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When I entered the House more than 40 years ago, I had great problems, like many MPs, about which party it was right to go along with. I had the impression then, which was right, that the Conservative party was the party of efficiency, which went for change and would look after public money carefully. From the financial point of view, it was probably the party that best served the interests of the community. On the other hand, there was no doubt that the Labour party was the party that cared for people and had more concern for them, and that influenced me. However, having listened to MPs over the years, there is no point in hiding the fact that what worries me now is the impression I have received
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from recent statements by Ministers, including the one we heard today, that the Labour party is forgetting its care for people.
I live in Southend-on-Sea and meet many people who work there in one of the biggest Customs and Excise operationsour VAT office, which has a fine traditionso, in all sincerity, I can tell the Paymaster General that I know many of those people. I go to church with them, I go to meetings and dinners with them and they are very worried indeed about their future. Will they have jobs? Is the organisation to be changed dramatically? Will there be transfers to other places? That is a particular concern in a place such as Southend-on-Sea, which has traditionally had more unemployment than elsewhere in Essex and the south. The Paymaster General is a courteous and decent person, so I ask her, please, to realise the extent of the worry and concern that those major changes are causing.
My second basic point is that all the efficiency changes made by the Government are not working terribly well for people. The one big change that we had in Southend-on-Sea was the closure of our social security office and the transfer of the work to Jobcentre Plus or to the new pensions office in Norwich. I can assure the Paymaster General that, whereas pensioners used to like visiting the office in Victoria avenue to talk someone about their problems and to ask for help to fill in their forms, they now face the nonsensical situation of making contact with Norwich.
If the Paymaster General would like to phone that number herself, she would find out about all the nonsense involved in being switched from one place to another and hearing a voice that tells people what to do. In addition, the system is subject to long delays. Bearing in mind the number of people who have come to my surgeryI hold a weekly surgerythat is a horrible state of affairs for the pensioners, because they are not getting the same service and they are very distressed about that.
I hope that the Paymaster General appreciates that the VAT office is one of the major sources of employment in Southend-on-Sea. We have only two major employers: one is called KeyMed and the other, of course, is the department. When an earlier proposal was made to transfer the office to another place, it was accepted that Southend had such a long-standing unemployment problem that some special measures should be taken for us.
What are we trying to do? Of course, it would be easy to say, "Let's scrap all these new plans and leave things as they are." That is difficult for the Conservative party, which works in the interests of efficiency. The Paymaster General should appreciate three things. First, it is desperately important that the local staff should be fully informed of what is happening, when it will happen and whether it will have a major impact on their employment. Secondly, facilities should be provided for meetings and discussions involving employees and trade unions. Frankly, unless that happens, people are simply being treated with contempt. Thirdly, the planned changes should take account of the fact that some areas have a tradition of high unemployment and special provision should be made for them.
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Although I would in no way suggest that the Paymaster General is a difficult person or is being unkind, I hope that she appreciate that there is sometimes a danger of forgetting people in the rush for efficiency and change. I also hope that she will appreciate that the people who work in that office are very worried indeed and that they are simply looking for some assurances.
This issue was raised by the Treasury Committee, as the Paymaster General will probably know, and page 7 of the report that was made available today refers to a man called Mr. Varney, who is a Mr. Big in the organisation. He was asked what will happen if the redundancies take place. He was also asked whether the 9,000, 10,000 or 12,500 proposed staff cutsthe figures varythat result from spending review settlement will involve job losses. He replied that he could not rule out redundancies, but he would try to avoid them. Frankly, a married person buying a house with a mortgage, with two or three children at school, who is suddenly faced with the possibility of being made redundant does not have much to look forward to. If people are made redundant, I hope that the Government will go out of their way to try to ensure that they are offered advice about the alternatives or another form of employment.
I can appreciate the Government's desire to move towards greater efficiency, but as a local MP, I do not particularly like it because I found from the other changes that people previously benefited from personal contact with individuals and that they do not like the fact that they have to contact a remote office in Norwich and must do so by phone and by pressing buttons. That is not an improvement in the service for local people, so I hope that the Government will accept that such changes do not necessarily provide better services. In fact, because of all the problems with computers, people may get a worse service. The main thing is, however, that the people themselves do not think that it is better. They think that it is much worse. I hope the Government also realise that for those who face the possibility of redundancy is it frightening, horrible and cruel. I hope that they will go out of their way to reassure people, in particular those in areas of Southend, where this civil service work is a desperately important part of our local economy.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to sum up for the Opposition after what has been a high-quality debate. I pay tribute to the Paymaster General. It is true that she spoke for nearly an hour, but the principal reason for that was that she was generous in giving way to hon. Members on both sides of the House. We should acknowledge her courtesy.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) in thanking the Paymaster General for kindly giving us a briefing on some of the detail of the Bill at the Treasury recently. We were grateful for that. We were also grateful for the whistle-stop tour, following the briefing, of the refurbished Treasury, but we resisted the temptation to pause and measure up the curtains. We felt that that might have appeared gauche. Nevertheless, it was kind of her to take us on the tour, which we enjoyed.
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In a thoughtful speech, my hon. Friend explained that we do not oppose the Bill in principle, because it is designed to facilitate the eventual merger of two large Government organisations. However, we are concerned about how the proposed merger is likely to take place in practice, and I shall concentrate on that in summing up our position.
Before I do that, I want to refer to some of the contributions that we enjoyed. The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard), who served as a member of the Treasury Sub-Committee, spoke knowledgably on the subject. He provided us with some of the background to the proposed merger, including the genesis of the Butterfield report. We are grateful to him for adding that element to our deliberations.
The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) spoke from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. He, too, broadly welcomed the Bill, but like us expressed scepticism about the ability to generate material savings over the spending review period. There has been quite a lot of to and fro about that, so we would all welcome clarification of two things. First, what are the specific savings that the Department estimates will result from the merger itself? I am not talking about Gershon in the broader context, but how much public money will be saved as a result of the merger. Secondly, over what precise timetable do the Government expect those savings to be realised? In which year can we expect the full-year effect of those savings to have kicked in? If, for any reason, the Government cannot answer those two pertinent questions on Second Reading, they are in trouble from the word go. We look forward to the Economic Secretary clarifying those two points.
The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) told us about discussions with his local trade unions relating to the merger, including during a recent visit to Luton airport. He amused the House with his valiant attempts to pay duty some years ago on his return from an enjoyable trip to France. As he mentioned consulting the unions, and as that sparked off a spat between the Paymaster General and the Liberal Democrats, perhaps the Economic Secretary will summarise what consultation has taken place with the unions to date, so that there is no confusion. Perhaps he could also say a few words about how the consultation process is likely to be taken forward with the trade unions as the merger rolls out. Given the comments that we have heard this evening, it seems that Members on both sides of the Chamber will be grateful for that clarification.
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