HC Deb 16 February 1860 vol 156 cc1191-203

said, that in rising to move the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the present state of appointments to the Civil Service, with a view to ascertain if greater facilities could not be afforded to properly qualified persons, he felt the Motion was a very important one, but at that late hour he would not do more than call the attention of the House and the Government to its main issues. The present state of the Civil Service examinations was felt to be unsatisfactory, and in some respects they were now in a worse position than they were before the examinations were instituted. Before that system was introduced there were general complaints against the mode in which their patronage was exercised by the Government in respect to appointments in the Civil Service, and the annoyance which every Member of the House suffered from the system. The House of Commons had on two separate occasions laid down the principle that in all cases admissions to that service should be decided by the result of a competitive examination. That principle he believed was one but very partially carried out, for in almost every case of admission there was only one candidate examined. It was with a view of remedying that state of things, and of affording young men who possessed good abilities, but who could command no patronage, a legitimate means of gratifying their ambition, that he made the present Motion; and he trusted to get together a body of gentlemen who would carry out the principle of throwing open the Civil Service to free and unlimited competition, as he believed that nothing would give so great a stimulus to education throughout the country as the recognition of such a principle.

Motion made, and Question proposed,— That a Select Committee be appointed, to inquire into the present mode of nominating and examining Candidates for junor appointments in the Civil Service, with a view to ascertaining whether greater facility may not be afforded for the admission of properly qualified persons.


said, he wished to second the Motion, because he had been twice prevented, by unavoidable circumstances, from asking a question of the Government on this very subject. He believed the answer he would have elicited would have rendered this Motion unnecessary; but he thought this was a proper step, though he was not without hope that the answer of the Government to this Motion would render even this step unnecessary.


said, the question was one that well deserved the attention of the House. The manner in which the Civil Service examinations were conducted was, in his opinion, generally complained of by the country, and he should therefore support the Motion. He had no doubt that the Committee, if appointed, would arrive at a principle by which the right men would be appointed to situations.


said, that in resisting the Motion he hoped it would be understood that the Government did so upon the ground that they did not think the time had yet arrived when an inquiry of this kind could be entered upon with any hope of a satisfactory result. The hon. Gentleman had very fairly stated the object of his Motion, which was in effect to throw the appointments in the Civil Service open to unlimited competition, but he (Mr. Laing) thought it would be premature to appoint a Committee before sufficient experience of the working of the system of competition had been obtained. It would be opening a most difficult question, and one that could only be usefully dealt with by proceeding experimentally, and by cautiously feeling their way. The only practical instance which they yet had of the complete working of competitive examination in the Civil Service was in China, and that was hardly a test by which the merits of the system could be fully judged. He admitted there were many arguments in favour of a perfect competitive system; and, were the abolition of patronage on the part of the Government, which was a real annoyance to many of its members, the only question to be considered, there would be no difficulty. The day had long gone by when the existence of a Government could depend on the distribution of its patronage. But there were more important considerations involved. One of the characteristics of Englishmen which distinguished them from foreigners was that they were more enterprising and self-relying, and less inclined to seek public appointments than the same class of persons abroad; and it was a question what would be the effect upon the national character caused by the élite of our youth being led to look forward at an early period of life for admission into snug situations in the Customs or Excise with fixed salaries, rather than trusting to their own energies for success in the world. That was one of the important considerations which made it necessary to proceed cautiously, and to be guided by the results of experience. That experience they had not yet had, and the whole question was unsettled. The system of competitive examinations was only at the commencement; the Civil Service Commission had only just extended its operations, and it was the opinion of the Commissioners —Sir J. Lefevre and Sir E. Ryan, to whom the country was much indebted for their valuable services—that the time had not yet arrived to judge of the results of the system. He, therefore, hoped the hon. Gentleman would be satisfied with the statement he had made, and would not press his Motion upon the present occasion.


said, that he agreed with the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury that it would be better to postpone the Motion for the present. He thought, however, that the result of an inquiry by a Committee would result in a more complete examination of the whole subject, and a more complete digest of all questions relating to appointments in the Civil Service, and a modified form of unlimited competition. There were three points connected with the improvement of the Civil Service. One was the adoption of a good mode of selecting candidates, another was the distribution of employment among candidates according to capacity, and thirdly a proper system of promotion in the various offices. The experience at present gained did not lead him to think that all those requisites had been combined, and to throw open the whole service without establishing a distinct character for each class would lead to the result that men who were fit for one class would offer themselves for another. If the established departments were thrown open to supplementary clerks, they would find that young men would enter as supplementary clerks, who, from their education and position in society, would look forward to rising to the highest posts in the service. That had been the case at present. Young men had obtained appointments as supplementary clerks who really looked forward for other employment. The whole subject required consideration, but he would advise his hon. Friend, after the statement of the Secretary to the Treasury, not to press his Motion at present.


said, he hoped the hon. Member for King's County (Mr. Hennessy) would not be induced by the bland, seductive suggestion of the Secretary to the Treasury to withdraw his Motion. There was a marvellous similarity between the answer given by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Laing) to-night and that given by the present Home Secretary in April, 1856, when a similar Motion was made, but, although four years had since elapsed, nothing had been done. The Motion did not seek to bring about a precipitate change, but simply proposed to inquire into the mode of working of the present system, which, in his opinion, was highly unsatisfactory, and whether it was the proper time to take away the scraps of patronage which the Treasury now possessed. The competitive system had been tried in the Indian service, and no injury had resulted from it. He would say, let the test of the candidates be what it might, they should throw open competition to the world. He had been urged by a person named Donovan, whom he knew well as a respectable man with a large family, to procure for one of his sons a nomination to compete for a vacancy in a public office, but he had found it as difficult to get this young man's named placed on the list of competitors as it formerly would have been to procure the appointment itself. He had been eight years a Member of that House, and never asked a favour; he was therefore independent of both sides. On the occasion to which he referred he had been put off in a shuffling manner; but he clearly saw that if he had made the application a matter of personal obligation, implying that he himself would be found pliable as opportunity offered, no difficulty would have occurred. That, however, would not suit him, and he was obliged to recommend the applicant to a more regular supporter of the Government. Such a system, he maintained, was alike degrading to the Government and to independent Members of that House, as well as most prejudicial to the public service. The fact was that the Secretary of the Treasury watched this patronage in peculiar times and emergencies, and if his hon. Friend did not divide the House on this Question, he would not do justice to his convictions.


I think the question evidently raised by this Motion and the speech now made is not a question to be submitted to a Committee, but a question of principle, which, in the first instance, ought to be left to the discretion of the Government; and if that discretion be not exercised in accordance with the opinion of this House, it will then be for the House to express its own opinion. The object of the Motion, as I understand it, is not to inquire whether the system of examination for the Civil Service is properly conducted—not to examine whether the Commissioners charged with the execution of this duty perform it in a manner satisfactory to the public; but the question which it raises is, whether we should adopt as a general principle that anybody who pleases is to come and write his name down in an office, saying he claims to be examined for the next vacancy in it, or whether that system in principle is to continue under which the heads of the different offices are responsible for selecting proper persons subject to examination for the vacancies that may arise. I differ entirety, as at present informed, and as far as my judgment goes, from the hon. Gentleman who spoke last; and my opinion is, that the present system is most consistent with the public interest—namely, that those who are at the heads of the different departments should make a selection of the young men who are to be examined—by competition, I admit—for the vacancies that may from time to time arise. I shall be told that is because the Government desire to retain the patronage which office gives them. I concur with my hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Laing) in the opinion that so far as patronage has to be considered with the view of maintaining a Government, it is next to valueless. Governments must stand on the general opinion which this House may entertain of their merits, and any Government that fancies it can rest in security on gaining one hon. Member or another by petty appointments to clerkships in different departments of the public service will be destined, within a very short period, to fall to the ground. It is not on that ground at all that I object to this Motion, but it is, in the first place, because I do not think that in a country like this it is desirable that all the young men intending to provide for themselves in future life should turn themselves entirely to getting employment from the Government. I think such a system would have a tendency to lower the feelings of the rising generation. That is the case, I know, in some countries abroad, where every man considers that his only chance in life is to obtain employment under the Government. I think such a system tends to break down the independent spirit which ought to prevail among the youth of the country. And the inconvenience would be obvious, because, while every young man would write his name down, or get his friends to write his name down, with a view to examination for any vacancy that might occur, a very small portion only would succeed; those who did not succeed would be disappointed; and, not having turned their thoughts to a more independent mode of action, would be thrown out of employment in which they might have gained creditable and honourable support and distinction. Then, again, the inconvenience suggested by the hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir S. Northcote) would arise. The administration of this country is divided into a great number of departments. The young men who think their habits and attainments calculated to fit them for a particular department would be writing their names down for a department which, after all, would not be the one for which they were best qualified, and you would get good men as candidates for an inferior department, and inferior men as candidates for a superior department. My opinion is, therefore, different from that of the hon. Member opposite. I do not think it would be for the advantage of the country generally that the present system should be changed. In the inferior departments, at all events, the discretion should not be taken from the heads of departments of selecting those whom they think fit to appoint for competition. I do not mean to say that there may not be some of the higher departments in which, perhaps, the other principle might be employed, but the case of the Indian service is totally different from the Civil Service at home, which is more divided into different departments, while in the Indian service they all work in one stream, and are afterwards distributed to higher departments, according to the wants of the service. I quite concur in the principle that the system of examination—I should say competitive examination, is very much calculated for the public service, and has been productive of very great advantage. It may be true, as I have often heard it alleged, that, in consequence of the tendency which always must prevail in a system of examination to put the standard higher and higher, a certain number of young men have been rejected who would have been very good clerks; but the public gain this advantage, that no young man is appointed who is not perfectly fit for the situation he obtains. I quite agree that the standard examination is not so advantageous as the competitive examination, because the tendency of the standard examination generally is to sink down to a minimum, whereas the tendency of the competitive examination is to raise itself up to the maximum. It has been objected, I know, that some of the questions put by the Commissioners to young men who are candidates for situations at the bottom of an office, involve attainments quite unnecessary for the duties they would have to perform. That is true, but the answer given by the Commissioners is also satisfactory. They say we have three or four young men to be examined for public employment. If the examination merely went to this point—what was necessary to qualify the young men for the duties they would have immediately to perform —there would be a great difficulty in determining the comparative ability and merit of the different candidates; but it would be necessary to add to those questions, that would satisfy the mind that they were fit for the duties immediately required, others of a higher class, in order to see which of the young men has the greatest range of information, and which was most likely to be fit for the higher duties to which he might soon be expected to rise. Consequently, much of the criticism one hears in private quarters, and sees sometimes in the public papers, on those questions being put falls to the ground when you consider that the object is to sift from a certain number of young men, those most competent by natural ability and acquired information, not to fit them only for the lower duties they will be called on immediately to discharge, but also for the higher duties which they may soon be called to fulfil. It may be very fitting and satisfactory to the House at some future period, perhaps next year, to appoint a Committee to ascertain whether the system of examination is or is not conducted in a manner best calculated for the interests of the public service, and so far as I am concerned, I should have no objection to the appointment of such a Committee. But it is due to these Commissioners, who have performed this useful service to the public, to say that I believe they have conducted these examinations on a principle well calculated to secure the good of the public service. I am quite sure that they would feel nothing but satisfaction in a Committee being at a future but no distant time appointed by this House to inquire into the course they have pursued, and I am satisfied, as far as my information goes, that the result of that inquiry would be satisfactory to the public, and honourable to the Commissioners by whom the system has been conducted.


The noble Lord mistakes the object of this Motion. It is not to ascertain whether the existing mode of examination for the Civil Service is a good one or a bad one, but to ascertain what that existing mode really is. When we know what it is that actually takes place it will be time enough to inquire whether it be good or bad. I do not understand then why we should wait till another year. "We can learn what we really want to know now just as well as a twelvemonth hence. The noble Lord is, therefore, rather precipitate in arguing about the consequences before they happen. I have no doubt that when the world authoritatively knows the facts of the case, it will be seen that this so-called competitive examination and doing away with patronage is all a pretence. That is what I want to fix upon the system. This House has already determined that there shall be an open competitive examination; but your mode of carrying out its resolution is illusory. There is no free competition." When we have this conclusively established before a Committee, we may hope to see a pressure put upon this House that will cause an alteration of the system. At present this is the manner in which it works:—Suppose A. B., one of my constituents, comes to me and says, "I have a son whom I want to compete for a situation in the Home Office. Do you think you can get his name put down for me?" I answer, "I have no doubt that I shall be able to do so." I go to the Home Office, and because I am a Member of Parliament I get what I ask for. But that is not open competition. Suppose that man was not one of my constituents; suppose he was a person of no importance in the borough or county in which he lived, and yet had a large family of children, one of whom wished to compete for a public appointment; if he did not know a Member of Parliament or some one of influence, why he would have no more chance of admission to this competition than I now have of competing for the seat of the Great Mogul. The hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury used a very curious argument. He says this proposal would cause the attention of all the enterprising young men in England to be directed to official positions; that it would, in fact, draw the best minds of the community to such stations. So the result to which his argument brings us is that we now have second-rate men in office, and I quite believe him. What we want by open competition is to have first-rate men in office. By a competitive system we have obtained first-rate men for India. And what harm can possibly arise from this inquiry? The hon. Gentleman says the subject is not ripe for inquiry. What‡ is it not ripe for ascertaining what the present practice is?—for, remember, that is the real question before us. We wish, in fact, to lay bare what you now do, that the world may know what your system of competition is, which I denounce here as an absolute sham, covered up under a stale pretence.


said, he presumed the Motion was made in the expectation that the Committee might recommend some other system of nominating candidates than that which now existed. The noble Lord, however, seemed to imagine there was no medium between the present mode and throwing the Treasury doors open to every young man between sixteen and twenty-five who demanded to be examined. The latter plan would be quite impracticable. Some test, whether in the form of a preliminary examination, a schoolmaster's certificate, or otherwise, would surely be required. These, however, were precisely the points that needed investigation, and he thought the labours of the Committee would be exceedingly useful, whether it sat this year or the next. The noble Lord seemed to entertain great fear of the mischief that would follow from an immediate inquiry; but he (Mr. Clay) did not, and therefore he should support the Motion.


suggested that the system of competition practised in the various departments of the Indian service might be very advantageously applied to the admission of civil appointments in England. The standard of examination for Indian appointments was very high, and it obviated the inconvenience of too great a number of candidates. The object of all these competitive examinations was to enable those who came successfully out of them to obtain advancement in life. He should support the Motion.


said, he trusted the hon. Member would divide the House upon his Motion. He had been applied to a few years ago to aid the son of a Yorkshire magistrate in procuring an appointment. He was bandied about from one person to another, and was told that the Treasury nomination-list was full. He was afterwards informed that he might get the young man's name placed upon the right hon. Member for Wells's private list, but, of course, he heard nothing more on the matter. It was a gross injustice that the influence of a great person should be necessary to secure that chance of competing for the service of his country which was the birth-right of every free born Englishman.


said, he thought if the best men were engaged for the public service by open competitive examination it would be necessary to pay them higher salaries, and thus the expenses of the civil service would be much increased. Railway companies and private firms remunerated their ablest servants at a liberal rate. It would be better for the country and more convenient for the Members of that House if the public patronage were taken out of the hands of Members of Parliament.


said that his object was inquiry, and in accordance with what appeared to be the general wish, he should carry his Motion to a division.


said, that if the hon. Gentleman's only object was, as had been stated by the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck), to ascertain what the present system of examination really was [Several hon. MEMBERS: The system of nomination]—he should have no objection to the Motion, provided the object stated were more minutely defined.

Question put, and agreed to.