Public Service

– in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of The Bishop of Oxford The Bishop of Oxford Bishop 3:20 pm, 24th October 2001

rose to call attention to the concept of service, especially in the public sector; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have put their names on the list of speakers. There is clearly much wisdom and experience on which to draw. I particularly look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Moser, Lord MacGregor, Lord Chan and Lord Condon.

A few years ago, I was speaking to the distinguished headmaster of one of our distinguished schools. I lamented that his school, which in previous generations had produced a great number of ordinands for the Church of England, no longer did so. "Oh, Richard", he replied, "the whole concept of service has gone". That phrase has haunted me ever since, and in part lies behind this debate. Yet I hope that we may be able to go beyond a mere lament to ask some critical questions. Has the concept of service in our society really gone? If it has, in what way is that a loss? If it is a loss, and is regretted, what might be done to recover it?

In tabling this Motion, I had in mind three inter-related aspects. The first is the concept of service generally which might motivate people in both their private and their public lives, their voluntary activity and their careers. The second is the voluntary sector. The third is the public sector--in particular focusing on whether we need to do more as a society to value those in the public sector who have traditionally seen their role as one of public service.

Perhaps I may refer briefly to the concept of public service generally. I take for granted--not only from a Christian perspective, to which it is fundamental, but from other perspectives, both religious and non-religious--that the desire to be of some use to other people is fundamental to our human nature. People who live only for themselves are pretty unattractive; we do not choose them as either friends or colleagues.

Self-interest is also part of our nature. Without it, we should not survive for more than a few hours. But so is altruism. It is that mixture that makes us what we are. A civilised society, let alone a Christian one, will encourage the altruistic side of our nature. A settled cynicism which assumes that people always act out of their own narrow or short-term interest saps the human spirit and undermines the human community.

The desire to help others to be of some use can be expressed in many ways, through a person's whole career or through a neighbourly act of kindness within the family or in the wider community. The voluntary sector is one important area of our society where the concept of service finds fruitful expression. The year 2001 is the Year of the Volunteer. It is said that 25 per cent of the population take part in one piece of voluntary work a year. Over 50,000 people are involved in running charity shops. In Oxfordshire alone, there are more than 2,000 voluntary organisations.

Yet voluntary organisations often experience difficulties in recruitment. In many families both husband and wife work. People work very long hours and, understandably, when they come home they want to see something of their family or simply recover for the next week. But there is also straight, old-fashioned hedonism. People are out to enjoy themselves. Today, we have the wonderful addition of life which we know as the "third age". People retire early and live into their 80s. They may have 30 years with time, money and health--a situation that has never previously arisen in human history. It is a wonderful time for voluntary activity. But I am not sure that volunteers in their third age are coming forward in the numbers that were once expected or hoped for. Driving along a few years ago, I saw a couple of camper vans with large placards on the back. They read: "We're too old to work, we're too young to die. So off we go, just Mum and I"!

I like to enjoy myself as much as anyone else, but a hedonistic society is neither healthy nor civilised. There used to be a sense of noblesse oblige. I recall the wonderful remark by the mother of Sir Alec Douglas Home about her son:

"I think it's so good of Alec to do Prime Minister".

There is less noblesse around; and there is certainly less sense of obligation.

A good society is one in which voluntary service in the community is encouraged in our schools and forms part of the ethos of our universities. Not only is it promoted by Churches and religious bodies; it is also seen by businesses as being important. I am glad to say that among some of our more enlightened companies that is now the case. It is a form of service that can find particular expression in the third age when people have experience and wisdom as well as having some energy left.

The state does not, should not and cannot respond to the whole range of human needs. Voluntary bodies have a crucial role to play. They can be sensitive to local conditions. They can innovate. They can campaign on behalf of the vulnerable. I shall not say more about this aspect of the expression of service because I know that a number of your Lordships with great experience of contributing to society in various ways will be sharing their wisdom with us.

I now turn to the third aspect of this subject; namely, the concept of service in the public sector. The ideal of a public service ethic has its roots in the late 19th century as a result of the influence of a group of dons who saw the university as a training ground for service for the common good. That tradition lives on. The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, was one of those who wrote to me saying that they wanted to take part in the debate but were unfortunately prevented from doing so because of business abroad. The noble Lord gave me permission to quote his words:

"Public service . . . is a high and honourable calling and the sense of being in the public service, or the service of the public, gives meaning and value to the work that the public servant does, however apparently humdrum it may be".

Although many people who work in the public sector still feel the strength of that ideal, there is also evidence to the contrary. Someone told me that people now move into the Civil Service for a few years simply to add something more to their CV.

Clearly, the move to privatisation in some spheres of the public service has been unsettling to people personally, as well as calling into question the public service ethos. But what concerns me even more is the denigration that some sectors of the public service have received in recent decades. Those whom we expect to pick up the pieces of a broken society--teachers and social workers--have been caricatured. Civil servants are lampooned; and now doctors are receiving a great deal of criticism.

People who work in the public sector on the whole receive less financial reward than those in the private spheres. In the past, the compensation for that was the respect in which they were held by the public, which in turn reinforced their desire to serve the public as professionally as possible. When there is nothing but constant criticism, something fundamental to our society is being eroded. To quote the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, again:

"Politicians and members of the media need to be reminded that public service is an honourable calling and that if the pride of public servants in their calling and in their profession is too greatly undermined, it will not be just the public servants who suffer. Those who depend on the work of the public services and the body politic at large will also be the losers".

I am not ideologically opposed to privatisation. Clearly, it has brought about and can continue to bring about not only greater efficiency but a much greater service to the public. Furthermore, I do not accept that those who work in the private sector are motivated only by the prospect of greater financial reward. The recent work of Professor Charles Handy indicates clearly that businessmen, like all human beings, need a larger purpose than simply making money.

The American retailing group, Dayton Hudson, has as its mission statement:

"The business of business is serving society, not just making money. Profit is our reward for serving society well. Indeed, profit is the means and measure of our service--not an end in itself".

That, I believe, gets matters the right way round.

At the same time, there is clearly some truth in the claim that those who work for state-run bureaucracies are also motivated by self-interest, like all of us, and that the bureaucracies themselves are an interest group. So there is not an absolute divide between the private sector and the public sector.

Nevertheless, if we take the paradigm case of the armed services (and that description is itself significant) or the police, or the core of the Civil Service, these will always remain in the public sphere. Their ethos needs to continue to be one of service to society and they need to continue to be bodies which can be both respected and trusted. Of course, there need also to be proper systems of accountability, quality control, audit and so on. But none of this can be a substitute for an environment in which there are high standards of professionalism motivated by a desire to serve and resulting in a sense of pride to be working in the service of society.

In New York recently people have been clapping fire crew and the police in the streets. That stands in sharp contrast to the declining esteem in which public servants now appear to be held in the United Kingdom. Pay is, of course, a factor. When differentials with the private sector are too great people will either move out or not be recruited at all, as is the case at the moment with teachers. During the 1970s I was chairman of a Church of England comprehensive school. It was a time when, historically, for the first time ever, the salaries of teachers were comparable with those of doctors. Whenever we advertised a post, we had a large number of highly qualified and well motivated applicants. Unfortunately, the same point cannot be made now. In the nursing profession more and more nurses are having to be recruited from overseas. Public servants, like the rest of us, need to be appreciated. The obvious indicator of the extent to which we in society are willing to value those in the public sector is by ensuring that their salaries do not get too far out of kilter with those working in the private sphere.

In prisons, education and the National Health Service, various schemes have been tried in recent decades to improve efficiency such as contracting out, quasi and internal markets, rights, entitlements and citizen's charters. Much of this is salutary and effective. Nevertheless, they cannot be a substitute for an ethos which encourages a high standard of professionalism out of a sense of service to the community and resulting in a sense of pride to be serving in that way. Whatever else may be done to ensure an efficient and accountable public sector, moral values remain fundamental.

The noble Lord, Lord Plant, kindly sent me a copy of a substantial and philosophically finely honed lecture of his, for which I am grateful, in which he states:

"I did not find it very surprising . . . when the unilateral alteration of teachers' contracts in the mid 1980s led to teachers in state schools not being willing to give up hours out of school to provide sports etc. The rational calculation is that if I am required to stick to a contract as a constraint on my behaviour as a member of a producer interest group, then I will stick to the contract no more and no less. An appeal was made by the then Secretary of State to the professionalism of teachers but that was pretty well bound to fall on stony ground when the whole thrust of the reform had been to treat professionals as a self interested interest group rather than animated by a service culture . . . If all human motivation is reduced to the rational calculation of interest we could certainly end up with a contractual society, but it will be a very attenuated vision of a good society if people motivated on the assumptions behind the model worked to contract and nothing else--discounting any idea of common good or common purpose".

The noble Lord, Lord Plant, also said, quite correctly,

"If we design institutions on the assumption that people will always act in a self interested way, this very design may well encourage this to happen even in areas where it did not do so before, as the teachers' example shows".

I believe, along with people of many religions and none, that there is an altruistic side to human nature as well as a self-interested one and that this altruism expresses itself in a desire to be of use to others. I also believe that it is fundamental to a civilised society that we create an ethos in which this desire to serve is encouraged and reinforced. This desire to serve can take many forms, private and public, within the local community and within wider society. It can motivate not only individual acts of helpfulness but a whole career whether in the private or the public sector. In particular it finds expression through the voluntary sector which is, I believe, of fundamental and growing importance in our society. It has traditionally been fundamental to those working in the public sector.

Instead of the current disparagement of those working in the public service, we need a concentrated campaign to raise the esteem in which they are held. There are many good stories of devoted care in the NHS, dedication in teaching and high standards in the Civil Service. These are stories that need to be in people's minds for a proper respect for those working in the public sphere will in turn reinforce the desire to serve to the highest standards.

Whatever reforms are necessary in the public sphere, I believe that the ethos and ethic of service is not only worth preserving but that if it was lost something essential to the well-being of our society would also be lost. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Moser Lord Moser Crossbench 3:35 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, in my years as an academic I became used to speaking for one hour at a time and I became disciplined in that respect, so five minutes on this occasion is a challenge, but I shall do my best.

First, I thank everyone here, Members and officials, for their warm welcome which has meant a great deal to me. Of course, I am deeply honoured to find myself in your Lordships' House. It was a particularly happy occasion for me that the very day my peerage was announced was 65 years to the day when my family came to England as Jewish refugees from Hitler's Germany. We were, indeed, lucky to find ourselves here. I have been grateful every day of my life for the welcome we received, the friendship shown to us from the beginning and the future that lay before us.

I have been proud to spend most of my working life and, indeed, my non-working life, in the public sector. That is one reason why I so welcome this debate initiated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. He has emphasised the public sector which to me is without question at the heart of a good, caring and fair society. I am, of course, aware that there are elements of the public sector which from time to time benefit from and, indeed, need the help of private enterprise but, in my view at any rate, that should not deflect us from putting the public sector at the very heart and at centre stage of our society. It deserves involvement and a spirit of service from all of us. It has not had that in all the years I have been here. There has been considerable underfunding and lack of morale. However, I believe that all that is in process of improvement.

It seems to me, and has always seemed to me, that within the public sector nothing is more important than education. Education is also at the heart of the feeling of service which is what this debate is about. I refer to education all the way from nursery school to graduate studies--which should be planned as a truly seamless web of life-long learning. Happily, much has improved in recent years but the challenges that remain are to my mind formidable.

I have time only to comment on one particular element in which I am involved partly as chairman of the admirable Basic Skills Agency. I refer, of course, to people's ability to read, to write and to cope with numbers. Without those basic abilities there is little point in thinking about service or anything else. A year or two ago I chaired a committee which dealt with adult literacy and numeracy. It reported exactly two and a half years ago and our findings, which are relevant to this debate, rightly shocked the nation. It emerged that something like 7 million adults--one in five of all the adults one sees wandering the streets of this country--have serious problems of literacy and numeracy. We love league tables. As a statistician I do not, but most of us do. In that league table, we come second from bottom in Europe. It is a shameful situation for a rich country. Many of those most affected are unemployed or in menial jobs from which they cannot escape. Many are inevitably en route to social exclusion. Not surprisingly, as your Lordships know, some 60 per cent of people in our prisons are unable to read or write. It is truly shocking.

Our report set out an ambitious strategy, seeking to tackle, above all, the hard problem of how to motivate and encourage those most affected: how to provide attractive schemes for learning to read and write among many people who do not particularly know the point of so doing. All that needs help from everyone, not least employers--in my view they are insufficiently involved--community and voluntary organisations and, of course, the educational sector.

Luckily, we now have a government strategy based on our report, with a special unit in the department. That is encouraging, as is the promised priority. But none of that must slip; nor must educational spending generally, even if present tragic circumstances force the Government to review their financial strategies. With regard to this particular problem, nothing but a national crusade will do. In that crusade the search for more voluntary teachers and trained mentors is crucial. That is one aspect of the wider problem discussed earlier today in Answer to a Starred Question. There are critical teacher shortages everywhere. I believe that that is the heart of the educational crisis we are in. We have to find ways not only to reward teachers properly but to lessen the bureaucracy under which they suffer--which interferes with their true role--to slim the curriculum, and to give this dedicated profession the public respect it richly deserves.

When I was 12 and still in Berlin before my family had decided that we should leave, my father said that if I did not succeed him into banking, which was his business, and if, but only if, I turned out to be really able in every respect, then I might possibly get into the profession of teaching in schools. I hope to live long enough to experience that being said in this country.

Photo of Lord Peston Lord Peston Labour 3:43 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure on your Lordships' behalf to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moser, on his maiden speech. I first met Claus Moser more than 50 years ago when I was a starting undergraduate and he was beginning his career as an assistant lecturer. I was sent for by Lionel Robbins, who was the greatest man connected with the LSE to come to your Lordships' House. "I see that you have chosen to do sociology as your ancillary subject in an economics degree", he said, "That is a complete waste of time. You must do mathematics". In those days I did what I was told so I trotted off to be taught by Mr Moser. His lectures generated a fascination with pure mathematics which has lasted all my life. His exposition was superb and everything he had to say was full of interest. He has demonstrated those qualities to your Lordships in his maiden speech today. We look forward to hearing him on many occasions in future on that broad range of subjects which are very much connected with him: the arts, especially music, statistics and, in addition, higher education.

As an economist, I now turn to Adam Smith and one of his most famous remarks. Noble Lords will recall that he said:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest".

However, it is often forgotten that he also wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments and here I paraphrase. He also said that self-centred economic ambition is socially beneficent so long as it is limited, as it normally is, by the beneficent dictates of our moral faculties. I think that the right reverend Prelate will agree with that remark.

Contemporary management philosophy, usually American in nature, tells us that people must have well-defined tasks, their performance must be monitored and their remuneration adjusted to those measurements. That is all very well but--I echo the right reverend Prelate--if you only get paid for what you do, you will only do what you get paid for. Voluntary activity and a life of service will diminish or disappear altogether. I regret to say that we see this happening in our schools and hospitals even today. In my judgment we are worse off as a result.

As the right reverend Prelate said, teachers do less out-of-hours work for schools, clubs, sporting activities and the like. Even nurses spend less time in their caring role, which is not easy to measure and is not measured, and concentrate purely on the medical side. More generally, people who do their best but because their best is below average receive less remuneration than their fellows, start to say to themselves, "Why should I even bother to do my best?" That is the nature of the society into which we have moved.

All this derives, of course, from the economic philosophy which dominated our country in the 1980s. In fairness, I have to add that its earlier origins were in the winter of discontent where, again, public service workers forgot totally that that is what they were. They abandoned their principles at that time. We have moved on from those days; the position is not as bad as it was then. But there are vestiges remaining, especially in education, where, I regret to say that my right honourable friends--Ministers--are too devoted to the crude mechanisms of a reward system and have lost sight of the public service role in our schools and universities. I speak as someone who looks askance at the greater role of the private sector in the provision of education. It seems to me pre-eminently a public service activity and one that we should stick to.

Finally, I refer to a lack of appreciation of service which arises in our honours system. Knighthoods are awarded to businessmen and senior professionals who merely do their jobs and are immensely well rewarded anyway. Senior professionals get where they do because they sit endlessly on committees, which they consider as service but I do not. If one examines the Honours List to find out who has served our nation in the sense of doing much more than they were paid for, one needs to look at the bottom end of the list. Nowadays, they are awarded MBEs. There one finds the people who do more than their job, work much longer hours than are in their contracts and accept relatively low pay.

That was brought home to me some 25 years ago when I met a school dinner lady who was awarded a British Empire Medal. I think that those are now abolished. It turned out that throughout her working life she had always arrived at least one hour earlier to make sure that there were no problems and never left until at least one hour later than she should have done to ensure that all was well for the next day. At that level of honour, one did not get to meet Her Majesty the Queen. Instead, one's award was presented by a Government Minister--not bad, but he or she is certainly not Her Majesty. That taught me something which I still feel. It is my concluding remark. We really should change. Such a person should be properly honoured because that person really has served the nation and worked within the spirit of what I hope that we all think is right.

Photo of Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Conservative 3:50 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I feel privileged to be a member of your Lordships' House, and I am delighted to be able to continue my contribution to the national debate on the issues which concern and interest me in, if I may say so in my short time here, a very civilised environment.

This is not a subject which I would normally have chosen, but I was anxious to make my maiden speech as early as possible in order to make my contribution. One feels diffident about talking about one's own life and career and one's approach to public service. However, I feel passionately about the denigration of those in public life--especially politicians--and the apparently low esteem in which they are held. I agree with so much of what the right reverend Prelate said in his opening speech, but I shall not repeat that as I want to concentrate on a narrow area.

I declare an interest in that I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is not from that vantage point that I speak, but from the wider perspective of someone who has served in public life in various capacities for 41 years, 27 of which were in the other place.

Recently my attention was drawn to a worthy educational institution which was developing new criteria for making honorary awards for distinguished service. It decided that serving politicians should be excluded as one of the criteria. I thought it ironic and sad that awards for major contributions to the nation's life should exclude those who serve the nation in public life. It gives the impression that there is a stigma attached to being in politics.

Why is that? I shall have to be brief. I did not expect to have to be so quick. Parliament does not always help itself. Some of its less appealing aspects receive undue attention. Perhaps more attention in Parliament should be paid to the weaknesses of the confrontational system in today's world. The priority given to spin rather than policy has done great damage; which brings me to the media. To quote one journalist recently, the media's,

"thrall to deadlines and weakness for sensation", has contributed to the low esteem in which so many in public life are held. I would add to that the 24-hour coverage, which means that the media are constantly looking for a new story every hour. It is impossible to feed that need without sensational issues being highly dramatised and over-exposed. There is also competition in the media, which means that they are always looking for gossip in the Lobby rather than listening to the serious debates in the Chamber.

In an era of cynicism, the blame culture and hostility to authority, those who transgress--in every walk of life there are those who transgress--are given much greater attention than the vast majority who never do so throughout their lives. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has greatly improved the processes, but there are two dangers. First, the same amount of attention will be given to a minor transgression, and it is headlined so as to appear that the whole institution is like that. Secondly, there is a danger of political tit-for-tat in putting cases to the committee.

I turn now to the financial rewards. It is regrettable that many footballers can earn more in a year than politicians, Members of Parliament and senior government Ministers can earn in a lifetime. Lawyers starting their careers in their first year in the City earn as much as a Member of Parliament. None of us expects great material rewards in public life, but there has to be a balance. It is strange that it is more rewarding to ask questions in the media rather than to find solutions or spend time dealing with difficult concepts and producing answers.

I know all this. I know why we are in this position. I also know that the vast majority of people in public life have high standards, integrity, a desire to contribute substantially to improvement and change in the areas that interest them, and dedication to serving their constituents. The right reverend Prelate said that the concept of service has gone. I do not believe that. It is a shame that the desire to serve is so often scorned or scoffed at.

Why does that matter? There are many talented and experienced people who could make substantial contributions not only to politics but to many other public appointments, but they are currently hugely discouraged from doing so. As a result, to take politics alone, we are now in danger of drawing politicians from far too narrow a pool. That is a great worry. It is disappointing that the Commissioner for Public Appointments said recently that people are also being discouraged from applying for public appointments.

What can we do? We need to keep emphasising the generally high standards in British public life, compared with many other countries and perhaps also our past. We need to ensure fair rewards for those who play a part in public life. They do not expect high rewards, but they do not expect to have to make huge sacrifices. Above all we need to accentuate the positive and, wherever possible, combat and diminish those negative aspects to which I have referred.

This is an important debate. I hope that the messages that we are hearing this afternoon will go out more widely to ensure that many more people will consider the worthy calling of politics and think about playing a part in the many other aspects of public life.

Photo of The Bishop of Lichfield The Bishop of Lichfield Bishop 3:55 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, it is a very pleasant duty for me on behalf of the whole House to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, on his maiden speech. He brings to this House an unusually wide range of experience in no less than the public sector of service. He was the Member for South Norfolk in the other place. He has served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as Secretary of State for Education and Science, as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons and as Secretary of State for Transport. That list alone reveals what we have gained by his joining your Lordships' House. We look forward very much, given that wide range of experience, to the contributions of the noble Lord and we hope that we shall see him here as often as he is able to come.

I have a personal reason for thanking the right reverend Prelate for this debate. For the past 13 years I nursed my wife at home where she died just a year ago from Alzheimer's disease. Why am I mentioning this in the debate? I was diffident about doing so, but throughout those 13 years I received service from the public sector on a daily basis--from district nurses, local doctors, care assistants and the man who serviced the hoist enabling us to lift my wife in and out of bed. This is not anecdotal; it reflects NHS practice serving no fewer than 10,500 people in a Midlands market town. From wide contacts with those people, I know that I am not alone in saying that.

My work also connects me with others serving in the public sector, including a chief constable who is responsible for more than 2,000 officers, a woman prison chaplain with pastoral care within the Prison Service for 600 male inmates and a friend who works for a health authority, which is itself responsible for the healthcare of nearly 500,000 people.

I have three points to make. First, I want your Lordships' House to give pause to recognise that despite the pressures, a spirit of service is alive and well in many parts of the large West Midlands region where I serve. The events of 11th September enforced on many minds the vast importance of the emergency services.

Secondly, I record briefly factors that militate against the delivery of good service. We all know about the need for public accountability. But is there not a danger of rather too much monitoring? There are a few too many demands from commissions for health and audit offices and too many Ofsteds. Good staff want to get on with the job.

Again, is there not a danger, in all our zeal for the public service, of ignoring intractables? On my last visit to a local prison, a prison officer closing the visitors' room after visiting hours found a child of four holding a 10 month-old baby. They had simply been abandoned. Where does service begin and end there? I have waited for 12 hours beside my wife on a hospital trolley, but the intractable is that there were too few beds for too many admissions. Mortality.

Finally, I close with two factors that I hope may strengthen the concept of service. I want to underline in red ink, figuratively speaking, all that the right reverend Prelate said about the voluntary sector. Those district nurses did well for us because they were helped by volunteers from a local community. I have become aware that in many primary and secondary schools a hidden army of women help children with learning difficulties. I also want to emphasise that at times surely service is, in its way, its own reward. Recently, I was walking down an aisle in our cathedral when I suddenly recognised part of Corelli's "Christmas Concerto" being performed by children from a local state school. The school has had its usual crop of problems, but the sound made by that musical tribute to the patient service of teaching music was, in a sense, its own reward. I am very glad to support the right reverend Prelate's Motion.