HL Deb 18 March 1997 vol 579 cc757-9

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean asked Her Majesty's Government:

How much Civil Service time was spent and what costs were incurred in developing the policy and preparing the statement on the privatisation of London Underground which was presented to Parliament on 25th February.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, all the preparation work relating to the London Underground privatisation policy was carried out by civil servants already in place in the course of their normal duties. Departmental civil servants do not generally log their time spent on individual tasks.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his Answer, perhaps I may point out that the original Statement was made on 25th February, when there was not the slightest chance of implementing the proposals before the general election, and also that in another place on the same day his right honourable friend the Secretary of State said that he hoped that the decisions of electors in London would be influenced, by our plans for London Underground".—[Official Report, Commons. 25/2/97; col. 164.] Is the drawing up of the Conservative Party's manifesto not a most inappropriate use of politically neutral civil servants?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that is nonsense. The duty of civil servants is to advise Ministers and to help to implement their policies. It is entirely appropriate that departmental civil servants working on London Underground matters should advise the Government on their intentions to produce a privatisation policy. A small group of civil servants already working within the department did just that. There is no question of impropriety. Indeed, I was pressed on a number of occasions by Opposition Front Bench spokesmen to reveal our intentions towards London Underground. When I came to the House and made a Statement, I was then criticised for making it. Noble Lords cannot have it both ways.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, in view of the overwhelming success of every privatisation—a fact accepted by every country, including Russia and China, but not by the party opposite—would the Minister give an undertaking that, when the Government are returned after the election, they will proceed with the privatisation of London Underground?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords, it is our firm intention to continue with this policy and it is my firm expectation that it will be opposed by the party opposite, just as they have opposed every privatisation so far, although they generally change their mind when it is shown to work.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, does the Minister recall signing Questions of Procedure for Ministers? It is stated therein: Ministers must not use public resources for party political purposes"? Is this not a flagrant breach of that code of procedure?

Viscount Goschen

No, my Lords.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I believe it is appropriate on this occasion, since the Minister is soon to depart, and as this is the last transport Question of this Parliament, to say that throughout the time he has held his office he has been unfailingly courteous, and we appreciate that. There is nothing at all wrong with his courtesy; it is just his answers that are unacceptable. Does the Minister not recognise that there is a world of difference between making a statement several weeks in advance of the election and making one which is clearly stated to be part of the election manifesto and promise of his party? Does he not see that there is something slightly remiss in causing the Civil Service to help to develop the Tory Party manifesto?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, back in October my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that we wanted to examine whether the benefits of privatisation, which has been shown to work with the heavy railway industry, could be applied to the London Underground. Subsequently civil servants, quite properly, took part in working up this policy to the point where it was possible to come before your Lordships' House with a Statement. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that. The Government would never ask civil servants to do anything which was in any way political.

Lord Elton

My Lords, would my noble friend not suggest that the party opposite fears the results of this expenditure being very popular with the electorate? Is it not difficult to understand how it can object to this unless it thinks that the policy is right?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. It is also interesting that most of the recent questions with regard to London Underground have carefully steered away from the policy itself and concentrated on the issue of the three principal civil servants who helped with the drawing-up of the plans, matters concerning consultants, and so on. The fact is that every policy of privatisation with which we have come forward has been opposed tooth and nail by members of the party opposite but they have come round to it. I am sure that they do not want to make the same mistake again.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, how is it that the noble Viscount finds difficulty in answering that part of my noble friend's Question that relates to the costs incurred by the Civil Service in view of the fact that, whenever the Government have a question put to them which they do not wish to answer, or are afraid to answer, it is their practice to be able to cost quite accurately the amount of time spent on answering a Parliamentary Question? Why can the noble Viscount not provide even an approximate figure—the House will always accept a degree of approximation—in answer to the Question raised by my noble friend?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, when we consider Parliamentary Answers to Written Questions, we know that there are limits to the amount of money that can be spent on finding out the answers. The noble Lord will know that. Our policy is to examine the costs very closely. If we know that they will be above a certain amount, we would give the appropriate disproportionate cost answer. But that is a quite separate issue. Certainly, the work that has been taken forward on developing that policy was done by civil servants already in post, civil servants who are already considering London Underground matters—the privatisation, PFI, core funding or whatever. They do not log their time. So it is not possible for me, however much I should like to do so, to come forward with an answer to the noble Lord's question.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the duties of the Civil Service is to control public expenditure? If time is spent by civil servants on privatisation, whatever it may be, the cold fact of the matter is that whatever the cost has been to the Civil Service, the privatisation policy of this Government has resulted in a reverse of the £50 million per week spent by the taxpayer becoming now a receipt of £60 million a week to the Exchequer.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend's sentiment is quite right. That is why noble Lords opposite have stopped opposing some privatisations which they so bitterly opposed at the time. It is worth noting that £2.6 billion a year in taxes is now contributed by privatised companies which paid only £37 million a year when they were operating in the public sector.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I hope noble Lords will forgive me, but I note that we have a full quota of Questions today. I wonder whether the House might feel that the time has come to move on.

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