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Orders Of The Day

Volume 927: debated on Friday 11 March 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Clean Air (Places Of Entertainment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday next

Occupiers' Liability Bill

Order for Second Reading read

Second Reading deferred till Friday next

Deer (Nightly Close Time) Bill

Read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

Statutory Instruments, &C

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 73A (Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.)

Northern Ireland

That the Housing Finance (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th February, be approved.—[Mr. Graham.]

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 73A (Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Directorate-General For Information

That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/1695/76 relating to the Report on the activities of the Directorate-General for Information in 1975.—[Mr. Graham.]

Question agreed to.

Property Services Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Graham.]

4.2 p.m.

This is the third occasion upon which I have raised matters affecting the Property Services Agency. On the previous two occasions a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill and in a debate on report of the Public Accounts Committee

I declared that I had an interest in the subject. I feel that I should do so again today, because I am involved in the building materials industry which naturally involves me in contracts emanating from the Property Services Agency. But that involvement does not influence what I have to say today.

On the previous occasions to which I have referred I have been critical of the variety of activities undertaken by the Agency, but the reason for today's debate is—and it is well known to the House—that the head offices of the Agency are situated at the Whitgift Centre in the London borough of Croydon. It therefore follows that many of the Agency's employees are my constituents and the constituents of my three hon. Friends who represent the rest of the London borough of Croydon, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Weatherill), whose support I am glad to have today.

It is on behalf of those constituents that I seek to draw the attention of the House to the proposal to move the head offices from Croydon to the North-East of England, particularly to Teesside. The original move of the Agency to Croydon mainly took place soon after its formation in the early 1970s. This was acknowledged on page 138 of the Hardman Report where the point is made that it would be unreasonable to expect the staff to make a further more at an early date. What the Hardman Report means by "an early date" is a matter for conjecture, but I have a firm opinion on the matter. In my view, it is quite unfair to expect people who moved home only four or five years ago to suit the convenience of the Property Services Agency now to prepare for another move at this early date.

I am aware that the proposed move of the Agency to Teesside is not to take place before 1982–84, but the uncertainty and apprehension have already started, and all the families involved are extremely anxious. I repeat my view that it is quite unacceptable that these families should be disturbed so soon after having moved for the Agency's convenience.

Admittedly, after the Ministry of Defence, which Hardman proposed should be moved, the Property Services Agency is the largest arm of Government to be recommended for dispersal from London, but there is as a preface to the Hardman Report a statement by the Government making clear that none of the proposals in the report is sacrosanct. Indeed, the statement went even further, since it claimed that the Hardman proposals were nothing but a background for discussion.

I do not know to what extent discussions have taken place on the proposal to move the Property Services Agency, but I am reliably informed that the number of jobs likely to be affected is about 3,600. Of those 3,600, I understand, it is hoped that between 2,000 and 2,500 employees will move to Teesside, the balance of 1,100 referring to low-paid staff who will lose their jobs and not be given an opportunity to move.

I understand further that, when the staff made inquiries among themselves as to the reaction to the Government's proposal, only 1 per cent, indicated a willingness to move, 72 per cent. emphatically stated that they were not prepared to go, 14 per cent, said that they would go unwillingly, and the balance of 13 per cent. stated that would go if they were given the opportunity of promotion.

Those replies show that the staff are extremely unhappy at the prospect of moving. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will say something about the discussions which have taken place with the staff. Last August I put a Question to the Minister to ask what discussions had taken place, and the reply was as follows:
"The Staff Side has been kept informed of the Department's plans for effecting the dispersal to Teesside and invited to join in setting up a special sub-committee of the Whitley Council to facilitate further discussions."
Does the Minister believe that that reply—that the staff were being kept informed of the Department's plans—is in keeping with the spirit of the Government's undertaking in the Hardman Report to which I have referred, where they said that the report would give the opportunity for public discussion? Further, has the sub-committee to which reference was made in the Written Answer been set up? If so, how were its members selected, and on how many occasions has it met?

I turn next to the nature of the present offices of the Agency at the Whitgift Centre. I received two further Written Answers from the Minister on the same day last August, and these are particularly relevant. The Minister for Housing and Construction told me:
"The Whitgift Centre comprises three high-rise and one low-rise block extending over a wide area."—[Official Report, 5th August 1976; Vol. 916, c. 980 and 1203–4.]
The other Written Answer informed me that the unexpired term to which the PSA is committed in its lease of the Whitgift Centre following the intended move in 1984 is a further 26 years. That means that there are 26 years of unexpired lease on accommodation that is so large and so vast that it is likely that only another Government Department would accept an assignment of the lease or contemplate its rent. If, as one would expect, a prudent developer is involved, he is almost certain to have stipulated that any assignment of the lease must be to one tenant.

Therefore, when the PSA moves to Teesside, if it does, the Government will surely have only two alternatives before them. They will either fill the vacant space with another Government Department, which defeats the object of the move, or continue to pay the rent and rates on empty buildings for quite a long period.

Let us next turn to the proposed new accommodation at Teesside. What are the estimated costs of the new buildings that are required? I have heard mention of £30 million. If we accept that cost, or a figure in that region, what about the cost of the redundancy payments for those who are not prepared to move? That must be a large figure and the Government will be paying both contributions—namely, the employer and the Government contributions. What about the removal expenses of those who are prepared to go?

If 3,000 employees are made redundant, if 600 are moved to Teesside and if the Government develop the offices at Teesside and fail to assign the lease for any reasonable period, I estimate that the total cost to the Government will be not dramatically short of £100 million. If the Minister disagrees, no doubt he will give his own breakdown of the figures. However, the figures are substantiated by others.

Like every other hon. Member, I fully understand the argument behind the Hardman Report. We all understand the need for dispersal, but since the report was published in 1973 there have been changed circumstances. We have had considerable inflation and we have now accepted the need substantially to cut Government expenditure.

It is my considered view that in the light of all these changed circumstances the proposed move of the PSA from Croydon is totally impracticable. It involves such substantial sums that it should be abandoned. For the sake of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore) and my own constituents, 1 call on the Government to abandon the move very quickly.

4.13 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Taylor) for allowing me to intervene briefly in the debate. I thank him for the way in which he has taken the opportunity to express the case of all Croydon constituents. As the Under-Secretary of State knows, the PSA headquarters are in my constituency. Therefore, we have a serious interest in the matter.

The Minister will know that I have had an extensive series of letters on the subject, all of which have been dealt with courteously. We have had an unusual series of highly responsible letters from responsible civil servants, all of whom have argued the case effectively and seriously.

I stress that I do not regard this as in any sense a political issue. The dilemmas go across political boundaries and concern the Minister in the sense that he has the misfortune to have to tackle the problem at the end of the day. We are in the peculiar position of dealing with present problems with past solutions. To that extent it is important to understand the need essentially to re-examine the present position rather than the past position.

In another guise the Minister has been extremely kind in the way in which he has helped my constituents who suffered public blight caused by a road scheme in the Pitlake area. Within my constituency I have had the problem in the past of public blight being created by the proposed but now dead Channel Tunnel scheme. My constituents are conscious that public blight can have a radical effect on their personal and private lives and their future. I reiterate my hon. Friend's comments and ask the Minister to recognise the essential changes that have taken place since Hardman engaged in his considerations. Those changes are the essential depopulation of London, the different economic climate, and the fact that the sums have been talked about and arc now not viable in terms of public expenditure.

I hope that we can discuss the matter of the move to Teeside without concentrating on Teeside as opposed to Croydon. That would be unfair to Teeside. We must think not in terms of Teeside or Croydon but in terms of job creation for Teeside rather than job transference, because we are all interested in employment prospects in both parts of the country.

Will the Minister give a commitment to a public inquiry or, at least, a reappraisal of the situation with specific regard to the PSA? I ask that no work be done on the site that has already been designated in Teeside, because we do not want the Government to be trapped into a situation where, because of committed public expenditure, they cannot then change their minds. I stress that the matter is urgent, because my constituents are concerned and aware as are the constituents of the other three hon. Members involved. I hope that we can have an urgent response to these requests.

4.18 p.m.

I obviously have a constituency interest, but I should like to take the matter wider. A Conservative Government looked at the situation in which civil servants were concentrated in London and thought that for economic, social and strategic reasons civil servants ought to be dispersed. The next Labour Government followed that policy.

The dispersal would have been carried out years ago but for the fact that communications were difficult. But now communications are so easy that one can just as well do something in Teeside as in Croydon or London. In addition it was suggested that the PSA should be dispersed from London and both sides of the House agreed to that proposition.

I ask the Minister to consider the point that Middlesbrough local authority received a clear indication that the PSA might go to its area. The authority went into action and spent much time doing everything possible to meet the wishes of both the Government and civil servants. Indeed, the authority was led to believe by all concerned some time ago that there was a fair wind. So at this late stage there is some resentment. The matter is not understood.

Middlesbrough has all the facilities necessary for the good life. Indeed, things are not so hectic in that part of the world as down here. There are wonderful cultural facilities, the countryside around is beautiful, and executives of many leading industries—such as ICI —find that when they go North they do not want to come back South again.

I sympathise fully with the constituency interests of other hon. Members, but Middlesbrough is an area of heavy industry, and if young men and women want to join the Civil Service there are limited local opportunities for them to do so. If they want to rise to the top, they must come to London, and such uprooting has been going on for a long time.

I hope that the hon. Members representing Croydon constituencies will note that I am not hostile towards them in the narrow sense. I am speaking of the matter in the wider sense.

4.19 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Taylor) on obtaining this debate on the proposed move of the Property Services Agency to Middlesbrough. The people for whom he speaks are staff in my Department, and, even before I had received the spate of letters that have been sent to me by other hon. Members during the last few weeks, I was conscious of the feeling that existed among my staff about the dispersal of the PSA to Teesside.

Since I took up this post in December I have visited all the Departments that are likely to be affected as well as meet- ing the Staff to discuss the mater I want to take this opportunity to say something about the Agency and what it does. Recently, in another place, a noble Lady expressed complete ignorance of the PSA, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I say something about it.

The Agency was set up in September 1972 as a departmental agency within the Department of the Environment. It is an integral part of the Department, and Ministers are answerable to Parliament for its activities. It is headed by a chief executive, who is responsible to the Secretary of State. The chief executive is assisted by a board which includes, apart from senior officials of the Agency, two outside members, one a distinguished civil engineer, the other a distinguished architect.

The Agency as the job of providing, equipping and maintaining a wide range of buildings and installations for Government Departments, and the Armed Services, as well as other bodies. It holds and manages much of the Government's civil estate, including Government offices and establishments all over the United Kingdom as well as the diplomatic estate abroad. It manages Ministry of Defence property on its behalf, both at home and overseas. Within the Agency is PSA Supplies, which provides furniture, transport and other services, and operates on a trading fund basis. The clients it serves arc mainly Government Departments, but it has certain other clients, the most important of which is the Post Office, for which it provides services on repayment.

The staff of the Agency is about 50,000 strong, of whom about 30,000 are industrial workers, including about 7,000 locally engaged staff overseas. Of the 20,000 non-industrials, more than half are specialist staff—architects, civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, quantity surveyors, building surveyors, estate surveyors, technicians and drawing office staff.

The Agency undertakes all types of construction work—from houses and barracks for the Services to offices, research facilities, airfields, dockyards and telephone exchanges for the Post Office. It has about 1,500 major new works projects in various stages of design, and about 1,000 under construction. This year, 1976–77, the Agency's expenditure on new works will be about £400 million. Its maintenance bill will be about £300 million.

The Agency itself is the largest single client of the building industry in this country. While, as I have said, it employs a full range of professional staff of its own, it also makes very considerable use of private consultants. This year the bill for consultants' fees will be about £26 million. Its 23,000 industrial staff in the United Kingdom operate basic services such as boilers and sewage plants and carry out minor maintenance work. But much of the general maintenance work and virtually all the new works are carried out by private contractors.

With its experience of producing and maintaining such a wide range of buildings at home and abroad—many of a highly specialised nature—the Agency is able to provide advice on matters affecting the construction industry to the Department of the Environment. It also provides advisory services to overseas Governments and to private consultants and contractors operating overseas on a repayment basis. To sum up, the Agency is a highly professional—in the broadest sense—organisation which provides a very important service to the Government and to members of this House.

I come now to the proposal to disperse the headquarters of the Agency to Teesside. The proposal has its origin in the report prepared by Sir Henry Hardman in 1973. Sir Henry was appointed in 1970 to carry out a review, in the main, of headquarters work of Government Departments, and to examine the scope for dispersing it from London.

His report contained alternative solutions for dispersing about 31,000 Civil Service jobs from London, and it fell to the Labour Government to consider his proposals.]n July 1974 we announced our intention to embark on a 10-year programme for the dispersal of 31,000 jobs. This programme was warmly welcomed by the Opposition parties as the outcome of the Hardman inquiry, which the Conservative Government had put in hand. That programme included the dispersal of 3,000 posts from the PSA to Teesside and 1,000 more to the regional offices of the Agency. The move—this is what Hardman was referring to when he mentioned people leaving the PSA because of their move from Croydon— was to be the last phase of this 10-year programme, and it is due to take place in five to eight years from now.

The dispersal of the Agency had figured in all Sir Henry Hardman's proposals; indeed, his "regional solution" provided for the Agency to move to Teesside. I know that the Government's decision to make Teesside the Agency's dispersal location was a disappointment to the staff. The Staff Side had made it plain during the inquiry that as some 2,000 headquarters jobs had fairly recently been moved from central London to Croydon, they should in its view be excluded from the proposals. But if this could not be accepted, it had hoped that Sir Henry's first recommendation that the Agency should go to Cardiff would be accepted.

However, the Government's conclusion was that under Hardman's recommended solution too few of the 31,000 posts would have been dispersed to the assisted areas. The programme announced in July 1974 therefore put the emphasis on providing new office employment in places where it would do the most good. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, has recently confirmed the Government's intention to fulfil the 10-year programme, and the dispersal of the Property Services Agency to Teesside remains an important feature of that programme.

Much has been made of the cost of the whole dispersal exercise. I have heard various figures mentioned—including £1,000 million for the whole dispersal programme. I have seen no evidence to support this estimate. A major factor in the dispersal of the Property Services Agency's own move to Teesside will be the cost of providing a suitable building. We have not yet completed the design brief for the new building, so we are some way from being able to provide a firm estimate of the building costs.

But these are quantifiable costs. We have to set against them the others—in particular the value to Teesside of the job opportunities the arrival of PSA will bring. As I said a few moments ago, the main purpose of the programme was to improve the range of job opportunities in the assisted areas. That is an even more important objective now than it was in 1974 when the programme was announced.

I am afraid not. I have about two minutes left and I want to say something particularly to the staff of the PSA.

There will be some loss of efficiency as a result of moving the headquarters of the Agency from Ministers and London, but we believe that this has to be accepted in the overall interest. In any case the dispersal proposals involve less than 20 per cent. of the Agency's staff, for it has a very large regional organisation and over half of its 20,000 non-industrial staff are in fact already located in the regions. I am confident that the Agency is a strong resilient organisation which is fully capable of adapting itself to meet the new situation which will arise when its chief executive and his senior officials are located with most of the headquarters staff in Teesside.

Turning now to the concern of the staff in Croydon, I am fully aware, as I have already said, that the move is not welcomed by the staff concerned. Their Staff Side representatives have expressed their views very strongly to the Secretary of State and more recently to me about the move. I have also read the views expressed by the 100 or so staff who have written to hon. Members in the last couple of weeks explaining their concern at the proposal.

I fully understand their concern. I have not the slightest doubt that if we were to ask a large number of civil servants in the Northern Region to move to Croydon, they would find it no less in, convenient. Most people do not like moving 250 miles unless they can see some personal advantage in it. But there are some facts about this dispersal proposal that I should like to make clear.

First, there is no question of 3,000 civil servants in the Agency being required to move to Teesside. The dispersal proposal provides for the transfer of 3,000 jobs—not people. Many of the 3,000 jobs—which incidentally are located not just in Croydon but in central London and other places—are filled by non-mobile grades—that is to say, by clerical, typing, messengerial and other staff who, under their conditions of service, have no liability to move to locations beyond daily travelling distance.

We estimate that of the 3,000 jobs that will go to Teesside half will be filled by non-mobile grades. The 1,500 staff in non-mobile grades whose jobs will go to Teesside will be re-absorbed in other posts elsewhere. There should be no serious difficulty about this. The move to Teesside is not due to take place till the 1980s, so there is time to plan for the relocation of the non-mobile grades in other jobs. The numbers involved are well within normal wastage figures.

I come now to the 1,500 posts which are filled by mobile grades. These are staff in the administration group above the clerical officer grade, who under their conditions of service have to accept a mobility clause, and staff in the professional and technology group who have a similar condition of service. So far as these grades are concerned, the Government have made it clear from the beginning that they intend so far as possible to select staff for posts which are dispersed on a voluntary basis.

We shall do our best to proceed by use of volunteers. We have made this clear to the PSA Staff Side. There is time to plan for the move and so far as administration group grades are concerned there is every reason to hope we shall be successful in finding the numbers required. It is inevitable that there will be more difficulties over specialist staff. There are not the same opportunities for them to move to other jobs within the Civil Service. There will be special difficulties over the older specialist staff who by the 1980s will be nearing retirement age.

I would therefore urge the PSA staff to accept the offer which has been made to them of a special committee of the Whitley Council to discuss all aspects of the dispersal proposal. They have been kept informed. There have not been discussions because the Staff Side has not been prepared to take part in them, but there is a good record of staff relations in the Agency and I believe that the Staff Side has much to contribute, both in mitigating the staffing problems of dispersal and also in preparation for the new management tasks—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half ant hour, Mr. DEPUTY

SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.