New Clause. — (Reduction in Cost of Civil Servants.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Selective Employment Payments Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th August 1966.

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Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames 12:00 am, 4th August 1966

If we had television in this Chamber, as one day we may, I think that people outside would be a little surprised that in a discussion of the Selective Employment Tax there were not more hon. Members opposite present than there are officials in the Official Box. People outside would be shocked to know that so little attention was being paid by the Labour Party to this Measure. Of course, we know that hon. Members opposite are going through an internal convulsion and are having to absorb a diet composed largely of a salad made of their election addresses, but, all the same. this is an immensely important issue and there is something very significant about the lack of interest of hon. Members opposite.

After all, we are told that the whole of the Selective Employment Tax is for the purpose of securing the transfer of labour from the services into manufacturing. It has been applied outside the Government service quite ruthlessly, even to activities which earn large quantities of foreign exchange, like banking and insurance, and it is somewhat shocking that the Government should seek to exempt themselves and local government from what they are suggesting is the right process for everybody else who provides services.

As was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod), this is not an attack on our civil servants. I have known them for a good many years and I know that not only are they the best in the world, but they do a wonderful job. The attack is on the Government for increasing the number of functions of government at this time to a point at which they feel bound to increase the staffs to discharge those functions. If everybody else in the community who renders a service, including those whose services operate directly on our balance of payments, is to have this economic pressure on him to reduce staff, we ought to have some indication from the Government that, either as my right hon. Friend suggests, or in some other way, they are taking action to reduce their own staffs. We have had no such indication.

The other day, in reply to a Question, I was told by the Financial Secretary that not only had staffs increased compared with last year, but that there was every reason to believe that they would increase further next year. Therefore, we have no indication at all—indeed, we have a contrary indication—that the Government are trying to do themselves what they are urging other people to do. If that is their attitude, they are not likely to get a helpful response. People are not likely to respond very willingly to someone who urges them to do things which he is quite unwilling to do himself.

It is absolute nonsense to suggest that it is not possible to reduce staffs central and local. I have some experience of this. I was Financial Secretary in 1951 when my party came to power to deal with the crisis which the Labour Party had left behind, just as we shall have to do at some time in the future. One of the things we did was to cut down the functions of the Government. In a modest way I had something to do with this. They may have been very admirable, but we thought that in that economic situation they were functions which the Government should not carry out, and we reduced staff. I am, therefore, speaking about something of which I have a modest supply of practical experience, and I think that this could be done.

My right hon. Friend referred to the increase in public relations officers and quoted 50 in the central Government service at an additional cost of £75,000 a year. But that is moderate compared with what is being done in local government and in respect of the greatest of all local authorities, the Greater London Council. The House will be aware that the Greater London Council has chosen this moment to announce its intention to set up a great new information department, to tell the citizens of London how well they are governed, at an annual cost of £600,000 extra a year.

I asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government—and I share the indignation of my hon. Friends that not one of his Parliamentary Secretaries even is here when we are dealing with new Clause 2—what he was to do about this. In the politest way possible, he indicated that it was not his business and that he was not going to do anything about it. It is shocking that, at a time when other people are being pressed to cut expenditures and staffs and when valuable services are being cut, the Greater London Council should set up a great new public relations and information branch. Of course, we know why it is doing it. It is to present a happy picture of a Labour-controlled London to delude the electors when they come to vote at the Greater London Council elections in April, but that does not excuse Ministers from dealing with it.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government says that he is not constitutionally responsible and that it is not his business. No doubt he is right, but Treasury Ministers have the ultimate sanction, for they control the general grant and it is not beyond their power to adjust grants so that when a local authority indulges in wanton extravagance plainly contrary to declared Government policy, it should have its grant denied as a lesson to it, so that if something is done, at least it is done without any element of expense to the taxpayer.

I cannot accept the attitude of the Minister of Housing and Local Government that this has nothing to do with him. Expenditure of this sort, bad enough in itself for the London ratepayers, who are already to have a further increase in their rates because of the local authority housing rent freeze, is even more of a bad example to other local authorities when the greatest of all, because it happens to be Labour-controlled and is facing an election, is allowed to get away with this.

There is an example in central Government bearing exactly upon the point that I was trying to make. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Land and Natural Resources—I am not quite sure if he still holds that office, because I gather that it is in a state of continuing liquidation—told us a short time ago that the Land Commission is being set up in advance of the Bill becoming law—that seems to be general Government practice—and would be built up to a total staff, central and regional, of 2,000 people.

Many of these people, and this makes it worse, hold very scarce skills, of which we are desperately short. No one would suggest that in this crisis the Land Commission has any relevance at all. I should be out of order if I argued that I hold the view that it will make land scarcer and more expensive. Even if the views of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, that mysteriously over the years for reasons they have not disclosed, land will become cheaper and more plentiful, are right, it will not have any effect for years to come. Why not, in this crisis, put the Land Commission into cold storage? This would, incidentally, help the Leader of the House with his muddled Parliamentary programme.

The recruiting for the Land Commission should be stopped and the extra 2,000 staff could be doing something more useful. Whatever the merits of the argument, the Commission has absolutely nothing to do with our present situation, or with the situation with which this tax is supposed to deal. The Chief Secretary and the Financial Secretary, with all the apparatus of the Treasury at their disposal, can give us many more examples. The Establishments Division of the Treasury will give the Financial Secretary a great many examples of Government functions which could be dropped.

What about the special licensing areas, with the staffs at the Home Office who are needed to keep the Home Secretary in business as a brewer? Is that an essential function at present? The Financial Secretary will find in the Treasury proposals to do away with that. There are lots of other functions which he knows could be dispensed with without any harm being done to the handling of the present economic crisis and which would benefit the present situation.

We must insist that either in the way proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West—and I am lost in admiration at the ingenuity of his proposals and the way in which he deals with the narrow restrictions to which we have been subjected—or in some other way, the Government must tell the people that they intend to do for themselves what they insist on everyone else doing in this crisis. For the Government to say, "Do as I say, not as I do", would be an intolerable thing for a Government to do and would not be tolerated by the people.