HL Deb 29 October 1992 vol 539 cc1297-304

7.18 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 third time.

When I moved the Second Reading of the Bill I described it as a modest technical measure to enable the delegation of management functions within the Civil Service. I recognised that there were many noble Lords opposite who saw it initially as something much more sinister. Our discussions at Second Reading and in Committee were correspondingly lively as we got to the bottom of some technically difficult points. Thanks to the time and trouble that your Lordships have spent on the Bill in this House, in correspondence and in meetings we have made very considerable progress since then.

I think that our debates and discussions have served to allay any misgivings that the Bill is capable of being used for some purpose other than that for which it was intended. I believe it is now generally accepted that the Bill is an appropriate vehicle for achieving an important part of the Government's programme to improve the management of the Civil Service. That was acknowledged by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, at Report stage. I am grateful to her and her colleagues, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who unfortunately cannot be with us this evening, for the constructive, lively and thorough scrutiny which they have given the Bill in this House and outside. I should also like to thank my noble friends Lord Prentice, Lord Boyd-Carpenter and Lord Harmar-Nicholls for their most useful contributions.

It was never the Government's intention that the Bill should be or be seen to be a politically charged measure. I am pleased that the Bill, having been given no less a thorough going-over than one would expect from your Lordships' House, has emerged much better understood, a better Bill and still suitable for the important purpose that the Government had always intended for it.

There is one outstanding matter to raise before I move the Third Reading of the Bill. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and I had an exchange on the subject of the arrangements for the parliamentary scrutiny of proposed privatisations. Subsequently, I wrote to the noble Lord and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, setting out the position in more detail. I have not yet had an opportunity, as I promised the noble Lord, to put that letter on the record, and I do not think I would be in order to dwell on this subject in the course of moving a Bill on a separate topic. Instead, I have arranged for a copy of my letter to be placed in the Library of the House. I trust that that will be acceptable to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn.

It only remains for me to thank all noble Lords who have contributed to our scrutiny of this measure. I beg to move.

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

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I cannot let the Bill leave this House without making some comment with particular reference to the way in which the Bill was brought before us in the first place. I am very grateful that we were able to secure an amendment which certainly makes things a lot clearer, particularly to those who will be affected by the Bill.

However, it will be recalled—the noble Earl has already referred to the point—that the Bill was introduced in the wake of publicity surrounding a widely reported speech by the Secretary of State which had been taken to mean by the media that the Government were about to embark on wholesale privatisation of the Civil Service. Reports indicated that a large number both of blue and white collar jobs in the Civil Service would be subject to competitive tender and contracted out. Headlines in some newspapers said: Civil servants to lose their jobs for life". It was scheduled as the biggest shake-up of the Civil Service in decades with civil servants having to compete with outsiders for their own jobs. It was hardly surprising that when this Bill appeared, with its opaque phraseology, alarm bells should have started to ring all over the Civil Service. The result was that the unions, which clearly had not been consulted at that time, began to lobby Members of your Lordships' House.

I have to say that it was an example of poor handling of an issue by the Government since in the atmosphere thus created we tended to listen somewhat sceptically to the noble Earl's protestations that it was all a misunderstanding and that this was a purely technical Bill the purpose of which was not wholesale privatisation. The noble Earl assured us that it could not be used as a vehicle for that, although he confirmed that that was still an ultimate objective of the Government. Thus we had a purely technical Bill designed simply to facilitate, as we understand it, a delegation of management functions within the Civil Service itself. We are very glad that as a result of pressure inside and outside the House there has now been consultation with the appropriate union. Moreover, on Report the noble Earl accepted the wording of an amendment that we had put down, which certainly, as I said earlier, makes the objectives of the Bill much more clear. Furthermore, I am grateful to the noble Earl for the quite specific guarantees that he has given on the Floor of the House during the debate on the Bill.

I myself remain opposed to the kind of so-called shake-up indicated in press reports which appears to be the Government's ultimate objective. I was somewhat disturbed to see that there is an advertisement in The Times today indicating that the Inland Revenue is putting out to tender its typing, secretarial and office support services. I understand that the jobs involved are in any case already filled by staff employed within the Civil Service. In my view this kind of privatisation is simply ideological. Ultimately, it is bad for the public and even worse for staff relations within the Civil Service.

We accept that the Bill itself is not a vehicle for privatisation but we still object to the manner in which apparently it is intended to hive-off Civil Service functions to the market. We do not believe that in that way the functions will be any better performed—on the contrary. I have a very high regard for the Civil Service in this country and I regret that that still remains the Government's ultimate objective.

Having said that, I accept that the Bill will leave this House as the technical Bill that we have been assured it is by the noble Earl.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I must say something to support my noble friend Lady Turner and to justify the commotion that occurred when the Bill first made its appearance. I am strongly of the opinion that more lies behind the Bill than within it.

We appreciate the skill, lucidity and agreeableness of the noble Earl who found himself on a mystifying and difficult wicket at the start. But the misunderstanding about the Bill, to which he referred, occurred to a large extent through the silly speech made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at the time the Bill was being printed and published. Naturally, it was his boastful and arrogant speech about what he was going to do with the civil servants that led us to believe that the Bill had intentions far beyond its contents. However, the obscurity of language and prejudice against what we suspected to be its motives led to a misunderstanding as to what the Bill proposed. As the noble Earl just said, those misconceptions were removed and our confidence in the good faith of the Government in regard to this Bill restored when my noble friends Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lady Turner went to see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to have the matter cleared up.

I much regret that the source of the misunderstanding and much else, including the advertisement in The Times today on behalf of the Inland Revenue to which my noble friend referred, was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I deplore that. At one time I was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It is a noble office which has obligations to the Crown and to time available for government and Cabinet business. I divided my time between the two. My salary was paid by contributions from both. But now the office of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been dragged into the marketplace. Instead of being the holder of a noble and historic office he has become the public service auctioneer. He is creating wide unrest and disturbance in the Civil Service at present.

The Bill itself deals with a matter which requires legislation, although of a minor character, namely to remove some of the red tape that stood in the way, on constitutional grounds, of transferring work from one Minister to another within the Government. That has now been made a shorter procedure.

So far so good. If that was all that there was to it and if that was all that was going to come out of the Bill we should not have any anxieties. However, what is happening now is precisely what we feared at the beginning. Although it is not covered by the Bill we see that that is beginning to happen quite apart from the Bill. We are entitled to inquire what is the statutory authority for what is now being done outside the scope of the Bill.

I do not expect that we shall receive a reply from the noble Earl on that point. We must have some sympathy with him. This is not his pitch. He has been brought in to represent the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in your Lordships' House on this Bill. I venture to suggest, with the greatest respect to the noble Earl, that he has had nothing to do with the preparation of the Bill. He has probably had nothing to do with what has been decided on the Bill itself. His area of expertise lies in drift-net salmon and sea trout fishing which he will be called upon to deal with in the debate next week. There we shall see him blossom forth, in full command of the subject he is asked to deal with. I am sure that what was put into his hands with this Bill must have been a puzzle to him and was probably not welcome.

I do not know what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will do in the further course of his destructive task. He holds an office covering the public sector and science, but he is not a departmental Minister. So far as I know he holds no other office. He does not have the usual parliamentary support and equipment enabling him to take his position in another place. However, that is their business and not ours. But this matter will be watched with critical attention.

I should add to what my noble friend said a moment ago about the advertisement in The Times today. That is now fixed in our minds as being directly associated with the Bill. It is not covered by the Bill or authorised by it. As I said a moment ago, I do not know how it has been authorised. All I know is that in the 75 years I have been connected with the Inland Revenue department, which I entered in 1915, nothing so humiliating has ever come out of Somerset House as the advertisement in The Times today.

The advertisement asks for tenders for work on which people are currently engaged. The advertisement relates particularly to Glasgow. It is intended that it should be followed by similar developments in relation to Bristol, Southampton, Central London and elsewhere. It is part of the dismemberment of the Inland Revenue. That department is not the only one which will be given this treatment.

I should stress that the posts described—well over 200, with management to match—are at this moment in full operation in Glasgow. The office is fully staffed. What does it amount to when an advertisement appears asking people to tender for the whole lot—staff and all? Tenders are to be delivered in January; the new scheme is supposed to start in April. What do the Government expect people to think about their future when they find themselves in such an uncertain position? Men and women who are already doing the job have been put up for auction. And, incidentally, they are handling confidential material, for which, so far as I am aware, no safeguards are being introduced in respect of the new employers who might emerge in that field. That is a serious prospect. If the approach is to be extended over the whole of the Civil Service it will be a serious and savage blow to the spirit and composite nature of public administration.

It is therefore in the gravest spirit that I feel that I must refer to the matter. Happily, in the Financial Times today a warning is published that those who tender for such work may find themselves blocked by an EC directive from worsening the conditions of pay and service which a transfer to the new employment might entail. We do not know where we are and they do not know where they are. It seems to me that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster hopes that he can get rid of a large slice of public administration.

The Property Services Agency's project division has just been sold lock, stock and barrel to Tarmac for £ 84 million. That is quite a large slice of the Civil Service to be handed over. However, there are all sorts of complications and difficulties about contracts of service. The proposed Inland Revenue contract is for three years. What then? The approach is untried. There has been nothing like it before. I need not dwell further on the turmoil which is now being created.

In conclusion, I shall just add that the change of attitude by the Government and their apparent weakness on the pit closures question has stirred the militant Left in the Civil Service unions to feel that,"If the miners can do it we may be able to do it". That is a new problem for Civil Service organisation and control which has to be dealt with. I know from my own experience and my close knowledge of what is happening at the moment that that is disturbing for everybody involved.

Why is this being done? I am told that the magic formula is "value for money"—VFM. There is to be detailed consideration of the economics of the coal industry and consideration may have to be given to the economics of public administration, in which an ethos, integrity and desire for service exist in our Civil Service which are unique.

I must part with this Bill with the gravest concern about what is to follow. The Bill is the stalking horse. Now that we understand it fully we realise that it does not give rise to any problems. However, we can understand the motive behind it; that is, that the Government wish to remove any obstacles which stand in the way of moving Civil Service work around and moving it out to private tender. That matter should receive the major consideration of Parliament. It is an affront to the Civil Service and it is too important to be dealt with in the smaller hours of our work in Parliament. Prominent consideration should be given to where the Government intend to go and the way in which they propose to safeguard the legitimate interests and affairs of the public.

I am sad to deal with the matter in such tones but I never thought that I should stand in your Lordships' House in order to deal with an advertisement in the Personal Contracts column of The Times announcing a slab of work in Glasgow to be transferred to private enterprise lock, stock and barrel. Invitations for tender are invited and must be considered quickly if they are to take effect from next April. When dealing with another such case I asked that copies of contracts should be placed in the Library of your Lordships' House so that we know exactly what is required and what is expected to be done.

I thank the noble Earl for his work on the Bill as deputy to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I only deplore the fact that he was given this mission to carry out in your Lordships' House.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for their closing remarks. I cannot blame the noble Baroness for rehearsing the difficulties that we experienced on Second Reading and in Committee. I accept, as I said in Committee, that the origins of those difficulties lie in an unintended coincidence of events and, with hindsight, in the Government not being in a position to take the unions into their confidence a little sooner.

I yield to no one in my respect for the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I can assure him that his suspicions about the Bill are entirely misplaced. I have said repeatedly, and I hope that the noble Baroness accepts my statement even though the noble Lord may still be in doubt, that the Bill has no connection with the Government's policy on privatisations. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord have spoken of the possible contracting out of the functions of the Inland Revenue. I am sure that those and other related matters will be the object of scrutiny in our debate on market testing, which will occur when an opportunity arises in due course. I look forward to a lively debate on that occasion. I stress that the subject has nothing to do with the Bill, as the noble Baroness has accepted.

Perhaps I may be allowed to summarise the purpose of the Bill. We cannot expect to deliver effective services to the public unless we are effectively organised to do so. We have good reason to be proud of our Civil Service. Better management which is better tuned to the needs of the Government's many different businesses will enable our civil servants to give of their best in serving the public. I believe that through the use of the power of delegation the Bill will do a great deal to help Civil Service managers to build on the improvements produced by the Next Steps initiative and to fulfil the aims of the Citizen's Charter within the Civil Service.

On Question, Bill read a third time.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Earl Howe.)

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.

House adjourned at fifteen minutes before eight o'clock.