HC Deb 22 May 1996 vol 278 cc293-349

[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee of Session 1993–94 (House of Commons Paper No. 27–1) on the Role of the Civil Service, the Government's response, incorporated in The Civil Service: Taking forward Continuity and Change (Cm 2748), and Minutes of Evidence taken before the Public Service Committee on 16th January, 7th February and 28th February 1996 (House of Commons Papers Nos. 147, 213 and 265 of Session 1995–96).]

Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.33 pm
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the Government's policies on the Civil Service, as set out in the White Papers 'Continuity and Change' and 'Taking Forward Continuity and Change', including the promulgation of the Civil Service Code from 1st January 1996, the establishment of the Senior Civil Service from 1st April 1996 and the strengthening of the role of the Civil Service Commissioners in maintaining the principles of fair and open competition and selection on merit in recruitment; also welcomes the Government's policy with regard to the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services, with the proposed safeguards to protect the quality of Civil Service recruitment; and looks forward to the intended publication in July of a White Paper on training and development in the Civil Service, associated with the further development by the Civil Service College of a number of partnerships with the private sector which will enhance its status in the provision of courses for those working in the public and private sector. The motion has been tabled to enable the House to consider the main elements of the Government's proposals for the civil service and to clarify some of our plans for its future development.

The motion is in three parts. The first concerns the latest developments following the White Papers "Continuity and Change" and "Taking Forward Continuity and Change", that is, the promulgation of the civil service code, the establishment of the senior civil service and the enhanced role of the civil service commissioners. The second part covers our intentions regarding the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services, and the arrangements that are proposed to protect the quality of civil service recruitment. The agency is more commonly known by its acronym RAS. The third part relates to our forthcoming White Paper on training and development in the civil service, and the further development by the Civil Service College of partnerships with the private sector.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

The Chancellor has identified the first two themes as "Continuity and Change" and privatisation. There is intense dismay about proposals relating to Horticulture Research International, a magnificent scientific research establishment in my constituency. Although it has been subjected to endless processes of reform and restructuring, especially during the 1980s, it has been allowed to stabilise since 1990, and has performed every task required of it to the highest standard. For reasons of empty ideology, however—this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel—its privatisation is now being proposed. Will the right hon. Gentleman use his influence to ensure that no such destructive act proceeds?

Mr. Freeman

I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that I shall look into the proposals in greater detail, and draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friends who are responsible for such matters.

Let me begin with the civil service code that came into force on 1 January this year. It sets out in a few paragraphs the constitutional framework of the civil service, and the values that every civil servant is expected to uphold. It forms part of the terms and conditions of employment of every civil servant, and considerable efforts have been made to publicise it, including steps intended to ensure that every civil servant has his or her own copy.

There are several reasons why the House should welcome the code's promulgation. Above all, its introduction has served powerfully to reaffirm the values that underpin the civil service, to which the Government remain committed. They are integrity, political impartiality, selection and promotion on merit and accountability to Parliament through Ministers.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I was pleased to hear the Chancellor enumerate those qualities. Can he tell us why—according to a book by David Butler—when it came to deciding the position relating to the poll tax, the permanent secretary involved was simply told, "This is in our political interest"? If that is the Government's attitude to the civil service, is it not surprising that we do not come up with more bizarre answers than we do now?

Mr. Freeman

It is very important for the civil service not only to act in the best interests of an independent service with full integrity, loyal to its political masters of the day, but to be seen to be able to serve Administrations of different political colours. That is the test: whether civil servants in any particular Department can continue through a change in Administration, and serve the new policies of an incoming Administration of whatever political colour.

The code does not assert any new values—it is not intended to—but the fact of its introduction has sent a clear signal about the importance that the traditional civil service values continue to have. Those values derive much of their day-to-day force from the fact that they command near-universal support. Thus general support for the code is clearly important, because the civil service is not the exclusive property of the Government of the day; it is a permanent and impartial service on which the Government of the day have, so to speak, the lease rather than the freehold. In other words, the civil service must command the confidence not only of the Government, but of potential future Administrations.

The code contains an important innovation. In addition to internal appeals procedures run by Departments, there is now a right of appeal to the independent civil service commissioners. Civil servants can now appeal when they believe that they are being required to act in a way which is illegal, improper or unethical, which breaches constitutional convention or a professional code, which may involve maladministration or which otherwise breaches the code or raises a fundamental issue of conscience.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

Such an appeal, however, can be routed only through the head of the Department in which the civil servant works. The civil servant must first make the point to that person. Therefore, there is a chance of retaliation against someone who protests about the illegal or improper activities of a senior civil servant or Minister, which is likely to be recorded on his or her personnel record.

Mr. Freeman

That is a gloomy and negative assessment. It is perfectly right and proper that, in the first place, the civil servant should have the responsibility of reporting his or her concern through the chain of command to the permanent secretary of the Department, but then there is an automatic and unamendable right of appeal to the civil service commissioners. That right can be exercised as quickly as the individual complaining deems appropriate. It is entirely appropriate that the permanent secretary of the Department should be aware of the concerns—concerns that are in some cases, perhaps, justifiably held by the individual—and should know of them first.

It is essential that the arrangements should be credible, and it is clear from our consultation last year that we have a provision that commands widespread confidence. As a succinct and widely available statement of the standards asked of civil servants, the code enables the public to know what they should expect of the civil service.

The creation of the senior civil service is another reform that has commanded widespread support. As the name implies, the senior civil service covers the senior staff—that is, former grades 1 to 5.

The White Papers, "Continuity and Change" and "Taking Forward Continuity and Change", set out the Government's broad objectives for the senior civil service, which came into being on 1 April.

The new senior civil servants have an important role to play in providing leadership, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose and sustaining key civil service values at a time when most responsibilities are devolved to individual Departments and agencies.

Senior civil service staff will be managed by Departments within a broad common framework. That framework has a number of important new features. First, there are more flexible performance-related pay structures than existed before. That gives Departments more scope to pay people according to their individual circumstances, including the difficulty of their jobs, and to reward according to their individual contribution.

Secondly, we have cut out unnecessary jobs and hierarchies and abolished the old inflexible senior grading structure, which restricted Departments unnecessarily in settling the way in which they organised themselves. The resulting streamlining will lead to an overall reduction of well over 20 per cent. in the number of senior posts.

Thirdly, senior civil servants, like other senior managers, are moving on to personal, formal written contracts. Those set out more clearly than before, in writing, the terms and conditions of employment for senior civil servants, ensuring that people understand properly their rights and obligations.

Fourthly, we have developed a new senior appraisal system. It ensures that our senior performance management systems match best practice elsewhere in the public and private sectors.

Fifthly, we have increased the use of open competition for filling senior vacancies, both across Departments and more widely. So, in recent years, around 30 per cent. of vacancies at the top three levels of the civil service have been openly advertised outside the service, including, in the past year, six posts at permanent secretary level.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

Two factors concern me. The first is the performance-related pay of senior civil servants, who after all are closely allied to the thinking of the Government of the day. The performance-related pay might be related not just to their ability but to how far they satisfy certain political considerations, which is a serious matter. Secondly, on the fixed-term contracts, if we proceed along those lines, senior civil servants will be under even greater pressure. Those are matters that concern the House and anyone else who is concerned with good administration, and I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would care to reflect on them.

Mr. Freeman

It is important that performance pay— it is modest in relation to basic salary, and certainly in relation to what is paid in the private sector—is determined on merit and performance, not on political loyalty. Civil servants should have loyalty to their Ministers, but should not portray their political affiliations, nor should performance pay be in any way related to political favours that may or may not be deemed to have been performed. That is an extremely important principle. Performance pay is essentially determined by civil servants themselves—ultimately by the permanent secretary—and not by the Minister. It would not be appropriate if it were seen as a Minister giving rewards for political favours. That would be widely unpopular in the civil service and it would be wrong.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

I apologise to my right hon. Friend for arriving a little late for his speech. On performance-related pay, how many senior civil servants leave the service early for the private sector? If we are losing a steady number, is that not an argument for more PRP—for making it more flexible and a bigger element of basic pay, so that we can appropriately reward civil servants who make the sacrifice of staying in public life and avoid losing the best talent to the private sector?

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend will agree that there has been a remarkable change in the level of civil service pay so that it is much more commensurate with private sector pay. There is no great desire, as there was a decade ago, to leave the service because of pay. Of course, there are civil servants whom we would like to retain who leave for substantially better-paid work, but I would not describe that as a main feature of the movement of civil servants out of the public sector.

We have lost, or will lose, up to 20 per cent. of the senior civil service in most Departments through restructuring and opening up and making more flexible the previously monolithic structure of some Departments. Some civil servants have taken well-earned early retirement, where some may pursue other jobs. Some have gone to the private sector. I do not have detailed figures. The introduction of PRP is appropriate in modern life, whether in the public or private sector, to reward not political loyalty but effort, achievement, leadership and efficiency.

Mr. Jenkin

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Freeman

If my hon. Friend will allow it, I should like to make some progress. I have a fair amount to say, but I shall try to compress it in the interests of the debate.

We have committed ourselves to a renewed emphasis on developing talent. We want to equip our senior people and their potential successors so that they contribute effectively to their jobs and develop satisfying and well-planned careers to meet the Government's and the individual's aspirations. We have already announced our plans to publish a White Paper on that during the summer.

The senior civil service is now well suited to play a vital role both in maintaining traditional civil service values and in driving through necessary change. It will continue to provide clear-sighted and impartial policy advice to Government. It will continue to manage the delivery of a wide range of services to the private sector and the general public. However, it will do so in a way that leads to still greater efficiency and in accordance with the principles of the citizens charter, which will continue to raise standards of service to the customer across the whole of public service. We are confident that the senior civil service, like the wider civil service, will continue to be recognised as being among the world's best as we enter the next millennium. I was going to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), but I see that he is talking to a higher authority.

I shall now deal with the enhanced role of the civil service commissioners, brought into effect by the continuity and change White Papers. The commissioners' primary role is to maintain the key principles of fair and open competition and of selection on merit in relation to recruitment to the civil service. The Government have made clear their commitment to those key principles, but we have gone further than lip service: we have strengthened the commissioners' independence and powers in relation to the regulatory framework for civil service recruitment, to ensure that the key principles are upheld in practice.

The main enhancements to the role of the commissioners were summarised in the White Paper "Taking Forward Continuity and Change". The civil service commissioners became responsible for the interpretation of the principle of fair and open competition on merit for all civil service recruitment, not only for the most senior recruitment. They have issued a simple but binding recruitment code for Departments and agencies, to replace the former Minister's rules. They audit Departments' and agencies' recruitment systems against the requirements of the recruitment code. They publish an annual report. Their report for 1995–96, the first to cover their enhanced responsibilities, will be published shortly.

The commissioners continue to approve each appointment from outside the civil service to the new senior civil service and to take a direct part in senior competitions.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will the Government consider further extending the role of the civil service commissioners beyond examining recruitment across the range of civil service employees?

Mr. Freeman

That is a novel idea, on which I should like to reflect. I suspect that my hon. Friend is suggesting an extension of the commissioners' role in relation to those who are not technically civil servants but who serve in the public sector. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be able to develop that argument during the debate. It is an interesting idea, but the commissioners' role is, as their name implies, currently restricted to the civil service.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I hope that the Minister responds sympathetically to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), because there is a wide area of the public service to which the experience of the Office of the Civil Service Commissioners could be extended if it had wider public service responsibilities—quangos, and the inspectorate of education, whose staff are Crown servants but not civil servants, to name only two examples.

Mr. Freeman

I understand that one of our main daily newspapers describes contributions to debates by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and myself as sleep-inducing and boring. [HON. MEMBERS: "Never."] The right hon. Gentleman and I are perhaps in a minority of two in believing that not to be the case.

The suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is a constructive idea, which I would not want to dismiss. We should return to that. I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate. Certainly, in relation to quangos and non-departmental public bodies—that is, bodies without a Minister in charge—there is a very strong case for looking afresh at some of the principles that we apply, especially on recruitment and promotion, so I take the idea seriously.

In addition, the First Commissioner now has a role in relation to senior internal appointments, and attends the senior appointments selection committee. He is able to comment on the choice between open competition and internal appointment in relation to selection on merit, and on the development of senior selection processes.

The new regime introduced in 1995 clarified the roles of Departments and agencies and of Recruitment and Assessment Services. It has now been made clear that it is for the head of each Department or agency to ensure that the key recruitment principles are followed in practice. Departments and agencies are required to publish information about their recruitment systems.

RAS has had no formal role in regulating civil service recruitment, although of course it adheres to the commissioners' requirements in the services that it provides. RAS now focuses entirely on its role as a provider of high-quality recruitment and related services. That is in line with the principle recommended by the 1994 review, that the roles of service provider, that is, RAS, and the regulator, that is, the Departments and the civil service commissioners, should be separate.

Mr. Garrett

What is the justification for the retention of the administrative fast-stream entry in an organisation that is now supposed to be increasingly technocratic and managerial?

Mr. Freeman

The fast stream is designed primarily to recruit graduates into the civil service. It does not guarantee—

Mr. Garrett

They are not all graduates.

Mr. Freeman

No. I said "primarily". They are primarily graduates. It is a very competitive market. There is not a fast track to promotion, to permanent secretary level. At the early stages of the introduction of individuals—indeed, I suspect that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, would be able to answer in a far more personal capacity because he was probably a product of that system—

Mr. Garrett

Without justification.

Mr. Freeman

I was not seeking to dodge the question. I am merely pointing out that we have some personal experience on the Treasury Bench. I believe that there is justification for the fast stream, simply because it attracts, from memory, about 7,000 to 8,000 applications a year for perhaps 200 jobs, in a very competitive graduate pool. It does so because it provides a tailor-made system of recruitment and pays special attention to those highly qualified individuals.

Mr. Garrett

indicated dissent.

Mr. Freeman

Of course they are. They are for the most part graduates, who, if they did not join the civil service, would be competed for in the private sector.

I now refer to the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services. RAS was established as a next steps agency to provide services to Departments and agencies on a repayment basis. It is widely regarded for its recruitment and assessment capabilities, and is perhaps best known for its role in the recruitment of high-calibre graduates to the civil service fast stream, the future "high fliers" in the civil service, but without any guarantee of promotion.

The agency has done well. With no tied business, it has to compete in a dynamic marketplace against Departments' in-house teams as well as against private sector recruitment companies. With the continuing development of a range of services designed to meet the changing needs of customers, it has established a reputation as a centre of excellence and it has been able to increase its overall market share of civil service recruitment, from 7 per cent. at the start to 12 per cent. in 1995–96—RAS accounts for only 12 per cent. of recruitment into the civil service.

The opportunity for RAS to compete in wider public and private sector markets will come at a time when companies are beginning to place their graduate recruitment in the hands of outside specialist recruitment firms. RAS will be especially well placed to exploit that trend. Freedom to develop fully the potential of the business will enhance the range of services and the value for money that it can offer to customers, including existing customers and Departments. Therefore, we are confident that privatisation will also give best value for money for the taxpayer.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

The Minister is well aware that that proposal was heavily defeated in the House of Lords—I think by 120 votes to 64. In response to the defeat, the Lord Privy Seal said that the Government would bring forward proposals taking that into account. What changes have been made since the debate in the House of Lords?

Mr. Freeman

I had planned to deal with that issue later in my speech, but I shall deal with it now. I have been called to appear before the relevant Committee of another place, which is looking at the public sector and its services, including Recruitment and Assessment Services. I look forward to doing that after the Whitsun recess. The hon. Gentleman must concede that neither this House nor the other place has had as comprehensive an opportunity as today to consider the reasons for our suggestion of transferring ownership of RAS to the private sector. We are now doing that. When I attend the Committee of another place, I shall expand on that in even greater detail.

I look forward to seeing the conclusions of the report of that Committee, which I understand will be available before the summer recess—and before we complete any arrangements for the transfer of ownership of RAS. I give my assurance to this place and to the other place that the observations of the Committee will be taken into account and carefully considered. If the hon. Gentleman listened to the Lords debate, or read the report of it, he will have come to the conclusion that the arguments in it did not bear a tremendous relationship to the realities of the new situation, post-1995, when the principles governing recruitment into the civil service and the regulation of that process have been removed from RAS.

Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham)

Is the Minister saying that the noble Lord who led for the Government— who made two lengthy speeches—was incompetent and did not put forward the proper arguments? As I understand it, he put forward the arguments and a distinguished collection of Lords—if I may so boldly call them that—comprehensively undermined them and, as a result, the Government were defeated by a vast majority. If the Committee comes forward with proposals, the Government ought to take them very seriously and delay their project.

Mr. Freeman

I am the Minister responsible, and this is the first opportunity that I have had to account to the House—this is ministerial accountability. I am explaining the policy and the reasons for it in detail. I look forward to giving evidence to the Committee and to its deliberations. Any conclusions of the Committee that are relevant to the privatisation of RAS will be carefully considered. I give the House and the Committee an assurance that I shall treat the deliberations seriously. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that a Committee of this place or another place should control the policies of Government. It is this House and the other place that must pass specific conclusions on specific legislative proposals.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Would it not be sensible to defer any progress on the privatisation until the Select Committee has given the Chancellor the benefit of its full deliberations?

Mr. Freeman

It depends what the right hon. Gentleman means by "progress". I assume that the relevant Select Committee will report before the summer recess and that I shall have the opportunity to study its recommendations and perhaps even discuss the matter again. Therefore, we shall not conclude the process until that has occurred. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman places particular stress on the word "conclude". He will know that it takes many months of careful planning—I shall comment on the timetable in a moment—to conclude a complicated privatisation. That process should, and will, continue and it will not be concluded until the Select Committee has reported—so long as that occurs before the summer recess.

Mr. Gunnell

Will we debate the matter again in the House before the process is concluded? The privatisation announcement was made in an answer to a written question, and this is the first opportunity that hon. Members have had to discuss it. It is a highly controversial matter, and it is not good to debate it immediately before a recess, when few hon. Members are able to participate in the debate. I believe that we should debate the matter in full in the House.

Mr. Freeman

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns: he has expressed them very clearly. The matter does not require legislation, as Opposition Front Benchers know and understand. We are debating the matter properly today. If the Opposition call another proper debate on the subject—as occurred with Her Majesty's Stationery Office—I shall be happy to respond. We have debated the issue three times and we shall debate it properly now. 1 am trying to explain the reasons for our decision. I believe that we should clear away some of the less rational comments regarding the process, look at the issues in an unemotional manner—perhaps in a boring fashion—and come to a considered conclusion.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

I apologise again to my right hon. Friend for my absence earlier. We look forward to seeing the Opposition Front Bench, as represented by the archetype of new Labour, participate constructively in the debate. I am sure that Opposition Front Benchers will not opt for the reflex anti-privatisation reaction that we expect from Labour Back Benchers.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I look forward to his contribution during the debate, which I am sure, as always, will be based on a wealth of experience.

RAS has already had some success in its exploration of wider public sector markets. The Government believe that freedom from public sector operating constraints will allow it to exploit and develop fully its considerable expertise with new customers, including private sector customers. That is why we announced last November that RAS should be privatised. Since that announcement, we have advertised the potential sale of the business and received completed questionnaires from interested bidders. Those expressions of interest have undergone an initial sift and I intend to send a detailed information memorandum describing the business to bidders who have pre-qualified, inviting them to submit indicative bids for the business.

The information memorandum will be issued shortly. I intend to place a copy of the letter inviting bids and the information memorandum—omitting commercially sensitive and personal information—in the Libraries of each House. I shall write to the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland about the matter as soon as I can. If the memorandum is issued during the recess, I shall send him a letter detailing the steps that I have taken.

The important civil service reforms that have been carried through in recent years have given rise to concerns in another place that key public service values may be under threat. Those concerns were voiced in the debate on the civil service last year, which considered the report on the role of the civil service by the former Treasury and Civil Service Committee as well as the Government's Command Paper "Taking Forward Continuity and Change", which accepted most of the Committee's conclusions. On that occasion, we made clear our continuing commitment to the principles laid down in the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 19th century, which underpin the integrity and the quality of our civil service. I have already restated that commitment today.

Nevertheless, the opinion recently expressed in the other place on our proposals for the future of RAS was clearly based on that same concern. It was suggested that privatisation would remove a key safeguard of public service standards and risk a decline in the quality of recruitment procedures, and so of recruits themselves. I shall be appearing before their Lordships' Public Service Select Committee shortly after the recess, and I look forward to receiving the Committee's report—which I understand is expected before the summer recess—on its findings regarding the privatisation of RAS. When that Committee reports, I shall consider its recommendations with care and respond in due course. Meanwhile, we are adhering to the privatisation timetable, which is aimed at a successful completion later in the summer.

I want to explain why the concerns are misplaced, not least because of the safeguards that we are introducing to guarantee the integrity and quality of civil service recruitment undertaken by RAS after privatisation.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Does the Minister agree that there is already a great problem, in that 1,706 maladministration complaints have been filed with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in the past year? Is there not an increasing correlation between departmental maladministration and the loss of 32,000 civil servants since 1993? How can quality be achieved when staff are put under amazing pressure through job cuts?

Mr. Freeman

I do not accept that there is any correlation between examples of maladministration and civil service staff numbers. I accept that there is great pressure on the civil service, as there is on just about every private sector company. We live in a much more competitive world, and the House and the taxpayer demand proper value for money and control of public expenditure.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is not that nonsense? The specific terms laid down for the creation of the Child Support Agency specified that civil servants should not normally be recruited, but outside people with no experience should be recruited—many of whom are on shift work of no more than four and a half hours and are badly paid. If the Minister seriously believes that that produces quality work, I suggest that he reads carefully not only criticisms of the CSA but the continuing complaints that every Member of Parliament has about the agency's ability to deal with the problems that confront it every day.

Mr. Freeman

I submit that those problems are to do with procedures, not the number of civil servants employed.

Mr. Derek Foster

I am totally surprised that the Minister dismisses the parliamentary ombudsman's criticism, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) referred. When I tackled the Parliamentary Secretary in a debate only a short time ago, he dismissed the argument in the same way. He felt that nothing in the report underpinned what had been said in the press release. I took the opportunity to write to the ombudsman, and he reaffirmed his comments in the press release and said that he had all the evidence required to underpin his criticism.

Mr. Freeman

No one disagrees that the duties of a particular Department must be discharged with the appropriate number of civil servants, but I do not accept the contention that the reduction in their total number correlates to the number of complaints of maladministration, for which there are many reasons.

Mr. Connarty

As a member of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration Select Committee, I can tell the Minister that many permanent secretaries have appeared before it—and when we ask about maladministration, it comes down to pressure on staff. When staff make a mistake, they do not have time to find out how it was made, who made it and how it can be corrected. Pressure is created by lack of numbers, and even changes to the system have not relieved that pressure. Will the Minister accept that point, before he rushes headlong down the road of further cuts and maladministration?

Mr. Freeman

One of the factors relating to the responsibilities of a specific Department and the way in which it discharges its duties is staff numbers. Many other factors, however, are involved: the procedures, the training and whether the right balance between public sector and contracted-out functions has been struck, to name but three. The general contention that there is a correlation of some kind between the number of cases of maladministration—1,706 was the figure cited—and the decline in the number of civil servants is not sustainable.

The concerns expressed in another place tend to imply that our proposals—to privatise RAS—will change the rales governing civil service recruitment and the responsibilities for ensuring that they are followed. They will not. The rules, based on the principles of fair and open competition and selection on merit, are rightly regarded as cornerstones of civil service integrity. Those rules are embodied in the civil service Order in Council and set out in the recruitment code of the independent civil service commissioners. Departments and agencies are responsible for ensuring that the requirements of the code are met.

The commissioners audit their recruitment policies against those requirements. RAS has only an operational role as a provider of recruitment, assessment and consultancy services to civil service customers who choose to use it. It retains no links with the regulatory functions of the commissioners. Those arrangements are in no way affected by the privatisation of RAS.

It has also been suggested that our proposals may affect the quality of recruitment, in particular recruitment to the civil service fast stream. In their response to the review of the fast stream, published in July 1994, the Government announced their intention to retain a servicewide fast stream scheme aimed at recruiting the very best graduates. The privatisation of RAS will not change that. We propose to convey to the new private sector owner of RAS the exclusive contracts to provide fast stream customers with the recruitment services that they require.

It might be helpful to the House if I describe the safeguards designed to guarantee the integrity and quality of the fast stream selection process after the sale.

Most importantly, there will continue to be close civil service involvement at all stages. We have stipulated that actual selection of candidates must remain in the hands of civil servants. The civil service will continue to provide assessors at the civil service selection boards—the main assessment stage of the process—and panel members for final selection boards. They, not RAS, will decide the success or failure of candidates.

The main fast stream contract is being drawn up in consultation with the customer consortium of fast stream employing Departments and is designed to ensure that they retain at least the same control over the process and tests used in their competitions after the sale as they currently enjoy. The Office of Public Service will work with customer departments and RAS to ensure that obligations are met and that the day-to-day operation of the contract runs smoothly. Those running specialist fast stream schemes are also involved in the work to create separate contracts that will meet their particular requirements. Customers—Government Departments—will also be closely consulted in the selection of the new owner.

The detail of all stages of the selection processes will be set out in the contract schedules. In his recent independent audit of the fast stream, Professor Bartram commended RAS's approach of treating those processes as dynamic rather than fixed, and it will be important for the processes to continue to change and evolve in response to customer needs. However, all changes will need approval from those customers. It will not be possible for the new owner to seek to take short cuts, therefore, in an effort to reduce costs. Nor would the new owner want to do so. We shall select a new owner with a clear commitment to making a success of those prestigious contracts and to maintaining the reputation that RAS has established for its leading-edge public sector recruitment and assessment work. The new owner can be expected to put greater effort into maintaining positive and productive relationships with civil service customers.

The Government will retain ownership of the tests and exercises used in the fast stream selection process, including those developed by the new owner for fast stream use. The tests for use in each competition will continue to be approved by customers. Civil servants will still be responsible for preparing background exercises based on civil service work. Under the terms of the intellectual property licence to be granted to the new owner, the tests will be strictly protected while current. Use of old tests elsewhere will be subject to provisions designed to ensure that the integrity and efficacy of the fast stream schemes is in no way compromised. Again, customers are closely involved in the work on the licence, as well as the contractual terms relating to that area.

The staff of RAS have shown great commitment in maintaining the highest standards of service, while also working to prepare for privatisation. We of course attach the utmost importance to ensuring that they are treated fairly and that their rights are fully respected in the process. Arrangements have been made to keep staff as closely involved and informed as possible. We intend to publish the short-list of bidders in due course, so that staff representatives can have the opportunity to meet prospective purchasers and discuss their plans with them. As has been the case with other transfers to the private sector, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 will apply at the point of sale to preserve all terms and conditions.

I can also state that we would not wish to take forward proposals from bidders which include the utilisation of offices outside Basingstoke or its immediate vicinity for the head office operations of RAS. That will provide reassurances to staff.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the sale is conducted on a basis that not only maintains and enhances the standing of RAS as a high-quality provider of recruitment and assessment services, but guarantees that the integrity of the recruitment that RAS carries out for civil service customers is maintained. The provisions that I have outlined will meet those objectives.

I shall conclude by dealing with the Civil Service College, which has aroused a good deal of attention and misplaced concern in recent weeks and months.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

I do not know whether the Minister has seen the four questions on today's Order Paper, relating to the prior options review and the future of the public sector research establishments. As he is responsible for the civil service, and as thousands of civil servants will be affected by those announcements, which have not yet been made available to the House, does he share my concern that the morale of those civil servants will go into major decline and that the announcements will be seen as an attack on the science base in the United Kingdom? Why are those announcements being made by way of written answers and not by way of debate in the Chamber?

Mr. Freeman

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the prior options process has now been in operation for a good number of years. It is a routine method of examining whether a certain function should remain in the public sector and, having decided that it should remain in the public sector, whether any particular aspect of that service needs to be market-tested. I shall certainly look into the specific points that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I am grateful to him for reminding me of them. I was not personally aware of them or briefed—

Mr. Ingram


Mr. Freeman

As the motion in the name of the Prime Minister makes clear, I am dealing with certain specific issues. If the hon. Gentleman would like an answer, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will seek to address that point when he replies to the debate.

I conclude by dealing with the Civil Service College. For more than 25 years, the Civil Service College has provided training and development for civil servants, particularly those at senior levels. As well as training more than 30,000 students a year on more than 500 different courses, the college makes an important contribution to the articulation and preservation of the values enshrined in the civil service code. In addition, the college is highly regarded around the world and receives a steady stream of eminent foreign visitors.

The college is an executive agency within the Office of Public Service, and as such, its strategy and operation have recently been reviewed. The review of the Civil Service College has been designed to ensure that the college achieves its full potential for developing the best traditions and the international reputation of the civil service. A wide range of options has been considered, including continuing as now in the public sector and partial or full transfer of ownership to the private sector. The Government concluded that the college should proceed within the public sector to develop new activities in partnership with the private sector.

The Government will ensure that the essential link between the civil service and the Civil Service College is preserved. The college will build on and extend already established and successful partnerships, which include the delivery of a public sector MBA in partnership with Cranfield university and Manchester business school, the delivery of courses on the private finance initiative with Price Waterhouse and a project in the Czech Republic together with a Dutch private sector partner.

New partnerships currently under negotiation cover a variety of training courses, seminars, conferences and consultancy assignments. With them, the Civil Service College will have the means and resources to extend and enhance the quality of the services that it provides. What the Government are seeking to achieve with those further developments is the continued development of training for civil servants, particularly those with professional and senior management responsibilities, and that the college should become a centre of excellence in public sector management and reform, recognised in Britain and worldwide.

Later this summer—before the recess—I hope to publish a White Paper on training and development in the civil service, dealing not only generally with enhancements and improvement to those processes, but specifically with Investors in People, and commitments that the public sector should be making to support that initiative.

In conclusion, the motion covers the Government's intentions for the future of the civil service. It represents a package of important measures: the promulgation of the civil service code, the strengthening of the role of the civil service commissioners, the development of the senior civil service, the privatisation of RAS, with the necessary safeguards to protect the quality and principles of civil service recruitment, and the forthcoming White Paper on training and development in the civil service, associated with the further development by the Civil Service College of a number of partnerships with the private sector. I commend those proposals to the House.

4.19 pm
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'welcomes the statement in the White Paper "Continuity and Change" that "the Government recognises that the Civil Service is not the property of any single administration", and commends the Government for constructing consensus around the Civil Service code; regrets the Government's refusal to manage other Civil Service reform by seeking consensus or properly consulting staff; recognises the widespread feeling of job insecurity and "initiative fatigue" throughout the Civil Service; urges the Government not to proceed so late in the Parliament with the privatisation of HMSO, RAS and OHSA and to join opposition parties in seeking consensus by requesting the Public Service Committee to conduct a thorough independent review of all recent Civil Service reforms.'. As I listened to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I realised why he has his job. I am sure that he could present the slaughter of the innocents as the most acceptable and humane of happenings.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Did you not use that line last time?

Mr. Foster

No, I did not. The hon. Gentleman is a veteran of such debates, and should remember what goes on.

We are witnessing a sea change in British politics. The Conservative party once had the reputation of being the most formidable vote-winning machine throughout Europe. Now, it is so riven by ideological division that it cannot address the concerns of the British electorate, and certainly cannot address the concerns of the civil service.

Even with the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary at the heart of the Government, each one a pro-European, one-nation Tory—the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confesses to be of the same persuasion—the Conservative party cannot drive to the middle ground of British politics, which is now commanded by the Leader of the Opposition and new Labour. Stung by the charges of inadequate leadership, incompetence and rift, wherever the Tory high command tries to create an impression of momentum, the inner dynamic of the party drives to the right.

Since the Deputy Prime Minister took charge less than 12 months ago, he has driven to the right on civil service issues with frenetic glee. Frustrated in his plan to sell off the Post Office, he is privatising every tiddler that moves or is stationary in the civil service. The civil service has been so privatised, market-tested and contracted out that job insecurity is widespread.

Although the President of the Board of Trade thinks that job insecurity is only a state of mind, it strikes me that Ministers and Tory Back Benchers take their own job insecurity seriously enough. Even if we grant that the President of the Board of Trade might conceivably be correct and that job insecurity is a state of mind, I remind Conservative Members that being a Tory voter is also a state of mind.

The Deputy Prime Minister dispatches his messenger the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to the House to persuade us to approve the motion; yet the only reason why we are having this debate is that the Government suffered a humiliating defeat in another place. The privatisation of the Recruitment and Assessment Services agency needs, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, no primary or secondary legislation. The proposal was smuggled out in a written answer one Friday afternoon. There would have been no debate in either House without Lord Bancroft, who initiated a debate in the other place on Friday 8 March.

Of the 20 people who spoke in that debate, only one supported the Government. Those taking part included a former Prime Minister, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary, a former Conservative Minister of Transport, a former Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, and a former Secretary of State for Education. Others included many who have reached the most senior positions in the civil and diplomatic service or in academic life. The result was that the Government lost the vote by 124 votes to 64. When I heard that news, I immediately wrote to the Chancellor asking him to initiate a debate in the Commons. Two months later, he has responded with this debate just before the recess.

In the debate in another place, Lord Bancroft referred to the flippant destruction of an essential pillar. He was referring to the civil service. Lord Callaghan reminded the House that the civil service was not the private property of temporary, fleeting Ministers to trifle with as they please. It is the property of us all to guarantee its neutrality, independence and integrity". He went on to suggest that Ministers have been so long in power that they are insensitive to the limits of their responsibilities. He called for a royal commission or a Select Committee to review the matter, as has happened on many occasions since the great Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the mid-1850s.

Lord Jenkins doubted that it was constitutionally proper for a Government who were clinging on to power to force through a totally unnecessary change on a subject which goes to the heart of the delicate balance between party government and wider national interest".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 March 1996; Vol. 570, c. 545–48.] Lord Hunt of Tanworth said that the process would deserve the most careful consideration at the best of times, but that these were post-Scott times, when the whole question of the public service ethos was under serious discussion.

I do not intend to address all the arguments for and against the privatisation of RAS. I leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), whom I might describe as my comrade in arms, who will wind up the debate. I just caution the Government that, with such distinguished opponents, whose long and deep experience should not be ignored, they should consider that they may conceivably be wrong.

Should not the Government take the advice of the former Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, that they should give the whole matter of civil service reform a proper airing in front of the appropriate Select Committee in this House, or perhaps even a Joint Select Committee of both Houses, so that we can proceed on these matters, which are so crucial to our unwritten British constitution, with some consensus?

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

On that point, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm categorically that it is Labour party policy not to politicise the civil service any further, either by appointing a political press secretary to No. 10 Downing street, should, by any prospect, Labour occupy these Benches, or by adding more political appointees to the private offices of individual Ministers?

Mr. Foster

If I wanted to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, I might say that it would be impossible to politicise the civil service any further, but I shall not be so unkind.

I now turn to the White Paper "The Civil Service: Taking Forward Continuity and Change". In that White Paper, the Government seemed, like Lord Callaghan, to be seeking consensus. They said that they recognized that the civil service is not the property of a single Administration. However, in my view, there is little evidence of a bipartisan approach over the past 17 years, as the Government have imposed wave upon wave of change on the civil service, with no consideration for the views of staff or of the civil service trade unions.

If the Government genuinely want consensus, let them now halt the privatisation of HMSO, RAS, the Occupational Health and Safety Agency and the Government computer centre at Chessington. Let them abandon the market testing of the administration of the principal civil service pension scheme. Let them abandon the privatisation of the public sector research establishments, a matter that was recently raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), because that would damage the continuity, independence and integrity of the science base as a provider of research information and advice in the public interest.

Labour believes that the Government have behaved with reckless irresponsibility in bequeathing two huge problems to their successor. First, the trust between the people and Government is badly fractured. For the first time since the great reforms of the mid-19th century, the probity of the British public service is in question.

I was glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, intervened earlier. In its eighth report, that Committee spoke of a departure from the standards of public conduct which have been established during the past 140 years. I have an example of that. The Committee discovered, in the very citadel of Government—in the Treasury—that one arm of the Treasury had been defrauded of £250,000 by another of its arms, called Forward Catering. If that type of incompetence and fraud is occurring in the very citadel of Government, what hope have we of discovering it in the "sticks" of Government?

The Public Accounts Committee also claimed that the fragmentation of the civil service makes its job of effective scrutiny far more difficult.

The former Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, said that he was more worried about the Civil Service than I have ever been in the 60-odd years since I first joined. If Conservative Members do not like the words of a former Labour Prime Minister, let me remind them of the words spoken in the House by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) in the debate on civil service pensions: In pursuing the privatisation path, particularly regarding civil service arrangements, my hon. Friend the Minister is making a grave mistake."—[Official Report, 7 May 1996; Vol. 277, c. 132.] Those are the words of a Conservative former Prime Minister.

The fact that the current Prime Minister was forced to set up the Nolan committee is eloquent enough comment that the public have lost confidence in Government and in Parliament to put their houses in order. Those who have read the 1,800 pages of the Scott report—which took three years to complete, at a cost of £3 million—will have had a disturbing picture of Whitehall's culture of secrecy and of the unhealthy relationship between Ministers and civil servants. Restoring trust between the people and Government is a formidable task, which will not be achieved quickly or easily.

New Labour has a very ambitious programme of constitutional and democratic renewal. It is based on four principles: first, a clearer definition and stronger protection of the public interest; secondly, greater decentralisation of Government; thirdly, greater transparency; and, fourthly, much more accountability. Our programme will, of course, include devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions, in time; a limited reform of the House of Lords; and a freedom of information Act to make central Government and their agencies and quangos more open.

Dr. Spink

Will the hon. Gentleman inform me about a personal matter? Has he ever been approached by any of his constituents asking for an, additional, regional layer of government?

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman totally misconceives the Labour party's proposals. We do not propose to impose an additional layer of administration at all.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

If the Labour party does not propose imposing an additional layer of government in forming regional government, which current layer of government would it do away with?

Mr. Foster

I am completely surprised that Conservative Members do not see the virtue—in what is now the most centralised Government in Europe—of pushing power further down to the people. That objective strikes me as eminently sensible and very popular. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not persuaded of its sense.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Foster

No; I shall not give way again for the time being.

I was beginning to describe my party's proposals for dealing with the breakdown of trust between the people and the Government. It is horrifying that the Conservatives are quite unaware that that breakdown is what they have achieved in their 17 years of undistinguished rule. We want to put on a statutory basis the civil service code to which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster referred; we want an effective register of all quango members and their financial, political and other interests; and we want new arrangements to ensure better accountability of quangos at each level on which they operate.

I deal now with the second problem that will face the new Government—the widespread demoralisation throughout the civil and public services. In an interview with The Observer last November, Sir Robin Butler himself described the revolution sweeping Whitehall Departments as having sapped the morale of civil servants and created a climate of insecurity.

The recently published First Division Association MORI survey revealed that 40 per cent. of senior FDA members expected to leave the service shortly, and that morale was at a low ebb. The much more recent survey of civil servants conducted by The Observer, together with the Public Service, Tax and Commerce Union— known as the PTC—and the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists found that 92 per cent. of those asked believed that civil service morale was quite or very bad, and that 73 per cent. would not advise the next generation to join the civil service.

The House will have seen the ICM poll published in The Observer on Sunday 5 May, which showed that insecurity has risen sharply in the 1990s and has spread to people of all ages, all regions and all social groups. A sense of insecurity pervades the whole of the civil service. Whenever and wherever I meet civil servants, that is uppermost in their minds.

What will Labour do to tackle low morale in the civil service? First, Labour will affirm its commitment to the public service and reassert the classic civil service values. Those values were Once shared by one-nation Conservatives, who have now been elbowed aside by the right-wing ideologues who call the shots.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster

Not for the time being.

Secondly, we shall make it clear that the British civil service is a great national asset which, since the 1870s, has been a permanent and impartial instrument of all Administrations. The new Government will recognise their duty to preserve its efficiency and honesty for their successor.

Thirdly, we shall halt privatisation of the service. Fourthly, we shall place a moratorium on market testing while we institute a thorough independent review, but the drive for efficiency—[Interruption.] It is interesting that a party which has instituted so many reviews finds the notion of this review mildly amusing.

Mr. Radice

Is not the Government's problem the fact that they have done a great deal without any testing, and without thinking through the implications of what they were doing? Is that not the reason why so many of their policies have failed?

Mr. Foster

I am grateful for that intervention from my distinguished and hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice), the Chairman of the Public Service Select Committee.

The drive for efficiency, value for money and high-quality service will continue under Labour. However, the motivation will not be the dogmatic wish to drive down public expenditure in order to fund tax handouts. Nor will we seek efficiency gains by driving down public servants' wages and conditions of service; nor will we regard downsizing as an end in itself.

No one should expect the pace of change to slacken, because change is driven by international competitive forces. Change is inevitable, but it does not have to be threatening. Change does not have to mean more job insecurity. Britain will succeed only by embracing change, and managing it for the benefit of all. The Government will be judged by the success with which they prepare the country, including civil servants, to embrace change.

New Labour will invite the British people to become partners with the Government in managing change, because Labour believes that the British people are the nation's most valuable resource. The country can succeed in an increasingly competitive world only by developing the skills and talents of all our people. In the stakeholder society, every citizen must have an opportunity to make his or her contribution. That contribution must be given proper recognition and rewarded fairly. In this way, we will build one nation and unite the country.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

I speak as a one-nation Conservative. The right hon. Gentleman talks at length about job insecurity in the civil service, but he has given no analysis of why that insecurity has arisen. Is it not due to the changing nature of the labour market, the introduction of technology, and all the factors that create job insecurity in the private sector? Furthermore, he has given a long list of things that Labour would stop doing. Can he tell us what Labour will do, other than have another review?

Mr. Foster

The Tories cannot wriggle out of the charge that they have created job insecurity by blaming the changing nature of the job market. They have created wave upon wave of changes in the civil service, and they have caused virtually everyone in the service to fear for their jobs and their future. That is the Government's responsibility, and they will suffer for it at the next election.

I believe that a sense of ownership among staff could transform the amount and quality of service throughout the civil service and across the public sector, but that will not occur with demoralised, undervalued and insecure public servants. It will not occur without skilled managers who believe in the quality of the work force and are determined to encourage the development of skills. It will not occur without a great investment in training, and, above all, it will not occur without politicians who believe in the public service and are committed to its success.

My party recognises the wealth of skill, expertise and experience within the civil and public services, and our success in office will largely depend on our ability to galvanise the Whitehall machine. Labour is keen to learn from the best of private sector management, and we see the need to reconcile the clash of cultures that has occurred in recent years. A new genre of public sector managers is required, who are eager to adapt the best of private sector practice and keen to enhance all that is best in the public sector.

Labour and the country are deeply indebted to the former Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee and to the Nolan committee for the proposals that have been accepted by the Government. These are remarkable examples of independent committees building consensus where the Government were unable to rise to the task.

The consensus on the new civil service code would not have been possible without the seminal draft proposed by the Select Committee.

Although the code does not go far enough, it is an important step. It provides a unifying set of values to a dangerously fragmented service, and an independent appeal system. It requires Ministers to take cognisance of the code and to refrain from inducing civil servants to act outside the code. Labour will put the code on a statutory basis. Nolan has also made important recommendations.

Mr. Connarty

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—which has a Conservative majority— recommended in its recent report on open government that we should have a freedom of information Act to ensure that the partnership between the public and the civil service is clear, by allowing information to be available to all by statute?

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had intended to refer to that development later in my speech. There now seems to be a consensus emerging that we need a freedom of information Act, but that consensus excludes parts of the Conservative party.

Nolan has made some important recommendations—on Ministers and special advisers taking up business appointments; on amendments to "Questions of Procedure for Ministers"; on quangos, with respect to methods of public appointment; on the rules and procedures assuring probity and proper conduct of business; and, only last week, on local accountability. Those are important advances, which will make the task of the next Labour Government easier, but a wiser Government would have been leading rather than following.

There is, I think, a consensus on next steps agencies. By the end of 1996, 80 per cent. of civil servants may be in such agencies, most of which are working well. Where that is the case, Labour will see no reason to change the structure. Indeed, I have already endorsed the conclusion of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, which has stated: We believe that the next steps agencies represent a significant improvement in the organisation of government. And that any future government will want to maintain them". Let me make one thing clear, however. Under Labour, agency status will not be a step towards privatisation. In the case of bodies such as Her Majesty's Stationery Office and the Recruitment and Assessment Services agency, which may need to borrow in the private sector and sell in wider markets, full commercial freedom in the public sector will be given careful consideration. The Parliamentary Secretary wags his head, but it has been given no consideration whatever by the Government, and that is to their shame.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

There will be a review.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman may not be around to see whatever reviews take place in the future.

There is an important issue relating to ministerial responsibilities. According to "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", Ministers are accountable to parliament for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies", but Sir Robin Butler has drawn a distinction between Ministers' accountability and their responsibility for policies and actions.

That doctrine is very convenient for Ministers. Under such a dictum, it seems possible that no Minister ever need resign over anything. I am aware that perhaps that just ratifies current practice, but, as the reaction to the Scott report demonstrates, it has not satisfied the electorate, and has further damaged the credibility of the democratic process. Furthermore, it may put chief executives, not Ministers, in the firing line, as the Derek Lewis affair showed. Ministers are all too ready to claim credit for success and delegate blame for failure.

Mr. Freeman

Let us be clear about the policy for agencies. The right hon. Gentleman just said that "careful consideration" would be given to allowing agencies such as HMSO—if it remained in the public sector—to compete with the private sector, in the private sector. I think that that was the essence of what he said. Will he confirm that, as a result of this careful consideration, there might well be circumstances in which agencies that were already in the public sector could compete fully in the private sector, with the private sector?

Mr. Foster

I see no problem with that, provided that such careful consideration takes place. I understand that it happens elsewhere in Europe.

Let me return to the question of ministerial responsibility. It was Scott's view that, if Ministers were not to be responsible—in the sense of blameworthy—for all the actions and activities of their Departments and agencies, the corollary was that Parliament must be given fuller information, so that Parliament and people could judge where responsibility lay. I agreed with that; that is why a freedom of information Act is so crucial, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) pointed out.

In addition, however, Parliament should strengthen its Select Committees by extra staffing, and challenging the Osmotherley rules under which civil servants give evidence. Clearly, the Government need to improve the flow of interdepartmental information and decision-making. I look forward to the deliberations of the Select Committee on Public Service on all those issues.

In a recent article in The Times on the general theme of the public service, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition wrote: We seek to build sensibly on what is in place. We keep what is good and working. We change what isn't. That strikes me as a balanced approach. Surely a period of calm reflection is required—an open, independent and thorough review of all the changes imposed in recent years and a proper assessment of effectiveness, efficiency and value for money because we do not believe what the Government tell us about those concepts. It should be a review that builds on the excellent work of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee and the Nolan committee.

Mr. Duncan

Another review.

Mr. Foster

No, it is the same review. The challenge is to create a distinctive public service management philosophy, which adopts the best management techniques from the private sector, while enhancing the long-standing public service values of which we are so proud and which are so essential to good government, whoever is in power.

The Government are guilty of too little continuity and too much change—much of it ill-conceived, ill-considered and poorly managed. The Government have been driven by dogma to the point of recklessness in the exercise of their duty of care to the independence, impartiality and integrity of the British civil service. With 500,000 civil servants—many living in marginal seats such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich—a reasonable person would expect the Government to heed Voltaire's advice as the election approaches. [HON. MEMBERS: "The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) has a 6,500 majority."] I am referring to the other seat in Norwich—that of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett)—and I think that the Minister is thinking of that seat, too.

Hon. Members will recall that Voltaire—a noted atheist—was on his deathbed urged by a priest to repent and renounce the devil. Voltaire replied: This is no time to make enemies". Perhaps the Government too are beyond redemption. It would be a kindness for them to be put out of their misery sooner rather than later, and the House can do it by voting for the Opposition amendment.

Mr. Beith

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) mentioned a number of written answers about the privatisation of some parts of the civil service, which were due to be published at 3.30 pm. I have been seeking the same written answers for much of the day. The hon. Gentleman has gone out of the Chamber again to establish whether they are in the Library. It seems unreasonable that we should be debating significant matters of privatisation when that material, which the Government announced today, is not before us and was not explained by the Minister in his remarks. I hope that you do not mind my drawing Ministers' attention to that matter in a point of order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does not expect me to answer that question, but Ministers are present and undoubtedly heard his point of order. They may want to respond.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There can be no further points: the answer was clear.

Dr. Bray

On another point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I shall take it if it is a new point of order.

Dr. Bray

The House is debating the civil service and the prior options study has been completed. The answers to the written questions on the Order Paper have been given to the Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Mr. Freeman

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I heard what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said. Those questions are not my Department's responsibility, but during the debate I shall ascertain what the position is and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to deal with it in his reply.

4.54 pm
Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

I wish to discuss the prior options review, about which the points of order were made.

The phrase, "prior options review" is remarkably Stalinist. I do not propose to go down the track taken by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), but the idea that devolution in Scotland can be achieved without the most extraordinary upheaval in civil service and government generally is beyond belief.

In a touching ceremony on 30 April, only three weeks ago, my noble Friend Baroness Chalker gave my noble Friend Baroness Young a large golden or gilded key that fitted the buildings in my constituency formerly known as HMS Pembroke, which for the past eight years have housed the natural resources institute of the Overseas Development Administration. The keys were handed over by the ODA to the university of Greenwich in what may be the first of several such handovers from the public to the private sector.

The university of Greenwich will manage the NRI on behalf of a powerful consortium that consists of itself, Imperial college London, Wye agricultural college and the university of Edinburgh. I believe that the handover will be good for the NRI, which relies largely on commercial contracts for its resources. It will certainly be good for the consortium of four powerful universities and it will be especially good for the university of Greenwich because it involves the injection of a centre of scientific excellence that has world renown for its research. That will lift the research component of the university of Greenwich. The site is particularly well located alongside the university's recently arrived school of earth sciences, which shares part of the buildings once known as HMS Pembroke, which were occupied by the Navy in the days of the Royal Navy base at Chatham.

Greenwich is a thrusting and ambitious university. It was a polytechnic for 100 years but it is a young university. It is trying to rationalise its many sites into five campuses. Hon. Members will know of its bid, which is believed to be successful, for the Royal Naval college at Greenwich. The NRI in its former naval buildings is an excellent fit and addition to the university's research capacity, especially as its membership of the consortium forges links with pre-eminent academic institutions. This will be the forerunner of many public sector research establishments moving from the public sector to the sort of private sector that the consortium represents.

The NRI was ready for the change thanks to the excellent work of its director until the handover, who is working closely with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Thanks are also due to his staff over the period since it became an agency.

Last Friday, my wife and I visited the Horticultural Research International establishment at East Mailing in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley). Its headquarters is at Wellesbourne and was mentioned in the brief intervention of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), who I am sorry to see is no longer in his place. I went to discuss the research that is being done at East Mailing with its director of external affairs, Dr. Flegg. He was able to show me some of the important work on hops, apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries and cherries. That work is important for Kent—the garden of England. In Kent, we depend for our horticultural excellence on many small and medium-sized growers, who frequently market through co-operatives and who would certainly not be able to undertake strategic research of the type that is undertaken by HRI.

There is great concern at HRI, and I propose to paraphrase extensively from its chief executive's letter, which may have been sent to other hon. Members. HRI staff are worried that HRI, although it may one day be ready for privatisation—perhaps to the university sector, as has happened to the natural resources institute—is not currently ready for privatisation, mainly because it is not sufficiently robust financially.

I do not hold the view expressed by the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists that privatisation should never take place, and I find its briefing somewhat misleading and at least very selective in the quotes that it gives us from the prior options review guidelines. I agree with certain points that it makes, however, and especially that: The scientific activities undertaken by public sector research establishments are often of a long term nature. Security of funding and freedom from constant contractual and organisational upheaval are required to enable them to flourish. An example is marine studies undertaken in the interests of the environment by scientists for the Natural Environmental Research Council.

IPMS also says that it is very important to maintain the independence and integrity of such research establishments in the advice that they give to farmers on, for example, pollution, which is currently provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

I am much taken with the arguments of Professor Payne, the chief executive of Horticulture Research International. He has expressed concern that decisions will be taken by Ministers about the future of HRI in the very near future, and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is worried that those decisions may have been taken, although the information is not available to us in written answers. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to clear that up.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. David Willetts)

Although this subject is not within my Department's responsibility, we are checking the position at the moment. We understand that the written answers are being tabled and are on their way to hon. Members; I apologise for any delay that hon. Members have experienced in receiving them. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy is pursuing the matter.

Mr. Couchman

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. He will understand that my remarks are obviously made in ignorance of what may be in those written answers, which are not yet available to us.

It is very important to continue to provide strong research and development for the United Kingdom's horticultural industry. The rapid changes in ownership of HRI might compromise that strength, and I hope that when Ministers take these decisions they will be conscious of the need to maintain HRI as a centre of excellence for horticultural research and development. It currently operates in the public sector for the public good, and it is already the product of several earlier rationalisations.

There are, I believe, six sites, including the headquarters at Wellesbourne, the site at East Mailing, three outposts and a small presence at Wye college. If HRI moves towards the private sector, it may move to a university situation rather than to full-blown privatisation. It is extremely unlikely that that especially important research establishment could be supported by its industry, which, as I have said, is made up primarily of unsubsidised small and medium-sized businesses, none of which could support a research programme of the nature that is available.

I hope that the example of the movement of the natural resources institute from the public sector to the private sector—from the Overseas Development Administration to the university of Greenwich—will be a forerunner for many other institutes in the public sector. Those establishments are important, they are centres of excellence, and the university sector is probably the most appropriate place for them to be transferred to.

Mr. Ingram

Is there not a danger that, if the university sector takes over some of these research institutes, it will cherry-pick some of the best aspects of the work and other activities will be cut because they do not fit comfortably into the university sector? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is therefore not necessarily the best solution in every case, regardless of the circumstances?

Mr. Couchman

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. Fragmentation of the HRI establishments would be a detriment to the integrity of the whole, and I hope that, if a consortium such as the one that took over the natural resources institute takes over the HRI, it will take it over completely and continue with the excellence of its work.

I hope that the consortium that took over NRI might pick up the HRI establishments, for that would be a very comfortable and excellent fit, especially as one of the major campuses that has been developed by the university of Greenwich is situated a very few miles away from the East Mailing research establishment.

The final thing that worries me slightly about that proposal is that the East Mailing establishment is on land that is not in the public sector. It is owned not by the Crown but by a trust, and there is no great security of tenure for the establishment at East Malling.

In the interests of the horticultural industry in Kent—a very important industry in the garden of England—I hope that Ministers will hear what I have said today about the need to ensure that HRI is maintained as an integrated entity, whether in the public sector or ultimately in the private sector, and that its strength is protected through whatever change is proposed.

5.6 pm

Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham)

I am a strong, unrepentant supporter of the idea of a permanent, politically impartial, honest, accountable civil service with selection and promotion on merit, and I believe that such a civil service is one of the hallmarks of an advanced democratic society. As the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee said, the British civil service is a great national asset, whose commitment to the highest standards of performance and conduct is a guarantee of constitutional and financial propriety as well as of good government.

Throughout the 20th century, especially in two world wars, the British civil service, as reformed by Northcote-Trevelyan, has served the nation extremely well. It has been used as a model by many other countries and, as Ministers know well, very often people come to see how we run our civil service because they think that its example is worth following.

It is true that any civil service needs to adapt to changing conditions, and from the 1960s onwards, with the Fulton committee, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) was a consultant, there has been a series of changes. In the 1980s there were the next steps agency changes, and two thirds of the civil service is now covered by those agencies. From 1992 onwards, there were the market testing, contracting out and privatisation reforms.

In my short contribution, I shall make three points. First, I believe that there is a danger of an excess of ideology. I strongly support efficiency changes; I oppose permanent revolution. I strongly supported the broad principle of agency status; I saw it as a natural conclusion, or extension, of the reforms suggested by Fulton and by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South. The purpose of the agency change was to improve service to the customer and citizen, to ensure devolved decision making and to improve accountability. These are excellent aims.

We on the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee gave the reforms our bipartisan support throughout the late 1980s. The 1992 changes have not been carried out based on a consensus. On the contrary, it seems to me that market testing and contracting out have been used in a doctrinaire way—and they should not be. It also seems to me that the principle of cutting the number of people in the civil service is the wrong way to approach matters. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is a morale crisis in the civil service.

It is not just me saying that—it is reflected in the survey of members of the First Division Association and in a recent poll in The Observer. Any Government have to take this issue seriously—and I would have thought that the Government would take it much more seriously than they are. When we in the Treasury Select Committee asked for a survey of the members, the Government refused—and we drew our own conclusions from that.

Things have gone too far and the Deputy Prime Minister's Department has moved too quickly. It would be unkind to say that it is an old man in a hurry. There have been four privatisations in a short time and we have only just managed to save the Civil Service College. This is overdoing it. Recruitment and Assessment Services is a privatisation too far.

No one says that Recruitment and Assessment Services is not efficient. In fact, the Minister said—as far as I could understand his argument—that it is so efficient it should be allowed to expand in the private sector. No one has said that it has any impact on the public sector borrowing requirement. Indeed, I understand that when Lord Bancroft asked that question in the House of Lords he was told that the impact would be negligible.

This seems to strike at the heart of one of the key principles of the civil service: fair and open competition. In principle, it is inherently dangerous and unstable not to have recruitment to the civil service run by the civil service. It is not surprising that that was rejected by the House of Lords. I believe that this reform has no consensus behind it at all. It should be delayed until after the general election.

I refer to politicisation. It is not a question of political appointees in the civil service or Ministers appointing Tories to posts. When a Government have been in power for so long—as Lord Callaghan put it to the Treasury Select Committee—civil servants pick up the scent and begin to present Ministers with what they want to hear rather than with impartial evidence. That is unprofessional, and it is against the civil service code. Of course, a change in Government would help and it is not surprising that many civil servants would like to see another Government in power—not necessarily because they support the Labour party. They believe that a new Government would be good for our democracy.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

This is a serious point and I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is characteristically putting it in a serious and logical way. However, is there not an inconsistency? With great respect to Lord Callaghan and to Labour Members, the Labour party has not been in a position to have received that advice. It is making it up—it does not know whether it is true. From personal experience and from the experience of my colleagues who have served in government, it is not true.

Mr. Radice

I am quoting—

Dr. Spink


Mr. Radice

No, I am quoting the First Division Association, the trade union of the civil service. It presented evidence to the Select Committee—it is not a question of hearsay; it is serious evidence. It is not good enough just to have a change of Government and to rely on that. Therefore, we should have a civil service code. I am glad to know that the Labour party believes that it should be put on a statutory basis. We need to protect civil servants by asserting the values of the civil service and by giving them an appeals system with an independent basis.

In the run-up to the election, I would like to hear the head of the civil service make it absolutely clear that it will not be used by the party in power in an unprofessional partisan way. I have heard of some incidents of this taking place, and I hope that it does not continue. I say this in all seriousness, as someone who wants to see the civil service remain impartial. I hope that Conservative Members take that point seriously, not in a partisan way—I do not mean to make it partisan.

The important issue of parliamentary accountability is raised by the managerial changes and we have not faced up to it. If we devolve powers, how do we ensure that the agency heads and the agencies are responsible to Parliament? We are trying to grapple with that. As the Minister knows, the Treasury Select Committee suggested that agency chiefs should be able to account to Select Committees in their own right. This is already happening—although I accept that they consult their Ministers first.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) pointed out, Scott has raised disturbing issues about accountability and civil servants not taking their duties and responsibilities seriously, particularly in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in the Ministry of Defence and in the Department of Trade and Industry. They are not seeing it as their duty to inform Parliament about what is going on and they are conniving with Ministers to keep Parliament and the Select Committees in the dark. That is not good enough. We need to assert our position in Parliament.

I am glad that the Select Committee is looking at the issue of ministerial and civil service accountability. I hope that we will be able to report before the end of the summer on these issues and that we will come up with something that may be of use to the Government and to the Opposition. If the Conservative party is in opposition after the election, it will want a proper code of accountability— it will be useful to it, too. I hope that we get bipartisan support for some changes.

The civil service is extremely important to this country and to our democracy. It is the duty of the Government and the Opposition to support the civil service and the values on which it is based. It is the duty of civil servants to assert those principles. If they do not, it will not be surprising if others start to ride roughshod over them.

In conclusion, the civil service is a great national asset and it is absolutely essential that we preserve it and develop it in the years ahead.

5.19 pm
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for arriving after my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had begun his speech. Unfortunately, I was caught in traffic. However, I heard most of his comments and I followed closely his remarks about the Government's proposals regarding recruitment and career development in the civil service. I shall add very little to his comments except to respond to the observations of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice).

The hon. Gentleman described the civil service as being in a state of permanent revolution. I do not see it that way. We are beyond the extensive and far-reaching reforms that were made to the civil service some 100 years ago. As the nature of the Government changes in order to perform different tasks, it is inevitable that the nature of the civil service should change also. I believe that most of those changes have been for the better and that they take into account the needs, desires, qualities and career prospects of civil servants.

We are extremely fortunate that people of the highest calibre seek careers in the civil service. The civil service is not bereft of talent: the selection boards can choose from a wide range of candidates. Many civil servants serve for decades with great distinction. We are also enormously fortunate—if only we knew all the facts—that our civil service is not tainted by corruption. Civil servants all over the world are in it on the sly for money. That is not the case in Britain: over the years, few civil servants have been caught taking bribes or engaging in other illegal activities. Our civil service is of the highest standard and I think that civil servants should be more widely appreciated. Their good instincts should be nurtured—we must not take high standards for granted.

I wish to make several observations that have become more pertinent over the four years of this Parliament. My first concern is leaks. When I was a boy and a student of the workings of Government and of the civil service, leaks were a rare event and they were big news when they occurred. It is in the nature of politics that it sometimes serves politicians' interests to slip information into the public domain in some way. They do so in order to advance their cause or to gain some advantage in an argument.

We can usually tell when information is leaked for party political purposes. However, in the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of leaks that can originate only from within the civil service. They are easy to recognise because they do not advantage a politician from the Government party who is in dispute with another. Such leaks are becoming too prevalent. Civil servants—it may be only a few who are at fault—should adhere to the code of conduct which states that they must respect the secrecy of the information with which they are entrusted.

The media have an insatiable appetite for leaked information. As soon as the word "leak" is attached to a story, it becomes sensational. It adds an exciting ingredient to otherwise ordinary and mundane information. As the spin doctors would say, it gives a story legs.

Mr. Couchman

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable how often Labour Front-Bench spokesmen purport to quote from internal memorandums between Departments and between Ministers?

Mr. Duncan

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Two parties are involved in leaking information: the giver of the information and its recipient. We often find that documents or information are not leaked directly to the BBC: they are usually leaked to the Opposition, who then give that information to the BBC. I think that the Labour party should examine its conduct and the way in which it uses the information that comes into its hands in that manner.

If there are leaks and if there is no measure of secrecy and confidentiality in Government, policy making becomes impossible. The Opposition have charged some of their Front-Bench spokesmen with the task of thinking the unthinkable. The Opposition do that already to a certain extent—although not very well—and the Government must do that as well. The thinking does not stop when a party gains office: policy making must continue. One cannot think the unthinkable, discuss, debate and throw ideas around to be digested and honed into policy if the discussion process takes place in public.

The argument for open government has become simplistic. We cannot have open government when it comes to policy formulation if we also want good, effective and decisive presentation of that policy. One cannot arrive at a coherent decision from a mess of argument. The increasing habit of leaking documents mid-stream in the policy-making process is making the conduct of Government and the presentation of policy almost impossible. As the Opposition approve of whistleblowing—that is a popular new term—perhaps from time to time Labour Members will blow the whistle on those who leak documents to them which they then use for underhand purposes. We must be able to discuss policy, to argue and to differ about policy, and then to decide when policy will be made public. That is impossible if information may be leaked to a newspaper or to the BBC halfway through the process.

My second concern relates to the question of how some Government policies and legislation are implemented. The legislation that is passed in the House and becomes law is written in language that we consider to be appropriate to the circumstances. If we are honest, we must admit that our law-making process is not perfect. The process of examining legislation line by line in Committee is far from perfect. Many ill-thought-out turns of phrase remain in Bills which become Acts and are then implemented—quite properly in many respects—to the letter.

We have an exact culture of law making and implementation of that law. We do not express wishes in legislation: we detail the rules that should be followed. However, we cannot foresee all the circumstances in which the rules may be applied. For example, European Community directives are the product of a law-making culture that is very different from our own. The literal interpretation of the tiny details of law is becoming increasingly intolerable for many who must bear the consequences. There is growing exasperation about the overly literal implementation of regulation at all levels.

The courts may now assess legislation according to Parliament's express intention when it passed that law. In other words, judges may take account of the words used by Ministers at the Dispatch Box or in Committee. I believe that that is a pretty iffy process because it is liable to reduce the inclination to make legislation exact and black and white. We would be pegging our hopes on judges realising that remarks made in this Chamber might be taken into account. It is absurd to imagine that judges would read through Hansard and implement what was said.

The application of rules at an administrative level is becoming too rigid, particularly with EC directives, business regulations and the Health and Safety Executive. The man from the Ministry is not required to suspend all initiative when applying rules defined by the House. Initiative can still be deployed, so that the official can pass back up the line the express concerns of the people affected by the rules and regulations in question. The same applies to Ministers. An autobiography by a Minister whose name I have forgotten is entitled "Ministers Decide". Ministers decide less and less because more and more they are bound by rules, many of them from the European Union, and they no longer have the discretion to decide.

One example of the petty detail that is applied when implementing rules is export licences. Setting aside post-Scott paranoia, constituents of mine have produced examples of export licences that have taken six months to authorise. How can anyone export when a civil servant takes six months to process a licence? That is a self-created brake on our export potential. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider whether the citizens charter standards cannot be applied to that function of the Department of Trade and Industry, to ensure that export licences can—for the benefit of productive British companies that want to sell overseas—be processed more efficiently. Many companies feel that they do not have an effective right of appeal against that inordinate delay.

Dr. Spink

Will my hon. Friend contrast the way in which we apply rules with French practice? Does he agree with the axiom that rules are for the blind obedience of fools and for the careful guidance of managers and officials?

Mr. Duncan

My hon. Friend is right, because in many cases the French ignore or avoid the rules altogether.

My final point concerns politicisation. The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) did not answer the question that I put in my intervention. If Labour entered office, it would immediately make a political appointment to the job of press secretary at 10 Downing street. Labour would—it has never said this in public, but in private briefings that could be denied—make ministerial offices have far more political appointees to them. The statutory registering of the political affiliation of persons appointed to public bodies is a step towards McCarthyite censorship, which is a dangerous path to tread.

There have been comments about Ministers moving from ministerial jobs to private sector appointments. The reverse, in terms of influence, could happen. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) must consider whether what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. Is it not wrong, at least in his terms, for the hon. Gentleman to have represented in the House the interests of the First Division Association of civil servants, then— hot on the heels of that responsibility—take the post of Front-Bench spokesman for the Office of Population and Census? If moving from a Government post to the private sector is the peddling of influence, why is not that which the hon. Member for Hartlepool has done?

5.33 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The debate is hindered by the fact that we did not have access to a series of parliamentary answers that affect the privatisation of scientific parts of the civil service in particular. That matter was raised by the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) and by me, in points of order. I must say at the outset that the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service could not have been more helpful in personally ascertaining why those answers were not available and delivering copies of such answers as were available to me because I could not leave the Chamber at the time. The Department of Trade and Industry must have known the subject of this afternoon's debate, so the long delay in making answers available is not at all satisfactory. Some of us were aware that the answers were to be given, but still they were late, while others are not yet to hand.

One of those parliamentary answers reveals that the Institute of Arable Crops Research, the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, the John Innes Centre and the Silsoe Research Institute have all been identified as leaving the public sector, while a number of other institutes are identified as more appropriate for executive agencies within the public sector. Those matters are relevant to the debate, in which a number of privatisation candidates have been identified—even in the Government motion.

The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) referred to the East Mailing research institute. I hope that Ministers will note that the hon. Gentleman had a number of reservations about what might happen, even though he does not oppose in principle a change in that institute's status. I remember that institute particularly well because my wife worked there as a student. It is one of a number of scientific centres that play an important part in ensuring long-term scientific research of relevance to industry, governed by long-term considerations rather than near-market, short-term decisions—which can more readily be financed on a short-term basis.

As to Recruitment and Assessment Services, the Government must be chastened not just by the defeat that they sustained in the other place but by the weight of informed opinion forcefully expressed in that debate. It must be significant that so many people with long experience of government felt that the RAS is crucial to maintaining the impartiality, integrity and reputation of the civil service. In the Minister's discussions with the Public Service Select Committee, I hope that he will constantly keep in mind what was said in the debate in the other place. I have no continuing interest in the Civil Service College, but I taught there many years ago— particularly at its then centre in Edinburgh. The Government have at least been forced to recognise how powerful would be the opposition to that activity being outside the public sector.

The prospect of privatisation is causing concern in many other organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) drew my attention to the Institute for Animal Health. With all the current international arguments about animal health, it is of great concern that that institute is a possible candidate for privatisation. Many such institutions are involved in international committees in which their counterparts are public service scientific bodies. We must be careful that our ability to make our case effectively in international scientific bodies is not impaired because it can be argued that we are represented by scientists from privatised institutions—perhaps commercially sponsored—rather than from organisations performing a regulatory role on behalf of the Government.

The constitutional issues are the other main focus of the debate. Gladstone said that the British constitution presumes more boldly than any other the good faith of those who work it. Anxieties about the state of that good faith have been manifest. One party has been in office a long time, and it was led for a considerable period by a Prime Minister more noted for her determination to get things done than for paying attention to the processes by which they were done or the condition in which the system of government would be left when she finished. The attitudes cultivated during that period, which are summed up by phrases such as, "He's not one of us," were of potentially long-term damage to the public service. The present Prime Minister entered office with a desire to correct some of those trends, but I am not sure that he has been entirely successful. We must therefore consider impartiality, codes of practice, and the accountability of Ministers to Parliament.

The Government were driven into a civil service code. I sat on the Treasury Select Committee with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) and argued strongly for such a code, but a series of other events eventually forced Ministers to recognise the need for one. Many doubts and anxieties about the code's effectiveness remain, particularly when civil servants have to go through the permanent secretary of their own Department before they can get to the first civil service commissioner.

When people fear that they may be impairing any future chance of promotion by drawing attention to what they feel is improper pressure on them to act in a particular way, they are loth to take such a step. There are people in many walks of life who are prepared to take their case to the limit and perform a public service by so doing, but not many of them benefit their careers in the process. We are often indebted to those who put their careers on the line, in the public service or in private industry, by being prepared to take their case to the limit; but they often suffer for so doing.

The FDA states that one of the main issues about which civil servants have complained to the association under the code has been requests for political briefings— briefings for Ministers to use at party conferences or for answering parliamentary questions. It requires some courage on the part of civil servants to take such complaints right to the top.

The Scott report gives us every reason to fear that the code by itself does not offer sufficient protection. The FDA quotes one cynical civil servant's suggestion that three drafts for answering parliamentary questions will be put before Ministers in future: a draft that accords with "Questions of Procedure for Ministers"; a draft that deliberately withholds information but does not knowingly mislead; and a draft that designedly leads Parliament to believe that one policy is in place when the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary—but does so unintentionally. We wait to see which draft the Minister will choose.

I find it difficult to understand how those who produced the summary of the Scott report issued by the Cabinet Office to the press could possibly have imagined that they were operating within the terms of the code. That summary was tendentious and grossly misleading; it deliberately excluded all items that might raise questions about what Ministers or civil servants had done or about what should happen in future. In no way did it uphold the political impartiality of the civil service.

It was one of the most damaging features of the whole publication of the Scott report that the Cabinet Office should have taken responsibility for a document that was so clearly party political in its purpose and that did not inform recipients of the burden of the report or of the conclusions that might be drawn from it.

The ethical questions that confront civil servants extend more widely than what we know as the civil service. We can no longer talk about a civil service ethic; we have to talk about a wider public service ethic that might apply to the agencies and non-departmental organisations which have taken over so many of the responsibilities of the traditional civil service. It could be argued that the same is equally relevant to local government, which has developed its own way of tackling those issues, in the form of rules and codes, over a century of facing similar challenges. The public draw no distinction between those various public bodies when they demand fairness, competence, integrity, impartiality and the right to challenge decisions through the democratic process or via an appeals mechanism.

As Government functions have been contracted out to private agencies, the question has arisen: should not public service ethics be imported to those agencies for the carrying out of their functions? Defence contractors have long been subject to the Official Secrets Act 1911 in respect of the Government work that they do. How could any Government contemplate entrusting people's tax records to a private agency if its staff are not subject to civil service rules?

That dispersal of public service functions to a variety of institutions means that it no longer makes sense to talk of a code of ethics peculiar to the traditional civil service. The objective must surely be to encompass all the organisations in a code of ethics and to develop a mechanism to that end. That is why I expressed sympathy with the idea of a public services commission wider than the present civil service commission. We would propose a public services commission with a wider remit, responsible for the operation of the rules governing appointments and terms of service in national, regional and local government. It would be required to ensure that the principles of a politically neutral civil service, appointed on merit, were observed. We would want to insulate the commission from ministerial interference by having its membership determined by the new Public Service Select Committee of the House, to which it would report.

The commission could help the whistleblower's role, by investigating claims from members of the public service of breaches of the regulations governing its operation, and of improper conduct towards officials by Ministers. Such a role would be rather wider in our proposed format than one played by a civil service commission alone. Next steps agencies should be on a clear statutory footing, and the framework documents setting out how they work should also be statutory and considered by Select Committees.

I want also to refer to the wider question of ministerial responsibility, which has come up several times in the debate already. When we debated the matter on a Liberal Democrat motion on 12 February, the public service Minister said: While a Minister has full constitutional accountability to Parliament for everything that the Department does, it is manifestly impossible for him to take all decisions, or be personally involved in every action of his Department. It cannot, therefore, be sensibly suggested that a Minister is personally responsible for every action of his Department. It is worth stressing that distinction, because the terms 'ministerial accountability' and 'ministerial responsibility' have tended to be used interchangeably."—[Official Report, 12 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 684.] In my submission, they can indeed be used interchangeably because there is no proper distinction between the two terms. There is nothing for which a Minister is accountable to the House for which he is not also responsible to the House. That is not to say that the House would hold a Minister personally responsible for a failing of which he had no prior knowledge and which did not result from his actions or failures. The House would hold him constitutionally responsible but might conclude that he could not reasonably be expected to resign. The classic example was Lord Whitelaw, who considered that he was responsible for the fact that someone got into the Queen's bedroom; but no one in the House thought that he should resign as an example to others. We clearly recognised that there was no fault on his part—and no fault in the setting up of the systems and procedures for which he might have been held responsible.

It is for the House to judge whether the extent of a Minister's responsibility is so personal, or whether an issue is so fundamental, that a resignation ought to be demanded. It is also for his colleagues in Government to consider whether his resignation should be exacted from him.

Mr. Couchman

I am fascinated by what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Why, then, did some hon. Members the other day demand the resignation of the Home Secretary because of dirty equipment in a forensic laboratory?

Mr. Beith

Although I often demand the resignation of the Home Secretary, for reasons that I shall elaborate on in a moment, I did not do so on that occasion—although I thought it reasonable to criticise the Home Office for not ensuring that such tests were carried out with equipment that could be shown to be satisfactory. The Home Secretary, as hon. Members will hear, is crucial to my argument and I shall come to him in a moment.

I want to dispose, first, of the spurious notion—I am sorry to see it put about by a civil servant of the experience and ability of Sir Robin Butler—that there is a distinction between a Minister's responsibility and his accountability. The political process judges whether to exact the resignation of a Minister, but his responsibility remains the same at all times.

It is not just constitutionally repugnant but, in terms of modern management practice, inefficient to give people duties to carry out while leaving an aura of confusion about who is responsible if those duties are not properly carried out. There have been some terrifying examples of this in recent Government actions. From the day of the Westland case, when Lady Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, declined to accept the political consequences of what had happened or to discipline any civil servant for it, there opened up a gaping hole in our constitution. In such a situation, either a civil servant had acted improperly and should have been disciplined, or a Minister had given a civil servant instructions that ought not to have been given. In that case, the Minister should take the political consequences of so doing. That also applies to the Home Secretary. The greatest confusion surrounding the doctrine of ministerial responsibility has been created by Ministers who like an aura of fog and mystery around who is responsible for anything as it enables them to deny ever having been responsible for anything that is to their detriment.

A classic example is the Home Secretary, who interferes extensively in the policies and activities of the Prison Service agency. He defends doing so on powerful grounds. He believes that there is a public interest in his intervening to make sure that a particular governor is removed or to decide what the salary of a particular governor should be. In at least some cases, he can probably sustain his argument. However, he cannot then say that anything that goes wrong in the Prison Service cannot be his responsibility as he is concerned only with broad policy.

Not only do Ministers make specific interventions that may lead to mistakes for which they subsequently disavow responsibility, but agency staff know that they are expected to act in ways of which of the Minister would approve and the Minister's periodic interventions serve to reinforce that belief. The pretence that the Government have created a cocooned series of institutions in which Ministers' interventions are confined to the broadest matters of policy—clearly understood and easily set down on a piece of paper—is unsustainable. The doctrine of ministerial responsibility and Ministers' accountability to the House is being destroyed to protect individual Ministers in particular circumstances.

Under every Government of any party, Ministers will come to Dispatch Box and attempt to explain away a particular action and their responsibility for it. We all know that we have to deal with that and join the political argument. However, it is not acceptable for a Government to destroy the entire doctrine on which Ministers are held responsible to the House to protect individual Ministers in particular circumstances. That is exactly what they are doing when they pretend that agency status allows Ministers to insulate themselves against the day-to-day operations of Departments. That is not the case. As long as Ministers engage in such intervention, they preserve a culture in which it cannot be true. The Minister's explanation of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility in the debate on 12 February maintained that fiction and furthered the damage that has already been done.

We need a whole series of reforms to protect our civil service from being further damaged and undermined. The most obvious requirement is a freedom of information Act so that the public will know when decisions were taken on the wrong basis and we will not need a Scott inquiry, except in those circumstances—which were present in the Scott case—into which a freedom of information act cannot reasonably extend as they involve intelligence and security matters. It is also vital that even now, while the Government are still in power, they do something to rescue a doctrine on which they will want to rely when they occupy the Opposition Benches.

5.52 pm
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Just when one thought one understood a point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was making, he would contradict himself so that his speech became completely opaque. When he studies Hansard tomorrow, at least privately, he will be forced to accept what I say. However, he is a Liberal, and one expects that from Liberal policy formation.

I shall make three points. First, we need an open civil service. People need to know what the civil service is doing, how it is doing it and what the guidelines are. Of course, civil servants need to know what their responsibilities are and what the guidelines are. Therefore, the code that has been discussed is most welcome, particularly in the way that it has been put together— with consensus.

Everyone knows what the code is, as it is published. It is characteristic of the Government to publish information that has not been published before and to acknowledge organisations such as Cabinet Committees that past Labour Governments were not prepared to admit existed. However, to put a legally enforced code on the statute book would achieve absolutely nothing. It would be a field day for lawyers—and for barrack-room lawyers as well—but it would achieve nothing constructive, and would damage the institution that it was supposed to serve.

Mr. Derek Foster

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government were against the code for a long time?

Mr. Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman will accept that the Government said that most of what is now in the code was already in place. That is why, at the time, some far-sighted Ministers accepted that a code should be published.

Secondly, we need a civil service that recruits the best, and fairly promotes them. It is reasonable to say that the civil service has a pretty good record in recruiting and promoting women. However, I am not suggesting that it is perfect.

Mr. Garrett

Except permanent secretaries.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, "Except permanent secretaries." I am not sure whether that is true.

Mr. Garrett

How many are there?

Mr. Hughes

There is one specific permanent secretary, others have the rank of permanent secretary, and there are many others in deputy positions. The position is improving. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view, but I believe that the systems are open, and the recruitment of good-quality women civil servants is going very well.

I am also pleased that the civil service continues to attract an increasing number of people from our black and Asian communities. It is by no means good enough yet. I hope that, before my hon. Friend replies to the debate, his civil servants will inform him of the points that I am making.

Mr. Garrett

Where is he?

Mr. Hughes

We all have to leave the Chamber sometimes. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say something about the further progress that is being made in that regard.

One problem is that people from black and Asian communities do not have role models in the civil service to make them regard it as a place where they would succeed in making a good career. That is a real stumbling block. I recall being told by RAS that one of the reasons why there were not many black or Asian people in the fast stream entry for a particular year was that those who applied were not good enough. So I went through the applications, and RAS was right. We have to find a way to provide role models to attract bright young black and Asian people into the civil service.

Thirdly, we should have a civil service that serves the Government loyally, but is able to serve any Government. More nonsense has been spoken about that than about anything else in the debate. Although I recognise that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) was not making a specific party political point, it demonstrates that, because the Labour party has been out of power for so long, it is completely out of touch. Some in the civil service trade unions will also seek to make that point, but I simply do not believe it to be true; nor is it true in my experience.

I had no idea about the politics of the civil servants with whom I came into contact as a Minister, nor did I want to know. However, I knew that some of the civil servants in senior positions had served loyally in the private offices of Ministers in the last Labour Government. I was also quite clear that the people who served me and other Ministers would be able to serve an incoming Labour Government with equal loyalty. That is what counts. I know that the Labour party doubts that, and thinks that the civil service has been politicised. I have heard some disgraceful remarks.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

The hon. Gentleman protests too much.

Mr. Hughes

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the reason why I protest is that he has made some disgraceful remarks on the Floor of the House in previous debates.

Mr. Mandelson

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hughes

Oh, yes. He has suggested that the civil service has been politicised, of which he should be ashamed—but he is not. To suggest that is a calumny not on the Government but on civil servants.

One reason why the Labour party thinks that the civil service has been politicised is evident in local government. The Labour party does not understand the difference between politicians and council officers. That is why there is such switching between Labour councillors and officers and councillors in one authority and officers in another. That is not good enough. It is dangerous nonsense if the Labour party thinks that that is the way in which the civil service should be run.

We have heard much talk about advice given to Ministers and which answers are given to questions. If Labour Members think that things have changed under the Government, they should read the book "How to be a Minister", by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), which is as true now as it was when he wrote it after leaving the previous Labour Government.

Let us be clear: Ministers are politicians; they give political answers. Civil servants give the information on which those answers are based. The Minister is responsible for the answer, and if the answer is highly political, it is because the Minister has chosen to give such an answer. That has always been true, and always will be. To suggest that somehow politics will end and answers will be based merely on information provided by the civil service is nonsense.

The speech of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) proved that the Labour party is the captive of the unions. It can move sideways or backwards, but it has no mechanism for moving forward. It will not dare to be radical about the civil service, for fear that it would further widen Labour rifts.

Of course, Members of another place who were senior civil servants or Ministers years ago think that Recruitment and Assessment Services is essential to preserving the civil service's integrity. Indeed it used to be, but thinking that is a throwback to many years ago, when, if one wanted to recruit a junior secretary or a clerk to any far-flung branch of the civil service, one had to go to the Civil Service Commission.

Mr. Garrett

No, one did not.

Mr. Hughes

It is not like that any more. That is what those in the other place believe. Characteristically, the hon. Gentleman thinks that he knows better. The service is not needed. It has talented staff, and such talent should be more widely available. Of course, those staff will do well in the private sector. Many of the organisation's trumpeted successes have been achieved because it employs private sector headhunters to bring in people they want to recruit.

All large organisations have to tackle the enemies of change. We have heard the speeches of such enemies from the Labour Benches. It is suggested that many dragons have to be slain—traditionalists, xenophobes, devil's advocates and technophobes. I do not think that there are any dragons to slay in this debate. We have heard speeches from the same old Labour carthorse—not a dragon, but one old carthorse. For all its new Labour razzmatazz, the Labour party cannot disguise the fact that that carthorse is out of date, does not think very clearly, moves too slowly to be of any use, and is terrified of change.

This debate goes to the heart of why new Labour is simply a sham. In a fast-changing world, Labour would have us believe that the civil service is the only thing that should not change. Britain has a dynamic and growing economy because our private sector has grasped change, and much of it is thriving on that change. A civil service that does not change will ossify and die. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Office of Public Service have grasped change, made the changes and preserved the essential integrity of our civil service. They should be congratulated on that, not criticised.

6.4 pm

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

It is a gross discourtesy that there is no Minister on the Front Bench to reply to the debate. If that is a trend, it is quite deplorable.

For the past 30 years, since I was a consultant to the Fulton committee on the civil service, I have worked in, worked for, written about and generally shadowed developments in the civil service. In recent years, I have done so with mounting dismay. In addition, I have a constituency interest, since more than 2,000 of my constituents are employed as civil servants in scientific research establishments, Her Majesty's Stationery Office and the CCTA.

I have seen nothing less than the literal disintegration of the civil service. Twenty years ago, there were about 25 mainstream Government Departments in the civil service. Each was responsible for policy and its implementation. From the Minister and permanent secretary and the policy decision, to the delivery of service to the citizen through local and regional offices, there was a fully integrated national civil service.

We are now well on the way to a disintegrated Government, consisting of 25 headquarters Departments, more than 120 agencies, 4,000 quangos and countless private contracts. That conglomerate structure makes for inadequate control, as many policies cross unit boundaries. It will end the concept of a national civil service, and it wrecks parliamentary accountability, because Select Committees cannot keep track of such a large variety of executive and policy organisations. Quangos and contracts encourage too much patronage. The disintegrated structure will massively complicate performance measurement and appraisal, and lead to wide variations in the quality of service.

It is true that the civil service of years ago was too hierarchical, with administrative mandarins lording it over professionally qualified specialists and executive-class managers. There was far too little scope for upward movement for talented people who did not have the right social and educational qualifications. That is still largely true. The civil service maintains the discredited and elitist administrative fast stream, which guarantees a route to the top for Oxbridge arts graduates—white, male, public school Oxbridge arts graduates—while boasting of its progress in the development of management and opportunities for managers.

I cannot see any justification, if there ever was any, for an administrative fast stream. When the Treasury and Civil Service Committee considered the matter, civil service management said that the administrative fast stream in the civil service was no different from graduate entry arrangements anywhere else. The management used arrangements at British Petroleum as a comparator.

I worked for British Petroleum for a number of years, and noticed how it was possible for an accountant or an engineer to get on the company's board. It is far more difficult—in fact, virtually impossible—for an accountant or an engineer to become a permanent secretary in Britain, even in a technical Department such as the Department of Trade and Industry. Top management in the civil service is still recruited as a political secretariat and not as a management cadre, as Fulton pointed out 30 years ago.

I have always been impressed by visits to the Ecole Nationale D'Administration in Paris to examine the formation of the French higher civil service, especially its output of people who combine political, economic and technical skills. That professional civil service has ensured France's success in the past 25 years. It is unbelievable that ENA has half a dozen professional staff, and that most instruction is carried out by serving top civil servants, who consider it an honour.

ENA is criticised in Britain as elitist, but in fact it is much less elitist than our system, because its entry arrangements allow junior civil servants to qualify and progress thereafter. The arrangements also allow for mature entrants who are aged about 40. Its top management cadre is not confined, like ours, to a particular social background.

I have always considered Sunningdale a white elephant. An enormous amount of money has been spent on it. One could call it an Oxbridge college with rhododendrons.

It is totally divorced from the way in which the rest of the country is run. It would be far better for civil servants to be trained in Glasgow or Liverpool and to get some acquaintance with de-industrialised Britain. They should be action-trained in finding solutions to the problems faced by our fellow citizens.

The particular scandal of our disintegrated Government service is the quango. However, there is a certain amount of sense in having agencies. They were proposed by Fulton in 1968 as budgetary responsibility centres within Departments, and the idea was further developed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and myself in a Fabian pamphlet of the early 1970s called "Administrative Reform—the Next Steps". That is why, I assume, the agencies are called "next steps" agencies.

However, the information systems required to establish the managerial accountability of those agencies were never put in place, although they were needed to measure not only their operational efficiency but, much more importantly, their effectiveness in meeting public needs. The most obvious example of that lack of effectiveness is the Child Support Agency, where performance in respect of clients is nothing short of a disgrace.

What is needed is a system in which civil servants are originally employed in agencies, and are then promoted on merit to the policy division of the parent Department. That would close the experience gap between operations and policy-making.

Some, perhaps many, agencies are merely stages on the way to privatisation, as HMSO in my constituency has been. We have discussed HMSO several times recently, so I shall not dwell on the issue. However, the fact is that an effective operational arm of Government and Parliament is likely to suffer grievous damage as a result of privatisation, with massive job losses. Speaking as a House of Commons Commissioner, I believe that there is absolutely no guarantee of the long-term maintenance of services to Parliament. That could lead to the greatest embarrassment to Parliament in future. The privatisation will, I believe, be seen to be a mistake.

I am glad to see that the Minister is back in his place. Can he tell us about the future of the CCTA, which is also in my constituency? Will it be privatised, and what will be the likely consequences for computing expertise in Government?

I do not have the time to discuss public sector research establishments, as I wanted to do, partly because the information arrived so late. Here we have a number of scientific research establishments which have made a tremendous contribution to scientific policy-making, to discovery and to innovation. We now read that the presumption is for privatisation. That will lead to the disbandment of some of the finest research establishments in western Europe, with no gain for the public.

The growth of the quango has often been commented on. Essentially, quangos involve a function of Government, funded by Government, being carried out by a corporate body, the board of which is constituted by the patronage of a Minister. Training and enterprise councils are a good example. I cannot see how such organisations can be allowed to continue so free from democratic control in a democratic form of government. I trust that a Labour Government will reintegrate the quangos into central and local government wherever possible, and that they will make their boards and their recruitment practice as open as possible.

It has always seemed wrong to me that the governance of the civil service should be under the royal prerogative, without statutory force. The White Paper contains a remarkable observation on that issue: The management of the Civil Service is one of the aspects of the Prerogative which is exercised by Ministers on behalf of the Crown … The Prerogative in this context resembles the power of other employers to employ without special legislative authority. Employing civil servants is different from other employment; after all, they serve the Crown. The use of the royal prerogative gives them virtually no redress for a series of possibly adverse decisions against them. The most obvious is the ban on unions at GCHQ. We have a so-called code of practice which still does not cover major issues, such as the relationship of the civil service to Ministers, Parliament and the public.

The responsibilities of civil servants are specified in code and memoranda, not in law. The relationship of civil servants to Parliament and its Select Committees is specified in the Osmotherly rules—which, on the whole, say, "Don't say anything"—and not in law. The conduct of Ministers is laid out in a Cabinet paper which has no statutory force.

It is clear that we need a civil service Act which defines a civil servant, sets out the duties and responsibilities of civil servants to the Crown and to Parliament, and provides redress against the abuse of power and deception by Ministers. The penumbra of secrecy which surrounds so much of our policy-making—which Ministers, especially in this Government, so eagerly exploit—should be ended, or greatly reduced, by a freedom of information Act.

When we have debates on the civil service, we concentrate on the higher or senior civil service. But the greatest impact from loss of status, insecurity, loss of terms and benefits and outright redundancy has been on the junior levels of the civil service. They have suffered the most. Many have served on low pay which has been subject to income policies for years, and have been rewarded with redundancies and reduced terms and conditions.

The fact is that this Government despise their employees; that is why they treat their most junior employees so badly. There has been constant insecurity and lack of consultation. In HMSO, CCTA or the soon-to-be-privatised research establishments, the tremendously significant factor has been the lack of consultation that any decent employer would carry out with its employees. We had a civil service of which we could be proud. Now we have a civil service dominated by uncertainty, insecurity and plain disintegration.

6.15 pm
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

It is an unequalled delight for me to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), especially when he is talking about Cambridge. I recall that the previous time I followed him in a debate was across the floor of the Cambridge Union. He will remember that the debate concerned the economy, and that that evening, my side won the debate resoundingly, I am delighted to say.

I must make it clear that my constituents yearn for smaller government, whereas the Labour party—we have heard this all today—seeks bigger government. My constituents want smaller government in all its forms. They want less interference at all levels, whether regional, central or, particularly, European.

My constituents seek lower public spending as a proportion of our national wealth, because they see that as the way in which to continue to generate real wealth so that we can make the necessary investment in health and education, and so that we can care better for the people who are truly vulnerable. My constituents also see that as a way in which to reduce taxes which, in itself, will enable us to develop the enterprise economy that we all seek and which the Government have now at last delivered.

Lower public spending, lower taxes and smaller government in every way—that is what my constituents want. They also want a smaller civil service, because that comes with the rest. They want a more effective, more responsive and, in particular, a more customer-focused civil service.

Any debate on the civil service must be prefaced by the unequivocal statement that the British civil service is the best in the world. It has the highest level of integrity and the highest ethics; it is the least corrupt in the world. It is completely impartial. I was sorry to hear what the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) said, because he was entirely wrong. The civil service is impartial, and he cast aspersions on it by suggesting otherwise. As a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Home Office, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have worked closely with civil servants. I have noted that they are entirely impartial in giving advice to Ministers.

British civil servants have an impeccable record; they have great traditions and great credentials, and we must applaud that. However, having accepted all that, I now turn to the traditions, organisation and culture of the civil service. I want to review, somewhat philosophically, how the civil service operates, and how it delivers service to the public. I do so not to criticise or threaten the civil service, but to explore ways in which it can move forward, adapt and change, and to gently remind it whom it serves.

It could be said with some justification that the civil service management culture is sometimes a little too much based on tradition. In some spheres, it is sometimes a bit staid, although not in all. In some, there is magnificent. forward-looking practice, but risk avoidance is the phrase of the day in others—where one watches one's back, and where managers do not take brave and innovative actions. That type of culture can permeate right the way through those branches of the civil service.

I must say that tremendous strides forward have been made in the past 10 years. That is one reason why I welcome the Government's initiative today, to continue those improvements and to strengthen the civil service through training programmes—particularly the master of business administration programme, the best of which is offered in partnership with Crownfield university, an institution with which I have had more than a passing acquaintance.

I welcome the training review promised by the Minister today and the Government's "investment in people" programme, which is most important. I hope that some real progress will be made with those in future years.

I welcome the Government's initiative to impart new and modern disciplines. It includes contracting out, market testing, and, of course, bringing in payment by results when that is appropriate.

In this debate, I should like to focus on communication and on the civil service's management and organisation culture, because those are central to the success of any organisation—certainly to the civil service—in achieving its objectives. Today, hon. Members who belong to the all-party parliamentary group on management were told— at a meeting admirably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson)—by Christopher Roebuck, the director of Cattle Consultancy, how important and central is communication. I should like to follow that theme.

Senior civil servants can very easily lose touch with the daily operations of their offices. They can be under enormous pressure from their political masters—their political customers—the hon. Members of this place. It is possible that those civil servants might take their eye off what is happening to their other—I believe more important—customers: the public. In short, they can easily lose sight of the heart of their business and lose focus on what their objectives should be and on how and whether those objectives are being achieved at the coal face.

My simple proposition is that front-line, support and administration staff do not lose touch. They often know very clearly what is best, what is happening and how to make the organisation more effective.; but, for their knowledge and skills to be useful to the organisation, they must operate in a culture in which their message can be heard and in which they are free and willing to give that message. I am not talking about specific incidents of whistleblowing or anything so specific; I am talking about the organisational culture, and the way in which the daily operations are run.

We must strengthen the link between professionals, senior management staff and the workers who deliver services—direct and face-to-face—to the public. That objective will be achieved by improved communication. It is as simple as that. But communication is, of course, a two-way process, and it is not at all simple.

I believe that downwards communication in the civil service is extremely effective and professional. The issuing of instructions, orders, rules and regulations is the nature of it, and they do it extremely well. Upwards communication—from workers back to management—in some spheres is a little less obviously good, if I may put it so gently. Upwards communication needs to have a very conducive and well-developed culture and climate to work well.

Cranfield university and Manchester business school are now carefully developing communication methods for those who will become top management and professional leaders. But perhaps we should think of ways of developing strategies, techniques and cultures in the established middle and senior management levels in the civil service.

Those managers must listen carefully to junior civil servants, who deal with the public, and they must encourage good communication. That does not mean a drink at the annual Christmas party or the grand walk-through and a back-slap once a month, as the top brass goes wandering through the office, saying that that is how they keep in touch with the workers. That is not the way to do it.

Communication means real listening. Listening is a difficult skill to acquire, but it is one of the key ingredients in inspired leadership. One must listen. Improved upwards communication can lead to improvement in the civil service's efficiency, particularly in the way in which it is perceived by the public, who rely so much on it.

I am not advocating employee empowerment or total quality management. Those concepts are not my game in this debate, although I do not dismiss them. My experience is that giving increased responsibility to those who do the work most often works very well, provided that it is done properly. I am not advocating those concepts today.

Leadership is not simply a question of running in front and hoping and expecting that everything will follow behind in an orderly and efficient manner. Leadership, good or bad, is given effect by communication in both directions, up and down—motivating and listening.

The civil service must continue its move into the modern era of management—which this Government are promoting with greater success than any previous Government of whom I have experience. The civil service must be prepared to change and to review and renew its objectives and the methods that it applies to secure those objectives. In short, it must become a more user-friendly organisations for all our constituents.

I am not saying that change for change's sake would be helpful or that the civil service's traditions and culture should be dropped or changed tomorrow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much in our civil service is excellent and world-beating, and those aspects must be retained, built on and developed. Even some of the civil service's quainter, more charming or even idiosyncratic methods have their place and their great strengths. Change should be embraced only when it is absolutely clear that that change will deliver real and worthwhile benefits— particularly to the public.

I congratulate hon. Members on the very high quality of this debate. I congratulate all those who work in the civil service—those at the coal face and those in the top brass—on the high quality of their work. I have spoken a little about communication. The essence of good communication is, of course, listening—so I will now sit down and listen.

6.27 pm
Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

The debate has rightly ranged widely across many developments in the civil service, including those in the senior civil service and in relation to the new code, which came into effect earlier this year. I agree with the First Division Association—with which I am proud to have had an association in the past—that it is a useful step in the right direction. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), however, I agree that the code would be better if it were placed on a statutory basis. It should have a statutory footing, as should a freedom of information Act, to which we are also—quite rightly— committed.

Not surprisingly, the debate has focused on the latest examples of the Government's privatisation lust, especially on the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services—or RAS—an organisation more appropriately christened in happier times for the civil service. We should judge whether this and similar measures have any merit by reference to three questions: will they make the civil service more efficient, will they do anything to restore the battered morale of the civil service, and will they make Government policy failures any less likely in future? The answer to all those questions is, with the common consent of everyone with any experience of the civil service, a resounding no.

Nowhere is that more obvious than over the proposed privatisation of RAS, which touches on one of the core pillars around which the civil service was created, namely the recruitment of politically neutral and impartial officials in whom the public and Parliament can have complete confidence. I make no apology for focusing on that matter this evening.

Recruitment is basic to the whole standing and performance of the public service, but barely any attempt has been made to justify the privatisation in terms of its usefulness to the civil service or the public. What benefit could there be to the civil service of a big private sector headhunter taking over its recruitment?

The private sector headhunter will have no background, practice or expertise in the work of the civil service and the qualities that one looks for in senior civil servants— indeed, in all civil servants—are different from those in the private sector. That is not an adverse comment on the private sector; it is simply an observation of fact. Of course, management skills are increasingly important in the public service—I readily acknowledge that—but, at senior levels of the public service, the motivation is different from that in the private sector. Great value is attached to intellectual integrity and the ability to weigh both sides of an argument as well as to work in a collective and non-competitive atmosphere. Working in the private sector, on the other hand, is different from what is involved in working with Ministers—and some would say that that is a very good thing, too.

What benefit is there to the civil service in RAS, or any other agencies for that matter, being able to extend their operation to wider commercial markets? There might be something in it for the private sector individuals involved in that it will enable their favourite private sector clients to pick the best public sector talent thanks to their access to RAS records. However, it is a monumental irrelevance to the operation and effectiveness of the civil service. I believe that it is potentially damaging, too, as I shall argue.

Why, then, are the Government proceeding with this privatisation? I offer three reasons: because it is there; because the Deputy Prime Minister feels like it; and because the Government want to notch up further scalps. [Interruption.] That may be good enough for the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), but it is not good enough for the civil service or the public.

Let us be clear that this privatisation will not provide any better services to the public. It will not put another policeman on the beat, create another hospital bed or put a one extra qualified teacher into the nation's schools. It is little wonder that the proposal has not a scintilla of public support. By all accounts, even the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is remarkably unenthusiastic about the measure, despite his attempt at flag waving in support of it this afternoon. We have to understand how the decision to privatise RAS was taken in order to understand his lack of enthusiasm.

I believe that it was the Chancellor of the Duchy who said in December 1995 that he had appointed Coopers and Lybrand merely to "study" the options for the agency. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than his departmental underling at the time, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), announced that it would be privatised as soon as possible in 1996 via a private sale. That was certainly an embarrassing rebuff for the Chancellor.

As hon. Members have remarked, the arguments in favour of the privatisation are at best specious and at worst non-existent. They simply serve to extend the Government's time-honoured, worn-out dogmatic belief that everything public is bad, everything private is good and that public services become good only when they have been privatised.

Dr. Spink

Will the hon. Gentleman favour us with a list of privatisations that a future Labour Government, were we unfortunate enough to have one, would reverse?

Mr. Mandelson

If this was a debate about all privatisations I might do so, but it is a debate about a specific privatisation against which I am arguing.

What of the putative safeguards for the civil service following privatisation, which were advanced rather weakly by the Chancellor this afternoon? We were told that the actual selection of recruits would continue to be in civil service hands. That might be so ultimately and technically, but what about the prior stages of processing and testing? How would the principles of selection by merit and fair and open competition be safeguarded once the agency had passed into private hands? Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service can tell us that.

Apparently, civil servants will continue to have only an indirect involvement in—not control of—the preparation of some but not all exercises to ensure that they are a true "reflection" of civil service work. However, there will be no central co-ordination, no protection of confidentiality, no leak proofing or other security.

What about enforcement of private sector contracts if the measure goes ahead? The answer is that Departments will "monitor" the contracts as they go along. In the background, we gather, is the notion that the performance of the private owner will be subject to—wait for it— periodic audit. Will there be an ultimate sanction if contracts go wrong? Apparently, the simple desire to win future contracts will be a powerful encouragement to perform well. I hardly think so. All in all, the Government's idea of enforcement amounts to little more than a small feather duster to keep the private owners in line unless, of course, the threat to cancel a contract altogether is carried out. No one, however, has a suggestion as to what the civil service and its fast-track recruitment would do then—presumably it would hand out leaflets in the street.

As so many senior and experienced Members of the other place argued in a debate in March, the whole exercise is completely contemptible but, tragically, it is quite in keeping with the present Administration's destructive attitude to the civil service. No one who comes into contact with civil servants could fail to admire their professionalism, tenacity and commitment to the job. I have to tell the hon. Member for Harrow, West that we are not criticising members of the public service when we attack what is happening inside the Government machine—we are criticising members of the Government who are responsible for inflicting such wanton damage on the civil service.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

That is not good enough. The hon. Gentleman must reread in Hansard the previous speeches that he made from the Front and Back Benches in which he specifically accused civil servants of acting improperly, not by name but in general terms. He is not attacking the Government by doing that, as he seems to believe: he is attacking civil servants who cannot answer back.

Mr. Mandelson

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. I have never said that civil servants act improperly. I have, however, suggested that Ministers are guilty of enticing and encouraging them to act improperly, which is quite different. Conservative Members may rejoice in their temporary colonisation of the civil service, but it is bad for Government when Ministers seek to reduce the public service to a rump, there only to reflect the Government's political prejudices. When that is allied to asking civil servants to distort or suppress information or statistics that are inconvenient to Ministers or to accept the blame when things go wrong because Ministers will not take responsibility for their failures—one thinks of the prison service, the Scott report or the Child Support Agency—a bleak picture emerges of eroding standards and morale in the civil service.

It is not surprising that many civil servants feel undervalued and undermined. For that reason, we should not be debating changes to the recruitment agency today. We need urgent action to restore a public service whose problem is not recruiting good members, but losing them once they have joined and become thoroughly disillusioned.

If we were to go outside the Chamber and engage a passer-by in conversation, we would find much that would interest him or her about our debate today. People are understandably and properly concerned about the state of our public services and about what is being done in their name. They are concerned about the quality and ethical standards of those employed by their taxes to act in their name and to deliver their services.

The inadequacy of many public services on which our people and their families depend, the lingering mistrust of officialdom, the notion that people have little say over the powers that be, and even perhaps a general awareness that the traditional standards seem to be under threat are all of great concern to the people whom we represent, and we should have focused our debate on those concerns this evening. But the last thing on their minds—in fact, I cannot see that such a thing would ever cross their minds—would be the idea that any of their practical concerns might be addressed by the privatisation of the civil service Recruitment and Assessment Services, the Occupational Health Service Agency or Horticultural Research International, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) and the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) referred.

Those are the obsessions of a Government who can think of doing nothing more for the quality of our public services and for the standards, performance and morale of civil servants than to pursue these tawdry and mean-spirited privatisation measures simply to satisfy their own lust. That is the message that we must take from the debate. The Government, in attempting to prove that they have not run out of steam, are presenting us today with the political equivalent of a campfire kettle, brewing up a thin and tasteless brew that no one wants to drink. That is why their pathetic measures should be rejected and why we should ask the Public Service Select Committee, as our amendment states, to conduct a thorough independent review of all recent Civil Service reforms so that we can achieve the public service that we deserve and need. I invite the House to vote for that tonight.

6.44 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. David Willetts)

I begin by assuring the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) that our reforms are not motivated by lust. Many arguments are made about the motives for our reforms, but I have never previously been accused of being motivated by lust when it comes to public sector reform.

The debate has focused on an issue—the ethics of the civil service—raised by the right hon. Members for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice), the Chairman of the Select Committee who, I understand, cannot be here for the winding-up speeches. If the Government were in any way guilty of politicising the civil service, it would be inconceivable that we would have produced the codes, the guidance and the independent arrangements for the civil service commissioners that we have introduced in the past five years.

When I was serving as a civil servant, we had nothing like the code of conduct that is now issued to every civil servant. The code makes clear the ethical basis on which civil servants are expected to operate and sets out more clearly than ever what a civil servant can do if he is in any way unhappy with his circumstances. We have produced so much guidance and so many codes of conduct, and so much has been brought out into the open that was not available before, that we recently produced guidance on guidance. I cannot understand why the Opposition believe that somehow we need even more published guidance and codes of conduct. That is exactly what the Government have been doing in the past five years. We have brought a new transparency to the monitoring of public services of a quality that did not exist before.

Mr. Garrett

No Opposition Member has argued for more guidance, publications or codes of practice. We asked for an enforceable system, established by statute.

Mr. Willetts

The civil service code states that if a civil servant believes that the response that he has received to a complaint does not represent a reasonable response to the grounds of his or her concern, he or she may report the matter in writing to the civil service commissioners. The role of the commissioners, who are now responsible for hearing and determining appeals under the new code, is close to a statutory right.

The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) asked about training in the civil service, and delivered a speech that I am sure he has been giving ever since he served as an adviser on the Fulton report all those years ago. The hon. Gentleman has only to wait a couple of months for the training and development White Paper that will set out an ambitious programme of reform of civil service training and will set out how the Government's objectives of achieving investment in people and standards across the civil service will also raise the level of skills, particularly in the areas that he has been calling for all these years, such as science and technology. We will ensure that there is more use of relevant qualifications in the civil service, such as national vocational qualifications, accountancy or personnel qualifications. We will ensure that the civil service is better qualified in those technical areas to which he drew attention. That is an area that the White Paper in July will address.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I apologise for having missed most of the debate, but this is an important issue. When I was in Her Majesty's services, I had to sign the Official Secrets Act. If one had confidential or secret information, it was more than one's life was worth to give that information to people who were not entitled to it. Increasingly these days, there are leaks from the civil service, and these are often politically motivated. Will the Government introduce a proper code of conduct so that any civil servant who rats in this way loses his job and his pension rights and is sent out without any ceremony?

Mr. Willetts

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) also raised that subject in his speech. My hon. Friend is quite right that leaking confidential information has no role in the modern civil service, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool made clear in a recent speech outside this place. He disappointed some of his supporters by making it clear that he thought it important to maintain the confidentiality of the relationship between civil servants and Ministers.

Mr. Derek Foster

If the Minister wants to take action against civil servants who leak, what does he intend to do about Ministers who leak, as they do that all the time? What does he propose to do about Prime Ministers who leak? Reference has been made to the Westland crisis, when the previous Prime Minister tried to pin the blame on one of her colleagues. What will be done about the big boys who leak, rather than the little minnows?

Mr. Willetts

I am not sure that Ministers leak. Indeed, I should have thought that that was almost impossible by definition since Ministers explain what the Government's policies are.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) asked about ethnic minority staff. We have a good record in that regard. The proportion in 1989 was 4.2 per cent.; in 1995—the most recent year for which we have reliable figures—it had risen to 5.4 per cent., compared with 4.9 per cent. overall in the economically active population.

Mr. Garrett

What about the top grades?

Mr. Willetts

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that. We are not doing as well as we would like in relation to the top grades, but even in those grades there has been an improvement. At senior levels, ethnic minority representation has increased from 1.5 per cent. in 1989 to 2.5 per cent. now.

A series of questions were asked about public sector research establishments. On behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I apologise again to any hon. Members who did not receive written answers that should have been issued at 3.30 pm. We are conducting prior options reviews of those establishments. On some—such as Horticultural Research International, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman)—no final decisions have yet been reached. As for others, notably the 12 for which the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible, the DTI announced the conclusions of the reviews today.

The policy intentions announced today will now be subject to detailed planning for implementation, and the manpower consequences will form part of that process. No targets have been set for reducing numbers; the reviews are about getting better value for money and more effective research output. A range of options will be examined in the other research establishments that are still being reviewed: anything from privatisation to contractorisation, rationalisation and, indeed, no change. Any potential redundancies will, of course, be taken into account when the options are considered.

In his opening remarks, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said that we should look forward with bated breath to the speech of the hon. Member for Hartlepool, which would constitute a powerful attack on our proposals for Recruitment and Assessment Services. I kept waiting for that powerful attack, but I do not think that it ever came. We were told nothing that we had not heard time and again in relation to every previous privatisation introduced by the Government. We were confronted by a lurid picture of the private sector, a complete inability to understand the power of legal contracts to enforce standards and, I am afraid, a good many irrational and indefensible claims about—in effect—the inability of the civil service commissioners to monitor standards.

It is the civil service commissioners, quite independently of the civil service, who will audit arrangements when RAS is privatised. None of their auditing powers will be in any way weakened by privatisation. In fact, we shall introduce specific arrangements to ensure the integrity and quality of the fast-stream recruitment process. Civil servants' roles as assessors for the civil service selection board and the final selection board will be unchanged. We shall ensure that selection decisions on candidates remain with civil servants. The tests applied by RAS will continue to be owned by Government and licensed to the privatised organisation, and our Department—the Office of Public Service—will have a strengthened role as a customer in monitoring the fast-stream contract on behalf of customer Departments.

With those safeguards, the civil service fast-stream development programme will be operated under contract to the new company. The privatised RAS will be able to expand into new markets and capitalise on its expertise. Yet again, we have heard the extraordinary myth that somehow RAS could remain within the public sector and enjoy what is described as full commercial freedom. That is simply impossible. It is unimaginable that private sector recruitment consultants could compete with public sector recruitment organisations, and that public sector bodies would not be obliged to pay tax—that their liabilities would ultimately be protected by the taxpayer. That is not plausible; it is not fair competition. We have repeatedly tried to explain to the Opposition that if there is to be fair competition, and if such bodies are to operate with commercial freedom, there is only one way to achieve that—through genuine privatisation. There is no alternative.

Mr. Gunnell

When will the Minister give the written details that he promised in a written answer on 29 January at column 489? Is he willing to release to us, or place in the Library, the information that was sent to those who expressed an interest in the purchase of RAS when it was advertised in the Financial Times? When will the final details of the privatisation be released?

Mr. Willetts

I hope that that information—apart from some that may be commercially confidential—will be released very shortly. We are working as rapidly as we can.

Let me turn to what may be the Opposition's agenda. According to the amendment, they believe that the civil service is suffering from initiative fatigue. I can only say that, following the Opposition Front Bench speeches, the fatigue from which we are suffering is review fatigue, careful consideration fatigue and calm reflection fatigue, because that is all that the Opposition have to offer.

Mr. Garrett

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Willetts

I am afraid that I must make some progress in the remaining few minutes.

We produced a White Paper on the civil service, which was then carefully considered by the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, as it then was. The Committee produced a very valuable report. We published a further White Paper explaining our proposals in depth and responding to what the Committee had said. On that basis, we are making progress in modernising the civil service. That includes using the opportunities offered by competitive tendering and privatisation whenever they present themselves.

The Labour party does not seem to understand that, in the words of the Select Committee,

the quest for greater effectiveness and efficiency in the Civil Service should be an unending one". The Committee wished to stress that the requirement to maximise the return from finite resources will not go away. I detected, buried in the speech of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, another Labour spending pledge. The right hon. Gentleman says that he wants to stop the "Competing for Quality" programme, which generates extra public expenditure savings of £200 million per year. We are subjecting £1 billion worth of public service work to careful study on that programme every year; as a result, we make savings of 20 per cent. on average. If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to continue the programme, he must explain to the House how he will finance the higher running costs that will arise from his loss of nerve.

In the absence of any clear statement from Labour today about its possible policies on the civil service, I turned to "The Blair Revolution"—subtitled "Can New Labour Deliver?"—by the hon. Member for Hartlepool. The hon. Gentleman need not blush. In the book, I found quite a good account of the philosophy behind some of the Government's reforms. The hon. Gentleman states: There is no reason, in principle, why the operational arms of Whitehall should not continue to be separated from the policy arms, leaving ministers more free to concentrate on politics and strategy. That is an important distinction which Ministers have frequently made, often being greeted by scepticism from the Opposition parties.

The hon. Gentleman said a little about politicisation. I did not quite recognise his anxieties on that score. He says in his book: There is need … for a stronger political presence in No. 10, providing political advice and contacts"— I wonder who is being described.

Mr. Beith

He means himself.

Mr. Willetts

The right hon. Gentleman may be right. The sentence continues: which neither the private office nor the Cabinet Office can do because they are not supposed to get involved … and cannot meet the Prime Minister's central need: to focus on and manage the government's political strategy and programme. One final quotation may tell us something about the position in which the hon. Member for Hartlepool finds himself. He wrote: Sometimes, if you have a difficult and uncompromising job to do … it is difficult to avoid being hated as well as feared by those around you. But seeing things through … that is, getting your own way—requires more than exercising fear or having the last word in the media: it requires taking people on in argument. To do that, one has to be talking to them. It is very difficult if one is not.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 134, Noes 209.

Division No. 131] [6.59 pm
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Byers, Stephen
Allen, Graham Caborn, Richard
Armstrong, Hilary Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Barron, Kevin Cann, Jamie
Battle, John Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)
Bayley, Hugh Church, Judith
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Clapham, Michael
Beith, Rt Hon A J Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Benton, Joe Connarty, Michael
Bermingham, Gerald Corbett, Robin
Berry, Roger Cousins, Jim
Betts, Clive Cummings, John
Blunkett, David Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Boateng, Paul Davidson, Ian
Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth) Marek, Dr John
Denham, John Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Dewar, Donald Michael, Alun
Dixon, Don Miller, Andrew
Dowd, Jim Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Morgan, Rhodri
Eagle, Ms Angela Mudie, George
Etherington, Bill Mullin, Chris
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Flynn, Paul Pearson, Ian
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Pike, Peter L
Foster, Don (Bath) Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Garrett, John Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
George, Bruce Primarolo, Dawn
Gerrard, Neil Quin, Ms Joyce
Godman, Dr Norman A Raynsford, Nick
Godsiff, Roger Rendel, David
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Sedgemore, Brian
Gunnell, John Sheerman, Barry
Hanson, David Short, Clare
Hardy, Peter Simpson, Alan
Harman, Ms Harriet Skinner, Dennis
Harvey, Nick Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Hinchliffe, David Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Hoey, Kate Soley, Clive
Hoon, Geoffrey Spearing, Nigel
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Spellar, John
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Hutton, John Stevenson, George
Ingram, Adam Strang, Dr. Gavin
Jamieson, David Sutcliffe, Gerry
Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Tipping, Paddy
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Trickett, Jon
Keen, Alan Tyler, Paul
Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S) Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Kirkwood, Archy Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Watson, Mike
Lewis, Terry Wigley, Dafydd
Livingstone, Ken Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Wilson, Brian
Loyden, Eddie Winnick, David
McCartney, Ian Wise, Audrey
MacShane, Denis Worthington, Tony
Madden, Max
Maddock, Diana Tellers for the Ayes:
Mahon, Alice Mr. Greg Pope and
Mandelson, Peter Mr. Malcolm Chisholm.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Brazier, Julian
Alexander, Richard Bright, Sir Graham
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Amess, David Browning, Mrs Angela
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Burns, Simon
Ashby, David Burt, Alistair
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Butterfill, John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Carrington, Matthew
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Carttiss, Michael
Bates, Michael Cash, William
Batiste, Spencer Chapman, Sir Sydney
Biffen, Rt Hon John Clappison, James
Body, Sir Richard Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Booth, Hartley Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Boswell, Tim Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Coe, Sebastian
Bowden, Sir Andrew Colvin, Michael
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Conway, Derek
Brandreth, Gyles Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Lidington, David
Couchman, James Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Cran, James Lord, Michael
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Luff, Peter
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) MacKay, Andrew
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Maclean, Rt Hon David
Deva, Nirj Joseph McLoughlin, Patrick
Dover, Den Madel, Sir David
Duncan, Alan Malone, Gerald
Duncan Smith, Iain Mans, Keith
Dunn, Bob Marland, Paul
Durant, Sir Anthony Marlow, Tony
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Elletson, Harold Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Mates, Michael
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Mills, Iain
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Moate, Sir Roger
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Faber, David Neubert, Sir Michael
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Fishburn, Dudley Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Forman, Nigel Norris, Steve
Forth, Eric Oppenheim, Phillip
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Ottaway, Richard
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Paice, James
French, Douglas Pawsey, James
Gale, Roger Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Gardiner, Sir George Pickles, Eric
Gillan, Cheryl Porter, David (Waveney)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Powell, William (Corby)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Redwood, Rt Hon John
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Gorst, Sir John Richards, Rod
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Robathan, Andrew
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Sackville, Tom
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Shaw, David (Dover)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Hargreaves, Andrew Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford)
Hawkins, Nick Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Hayes, Jerry Sims, Roger
Heald, Oliver Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Hendry, Charles Soames, Nicholas
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Spencer, Sir Derek
Horam, John Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Spink, Dr Robert
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Spring, Richard
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Sproat, Iain
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Steen, Anthony
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Stephen, Michael
Hunter, Andrew Stern, Michael
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Stewart, Allan
Jack, Michael Sweeney, Walter
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Sykes, John
Jenkin, Bernard Tapsell, Sir Peter
Jessel, Toby Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Thomason, Roy
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Key, Robert Thomton, Sir Malcolm
Kirkhope, Timothy Thurnham, Peter
Knapman, Roger Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Tracey, Richard
Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N) Tredinnick, David
Knox, Sir David Trend, Michael
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Viggers, Peter
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Walden, George
Legg, Barry Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Leigh, Edward Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Waterson, Nigel Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Watts, John Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'fld)
Wells, Bowen Wolfson, Mark
Whitney, Ray Wood, Timothy
Young Rt Hon Sir George
Whittingdale, John
Widdecombe, Ann Tellers for the Noes:
Wilkinson, John Dr. Liam Fox and
Willetts, David Mr. Gary Streeter.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this House welcomes the Government's policies on the Civil Service, as set out in the White Papers 'Continuity and Change' and 'Taking Forward Continuity and Change', including the promulgation of the Civil Service Code from 1st January 1996, the establishment of the Senior Civil Service from 1st April 1996 and the strengthening of the role of the Civil Service Commissioners in maintaining the principles of fair and open competition and selection on merit in recruitment; also welcomes the Government's policy with regard to the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services, with the proposed safeguards to protect the quality of Civil Service recruitment; and looks forward to the intended publication in July of a White Paper on training and development in the Civil Service, associated with the further development by the Civil Service College of a number of partnerships with the private sector which will enhance its status in the provision of courses for those working in the public and private sector.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May we have an urgent statement from a Foreign Office Minister, so that the House can express its revulsion and anger at the pernicious and disloyal way in which Commissioner Kinnock is trying to undermine the policy of the British Government on overturning the beef ban?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

The hon. Gentleman may ask, but he knows that it is not within the power of the Chair to call for such a statement. Ministers on the Treasury Bench will have heard his request.