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Civil Service (Dispersal)

Volume 975: debated on Tuesday 11 December 1979

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

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

1.1 am

I am thankful for the opportunity of debating the important subject of Civil Service dispersal to Glasgow. When a previous Mr. Speaker granted me a debate on this subject on 18 April 1973, the Minister responsible for the Civil Service stated that it was the first debate on the dispersal of Civil Service jobs. Sadly, that means little since 13 years will elapse between then and when the jobs go to Glasgow in 1986. That is disgraceful by any standards and is the main reason why I raise the matter tonight.

It is right that I should place on record my personal tribute to the many people in the west of Scotland from the local authorities, the Churches and the trade union movement and others who have campaigned vigorously in support of the dispersal programme. The campaign has been led ably by the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Mr. David Hodge, and the Convener of Strathclyde region, Mr. Charles O'Halloran.

There is growing resentment and anger at the way that the Tory Government are treating Scotland. The substantial cut in Civil Service jobs, the savage cuts in public expenditure and the decision to delay the dispersal of jobs to Glasgow until 1986 is not without significance, coming from a Tory Government, which, according to the election results, have no real political base in Scotland.

The Government have only to examine the male unemployment figures for October this year to understand the gravity of the situation. The figures are appalling. In the central office of employment area, male unemployment is 26·7 per cent.; in the Easter house area, 21 per cent.; in the Ruther glen area, 26·8 per cent.; and in the Govan and Springburn offices,12·5 per cent.; and 13·7 per cent. respectively. Those figures are even more appalling when compared with the 4·4 per cent. male unemployment in the south-east of England.

I trust that the Government will not look on the figures solely as statistics. They represent human misery and suffering. They make one think of the Jarrow and Clydeside marches period. This Government must understand that the people of west-central Scotland will not stand by and watch while large parts of their country are condemned to dereliction, decline and decay. Therefore, the Government have a duty to act in a bold and decisive manner by giving the kiss of life to this area and by declaring that the promised 1,400 jobs will arrive much earlier than 1986.

I take no pleasure in saying that in the city at present there is a growing catalogue of despair because of the closure of such companies as Prestcold, Singer and Goodyear, together with the redundancies in the shipbuilding and steel industries. There is also the announcement by Sir Charles Villiers in today's press that 50,000 jobs will be lost in the British Steel Corporation. That will affect Scotland substantially, as well as the rest of this country. These redundancies and closures are creating a crisis of confidence about job prospects in the city that can be alleviated only by urgent Government action.

I now put some questions to the Minister which I hope that he will be able to answer tonight. He will be aware that I have asked several parliamentary questions on this subject over the years. Will he confirm, first, that the answer that I received to a question on 20 July 1979, which said that Glasgow was one of four areas in the country still to receive Civil Service jobs under the dispersal programme, is still accurate?

The Secretary of State for Scotland was quoted in the Scottish press on 29 November 1979 as saying that he promised to examine with his ministerial colleagues the feasibility of an earlier move to temporary accommodation. Will the Minister give that same promise at the Dispatch Box tonight? Is he aware that the local authorities have assured me that suitable office accommodation will be made available until the St. Enoch site is ready?

Will the Minister also give an assurance that a forward planning unit will be set up as early as possible to assure the people of Glasgow of the Government's good intentions about the 1,400 jobs? If the Minister has been properly briefed, he will be aware that the Ministry of Defence was on target to send 1,500 jobs to Glasgow by 1983–84. That figure is referred to in column 1008 of Hansard of 20 July 1978. Therefore, it should not be a problem to meet that number of posts, especially when the Labour Government were planning to send more than 5,000 posts to Glasgow.

There is deep concern among local authorities that they have committed themselves to substantial expenditure in preparing the sites in Glasgow. Having heard the dismal and depressing news about the cutbacks, we may be asking questions about compensation. Is the Minister able to tell us whether any claims have been made by the local authorities at this stage for compensation for lost expectations? What agreement, if any, has been reached so far?

The Minister knows, perhaps better than anyone in the House this evening, that he, together with the Secretary of State for Scotland and his colleagues, campaigned strongly before, during and after the general election for the full implementation of the dispersal programme. Is it not politically dishonest, therefore, for him meekly to accept the Government's savage cutbacks in the programme as applied to Scotland? What is more galling is that, according to press reports, the Minister is claiming credit for the topping out of the East Kilbride building to which the Overseas Development Adminstration is to go, when the credit should go to the Labour Government.

The good will of the Civil Service is essential to any dispersal programme—indeed, it is essential to the efficient working of the Government. That good will will surely be strained to the limits by the substantial cuts in the Civil Service that were announced last week. Indeed, the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, stated in the House on 6 November 1979–somewhat proudly, to my dismay—that the Government had reversed the major expansion of jobs that was begun under the Labour Government.

Nevertheless, because of the special circumstances of the city of Glasgow, which were always recognised by the Labour Government, I look to the Minister to indicate that this Government, even after eight months of inflicting misery and hardship on the citizens of that great city, might have a special conscience and that dispersal to Glasgow will be delivered at an early date. To do otherwise would only confirm my opinion that, as far as the problems of Scotland are concerned, this Government are already frozen in the ice of their own indifference.

1.10 am

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) for initiating this short debate. I am very much aware of his strong feeling over many years now on the dispersal of Civil Service jobs, and I welcome this opportunity to make clear the Government's commitment to dispersal and to explain what we are doing to implement our commitment.

We made it clear before the general election—the hon. Gentleman referred to remarks made by my hon. Friend and me before the election—that we proposed to review the overall programme of dispersal for the Civil Service, and we set in train that review when we came into office. Our conclusions were announced in the House by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department on 26 July 1979. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there was no delay in coming to the point on that matter.

As hon. Members are aware, the previous Labour Government's plans for the dispersal of MOD posts, which were announced on 4 April this year, included the relocation in Glasgow of about 4,000 posts from a large number of provincial locations. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that this package was entirely contrary to the Hardman principles that posts should be relocated from central London. We decided to take a different course, and our package involves the relocation of more MOD posts from London to Glasgow—1,400 in all—than had previously been envisaged.

I should like to make it clear that our progress on our planned dispersal of Ministry of Defence posts to Glasgow is on target and that, despite recent suggestions in the press and elsewhere to the contrary, our commitment to dispersal and our determination to carry it through are undiminished. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland emphasised this when he met a group of local authority and other representatives in Glasgow on 7 December to discuss this subject.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether local authorities had made claims for compensation because of the delay with the programme. The answer is "No". But I suggest to any local authority that may put the point to me that, if it wishes to seek a recipient for its claim, it should lodge such claim with the Labour Party because, during the period 1974 to 1979 the Labour Government talked a lot about dispersal but made no dispersals to Glasgow during that time. The hon. Gentleman should take that into account in his criticisms of anything that has happened since the election

When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army announced to the House on 27 November that he envisaged 1986 as the likely date on present plans when dispersal posts in his Department would occupy office accommodation in Glasgow, there was an immediate fuss from the Opposition. But, as I have already indicated, in view of their record on dispersal, I find their attitude ironical.

As my hon. Friend made clear, dispersal cannot happen overnight. We settled our strategy in July, and since then we have been preparing detailed plans. The first step, as my hon. Friend indicated, is to select the Ministry of Defence posts to be dispersed. We hope to be able to make final decisions on that matter by the end of the year. So, again, I suggest that there has been no undue delay on that important decision.

I would also say that this is not a simple matter. It is not merely a question of switching from London to Glasgow Ministry of Defence jobs formerly destined for elsewhere. The complex effects of our requirements on the organisational structure of the MOD need to be considered carefully. It is noteworthy that the identification of the Ministry of Defence package over these few months will be a great improvement on the performance of the previous Administration, which took from July 1977 to April 1979 to announce the full package for Glasgow.

We should also bear in mind that Hardman did not recommend the dispersal of any Ministry of Defence jobs to Glasgow. I must dispel the illusion in certain quarters that there are large areas of Ministry of Defence work that can be instantly taken up from London and placed in Glasgow at short notice. The MOD headquarters is already widely dispersed to Bath, Harrogate, Liverpool and Worcester. As Hardman pointed out, dispersal from London is not a recent development, and the Ministry of Defence has, over the years, moved from London large areas of work that could be devolved down the line to establishments throughout the United Kingdom.

In Scotland, for example, there are some 20,000 Service personnel and 22,000 civilians employed in a wide range of important defence establishments. I have been assured by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence that it is the deliberate policy of the Ministry of Defence to look to Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom facing economic difficulties when seeking locations for future new developments.

To which Under-Secretary was the Minister referring—the Navy, the Army or the Air Force? If it was the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, the Minister has made an important statement. Can we assume that there will be no cutback as a result of the recent visit by the Under-Secretary of State to Rosyth dockyard?

I am sure that on a question such as this my hon. Friend will be speaking as Minister at the MOD. I believe that it was the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army who made the statement in the House on the last occasion to which I was referring.

I should like to refer to the question of timing. The hon. Gentleman will realise that the detailed planning of accommodation requirements of posts to be dispersed must take some time if the job is to be carried out properly. This will commence as soon as the package of posts has been identified. I have already given the commitment that the identification should be made before the end of this year.

The building to house dispersed civil servants will be one of the most significant Government office building projects in Scotland in recent years. It will be about the same size as New St. Andrew's House in Edinburgh, with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar, and will form a key element in the major redevelopment of a crucial site in the centre of Glasgow. We think that this is also important. Any office building of this size would be a considerable undertaking. It is particularly desirable that this scheme should be planned and designed to a quality matching the importance of its location. Glasgow, after all, will have to live with the results for a long time.

There is also need for a building that accommodates its occupants efficiently and in accordance with their needs and provides a good working environment. All this creates complex problems for the planners.

I would like to make a point about the completion date of 1986. This represents the Property Services Agency's present best estimate. The timetable is not over-generous. The hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grange-mouth (Mr. Ewing) is amused. He should know that the PSA has a regular job to carry out and has experience of meeting requirements of this kind. Nevertheless, I can assure hon. Members that we shall be seeking to improve on that date and making sure that there is no avoidable delay.

This point was raised at the meeting between the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Glasgow local authorities. That is why I anticipated the Minister's next point. I understand that the Secretary of State told the local authorities that the PSA was talking in terms of three years for planning and three years for building. That is not the local authority view. A senior Conservative councillor who is a professional in the building trades has said that this is grossly exaggerated and that the PSA or any private contractor could complete the planning in 18 months and the building in two years. That is terribly important. Could the hon. Gentleman confirm that that was the view expressed at the meeting?

I was not at the meeting, but I take the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. Our view of the matter is that, whereas the PSA has given us the best estimate, we shall be seeking to improve on that and making representations to the PSA and others involved to see whether this process cannot be speeded up.

I turn to the question of speedier arrangements generally, and not just the time it will take to prepare the building. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has already indicated that he will be pursuing with colleagues the feasibility of an earlier move to temporary accommodation, as has my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department. There are, of course, difficulties in this, for example, temporary adaptation of accommodation is costly; and it might be difficult to find leases for the short time involved. But we are giving full and serious consideration to the scope for such an operation to permit the earlier move of posts. We are not being hidebound by the proposals made by the PSA. We are seeking other means of speeding up the relocation of these posts.

I am sorry to press the Minister a second time in this short debate, but he will understand the grave anxiety in the city of Glasgow regarding the possibility of this development not coming to Glasgow at all because of the savage Civil Service cuts announced last week. As an indication of his intentions, will he say that a formal planning unit will be sent to the city—it would be welcomed by the local authority—comprising a senior civil servant and perhaps a very small staff? May I have that assurance from the Dispatch Box tonight? That would be an earnest of the Government's good intentions and it would really raise the morale of the people of Glasgow.

It is rather dangerous to exaggerate the hon. Gentleman's last point. Obviously, the planning for this building, facility and transfer must take place in Glasgow. The size of the unit involved in that is something which I am not able to confirm at this stage. I do not think that anyone can tell at this stage just how, where and when that unit will be located. But clearly a planning team will be necessary for this project. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we should hoist a big flag outside the unit's door to improve the morale of the citizens of Glasgow, certainly I personally have no objection to that—that it should be seen to be doing the job and not just sitting quietly in an office in the city doing this planning.

On the question of showing signs on the ground that the proposal is under way, the recruiting schedule for the posts to be filled will be determined obviously, in the first instance, by the progress on accommodation, but we shall start recruiting for these posts as soon as it is practicable to do so. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army has already indicated, there may well be an advance move of certain posts concerned with publicity, recruitment, staff training and other matters some two or three years in advance of the main move. That goes some way towards meeting the point about signs of activity on the ground which the hon. Gentleman was making.

Some people have suggested that recruitment should start now, with recruits from Glasgow working in London until the move north. Experience of previous dispersals has shown that staff in non-mobile grades—essentially, the clerical grades—are reluctant to uproot themselves to London, but staff are recruited nationally for the grade of executive officer and above and their wish to work in units to be dispersed to Glasgow will be taken into account by the Civil Service Commission, whose practice is to advertise national competitions in the receiving locations.

This debate is about Glasgow. None the less, the progress being made at East Kilbride represents a tangible demonstration of the present Government's commitment to carry through their dispersal plans. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department indicated to the House on 5 December, it is still our firm intention to begin to move posts from the Overseas Development Administration to East Kilbride next year. I suggest that this, again, is further evidence of the Government's commitment to carry out their dispersal programme to Glasgow as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

In making these points to the hon. Gentleman, may I express the hope that he will reconsider his opening remarks, which were extremely pessimistic and uncalled for, not only because of the Government's commitment to dispersal to Glasgow but because of the action which the Government have taken in six or seven months. In carrying out the action that I have recounted and in making the moves that I have described, our record is far better than that which the Labour Government achieved in four or five years in office from 1974.

It is not a lot of rubbish. It is a matter of moving people and carrying out our commitment to move people. If we can achieve that much in seven months, it indicates—

I shall allow the odd interjection, but not a running commentary. May we have a little silence while the Minister finishes his speech?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I reiterate the Government's firm commitment to dispersal and their intention to complete the package for Glasgow as soon as it is practicable.

I have taken note of the arguments and I hope that the hon. Member for Queen's Park is satisfied with the replies. I recog- nise the need to speed the dispersal to St. Enoch, and, while some difficulties exist in the short term, I am sure that we can complete a project with which the people of Glasgow will be happy and proud to be involved.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels more assured of the result having instigated the debate at this rather late hour. For my part, I intend to ensure that the progress we have made so far is fully maintained in the months and years ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past One o'clock.