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Public Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 6:10 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I add my congratulations for the four outstanding maiden speeches in this debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford has given us the opportunity to debate this subject at an appropriate time. The grim events in New York last month and all that has followed have brought home that in the frenzy of our materialist preoccupations, we should never take for granted the dedicated men and women in our public services, both civil and military. They have provided, and continue to provide, a powerful reminder of what the values of a decent civilised society should be about. That has been evident not just since 11th September. In the foot and mouth epidemic and in this week's floods, we have looked to the civil and military services for their professionalism, effectiveness and commitment.

In my past work with Voluntary Service Overseas and Oxfam, I have repeatedly seen at first hand that same spirit of selfless service among thousands of volunteers and staff in the United Kingdom and abroad. It is something very special.

We like to think that we have moved into a post-ideological age, but have we? Our preoccupation with the market and with price as the most valid determinant smacks to me of perhaps an unprecedented ideological commitment in the United Kingdom and beyond. Of course we need a vibrant private sector, but it must be characterised by drive, financial discipline, entrepreneurship and vision, not dominated by short-term returns for shareholders, astronomical remuneration of directors, asset-stripping, blinkered business school core-business talk and greed. If the private sector is to be seen and encouraged as a key pillar of society, as it should be, company reports should invariably be convincingly about their social contribution as well as their profitability. There are many such companies and it is tragic that their contribution and commitment to service and to the community is frequently eclipsed by the sordid stories of the irresponsible opportunists.

Regulation is required, but it is seldom creative. There have to be the values and social priorities in the culture of the private sector itself. Experience and common sense demonstrate beyond doubt that there are social priorities in which the provision of services to all to a high standard will make more sense in the public sector; for example, where meaningful or sane competition will be absent or where the returns on the social investment, while always demanding efficiency and value for money, should not be unduly distorted by an over-riding requirement to make profits--in other words, where it is the high standard that matters most. Education and health are good examples, but so are other services where the quality of what is provided will underpin society and the rest of our economic activity. Large parts of our transport system, and, arguably, water and power, are among them.

The long-term sustainability of our society also requires hard-headed pragmatism on the relative merits of public and private provision in terms of what should be an overarching priority at all times--the protection and enhancement of the environment.

The essence of good governance is surely to achieve the right dynamic, rational and responsible mix between the private and public sectors; between the thrust of the private sector at its best and intervention for the common good.

The systematic denigration of too many public servants and public sector workers in recent decades has been tragic. There has been a refusal to recognise the economic value of commitment within a sector that the employees feel is primarily about service. It is hardly surprising if much demoralisation has inevitably followed.

The prevailing message seems too often to have been that those who have what it takes make money rather than championing those who endeavour to work for the quality of our society and unashamedly for others. Teachers, lecturers, social workers, health workers, postal workers, transport workers, municipal, rural and amenity workers and public service workers of all kinds should be celebrated as models for us all, not just in the aftermath of 11th September, but all the time, because they are working for a civilised reality with the wealth that we generate. By the same token, wealth producers--those who really produce wealth--should also be accorded pride of place.

All that should be evident in our value system in a cultural recognition of service. It should not be merely a matter of sentiment. While those who seek to serve professionally are invariably motivated by more than material reward, that sense of commitment should never be exploited. I believe that a decent society is one in which it is absolutely clear from the conditions of employment that such people enjoy how much we value the service provided by our public servants and those who provide service in a whole host of different ways.