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Clause 59 --

Functions of Ministers and office-holders

Amendment proposed : No. 101, in page 51, line 31, after by' insert subsection (1A) or'. -- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments : Government amendment No. 102.

No. 42, in page 51, line 36, leave out from

section' to end of line 37 and insert

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(a) in relation to any function of a Minister, without first consulting any officer exercising the function on behalf of the Minister and any organisation appearing to the Minister to be representative of such officers, or

(b) in relation to any function of an officer-holder, without first consulting him, any officer exercising the function on his behalf and any organisation appearing to the Minister to be representative of such officers.'.

No. 93, in page 51, line 37, at end insert

and informing those bodies or persons likely in his opinion to be affected by any extension of these functions, and any representative organisation of such bodies or persons as the Minister may consider appropriate.'.

No. 45, in clause 60, page 52, line 28, at end insert

(3A) The Minister shall have regard to any representations made during the consultation under subsection (3) above and if it appears to him, as a result of that consultation, that it is appropriate to vary the whole or any part of his proposals, he shall undertake such further consultation with respect to the variations as they appear to him to be appropriate.

(3B) When a draft of an order under this section is laid before Parliament under section 67(2) below, the Minister shall, at the same time, lay before Parliament a statement giving details of any consultation undertaken as required by subsection (3) above.'. No. 43, in clause 61, page 53, line 7, at end insert or (d) it is a power or duty to determine the amount of any payment from public funds due under any enactment to any person.'. No. 9, in clause 63, page 54, line 6, after subsisting', insert provided that the relevant contract is scheduled to be in force for no more than three years'.

No. 18, in clause 67, page 57, line 9, at end insert

(1A) An order under section 59 above relating to a function of a Minister shall contain a provision requiring an annual report to be laid before Parliament on the exercise of that function by, or by employees of, such person (if any) as may be authorised in that behalf by the Minister whose function it is'.

Mr. Garrett : I wish to speak to amendment No. 42, which calls for Ministers to consult representatives of civil servants in the process of contracting out.

One of the most serious casualties of the changes in Government service has been the former participative management style of the civil service. That is part of a pattern. Whenever they can, Ministers treat their civil servants as disposable rather than as a valuable resource. The civil service has changed in my time from a model employer to an authoritarian and uncaring one.

Consultative arrangements of long standing have been overthrown. For example, when agencies were set up, trade unions were never consulted on the governing framework documents that set out their activities and the performance required from them. Those framework documents established the performance required of the agencies, but never referred to personnel policies or consultative arrangements. We know from an Efficiency Unit document that Departments and agencies are under no obligation to consult recognised unions in the civil service about the policy and principles relating to the market testing of particular statutory functions. That document simply says that Departments and agencies may wish to inform their recognised trade unions about any decision to make an order which might affect their staff's terms and conditions of service and/or working arrangements. I also see that Diana Kahn of the Efficiency Unit told union representatives on 4 February that the fact that a service may be delivered by someone other than a civil servant was not, in itself, justification for consultation.

I assume that during the 40-day period for general public consultation on a contracting-out order under the

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Bill, trade unions should be consulted on the prospective effects on employees of such an order. Such a request seems to be the least that should be required of a decent employer.

We have had the example of the transfer of the Warren Spring laboratory, which did environmental technology studies, to AEA Technology. That followed a consultancy report after a four-week study. The fate of that great institution was decided after a four-week study by PA Consulting, which is itself an environmental consultancy. Only 18 months earlier a Department of Trade and Industry Minister allowed Warren Spring to build new premises as an act of faith in its future.

Trade unions were given no chance to question the assumptions of that consultancy study. I should have thought that that was less than professional practice on the part of the consultants. The terms of reference were secret. The unions were allowed to see the report only after the decision to close Warren Spring had been taken, and then only to discuss the consequent redundancies.

It is clear that decisions on the closure and privatisation of Ministry of Defence facilities--with, it is said, the loss of up to 25,000 jobs--will be made in July, at the end of the parliamentary Session. I should like to know what consultation with the staff representatives the Government intend to allow on those redundancies. The unions have constantly pressed to be involved in the Ministry of Defence review process, with no result. They have been told that no proposal arising from those studies can be revealed or can be the subject of consultation. Much of the contracting out will proceed without a market test or on the basis that an in-house bid is disallowed. So civil servants are expected to surrender their jobs without consultation.

In my constituency, Her Majesty's Stationery Office is the subject of a so- called commercialisation study. There has been no consultation with the staff, who are completely in the dark as to their future. One thing about market testing is that, if an in-house bid wins, the staff are forced to compete for their jobs once again three years later. There could hardly be a worse example of personnel practice.

Departments often act unlawfully in contracting out. Recently, the Home Office was to be taken to the Central Arbitration Committee for failure to consult on the specifications for market testing under section 181 of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 ; then, seeing the error of its ways, it had to settle before the hearing, having been advised that it would have to consult its staff under the Act.

At present no fewer than six cases are being brought before industrial tribunals for non-consultation under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981--against the Home Office, the Scottish Office and Bureau West of the Ministry of Defence. Those processes are an object lesson in bad management for what was, some years ago, a model employer.

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Not only do the Government not consult : they refuse even to discover what their employees think. That brings us to the remarkable case of the survey proposed by the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. Not only will the Government not consult civil servants : they want to stop Parliament consulting them. When I was a member of the Select Committee some months ago, I proposed that its Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee should carry out an attitude survey of civil servants, particularly junior

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civil servants, to find out what had been the impact of all the Government changes on the people who do the work in Departments. I proposed that undertaking for two reasons : first, because it was not sufficient for a Select Committee studying the civil service simply to take evidence from the great and the good--from Ministers, senior civil servants and academics--without finding out what the workers thought ; and, secondly, because I wanted to establish that Select Committees were entitled to research budgets. To my slight surprise, the Committee accepted my proposal.

The reaction of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the head of the civil service to the proposal was ludicrous. Both accused the all-party Committee which had accepted the survey proposal of having political motives. Yet they had both seen the proposed questionnaire, which simply asked the respondents how they had been affected by the Government's changes to the civil service and what they thought of the civil service as an employer.

Sir Robin Butler, the head of the civil service, who is fast becoming a laughing stock as a Government apologist, said to a Conservative member of the Treasury Select Committee that if Parliament wanted to know about civil service morale, it could ask him. He also referred to the dangers of "outside bodies"--as he said, in a sinister way--researching the civil service. He had to be reminded by the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), that

"We are not just an outside body, we are Parliament".

Neither Sir Robin nor the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster can stop the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee interviewing 500 civil servants. Yet they are both trying to stop the Committee writing to them. Their position is untenable. If the Government continue to refuse to co-operate, the Committee will have to issue an interim report to the House saying that its will is being contemptuously thwarted by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster--a matter on which I hope there would be a vote in the House. We all know that staff consultation and participation in the civil service is now abysmally bad. A recent survey in the Treasury--the home of the mandarins--was answered by 70 per cent. of the staff. Some 68 per cent. of those who answered thought that Treasury top management was poor or very poor at communicating with its staff, while 9 per cent. thought that it was good. Only 11 per cent. thought that the Treasury was good at managing change. Only 13 per cent. thought that the Treasury's change programme was clear and focused. So you can see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the argument for consulting staff before Departments are turned upside down. The civil service is in turmoil, and the staff, who are committed public servants trying to follow the public ethos under which they were recruited into the civil service, are being treated despicably by the Government. In my 30 years' involvement in civil service matters, I have never known morale to be so low or civil servants to be treated in such an offhand way. We consider that civil servants have the right to be consulted on matters that affect their livelihood. Amendment No. 42 seeks to offer them a modest degree of protection.

Mr. McAllion : The amendments that we are debating seek to amend clause 59, the purpose of which is to make contracting out and privatisation easier. However, I note

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from Government amendments Nos. 101 and 102 that even the Government want to exempt some of the functions of the civil service from the process of making privatisation and contracting out easier to handle. In particular, Government amendment No. 102 refers to the courts, the sheriff courts and the Court of Session in Scotland and the courts down here in England and Wales.

Perhaps the Government have learnt from their experience of contracting out the prison escort service to Group 4 just how bad it is to contract out, market-test or remove from the public sector vital services such as the courts service and the Prison Service. I note that that is the only part of the state that the Government are prepared to exempt from the contracting- out process--no doubt because they have always seen the state in terms of law and order and nothing else. They do not see the role of the state and of society as being to provide any kind of service ; to them, the purpose of state and society is simply to provide the stick with which to beat people and coerce them into accepting whatever the market dictates at any particular time.

I support the amendments standing in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends, which seek to ensure that, before any order is laid making it easier to contract out or privatise any of the departmental activities in the civil service, the Government must not only consult civil servants and their trade unions but take heed of what that consultation has told them. That is an important consideration. It is vital that this Government--of all Governments--are made to listen to what the civil service has to say about market testing and privatisation. It sometimes strikes me that some Ministers are completely unaware of the effect that market testing, privatisation and contracting out are having on the civil service. Some time ago, a copy of the Cabinet Office Efficiency Unit report was leaked to the Financial Times ; it indicated that, last year, the Government spent some £565 million on bringing outside consultants into the civil service in the search for savings. The report suggested that that £565 million secured only £10 million of savings to the public purse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) raised the matter with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 9 May, and the right hon. Gentleman replied by saying that my hon. Friend was "completely confused". He continued :

"The annualised cost of consultants is probably about £1 million. The total cost of consultants is about £10 million."--[ Official Report , 9 May 1994 ; Vol. 243, c. 15.]

I have a copy of the emerging findings of the multi-departmental scrutiny of the Government's use of external consultants, dated March 1994. Paragraph 5 of the introduction says :

"In 1992-93 Departments and Agencies spent around £565 million on external consultants".

Who has it right ? Is the Cabinet Office's Efficiency Unit right in saying that £565 million was spent in a single year, or did the Chancellor have it right when he said that the annualised cost was about £1 million and the total cost just £10 million ? They cannot both be right--somebody has to be wrong.

As the Chancellor is a very honourable Member of the House, and would not dare to tell lies to the House, it seems that he simply does not know what is going on in the civil

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service or what the impact of market testing and privatisation has been. The amount spent by the Government on consultancies, for example, seems to have escaped his notice completely.

I sought to find a solution to the problem by asking the Prime Minister when the Government intended to publish the Efficiency Unit report so that the House could make a judgment on who was right. I was told :

"The final report of the Efficiency Unit's scrutiny on the Government's use of external consultants will be completed shortly. It is the normal practice for Efficiency Unit's reports to be published. A decision on publishing the report will be made when the final report has been received."--[ Official Report , 16 May 1994 ; Vol. 243, c. 306. ]

In other words, the parliamentary route to finding out what is going on in the market-testing process has been blocked off. The answer was that the Government have not even made up their mind to publish the Efficiency Unit report which has been produced by the Cabinet Office. Whether or not the report is published in the future will depend on the nature of the report, and I find that completely unacceptable.

When I telephoned the Chancellor's office, I was informed that it is normal for all efficiency scrutinies to be published in due course. Yet here we have an answer from the Prime Minister saying that the decision on whether or not to publish has not been arrived at by the Government. We can be fairly confident that the report will not be published before 9 June, and we can be equally confident that it will not be published before the Bill winds its way through its various parliamentary stages. We suspect that it may never be published because it may be too damning of the whole market- testing and contracting-out process on which the Government have embarked. It is vital that the Government are forced to talk to the civil service and to provide it with the kind of information that it requires so that it can give its views of what impact the process is having. It is important to keep in mind the context in which this debate is taking place. It is not just a question of market testing : it is a question of seeing how public money can be spent most efficiently and whether the in-house bid is as efficient as the tender that has come from the private sector. If that were happening, there would be a different argument, but in numerous speeches outside the House, Minister after Minister has made it absolutely clear that the Government have a test called the "prior options" test which must be applied to every single departmental activity in the civil service.

The question that must be asked before any other is whether or not the activity has to be carried out at all. Can it be abolished ? If the answer to that is no, the second question is asked : can it be privatised directly and given straight to the private sector without any competition ? If the answer to that is no, the third question is : can it be contracted out directly to the private sector ? Only if the answer to the third question is no do the the Government ask : can it be market-tested ; can the in- house bid be tested against the external tenders ?

It is clear that the Government intend to come up with a kind of final solution for the civil service--a "year zero" for the state as we have known it since 1945. They want to reduce the present civil service from around 550,000 people to a core of just 50,000, with everyone else who currently works in the public sector being contracted out to the private sector or directly privatised into the private sector. That is the Government's aim ; that is what they are all about.

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Against that background, we must ask whether the Government have any idea of the effect that their policy is having on the civil service. I have a copy of a letter sent by the Council of Civil Service Unions to the Minister responsible for the civil service, referring to a meeting the CCSU held with him to discuss the process of market testing in the civil service. It points out a whole series of problems that civil servants have identified and which the Government should take on board. It points out the danger of loss-leader bids, in which a bid comes in from the private sector which is well below anything that the in-house team could produce to win the contract. However, once the contract is up for renewal three, five or 10 years later, the contractor can put any kind of demand that it wants against the public sector and the taxpayer has to pay. The letter also makes a point about the collapse of morale in the civil service, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) referred. People are living in fear for their jobs and for the conditions which they have secured during many years inside the public sector. The market-testing process is undermining the position that those in the public sector enjoy at the moment. That will not add to the efficiency of the civil service, as any reasonable person would quickly understand.

The letter further draws attention to a series of other problems, including the fact that in-house bids--including bids within the Inland Revenue--have been stopped by civil servants themselves. No satisfactory answer has been given to questions about the confidentiality and privacy of tax records. These are public issues, and if we cannot get access to the answers in the House, at least the civil servants should get access through a consultation process that allows them to talk to Ministers about the impact of the Government's policies.

The letter even talks about something which may be news to many hon. Members. When dealing with what are called new green-field sites--if a Department opens up a new office on a completely new site anywhere in Britain--there is no question of the in-house bid being allowed by the Government to win the contract. The contract for the new green-field site must come from the private sector.

One of the final points in the letter may come as a complete shock to many Conservative Members. An example is given of an in-house bid, for the issue of special vehicle registration marks, which was £2 million cheaper than a bid from a contractor ; although the contractor's bid was £2 million dearer than the in-house bid from the civil service the Government gave the contract to the private sector.

Those scandals and disgraces should not be tolerated by the House. Yet they are being tolerated because of the process that is going on behind the scenes--an attempt to wreck the civil service and privatise it as far as it can be privatised.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) was worried earlier about the weight of laws passed by the House and said that so much statute was a burden on business, making it impossible for businesses to operate efficiently in the marketplace. He drew a distinction between laws that are desirable and laws that are necessary. The implication was that Conservative Members want only laws that are absolutely necessary. They do not want laws that may be desirable--however good they may be--including laws to provide civil rights for people with disabilities. Conservative Members may mouth support for such rights,

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but when it comes to the reality of going through the Lobby to support them and put them on the statute book, they do nothing about it.

7.30 pm

It is absolutely desirable and necessary to end the scandal of low pay in the civil service. Its employees do not merely number the mandarins at the top, earning £350,000 ; they include people on some of the lowest wages paid in this country.

Earlier this month my union, the National Union of Civil and Public Servants, for which I act as a parliamentary consultant, and the Low Pay Unit issued a report entitled "Northern Exposure : Poverty Pay in the North", which pointed out that the average household in the north had £36 less per week to spend than the average British household, and that more than one third of those working full time in the north earned less than the Council of Europe's decency threshold. The report also pointed out that it had discovered in a study of civil servants working in the Department of Social Security--cleaners, whose work had been contracted out as part of the process on which the Government are so keen--that staff numbers had had to be reduced by almost a third although the work remained the same and pay for the contract was cut from £3.78 an hour to £2.60. The cleaners also lost pensions, holiday entitlement and sick pay.

We must protect such workers by introducing a national minimum wage. I believe that ; so do all Opposition Members and perhaps even some Conservative Members. A majority of the people outside this House definitely support that sort of legislation, but we cannot achieve it because the Government can railroad through anything, tell us anything and deny us information because of their majority. We cannot get access to the facts about what is going on in the real world and in the civil service outside this place.

The amendments are vital. At least if the Government were obliged to talk to civil servants and civil service trade unions and to pay heed to what the latter told them we might have some protection and might at least be able to maintain a stable position until the next general election and the election of a Labour Government, which is the best hope for the civil service and for everyone else in this country.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I think that my hon. Friends have pointed out the dangers to public servants in this part of the Bill. I suggest that a much greater danger exists, but it is surely to the Government's advantage to treat their employees--public servants-- reasonably and decently if they want to achieve their objective. We might not like those objectives and nor might those who must carry them out, but it would surely be to the Government's advantage to do it decently. My hon. Friends have shown that, for some reason that I cannot fathom, the Government are not doing so. Before mentioning the constitutional aspects at the heart of amendment No. 93, which is in my name, can the Under- Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs explain now, or when he replies, Government amendments Nos. 101 and 102 ? I am not sure whether he moved them formally or decided not to move them at all. Irrespective of that, I do not understand amendment No. 101, which is on the Order Paper as :

"Page 51, line 31 [ Clause 59 ], after, by' insert subsection (1A) or'."

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Clause 59(1)(c), in line 31, states :

"which is not excluded by section 61 below."

The amendment would mean that it would read, "which is not excluded by subsection (1A) or section 61", but I cannot find a subsection (1A) in that clause, nor can I find one in clause 61.

Perhaps, after some reflection, the Minister will tell me whether I have got it wrong, whether something in the printing is wrong or whether he has got it wrong--perhaps all three of us have. As parliamentarians, that is the sort of thing that we are supposed to do at this stage.

Government amendment No. 102 seems to limit what might have been an overgeared power. At the end of clause 59--I have got my answer as I now see that that amendment adds the new subsection (1A). The amendment limits the Minister's powers. I apologise for not having understood, but I want to know whether the amendment has been moved. If it has, why did not the Minister briefly address the House when we started this group ? That would have been courteous. His comments would have appeared in the record at that point in the debate rather than in his reply, which he may make in a minute or two.

Mr. Neil Hamilton : I shall answer the hon. Gentleman immediately. I had understood that the lead amendment was not controversial. It was tabled in answer to criticisms by Opposition Members and others. As far as I am aware, no one is opposed to it. I shall refer to it in my winding-up speech.

Mr. Spearing : I am grateful to the Minister and I apologise to him and to the House for not understanding that amendment No. 101 is the lead amendment. Perhaps I am oversensitive on the subject, but these debates are not merely for the cognoscenti. Many of us have not had the privilege or the penance--I am not sure which it would be--of being a member of the Standing Committee, although we take a great interest in the matter.

Even if the Minister had only said, "I move paving amendment No. 101 and amendment No. 102, which fulfils an obligation" and so forth, there would have been three lines in Hansard and people who read it, rather than ploughing through the report of the Committee, would have been thoroughly in tune. I am sorry that he did not do so. I shall now go through a sequence of my thoughts on my amendment No. 93 and I want the Minister to comment on the accuracy and reasonableness of what I have to say in his reply. Part II of the Bill, which is entitled "Contracting out", will cause as much difficulty as part I and clause 4, which we are no longer discussing.

This part of the Bill will contract out functions, not merely activities, to private organisations, the Benefits Agency, the Roads Agency or any local authority agency. As I understand it, those can include functions that the Minister would perform through statutory instruments, under statute, directly or indirectly. This part of the Bill will allow those who undertake the activities to fulfil the Minister's functions or those of his civil servants and will include

"employees of, such person . . . as may be authorised in that behalf by the office-holder or Minister whose function it is." The functions are legal and go beyond the Minister to the office holder and, in effect, to the contractor. In other words, there will be a cascade of authority--authority to

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authorise this, choose that and contract for the other. Those authorised will carry out an administrative function that is largely carried out by named civil servants in Ministries, who are designated by Ministers or Secretaries of State for the purpose.

Civil servants carry much authority. That has arisen since the great reforms of 1906 and the 1920s. At that time there were no appeal tribunals for this, that and the other--social security, pensions and, one hopes, all those independent bodies set up to check civil servants' administrative decisions. In about 1930 a great book was written on the subject by Lord Hewart, entitled "The New Despotism", which illustrated the danger of what we have come to call administrative law. I refer not to statute law but to statutory instruments, which allow Ministers and their named persons to arrive at big decisions

Mr. Garrett : By royal prerogative.

Mr. Spearing : My hon. Friend is right.

Since that time, life has become more complicated and ever more regulations have been issued. The power and effect of these decisions have escalated in line with that complexity.

This Bill extends the process one more stage. Decisions are passed from the Minister to the man in the bowler hat in Whitehall--he may sometimes be despised, although more often than not he is trying to do a good job for the public--and thence to the people who will be the employees of the person to whom these functions are designated. Clause 59(2) reads :

"If a Minister by order so provides, a function to which this section applies may be exercised by, or by employees of, such person (if any) as may be authorised in that behalf by the office-holder or Minister whose function it is."

That jargon represents a cascade of authority which will be given by statutory instrument--yet Conservative Members claim not to like regulations.

Under this Conservative Administration, such regulations will be exercised not just by local authorities, which are at least accountable to the electorate, but by quangos : by vast numbers of quangos. The weekend press pointed out the great dangers in that. There are now more appointees to the quangos that will operate all these regulations than there are elected councillors. The mind boggles to think of the huge numbers of people who, if we give the Bill a Third Reading tonight, will operate whole areas of administrative law which used to be the subject of accountability to the House and to the Select Committees, which can summon civil servants.

Those centres of authority will, I predict, multiply to an extraordinary extent. If that is untrue, let the Minister tell me so. As I read it, clause 59 has that sole purpose in mind. No wonder my hon. Friends, who know a great deal about our public services, have asked the Government merely to consult those who will play a role in the chain of arbitrary administrative authority. The Government should at least listen to them because that might be to their own advantage.

What will be the effect on the public of the decisions made by those who are given this new authority ? The Government have had a foretaste of that, in the form of the Child Support Agency--an attempt to save money by imposing arbitrary judicial machinery on human beings who just did not fit it. I suspect that the agency does not even save the Government money.

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Why do not the Government understand that this cascade of authority will not bring about what they want ? The CSA was a glaring example of what can go wrong. My hon. Friends' amendment asked the Government to consult some of the people in the middle of the chain ; my amendment, which I hope the Government will at least consider, goes a step further. Clause 59(3) states :

"A Minister shall not make an order under this section in relation to an office-holder without first consulting him."

What about the employees of the office-holder, or the contractor ? I therefore want the Government to add the following to the Bill : "and informing those bodies or persons likely in his opinion to be affected by any extension of these functions, and any representative organisation of such bodies or persons as the Minister may consider appropriate".

This is not to say that the Minister has to take any notice of the consultations. He may only say, "We have told you what you are going to do. You've got three months' notice. Prepare yourselves to do it." That of course is consultation at its worst, but consultations can at least enable the Government to do more effectively what they wanted to do in the first place.

We must remember the public, on whom these arbitrary decisions may rain down like confetti. Authoritarian and semi-authoritarian quangos, which the Minister is to set up, will issue more and more regulations.

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I foresee a growth of authoritarianism in this country the like of which we would not have contemplated even five years ago. It will not come in the form of people marching through the streets of east London or anywhere else. It will not come from the House of Lords, with Black Rod marching down and banging on the door. It will come with Ministers slipping into the Chamber while hardly anyone is in there to put through convoluted Bills giving them authority to do heaven knows what. Unless the Minister can persuade me otherwise, that will remain the danger.

Mr. Miller : I want to discuss the effect of this legislation on Government scientific laboratories and on the people who work in them.

It is outrageous that people who work as Government scientists should be expected to take a vow of silence on matters affecting not just their livelihoods--it is only understandable that they would want to discuss the pressures involved--but on the scientific implications of the changes that the Government envisage.

I recently spoke to a scientist from the Medical Research Council about an aspect of his work. He told me he could discuss it only so far and no further. It is quite wrong that a senior scientist, with knowledge of vital interest to all hon. Members about work of great value that he is undertaking on behalf of the Department of Health, should not be allowed to discuss his concerns for the structure of scientific research.

This Bill is being driven through by three Ministers : one of them a lawyer, one a grocer and one a car salesman. I make no comment on those three professions, but I will say that none of the Ministers is a scientist. I repeat that it is outrageous that those who are scientists cannot speak to Members of the House about matters that directly affect them.

At stake in the debate are the interests of the public versus the interests of the private sector. The interests of the public are best served by inquiring into how the research can best be carried out. My hon. Friend the

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Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) has told the House in some detail about the sort of processes being developed by the Efficiency Unit. The first report by that unit dealing with Government science laboratories covered a host of areas. It gave a list of other areas to look at in the future, but the one question that it did not pose was the basic one of how Great Britain plc should undertake this work in the best interests of its citizens. When science is driven by such ideology, we shall not get results that are in the best interests of our citizens.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) spoke about Warren Spring Laboratory and the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) and I both spoke about the Road Research Laboratory. There is at least some cross-party agreement, although I suspect not by the Minister, about the need to maintain that laboratory in the current structures.

No Opposition Member suggests that such laboratories should stand still for ever and a day and never change. In some cases, incremental change has taken place and laboratories have moved from the public to the private sector in a structured and organised way that was in the best interests of the science that was being undertaken. Perhaps the best example of that is the Camden food research laboratory in Chipping Camden. When that was established just after the first world war, it was wholly Government-owned, but it is now a private sector institution that works in a structured way for about 650 member companies and many Government Departments. That transition took place in a way that was in the interests of the science that was being undertaken.

The Government's approach is driven by an ideology and it is bound to fail the interests of science. As I have said, nobody in the Opposition believes that everything must stand still, but we want changes that are in the best interests of the nation. Against that background, I urge the House to support our amendments.

Dr. Wright : In Committee, we asked the Government to improve the contracting-out part of the Bill to make it more satisfactory in terms of the general scrutiny and accountability to which it relates. We had two main requests. First, we asked the Government to include in the Bill those functions of the state that the Government did not think were appropriate to contract out at all. All previous legislation on contracting out has sought to go down that road and specifically to exclude issues relating to policy matters, strategy matters or matters involving a substantial amount of discretion. This is an extremely important issue because it turns on what we think the state should properly do. The Minister may say that only a permissive power is being claimed, but that is not an adequate answer to my question. We must have a view of what it is appropriate, even in a permissive sense, to contract out because it goes to the very centre of what we think the public sector is all about. That is a question of some moment, but the Government have refused to contemplate it. The Government are taking to themselves a blanket permissive power.

We tried a second tack. We asked the Government to apply at least the same kind of scrutiny machinery that they propose in chapter 1 of the Bill to the contracting-out procedures that are proposed in this part of the Bill. That would have built in at least some kind of safeguard so that a Committee of the House could determine whether the

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