HL Deb 08 June 1858 vol 150 cc1691-700

rose to put a question to the Government upon a subject to which he attached great importance—namely, the system of competitive examinations for the civil service. He believed the recent change in our system had been productive of much good to all parties, for it had tended to remedy the evils of patronage and improve the general standard of education. The results of the system, as appeared by the Report of the Civil Service Commissioners, had been good; and the examinations on the whole had been well and judiciously conducted. He was not, however, about to enter into the general merits of the system, which he conceived to have been placed beyond argument. The point to which he wished to refer was that of open, general, unrestricted, competition—he did not, of course, mean unrestricted in every sense—unrestricted as to the appropriate qualifications of the persons examined; but in the sense that the examinations should be open to every person properly qualified. The original Order in Council, which was dated May 21, 1855, expressly reserved the system of nomination. He did not mean to say that Order had not been acted upon, or that it had not been productive of good. At a very early period after the Order in Council to which he had referred was issued, a Motion was made in the House of Commons to the effect that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty would be graciously pleased to direct the establishment of a system of open competition in the case of candidates for the Civil Service. That Motion was met by the previous question, which was carried by a majority of 140 to 125. An address upon the same subject was again, however, within a year moved, which was also met by the Previous Question, which upon a division was carried by a majority of 21—the numbers being 108 and 87. The question was, he might add, once more submitted to the notice of the House of Commons on the 2nd of July, 1857, when a Resolution was passed to the effect that it was the opinion of the House that the principle of unrestricted competition ought to be extended in conformity with the decision at which the House had previously arrived. To that Resolution an unanimous assent was given. Now, he must say that he had heard with some little surprise that hardly any result had followed that Vote of the House of Commons. The Commissioners themselves had, for instance, in their last Report stated most distinctly that competition for situations in the Civil Service had not been open to all those who were desirous of coming forward and who had fulfilled the requisite conditions; the competition being limited to persons who had been nominated by the authorities to whom was intrusted the duty of making public appointments, in direct contravention of the Vote of the other House of Parliament. In the case of India he believed there now existed a really effective system of open competition for the Civil Service, and he was sorry to find that some doubt prevailed as to whether such was the case in regard to the Civil Service at home. A vote of the House of Commons had but a few days before been given in favour of the system of open competition at examinations for the Artillery at Woolwich; and he could not, taking into account the frequent expressions of opinion in favour of the general establishment of such a system, help thinking that there was some little reason to complain of the position in which the question at the present moment stood. He was not, however, disposed to cast the slightest blame upon the present Government, which had been only a short time in office, in reference to the subject, and he should therefore content himself with simply asking whether it was the intention of the noble Lord at its head to carry any further the system of competitive examination for appointments in the Civil Service?


said, it was not his intention, in replying to the question which had just been put to him, to enter into any general discussion of the merits of the system of competitive examination. He might, however, state that that system prevailed in the case of appointments to clerkships in the Treasury, in the Secretary of State's offices, in the Board of Trade, and in the Customs Department. The principle which it involved was nevertheless of quite a novel character, and one the development of which their Lordships and the country ought, in his opinion, to watch with great care. It was not at all improbable that many cases would, under its operation, occur—as many had occurred—in which candidates who had, beyond all question, proved themselves to be superior, so far as a mere examination was concerned, to their opponents, and who had in consequence obtained the public appointments which they sought—would be found to be in other respects completely inadequate to the discharge of the duties which they would be called upon to perform. In support of that view he might observe that he had heard of three young men who not long ago had passed an examination in a most creditable manner for admission to Woolwich, and yet it had turned out that one of them could not be taught to ride; while another objected to the system of drill to which he was subjected; the third declared he could not live at Woolwich. He might also mention the case of a young gentleman who had been appointed a clerk in the Foreign Office, after having passed an examination in which he had shown himself greatly superior to his opponents, but who laboured under a physical infirmity, which—although he might perform the duties of his office exceedingly well—rendered him in some important respects less qualified than others would be for the particular position which he happened to occupy. With respect to competitive examinations, he could only say that in his opinion the greatest care ought to be taken in determing their character. The same kind of examination was not adopted for all cases. The same form of examination ought not, for instance, he thought, to be invariably laid down in the case of candidates for situations the duties of which were entirely different. It must also be borne in mind, in dealing with the question, that in examination from papers or vivâ voce—and particularly vivâ voce—many men superior in real qualifications failed to obtain the places to which their attainments entitled them. Some men were of a nervous temperament, while some had not their powers of memory so completely at command as those with whom they were called upon to compete. Some men, moreover, might fail in those portions of the examination to which they might be subjected, which were utterly insignificant; and he could not, under these circumstances, help feeling that it was the duty of Parliament to be exceedingly cautious and circumspect in extending the principle for which his noble Friend contended. In giving expression to those sentiments, however, he must not be understood as being opposed to that principle. He, upon the contrary, was as anxious as any man could be to see the means of obtaining honourable employment in the public service placed within the reach of the middle classes in this country; but he at the same time felt quite sure that it was expedient that the system of a competitive examination should for some years to come be regarded in the light of an experiment which required to be carefully watched. Their Lordships should recollect that, although it was very easy to extend the system if it were found advantageous, yet there would be much greater difficulty in restricting and diminishing the amount of competition, if it were once extended too far, however great the inconvenience which might result from it. For his own part, he differed from his noble Friend if he thought that every clerkship in every office should be open to the unlimited competition of any number of persons who chose to come forward. He (the Earl of Derby) thought it was due to the heads of the different departments that they should have the opportunity of selecting from their lists persons whom they thought most likely to suit the requisitions of the different offices which became vacant. Subject these to the greatest amount of competition possible; let the best men win without reference to influence; and, above all, of those who were subjected to the competition, let none be selected who did not come up to a certain minimum standard of qualification. He did not agree either that only one out of a large number of persons who entered into competition should be selected. If eighteen or twenty presented themselves for examination, and only one were selected out of those, the number of disappointments would be unduly large, and young men would be discouraged from coming up when the chances of success were so greatly against them. His opinion was—and he believed arrangements to that effect were in contemplation at some of the public offices—that a greater number of persons should be introduced for examination, and that they should compete for more than one office at the same time. Thus, instead of having three men to contend for one appointment, the result of which might be that two men of superior qualifications might fail to get anything, three or four clerkships should be put up at the same moment among three times the number of candidates. In that case, out of twelve or fifteen competitors, the three best men would obtain employment; whereas according to the present system there might be three very inferior men contending for one clerkship and three very superior men for another, so that it did not follow that the two appointments would be filled by the two best men. Some alteration of this kind might be necessary, and meanwhile the attention of the Government and of the different departments should be steadily directed to this principle of competitive examination, not with a view to abandon it or to hastily extend it, but with a view carefully to watch its effects and introduce such changes as experience might seem to render desirable. He believed that in all the different offices there was every disposition to give the fullest and fairest trial to this experiment; and he did hope their Lordships and the other House would consider it as an experiment, the progress of which should be watched with the greatest possible caution.


said, he did not think that the noble Lord (Lord Lyttelton) had any good grounds for accusing the late Government of having broken faith with the House of Commons on this subject; because, if he remembered right, in the last debate which took place in the other House, when a Resolution passed in favour of competitive examination, both the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister clearly laid down that, in agreeing to it they agreed merely to the limited amount of competition which was now in force; and the Resolution was agreed to on that understanding. He concurred with the noble Earl at the head of the Government that it was much easier to extend than to contract the system of competitive examination, and that, at all events, there was no harm in going slowly to work. He must say, however, as far as his experience went—and it would probably be confirmed by the noble Marquis who succeeded him—that in the Council Office the success of the system had been very marked as to the clerks selected under it. He believed, too, that the general experience of all the public offices was in favour of the system. No doubt, in some instances the result, as mentioned by the noble Earl, might be rather ridiculous. There was a difficulty, for example, in competitive examinations for military appointments which did not exist in civil offices, because in the former case certain qualities were necessary which it was very difficult to test by examination. With regard, however, to the gentleman in the Foreign Office who had obtained a clerkship by a competitive examination and was then found to be suffering from physical infirmity, if he was not greatly mistaken, one of the most useful clerks in the Foreign Office appointed under the old system was certainly suffering under at least an equal physical disability. On the whole, he believed that if you took any large number of cases into account the men who had given proofs of study in a competitive examination were more likely to have those habits of industry, attention, and accuracy which were, after all, of the most importance in those who aspired to fill public appointments. Then, also, it should be remembered that probation formed a very important part of the new system. Besides the certificates of character required—which, he admitted, were often not much to be depended on, any more than the recommendations under the old system—no appointment was finally filled up until the candidate had undergone a considerable probation in the office, by which his moral qualities were tested in the same manner as his intellectual qualities had been proved by examination. On the whole, he believed the system worked well.


said, their Lordships were aware that the civil service of India had been thrown open to competition by Act of Parliament. He had been induced to make some inquiry as to the manner in which that principle worked, and he could not say that the result of his inquiry had been by any means of a favourable nature. In the first place, he found, what he certainly expected, but was extremely sorry to find, that the social position of the gentlemen appointed under the competitive system was very inferior to that of the gentlemen appointed under the old system; and this, he thought, was a subject of very grave regret. From private inquiries he had instituted he found, too, that after they had arrived in India, whatever their success might have been previously, their progress was not proportionately rapid. They stood still; they thought they had obtained their end, and that they had nothing further to do except to enjoy themselves in the lucrative offices conferred upon them by Act of Parliament. He had written to Lord Canning on the subject, and had requested him to send home a full report as to the comparative efficiency and competency of the persons appointed from Haileybury and those appointed under the system of competitive examination. While we were endeavouring to frame as good a theoretical government as we could for India, he trusted their Lordships would recollect that if the persons sent out from hence to govern that empire were of an inferior character no improvement we could by possibility effect in the form of government would counterbalance the mischiefs which would be thus produced.


said, he had heard with great satisfaction the answer given by the noble Earl at the head of the Government, and was glad that he recognized the importance of proceeding cautiously in this matter. His own opinion, from all he could hear was, that very great caution indeed was necessary. No man could doubt that a few years ago some great reform as to the mode of admitting persons into the civil service was called for; that an examination was required which would fairly test the qualities of the candidates and exclude the incompetent; and that this examination should be conducted by an independent authority different from that by which these persons were appointed. He, for one, had long been convinced of this, and to such an extent he was very glad of the adoption of the principle of competition. When, however, you came to competitive examination, and, above all, to what his noble Friend (Lord Lyttelton) desired—open competitive examination—the case was very different. He believed that no care which could be taken, no caution which could be exercised on the part of those who were to administer this system, could prevent appointments in the civil service under open competition from becoming the reward of successful "cramming." He believed it was impossible to devise an examination which should not be open to that objection. In the early stage of the system this was not felt. People were not prepared for the examination; they did not quite understand it. The system of cramming grew by degrees. We were not, therefore, to judge from the results at present obtained as to what would be the effects of the system of cramming hereafter. Now, he was convinced that with regard to the efficiency in after life of those who were employed in the public service there was no system so fatal as that of cramming. The memory was forced with knowledge which in itself was useless, at the expense of all the higher qualities of mind. Judgment and the powers of reflection were sacrificed, without developing those talents which were really wanted; the brain was over-stimulated at an early age, and the memory overloaded. He believed this to be the tendency of the system; and what had been stated by the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Ellenborough) as to the results which had already made themselves felt in India afforded some confirmation of that belief. Looking at the effect which might be produced not merely upon the civil service, but upon the general education of the country—looking at the prospects of this rising generation, whether intended for the civil service or not—he was persuaded that if the system of cramming were introduced into all our places of public education, owing to the competition which would arise who should get most of these prizes, the utmost mischief would be done. He earnestly pressed the noble Earl opposite—while he acted with the caution which he had said would be observed by Her Majesty's Government—to lose no time in making some inquiry as to the effect of the system of competition in other countries, where it had already been established to some extent. He was informed that in France, according to the opinions of men who were best able to form a judgment on the subject, the effect of throwing open many appointments to free competition had been very prejudicial to the young men of that country; and he hoped the noble Earl would take measures for ascertaining accurately what had been the result of such a system in France and in other continental countries in which it had been adopted. He wished to make only one other observation—that he feared if the House of Commons pursued the practice of coming to decisions upon very important questions affecting the administration of public affairs, not by Bills, but by simple Resolutions adopted very hastily, after very little consideration, and frequently against the opinions of Members on both sides who were most competent to give advice on such subjects, they must be prepared to find that the votes so given would often remain a dead letter, and that too with the approbation of the country.


felt as much as any man that cramming could never be productive of sound results; but the question to be considered with regard to the proposal to establish competitive examinations was, whether the system now in force gave better men than could be obtained by competitive examinations. He entirely agreed with the noble Earl at the head of the Government that they ought to rest for a while, and see the effects of what had already been done; but he saw nothing to prevent the possibility of further extending the system. Cramming had some merits. It tested, at any rate, whether a man was able within a given time to get together a large amount of information on any one subject. It might not qualify him for the public service, but, on the whole, it was a considerable advance on the former system; and in considering what they had done, they should endeavour to ascertain whether better men were not got under the new system than when selections were made by a Minister. During his own brief experience he had never found that too much knowledge was a fault, and in selecting men he thought competition gave a great spring to an honourable ambition, and a great motive for industry and attention. He believed they could not do better than cautiously to pursue the same system they had entered upon, under which he thought they would find a greater amount of energy, activity, and zeal, for the public service than had hitherto existed.


said, that in the army as much depended upon the body as upon the head; and as riding had been alluded to by the noble Earl at the head of the Government, he must say he did not see why candidates for commissions should not be subjected to a competitive examination in riding. He believed that if, on admission into a cavalry corps, there was a competitive examination "across country," with marks for those who got on well, many efficient men would be admitted who would be excluded if it were left entirely to head work. It was no doubt desirable to take care that we did not admit to the public service men who were entirely ignorant; but if we restricted the examination for the army to head work, we should get a set of men who would not be so efficient in the field as could be desired.

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