Orders of the Day — Directorate of Overseas Surveys

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th November 1976.

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

Photo of Mr Bruce Douglas-Mann Mr Bruce Douglas-Mann , Merton Mitcham and Morden

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the Order Paper tonight are the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill and the Public Lending Right Bill. It would appear that the Public Lending Right Bill is not being moved by the Government. Can the procedures of the House be considered to be satisfactory when legislation which—

Photo of Sir Arthur Irvine Sir Arthur Irvine , Liverpool Edge Hill

Order. I think it improper for a point of order of this sort to be raised during Adjournment time, and it is taking that time.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker

Photo of Sir Arthur Irvine Sir Arthur Irvine , Liverpool Edge Hill

No. I cannot take points of order during the Adjournment time. The Bill has not been moved, and therefore I cannot hear points of order about that Bill.

1.5 a.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

This debate for which I have asked concerns the move to Glasgow of 360 trained cartographers and other experts from their purpose-built headquarters at Tolworth in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher). I should say at the outset that a good many of my hon. Friends have said that they would have wished to take part in the debate if there had been time, but, unfortunately, we are confined to half an hour.

It is, I think, the unanimous opinion of all those who work at Tolworth that they do not want to make this move, but they do not take that view for personal or family reasons. Their real fear is for the future of the Directorate of Overseas Surveys itself and whether it will survive. The move is all part of the 1,000-post slice which the Ministry of Overseas Development must move from the London area up to Glasgow, upon the orders of the Government. The object of the exercise, according to the Hardman Report, is to take more jobs from the Londcn area to areas of high unemploy- ment, and also to take advantage of the lower cost of office space in those areas outside London. In this case neither of those objectives is fulfilled.

The job of the members of the staff of the Directorate of Overseas Surveys is as follows. They play a small but important part in the aid programme to the Third World. When countries of the Third World are planning the development of resources, such development can be held up entirely through a lack of medium-scale maps. There is, therefore, a spin-off here in that trade is apt to follow the map rather than the flag. Immediately one has a map of an area, all sorts of other experts are needed to give advice. The service is therefore of importance to this country.

I believe that the staff who work at Tolworth do it virtually as a vocation. They are not particularly highly paid, and there is very little chance of promotion. All they want to do is perform their job efficiently and get on with it in peace. Their present location at Tolworth is convenient for purposes of liaison. To begin with, they are near the Ministry, which is an advantage. They are reasonably near their printers at Southampton, the Ordnance Survey printers. They are near the Land Resources Division of the Ministry of Overseas Development, which is shortly to move to Basingstoke, and they are not far from the Hydrographic Survey office at Taunton, as well as being close to the mapping and charting establishment at Feltham.

The equipment used is extremely sensitive and sophisticated and there will be great difficulty in moving this equipment up to Scoltand. It will be an expensive process—about £30,000 for the most sophisticated equipment, the stereo plotters—and experts will be required to come from abroad to relocate these machines and calibrate them. Moreover, it will entail the demolition of buildings in order to get them out. There is also a highly organised library of about 2 million photographs and 100,000 maps.

The Hardman criteria for the movement of Government work out of London were really concerned with clerical grades, the principal idea being that there would be jobs in the clerical grades. Hardman did not concern himself with the more expert people in the Government service he saw the gain in respect of clerical staff. But among the staff at Tolworth the clerical grades account for only 12 per cent., and there are 88 per cent. of specialists or senior adiministrators. Therefore, the proposed move does not really fall within the criteria.

In addition to this, it is expected that only five new trainees a year will be taken on in the new location. That is the total increase in jobs, and it will cost some £8,000 over four years to train cartographers who at present are recruited nationally from all over the country simply because of the difficulty of finding these people in one location.

Therefore, one wonders how this training will take place. Possibly 100 people will not find themselves able to move and will have to be replaced. How are these people to be trained? Where will they come from? Will the Directorate be split in order to perform this task? These questions have not been answered.

Then there is the question of the costs It has been estimated—I think that this was in a ministerial reply—that the capital cost of the move will be £2½ million. Perhaps the Minister will say whether the overall cost is far short of £5 million, which seems to me to be a very large sum of money to spend for no gain in any direction at all, either in jobs in an area of high employment or in increased efficiency.

Then there are the costs of the severe loss in mapping production which the period of the move will entail, before, during and after the move, and the loss in contracts. It is expected that this will take five years to make up. Then one must count the cost in human terms in the dislocation from homes, families and so on. The ultimate cost is likely to be very great. It is no exaggeration to say that it could mean the destruction of the DOS through loss of output and loss of trained staff.

Set in the context of the present economic crisis and the inevitable cuts in public expenditure, this proposal seems to be bureaucracy gone mad. If there were a political advantage of some sort, one could understand it. But there is no political advantage because there is likely to be no increase in jobs in the Glasgow area. In fact, the families of the people moving up there, working wives and working teenage children, will be requiring and demanding jobs.

I am not blaming the Minister. I do not envy him in his task. However, he has a very good case to take to the Cabinet, and let us hope that common sense prevails.

1.13 a.m.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) for allowing me some of his time.

The Directorate of Overseas Surveys is situated in my constituency and most of its home-based staff of 320 people are my constituents. I have met two deputations of them—I also discussed the matter some time ago with the then Parliamentary Secretary—and I am very much impressed with the arguments they advanced, as I believe the Minister has been impressed, although I do not want to put words into his mouth.

I have a file of 116 letters on this issue from constituents—115 of them against the move, and one, from a Scotsman, in favour of the move.

I understand the general Government policy of dispersal, but this really is an exceptional case and policy should never be so rigid that it cannot make exceptions where they are justified.

As my hon. Friend has said, this is a specialist unit, 88 per cent. of the staff being specialists recruited nationally who could not be replaced by unemployed people in Glasgow without a four-year specialist training course at a cost of about £8,000 each. At least 100 of the present staff, I would think, will have to go to Glasgow, whether they like it or not, in order to train the new recruits and to do whatever work it is possible to do, although I should have thought, as my hon. Friend indicated, that the map-making side of things will suffer and that that aspect of our aid programme will suffer by the move.

If to avoid that disadvantage the Ministry were able to persuade a larger number of the present staff to go to Glasgow, very little new employment would be created in the Glasgow area and there would be no benefit to anyone.

The expense of the move is not confined to the training of new staff. Moving a specialist unit of this kind is not just a question of desks and files. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is difficult and costly to move specialist high precision equipment.

The accommodation provided at Tolworth is purpose-built. Similar accommodation would presumably have to be built again at some expense in the Glasgow area. The present premises would no doubt revert to the local authority which would have to convert them back to ordinary office use.

I understand that, for up to three years, the Tolworth staff would be eligible for travelling expenses home at the weekends —a further cost of £4,000 or £5,000 a week for 100 people. It is incredible that, at a time when the Government are or should be making drastic cuts in public expenditure, an expensive move of this kind should even be considered.

But these are the financial costs. But I am even more concerned with the human cost involved in this disruption of the home and family life of so many of my constituents. They are not just cogs in a machine.

The consequences of this move in human terms should also count very much in the scales against it. Many of these people have been at Tolworth for 20 years or more. All their friends are there. Their wives and children may be working to supplement the family income. If so—I know of many cases where it is—far from creating employment opportunities in the Glasgow area, extra people from the South—wives and children—may be looking for work which does not exist.

One of my constituents, recently married, faces the move to Glasgow while his wife, employed by the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, faces a move to Cumbria. That small family will be totally disrupted. If these specialist-trained people refuse to move, they will have to find less skilled work in the Surbiton area with a corresponding fall in the family income at a period of high inflation.

All in all, this move will cost the taxpayer considerable sums of money with virtually no benefit to anyone—certainly not very much benefit to Glasgow—and with maximum loss to the happiness and personal lives of my constituents.

I am not blaming the Minister. I know where his sympathies lie, because I know his character. I have known him for a long time. I can only hope that the debate may serve to give him some aid in the representations which I understand he may be making to his Cabinet colleagues to try to secure an exception from general Government policy in favour of this small, efficient unit and those who work in it.

1.18 a.m.

Photo of Mr John Moore Mr John Moore , Croydon Central

I, too, should like to express my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) for allowing me to make a brief contribution because I have constituents who are actively involved in this establishment at Tolworth. I hope that the Minister will, if possible, read the excellent study which I shall give him, prepared by Stephen Tucker of Shirley Way, Croydon, who works in the establishment and who, to that extent, puts the questions better than I can.

All I can say is that this might be an opportunity for one of my more distinguished constituents, if not the most distinguished—the Minister—to illustrate flexibility in Government at this last moment to allow my constituents to benefit alongside those of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher.

1.19 a.m.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton

Like my hon. Friends the Members for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) and Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore), I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) for allowing me to join their ranks and to point out that I have constituents who will be affected by the move. Surely, the Government should not take any deliberate actions which will seriously disadvantage those specialist staff who are employed at Tolworth.

I should like to concentrate on one particular point. The specialist staff at Tolworth are classified as mobile, as I understand it, a classification within Civil Service terminology which was assumed on behalf of many of them after they had joined their present employment. If they decide not to go to Glasgow they will have to leave the service without the benefit of redundancy payments and they will also have to seek other employment—a point which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton—employment in which they will not be able to utilise their specialist skills.

This puts them in a particular, not to say a special, case, because it is not as though they can just go somewhere nearby and seek similar employment. They are in a special category because of the nature of the service they provide. It is largely a governmental type of service which is not done in the private sector and they will not be able to go round the corner, metaphorically speaking, and find another job. They will be devoid of the advantages of redundancy and will not be able to get advantages similar to those they have in their present jobs. That puts them in a seriously disadvantaged position.

1.21 a.m.

Photo of Mrs Margaret Bain Mrs Margaret Bain , Dunbartonshire East

I should also like to make a contribution and to congratulate the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) who has raised this subject.

The whole question of job dispersal within the Civil Service is of extreme significance in Scotland. I should like to discuss some of the aspects of that question, but first let me say to some hon. Members opposite that we are quite civilised in Scotland. There is a general feeling, particularly in the West, that many people in the service feel that jobs should not be dispersed to Scotland on the basis that they fear losing the weighting allowances which they receive south of the border, and because they fear that they will not be able to understand us.

I must declare a constituency interest because in Cumbernauld New Town in my constituency we have been pressing this question for a long time. This is one job dispersal which will be important for us in Cumbernauld. It would be a Government centre in Scotland and on that hinges a lot of future development for much of the West of Scotland.

The dispersal of this Directorate would be a psychological boost to the whole of the West of Scotland. It has been regarded as a deprived area with many problems and the psychological boost of having this directorate there would be very meaningful to the area. We have suffered emigration. People have left because there have not been the job opportunities and there has been little incentive for them to stay. There is high unemployment in the area, higher than in other constituencies about which hon. Members have spoken, and ancillary to that is the question of job dispersal to Scotland.

We hope that the Government will not be put off a policy of job dispersal to Scotland because of unemployment elsewhere. We ask them to remember the particular problems of the West of Scotland and to realise the great psychological boost which this move would provide for us in the West of Scotland. Too few jobs in the Civil Service have come to us and this is an opportunity for the Government to show that they care about the high level of unemployment in the West of Scotland.

1.24 a.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , Newham North East

This has been an interesting debate in which the arguments which the hon. Lady has just put and those of the first four sneakers illustrated the dilemma facing the Government in this decision.

I shall make one of those awful replies which say "On the one hand this and on the other that". It is the case for one-armed Ministers.

I saw the staff side of my Department, including representatives of the DOS, on 21st October. They made a very strong case to me. I said then that this matter would be further considered by my colleagues and myself. That consideration is continuing. It is not complete. I cannot, therefore, make a definitive reply to the House tonight.

I would agree with all those hon. Members who paid tribute to the work of DOS. It has made a unique contribution in the developing world in the last 30 years. It exists entirely in order to serve our technical co-operation programme with developing countries. It is financed entirely from the aid programme. In the last 30 years it has carried out the mapping of over 2 million square miles of territory in the developing world as well as undertaking a considerable training programme both in Tolworth, where people have come from the developing world, and in the developing world, where staff from Tolworth have been seconded.

The case against moving DOS is in many respects a special one. Some of the arguments, with respect, made by the first four speakers were arguments which could be applied to many establishments which are due for dispersal—the argument about convenience of location, cost and so on. But here there are certain special considerations.

I should like to underline two in particular. One is that the type of work in which these men and women are engaged is so specialised that for those who feel that for family reasons they cannot or do not choose to make the move to Scotland, there would not be comparable work available in the London area.

Meanwhile, if a substantial number do not choose to go to Scotland—and the Staff Side estimates that perhaps half might decide not to go—those who do go to Scotland will be so engaged in the work of training new recruits that the production of the unit could well be seriously affected. That is an important argument and one that I have clearly to acknowledge.

Another special reason is that the future life of the DOS itself is limited. A review of its future was carried out recently. I am glad to say that as a result of that review the Government were able to decide that it had a clear future for many years to come, but the size of the operation will diminish. We are talking of about 320 jobs to be transferred from Tolworth to the West of Scotland in 1980 or thereabouts. But the establishment will probably be reduced to about 220 during the 1980's and the whole operation will probably be phased out by the end of the century.

Therefore, a serious disadvantage from the Scottish point of view is that people trained in this work would not necessarily have the career prospects that they might expect in some other work. These are arguments which support the case for keeping DOS at Tolworth.

The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) properly drew attention to the case for dispersal. Those of us who see the difficulty of making the transfer have to face up to the fact that we are in the classic situation of being in favour of dispersal in general but against a particular example.

The easiest thing for a departmental Minister to say to his colleagues is that their people should be dispersed but his should not. That is the difficult aspect of the whole thing. It was in July 1974 that the Government announced their dispersal proposals, broadly following the lines of the Hardman Report, and accepting the need to transfer some 30,000 Civil Service jobs out of London over a 10-year period to go mainly to the assisted areas. Those 30,000 jobs comprise people working in many situations where there are special arguments against making the move.

As one hon. Member recognised, there are other parts of the Ministry affected besides DOS and considerable practical difficulties are involved in moving them. If this had been a longer debate and if it had taken place at a more civilised hour, many hon. Members from assisted areas would have set out the case which the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire East outlined, perhaps at greater length, and would have made the case for saying not merely that more jobs are required for the assisted areas but that those areas should have a better share of jobs with a professional or technical content, white collar as well as blue collar jobs.

We have all said, have we not, from time to time, that the imbalance of job opportunities in the United Kingdom can be solved only by pretty drastic surgery within the Civil Service, the nationalised industries and the private sector so that fewer of these specialist jobs are available in London and more in other parts of the country? Therefore, if there is a reconsideration within Government—there is a reconsideration of this point but I can make no announcement tonight—it is against that background of the need for dispersal that any special case must be argued, and it is very difficult to argue such a special case. I repeat that the matter is being studied but that I cannot forecast the outcome.

It is reasonable to acknowledge, as I have acknowledged I think, that there are special reasons in the case of DOS which are peculiar to it. I certainly agree with those who say that we must be very careful to see that this unique and valuable organisation is maintained and that nothing is done to destroy it. On the other hand, it is vital to recognise that the whole dispersal programme could be whittled down by a series of special cases and that we must balance one argument against another.

Photo of Mrs Margaret Bain Mrs Margaret Bain , Dunbartonshire East

Can the Minister give any indication when he might reach a decision about the dispersal programme? It has been drawn to my attention in the last week that the process of trawling in terms of job dispersal is not to operate in Glasgow until 1984, which suggests that the Ministry of Defence project will be held back. Therefore, we are increasingly interested in Departments such as the Minister's in terms of what they will mean to the West of Scotland.

Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , Newham North East

No, Sir. I cannot give an indication of that. As the hon. Lady has reminded the House, there are proposals for dispersing a large part of the Ministry of Defence to the Glasgow area. That is a much bigger operation numerically than that which we are dis- cussing tonight. Inevitably, when the Government consider any one unit, they have to do so against the background of the total programme. I do not want to go beyond that. I must not be even more indiscreet than I usually am. Therefore, I cannot answer the question.

Clearly, everyone is entitled to have more precise information as early as possible—certainly the staff of DOS and their families are entitled to a more definitive statement—but the Government's policy as of tonight is the dispersal policy announced in July 1974. There is no alteration of that policy which I am authorised to announce. I hope that I have indicated to those who have raised the question that I recognise the special problems, that I have been going into them carefully and that I have been impressed by the staff side argument. But I cannot go beyond that. I shall inform the House and the staff and everyone concerned when I can give more information.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Two o'clock.