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Public Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:43 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Labour 5:43 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, it is my pleasure and privilege to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Condon, on his maiden speech. How appropriate that he chose to address us on the subject of service as he is a distinguished public servant. He joined the Metropolitan Police in 1967. He worked his way up and was commissioner from 1993 to 2000. He knows the realities of public service, the satisfactions and the accountability, but he is also aware of the hurtful criticism to which we sometimes subject our public servants when they handle difficult situations on our behalf. He has carried that well. I hope that we shall hear him speak often in your Lordships' House.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Condon, that the concept of service applies equally to the private sector as to the public sector. I spent my working life in the private sector. After all, what is the concept of service? I believe that it is the desire to deliver satisfaction to the giver and to the receiver. Sadly, in the private sector that important concept has been pushed aside by the clamour for profits and fear of competition. More thoughtful businessmen know that companies are profitable and competitive if they can deliver satisfaction and service. Indeed, it is because business may have got these priorities wrong that some think that it cannot be trusted to deliver public services. Only yesterday the Association of British Insurers, which controls one-quarter of all the shares quoted on the London Stock Exchange, laid down some pretty tough new guidance about social responsibility.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate that the concept of service bringing satisfaction applies not only to companies but also to individuals. That surely is the only way to explain the huge amount of voluntary and philanthropic work described by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. People get satisfaction from putting something back into the pot, as they say in Yorkshire.

The concept of service not only extends to people who volunteer but also to people who give. People give to an incredible number of causes. They respond to political needs and natural catastrophes. They support the arts through museums and universities. They support searches for the causes of disease and remedies for injustice and the improvement of social conditions. All of that is fuelled by the wish to be of service to others. It is not done for personal profit or gain. Indeed, my right honourable friend Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently set up the giving campaign which is led by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. The objective of that campaign is to encourage a culture of giving and to increase the number of donors and the amount of donations.

But perhaps when the right reverend Prelate called our attention to the concept of service in the public sector he referred to the delivery of public services. It has long been part of the Labour philosophy that good public services make a major contribution to a fairer society. The discussion has concerned how those services can be delivered efficiently and with a high degree of satisfaction both to the givers and to the receivers--back to satisfaction again.

The Conservative government used privatisation to break up huge monolithic public services--water, gas, electricity, the telephone and the railways--in the hope that local smaller organisations would be more efficient and closer to the consumer and in that way would deliver a higher degree of satisfaction and service. That kind of outsourcing of public services works where there is competition, as failure means going out of business. But where there is not really an alternative, as in education, as described by my noble friend Lord Peston, the whole question of privatised delivery of public services is uncertain.

Certainly the market is a great stimulus to establishing high standards and aligning the interests and common purpose so essential to delivering quality public services. Yes, quality public services do require constant progress and innovations which the market stimulates. People are no longer prepared to accept that the standards of public service can somehow be less than the standards expected in the private sector. Yet if business wants to be trusted to deliver public services, it must not just pander to consumerism and crass commercialism. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford told us, the business of business is to serve society. So there is a place for public services in the enterprise culture and the market has a role to play in encouraging innovation and improvements. It is a difficult balance which the Government are trying to find; I wish them every success.