HL Deb 15 June 1992 vol 538 cc11-35

3.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is a short and technical Bill with a single aim: to allow the central departments which are responsible for regulating the management of the Civil Service in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to delegate their powers to others. I shall say more about the detailed provisions of the Bill in a moment. I must begin by acknowledging freely the complexity of some of the clauses here before the House. Unfortunately, the legal background to the Bill is itself rather complex. However, I trust that the early provision of Notes on Clauses will be helpful.

The aim of the Bill is to permit a greater degree of decentralisation and delegation than is possible at present in the management of the Civil Service. That puts it squarely in the context of this Government's public sector policies. It is no exaggeration to say that this Government have transformed the management of the public sector. We have allied a concentration on value for the taxpayer's money to renewed emphasis on service to the customer in the Citizen's Charter. And as part of that we must ensure that public sector managers have the power and the responsibility to deliver the service that the public expects at a price that the public can afford.

Your Lordships will be aware of the creation of executive agencies within the Civil Service under the Next Steps initiative. Already 290,000 civil servants, half the total, are working in agencies or organisations run on Next Steps lines. They are delivering services within challenging targets set by Ministers, and they are producing results. I do not want to overburden the House with statistics but Next Steps agencies have introduced improvements which directly affect the quality of life for us all. The Driving Standards Agency has reduced the waiting time for a test from an average of 13 weeks in 1988 to just over seven weeks. Managers of Social Security and Employment Offices are being encouraged to adopt flexible opening hours to meet their customers' needs. In my own area of interest, the Intervention Board has been awarded the coveted British Standard 5750 for quality of management and control of software development. Those are just examples; there are many more.

The key to those improvements is the continuing process of delegation; giving the many businesses of government a clear statement of the results that they must achieve together with the management freedom to achieve them. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in another place last year: The Government believe that agencies' delegations and flexibilities can be enlarged as their track record of performance is established, provided that essential controls on public expenditure are not jeopardised". Government agencies and departments are now playing an important part in the Citizen's Charter initiative. The charter aims to move the focus from the values of those who produce services—what one might term the "like it or lump it approach"—to the values of those who need them. To date 19 follow-up charters have been produced which set out standards which citizens know and can expect to receive. Among them are charters for taxpayers, for jobseekers, and for travellers, produced by the departments and agencies responsible.

Both Next Steps and the Citizen's Charter depend for their success on delegation—on moving decision-making closer to the business and on allowing managers, within a proper framework of accountability, to get on with the job. The exact level at which decisions will most properly be taken will vary from case to case and some things will have to remain to be decided at the heart of government. But the time is past when it was right, if it ever was, for the Treasury and the Minister for the Civil Service to regulate in detail the personnel arrangements (pay, grading, recruitment ages and qualifications, holidays, hours of work, appraisal systems and so on) for half a million civil servants. This Bill will enable the central departments to delegate that responsibility to others who are, in relation to their individual businesses, better placed to take such decisions.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Bill is somewhat complex, and it may be of assistance if I said a little more about it. Clause 1 of the Bill deals with the vast majority of civil servants working in departments and agencies. At the moment the Treasury and the Minister for the Civil Service are required to regulate their terms and conditions, as defined in the Civil Service Order in Council. They cannot delegate their power of regulation in any way. They can only offer discretions to act within central rules, however unnecessary those central rules may be. The primary purpose of this Bill is to resolve that dilemma and to enable the central departments to delegate where it would be right to do so.

The various subsections of the first clause are designed to enable the central departments to set whatever conditions on a delegation they see fit to impose. They will be able to delegate to Ministers and to other Crown servants; they will be able to require the recipient of delegations to exercise them personally or allow him to delegate them further; and they will be able to set conditions, vary them, and increase or withdraw the delegation. They will of course remain the lawful holders of the powers that they delegate, and will remain answerable for the delegations they make. The legal mechanism by which all this can be achieved is described more fully in the notes.

As some of your Lordships will know—and I am delighted to see a number of distinguished former public servants here today—not all civil servants have their terms and conditions determined under the Order in Council. A smaller number work in organisations which, although within the civil service, were created by statute; for example, Customs and Excise, the Office of Fair Trading, the various regulators of the newly-privatised utilities, and other smaller organisations. Typically the statutes creating those bodies require the Treasury to give its consent to the determination of the terms and conditions of the civil servants who work in those organisations.

I think your Lordships will agree that it would be illogical to enable the Treasury, if it so wishes, to grant a delegation to the Department of Trade and Industry that it could never grant to the Office of Fair Trading.

Clause 2 of the Bill tackles that. It permits any Minister possessing this power of consent to waive it. Once again, I should say that this power is purely an enabling one. In the same way, the subsections of Clause 2 of the Bill echo those in the first clause. They allow the waiver of consent to be qualified by conditions, or extended, or withdrawn as the holder sees fit.

I should perhaps draw your Lordships' attention to subsection (4) of this clause, which is not present in Clause 1. It covers those statutes under which an organisation requires the approval of its Secretary of State to set terms and conditions with the concurrence of the Treasury. Subsection (4) therefore ensures any delegations made are subject to the concurrence of both relevant Ministers.

Clause 3 of the Bill deals with Northern Ireland. Here, too, the Citizen's Charter and Next Steps initiatives are progressing well. I would like to pay tribute to the way in which that is being done in difficult circumstances by the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

In Northern Ireland, the Civil Service (Northern Ireland) Order places responsibility for regulating the management of that service on the Department of Finance and Personnel. Clause 3 of the Bill therefore provides for the introduction of separate Northern Ireland legislation for purposes which parallel the effect of Clauses 1 and 2 on the mainland. This would be done by way of Order in Council subject to negative resolution by either House.

I think it important to reiterate that this Bill does not compel the Treasury and the Minister for the Civil Service to do anything. It enables them to take a hard and careful look at the management of the Civil Service; to identify areas where departments and agencies are best placed to run their own affairs; and to give them the responsibility to do so. Sometimes the delegation may be best exercised only in selected organisations where, for example, financial systems and controls are sufficiently robust to assure the proper exercise of those responsibilities. The Bill provides for selective delegation. Sometimes parameters will need to be set within which the delegation may be exercised. The Bill provides for that too.

Your Lordships may wonder how the central departments here and in Northern Ireland intend to employ the powers in the Bill. One aim is to withdraw central sanction for a number of smaller matters which are best dealt with by departments and agencies themselves. That might involve them setting their own probation arrangements for new staff; or creating their own disciplinary structures; or establishing new grading arrangements which better suit their businesses. Within the general system of public expenditure control, departments and agencies may be given delegations to devise performance pay arrangements for their staff or to agree local pay arrangements. Much, indeed, has already been done within the limits of the present legal position. But the Government are committed to extending this process where to do so will achieve better value for money and better service to the public without compromising essential public expenditure controls.

There are other areas where the maintenance of common standards across the Civil Service is important. Since the 19th century, our civil servants have enjoyed a deservedly high reputation for being politically impartial, fair in their dealings with the public and incorruptible. There is no political jobbery, and the Civil Service Commissioners ensure that appointments are won on merit. If any reassurance were needed, I can say to your Lordships now that those core standards will remain at the heart of the employment of all civil servants through the maintenance of essential central rules. The Bill will lead to an orderly and appropriate progress of delegation, not a free-for-all.

Outside those core principles local differences will emerge. There is no sense in uniformity for its own sake. Of course, changes to local terms and conditions will be discussed with staff and local trade unions and negotiated and agreed as appropriate. But it is not sensible to run a huge organisation such as the Civil Service as if it were a single entity. The variety of tasks, locations and operational units in which civil servants work is simply too great. There are policy-makers, weathermen, lawyers, scientists, safety inspectors, publishers and so on. One size cannot possibly fit all.

This Government have always sought a continual process of improvement in the public sector. Much of its success has been due to the enthusiasm and commitment of civil servants themselves. They are ready to provide an even better service to the public if they are given the opportunities to do so. This Bill is a modest step in enabling the process of reform to continue. It is on that basis that I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Earl Howe.)

3.19 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl for his speech introducing the Bill. He has quite properly gone into some detail and that is very helpful.

On the face of it, it appears to be a fairly innocuous Bill. It is brief, with three clauses and no schedules. Anyone flipping through it might even think that it ought to go through on the nod. However, it is an enabling Bill and behind the three short but complex clauses there lie profound implications which go to the roots of our government in this country and specifically to the future of our Civil Service.

The Bill and its consequences, if it becomes law, must be scrutinised with the utmost care in the interests of the British public. We, on this side, are not averse to the periodic reform of the Civil Service where it is needed or called for; or, for that matter, to the reform of this House and, if it came to that, of the other place as well. But if reforms of this importance are to be carried out let it be done openly and after full inquiry and consultation. The main purpose of the Bill is to confer upon the central departments the right to delegate their powers under the Order in Council to any Crown servant, subject to whatever conditions they wish to impose. Let us be clear about one matter. It is a privatisation measure and, in constitutional terms, the most significant so far introduced by this or any previous government since 1979. Large sections of the British Civil Service can be privatised under the Bill and our duty in this and later debates is to study the full implications of the measure.

Under its provisions it will be possible to privatise all Civil Service functions, and the relevant Minister will be enabled to authorise any person who requires Ministerial approval to exercise a statutory power relating to what are now Civil Service functions. We must also realise that when gas, water and electricity were privatised we had full debates on the detail of those industries. In this case, we shall have only the three clause Bill to debate. It is, in my view, totally unsatisfactory.

Let me put it this way. As matters stand, Members of both Houses are able to control executive functions as and when Ministers report in Parliament. Under the Bill the Minister will not have to refer to Parliament for any extension of any function so delegated, nor will he have to justify the transfer or contracting out of any individual part of the Civil Service. By this device, Parliament is being deprived of an important right which it has enjoyed since the modern Civil Service came into existence.

I do not propose to analyse the three clauses at this stage, although they contain some serious flaws. My noble friend Lady Turner, who is winding up for us, will wish to do that later and in Committee with other noble Lords, notably my noble friend Lord Houghton, whose interest and experience in this field is well known. There are however, some general matters which I wish to discuss briefly.

First, given the crucial importance of the Bill, I regret that there has been inadequate consultation with the Civil Service through its trade unions. I understand that the Civil Service general secretaries met Mr. William Waldegrave on 3rd June but that he gave no indication that the Bill was to be given a Second Reading here today. From my own Ministerial experience I should have thought he would have taken the opportunity to discuss the Bill with the officials on 3rd June. Changes of this magnitude should be discussed beforehand with the representatives of those who are concerned.

However, Mr. Waldegrave chose to reveal his plans to a meeting of business leaders on 1st June, when he told them that senior civil servants would face competition for their jobs from leading industrialists and that thousands of Whitehall posts could be contracted out to private companies. Is that how the Citizen's Charter is to be developed—with one sided consultation? Let me say to the Minister that that is not the road to a fairer society. It smacks more of a Ministerial Charter than a Citizen's Charter. Furthermore, Civil Service posts are highly skilled areas of expertise on the functioning of government. They are not posts which can be easily taken over by outside recruits no matter how clever they may be. Nor must we overlook the fact that the Civil Service and the private sector operate under different rules.

What is the great strength of the Civil Service? Surely, as the noble Earl conceded, it is its impartiality and its neutral approach to the administration of public services. That impartiality and neutrality are embodied in the Civil Service Pay and Conditions of Service Code. Those principles are not, with respect, enshrined in the rule books of private companies. It can be said, and it is well known, that the private sector has a duty to be partial to its shareholders. There really is no evidence that the private sector will be able to exercise the same impartiality as the Civil Service. Again, there are other key issues such as confidentiality and conflicts of interest which have not been satisfactorily discussed or explained. My noble friend will wish to return to those topics in Committee.

One argument advanced by supporters of privatisation is that value for money is always gained by going to the private sector. My personal experience is that the general public take a jaundiced view of that argument when applied to water and gas and so forth. What about the Civil Service? At some levels, such as cleaning contractors, security companies or typing agencies, the same conditions of service as regards leave, holidays and pensions, or indeed wages, will not be offered as are given to junior civil servants. I ask the Minister whether or not that is in fact the case.

But what about the senior civil servants? The fact is that the Top Salary Review Body shows that they are comparatively modestly paid. I give one example. A senior Civil Service lawyer is currently paid £60,000 a year whereas a senior barrister, a Silk, receives between £140,000 to £160,000 a year. The conclusion must be that the Government will have to pay significantly more for their professional and administrative service at senior levels. The House may as well face up to that fact now as later, when the public purse has started paying out.

To conclude, I have some questions to put to the Minister and I hope that he will be kind enough to answer them. Can he say whether the Civil Service trade unions have been adequately consulted on this legislation? I referred to that earlier, but I would appreciate a full reply from the noble Earl. Further, can he tell the House how many individuals or organisations from the private sector since 18th November 1991 have advised government departments that there are areas of any department that should be market tested or contracted out to management consultants, and what areas of work have been so identified? We cannot properly discuss the Bill without that information, and I relate it to the Government White Paper, Competing for Quality.

I mentioned the value for money argument. Can the Minister ask his right honourable friend Mr. Waldegrave to refer that to the Comptroller and Auditor General to test it on any proposed contracting out? Public money and public service is involved in a big way in the Bill and some authoritative study is urgently required.

Is the Minister able to say in broad terms how much Civil Service work it is estimated will be contracted out? A figure of 25 per cent. was mentioned—does he agree with it? Finally, we heard a great deal from the Government about the need for openness, and I agree that maximum openness is desirable. Can the Minister tell us a little more about the extent and nature of any proposed "openness" in the Civil Service on the contracting out procedure? It is no use Mr. Waldegrave talking about more "openness" unless he gives us a great deal more information about the contracting-out proposals which were delivered on 31st March. If we are to debate the Bill effectively, then the Government must be frank and open with Parliament at every stage of its consideration.

In this very important debate we are dealing with an area of our constitution of which we are rightly proud. The British Civil Service has a reputation throughout the world for efficiency and incorruptibility. The private sector in this country has much to commend it, but I regret to say that I cannot put it on the same level as the British Civil Service. This Bill goes too far. I warn the Government that they proceed with these changes at their peril. I therefore ask them to think again before they drag this admirable organisation into the uncertain web of the private sector.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the idea of decentralisation coming from this Government. They have not been famous for decentralisation, particularly as regards the public sector of the local authorities. We have seen them as a centralising rather than a decentralising Government. Therefore, conversion to the idea of decentralisation is welcome. We do not take the line that all change in the Civil Service is necessarily bad. On the whole we approve the development of Next Steps and the setting up in many areas of the agencies. That was quite obviously a more efficient and acceptable way of doing certain jobs.

Although the noble Earl did not say this, we also agree that there are areas of inefficiency in the Civil Service which could well be cured. Many of us have suffered from long-unanswered letters. We have suffered because of the Civil Service losing important papers. In my particular case a concern with which I was closely connected suffered from the overpayment of £250,000 which, despite being queried, was not discovered by the department for nine months. That did not exactly suggest the highest possible levels of efficiency.

I make these points because we are not in principle opposed to changes in the Civil Service. There is no doubt that there is room for reforms. I recall that, when I was a member of the Megaw Committee on pay for non-industrial civil servants, it became extremely clear, as we received evidence and entered into discussions, that the whole idea of management was ill-understood and undervalued in the Civil Service. I say all this in what I believe is justifiable criticism. I do not go along with the unqualified paean of praise which we have just heard.

That said, that does not in the least mean that we find this Bill acceptable: on the contrary. The changes which are being proposed here are, as the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said, of a very far reaching and important kind. They raise issues which are of very great importance both for Civil Service employees and for the country as a whole. As the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said, some kinds of delegation would involve issues of very considerable confidentiality. The reality of conflict of interest must be there in many cases if delegation takes place.

These are all enormously important questions. Whether we get value for money or not is an open question. I have no doubt that in some areas we would get it and in others we would not. These are matters which need to be gone into in the very greatest detail and with real evidence as to what the safeguards are and what the outcome is likely to be. Decentralisation can properly be considered, but only with full consideration of what the potential privatisation proposed is likely to mean. That is important to the Civil Service staff and perhaps even more so to the public as a whole.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked about what consultation there had been with the Civil Service. Surely the Government must realise by now that if they are going to bring about a very substantial change it will not be acceptable unless the people directly involved can be convinced that it is a change which is good in itself and is one in which their own legitimate interests are properly safeguarded. That can only be done if there is adequate consultation: it cannot be done by calling people in after the Government's view about what they intend to do has been set in concrete. That is not consultation, although it is often said to be so. Consultation is calling people in when the Government's mind is still fluid and open to ideas and suggestions as to how the process of change should take place.

As I have said, decentralisation can be a very good thing. The Government should seek ideas from the Civil Service unions as to how it can be most effectively done. Surely people of the quality of the First Division Association of the Civil Service could bring forward a whole range of suggestions and proposals which might totally alter the way in which decentralisation was to be carried out, and knowing how it was to be done would most certainly alter the view of the people affected.

Obviously, even the most straightforward issues such as pay, conditions of service and redundancy considerations will immediately spring to the mind of any employee in an organisation which is subject to drastic change such as is suggested here. If these measures are to be acceptable to the people who have to carry them out, they must have an input into the scheme before it is launched on to the country as a whole.

However, important though they and their contributions to such a scheme are, the views of the civil servants are not the only ones to be considered. I sometimes wonder whether the Government listen to what is said in this House. Again and again from all sides of the House we have implored the Government not to legislate by regulation on matters of very great importance to the country as a whole. This is not a matter which has been raised solely from these Benches or by the Official Opposition. Noble Lords have pointed out ad nauseam that we find the Government's policy—because it is a policy—of government by regulation totally unacceptable. Yet here in this Bill, on a matter of very great importance—the Civil Service, which serves not only the Government but the people of this country—we are told that the measures are all to be implemented by regulation. Surely these are matters which should be fully threshed out in Parliament and be subject to primary legislation.

Some of us are not basically unsympathetic towards some of the Government's objectives, although we are opposed to crude privatisation just for the sake of the short-term saving of a little money. We are not unsympathetic to changes which will make for genuinely greater efficiency in the running of the public services of this country. However, that has to be done with the full understanding and consent of both Houses of Parliament. These matters should not be shuffled through in a three-clause Bill which looks innocuous on the face of it but which is in fact dynamite.

3.38 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, after those two powerful speeches which were critical of this Bill, I am sure that the House will understand that there is more to it than ever one could glean from even a careful study of the Bill before us. This Bill is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Even when one looks at the sheep one can probably find that it is an imposter. Mr. Waldegrave, who is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has inherited in the Duchy the whole history of public accountability, public finance and administration. It was the founder of English public administration. Throughout the ages Ministers who have become Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster have had the care of this precious inheritance.

Moreover, when I look back over my lifetime with, in and for the Civil Service, I realise that the whole trend from the Administration has been towards uniformity. From the very beginning, the miscellaneous assortment of public servants in different departments, doing different jobs and whose pay in many cases was not fixed centrally, called for some better and more orderly arrangements to govern their service, pay and the conditions under which they were to do their work. Every big reorganisation of the Civil Service has tended towards a greater concentration on grading, recruitment, scales of pay and opportunities, all of which have been related to the standard of qualification on entry of our public servants.

The British Civil Service has been organised to correspond with the educational system. That has been fundamental from the beginning. If one looks at the clerical class, the executive class, the professional class and the administrative class, one finds that all those classes correspond to certain educational standards, with a right of entry direct from the universities, from the grammar schools as were, or from higher education. The entry examinations and the standards that were set for entry have all related to the educational system. That is why the structure of the British Civil Service has gone the way that it has.

The biggest reorganisation of the Civil Service that I remember was the establishment of the Civil Service National Whitley Council in 1920. That stabilised and concentrated the huge assortment of grades and classes in the Civil Service into three or four main classes. It was only with the greatest difficulty that one could achieve any departure from the uniformity of pay and grading. Although we probably need a great deal more flexibility than there has been, we must have some regard to the way in which the system has been built up mostly—indeed, almost exclusively—under Conservative Governments. Although that has been their policy in the past, they now want to reverse it, but the reversal raises matters of very great importance.

If I may say so with great respect to all concerned, I think that it is a scandal that a Bill of this import should be discussed in your Lordships' House under these conditions. We received the Bill only a few days ago and we have not been able to have any of the sensible discussions that are necessary if one is making a change of this kind. We need a succession of examinations of what is involved because this is an open-ended enabling Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, pointed out a few moments ago and as my noble friend Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos also said, no oversight of the exercise of these Orders in Council rests with Parliament.

I draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that everything connected with this Bill has been squeezed into the first days of June and it is only 15th June today. Earlier this month there was an intimation from the Cabinet Office to the Civil Service unions that this Bill was about to be introduced. It was foreshadowed in the Citizen's Charter, and all the rest of it, last year. However, at that time it was not given the significance which I think that the Civil Service is entitled to place upon it.

What happened as soon as Mr. Waldegrave sat down? There were headlines such as, "Private firms may bid for Whitehall jobs"; "To prune the state"; "Civil servants lose their jobs for life"; "Yes, Minister —A good idea"; "Civil Service tasks will go out to tender"; "High-flyers sought for top Civil Service jobs"; "Minister challenges private sector". We could go on, because this is dramatic news. The Civil Service is about to come under the chop and private enterprise move in.

One can imagine the unsettlement that such headlines have created in the vast area of public service. Civil servants do not know what is in the Bill and they do not understand how the changes are to be implemented. They do not know what unsettlement they are entitled to feel about their future employment. It really is a shame that it is being dealt with in this way. If the Government had any sense and any feeling about what they are doing they would not pursue the Bill now. They would leave it until an opportunity for wider consultation occurred.

We have a Royal Institute of Public Administration and the Civil Service National Whitley Council, but I warrant that neither has been convened to deal with these proposed changes. The Royal Institute of Public Administration was created to study the philosophy and the practices of the best public administration in the world.

I emphasise what my noble friend said about the integrity of the public service. We do not know what it is like to live in a country where corruption, bribery and fraud are part and parcel of the administration of bureaucracy. I do not want to be unfair to anybody, but where is the fraud now? Show me any time in the past 30 years when there has been any fraud in the Inland Revenue, in the Customs and Excise or anywhere else which handles the total income of the nation.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships also of the fact that year after year Parliament has imposed additional workloads on departments such as the Inland Revenue, the Customs and Excise or the Department of Social Security because of changes in the law that the Government have wanted for political or social purposes. Pressure is imposed on the staff so that the work can be completed to a timetable. That is done. One can get anything out of the Inland Revenue, and we always have. The loyalty of the people in the Inland Revenue in their small, scattered offices throughout the country and their determination to get their job done and to do it well is absolutely amazing. I doubt whether anywhere in the private sector could be found the same loyalty, enthusiasm and endurance that has been required from the Inland Revenue year by year.

A good deal could probably be done in the Civil Service to rationalise the relationship between one department and another. There is a great deal of overlapping which could be looked at. Let us look at it from the public's point of view. At present an auditor from the Inland Revenue can enter a company to look at its pay-as-you-earn records; another control officer can be sent from the VAT department of the Customs and Excise to see whether the company is calculating its VAT properly, and visits are also made by the local authorities. The bureaucracy of visitation needs to be looked at.

In addition, rights of entry need to be reviewed carefully from time to time. It appalls me to think that under this Bill a Minister may delegate the statutory right to enter. Although the Minister would be held responsible for what the delegated officer did, the delegated officer would be given the right to knock on the door and to say, "I am entitled to come in and if you do not let me in I must seek the necessary authority to make an enforced entry".

I read the list that was published recently in the Guardian giving the likely duties and functions of the different departments that might be delegated. Under the heading of "Inland Revenue", I saw something as brief as "computer services". As the whole department is computerised up to the eyebrows, I was wondering which "computer services" would be privatised.

Under the heading of "Customs and Excise", I saw enforcement and debt collection, which is very sensitive ground. In the Customs and Excise there is a harsh regime of non-discretionary penalties. They are automatically imposed under the Finance Act of a few years ago. The only appeal against them is that the taxpayer who is the trader had reasonable excuse for failure. "Reasonable excuse" is a matter that can be referred if need be, and in certain circumstances, to an independent tribunal. Is that kind of work to be delegated?

The Customs and Excise already uses bailiffs to enforce an order for payment but it does so under existing statutory provisions regarding the employment of bailiffs. Other officials in the Civil Service do not necessarily require a bailiff in order to enter. Will the Customs and Excise be able to delegate to people who are not so qualified its powers to enter premises without an order from the court? One can go on for a long time asking the questions but no answers are forthcoming. I am afraid that we shall have a long Committee stage ahead if we are to get the information from the Government about the possibilities of the Bill which I think it is necessary for us to have before we can pass it with a clear conscience.

I say with great respect to the Minister that as far as I am concerned he has no ministerial responsibility for the Bill. It is not the most helpful situation for us to be in when the Minister in charge of a Bill is not in any position of responsibility in connection with it. One therefore wonders why the Bill was introduced into your Lordships' House in the first place. It probably ought to have gone to the House of Commons, and had it done so I would have said most emphatically that it should go to a Select Committee. This Bill should go to the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service and be examined in detail.

What is the hurry about the Bill? There is no immediate work of privatisation to be undertaken. Have the Government made any survey of the possibilities? The whole of the noble Earl's speech concerned theoretical possibilities. There was not a practical example in it. One wonders whether the Government have carried out any survey of Civil Service work to identify clearly the areas that might be put out to contract. It is so bewildering and the terms of the Bill are so obscure that I believe the Bill is not in a fit state for us properly to consider it. Yet here we are with only five noble Lords speaking on a Bill of this importance.

This is an epoch-making Bill. It is part of a political approach to public administration which can reverse the policies of the past 70 years—the policies of the same governments for the past 70 years. This Bill carries us much further than we can really be asked to go; but I suppose that we have to carry on with the business this afternoon. How can we expect the noble Earl to say that he will take the Bill back and ask the Government to reconsider their position? We are in the grip of the system. If it comes to the point the Government can impose almost any nonsense on us. The system will win because we have no means, without a considerable amount of organisation and discussion among the different elements in the House, of stopping this routine acceptance of a Bill which will have such important repercussions.

I warmly endorse the brilliant analysis of my noble friend Lord Cledwyn and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Turner will expose also some of the worrying features of the Bill. The staff have been ill-considered throughout. All we hear are weasel terms in the prevailing jargon about value for money in Whitehall, a customer's charter and what the public are entitled to get.

I put this final point to the House. The whole of the Civil Service is engaged in the administration of the law. The Civil Service applies the law. It is not free to mess it about. Every citizen is entitled to equality of treatment. Everyone, from John O'Groats to Land's End, is entitled to the same fair adjudication of his case. There are no corners to be cut and there are no discretions to be exercised which may lead to abuse. The Civil Service itself operates within the strict conditions of the law. People are entitled to their rights under the law, even in the case of a hole-in-the-heart child in the National Health Service. It is the law. It is tested as a matter of law. That is an entirely different situation from services rendered by private enterprise, mostly with the profit motive in mind and subject to the test of the market. This wicked idea of putting everything into the market is madness. It has to be used with the greatest understanding of the intricate subtleties of our social structure and the history of our public administration. I hope that the Government will take notice of the strong protests, even from so few of us, about the Bill.

If we are asked to go through the Bill at Committee stage, we shall go through it, and I hope will do so meticulously and carefully in order to get to the bottom of it. At the Committee stage let us have practical examples of what the Government think could properly be delegated and put elsewhere. At the moment a Minister of the Crown can delegate his powers. He can go to another Minister and he can delegate them to someone else. One feels that, in the end, Ministers can delegate their powers out of the door. That is not the way to treat our public service. It is not the way to get value for money. It is not the way to get the fulfilment of the expectations of the people on services that they require from the State.

3.58 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, it had not been my intention to intervene in the debate and I must apologise to the House for not giving advance notice. I had read carefully through the text of the Bill and I had hoped that the Government were going to go into its purposes and its functions in far greater detail. I had at least hoped and indeed anticipated that we should be given a satisfactory reason why this should be done, and that we should be given specific examples of the kind of functions that the Government had in mind in order that we could arrive at some conclusions.

Not for the first time, this House, even though it is not an elected Chamber, is regarded by the public at large as one of the principal custodians of the nation's liberties. We should be failing in our duty if we failed to offer the Government a challenge on the Bill, particularly in view of the detailed criticisms made of it by my noble friend Lord Cledwyn, by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and by my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

The Bill will not do in its present form. In view of the fact that there are no particular constraints on the Government's legislative time, I should have thought that matters of this kind could properly have been considered in a Select Committee; that is, either in this or another place or, possibly, in a joint committee of both Houses. I say that because the matters raised here are of supreme constitutional importance.

If there had been proceedings in a Select Committee, Ministers of the Crown could have been invited to give evidence as to exactly what motives lay behind the legislation and the exact purposes that they had in mind. They could also have given examples of where they were inconvenienced by having to pay over much personal attention to such matters. They could have been cross-examined by Members, and civil servants themselves could have been brought to the Select Committee to give evidence. That would have been a far better and far more sensible way to deal with the matter. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Cledwyn said, it is not as though private enterprise as such is basking in a surfeit of public confidence at present. As my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby said, there have been very few cases of corruption in the Civil Service. However, there has been an abundance of them in the private enterprise sector.

There is no particular reason why the public at large should consider passing some detailed functions previously exercised by Ministers of the Crown, if necessary under their existing functions of delegation, to a sector which, at any rate over the past 20 years, has not proved itself to be conspicuously honest or free of many of the deficiencies to which public complaint is now directed.

I put it to the Government that although it is the tradition of this House that we always give government Bills a Second Reading—the practice is not universally applied; but it is the convention—if they expect this House to be willing to lie down like a spaniel, to be stroked on the stomach and pass everything that is put before it on the mere say-so, they are mistaken and in for a very considerable surprise.

4.3 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, the Minister sounded very reasonable when introducing this small Bill. Today, however, is one of those occasions when I personally regret the traditions of the House which prevent our voting against Bills on Second Reading. Of course, I understand why that is so. We are a revising Chamber and therefore will have to do the best that we can with the Bill in Committee. It is a throughly bad and unnecessary Bill, based on populist misconceptions of what the Civil Service is all about. Once again, it seems that the Government have been listening to their friends who run the tabloid press.

The Bill is very short and may therefore not attract much notice. But the implications are very far reaching indeed. The legislation gives Ministers the power to hive off parts of the Civil Office to private contractors—not simply cleaning or typing services, though in my opinion they are better performed in-house, but parts of the specialist and professional services.

The Government seem to have the idea that privatisation means that the taxpayer pays less and gets a better service. I dispute both those assumptions. Local authorities and hospitals have had to contract out services, but the results are by no means all that satisfactory. In many cases—for example, where cleaning services have been contracted out—the service has been cheaper because of the very low rates of pay paid to the employees and the poor conditions generally. Not an argument, I should have thought, for privatisation.

I do not know why the Government feel that they have to dig up everything by the roots and change it, even when it is working well. As many noble Lords have said and as anyone who has had dealings with civil services abroad will tell you, the British Civil Service is among the best in the world. It is comparatively uncorrupt. That is more than can be said for some parts of industry and commerce in this country. We have only recently had the Maxwell, BCCI and Guinness scandals, to mention but a few. Moreover, particularly at senior level, in my experience it is very competent. One of the recent problems, and one even referred to by the Secretary of State, is that salaries paid by the private sector have been much higher than those that qualified civil servants are paid. Some have been attracted by offers made by the private sector. If that means anything at all, it would appear that hiving professional services off to the private sector will cost more rather than less.

I said that I regarded the Civil Service as generally very competent. Whenever I have had to deal with senior civil servants—for example, in my experience as a member of the Occupational Pensions Board, or in discussion with those who advise Ministers—I have been very impressed by the level of expertise. The surprising thing is that there have been so few complaints since the service was reduced in numbers during the period of Conservative Government by some 25 per cent. Moreover, as my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby pointed out, during that time the service has had to deal with a very high level of new and often extremely complex legislation.

However, apart from that, the Bill is enabling legislation of very wide scope indeed. The first three clauses enable any Minister of the Crown to privatise the function of a Crown servant. In that, the Bill is unlike any other privatisation legislation; for example, that dealing with water or electricity. In those cases, privatisation required separate legislation which had to be debated in both Houses. As I understand it, once the Bill is on the statute book, a Minister can simply go ahead and "delegate" any function, service or group of services without any reference back to Parliament via a Bill. They are extremely sweeping powers. Although the Minister will still be answerable to Parliament for the functioning of the service so privatised, the actual decision to hive off a service would be the Minister's own and one for which he would not be immediately accountable.

However, there are other important considerations. The Civil Service in this country is neutral and impartial. For that reason, Civil Service unions—while some may affiliate to the TUC—do not affiliate to the Labour Party or indeed to any political party. But let us suppose that a function formerly undertaken by the Civil Service is contracted out to a private company. Will there be any prohibitions on that company making donations (as many large and some smaller companies now do) to a political party? Will there be any prohibition on MPs being directors or shareholders of any company doing contracted-out work?

Further, what steps will be, taken to protect confidentiality of records held on individuals which are currently safeguarded by Civil Service rules of confidentiality? What steps will be taken to ensure that the public is getting value for money? Will there be a regulatory body? After all, the Government accept that there has to be some supervision or monitoring of the market—hence Oftel and other regulatory bodies and the self-regulation provided for by the Financial Services Act. How will standards be maintained?

We are talking here about professional expertise. Many of those Civil Service jobs are in specialist areas. It is not just a matter of attracting people with similar qualifications, as the Government seem to think. Public law and European law are areas where greater expertise is likely to be found within the Civil Service. The same is true of expertise in taxation where civil servants have sometimes been attracted by higher salaries and the "perks" paid by private enterprise, particularly in the City. It is civil servants who are exported to the private sector by the free market rather than the other way around. What about possible conflicts of interest? A company which advises on, say, tax affairs in the commercial sector, may be in some difficulty if it also has a government contract dealing with tax from the other side, so to speak. Will there be any restrictions imposed on firms seeking contracts in that area?

There also seems to be some idea—and this was mentioned by the Minister—that the Bill will break up present arrangements for pay bargaining. In fact, as I understand it, and so far as concerns senior civil servants, the pay review body makes recommendations; and they are just recommendations. They have rarely been fully implemented. The unions have been in negotiation anyway with the Treasury on local pay bargaining which is apparently what the Government want. But what is to happen to Civil Service provisions on equal opportunity, sex discrimination, ethnic monitoring and so on, which have rightly been regarded as models of good practice? Are these all to be abandoned in pursuit of the Government's ideological objectives?

I also understand, and this was referred to by my noble friends Lord Cledwyn and Lord Houghton, that the Council of Civil Service Unions was promised consultation in advance of the introduction of a Bill. That, I believe, has not taken place. The council was not told until the Bill had been prepared and was due to be presented in this House on 4th June. It is my understanding that the council has registered a protest at this failure to honour a promise made to it. I join with other noble Lords who have expressed concern about the failure to consult on this very wide-ranging and important matter.

I return to my original comment. This is a bad Bill. For what purpose has it been introduced? Do the Government expect to save money, and if so, how? I see that one of the tabloids known for its unquestioning support of the Government in all things has been saying that there will be savings of £5 billion. Is this what the Government themselves expect? If so, where will the money come from? There have already been very significant reductions in personnel, despite what must have been an increasing workload arising from the complexities of current legislation—legislation for which the Government themselves are responsible.

The Secretary of State has himself acknowledged the high level of expertise of senior civil servants and has said that for this reason they have sometimes been "poached" by the private sector. Privatisation is likely therefore to mean a lesser, rather than an improved, service and a more expensive one. As I said, we must do the best we can in this House when the Bill reaches Committee, although I join with my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington in pressing upon the Minister the suggestion that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee upstairs so that it can be properly and thoroughly examined.

4.12 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, this has been a useful debate. I am grateful to noble Lords for their views. I am sorry that the Bill has not been greeted with an unqualified welcome.

Baroness White

My Lords, the Minister surely did not expect that.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the points made by noble Lords will be studied carefully but I have to say that the reservations expressed this afternoon have fallen wide of the mark.

In addressing the various concerns and points raised by noble Lords, as I shall certainly try to do, I am aware that one of the themes of the debate has been decentralisation. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, welcomed this aspect of the Bill and I am grateful to her. Decentralisation has also been one of the key aims that the Government have pursued in the Civil Service and it lies behind the Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn and Lord Houghton, expressed anxieties about the effects of decentralisation. They are rightly concerned about putting power in the hands of people who might abuse that power; so do I. That is why the Bill is drafted in the way that it is; to allow the central departments to decide when, what and to whom to delegate powers and to attach strict conditions to such delegations. But the counterpart to the worry about decentralisation is trust, where trust is justified. That is central to management reform. If we are prepared to give senior managers the responsibility to achieve results—and we are—we must be prepared also to give them the responsibility to decide how best those results can be achieved. Accountability is a two-edged sword: one cannot make people truly accountable for the ends if one is then going to constrain their ability to back their own judgment as to the means. So trust, responsibly exercised, is an important aspect of what we are seeking to achieve. The Government believe this is essential if we are to tap fully the commitment of the Civil Service, at every level, to deliver better, cost-effective services to the public.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, questioned whether this was not a prelude to privatisation. It is important to recognise that under this Bill we cannot change the functions and the constitutional nature of any organisation. We can only change the way in which staff are managed. Unless and until decisions are taken to privatise departments and agencies they will remain public organisations carrying out business on behalf of Ministers. The Bill will enable them to manage their businesses more effectively, not change their nature. Although the terms and conditions of staff in departments and agencies may increasingly differ from some abstract Civil Service norm, they will still remain civil servants unless and until decisions are made otherwise, with the sanction of Parliament, as appropriate.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, raised a constitutional point. They asked whether the Bill somehow was an arrogation of power by the executive. No new powers will be taken from Parliament by the enactment of this Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to enable powers— which are already held by the Minister for the Civil Service and the Treasury, mostly by virtue of the Royal Prerogative—to be exercised by others. In respect of the Northern Ireland Civil Service the aim is to allow the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to take similar flexibility, subject to a negative resolution in that instance, in accordance with the procedure that has become standard for Northern Ireland matters.

The second point I should like to stress, and I say this particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is that the Bill constitutes no threat to the essential principles which govern the rightly valued standards of our Civil Service. I said in my opening speech that the essential standards of conduct in the Civil Service would continue to be maintained by central rules. For example, one of those principles is that of selection on merit rather than by influence or political affiliation or wealth. I am sure that your Lordships recognise the great importance of this and of the work of the Civil Service Commissioners who safeguard it.

For many years the Commissioners have not directly recruited the junior staff of the Civil Service. Since April of last year they have retained only the responsibility for recruiting staff at management level; that is, at Grade 7 and above. Departments and agencies now recruit over 95 per cent. of all civil servants. Instead, the Commissioners carry forward their work by monitoring the recruitment practices of departments and agencies. They ensure that recruitment is carried out according to rules laid down by the Minister for the Civil Service, on their advice.

The message of this example is that central standards can be maintained without centralised systems. This Bill will permit similar arrangements to be put in place, as appropriate, in other areas of the management of the Civil Service. As that happens the Government will continue to consult civil servants when changes to their terms and conditions of service are proposed. This consultation will take place as delegations increase, but more and more it will be done by departmental and agency managements meeting their local trade unions.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in particular, asked about the extent of current consultation. We have for some time been concluding more flexible agreements with the national unions on terms and conditions of service which enable and encourage local variation where local variation makes sense. That process will continue. For example we have proposed to the unions changes to the current pay agreements which will establish procedures for departments and agencies to develop their own arrangements. Those procedures involve consultation and negotiation between the agencies and departments and the unions concerned.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, the noble Lord's question, and certainly mine, was about consultation about this Bill—not about the consequences of the Bill, but about producing this Bill.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I was just about to come to that. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, also made the point that the Civil Service trade unions had not been properly consulted. The Council of Civil Service Unions was informed of the existence of the Bill as soon as it was finalised. A copy of the printed version was sent to the council as soon as it was available, and the Bill has been public knowledge since publication of the Citizen's Charter White Paper in July of last year.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, will the noble Earl tell the House the date that the council was informed?

Earl Howe

My Lords, when the text of the Bill was finalised. I am not aware of the precise date. Officials have also written to the unions offering discussions on the Bill and its implications.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a perfect example of what I said? Consultation is not consultation if it takes place after the decisions have been made.

Earl Howe

My Lords, with respect to the noble Baroness, the Bill has not yet gone through either House. There is all the time in the world to talk to the unions. Officials have written to the unions offering discussions on the Bill. Those offers are genuine and are on the table.

Lord Bonham-Carter

When the Minister talks about the Bill having been finalised he gives away his whole case, my Lords.

Baroness White

My Lords, what consultation was there with the first division, with the mandarins?

Earl Howe

My words may have been ill-chosen when I said "finalised", my Lords. I meant printed.

Baroness Turner of Camden

It is the same thing.

Lord Shepherd

After the first reading?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as noble Lords will know, we have yet to reach the Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading.

Lord Shepherd

That has nothing to do with it, my Lords.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked why my right honourable friend Mr. Waldegrave did not tell the unions about the Bill at their meeting of 3rd June. That meeting was not about subjects pertaining to the Bill. It was about market testing. Not surprisingly, the subject of the Bill did not arise in the conversation.

Lord Cledwyn

Oh, really, my Lords.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Houghton and Lord Bruce, called for examples of the type of activity that might be delegated under the Bill. There are some areas in which discretion has already been approved. I cite as an example HMSO's responsibility for the pay of its staff. There are many others which we should like to delegate; for example, the power to determine pay and grading structures; the power to devise customised performance pay arrangements for specific groups of staff; probation arrangements, as I said earlier; the power to determine age limits on recruitment, if appropriate; the power to determine starting pay of specific groups of new staff; local pay arrangements; disciplinary arrangements; an early retirement and redundancy scheme; and the power to set their own criteria for the dismissal of inefficient staff. I hope that that gives a useful flavour of what we are—

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Do those powers include the power to sub-contract?

Earl Howe

My Lords, no, that is not within the scope of the Bill. The Bill is about the management of the Civil Service.

Your Lordships will know that the Government are already committed to promoting local pay bargaining in suitable areas of the Civil Service. The reason for that is simple. The Civil Service comprises an enormous variety of operations in an enormous variety of locations. Each department and agency has its own particular needs. Tailoring pay systems to suit those needs can lead to improvements in quality of service and value for money to the taxpayer. That is not all. They can lead also to pay systems which recognise more explicitly the results achieved by individuals and teams, which I believe individual civil servants will welcome. That was demonstrated recently by members of the CPSA in their acceptance of the Government proposals for performance-related pay.

As I said, the Bill permits a wide range of delegations to take place. It may reassure those noble Lords who have raised the matter if I give some examples of the way in which accountability will operate. Nothing in the Bill, or in the delegations which may flow from it, will weaken the accountability of Ministers to Parliament. When the Treasury or the Minister for the Civil Service delegate a function to another Minister in charge of a department they may require him to exercise it personally, or not, as they wish. In both cases, the Minister will be accountable to Parliament for the use he or his officials make of the delegation. Ministers in the central departments will remain accountable for the delegations that they make. Your Lordships will of course remember that the regulation of the greater part of the Civil Service is carried out, as I have said, under the Royal Prerogative rather than under powers granted by Parliament. That is an important constitutional point. But, of course, the right of Parliament to question the Government over their management of the Civil Service is safeguarded by the Bill.

The central departments may also delegate a function to a civil servant such as the chief executive of a Next Steps agency. In those cases, the civil servant concerned will be answerable to the central department. It is the Government's firm view that the Bill represents a redistribution, not a dilution, of accountability, and one which will result in clearer accountability for results in the future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn and Lord Houghton, questioned the merits of competitive tendering. Exposing civil service operations to competition will allow the Government to test just how cost-effective those operations are. It is important that operating units have the flexibility in terms of the volume and cost of manpower, as in any other area, to make themselves as competitive on value-for-money grounds as they can. If they are competitive and remain so, those services will remain in-house. If not—all other things being equal—the services will be brought in from the private sector.

The noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn, Lord Houghton and Lord Bruce, drew attention to the impartiality or otherwise of the private sector in contracted-out services. It is a legitimate anxiety. It is also a matter for market testing. If impartiality in a service is important—by that I mean commonly a service delivered to the public—the private sector would have to satisfy the Government that it could be impartial, otherwise it would not secure the contract. It is as simple as that. It must be examined case by case.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, questioned whether this was an attack on the Civil Service. I can assure him that it is not. As I said earlier, the Government have a high regard for civil servants, who do excellent work sometimes in difficult circumstances. The White Paper Competing for Quality is about encouraging and empowering managers responsible for public money and for delivering public services, to shop around so as to give the taxpayer and the customer the best deal.

The noble Lord also asked whether there were targets for cutting jobs. No targets have been set for the number of jobs which might be contracted out. The figures which have appeared in the press are purely speculative. He also asked what safeguards there would be on the confidentiality and impartiality of the Civil Service and the conflict of interest which might arise. On confidentiality or any similar consideration, any decision to contract out would be on the basis that the standards of service and confidentiality would be laid down as part of the contract. To do things in a businesslike manner and to seek value for money for the consumer and the taxpayer is not inconsistent with doing things to proper and high standards of public service ethics and probity.

The noble Lord also asked about openness and contracting out. The White Paper Competing for Quality has already identified areas for study. Departmental targets and progress will be published annually. Obviously questions of commercial confidentiality will arise with individual proposals.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, at the foot of the front page the Bill says: The Bill has no significant implications for public service manpower". Will the Minister explain why there will be no significant change in Civil Service manpower when, at the very heart of the Bill, is the more economical use of or dispersal of work from the Civil Service? What about the headline in the newspapers, "130,000 jobs to go"? I found that extremely difficult to understand.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I have just tried to explain that it is precisely to make the Civil Service more competitive that the Bill is being introduced, and also to improve the cost effectiveness of the terms and conditions of civil servants in such a way that they will be better motivated to carry out their work.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. Will he comment on the statement made in the press, to which I referred in my remarks, that the savings could be as much as £5 billion? What do the Government have in mind in terms of savings and where will they come from?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I should like to be helpful to the noble Baroness but I have not seen that figure and I have no information about it. If figures are floating about I shall make it my business to find out what they are.

The noble Lord asks me for my own figures. I have none. It is precisely to test the water that the contracting-out initiative is being introduced. However, I stress that the Bill is concerned with the management of the Civil Service. It has no direct connection with contracting out. The issue of contracting out was raised by noble Lords this afternoon and I have tried to be as helpful as possible in answering questions. However, the management of the Civil Service is a separate issue.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I should like to ask a simple question. The noble Earl referred to contracting out: I understood my noble friend to raise the question of subcontracting and I understood the Minister to say that under no circumstances would there be any subcontracting by the person to whom delegated-powers are given. Is that correct?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I sought to say to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that the Bill in itself has no direct relevance to the question of subcontracting or contracting out. That is obviously an issue which arises out of our discussions this afternoon. We are talking about the management of the Civil Service, which is a distinct and discrete matter.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I asked that question specifically. This is the Second Reading and we are supposed to be discussing principles. Is the Minister telling us that the persons to whom the Bill would give delegated powers Will have no powers to contract out or subcontract work? We should be given the answer before the end of the Second Reading. Is it true or not? Is the Minister telling us that the person to whom delegated powers are being given will not have the power to subcontract?

Earl Howe

My Lords, in some cases they will be given the power of sub-delegation and in some cases they will not. It depends on each case as it arises.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, questioned whether accountability would really remain. The lines of accountability will be as strong as in any other organisation. Where delegations are made to Ministers—and typically that will be the case—those Ministers will be accountable to Parliament. Where delegations are made to accounting officers they will remain accountable to the Public Accounts Committee for value for money. Where delegations are made to managers generally they will be accountable for their performance through the line management chain. I hope that that is a reassurance because it is meant to be. It is a considerable safeguard, as we consider the Bill.

I think that it is time that I finished.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again, but it must be obvious to the noble Earl that there is deep dissatisfaction in the House about the Bill. It is the convention of the House not to vote against a Second Reading. If my assumption is correct, I believe that if that convention were not observed the Bill would be rejected. Is it too much to ask the noble Earl to take it back and look at it again?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I said at the beginning, the comments made by all noble Lords will be studied carefully. I give that undertaking.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, the Bill may well be carefully studied but we have only a short period between Second Reading and Committee. Those of us who have been in this House for quite a few years know that Bills of this character, especially those which are highly technical, are not necessarily best conducted in an ordinary Committee stage on the Floor of this House, particularly at short notice.

The noble Earl will be aware that next week the Procedure Committee will be considering the proposals of the Jellicoe Committee. The Jellicoe Report contained the strong recommendation, which was supported from every quarter of the House—and even the noble Lord the Leader of the House took an understanding view of the proposals—that there should be a special Select Committee similar to that in the House of Commons under Standing Order 91 to consider certain Bills. It is true that those would be non-party political Bills and I suspect that this Bill does not fall precisely within that area; it is concerned with the constitution of the Civil Service and its relationship with Government and Parliament.

Will the noble Lord the Leader of the House undertake to have discussions with other noble Lords within this House as to the best way in which this important Bill, which raises important matters and which may be totally irrevocable once its provisions have been put into place, should be handled? That could be by a Select Committee or by some arrangement whereby Members of the House may have greater knowledge of the purpose, limits and ramifications of the Bill.

I have listened to the noble Earl's speech and I have become more and more concerned. I believe that this is an issue on which we should look to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for such an undertaking, particularly at this time when there is no great pressure on us from a legislative point of view. If the noble Lord were to do so that would give some reassurance to the House.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, before the noble Lord rises perhaps I may follow my noble friend who, with his great experience, in my view has made a very powerful point. In support of what my noble friend said I should like to refer to one sentence used by the noble Earl, Lord Howe. He said that the Bill is being introduced to test the water. If that is indeed the case it means that the Government are not totally committed to the Bill as it stands. Therefore, I believe that there is an extremely strong case in favour of a reference to a Select Committee. I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will consider that possibility carefully.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I have listened to the exchanges over the past few minutes. I thought that my noble friend had done a very good job in answering the questions. However, I understand that some noble Lords were not entirely satisfied with the answers.

It is, of course, right and proper that we should find the best way of proceeding from this moment. I believe that the convention by which the House gives an unopposed Second Reading to a Bill is a good one and it is one which I should very much like to see maintained. However, I certainly give the undertaking requested by the noble Lord to have discussions, through the usual channels, in order to find the best way in which the points raised can be properly cleared up before the Bill leaves this House.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord.

Earl Howe

My Lords, it remains for me to conclude my remarks by thanking all noble Lords for their comments. I believe that we have had a useful and constructive debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. I hope that when they read Hansard they will find that I have been able to provide some measure of reassurance about their anxieties.

In the light of what I have said I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.