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Public Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:41 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Hooson Lord Hooson Liberal Democrat 6:41 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I, too, want to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on winning the ballot and enabling us to have such a fascinating debate on the subject. We have heard impressive contributions, not least from the four maiden speakers. Each spoke from a different viewpoint and background and they made most valuable contributions.

To many people in their daily lives and work, the concept of service as a sufficient motivation in itself has been seriously devalued for well over 20 years. The incentive of the profit motive has been elevated to the status of a panacea for solving most of our economic problems and problems with our public services. Without doubt, self-seeking advancement is an important element in the motivation of society. But the motive of service is of equal importance. Depending on one's temperament, beliefs and up-bringing, it can bring to many if not most people in our country a great sense of fulfilment, satisfaction, happiness, achievement and security which would elude so many of them if they were confined to a competitive jungle. Everyone is different.

I speak as a Liberal who has always believed in free trade and private enterprise as being essential for the economic prosperity and well-being of our country and the world, provided that there are adequate safeguards against monopolies and economic imperialism, a qualification which some of our American friends have not yet fully appreciated. I do not believe for one moment that privatisation or the private initiative is the answer to all our problems either in the economy or in the social services. Yet new Labour appears to have adopted it as a replacement panacea for the old Labour one of nationalisation.

I have been in one or other of the two Houses for almost 40 years and I remember being virtually howled down by Labour supporters in another place when on behalf of the then tiny Liberal Party I objected to the renationalisation of steel. Equally, I was against privatisation of the railways. Steel has always seemed to be a competitive business. It needs to be efficient and productive and that is more likely to be achieved in the hands of private enterprise. But our railways are a public service.

Looking back over the past 20 years, in common with the vast majority of people in this country I would 20 times prefer the nationally owned and operated railway systems in France or Denmark, with the staff proudly wearing the uniforms of those public services to the privatised mess that we have succeeded in achieving in this country. We have mixed up two issues: first, the necessity for a public service; and, secondly, the profit motive.

I have always thrived on competition--indeed, I entered an extremely competitive profession--but I have seen the great benefit to many of having a secure background and a certainty which people such as me would not want. Often we receive the best service from people who have a sense of public duty not only in their spare time and voluntary work but in their jobs.

I believe that good management is not the prerogative of private enterprise. In my day, I have been the chairman of two large public companies and I have seen private enterprise fail as well as achieve great results. However, there is no reason whatever why one cannot have properly managed businesses which are publicly owned. Privately financed enterprises have from time to time suffered--for example, during a depression--when they have taken great risks which otherwise would not have been justified. One can see them come to a sorry end. If that happened to a public enterprise, there would be a great public outcry.

As regards our railways, for example, is it not true that they have lacked proper investment? If they had remained in the public service, that could have been provided. Of course it would have cost money which, in the case of a public enterprise, could have come only from taxation. I speak for a party which believes that it is essential to have a profitable private sector; that is the basis of our prosperity. However, that prosperity is helped only by having certain public services. I am sure that more than half the population would prefer a sense of public service and public duty to activate them rather than merely profit motive.

I want to comment on the various public services which have been mentioned. First, the National Health Service. I would have thought that the first duty of this Government, like any other, would be to ensure that the NHS is a properly run national public service. To a considerable extent, the NHS has subsidised the private sector health service. I am doubtful when I hear consultants say to patients, "We have an enormous waiting list and you cannot be operated on for another 18 months. However, if you want a private appointment in a hospital nearby and to go privately it can be arranged in a very short time".

One wonders about the cross-fertilisation between private and public sectors. However, I say to the Government that their duty is to provide in the NHS and in state education a proper public service. They must safeguard against building a huge superstructure of bureaucracy above the public services. It can be so frustrating; there is no proper substitute for highly responsible individuals at all levels exercising discretion and their own initiative. We want to get away from the concept that initiative and a sense of economy can come only from private enterprise. In many spheres, it is the best answer but in many others it is not.

In view of what has happened recently and the threat of a depression, the right reverend Prelate performed a great public service at a timely occasion in our lives. He stressed the importance of public service in this country.