The Manpower Services Commission: The First Five Years

AuthorDAVID J. HOWELLS
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9299.1980.tb00408.x
Published date01 September 1980
Date01 September 1980
The Manpower Services Commission:
The First Five Years
DAVID
J.
HOWELLS
The author worked
for
the Manpower Services Commission from 1974-
1979. Following secondment
to
Marks
&
Spencer Ltd., he is currently a
Principal in the Machinery
of
Government Division, Civil Service
Department. This essay was awarded the 1979 Haldane Essay prize.
INTRODUCTION
From its establishment in
1974
to the middle of
1979,
the Manpower
Services Commission
(MSC)
expanded steadily in the range and scale of
its activities and attracted its full share of public and political atten-
tion.' The change of government in
1979
marked something of a
turning point. On the one hand, the very existence
of
MSC
was con-
firmed along with its major programmes;
on
the other hand, its period
of almost uninterrupted growth was clearly at an end. This is therefore
a
good time to take stock. The first half of the essay is historical, the
second analytical, with comment interspersed throughout. The
emphasis is
on
questions of management and expenditure rather than
policy.
THE ESTABLISHMENT
OF
MSC
Departmental Background
MSC
was carved out of the Department
of
Employment
(DE),
whose
culture and organization were important shaping influences.2 The
functions of
DE
in the
1960s
were of two main types. The first consisted
of large-scale executive activities, notably the employment services and
the payment
of
unemployment benefit, which together occupied the
great bulk of staff in about
1000
local offices; these staff were grouped
Public Administration Volume
58
Autumn
1980
305
PUBLIC
ADMINISTRATION
into nine regions, each headed by
a
Controller who wielded consider-
able influence in matters of personnel and organization. By contrast,
the second group of functions centred on a few major policy areas,
notably industrial relations and pay policy, which formed the main
preoccupation
of
ministers and senior officials in London. Although a
proportion
of
the latter had come from the field, the general reward
system was that of Whitehall, and there was therefore no great
reservoir
of
managerial experience at the top from which
MSC
could
draw.
DE
was not a spending department. Its vote of roughly
f88
million in
1971-72 consisted largely of salaries and was handled on traditional
lines by Finance Bran~h.~ Such financial expertise as existed outside
that branch was related more to unemployment benefit procedures
than to the sort of large discretionary grant schemes that were to fall to
MSC
.
Why
MSC
Was
Set
Up
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw widespread interest in the possibility
of reorganizing certain government services into accountable units,
either within departments or ‘hived off’ as semi-autonomous agencies.
The introduction of more independent management would, it was
suggested, provide for clearer definition and allocation of responsibility
and would help combat the sort of weaknesses identified by the Fulton
C~mmittee.~
DE
was a prime field for applying these ideas, since most
of
its services were clear candidates for hiving off. This came to pass in
1974-75 with the creation
of
the Health and Safety Commission and the
Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service as well as
MSC.5
Until quite late in the day, attention in
DE
was focussed on the creation
of separate organizations for employment and training services without
any umbrella body. In the case of employment services the intention
was to establish an Employment Service Agency as an independent
operation within
DE.
Thinking about training services followed similar
lines, and the consultative document ‘Training for the Future’ (1972)
proposed
a
National Training Agency, either as
a
departmental agency
or as a hived-off body. By mid-1972 ministers had thus decided in
principle to set up new institutions to consolidate the management of
these two services6
The decision
to
establish a commission was not announced until
November 1972. The circumstances surrounding this change were
complex. Considerable interest existed in the Swedish manpower
services, which were compared favourably with Britain’s and which
operated through
a
Labour Market Board in which employers and
trade unions played a controlling part.’ The argument ran that it was
sensible to give both sides of industry the responsibility for running
services designed for their benefit; an ‘independent’ body could also be
306

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