done. They have sold off the Royal Ordnance factories, Rover and the Skillcentres. We sympathise with the worries of the employees who will be affected. They were previously considered as good civil servants. The Minister may tell us that such privatisation will benefit the taxpayer, the ratepayer and the poll tax payer. This Government know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. They have said to highly valued civil servants, "Your time has come. We must pay you off; and we shall return to the business of getting rid of the public empire." It is a shabby, shoddy and shameful Bill. It is a Tory Bill. We believe that it ought not to make progress in this House.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, the noble Lord made a splendidly emotional speech in the true tradition of the Labour Party and one cannot let it pass without comment. We know that the noble Lord hates anything being privatised and is a sincere exponent of what he believes to be the merits of public enterprise. But that view is not shared by many noble Lords. In particular, it is not shared by those of us who, from time to time, have had dealings with the Property Services Agency. The presence of the noble Lord on the Woolsack prevents me from referring to episodes somewhat nearer home. However, anyone who has had dealings with the PSA will know that, compared with similar organisations in private enterprise, it was slow and costly. That derived in part from its position as a publicly-owned and publicly-operated service.

Noble Lords have only to look at what has happened in other organisations—one or two of which the noble Lord mentioned—to see the increase in efficiency and economy of operation which followed privatisation. I have not the slightest doubt that the public will benefit from the privatising of the Property Services Agency. It is a consistent policy which has been successfully pursued by the Government in many directions. Obviously, it is not one of the major changes but it is substantial.

I fully understand the anxieties of those who work in the PSA and who, naturally, fear change. We all fear change and uncertainty which is an understandable cause of apprehension. However, good assurances have been given and there is no solid reason for believing that those who work in the PSA will suffer. There is every evidence to show that the British public, the Government and their agencies will gain and profit from the change. I welcome the Bill and hope that it will soon be law.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I do not believe that the House and noble Lords who took part in the debates in Committee and on Report will thank me for repeating the arguments which rebut the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. However, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and the noble Lord, Lord Dean, who is not present today, for the doughty and committed concern and attention that they gave to the Bill in Committee and on Report and for the generous way in which they reacted with the Government to the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, it was remiss of me not to acknowledge and pay tribute to the courteous way in which the Minister always responded to the points that we made. I have taken advice about the subsection relating to the EC directive and have been reassured that it is to the benefit and not to the detriment of the points that I made.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed, and returned to the Commons with an amendment.