HL Deb 17 October 1991 vol 531 cc1220-2

3.17 p.m.

Baroness Jeger asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have had in response to their proposed administrative changes for the Royal Parks.

The Minister of State, the Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, there have been a number of representations in response to the Government initiatives to establish a review group and to contract out the garden and landscape maintenance work. The review group has now received many suggestions for how the parks may be improved. The Government have also received views on contracting out and have had discussions with a number of interested parties.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, I should like to ask her what notice have the Government taken of all the representations which have been made? Is she aware that it is hardly in keeping with the philosophy of the Citizen's Charter that the changes in the Royal Parks were announced at the end of term on 18th July; and that hundreds of redundancy notices have been sent out to loyal, devoted and experienced staff during the Recess, so there was no opportunity for there to be parliamentary or even public debate on these matters? Surely those who work in the parks are citizens, as are those who enjoy the parks, which are public parks.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked what notice we were taking of those representations. I assure her that a great deal of notice is being taken. We have had very good advice from Robin Herbert of the Royal Horticultural Society; we are in touch with the Deer Society, who are advising us on specifications for deer management; we have met and communicated with many Members of Parliament. I have personally met with a number of them. I have also met with Friends of the Parks. Those meetings have been highly constructive, and many good suggestions have been made and have been incorporated in our plans.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness what is the purpose of the new policy towards privatisation? What is wrong with the present administration of the Royal Parks, which I have enjoyed all my life? What is the reason for the change? Also, what is to be the future of those gardeners who do such excellent work and who I understand have received redundancy notices? Are the Government aware that they are not so fortunate as those who work in the gardens of Buckingham Palace who were taken on the strength of the Royal Household in order to protect their jobs?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may answer the final point first. The decision for those gardeners to go back on to the staff of the Royal Household was taken long before the decision about contracting-out the gardening. Secondly, it is not new policy to privatise government or local government services. That has been a continuing process for a very long time. It is anachronistic for a department such as the Department of Environment to directly employ gardeners and people who pick up litter in the Royal Parks. I can give every assurance to the noble Lord that every single member of staff will be given an interview and a chance to be employed by the new contractors. I can also say that every effort possible is being made in the interim to counsel them. Those who at the end of the day will be redundant will receive their full due rights under the redundancy agreements.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, do the Government agree that there is widespread support for the appointment of the review group and for the choice of Dame Jennifer Jenkins to be its chairman? Can they explain why it is that, during the existence of the review group and before it has reported, ground maintenance in the Royal Parks, which appears to mean gardening, has been contracted out to the private sector; tree maintenance is to be contracted out to the private sector; tree surveys of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens have been carried out and a plan based on those surveys has been put on public exhibition; and, notwithstanding, another tree survey is now to be carried out; and that the Historic Palaces Agency has been given control of the Orangery and its annexed gardens in Kensington Gardens? Can they explain why all these things are being done despite and before the report of a general inquiry into the use and future of the parks?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord's comments about the review group. We have every confidence that Dame Jennifer and her expert team will have a constructive look at the role of the Royal Parks. We believe that they will continue to be very beautiful parks in and around our capital city. They will not be privatised. The parks belong to the Queen and they are managed by my department. Perhaps I may also point out that the ground maintenance also includes a great deal of odd-jobbing about the parks, such as the picking up of litter. In the light of the comments made by the noble Lord, I wonder whether he is arguing against surveying our trees from time to time.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the considerable anxiety that privatisation may jeopardise the very delicate ecology and environment of the parks, particularly the historic deer parks of Richmond and Bushey which are not places of horticulture in the normal sense of the word? Does she agree that the views of the public and of experts should be taken into account in considering the specifications as well as the overall proposals? Will the Government be prepared to alter what is now a very swift timetable in order to take those on board and, in line with the Citizen's Charter, to respond to public opinion on them and not proceed, if that is the opinion, with privatisation either for all or some of the parks?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I should be interested to know what evidence the noble Baroness has for theorising about what plans we have that would damage the parks. The specifications for the parks are being drawn up with the full advice of the Deer Society and the Royal Horticultural Society. Why does the noble Baroness believe that that will be damaging? I have met the Friends of Richmond Park, the park with which the noble Baroness is concerned. We have offered to allow the specification documents to be made public and for the friends of all the parks, including Richmond Park, to comment on them.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that while the Government do not like the word privatisation applied to its various antics in this area, so far as concerns the Royal Parks there have been a great many complaints about what they are getting up to? Is the noble Baroness seriously telling the House that the comments that she has received on their activities have been wholly favourable?

Baroness Blatch

No, my Lords. First, I am not apologising for the word privatisation. Many of the comments have been constructive though critical. Some of the comments have been positively hostile but misinformed. Where the comments have been critical and constructive, we have taken full notice.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is it not a tribute to the public spiritedness of those who have responded to the consultation that they have done so despite the fact that the important decision has been taken by the Government without waiting for the result of the consultation? It is no disrespect to Dame Jennifer Jenkins to say that the recommendations of her review group ought to have been taken into account before the decisions about privatisation were taken by the Government. What price a Citizen's Charter now?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have spent the summer meeting people, and I have thoroughly welcomed the interest that has been shown. I pay tribute to those who have taken a detailed interest in what we are doing. We shall continue to have an open door to anyone who wishes to talk to us about this project. The review is looking at the role of the parks. We are talking about the work in the grounds, some of the gardening and the tidying up of our parks.