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Column 552Mr. Hunt: I reject the hon. Gentleman's description and analysis of the new First Civil Service Commissioner, and I have confidence that Michael Bett will uphold the traditional principles of the civil service. He has demonstrated that in the range of duties and responsibilities which he has carried out, and I am aware of the extensive public service work which forms part of his curriculum vitae. I sure that he will uphold the traditional values which I have just outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman).
Paragraph 1 of the proposed new civil service code states: "The constitutional and practical role of the Civil Service is, with integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity, to assist the duly constituted Government, of whatever political complexion, in formulating policies of the Government, carrying out decisions of the Government and administering services for which the Government is responsible".
That provides the remainder of the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington.
I hope that the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) will reflect on the comments he has made, because it has been my experience that Mr. Bett is respected by Members on both sides of the House for his impartiality.
The Government want to see sustained improvement in the administration of the civil service, and intend to achieve that by building on the approaches pioneered in the next steps initiative which we launched in 1988, and the citizens charter and "Competing for Quality" White Papers, published three years later. That means systems appropriate to the end of the 20th century, better management information, resource accounting, delegation to the right level, clear objectives, annual targets, the management of performance, a focus on quality and service to the customer.
From April 1996, individual Departments will have responsibility for implementing their own systems of pay and grading for their staff, and those systems will be suited to their particular needs. Beginning this April, Departments will have responsibility for drawing up their own three- year efficiency plans, which will incorporate a wide range of efficiency measures.
The efficiency plans will build on the "competing for quality" programme, which has realised savings averaging 20 per cent.--over £400 million a year--with no reduction in the quality of service, and indeed with improved service in one third of cases. Competition and new opportunities for the private sector have provided a real spur to increased efficiency right across the civil service.
The focus on quality and service to the customer are at the heart of the citizens charter. The charter aims to raise standards of service and increase the responsiveness of Government. The recent changes in the structure of the civil service are tailor-made to meet those objectives. The creation of agencies under the "next steps" initiative has devolved responsibility for the executive service functions of Government, from remote offices in Whitehall to those who deal face to face with the general public on a daily basis. That is where the public need high-quality service, and that is where the new structure of the civil service enables it to be provided. All agencies which directly serve the public already have, or are developing, charter standard
Column 553statements, so that people know what service they have a right to expect from Government, and what they can do about it if that service is not delivered.
It may not sound revolutionary that one can now take one's driving test on a Saturday morning and pay for it by credit card, but ordinary people asked for the change and are benefiting from it. The introduction of a tax helpline may not seem very significant until it is used to solve a problem, and all for the cost of a local telephone call, no matter where one is in the country. The one-stop service being introduced by the Benefits Agency will not mean much to those who have never visited a benefits office, but the people who count--the customers and claimants--will see a real improvement. There are now 102 agencies in the civil service, including the revenue departments, which run on next steps lines. Some 62 per cent. of civil servants--more than 350,000 staff--work in "next steps" organisations.
Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North): I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy will at some stage take the opportunity to deal with the issue of impartiality in more detail. As a member of the Select Committee dealing with that issue, I am aware that we brought Sir Robin Butler back to give further evidence.
The House will be aware that Conservative members of the Committee asked Sir Robin about a number of matters: first, the way in which 80 to 100 amendments were given by civil servants to various Back-Bench Members to wreck a Bill; secondly, the way in which Sir Robin Butler was involved in various investigations--Members on both sides of the Select Committee questioned whether he should have been involved in those; and, thirdly, the involvement of civil servants in what appears on the face of it to be a Cabinet Committee with a political, rather than governmental, objective.
Mr. Hunt: I intended to come to that matter later in my speech. I am in some difficulty, because I understand that the Select Committee is still considering the matter, and at some stage it will produce a report. The Select Committee is at liberty to call for any evidence that it wishes to consider, and I am not too sure whether I should start evolving a response to some of the points which the hon. Gentleman has raised.
I can say that I regard the traditional principle of impartiality to be fundamental to the future of the civil service, and it is a part of the duty of all Governments to ensure that that traditional principle is upheld. I shall return to one or two of the specific points which the hon. Gentleman made a little later, but I hope that my answer will reassure him.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North) indicated dissent .
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North): May I follow the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) has made? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that no civil servant will be employed in any form of political work associated with the new Cabinet Committee appointed to look for banana skins in the run-up to the next election?
Column 554servants are well aware of the need to retain their independence and political impartiality. However, civil servants have been dealing with the co-ordination and presentation of Government policy for as long as I can remember.
To return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) about the First Civil Service Commissioner and whether he should have been a civil servant, it is worth noting that the Select Committee favoured civil service commissioners who were not serving civil servants, and that the commissioners should be appointed from a wide range of backgrounds. I hope and believe that we have responded to the tenor of the Select Committee's recommendations.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) about the new Cabinet Committee, when I was appointed to my present position, the Prime Minister asked me to take special responsibility for the co-ordination and presentation of Government policy. I was also made chairman of seven Cabinet Committees, and I sit on nine other Cabinet Committees. I have been discussing with the Prime Minister what further steps might appropriately be taken to improve co-ordination and presentation, and I concluded that it would help to set up a new Cabinet Committee with a specific remit to undertake that work. The Prime Minister accepted my advice, and asked me to chair it.
The new Committee will provide a forum in which the relevant issues, right across government, can be addressed. It is a Committee of Ministers charged with co-ordinating and presenting the policies of the elected Government of the day and is serviced by civil servants. As part of the present Government's open government policy, the membership and terms of reference of ministerial Committees of the Cabinet are now published and updated regularly, so when a new Committee is established, unlike in previous Administrations, the Prime Minister now naturally informs Parliament, and that is what has happened in this case.
Mr. Mandelson: Will the Chancellor confirm that the membership of that Committee includes the chairman of the Conservative party? Is it a proper function of civil servants to spend their time cleaning up after him?
Mr. Hunt: Without being drawn into the nonsense in the hon. Gentleman's question, may I explain that the Cabinet Minister without portfolio sits on the Committee in his role as a Minister? He is a member of eight other Cabinet Committees.
This Committee consists of myself, in my capacity as Minister responsible for the co-ordination of Government's policy as a whole; the Lord President of the Council and the Lord Privy Seal, who are leaders of their respective Houses of Parliament with
responsibilities for handling the Government's parliamentary business, which are highly relevant to the new Committee's work; and the Minister without portfolio, who has a specific role in which he works closely with me to help co-ordinate and formulate Government policy and its delivery. Nothing could be simpler.
Under this Government, for the first time ever, those facts are made public and, as soon as we have a Cabinet Committee, the public are informed of its membership and terms of reference. This is the most open Government in the history of this country, because, for the first time, a
Column 555range of information that used to be behind the scenes, particularly under previous Labour Governments, is all now made public and open.
The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee pronounced a verdict on "next steps" which is worth quoting. It described "next steps" as
"the single most successful Civil Service reform programme of recent decades",
"We believe that Next Steps agencies represent a significant improvement in the organisation of Government and that any future Government will want to maintain them".
Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North): I entirely agree that we said that --it has certainly been my position--but we also said that "next steps" should not be seen as a staging post to privatisation. Will the Minister confirm that he accepts our proposals on that?
Mr. Hunt: I have already made the Government's position clear in our published response to the Committee's report. The foundation of the Government's position is to ask, first, whether the job in question should be done by the Government at all. If not, privatisation is an option that clearly presents itself. What I am now talking about is when the Government decide that the job in question should be done by the Government but that it would be most appropriate and effective for it to be done by a "next steps" agency.
Just recently, in the first open competition for a Permanent Secretary post in a Department of state, the job of leading the Department of Employment went to an agency chief executive--moreover, one who had been appointed to that agency post from outside the civil service following an earlier open competition. In many ways, that symbolises the coming of age of the "next steps" initiative. The setting-up of "next steps" agencies is, in itself, a valuable process. In progressing the initiative, there has been a thorough examination of every executive function in the Government. The "prior options" test, looking at the case for abolition, privatisation, strategic contracting out, and market testing, ensures that the Government undertake tasks that properly belong to them.
As I have just explained to the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), having determined the answer to that question, the next stage is to ensure that the Government perform those tasks to the best of their ability in organisations with the right structures, skills, and attitudes.
The Government must stick to their core tasks, deliver them to a high standard, and carry them out within tight running cost controls. The plans announced in last November's Budget mean that total cash spending in Departments will be held at the same level in 1997-98 as in 1993-94, which implies a 10 per cent. cut in real terms. That is clear and unambiguous proof of the Government's commitment to continuing improvements in efficiency.
These are, without question, challenging times for the civil service, but the civil service is responding. The changes that we have brought about are designed to make it responsive and flexible. That is the sort of civil service that we shall need for the next century.
I believe that civil servants retain the public service ethos that is their fundamental strength. The taxpayer pays their salary and civil servants want the taxpayer to get
Column 556value for money. Civil servants want more responsibility. They want to provide the best possible service to the customer; to be efficient; and to be paid according to how well they perform, not how long they have been in a job.
The whole principle of continuity and change have produced a civil service reform that is an outstanding British success story, which will help equip the United Kingdom for the challenges of the 21st century. The Government have built on the enduring values and firm foundations of the civil service, creating more flexible and efficient structures in which staff can work to the best of their ability and provide a high-quality service to the people of the nation.
Stewardship of the civil service is a vital task. I submit to the House that, judged against any standard, the Government have carried out that task responsibly, effectively, and well.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North): I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for the consultations with the Leader of the Opposition on the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner. I hope that the practice will continue and be extended to all senior appointments to the civil service and heads of significant agencies. After all, it will be standard practice for such appointments after 1 January 1996, as we approach the general election, on the basis of precedent.
Secondly, we support the establishment of the MBA course for civil servants --an important step forward--which is to be developed at the Imperial College school of management in London. Although that is a welcome step, the question of establishing the British equivalent of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration will continue and still has many arguments in its favour.
Thirdly, we welcome the tone of the letter that the Chancellor recently sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) about procedures to be followed on the code of practice for the civil service. Subject to the usual caveats, we shall do all that we can to help to achieve an agreed legislative framework for the proposed code for the civil service and ensure that it is in the legislative programme for the next Session. The Chancellor said in his letter to my hon. Friend:
"I shall of course let you know in due course of the outcome of consultation within the Civil Service, and would fully understand if you did not want to give a final reaction to proposals for legislation until those consultations have been completed." That would be precisely our position. It would not prevent us from chatting in the meantime.
There is still a need to grapple with two problems: the relationship of civil servants to Parliament and the House especially, and the problems of the public interest. I hope that those problems can be resolved. The Nolan inquiry and, more especially, the Scott inquiry will doubtless provide some helpful guidance on those matters, but they should not be allowed to prevent the introduction of the legislative framework.
I must add the congratulations of the Labour party to the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee, its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), and his colleagues, who, by the strength of their arguments, persuaded the Government of the value not only of a civil service code, but of a statutory one.
Column 557We now need to turn our attention to how best to secure the values that the Treasury and Civil Service Committee rightly identified as the unifying features of the British civil service-- impartiality, integrity, objectivity, selection and promotion on merit and accountability.
In the past 15 years, the British civil service has undergone a period of radical change. Collectively, market testing, agency creation and privatisation have led to the fragmentation of the public service ethos. Although we are pleased with the Government's change of mind on the civil service code, we believe that they must now also recognise the way in which the civil service is being splintered and its essential values dissipated.
No one denies the integrity of civil servants, but what chance do our civil servants have to show their integrity when morale is so low? I do not see the picture of the civil service and its members as painted by the Chancellor today.
Despite the fact that the Government rejected the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee's request for a civil service staff attitude survey, the Treasury nevertheless conducted its own survey in 1994. Sixty-nine per cent. of Treasury staff said that morale was poor, and only 16 per cent. felt that the Department was well managed.
Such is the contempt of the Treasury for its employees that during the recent downsizing--what a charming euphemism for sacking--of the deputy secretary grade in the Treasury, an official was reported in the Daily Mail as saying patronisingly:
"It is unlikely they are going to the best-paid jobs in the City--if they were that good we wouldn't have let them go"-- and the Government wonder why morale is so low in the Treasury, when it denigrates its own employees whose responsible jobs were to supervise the spending in other Departments.
That statement was made shortly after the reported massive overspend and confusion in the Ministry of Defence, in relation to its defence contracts and the handling of its properties. Now there is no one in the Treasury who will supervise the MOD in the handling of such affairs.
Mr. Forman: The hon. Gentleman should consider his facts more closely. I think that he will find, if he does, that the considerable manpower reductions that are proposed in the Treasury, following Sir Terry Burns' recent report, are almost all to be achieved on the basis of natural wastage, hence with the co-operation of the people concerned.
Mr. McNamara: That was not the impression that I received when speaking to some of the people involved and their representatives. It may be achieved voluntarily in the long run, but there are different ways of achieving voluntary redundancies, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows. I do not think that the civil service is any different from any other employer in achieving voluntary redundancies.
Morale is low not only in Whitehall, nor are all civil servants to be found there. Each day, for the thousands of civil servants who work outside Whitehall, the outlook has rarely been bleaker. Pity the poor civil servants who, in employment offices throughout the country, will have
Column 558to change their whole mode of meeting and talking to the public as they seek to enforce the results of today's mass vote on the Jobseekers Bill.
The increase in casualisation, the decline of promotion and career prospects, the minimal pay increases that civil servants have been receiving and the fervour with which Ministers have introduced large-scale market testing and plans for privatisation--some of them without even undertaking market testing--have left the great majority of civil servants feeling very insecure and worried about their future.
The Chancellor's blanket decision in the most recent Budget to cut numbers in the civil service by 10 per cent. regardless of the role, size or responsibility of tasks, shows the cavalier attitude that the Government display to the civil service as a whole and to individuals in particular. That 10 per cent. cut is a 10 per cent. cut in jobs because that is the most expensive element in the civil service. Such arrogance has also recently been displayed in the Department of Employment, where the Secretary of State enjoined his Department not to employ temporarily anyone for more than 51 weeks, lest they gain employment rights. By acts such as that, the Government have thrown a blanket of fear across the whole of the civil service, but they are also setting a shocking example to private employers. The current Conservative period in office began with the Government abolishing the fair wages resolution of the House, continued by abolishing wages councils and ends with the current Secretary of State for Employment setting standards from his own Department for the worst employers--a great change from the Churchillian tradition that used to emanate at one time from the Department of Employment and the way in which the Government then regarded their servants. In order to cope with that Government-instilled fear, civil servants are forced to sacrifice objectivity. The Government's White Paper, "Taking Forward Continuity and Change", outlines the introduction of individual contracts for senior civil servants at grade 5 and above. In such a job environment, where the proposed employer is the appropriate Secretary of State, how objective can employees be with their policy advice, especially if they know that every word that they say could be used against them in future contract renewal negotiations?
To avoid the risks of politicisation of the senior civil service, such contracts should at least be regulated by an independent or quasi- independent organisation. We are aware of the role that the Secretary of State envisages for the First Civil Service Commissioner. We await the outcome.
Further, there continues to be no explanation from the Government of the way in which they intend to resolve the constitutional dilemma of having a contract for civil servants with terms set out, including notice periods in the event of redundancy and dismissal, yet at the same time the Department retaining the royal prerogative whereby the Crown can dismiss at will.
Not only will senior civil servants have their own special pay arrangements, but, as the Chancellor said, so will all civil servants in every Department by 1 April 1995. Such pay delegation leads to more division of the civil service. National pay bargaining has served the civil service extremely well, underpinning the concept and practice of a
Column 559national unified civil service. Each year, approximately 40 officials in the Treasury effectively manage the national pay bargaining process of 500,000 people.
Ministers now mistakenly believe that by pay delegation they can offer greater scope for savings on running costs by keeping salaries as small as possible. In reality, after all the gloss has gone, the Treasury will retain financial control of the civil service pay bill. Why the stupid delegation? That delegation will serve to provide little more than a thin veneer of superficial control of the parts of the civil service with pay delegation.
Last year, the pay deals in delegated parts of the civil service were remarkably similar to the national pay agreement of 2.2 per cent., yet the cost of those parallel deals is evidenced by the fact that more than 3,000 people have taken courses at Sunningdale to learn bargaining procedures in the new Departments and agencies, and as many as 200 pay bodies will be needed to administer the various departmental and agency pay systems--3,000 people, when 40 did it in the past. There were four main negotiated settlements, but now we shall have 200. The Government call that less bureaucratic and more efficient. It is rubbish; and that from a Government who extol the virtues of efficiency.
The Government's means of efficiency--market testing, contracting out and privatisation--have eroded the civil service values of selection and promotion based on merit. Successful agencies, such as the Chessington Computer Centre and the Insolvency Service Agency, which, respectively, administer the Government payroll and investigate the affairs of bankrupts, and meet their yearly targets and beat off all private sector competition, are to be rewarded with privatisation. Since its creation in 1993, Chessington has outperformed all its private sector competitors. A high- quality service such as Chessington should be valued by, and retained in, the public sector, not primed for privatisation in order to fund tax cuts before the next election. The irony is that Chessington will possibly be sold to one of the private companies that it has regularly beaten in competition.
We believe in rewarding the agencies' hard work not by privatising them, but by keeping them in the public sector, serving the public good and setting an example to the private sector of the smooth and efficient delivery of service to the public. But the pace of reform is causing the fifth essential feature of the civil
service--accountability--to be left behind. If one allows agencies such as Chessington and the insolvency service to leave the Government via privatisation, the existing accountability arrangements no longer suffice. The Government do not seem to have taken that on board or to have introduced appropriate procedures for it yet.
In the case of the Prison Service, accountability for mistakes saw the buck pass from the Home Secretary to the head of the Prison Service to the prison officers and, then, to the IRA for daring to try to escape. That is a dangerous precedent, and it happens not only in the Prison Service. What a shambles the Child Support Agency was, but the Minister with responsibility again came up smelling like roses, just like the Home Secretary. They are escaping scot free from what should be their proper responsibility.
We are further worried about the Government's intention to implement a trial contracting out of the drafting of Treasury legislation to private sector lawyers, as announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Column 560Significantly, he made the announcement to the European Forum rather than the civil service or the House. The European Forum has been touting on behalf of some private sector lawyers for the work for some years. Private industry will draft some of the most politically controversial and market and price-sensitive legislation. One can only conclude that the Chancellor came up with that idea when suffering from mental and physical exhaustion after his efforts to create a new steel industry in Consett and build new nappy factories.
There are serious conflicts of interest in lawyers' chambers and solicitors' firms to be resolved. Private law firms will almost certainly use the trial period as a loss leader. Civil service lawyers are highly qualified and highly intelligent, but are paid only between one third and one half of what lawyers in the City can expect. Any widespread contracting out of the drafting of legislation will lead to a significant exodus of senior civil service lawyers to more lucrative opportunities in the private sector. The expertise of the most experienced and able draftsmen will be lost, not only to this Government but, more significantly, to any incoming Administration. There is a growing fear that, despite the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster's fine words, the Government's policies towards the civil service will make it increasingly difficult for an incoming Labour Government, elected on a popular mandate, to have the resources to legislate, implement and administer policy effectively. The five unifying features of the civil service are threatened by the incessant drive for dogmatic change. I conclude by stressing a sixth feature: flexibility, which was also mentioned by the Chancellor. Flexibility is not a value, but a necessary quality of any organisation at the end of this millennium-- especially in the increasingly vital sphere of information technology, its control and its use.
Information systems are, or should be, central to the operations of Government, Departments and agencies. Under market testing, those information systems are being sold to private sector companies. The information technology operations of the Inland Revenue and the Department of Transport have been sold to the same company, Electronic Data Systems. The Inland Revenue contract is worth £1 billion over 10 years. Electronic Data Systems offered the lowest tender, thereby winning a valuable prize--the Inland Revenue computer systems were admired throughout the Government and by many foreign Governments.
Now, the National Audit Office has identified 43 risk factors in the Inland Revenue contract. If EDS were to fail, it is estimated that to reconstitute the in-house organisation could take up to five years and cost the British taxpayer millions of pounds. EDS is excluded from liability for consequential loss arising from a breakdown in computer service. That means that the Inland Revenue cannot recover from EDS lost tax revenue or interest payments that it may be required to make on delayed tax refunds. What sort of contract is it when someone cannot receive damages when his partner fails to deliver the service that he said he would? That policy comes from a Government of business men.
The Inland Revenue runs the risk of losing control of its information systems. It will be virtually impossible for the small contract management team that remains to keep abreast of the constantly changing world of information technology or to have the knowledge to utilise it. The
Column 561ability to change policy now depends on technological infrastructures. We have already seen that with the concern expressed by some members of the Inland Revenue about the structure of the EDS contract. The Government will rely on EDS to tell them what it is prepared to provide, and it will not necessarily answer to Government needs. The Inland Revenue's current plans to computerise tax returns depend upon EDS's design and supply of the relevant equipment by 1997. EDS is currently deciding whether it can meet that deadline successfully, under the terms of the contract. The Inland Revenue must wait, twiddling its thumbs, for the decision.
Now, on top of all that, the Government are considering whether to make another contract with EDS to control the computerised identity database that will cover the entire population and could be tied to a national identity card scheme. The question immediately arises whether the Government should place so much trust in one company that claims in its battle honours the botched Student Loans Company's computer systems contract. Control of that company will not be in this country or even in the European Union, but in the United States of America. The company will be subject to American legislation. If there were to be a breakdown in the contract or a failure to renew, the Inland Revenue would be at the mercy of EDS and any other private companies that may have some of the knowledge. None of the control will be in this country. The Government have surrendered their responsibility abroad. What does that mean? Government by contract can lead to loss of flexibility and of the ability of the civil service to react to immediate events.
The Opposition would not argue that all Departments and agencies should be building their own information systems. But when we look to private sector expertise, we must recognise the difficulties in separating completely one from the other, policy formation, information technology, policy delivery and policy supervision. Government agencies must retain control of the strategic elements of their information technology and the technological know-how to be intelligent customers. The Government are running down that ability within the civil service until eventually it will be lost. Privatisations such as those in the Inland Revenue and the Department of Transport are being carried out by the Government in the name of private sector practice. Yet few private sector companies would enter into contracts of that scale and lose their core abilities. Contracting out should be a management tool that enhances flexibility. But under market testing it has been used as an institutional dogma that engenders rigidity in what future Governments will be able to do. It is not the reforms
themselves--"next steps", market testing and pay reform--that are endangering the essential qualities of the civil service, although one can raise all sorts of questions about them. It is the particular way in which they are being carried out.
Decentralisation is being implemented in a centralised manner at a pace that is leaving vital features behind and causing the Government to lose control. We must understand the effect that pay reform and job insecurity are having on civil service morale in order that impartiality, objectivity and integrity may be restored. We
Column 562must select and promote on merit rather than on the principle that private is synonymous with good and public is synonymous with bad. We need a revised framework of accountability for a reformed civil service that is not so dependent on the illusory distinction between policy and administration. The Cabinet Secretary tried to create that distinction and the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Social Security sought to take advantage of it. We must establish a creative balance between public and private provision, resisting the temptations of cut-price options with hidden long-term implications and recognising that government by contract can lead to increased risk and loss of flexibility. We do not want 20,000 civil servants in Westminster writing contracts that are dictated by the would-be service providers.
We must pull back from the brink of hollow government and restore the civil service as a national asset. The Chancellor's remarks about the civil service being a national asset were laughable when, by their policies, the Government are demonstrating that they are the biggest asset stripper in the land.
Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South): It is quite like old times for me to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), although on this occasion I am not following him in wearing a tie colour coded in orange and green. As we have disagreed before, I am sure that he will not mind my doing so again on the subject of pay delegation.
As, among other things, Customs and Excise Minister, I would spend one day in six weeks in the field. I had the opportunity to talk with civil servants during the day and it was my experience that, south of Watford, they wished to discuss only pay but, north of Watford, they did not raise the subject at all.
I am taking part in the debate primarily to deliver a personal paean of praise and a vote of thanks. Although the late Nick Ridley of enchanting memory used to say that the most confidential place to say something was the Floor of the House of Commons, I am delighted to offer both paean and appreciation in so public a forum. I served in five Government Departments over 15 years, if one includes the Whips Office, and I pay the utmost praise to the service that I received from civil servants in each and every one of those Departments. Those men and women were knowledgeable, diligent, agreeable, honourable and wholly devoted to the public weal. It was a pleasure to be a visiting player in their team. Many of them are employed in my constituency and, as a master of business administration, I welcome others to that state.
The most vivid index of their collective quality is the compliment paid by the last Secretary General of the European Commission, who was French. We are so often told, in Sterne's phrase, that they order these things better in France, so it is a delight to record the verdict of that long-serving French fonctionnaire: that, of all the civil service machines in the Union that interfaced with Brussels, the British was the best. It took a cross- Whitehall trawl on policy issues before a debate took place in Brussels in order to determine what was best for Her Majesty's Government as a whole. In many other capitals it was simply left to the lead Department to decide on a policy.
Column 563The proof of that pudding is the speed with which we implement EU directives and the infrequency with which we are taken to the European Court. In other capitals, the debate often begins only after the Council of Ministers has made up its mind.
Lest I should be thought purblind in a Panglossian manner, I remark in passing--as evidence that parts of the state of Denmark still require improvement--that, while I acknowledge that the instance occurred a decade ago, the worst spelling, punctuation and grammar of my experience occurred ironically in what was then the Department of Education and Science. The spirits of Chaucer and Rabbie Burns can rest easy in the knowledge that the most consistent good examples of those literary disciplines occurred in their old Department of Customs and Excise. In this case, I am perhaps being a little unfair to the Northern Ireland civil service; but my readings therein were diluted by the Northern Ireland Office. Perhaps Trollope can rest easy also.
My slender credentials for the debate include an unlikely one. The fact that my great granduncle served in this House with Stafford Northcote is less germane than the fact that my father shared rooms at Oxford with John Fulton of the Fulton report, at whose knee I therefore partly grew up. However, I served for four years in the late 1980s as Treasury Minister responsible for civil service pay and conditions and I was likewise responsible for some of the wider efficiency initiatives in the public service.
Without washing red tape in public, I admit that some of those initiatives were perhaps a little overdue. In one purchasing episode--where it had been assumed for years that costs rose with the inflationary tide--I salute the official who went to see for himself and inferred from the ubiquity of BMWs in the suppliers' car park that perhaps in that area of industrial activity the technology was moving in a deflationary direction.
The fact that the reforms have been spread over more than a decade has softened the process of change. Commercial bankers, like civil servants, had grown up in careers where it was assumed that there was a berth for life, with all the attendant industrial relations implications for pay and conditions. The implicit breaking of that contract, which occurred a decade earlier for bankers than for civil servants, came as a shock.
I can still recall the jejune embarrassment of the first essays in pay flexibility. But Departments learnt quickly, as they could soon be on the receiving end of another Department's unthinking ineptitude--I refer to the events of 10 years ago. With regard to civil service pay policy, I always found it easier to identify statistics for attraction and retention rather than for motivation. Where change does not occur--as is recognised in paragraph 85 of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee's report and in paragraph 6 of the Government's response--is in the civil service's commitment to Governments of different hues. The late Dick Crossman used to inveigh against the capacity of civil servants to thwart his plans or to seek to do so. There have been echoes of him in the past 15 years and no doubt they will continue into the next century.
Like the perennial complaint by Governments of all colours that the BBC is biased against them, even-handed scepticism across all parties must be evidence that all is reasonably well in this area of our constitution. Leaving aside the ingrained British habit of always thinking of
Column 564reasons for not doing something and leaving aside the great Sam Rayburn's memorable remark that the three wisest words in the English language are "wait a minute", it is the duty of civil servants to draw attention to all the disadvantages of a ministerial policy and to avoid those two terrible embarrassments for any Minister: changing policy in a hurry in mid-stream; and being caught at the Dispatch Box in the crossfire of arguments that he or she has clearly never addressed before. What Sir Humphrey describes as "Courageous, Minister, courageous", becomes reckless ignorance if no one said, "Wait a minute" first.
It is a compliment to the civil service that the Select Committee has done so thorough and even-tempered a job.
These are serious matters and it is right that they should be seriously addressed. As they are addressed in the Select Committee report, let me also praise civil servants for their self-restraint in not wondering aloud when Ministers would apply the same management techniques to themselves as they cheerfully endorsed for officials. There was no question but that Lady Thatcher ran a tight ship, yet whether a guru would have recognised it as management by objectives at individual level is more doubtful. Perhaps it is the highest compliment of all that civil servants are the regulars, the custodians of the constitution, while Ministers are simply territorials who pass by with short service commissions.