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Public Service (Morale)

Volume 76: debated on Wednesday 3 April 1985

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

10.55 pm

Last weekend, the Sunday Telegraph quoted Mr. Keith Hall of the Institution of Professional Civil Servants at the Agricultural and Food Research Council Letcombe laboratory in my constituency as saying that

"scientists are leaving the service because they are so unhappy with the way it is now being run. Morale is very low, and some people moving from here to other establishments know that their jobs might be at risk".
I was not thinking of Letcombe when I first applied three months ago to raise on the Adjournment the matter of morale in the public service. Nor do I have in mind exclusively the thousands of scientists and scientific staff working in the public sector in my constituency at Harwell, at the Rutherford laboratory, at the Royal College of Military Science at Shrivenham and just over the constituency border at Oxford university and the Culham laboratories. Rather, I want to consider the state of morale in the public service in its widest aspects. I want to look at the situation of all those in the civil employment of the Government, working in what economists describe as the non-market sector. Here I am thinking of all the hundreds of thousands of central Government civil and scientific servants and the employees of health authorities and local authorities, including teachers—in short, all the hundreds of thousands of people who make up such a large proportion of our constituents.

Let the Letcombe story, however, serve as an illustration of my theme because it illustrates the issues very well. In a nutshell, the closure of the Letcombe laboratory, which I did not criticise or oppose, came about as a result of a reappraisal by Government and their agencies of the costs and benefits of a whole line of policy — in this case, that of the public provision of agricultural research, especially in the production of cereals. What has happened—a fact which the Sunday Telegraph failed to mention in its criticism of the closure — is that Dow, a private sector firm engaged in agricultural research, has bought the Letcombe site and proposes to expand there.

At Letcombe we see the particular manifestation of a general phenomenon, that of Government deliberately reducing the commitments of the non-market public service to make room — quite literally in the case of Letcombe — for the expansion of market-oriented business, chiefly in the private sector. That is a strategy which I and all Conservative Members support and which has the approval of some of the saner Labour Members, not to mention the alliance—at least when it is turning its tough rather than its tender face towards the electorate. Moreover, it is at least arguable that the strategy was approved by the country in 1979 and 1983 when this revision of the role of Government was the fundamental issue in two general elections.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that the nation, or at least the major part of it, seems to have arrived at lower expectations of what can be achieved through the agency of Government and hence of the public service. Moreover, in all the activities of the public sector it is looking for the closer relationship between costs and benefits that is experienced under market disciplines and by the use of managerial techniques developed in the private sector.

For those employed in the public sector, this change has had profound implications. I wish to spell out just three of those which I consider to be most important.

First, the Government's efforts to create the conditions for a market-led British economic renaissance through tax cuts and the reduction of public borrowing has had a powerful impact on public sector employment. Between 1979 and 1984, the number employed by central Government fell from 732,000 to 617,000, and in local government the number fell by a similar but lesser order. As a result of these changes, whose implementation, it must be admitted, has involved an inescapable arbitrariness, the work loads on individuals have undoubtedly increased, promotion prospects have been reduced and at the same time in many areas the scope and interest of the work has diminished.

As to wages and salaries, the position is more complicated, because so much depends upon the choice of a base year for comparisons. Undoubtedly some sections of the public service have seen real cuts — I think particularly of university teachers — while for most, including school teachers, the real value of their incomes has at least been sustained since 1979. Broadly, however, the picture seems to me to be one of a movement from an historic pattern, which lasted until the late 1950s, of relatively low salaries in the public sector bound up with greater job security, through a period in the 1960s and early 1970s when public service salaries rose relative to the private sector, but with no loss of job security, to a trend since the mid-1970s back towards the original pattern. While no doubt this is a more sustainable position, the return to it has certainly disturbed the exaggerated expectations built up in previous years.

There is a second implication of the new approach, the effects of the programme of privatisation and "contractorisation", together with the introduction of new management techniques which emphasise direct responsibility and accountability.

By the end of the 1980s, privatisation, coupled with the growth of trading funds in the public sector and the reduction of direct labour, will have removed hundreds of thousands of public employees from what they have often felt to be the security and stability of the public service to the perceived insecurity and risks of the market place. Within the central Civil Service, in the Health Service and, as we see, in the current teachers' dispute, there is a new emphasis on stronger line management and on performance, and this new emphasis is also disturbing traditional hierarchies and exposing the public service to unfamiliar and disturbing pressures.

Then there are the implications of the Government's efforts to promote a revived enterprise culture. This emphasis on the role and value of the wealth-creating entrepreneur is bound to have some impact on the self-regard of public servants and the esteem in which they are held by society at large.

Here we are in the difficult realm of psychology, and sometimes irrational psychology at that. Nevertheless, it is a real question what conclusions a public servant, whether in Whitehall, county hall, in the schools, in hospitals or in government laboratories, should draw from the idea—perhaps it is a caricature—that what matters most is the creation of new wealth by go-getting risk takers buying and selling in the market place.

Does this mean, some ask, that the rest of us are parasites? From the ethical point of view, does it mean that caring is less important than wealth creation? From the economic point of view, does it mean that the creation of wealth can be dissociated from the provision of those external public goods which sustain the framework of the market place and facilitate its workings? If one of the causes of the British disease is a culture hostile to enterprise, does this mean that the values imparted or reinforced in our schools and universities are wrong—that our teachers have the wrong values?

These are all good questions, and I dare say that all hon. Members are finding that they are questions which in one way or another are being asked with growing insistence every time we open our postbag or visit offices and schools in our constituencies.

It is these questions, this experience, which have prompted me to raise on the Adjournment the problem of morale in the public service. That there is a problem no one could doubt, although I guess that my analysis of its origins may be more controversial. What we can and should do about it is yet another matter.

For my part, I do not believe that the answer lies in an abandonment of the more rigorous approach to the purposes and cost-effectiveness of the public service that has prevailed since 1979 — or was it 1976? The diminished expectations of what can be achieved by Government and their servants, and the greater emphasis on value for money: those are not only welcomed by most of our people, including most public servants, but they represent a historical shift paralleled by trends in other advanced industrial countries of the First world.

The truth is that throughout the West we have come to the end of an exceptional period of some 40 years in which exaggerated hopes were placed in Government. We hoped for ever-expanding economic progress and for ever-rising standards of welfare and popular education. To secure those goods, we put our faith in a public administration growing in numbers, remuneration and prestige. After 40 years of that, we have everywhere in the West reached a more realistic sense of the limits of what Government can do. We know that the public service cannot create wealth directly and that it frequently consumes more than it produces. We know that in health and education more does not necessarily mean better. In all that, it follows that a Government with more modest aims implies a public service of more modest dimensions, receiving more modest rewards, and playing a generally more humble role in the scheme of things.

Therefore, the solution of the problem of morale in the public service does not lie in more pay or greater numbers. Rather, I believe that it lies in the more difficult and less tangible area of psychology to which I referred when I spoke about the implications for the public service of the attempt to rebuild an "enterprise culture" in Britain. The Government — my party — are right to perceive at the heart of our economic difficulties a problem of values. It is true that mid-20th century Britain—the Britain which wound up the empire and developed the welfare state—was a Britain that placed too much emphasis on distributing wealth rather than creating it.

However, I fear that in pursuing a cure based upon that diagnosis we may have narrowed our focus excessively and even perhaps lost something of that balance that is required in all things. Britain is, and will remain, a country in which the values of an enterprise culture must flourish alongside other values that are not necessarily opposed to them—the values of caring, healing, teaching and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The Conservative party is, and must remain, a party in which the values of the businessman run in harness with the tradition of public service.

In conclusion, I return to Letcombe. In spite of the regrettable actions currently being undertaken by civil servants and teachers, from my experience of that closure I would say that the core of the ethos of public service —that willingness to put the wider interest first—still exists. The people concerned at Letcombe could and did understand the need for reduction and rationalisation, although in some cases it took place at the expense of their private interests. Many, indeed probably most, public servants understand the need for radical changes if Britain is to break out of her deep-rooted pattern of relative economic decline. However, that appreciation will be sustained only if as a Government and as a party we continue for our part to show our appreciation of the vital role in Britain's future of a committed and well-motivated public service.

11.8 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on his wide-ranging and elegant speech, which deserves a better reply than he will get from me. It will be worth study by people who are concerned with the public service. The subject that he raises is of high importance. However, as he acknowledged, it covers a vast area. In a 30-minute debate it is difficult to deal adequately with the range of the subject.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the public service embraces over 5 million employees. Roughly one in five of the working population is employed full time or part time in the armed forces, the National Health Service, by local authorities, in the education service and the universities, and in the Civil Service. It is only the Civil Service for which I have particular and direct responsibilities, although I well recognise the importance of high morale in every area of the public service and at every level within it.

My hon. Friend referred to a few specific cases, and particularly to the Letcombe laboratory, which closed as from 31 March this year. I understand that the work that was being carried out at Letcombe will be maintained following the merger with Rothamsted. Indeed, the intention is that it should be strengthened by putting it alongside a wide range of related scientific disciplines and field experiments. I think that the comments made by the IPCS representative, to which my hon. Friend referred, were unduly exaggerated, taking account of the particular circumstances. I was, of course, delighted to hear from my hon. Friend that the site has now been taken over and is to be used. I hope that it will offer employment to people in the locality.

My hon. Friend also referred to the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham. I must be one of the few people who have never been in the armed forces but have nevertheless done a course at Shrivenham on atomic energy. While I was there I also visited the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority establishment in Harwell, so I have many connections with the area of the country from which my hon. Friend comes.

Shrivenham has seen changes. It has moved towards the teaching staff being privatised by a contractual arrangement with the Cranfield Institute of Technology. From what I hear, that is going extremely well.

We need to remember that across the whole field of our public service we have some areas which have a quite remarkable worldwide reputation for scientific excellence. I mentioned Harwell a moment ago, which certainly would fall into that category. One sees a major and significant role in the years ahead for those parts of the public service.

We acknowledge the problems and difficulties of recent years, but looking particularly at the Civil Service, and thinking of the time when I, as a very junior member of the scientific and engineering parts of the Civil Service between 1944 and 1963, was occupied with technical matters, I see that enormous changes having taken place. These have occurred not least over the last six years, when a very determined effort has been made by the Government.—as was recognised by my hon. Friend—to change the patterns of thinking within the Civil Service, which had over the years developed a remarkable facility for carrying out the duties placed upon it by this Parliament and by the Executive, sometimes in such a way that the carrying out of the task or function appeared to be the absolute aim, without real concern for the costs of the operation. One of the great contributions which has come from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and, particularly, from Lord Rayner, who aided her very much in the early years of her Government, has been in getting a much greater awareness of the need for cost-effectiveness in the operations within the public service, just as the discipline of the bottom line in private industry imposes that discipline on people in the private sector.

The changes that we have seen—and my hon. Friend mentioned privatisation, which at least in part has led to the reduction in numbers in the Civil Service, to which he referred, although most of that reduction has come from improved efficiency within the service—have brought a great deal of uncertainty, problems for management and understandable concern among the staff. Inevitably, morale has been affected. More effort must be made to achieve better communications and to improve management skills.

Good communications between management and staff have traditionally received too little attention within the Civil Service. But Departments have now identified them as a priority. Much is being done with welcome innovations in the communications methods and media used.

Effective communications can help civil servants understand how their work is used, why changes in procedures and methods are necessary, and how they will be affected by changes. In industry, studies show that the increased understanding that goes with better communications results in increased productivity, fewer industrial disputes, and better customer relations. We set similar targets within the Civil Service.

Individual Departments have carried out their own scrutinies of internal communications. Last year the Cabinet Office and Treasury commissioned a major study by specialist consultants of communications between management and staff across the whole of the Civil Service. The consultants are now completing their report and I look forward to seeing what improvements they recommend.

Centrally, we have tried to emphasise the importance attached to good communications in other ways: for example, by initiating a new series of newsletters for distribution to managers throughout the Civil Service; by circulating to a network of communications contacts in Departments examples of good practice, from both the public and private sectors; and by organising seminars and training courses for Civil Service managers at senior levels. Much greater emphasis is being put on management techniques and skills.

In the past, management information on, for example, pay or conditions of service often came to the staff via trade union channels rather than directly from management. It is no wonder that its presentation sometimes left much to be desired. Now management has better accepted, and is better carrying out, its essential task of keeping individual members of staff properly informed. I hope that it is also becoming more responsive to suggestions and ideas about improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the work done. Good management requires genuine two-way communications. This in turn helps keep morale high.

Of all parts of the public service, the Civil Service attracts the most unfair and ill-informed criticism generally, and particularly in the popular press. Yet the Civil Service does essential work for the community. It discharges tasks given it by Parliament and the Executive with a dedication and spirit of service which deserves high commendation.

It is a pity that some Civil Service union leaders are seeking to manipulate the staff of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise to inconvenience the public to attract publicity for their pay claim. It is unfortunate that on a day when this matter is being raised in such a broad and generous spirit in relation to the whole of the public service, some trade union leaders should behave so cynically by urging their members to disrupt holiday traffic over the bank holiday weekend.

It is not appropriate to discuss pay tonight. It is better that private talks and negotiations continue. I hope that a settlement of the present dispute within the Civil Service will be reached. Plans for strikes and disruptive action by the unions concerned are inappropriate at this time.

The Government believe that pay levels must be such as to recruit, retain and motivate sufficient staff of the quality needed to carry out the work asked of them. That approach has determined our attitude in the pay negotiations in recent years. Recruitment is generally satisfactory, although there are some problem areas—for example, among scientists, engineers, accountants, personal secretaries in London and executive officers, although it is worth noting that a much higher proportion of the new entrants to the executive officer grade are graduates than was the case in past years. I am delighted that recruitment of administrative trainees into the Civil Service—the high flyers for the future—was much more satisfactory in 1984 than in some other recent years.

The Civil Service competes with other employers in the public and private sectors, and so it should. I do not believe that the Civil Service should have some prior claim on the best talent, but it would be a bad and sad day if the Civil Service did not continue to attract people of high ability and great dedication. I share my hon. Friend's concern about the over-sharp distinction which is sometimes made between the public service and the private sector, as though one were good and the other were bad, and as though in some way, because the private sector was wealth creating and the public service was wealth consuming, one was superior to the other. That is a totally mistaken view.

Of course we must do just what my hon. Friend suggested. We must get the balance right, encouraging the enterprise culture, which must develop and expand if we are to get the jobs and the prosperity to which we all look forward, but doing so in a way that does not demean or detract from the essential contribution that must come from the great areas of public service within our society. If this debate has done no more than assert again the importance of the private and public sectors and the partnership and proper balance between them, it will have been well worth while.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock.