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The Registrar Of Public Lending Right

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 30 January 1979

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

Amendment made: No. 61, in page 7, leave out lines 30 and 31 and insert—

'5.—(1) The Registrar of Public Lending Right shall be by that name a corporation sole, with a corporate seal.'.—[Mr. Oakes.]

I beg to move amendment No. 62, in page 7, leave out line 32.

This amendment seeks to delete the strange words in the schedule which state that the Registrar
"is not to be regarded as the servant or agent of the Crown".
My object again is to ask the Minister for an explanation. I say "again" because we have asked this before but have never had a satisfactory answer.

One of the principal objections to the Bill has been that it sets up a quango—a body of some 40 civil servants who will absorb about £600,000 of the funds available. The schedule clearly provides that the Registrar is to be appointed by the Secretary of State. We know that the Secretary of State will be able to direct the Registrar with regard to all the appointments of staff. The Secretary of State will dictate the numbers of staff and the terms and conditions of service, and we know that he will determine their pensions, allowances and gratuities. We are told that
"The approval of the Minister for the Civil Service shall be required for any directions or determination by the Secretary of State",
and so on.

12.45 a.m.

It is clear that the Registrar and his staff are totally under the control and direction of the Secretary of State, so why does this strange phrase appear—that the Registrar
"is not to be regarded as the servant or agent of the Crown"?
The only explanation that we have been able to come up with is that the Government are trying to find any way they can of reducing the apparent number of civil servants. If these people are civil servants, the Government have to add another 40 to the declared number of civil servants when all Governments like to pretend that they are trying to keep the number under control.

This is a quango. It seems to me that these are civil servants, and by inserting this strange phrase the Government are trying to dodge the truth. I hope that the Minister will either accept the amendment, which I think is logical, or explain the motive behind the inclusion of the words.

I think that there is a small point here. The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) made it basically. The point at issue is really quite simple. Why does anybody wish to conceal who are actually servants of the Crown? It is suggested in the Bill that the Registrar and all his employees, servants, minions, call them what one will, shall be treated as civil servants within the meaning of the superannuation Act but they shall not be regarded as civil servants for other purposes. That is roughly what the Bill says.

I shall be interested to know why the Bill says in line 32 on page 7 that the Registrar
"is not to be regarded as the servant or agent of the Crown"
when the superannuation Act says that civil servants are civil servants within the meaning of that Act. I think I am right in saying that the effect of this provision is to contradict the superannuation Act, which provides these people—whom we have not yet appointed—with their pensions.

The real question, as the hon. Member for Faversham says, is, why does anybody want to do such a stupid thing? We all know that there are far more civil servants than any Government will admit. The only point on which I disagree with the hon. Member for Faversham is that he says "the Government", as if it was this Government. I think that in his heart of hearts he will agree that the last four Governments, of both parties, have had this stupid idea of trying to conceal the number of civil servants by saying that people are not civil servants.

The classic example is the Manpower Services Commission. I do not know what to call them, because at one point the members were in the Civil Service, at another they were out of it, and at yet another point they were back in it. The result was that at one stage 20,000 people suddently disappeared from the Civil Service statistics. Purely as a matter of interest, 22,000 reappeared. In the intervening period, while they had not been there, they had increased by about 10 per cent.

What a stupid system this is. How can anybody believe in a system that says, literally, in an Act of Parliament, this great heavy-handed thing, this thing passed by both Houses, on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading, in Commons and Lords, that the Registrar is not to be regarded as a servant or agent of the Crown? Why? Because, of course, he is a civil servant. If this sentence was not included, he would be in the Civil Service statistics. The Registrar and all his employees would be in the Civil Service statistics. The only reason for saying in an Act of Parliament that it is not so is that in law an Act of Parliament is absolute. If it were not so, he would be a servant or agent of the Crown. He would have been appointed, but, in accordance with the Bill, he would not officially be a civil servant by a fraud, if I might say so, by a combination of both Front Benches trying to con the taxpayers into believing that they should support a minority—the authors—in the United Kingdom.

However, that is perhaps a majority opinion, expressed in a circumstance where it ought not to be expressed. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke), who is representing the Opposition Front Bench, frowns, but quite clearly, in the present circumstances, a majority opinion should not be expressed because we all know that only the minority opinion, only the expression of desire of the minority of prosperous authors, is to be obeyed in the House at this moment. The majority, who happen to be taxpayers, are not to be supported. That is an irrelevancy at this moment—it should not be, but it is.

The schedule, whose amendment I support, says of the Registrar:
"He is not to be regarded as the servant or agent of the Crown."
There is only one reason for putting such a statement in an Act of Parliament—that if it did not exist he would be a servant or agent of the Crown. In other words, not even the Civil Service of the United Kingdom believes in the existence of this Registrar—this Registrar of supposed public lending rights, but in fact private lending rights of a small minority. Not even the Civil Service wishes to tolerate the existence in its midst of a person collecting money from the taxpayers in order to pay it to a few private persons. We understand that.

But the fact is that not only these people but all the members of all the quangos—of which there are very many—have escaped from the control of the House of Commons. They have escaped for a very simple reason—because we as a House have tolerated that escape. We have accepted the disappearance of people who are, in their hundreds of thousands, working on behalf of the State but are not described in various Acts as civil servants. Here we are creating a group of, in reality, civil servants, but in order to make sure that they are not civil servants by description within the meaning of the statistics, the schedule says, unless it is amended, that the Registrar
"is not to be regarded as the servant or agent of the Crown."
In other words, we are sitting here, in this House of Commons, saying "We know perfectly well what we are doing, but we must not allow anybody to believe it, we must not allow anybody to suspect it."

Is it any wonder—and this is the really serious point about the amendment—that people outside have a few reservations about their system of government? Is it any wonder that there are people outside who say "Just because you do not count the servants of quangos amongst civil servants it does not follow that they are not paid by us, the taxpayers"? Is it any wonder that people have a view that the majority of this House, under any Government, may conceivably be hypocritical? I cannot see anything more hypocritical than creating a group of civil servants and proposing at the same time by law that they shall not be so described.

I rise with enthusiasm to support the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). I am very anti-quango. I think that all Members of this House should be equally anti-quango. The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case for the Minister of State to reconsider this proposition.

I rise to demonstrate to the House that it is not just members of the two main parties but Members in all quarters of the House who resent this special creation of civil servants who are not to be regarded as civil servants. I ask the Minister of State to have second thoughts on the matter. It is most important for parliamentary democracy that he should do so.

I shall resist the amendment, and I disagree with the amount of drama about parliamentary democracy and so on which has been imported into the debate.

First, I should make clear that this is not just an attempt by the Government to suppress information about Civil Service numbers or to reduce Civil Service numbers. Indeed, as regards the staff employed by the Registrar, although they would not count as civil servants their number would still be subject to scrutiny by the Civil Service Department.

The reason behind the Government's proposal here is that the functions of this body are almost exclusively executive functions. The Registrar will have to establish and maintain the register. He will have to pay out money to authors who are eligible. He will have to reimburse libraries for their expenses. Moreover, the work itself will require some specialist staff—computer systems analysts, in particular, and statisticians—and some casual labour for peak periods. Clearly this is the kind of work, in the Government's opinion, which it would be cost-effective to hive off from a Government Department. That is the simple reason behind this line in the Bill.

I should make one further point. I am not sure—I ask the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) to reflect on this—that it is desirable for a body of staff distributing money according to a set of rules to be civil servants themselves. Is it not better that they should do it at arm's length from Ministers?

Would the Minister suggest, then, that the staff of the Department of Health and Social Security should cease to be civil servants? They distribute money, too.

I shall seek leave to withdraw the amendment, but I must say that the Minister's answer was totally inadequate. If he examines it, he will, I believe, find that the points he made were quite contradictory, and the examples given by his hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) about the executive activities of so many Departments really disprove his case.

Nevertheless, although the Minister did not answer the point, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Objection is taken. The amendment cannot be withdrawn. I shall therefore put the Question.

Amendment negatived.

With the leave of the House, I propose to put the remaining five Government amendments together in one question.

Amendments made: No. 63, in page 7, line 40, leave out from "to" to "under" in line 2 on page 8, and insert
"the approval of the Secretary of State as to their numbers; and their terms and conditions of service, and the remuneration and allowances payable to them, shall be such as the Registrar may determine.
(2) The Registrar may direct, in the case of persons appointed by him".
No. 65, in page 8, line 9, at end insert "of".

No. 66, in page 8, line 16, after second "the", insert
"Secretary of State and the".
No. 67, in page 8, line 17, leave out "Secretary of State" and insert "Registrar".

No. 68, in page 8, line 19, after "Act", insert
"(execpt paragraph 7 of this Schedule)"— [Mr. Oakes.]

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.