HC Deb 08 February 1966 vol 724 cc209-14
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement.

In a reply to the Estimates Committee, published today, the Government accept the recommendation that a committee should be appointed to examine the structure, recruitment and management, including training, of the Home Civil Service.

I am glad to say that Lord Fulton has agreed to be chairman of this committee. I am circulating the names of the other members in the OFFICIAL REPORT. They include the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams), as well as distinguished representatives of industry, the universities and the public service.

There have been so many changes both in the demands placed on the Civil Service and in the educational organisation of the country that the Government believe that the time has come to ensure that the Service is properly equipped for its rôle in the modern State. The very broad terms of reference will require a fundamental and wide-ranging inquiry in the tradition of the great inquiries of the past, such as Northcote-Trevelyan in 1853 and the Tomlin Commission in 1931. This is a strong committee, and I hope that its recommendations will enable the Civil Service to meet the country's needs for many years to come.

At the outset, however, I should like to make two points about the scope of the committee's inquiry. First, the decision to set up this committee does not mean that the Civil Service has been found lacking in any way by the Government in its current operations. On the contrary, it is the experience of Ministers—and I think that right hon. Members opposite would wish to join me in this—that the Service meets the demands put on it with flexibility and enterprise.

Secondly, the Government's willingness to consider changes in the Civil Service does not imply any intention on their part to alter the basic relationship between Ministers and civil servants. Civil servants, however eminent, remain the confidential advisers of Ministers, who alone are answerable to Parliament for policy; and we do not envisage any change in this fundamental feature of our parliamentary system of democracy.

Mr. Heath

Is the Prime Minister aware that we recognise that this committee will be carrying out very important work indeed? I join him in what he has said about the current work of the Civil Service as a whole, to which we would certainly pay tribute. May I express my agreement with the stipulations the Prime Minister made about the scope of the committee's inquiry.

May I ask the Prime Minister one question? Will it be within the scope of the committee's work to examine the actual methods of work of the Civil Service and the functioning of the Civil Service as such, to see whether it is now suitable for dealing with the complicated structure of our society which has developed in the second half of the twentieth century?

The Prime Minister

I thank the Leader of the Opposition for what he has said. It will certainly be within the terms of reference and competence of the committee to inquire into all aspects of the functioning of and recruitment for the Civil Service.

As to training, which is relevant to both of these, there is already a very important working party at work on this, which includes representatives of the staff associations and the management side, and the result of that committee's inquiry will be made available to the new committee to be presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Fulton.

Dr. Bray

Is the Prime Minister aware that this is a very welcome response to the recommendations of my colleagues on the Estimates Committee? Is he further aware that the House will wish Lord Fulton and his colleagues on the committee every success in the very important work that they are undertaking? Can the Prime Minister assure the House that the committee will have all the staff and research assistance that it needs to carry out the very fundamental task that it has been given?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. I think that the Report of the Estimates Committee—my hon. Friend was chairman of the group that produced it—has been regarded as an extremely valuable contribution to the study of this subject. The factual examination was done in greater depth than almost any other inquiry for a very long time.

While not necessarily accepting all the conclusions—I want to make that clear; my hon. Friend would not expect me to accept all the conclusions—of the Report of the Estimates Committee, I am sure that it was felt on both sides of the House that the recommendation of a thorough inquiry of this kind was one that should be accepted. Certainly, the committee will have all the help, statistical and otherwise, that it needs.

Mr. Grimond

May I ask the Prime Minister three questions? First, do I understand that the Foreign Service and, indeed, the Commonwealth Service are excluded? If so, why is this, as they, too, would seem to have problems as much as any other part of the Civil Service, particularly over commercial representation overseas?

Secondly, will this committee be empowered to examine the possibility of exchanges between the universities and business and the Civil Service and, indeed, the relationship of the Civil Service to business in general?

Thirdly, will there be anyone on the committee with experience of administration in Scotland? The Scottish Office presents very peculiar problems. It covers a very wide range of subjects, and the Scottish universities are traditionally one of the great recruiting grounds for the public service. I know that the chairman of the committee is in origin a Scotsman. Has anyone else on the committee experience of Scottish conditions?

The Prime Minister

The Foreign and Diplomatic Services were exhaustively examined by the committee presided over by Lord Plowden, of which some right hon. and hon. Members were members, three or four years ago, and most of the recommendations of that committee are now being applied, particularly on the point the right hon. Gentleman mentioned of the strengthening of the commercial side of the Foreign and Commonwealth Services. I would not exclude consideration being given to a further and more limited inquiry, perhaps on the question of recruitment, when the inquiry into the Home Civil Service has got a little further.

Secondly, it will certainly be right—I think necessarily—for the committee to inquire into the question of exchanges between the Civil Service and the universities, between the Civil Service and business, and between the Civil Service and local government. Indeed, such exchanges are already happening to an increasing degree in an experimental way.

As to whether any of the distinguished administrators and others on the committee have had actual administrative Civil Service experience in Scotland, I should like notice of that question to see whether the right hon. Gentleman's point, which is a very good one, is covered.

Mr. Duffy

Will not the Prime Minister agree that, if we are to get a more technically disposed Civil Service, a more interventionist civil servant capable of manning the new planning machinery, it is most desirable that future recruitment be drawn as widely as possible from society and, in its higher reaches, drawn from all the universities?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. This was a point to which the Estimates Committee attached very great importance. I am bound to say that in the past 18 months we have had very considerable success in attracting, both from universities and from industry, highly suitable persons for helping with the planning and with the scientific and technological work, and I think that what we have learned in this direction will be useful to the committee.

With regard to recruitment from a wider section of industry, as the Estimates Committee's Report makes clear, there has been the greatest possible effort on the part of all concerned to widen the field of recruiting, not only between universities, but also from non-university applicants. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been very active in meeting vice-chancellors from all over the country to try to get more graduates from universities other than the traditional sources of supply to enter the Foreign Service.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

In view of the very great importance of ensuring that Government Departments themselves are kept in the closest possible touch with scientific thinking and developments in technology, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that the terms of reference of the committee will allow it to consider the possibility of not only secondment but part-time weekly service by scientists and technologists within Government Departments on a continuing basis?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, this is very important—and, may I add, between the universities as well as business or other scientific organisations. This is happening at present, of course. For example, the Director-General—if I have his title aright; he may be the Controller—at the Ministry of Technology is a distinguished scientist who works part-time with the Atomic Energy Authority and part-time with the Ministry; and there are many others. But, certainly, this committee, not only through its terms of reference, but through its personnel, will be well fitted to inquire into the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.

Dame Irene Ward

May I ask the Prime Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I sympathise with the hon. Lady, but I must protect the important business ahead of us.

Following is the composition of the Committee: