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Column 759Crown Suppliers and discuss the ethical position with the director of the serious fraud office. I choose my words with extreme care. All this is extremely close--this is why I have been asking questions--to a variant of insider trading. If the Government are going to get involved in that kind of thing, they had better be extremely careful. As some individuals have found, insider trading is an extremely serious offence in this country. There really ought to be some explanation of how people can do a job for the Civil Service and then seemingly get into a position where it appears that they benefit. I am not in the habit of making personal attacks on individuals--still less, named individuals-- under the cloak of privilege, but there ought to be some clear explanation of what is happening.
Coopers and Lybrand was asked to determine the prospects for the successful privatisation of all or part of the Crown Suppliers. The company's report opened with an overview of the Crown Suppliers, its organisation, aims and activities, and divided the organisation into three main divisions--product supply and services, transport and fuel. The prospects for privatising the whole organisation were seen to depend on the sum of the prospects of the three individual divisions rather than on the characteristics of TCS as a single entity. Are the Government happy about the organisation's break-up as a single entity?
I refer to the product supply and services heading. The main business line of the division is the supply of hard furniture. Coopers thought that it would be feasible to privatise that activity, together with the related activities of floorings and furnishings supply and contract furnishing services. Coopers thought that this core business, which would supply both own design and trade pattern products, had the potential to compete successfully within an established furniture distribution industry. It could defend a high share of public sector demand and additionally develop a share of selected markets within the private sector. That was Coopers' view. Then we had the Second Reading debate. I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), which, although long, was not over-long as it contained matters of considerable substance. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington may not be the most popular Member of the House with Conservative Members, but when he makes long speeches he always deserves an answer. I do not share his views on every subject that he has raised, but over the past few years I have learned that he had better be answered. During a 50-minute speech on Second Reading, my hon. Friend asked delicate and awkward questions about furniture supply, but until now the answer has been the proverbial lemon. The question has not been answered. The whole purpose of Parliament is to get answers. For all I know, there may be answers to my hon. Friend's questions, but they have not been forthcoming. I am extremely sorry that my hon. Friend cannot serve on the Commitee as he is already serving on the Committee that is considering the National Health Service and Community Care Bill. I give notice to the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State that I will find ways in Committee to go over, point by point, my hon. Friend's questions on furniture. We will not get far until we receive satisfactory answers.
Column 760Coopers and Lybrand thought that a major change in operating style between the Crown Suppliers and a privatised core business would be needed to adapt to a commercial environment. The business represented a relatively high proportion of the division's current revenues that could operate within the private sector on a relatively small proportion of current resources and assets. From the Bill it appears to the Opposition--although we may be wrong--that that has not been agreed. It reveals the nature of trading funds and how the Government propose to operate in that sector.
On the basis of Coopers and Lybrand's own conditions, the Government's scheme is unsatisfactory. Not all of the Crown Suppliers' activities could be privatised. For example, the procedures undertaken by the Crown Suppliers reassured customers that procurement was carried out in a manner acceptable to the Government. That added value formed part of all procurement activity and could not be privatised. The Government would not wish to rely on a private sector for that service and compliance with EEC or GATT regulations might not be possible for a private sector company.
The Treasury deals with the EEC on those matters. Have its proposals for the Crown Suppliers gained agreement in Brussels? I am told that there are real international difficulties with our Community partners and that certain aspects of the proposals for the Crown Suppliers may not have the agreement of the EEC Commission. The Treasury certainly does not yet have the agreement of the American air force, which is deeply concerned about security.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) is an expert on security and he will be leading for the Opposition in Committee. I am entitled to follow up one of my written questions on the American air force, which I understand has not agreed to the new arrangements and is not persuaded about the security arrangements within the Government's privatisation proposals. The American air force should not determine Government policy, but there should be some serious answers detailing its objections. Will they be met, and how can they be met? What is the legal ruling in respect of the EEC and the American air force?
Even Coopers and Lybrand said that certain lines of business could not be feasibly privatised such as Defence Contracts Organisation contracts, equipment product categories, procurement of low value products, contracted services and security furniture workshops. DCO contracts are resource intensive and would not be commercially viable in the long term. Do the Government agree with Coopers and Lybrand or not? It also said that it felt that the arrangement of DCO contracts was a valuable service that should be retained within Government. Some of those activities are highly specialised and would not readily transfer to the private sector. The transfer of the supply of security furniture would not be acceptable to the Government. What arrangements are being made for Government transport in the four areas of operations--vehicle hire, the interdepartmental despatch service, the Government car service and vehicle workshops? All could be successfully privatised with the exception of parts of GCS and the Nine Elms workshop, which would be retained to provide high security maintenance. All feasible areas could transfer either by sale as a going concern or by closure and contracting out. In the case of the allocated fleet, where
Column 761continuity would be helpful, a transfer of vehicles and drivers to the relevant departments would be appropriate. In particular, the vehicle hire business would represent an attractive proposition in the private sector where it could free itself from the capital restraints of vehicle ownership and thus compete more effectively. Coopers and Lybrand said that it was not feasible or appropriate to transfer to the private sector the provision of high security chauffeur- driven vehicles, the peripheral activity of secure mail dispatch and secure journeys from the pool. The overriding consideration was security. Although the security could not be reasonably privatised, Coopers and Lybrand said it could be operated by another public sector body such as the police force.
In future, will the Minister for the Civil Service accept Coopers and Lybrand's advice and be driven in Government cars by the police? If not, why do the Government turn down the advice of their own expensive advisers? What is the Government's position on the question of sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander? Are Government Ministers to be treated differently?
Hansard will show that I have posed some careful questions. I hope that proper answers will be given in Committee. I have no record of filibustering on any Bill, taking time unnecessarily or speaking for too long, thereby keeping out my colleagues. I warn the Government that some of us will be exceedingly persistent until we obtain answers to our questions. As I have named Bob Etherington and referred to Patrick Brown, it might be better if, in his reply, the Minister referred to the position of those gentlemen.
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : I was going to make a few detailed points about the Bill, but as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) did not cover any of those points, I will be brief because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I hope that the hon. Member for Linlithgow does not mind if I do not follow his points because I could not see the relevance of many of them to this debate. We are talking about Next Steps agencies. Paragraph 2.6 of the White Paper states :
"Next Steps is primarily about those operations which are to remain within Government"--
that is, operations that will not be privatised. I believe that the hon. Member for Linlithgow was referring primarily to the Property Services Agency which will certainly be privatised if the Bill is passed.
Mr. Dalyell : The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) should look carefully at the Bill. It is for the Chair and not for him to allow me to make my points. I am sure that the hon. Member will concede that it is for the Chair to take that decision.
Mr. Mans : I was not in any way commenting on the relevance of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow. I said simply that I was not going to follow them because I believe that the main point of the Next Steps initiative is associated with the creation of trading funds and not with the points made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow.
I was very interested in the contributions of the hon. Members for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was right to maintain that if the
Column 762initiative resulted in a better service for consumers and the people using the services that are to become agencies, the initiative should be welcomed. I agree with that.
As far as I could follow them, I would not agree with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Wrexham. It seems to be Labour party policy at the moment not to disband any of the agencies that we are going to create or have already created. Rather, Labour will not create any more agencies from those that currently have candidate status. The Labour party appears to be worried about committing itself to anything at least for the next year or two. It was very interesting that the hon. Member for Wrexham said nothing positive about the Bill. He did not give us Labour's view of the Bill. He seemed to say that Labour would leave things as they are and that the creation of trading funds would not lead to a better service for consumers. That was about all that I could understand from the contribution of the hon. Member for Wrexham.
I completely disagree with the hon. Member for Wrexham. The creation of trading funds and of the wider commercial climate is a prerequisite for a better service for those who require it from those agencies. Before we can decide the level of service and the amount of resources that are to be provided, we must know exactly what it will cost. The creation of trading funds will go some way towards achieving that.
The list contained in annex A of the White Paper is relevant. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) referred to the fuel suppliers branch. It is odd that an agency designed to cut expenditure and to ensure that we purchase fuel most economically for the public sector does not know how much money it is spending--according to the annex--or the number of people it employs. If nothing else, the Next Steps agencies will ensure that people will look more accurately at what things cost.
The Next Steps agencies will affect the RAF training organisations and the service schools in north-west Europe. Under the current financial structures the figures are not separately identifiable. The RAF does not know the exact cost of its training or of providing school facilities in north-west Europe. If nothing else, the initiative to create trading funds and new agencies will act as a discipline on those involved in those functions to ensure that they know how much it costs to provide those services. That must be a prerequisite to ensure that the services are provided efficiently and economically to the public and to the users of those services. I welcome the Bill because it will increase accountability and the opportunity for scrutiny. I hope that it has a speedy passage through the House.
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : I want to make a short contribution about two aspects of the White Paper. Before I became a Member of this House I was involved in running a very large local authority which had a budget well in excess of £100 million a year. Even with restrictions on local government expenditure, with that level of resources we provided finance and accountability in the construction of services and in their delivery. We had methods which could be deployed to improve value for money and efficiency and at the same time ensure that that efficiency and value for money was governed by the need
Column 763to provide services instead of a need to achieve a financial target imposed on particular aspects of local authority activities. Against that background I want to consider the White Paper and the proposals in the Bill. I want first to refer to the Liverpool passport office about which several hon. Members have expressed a rather jaundiced view. I believe that if the employees in that passport office had not acted as they did last summer, the Government would still not have taken steps to improve the service and administration of that office. The staff brought their views to the public about the need to improve the working of the office and the level of manpower resources that should have been allocated to provide the service.
Sometimes when we debate local government services or the privatisation of services currently run by civil servants, the prerequisite for arguing for that privatisation as voiced by Conservative Members is an attack on the integrity, capability and work ethic of the people working in those services. In the final analysis, very few people who work in the public sector do so as a result of a malevolent feeling towards the people for whom they provide the service. The staff working under trying circumstances in the Liverpool passport office were the catalyst for the changes. They wanted to improve the service and we should remember that instead of attacking them when they cannot respond to our debate.
Annex A of the White Paper refers to the planning inspectorate which, according to the White Paper,
"Carries out public inquiries and appeals on planning, housing, highways, and other matters."
It also deals in two ways with rights of way, pathways, bridleways, the change of use of property, opencasting and other mineral extractions. First, they are dealt with in the time-honoured fashion of a public inquiry. The local authority may take a decision which is appealed against and the Secretary of State refers that to a public inquiry. Following that, the Secretary of State will determine whether he accepts, rejects or amends in part the recommendation of his inspectorate. Secondly, it deals with written appeals against local authority decisions. Both parties submit written evidence to the inspectorate, and the inspectorate then makes a recommendation to the Secretary of State.
For two main reasons, over the past few years the work of the planning inspectorate has been made difficult. First, many planning inquiries have had to be held. Secondly, local communities are far more aware of environmental changes caused by housing and industrial planning applications. In past decades, planning applications were not publicly scrutinised, but they are now challenged and scrutinised by the public. As a result, local authorities take more account of a community's views than they did previously. There is a huge backlog of appeals before the planning inspectorate. I refer to written appeals and to a substantial number of appeals that are the subject to public inquiry.
Some appeals do not relate only to small matters such as a change of use of land for housing. In my constituency, a recent planning inquiry related to opencast mining and the Secretary of State's power to impose a mineral plan on Greater Manchester county. That mineral plan included policies on the extraction of coal, shale, sand and other minerals associated with opencast mining. There was a
Column 764huge number of objections from local residents, Members of Parliament, heritage and environmental groups, and local authorities. Because of the backlog in the inspectorate's work, an outside planning inspector was appointed. Also, because of that backlog, the inspectorate appoints inspectors to conduct particular inquiries. In some instances that system can work satisfactorily, particularly when the inquiry reports in one's favour. However, there are instances in which an inspector has a similar background to that of an applicant. That happened in the case to which I referred.
The Government must recognise the need to provide resources for independent professional planning advice. Planning inquiries should be carried out in the most professional, independent and thorough way possible. Intolerable burdens will be placed on the inspectorate if it is included in the Next Steps initiative.
What is meant by competition in the planning inspectorate? The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) is chary and wary about North-West Water polluting Morecambe bay. Does he believe that he has a better chance of preventing what is happening if competition is introduced into the planning inspectorate?
What is the role of competition in such activities? Can a Conservative Member provide technical, professional and accountable reasons why the introduction of competition into the planning inspectorate will assist the Secretary of State, local authorities or those who regularly use the system? The Government's White Paper is dogma. It is simply a list of organisations that the Government consider necessary to opt out as part of an overall policy to privatise. It fails to take account of other aspects of Government policy.
I do not believe that Conservative Members who have an interest not just in planning matters but in the environment do not want the House to retain the accountability and independence of the planning inspectorate and ensure that it operates outside the confines of the financial limitations which would be placed on it by a policy of competition. If the planning inspectorate operates at a substantially lower level than hon. Members would like, either in terms of the number of planning application inquiries that it conducts annually or the quality of its decision making, or if it does not operate in the public's interest, they should look at the reasons for the planning inspectorate's difficulties.
Mr. Hind : If the hon. Gentleman reads the White Paper carefully he will see that not every Next Steps agency will have a trading fund and that not all of them will be privatised or even considered for privatisation. Common sense dictates that the Department appoints inspectors on the basis that they are independent and quasi-legal and are able to make important judgments for the public. That cannot be open to competition. The Government would be reluctant to consider a trading fund, never mind privatisation.
Mr. McCartney : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his perceptive intervention. Why are they included in the document if it was never the Government's intention to include such activities of the Department of the Environment? It only highlights the Government's incompetence. The White Paper was not published on a wing and a prayer. The hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) shakes his head. He made some valid points. I
Column 765agree with them all except for one important one that appears in the White Paper. The inspectorate is being considered as a "First Steps" agency and could be considered for privatisation. If the hon. Gentleman agrees with me he should not support measures such as hiving off the planning inspectorate of the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I have taken the opportunity to look at the White Paper. One must consider some aspects which will be imposed on the planning inspectorate. Even if this is simply an exercise in accountability, let us consider what is being suggested. We are dealing with the legislation as it stands and, according to the White Paper, the planning inspectorate is in the front line. Paragraph 5.10 of the White Paper talks about,
"a summary of key targets for the future."
What does that mean in terms of the planning inspectorate when the inspectorate deals with matters put before it by the Secretary of State for the Environment on behalf of local authorities or by the Secretary of State himself in relation to activities by his Department? At no time can the planning sector of the Department of the Environment be able to target future activities because its work is demand driven in the sense that the demand for inquiries arises from the activities of local authorities and the Secretary of State. Paragraph 5.10 of the White Paper also talks about,
"a report of performance against financial, efficiency and quality of service targets over the past year, set against previous trends". What is meant by "report of performance"? Does it relate to the way in which inquiries are carried out and the nature of the decision that is taken? The hon. Member for Wyre and his hon. Friends who support such claptrap--
Mr. McCartney : I have no problem about that because the points that I am making are highly relevant. A debate about the environment should be open-handed. We are talking about not introducing competition into serious matters, and in such a serious debate we do not need silly schoolboy quips. The hon. Member for Wyre is on record about a planning matter in his constituency.
What is meant by "a report of performance" in relation to the planning inspectorate? The planning inspectorate can be judged only by the nature of the decisions that it takes. Every one of those decisions has to be approved or amended by the Secretary of State irrespective of whether it is about the building of a petrochemical plant or whether a new bridleway should be built between two villages. The spectrum of activity in the Department is such that the Secretary of State is involved in every planning inquiry or written objection to his Department. In no circumstances could the Bill be used to regulate and improve the activities of the inspectorate. I hope that the Government will rethink the whole concept of some of the organisations and activities included in Next Steps agencies. I oppose the Government politically but the general public will also start to ask questions about the validity of Government policy when they see the possibility of an independent planning inspectorate being hived off to an agency and the possibility of it going to the private sector.
The Government must step back for a moment and rethink their ideology about some of the activities of public sector bodies. These bodies are in the public sector
Column 766for good reasons. One is because of the nature of the work that is carried out and the requirement for Parliament to retain accountability. Not only planning bodies but health, safety and training organisations are in the public sector for very good reasons. They are there not because of Socialist dogma but because of long tried and tested experience.
Some aspects of life are better organised through public accountability and cannot be left to market forces and driven by competition. That is at the heart of our opposition to the Bill. The Government see a need to create competition irrespective of the work carried out by the agencies, the need for parliamentary accountability and the conflict that is caused in the Department of the Environment. The Government want to privatise everything in sight.
Over the last 10 years the Government have used public expenditure cuts and privatisation to try to impose Next Steps agencies on local authorities. In my constituency the Wigan metropolitan council has had imposed on it privatisation of its cleaning and waste disposal services. Its services for waste disposal made a profit for ratepayers last year of over £3 million. The council is trying to protect those services and jobs and the Government are trying to impose a local government form of Next Steps agencies by which people are directly employed by a company--a "hands-off" arrangement--which runs the services for the local authority in competition. Such things are done for the dogmatic reasons of the Secretary of State and have nothing to do with the improvement of services or accountability to the public. However, they have everything to do with hiving off profitable parts of public services to the private sector which looks to the quick buck at the expense of the long-term needs of the community. Following this debate, I wonder whether the hon. Members for Wyre and for Lancashire, West will be able to defend to their constituents the privatisation and hiving off of such an important body as the planning inspectorate, with all its consequences.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling) : I am grateful for this opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. I sense that the issues have been well and truly thrashed out and although there is a low growl of discontent from the Opposition I do not think that the Bill will be pressed to a vote.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) opened for the Opposition and his speech was briefer than some of those that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and I remember from the Finance Bill Committee. I think that the hon. Member said that it was a technical matter and I endorse that. We are not following the route that the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) seemed to follow in his eloquent speech that the Bill is about privatisation. It may come to privatisation and there are aspects of the agencies which I hope will lead to that, but that is not the predominant thrust of the Bill. Its purpose is to improve the quality of public service that is made available to our constituents.
I strongly support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) who spoke about the need to extend the process to the Ministry of Defence. He identified one or two possibilities.
Column 767I, too, believe that it could go a great deal further. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) talked about the Training Agency and I endorse the important points that he made. There is a critical role over the next 10 years and beyond for the Training Agency. There has been a 30 per cent. drop in the number of 18-year-olds in my constituency and there is a critical need to encourage more women in Nottinghamshire to go back to work. My hon. Friend's comments were extremely helpful in emphasising that aspect of the Training Agency.
Some hon. Members said that some agencies may need to relocate. I hope that if they do so they will come to Nottingham. There are too few national and quasi-national agencies there and I should like to see more. It is especially helpful that my right hon. Friend who will respond to the debate knows Nottingham well and while wearing his other hat as the Minister for the Arts has seen the tremendous depth and breadth of the cultural and artistic activities that go on there. I hope that he will consider it a suitable place for many agencies to relocate in future.
The Bill seeks to extend the powers of the Government to create trading funds to finance central Government activities. Perhaps the measure has not caught the imagination of the general public as readily as it should have done.
Mr. Mitchell : My hon. Friend is right. As I said earlier, the measure will have a key effect on major public services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East said, the Bill does not seek in any way to allocate fault or attack the Civil Service. Civil servants are saddled with a system that does not work effectively either in their interests as employees or in the interests of the public who receive the service.
As I flicked down the list in the annex to the White Paper this afternoon, four agencies particularly caught my eye. They were the driver and vehicle licensing centre, the Land Registry, the passport office and Companies House. Three of those are largely covered by related receipts, as defined in the White Paper. One of them is not. I am particularly pleased to hear that Companies House is an early candidate for trading fund status.
The majority of Government activities are not suitable for trading fund status, as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said in his opening speech. However, 20 per cent. of Government agencies are suitable. We want that 20 per cent. to embark as rapidly as possible on the route to trading fund status. Why should we seek trading fund status for those important agencies? There are a number of key reasons. First, proper commercial disciplines should be passed on to the organisations. That brings with it a degree of self-management. The improvement and motivation of individuals is extremely important and brings initiative and some concept of size. Small is beautiful in many of the organisations. We want to encourage employees not to see themselves as part of a great amorphous mass.
The Bill is not entirely a cost-cutting measure, as some Opposition Members suggested. It is partly a cost-cutting measure, but, above all, it aims to improve the quality of
Column 768service to the public and the efficiency of the agencies. My right hon. Friend said in his opening speech that £3 billion had already been saved by such measures.
The criteria for suitability laid out in the White Paper emphasise the matters that are really important. It is emphasised that decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. The criteria recognise that it is not only a matter of revenue and expenditure and that the importance of service to the public is predominant. There must be a genuine separation of activity where one Government Department supplies another. As far as possible we must engender genuine competition. That, too, is extremely important.
There must be a commitment to substantial and valuable improvements in performance. It is right that the full accounts should come before the House of Commons as well as reports on whether targets are being met and details of new targets for subsequent years so that we can judge the effects of those targets and ascertain whether they are being met.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle spoke of the importance of adequate detail so that we can make those judgments. I understand that the Treasury will report on the general trends in the use of trading funds and assess their effectiveness. That, too, must be welcomed as part of the parliamentary process. Some agencies may be suitable for privatisation. I hope that there will be many, but I do not believe that that is the critical judgment. The criterion must be to provide a better service. As the hon. Member for Wrexham said, we must be accountable to the consumer. I believe that that view is common to both Conservative and Opposition Members.
I mentioned four particular agencies which could provide a better service to the public than they do now. I emphasise that I do not blame the civil servants for being saddled with a system that does not work effectively. I mentioned the passport office. It is a demoralised service. All hon. Members have had to deal with the problems of constituents who find at the last minute that they do not have a passport to go on holiday. We all know that the system does not work effectively. There have been problems with the Land Registry. Everyone knows that buying and selling a house is a particularly stressful aspect of life. The failings of the Land Registry are legion and we must do something about them. In my former existence I worked in the City so I know the inadequacies of Companies House. It could do much better as a result of the process outlined in the Bill.
The driver and vehicle licensing centre, too, has legion inefficiencies and difficulties. All the organisations that I have mentioned will benefit greatly from the process that we are setting in motion today. The aim is to make changes in the interests of improved management, efficiency and effectiveness. The Bill is not an attack on the Civil Service but an attack on a system that does not work. It is a significant opportunity to provide a better service to the public, more job satisfaction for the people who work in the agencies and better value for money for taxpayers and those who pay for the services. I greatly welcome it and hope that it will speedily become law.
Column 769in the number of staff. The Government have curbed appointments of staff in the Land Registry office which, combined with an increase in activity, has produced delays. It is not the fault of the hard-working civil servants. The responsibility must be laid at the door of the Government, who have made a sustained attack on the Civil Service over the past 10 years and are proud of it. Ministers repeatedly make claims about the number of staff that they have sacked. The blame is fairly and squarely at their door.
I shall make a few brief remarks about the relationship between the Bill-- which is not a clear piece of legislation--and the Act that it amends, the Government Trading Funds Act 1973. The Bill puts a different emphasis on consultation and the obligation on the Minister to consult before making an order. The 1973 Act placed a duty on the Minister to consult appropriate persons. That meant that the Minister had to approach appropriate persons. The definition of "appropriate persons" was left to the Minister and was subject to judicial action in the courts if the range of appropriate persons was unnecessarily narrow.
The Minister was required to consult people. That has been subtly changed. The Bill now provides :
"he shall take such steps as appear to him to be appropriate to give such an opportunity to such persons as appear to him to be appropriate."
In other words, the Minister stays in his office and causes a notice to be put in a newspaper, specialist newspaper or magazine and takes whatever steps he deems appropriate. People then have to go cap in hand to the Minister to make representations to him. That is a change of emphasis which was not necessary because the traditional position where the Minister was obliged to consult appropriate persons is entirely adequate and satisfactory. No doubt the Minister will explain the reason for that subtle change of emphasis. I am sorry that I was not present for the Minister's opening speech. I was attending a Committee dealing with a Bill during the relevant time. The Government and Conservative Back Benchers, with their Government-supplied briefs, have made great play of parliamentary accountability. Although not particularly in this Bill, there has been a significant removal of parliamentary accountability by a conversion from a consensus measure in 1982. I regretted it very much at the time and voted against it in the parliamentary Labour party. The Consolidated Fund has been removed from parliamentary accountability. Payments into the fund are required by the Bill. If the Bill becomes an Act, that payment will enable Members to debate the measure in a proper Consolidated Fund debate and to obtain the necessary votes to initiate a debate in the Chamber.
Now that the Consolidated Fund debate has been changed into a series of Adjournment debates selected by the Speaker with the time allowed for each debate set by the Speaker, the opportunity for detailed examination on the basis of votes both in the Consolidated Fund debate and others has been diminished. I also regret the change because under the previous operation of the Consolidated Fund debate the House disciplined itself well. If the debate was on a wide and important subject, there was an opportunity for many hon. Members who were interested to take part in the debate. If the debate was a narrow one, it lasted only half an hour. The House was well disciplined.
We now have limitations imposed upon us. When there could be a long debate on a wide-ranging subject we are limited to three hours. I regret that the Consolidated Fund
Column 770procedure has been changed. There was no need for any change to be made, but on one morning the Government found it awkward to secure a closure. They could not get 100 Conservative Members to support the closure motion and so they decided, as it were, to shift the Consolidated Fund. The Opposition of the day--mistakenly, in my view--said to themselves, "We shall be in government one day and we might find it awkward to get a closure, so we shall agree to what the Government propose." As a result, a real element of accountability was knocked to one side. That cannot be attributed to the Bill, but it is a relevant factor and a continuing source of concern to me. The Bill proposes that section 6 of the Government Trading Funds Act 1973 should be changed. The section provides an order-making power and requires that the establishment of a trading fund must be by way of affirmative resolution. That is the main pre -requisite of the section, and that is retained in clause 2(3), which sets out some changes to section 6 and the order-making powers of the 1973 Act. As I have said, the establishment of a trading fund must be by way of affirmative order, and that means the tabling of a resolution on the Floor of the House for approval. This is extremely important. We must bear in mind, however, that there can be debate for only one and a half hours. Given the length of speeches that have been made on many occasions by Front -Bench spokesmen on both sides of the Chamber during the passage of affirmative orders, there has been only about half an hour left for Back- Bench Members to cross-examine the Government. Even though we say that an affirmative resolution in support of a statutory instrument is a useful procedure--the resolution is for debate on the Floor of the House, the Government have to secure its support and there must be a debate--it provides only a limited opportunity to question the Government and we should not elevate it beyond its importance.
Other powers proceed by negative procedure, including a Henry VIII clause. If some hon. Members are not aware of that term, I should explain that it is given to the power that is handed to Ministers to change primary legislation by order without any further primary legislation being required. We must remember that they is a great power. It is a relatively trivial one in respect of the Bill, but the sums that are involved for trading funds--the position is similar in the 1973 Act--can be altered, when the Bill is enacted, by a negative procedure instrument that is issued by a Minister. That is less than satisfactory.
The Government said that they would take legislation off the backs of the people. They told us that they would remove the weight of legislation which they claimed, in 1979, was burdening the people and preventing the enterprise culture from burgeoning forth. As they are fond of making comparisons with the Labour Government, let it be generally understood that they are producing more statutory instruments than their predecessors. The volume of statutory instruments is so great that it has become the primary source of legislation. In the past 18 months the Government have produced 23 Acts with Henry VIII clauses, includng the Education Reform Act 1988, which was a major piece of legislation. Given the Government's majority, we have, unfortunately, given Ministers the power to change primary legislation without introducing new primary legislation. In a better ordered world, the Government would hve to return to the House to produce further primary
Column 771legislation to alter the legislation that was already on the statute book. Should not the Mother of Parliaments be the Parliament that sets an example to the rest of the Commonwealth, for example? It should do so, of course, but it does not. At the end of last year we had the opportunity to examine the procedures of other Commonwealth legislatures. Delegates came to London from 18 Commonwealth countries, including Pakistan, which we welcomed back into the Commonwealth after the restoration of democracy following the removal of the military junta and the election in which President Bhutto was elected.
Delegates, particularly the ones from Australia and New Zealand, made it clear that the power of scrutiny of delegated legislation is a real one in their legislatures. They told us that they can hold up the application of legislation if a Minister is found to be abusing his or her powers. Nothing like that exists in our legislation. We are building up a huge volume of subordinate legislation without any sort of adequate scrutiny being available to us. I am concerned, for example, that under clause 2 the Minister is allowed to change the maximum sum provided for by means of a negative procedure instrument.
Mr. Beith : If the hon. Gentleman wants a vivid example of what has happened and of the drift that has taken place, he has only to look at the end of today's Order Paper. When the debate has come to an end the House will be asked, for the first time in my recollection, to vote forthwith on the amendable Census Order 1988. Previously such orders have been debated on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight a dangerous trend, even in the detailed circumstances of the Bill.
Mr. Cryer : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing that example. I am aware that the Census Order was considered in Committee. I am aware also that several amendments were tabled--it was an unusual order-- and I pressed for the amendments to be considered. I hope that the minority parties can somehow obtain the services of one of their Members to serve on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which they appear not to have been able to do up to now. I think that the Committee serves a useful purpose and the hon. Gentleman's remarks highlight his concern. I hope that he will be able to spread his concern to other Members of the Liberal party, the Liberal Democrat party and the other sorts of party which he helps to represent.
The issue of Henry VIII clauses is not often raised in the House. We should talk about it more, and it is my intention to do so. I have been inspired, at least in part, because it seems that other legislatures have proper and adequate scrutiny. The reality is that a Minister will not be much involved in an order-making power. A civil servant will present him with the order and he will say, "Minister, will you approve this? We must secure the order. We are running close to the limit and we need another £500 to be added to it. That should see us all right for the next two or three years." The Minister signs the order and the civil servant goes away.
The order goes before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. If it is to proceed by way of the negative procedure--that is the procedure that will be used
Column 772to increase the moneys available to the trading funds--and if the Opposition think that it is a dangerous measure or an unusual use of such a measure, for example, they will table a prayer. If the Government follow the usual pattern, they will provide time for the prayer to be debated if it is signed by Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople. If a prayer were to be signed by a group of Back-Bench Members who have a particular concern, 100 to 1 it will never be heard. The majority of instruments, including the potential instrument that is referred to in the Bill, have little chance of being debated. It is just not good enough that they can be pushed through.
I should like an assurance from the Minister that in Committee, and whenever primary legislation is being dealt with, Ministers will have to cast their eyes over the legislation. They will, of course, be briefed by civil servants. It could be a simple one-section measure, and it would be easy to secure its passage. In primary legislation, however, Ministers conduct its passage on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report and so on. That means that Ministers are much more personally involved in the legislative process. Such a procedure would mean that the increase in the maximum sums available to trading funds would be dealt with in a more elaborate way. With the negative procedure process, which is implicit in the alterations that will be made to section 6 of the 1973 Act, the chances are that the instrument will never be debated.
If the Government are really concerned about parliamentary accountability, they should say, "We know that there are difficulties over allocating time on the Floor of the House ; there always are. But we will ensure that the Bill is amended in Committee to bring its order-making powers in line with those establishing a trading fund, and that any increase in the maxima allowed for the total, global trading funds sum will be by affirmative resolution and not by the residual power"--which, under section 6 of the 1973 Act, is the negative procedure.
I hope, though not with great expectation, that the Minister will give an assurance of that kind. The reality is that both the Administration and the Civil Service bureaucracy, as well as Ministers, find it easier to get negative procedure instruments through this House and therefore more convenient. We say that public accountability, not convenience, should be an Administration's main criterion. The Government have made an issue of public accountability, saying that the procedure will provide for more parliamentary accountability. The Minister now has an opportunity to say, "We are determined to ensure parliamentary accountability, and affirmative instruments will be our watchword."
The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Richard Luce) : I am glad to be associated with the Bill because it is not only important in itself but must be seen against the background of the Government's Next Steps policy and the important reforms that are taking place in the Civil Service. The Bill provides the first opportunity for the House to have a wide-ranging debate on the Next Steps reforms in the Civil Service, which are of great importance and will do a great deal to improve further the management of the large resources for which the Civil Service has responsibilities. I am glad that the debate has allowed right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House to speak on a wide
Column 773range of issues relating to the reforms. There were constructive and supportive speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice), for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind), for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell). We heard speeches also--some of them more constructive than others--from Opposition Members.
I was astonished by the remarks of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), and at his reaching the conclusion, having listened to the excellent and outstanding speech of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury--in which he demonstrated how the Bill will strengthen further the management of the Civil Service--that the Bill would lead to the break-up of the Civil Service and was about cost cutting. I inferred from his remarks that the hon. Gentleman feels that the Bill will prove disastrous for the Civil Service, but the very opposite will happen.
I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman takes the line that he does, particularly as the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, of which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is a member, while perhaps being critical of the Government for being too slow in implementing the Next Steps policies, was generally strongly in support of the Government's broad policy of reforms within the Civil Service. Therefore, I am all the more surprised by the speech of the hon. Member for Wrexham.
Many detailed points have been made, and I trust that hon. Members will bear with me if I do not answer every one of them. Where I fail to do so, I shall make a point of writing to the hon. Member concerned with a clear response to his question.
I want to view the Bill in the broader context of the Next Steps policy and to examine more sharply the issue of accountability, which hon. Members in all parts of the House have raised. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke in her new year message of the tasks that lie ahead for Britain in the 1990s. One of the "six great tasks" that she identified was to
"improve our public services such as health and education, and make them more responsive to people's needs."
That is very much at the heart of the proposals before the House. I have told the House on many occasions that it is my view that the Next Steps initiative--