HL Deb 18 February 1946 vol 139 cc623-48

4.5 p.m.

THE MARQUESS OF READING rose to call attention to the excessive burden of work and responsibility imposed upon the Civil Service by the trend and volume of current legislation and to ask His Majesty's Government what steps they are taking or propose to take to remedy the situation; and to move for Papers.

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, some of your Lordships might think, from the terms of this Motion, that my aim was passionately to advocate a large increase in the Civil Service. That, in fact, is far from my desire, but I have to take not the facts as most of us would like them to be, but the facts as they are in an increasingly regimented and control-ridden world: In what I say this afternoon, I should like at the outset to disclaim any thought of making any attack upon the personnel of the Civil Service. My quarrel is with the system and with those who are responsible for bringing the system to its present perilous plight.

My main thesis is simple and, I believe, incontrovertible. The whole administrative working of this country is primarily based upon the Civil Service machinery. Now if that machinery is kept in good running order, if worn parts are speedily replaced, if time is given at intervals for inspection and overhaul; it works—per- haps slowly and laboriously, but it works, or did work, in what we were once foolish to regard as normal times. But if that machine be consistently overloaded, if it is never given a respite for maintenance, if day by day more revolutions are expected from it, if vital parts are not replaced, then it will inescapably break down, and I believe, without any language of exaggeration, that at the present moment the Civil Service machine is on the threshold of a breakdown, the consequences of which may well be catastrophic.

Let us for a moment examine the position. For six arduous years the Civil Service has been working under the constant and urgent pressure of war, but during that period it was, as the Service itself would be the first to admit, invaluably reinforced by men of great industrial and technical experience from outside. Now a time has come when those men are returning to their pre-war occupations and the Civil Service is left to struggle without their aid against steadily mounting odds. And not only has there been this speedy and radical reduction in numbers, especially at the top, but the volume of work operates in an inverse ratio.

Now it was clear, when the result of the last General Election was known, that unless the Government were going back upon their manifold pledges, this situation would arise, that the stream of legislation would soon attain flood level and that its character and the method of its application would entail additional burdens upon an already over-taxed Civil Service. And in the months during which the Government have been in office, that has, I submit, become apparent. If one of your Lordships has even a transient doubt of the proof of that proposition, let him reflect for a moment, for example, upon the Coal Industry Nationalization Bill, where, in clause after clause, new and onerous duties are imposed upon the Minister. It is not as if those nine elusive and expensive gentlemen who are to compose the Coal Board and to watch over the progress of every lump of coal from the cradle to the grate were to do so without at least occasional and frequent direction from the Minister. That is perfectly clear from the Bill. And wherever the Minister is involved, there also inevitably the civil servants in his department are involved, who have to advise him, who have to pre- pare material for him, who have to take the necessary steps to publish his decisions in appropriate form and watch over the workings of those decisions at later stages.

And let the doubter also ponder the new vast and complex structure of the National Insurance Bill, or the recent heartening pronouncement of the Minister of Food in which he prophesied the continuance and, indeed, the increase over a period of years of Government interference with the nation's daily bill of fare. If he is still unconvinced, he might bear in mind that it is the declared intention to sweep the great railway companies and the small road hauliers at the earliest opportunity into the same doctrinaire net. That is a sufficiently considerable programme, and it may well be that by the time that stage is reached, the Government will have got matters into such a mess that they will once again have to "Nationalize" themselves before they can get out of it. But what is apparent from all these considerations is that the Civil Service is being asked, without pause for breath after the strain of war, to implement this great—great in volume—legislation programme.

Nor is it only a question of legislation. We have discussed on several occasions recently in this House the already widespread and obviously growing procedure of legislation by Order in Council. The preparation and publication of the necessary Orders plainly entail an added burden of work upon the civil service. Then again, you have a new House of Commons, with a large and eager number of new Members, whose zeal, which is apt to be firmly deflected by the Whips from oratorical output, sometimes seeks a safety valve in question time. We all know the galvanic effect of the arrival in a Department of a Parliamentary question; clad in its little blue jacket it is rushed from one branch to another, bringing all the other work to a standstill. The effort of producing a minimum of information produces a maximum of upheaval.

Then again, it is apparent that many Ministers—some of them indeed of the first rank—however great their experience may have been in other fields, are new to the somewhat bewildering mazes of Whitehall, besides which the other maze at Hampton Court is as straight as an arterial road. Nor is it only that the volume of work is increasing; at the same time the character of the work is changing, and civil servants are being asked to undertake work which, during the war period, when this type of work first came into their offices, was no doubt largely discharged in reliance upon the advice of those who had spent a lifetime in industry and who are now no longer available.

Most of us have known in the past, either at school or at the university, those who were predestined, even at that stage for the Civil Service—the scholars who seemed to the less richly endowed amongst us to be gifted with an almost perverted passion for examinations, the people who even at that stage hitched their wagon to a star and left it to time to decide whether the star should be that of India, St. Michael and St. George or the Bath. They are men of great qualities, great attainments, great knowledge, great application and no doubt great assiduity, but they are being called upon to perform tasks which have not previously come within their competence and which, when they are already over-strained, it is surely not fair to ask them to undertake.

That being the position, the effect of the strain is, I think, clearly visible in circles far removed from Westminster, and indeed to the average citizen. In dealing with Government Departments there is far too much delay, far too much Overlapping, far too much lack of co-ordination, far too many formalities, far too many forms, and again, far too much delay. It may be inherent in the system, and if that be so, it is a system which has got to be the subject of considerable pruning at an early stage. With some experience of military staff work in two wars, I have always been a great believer in frequent and regular conferences. It may be that occasionally one attends a conference at which nothing in one's own Department comes up for discussion, but at the same time one hears the problems of one's colleagues and the steps which they propose to take to deal with them, and, by hearing their problems, one is often able to deal with one's own. I wonder how often a conference of the permanent heads of all the Departments of Government takes place. I hope often, but with the present pressure it would be interesting to know how that matter is dealt with.

Again, inside a Department there are many intersections of common interest between the various branches. How much does the present pressure allow of general conferences inside the Departments to enable the heads of branches to discuss their current problems? I have said there is a lack of co-ordination. May I perhaps give one example, although there are, I think, a good many which come to the minds of most of us? On November 13 last the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack made a statement in this House on distressed persons in Europe—the same statement, I think, being made in another place by the Home Secretary. The subject of the statement, your Lordships will remember, was the categories of and the circumstances in which certain persons, having relatives here, might invite them to join them in this country. The statement contained these sentences: Persons in this country wishing to invite a relative who falls into one of the categories should write, not to the Home Office but to the relative on the Continent, a letter showing that maintenance and accommodation are available. That was the instruction issued, that they were to write a letter to the person on the Continent whom they wished to come to this country. My information is that the position is, or anyhow was until very recently, that whatever instructions might be issued on this subject by the Home Office, in fact the Trading with the Enemy Restrictions did not permit of the writing of letters by one individual in this country to another individual in Germany. If that he so, it discounts a little the effect of this admirable pronouncement, which went on to say that as regards Germany and Austria, where there was no British Embassy, special arrangements for dealing with applications would be worked out as soon as possible. I make no further comment on that sentence except to say that it was in Germany and Austria where the need was greatest and most urgent, and where this relief was most eagerly looked for. That statement was made on the 13th November and this is the 18th February. So far as I am aware, whatever may be going on inside the walls of the Home Office, there has certainly been no leakage for the benefit of those interested in this matter which would give any indication that any such machinery has been set up or is about to be set up. It is not that the Departments are indifferent, heartless or indolent; it is merely that they are so overworked that they cannot get through their trays in order to get down to the stuff and come to a concrete decision.

What is the solution? Such suggestions as I can make are obviously tentative and based not on personal experience but merely perhaps on sound reflection. I am not saying this with any political feeling behind it. I do honestly believe that if this machine is going to continue to work, as it must continue to work, it is essential that there should be some temporary suspension of the stream of legislation which is going on. Otherwise the situation is going to become increasingly impossible. With that suspension I suggest there should be some enquiry into the whole system as it works to-day. The system is too rigid and too cumbersome for modern needs. It has grown up over a long period of time. We have all seen more and more Government offices coming into being. We have seen the annual statutes swelling from the once slender figures that we used to know into the far bulkier shape which they now possess. All this time, side by side, has grown up this Civil Service. I suggest that it has overgrown its strength, and that something has got to be done to make it more efficient and more practical for modern needs and to attune it more closely to the tempo of modern political life.

I am not going to suggest a Royal Commission. I should like to see an answer to this problem in 1946—not in 1956. But it may be that some such body as the once famous Geddes Committee which was given power to work round Department by Department, presenting an Interim Report on each as it went on, and a Final Report at the end, would achieve some success. Those are, as I say, only suggestions, but that there has got to be an overhaul I am, personally, very clear, and I think that most of your Lordships would be of the same mind. I hope that those of your Lordships who join in the debate later on will be able to supplement my suggestions with other and, perhaps, more practicable and effective proposals. I certainly hope that the Government when they come to reply, will give some indication that they have been conscious of this problem, an that they have a scheme in being of which they can, at least, give us an outline to-day. For I do believe that this is one of the most vital and formidable problems with which they are confronted, and that fail- ure to solve it will not only bring their plans to a standstill—a situation which I might, personally, regard with comparative equanimity—but will impose fresh hardship and suffering on the people of the country at large. The situation is there, the problem is there, and they will, if I. may say so, not be lightly forgiven if they merely say: "Here's the problem. We know it. We recognize it. We propose to do nothing about it." The solution does not lie in inertia but in action, and I believe that drastic and urgent action is necessary if the situation is to be retrieved before the twelfth hour strikes My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, it is with considerable trepidation that I rise to address your Lordships. Not only do I follow a most witty and eloquent speech from the noble Marquess, but I believe that I am breaking the silence of my line for the first time since 1880, when my reverend grandfather addressed your Lordships on the Second Reading of the Burial Bill. I had proposed to wait and absorb some further atmosphere of your Lordships' House before making my first venture in speaking but the matter with which the Motion put forward by the noble Marquess is concerned is one to which I have given a great deal of thought during the last six years, when I have been acting as a civil servant. I think that the noble Marquess has stated the problem in effective and most correct terms. I think that he must have had in mind the present unpopularity of the Civil Service in the country—an unpopularity which I do not think is deserved, but which, I am certain, will tend to increase rather than to decrease. The charges levied against those in the Service are that they are dilatory, that they evade responsibility and that they will not give decisions. To the extent that these charges are true, they result, in my opinion, from factors outside the control of the Civil Service, itself. These factors are: first, His Majesty's Government can do no wrong; second, Parliament still controls the Executive; third, the constant heavy spate of new duties which are being thrust upon the Service, and which the noble Marquess has mentioned in great detail.

His Majesty's Government can do no wrong£ From this it follows that before any decision can be given by any civil servant all Departments of State having the slightest interest in that question must be consulted, their views ascertained, and a co-ordinated decision given. This makes for very much of the delay. Then consider the second factor—control of the Executive by Parliament, through letters to the Minister, Parliamentary questions and debates in both Houses. Now every good civil servant regards it as one of his primary duties to see that his Minister is never embarrassed through any of those channels. For that reason there must be on the file, in black and white, a reason for every decision. It must be a good reason and one which can be defended, if needs be, by the Minister. The file, of course, stays in the Department. This, taken in conjunction with the preceding factor I have mentioned, leads to a great deal of evasiveness. At times, it is extremely difficult to discover who has got the primary interest in a subject which overlaps so many of these Departments.

Next we come to the factor of the spate of new duties. It might seem that if you wish to double the functions of the State all you need to do is to double the Civil Service and the machine will then turn out the goods at precisely the same pace as it did before. This is not so—indeed it is very far from being the case. Take an instance. Two people can, possibly, agree a matter on the telephone. It is conceivable that three can do so. Four never can. So where three or four or more Departments are concerned: it means that nothing can ever be decided without inter-Departmental meetings and so on. Owing to the pressure of business, it is extraordinarily difficult to obtain the presence at these meetings of officials of sufficiently high power to commit their Departments. The result is that the work of the Committee is ad referendum and there is further delay. Your Lordships will ask if I have any remedies for this; state of affairs. I can suggest two palliatives. First, that every attempt should be made to cut down the number of Departments or Ministries 'by transferring their work—particularly of the new ones—to those old Departments of State who are perfectly capable of handling it, if necessary with the assistance of an additional junior Minister. That would make for great savings in Civil Service time, and possibly a more coherent and well balanced policy, because it seems to be a fact that the best civil servants tend to stay in the oldest Ministries. The other palliative is that as soon as possible Departments should be housed under their own single roof. It is obvious that where you get branches of Departments lying all over London, inter-communication, personal visits and so on all occupy far more time than they should do. The only real remedy is one put forward by the noble Marquess, to cease the spate of legislation founded on this highly speculative interpretation of the wishes of the electorate, and which is disliked just as much in the Civil Service a, by the general public. I can imagine that the prospective functions of the Treasury meddling in banking and finance are little liked by the Treasury officials, while the prospect of their owning the mines I am perfectly certain fills them with the utmost horror. I think I have dealt not ungenerously with the Civil Service in their problems.

Before I sit down I should like, however, to make one small criticism which, coming at a time when many new entrants are in prospect, may be of some slight assistance to those in whose hands lie the keeping of the traditions of the Service. I think your Lordships will agree with me that the standards of our foremost houses of commerce and industry are second to none, and that any idea to the contrary in the public service should be severely discouraged. In my six years of working among them I found the Civil Service to be most industrious, clever, not lacking in decision, and of course of unquestioned integrity. I only pray noble Lords opposite and their colleagues in another place, that even though they seem bent on Bedlam, they do not drag with them the noble body of servants of the State.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, it falls to my happy lot to be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, on his maiden speech. It gives me particular pleasure to do so because I worked for several years in the same Department as a temporary civil servant. I am sure your Lordships will wish to hear him again and that you feel, as I do, that he has kept silence much too long. The angle from which I wish to approach this Debate is that of personal experience rather than anything which has happened since I left the Civil Service. Having been a civil servant during the war, and having been one twenty years before that, I was very much impressed by the quality of the Civil Service, by the readiness of quite junior officials to take responsibility, but also, I am bound to say, by the delay that seemed sometimes to be impossible to get over when a number of Departments had to be consulted.

The main difficulty seemed to me to exist when decisions had to be taken at a very high level, not necessarily a Ministerial level but a high level amongst permanent officials. The work of the Permanent Secretary to one of the big Departments of State is indeed an enormous load to bear. The Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, for instance, has an enormous amount of work to do. He has to attend Cabinet meetings, he is pursued by red boxes when he gets home, he has countless telegrams to read, and he is necessarily the bottleneck through which papers have to reach the Secretary of State. No one without an iron constitution and a wonderful capacity to bear the strain could possibly exist through the years of war as Sir Alexander Cadogan has done. The more one sees of the machinery of Government, the more difficult it is, I think, to devise any method of improving it.

Quite apart from legislation which has come into being since the war, and since the new Government came into power, the number of documents which goes through a Government Department has increased, I should think, four or five fold, compared with 1910 or 1920. A very large proportion of these papers has to go through the Permanent Under-Secretary to the Secretary of State, and there is a great volume which he has to deal with himself. I have often wondered whether one of the possible ways of decreasing delay and helping the work of the Civil Service would be to increase the number of Deputy Under-Secretaries in the hardest worked Government Departments. They could certainly relieve the Permanent Under-Secretary and in many cases they could take decisions and he would not have to be the bottleneck that he is now.

I believe that the Treasury would not make difficulties if that were the right solution. One can only speak of things as one finds them and I can only say that in all the years I had dealings with the Treasury they never refused one reasonable request which was put forward in a reasonable way, and I should like to ask the noble Lord if he would consider the possibility of increasing the staff at the top. It is not only at the bottom that help is needed. Papers flow up in a great mass and one of the things that is most difficult for the heads of Departments is to get time to think. They are flooded out by these papers, and by people who are corning in, and wanting decisions on them; they really do not have time to think of the long-term work of the Department and how it can be improved. Anything which can relieve the strain on the Permanent Secretaries seems to me to be well worth pursuing. I am very much interested in the suggestion of the noble Marquess that the permanent heads of offices should meet in conference. That I think would be a most admirable thing if it could be arranged. The difficulty is to find time for them to get away train their current work, but something like a permanent secretaries' conference of the chief Departments would be a most admirable thing if it could be carried out. I have much pleasure in supporting the Motion of the noble Marquess.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House is grateful to the noble Marquess for raising this question. It is the kind of topic which your Lordships House should be ideally constituted to discuss, and I feel sure that anything that has been said this afternoon, with one or two exceptions, will receive very careful attention in the proper quarters. I am grateful also to the noble Marquess for not launching out into the kind of cheap criticism of the individual civil servant which is all too apt to be ventilated when there is a discussion of the Civil Service in public. He will agree with me that the civil servant of this country remains the butt of the comedian but the wonder of the world. There is no other country that can produce anything approaching him.

Having said that, I must express a strong objection to the phrase used by the noble Marquess when, speaking care- fully and deliberately, he informed us that he believed the public service of this country was on the threshold of a breakdown. I should describe that, as I believe most of your Lordships on reflection would so describe it, as a reckless and unsubstantiated statement. The noble Marquess certainly made no attempt to substantiate what would be a very grave prediction if it bore any relation to the truth. I hope when he comes to reply he will tell us that should not be taken quite literally and that it was simply his way of expressing concern about the heavy burdens placed on the Service. It would be most unfortunate if it went out from your Lordships' House that there was some considerable opinion to be found here that this country through its Civil Service was on the point of collapse, because the noble Marquess's statement can only lead one to that conclusion.

Before I give a certain amount of information that I think will be of interest to your Lordships, may I try to deal briefly with some of the other points raised? The noble Marquess very properly, and in a very interesting way, suggested the technique of conferences He said he was a great believer in conferences; that by getting people who were running different shows linked together getting those people into the same room, one would make headway. I may be mistaken, but I got the impression that the noble Lord, Lord Hawke—whom I also would like to congratulate on a most promising maiden speech for someone whose banns so very recently have been put up—seemed to differ from the noble Marquess on that point, and to be rather frightened by conferences, and discouraged by the thought of more of them. I may have misunderstood him.


Perhaps I might explain that my point was that there are so many conferences that they can never be attended by the right people, and the result is that decisions cannot emanate from the conferences.


Well, there may be a certain amount of truth in that. In that case no doubt the noble Marquess on his side will note carefully the difficulties in the way of his proposal, but let me say quite clearly and definitely that the principle of conference is not only accepted in the public service, but actively practised, as all those who are in very close touch with the public service are aware; it is practised within each Department and between Departments. I do not think anyone will question that.


On the lines to which I referred—namely, all the heads of all Ministries?


I do not think the noble Marquess will press me too far about the precise details of the organization of Whitehall.


Very well.


The noble Marquess says, "Very well," as though I am evading the issue. I think that noble Lords of experience will not expect at thisstage—they can ask for further information if they think it necessary—to know exactly how every Departmental head does his daily business.


I am reluctant to interrupt the noble Lord, but, really, I did not ask that we should be told how every Department did its daily business. What I suggested was that there should be regular conferences between the heads of all Departments. The noble Lord says there are conferences, but what he will not tell me is whether those are representative of all Government Departments.


I can assure the noble Marquess that very close contact is preserved. The contact was never closer than it is today. I would ask the noble Marquess to mark my words rather carefully, because I am choosing them rather carefully. Contact between the heads of all relevant Departments was never closer in our history than it is today, and that I feel is as far as the matter can be taken at this moment. The noble Marquess suggested that we should stop the flow of legislation. He and the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, both seemed to feel it would be compatible with the honour of the Government to break their Election pledges. The noble Marquess may not like these Election pledges, and some noble Lords may feel that the country made a wrong choice. But no one surely in this House is going to tell me that the country did not vote for the nationalization of certain industries which are at this moment on their way to being nationalized. No one is going to rise and tell me that the Government have exceeded their Election mandate. If that is conceded, as I think it must be conceded, surely we are placed in a position where those promises have got to be carried out, or else this Government had better clear out.


Over a period of time.


Over a period of time. If the Government showed any tendency to daily by the way I feel we should rightly be the subject of very bitter criticism from those who supported us at the Election and from those who did not. Another suggestion made by the noble Marquess was that we should have a series of scrutinizing committees. He mentioned in that connexion the Geddes inquiry after the last war. Well, if I may attempt the noble Marquess's phraseology without his felicity at the moment, I know he has no axe to grind, but I was surprised to learn he has got a Geddes axe to wield! That I feel would be the idiom of the noble Marquess. I do not suppose that a clumsier weapon was ever forged than the Geddes axe, and I feel that the noble Marquess, when he comes to reply, may well think of some slightly happier example, because the principle is one which is obviously capable of very serious consideration.

Before leaving the noble Marquess, who has performed such a service in raising the subject, I would like to suggest to him that he is suffering from one complete misunderstanding; it may be more than one, but at any rate one complete misunderstanding. He seems to be under the impression that the coal industry will be run by civil servants. That is not so. If the noble Marquess instead of burning the midnight oil so late over his epigrams (and I am the last to protest against epigrams in this House, even when delivered against the Civil Service), had read the debate on the nationalization of the coal mines he would have found there stated very clearly by the Minister that the coal mines, when they are nationalized, will not be run by civil servants. More generally, may I make it plain to the House that, in so far as the Government, in carrying out their Election mandate, undertake duties of production and distribution in this country, those tasks will not be directly per formed by civil servants. We are, therefore, under the necessity of building up an industrial service for these purposes, paid at commercial rates. I know the noble Marquess is under a misapprehension, and I am glad to be able to correct him.


I am very glad to have the noble Lord's correction, all the more so because it is quite unnecessary. What I said was that I quite realized that in respect of the Coal Board, in clause after clause of the Coal Bill duties were put upon the Minister, and whenever a duty is put upon the Minister it is a duty on the Civil Service.


I apologize if I have misunderstood the noble Marquess, but I feel that others besides myself may have gained the same impression. However, if I misunderstood him I apologize to him. May I now come to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, whose debut pleased everyone so much? He made two proposals which are rather hard to accept: or reject on the spur of the moment. He suggested that the number of Ministries should be reduced. Of course, it is not possible to say at any one moment we have got the ideal number of Ministries. When the noble Lord comes forward with a concrete example of how to reduce Ministries the Government will be the first to consider the point that he raises, but taken in the large like that I do not think that anybody would simply start work by assuming that we must cut down the number of Ministries.

The noble Earl, Lord Drogheda, who spoke with such immense authority and was so very helpful on this subject, called attention to the tremendous burdens that fall on the chief permanent officials in any Government Department. If you reduced the number of Ministries, the burdens would be increased. I am not saying that is conclusive one way or the other, but both the noble Lords will recognize that one has got to strike a rather delicate balance there. Whilst I am dealing with the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Drogheda, I will certainly convey to those responsible for any change, if a change is needed, the suggestion about increasing the number of Deputy Under-Secretaries. He means, I take it, deputies to the Permanent Secretary, seconds in command who can deputize for the Permanent Secretary. Coming, as it does from someone with the authority of the noble Earl, I am sure that it will be considered with exceptional care. If I may return to the other concrete suggestion by Lord Hawke, he told us that we could speed up business enormously if we could get each Department back under its own roof. I am sure every Department feels the same. It is a housing problem which the Government are only too anxious to solve.

May I come now to a brief statement—too brief a statement, but one that must be made—regarding the future intentions of the Government? I would like to say straight away that we quite agree with those who say that a heavy strain is being placed on the Civil Service at the present time, a heavy strain arising mainly out of the war and from the fact that so many civil servants have been temporarily called away from Government Service, while many who were engaged in Government Service during the war are in process of returning to their peace-time occupations. There is obviously a heavy strain imposed on civil servants, and we are not going to underestimate that, but we do say that the steps which are now being taken—which for the most part were planned by the Coalition Government and announced towards the end of 1944, supplemented by at least one important departure, to which I shall refer later, and which has been largely conceived by the present Government, and speeded up in accordance with the increased responsibilities to which more than one noble Lord has referred—will in our view, prove sufficient to bring that strain to an end at a reasonably early date. That is the gist of what I wish now to place before you. I want to explain the kind of steps that are in contemplation.

We are examining the question of recruitment, because I suppose the questions most in our mind are those of recruitment and promotion and training when we are discussing the quality of the Civil Service and the task it has to perform. When we consider the question of recruitment I should stress the fact that careful plans were drawn up as the result of the report of a representative Committee in 1944 and approved in another place at the end of that year. Without carrying you through all the details, many of which are more relevant when one is considering justice between the various applicants—between the Service men, between the older men and the younger men—I would explain that it is intended to secure recruits from various sources for the Civil Service, four sources in all. First of all, we have the normal competitive examination to which we are all accustomed in peace-time. That will be resumed when the universities are in full swing. I will confine myself in these remarks to the administrative class, because I expect the noble Marquess will agree that that is the class on whom his Motion bears most closely, although, of course, steps are being taken pari passu, to deal with the other classes, the executive, the clerical, and the manipulative classes, and others such as the technical classes. This ordinary competitive examination will, as soon as the universities get going again, be conducted on lines very similar to those which prevailed before the war, but with a certain experimentation in the direction of laying more stress on the interview. I do not say that the old-fashioned examination is going to be scrapped, but an experiment will be made to see whether one can have a much shorter and much more general written examination and select the candidates mainly by interview. That is the main change that will be introduced in the pre-war examination. Of course the candidates for this normal competitive examination are young people now growing to manhood, and we cannot rely on them to shoulder the tasks which have been referred to this afternoon, so that I am looking a little way ahead in mentioning this kind of resumed examination.

Then we have what are called the reconstruction competitions. They are for the vacancies which have accrued in the Service during the war. These are intended for the young men and women who have lost their chance hitherto, owing to the war, of competing in the Civil Service examinations. It is intended that young men and women up to thirty should be allowed to go in for these reconstruction competitions. They will therefore be the main source of recruitment in the period immediately ahead. They have already started; they started at the end of last year, and they will be held twice yearly in the immediate future. You will appreciate that it is desired to do justice to those still in the Fighting Services, many of whom are still overseas, and therefore it is not possible to hold the general reconstruction competition at one fell swoop.

The test will be first of all a qualifying written test, and after that an interview. The qualifying test is supposed to be comparatively easy. One of my best friends who took this examination recently tells me the mathematics at any rate is not such a very easy paper; but then, men of genius are often weak on mathematics, and it may be that he falls into that category. Speaking broadly, from the point of view of the average man, the written test is supposed to be comparatively easy. You go through a most searching interview which takes two or three days. The idea, of course, is to avoid handicapping the candidates, the great majority of whom have been far from their studies during the last six years. I should like to mention that a certain preference is given to ex-Service men in that a certain quota of positions is being reserved for Service candidates. There will also be a small additional reconstruction competition for those who would ordinarily be coming up from the lower grades and competing for positions in the administrative classes. That is the second source, therefore, the reconstruction competition. That will be, numerically speaking, the main source.

Then, in addition, we have the temporary civil servant. As we are all aware, a great many temporary civil servants have exhibited great qualities during the war, and provision is made for a considerable number of these to be retained. If they are under 30, they compete in the ordinary reconstruction competition; but if they are over 30, a special form of examination is arranged for them, which involves an interview if they are of the principal class, while, if they are above the principal class, they are accepted on the strength of recommendations, usually, I understand, without interview, though, if possible, an interview may in some cases be organized for them. It would be thought improper to submit some very senior civil servant, who has risen to the top of a Department, to a testing interview of the kind which one provides for the young applicant.

There is a reference in the Command Paper concerned with these matters to "exceptional merit," and "special qualifications," but I understand that in practice anybody, any temporary civil servant who has proved himself during the war to be up to the standard of the permanent civil servant, will be invited to stay. Of course, it is up to him to say whether he chooses to stay or not. In practice, the Government is anxious to retain in the Civil Service, if the men and women concerned are ready to stay, those who have proved themselves equal to performing the functions of a civil servant during the war.

Finally—and this may be new to some—the present Government has thrown open to competition since November, 1945, fifty positions of the principal level, that is, positions that would carry with them, at the beginning, a salary of some £890. Fifty such positions are being thrown open to competition by advertisement. That is something additional to what was planned under the Coalition Government. While most of these projects are regarded as having been worked out while the Coalition Government was stilt in being, this is an additional step. I will not say very much on the subject of promotion. There is apt to be a feeling in the Civil Service that promotion is very slow, and very hard to secure from one grade to another. I may remind your Lordships that, at the end of 1945, out of 1,200 principals, 600 had come from the lower grades of the Service, from the clerical or executive grades; so the Civil Service is not half so close a corporation as people are apt to imagine. I would also remind you that Sir Horace Wilson had come from the executive grade. Again, we find at the head of the Ministry of Supply a gentleman who, before the war, was an Oxford don; he was a Professor at the outbreak of the war. The same is true, mutalis mutandis, of the Board of Education, where, as you know, the then Permanent Secretary joined the Civil Service at the beginning of the war. We must not believe for a moment that it is impossible for a bright man to make his way up through the Civil Service.

On the subject of training, I would beg you to study at your leisure the Assheton Report, a very important Report published during the war; this was the Report of a Committee under the Chairmanship of Mr. Ralph Assheton, Finan- cial Secretary to the Treasury. This marks a new departure in the attitude towards training in the Government service. No longer will it be true that the young civil servant is left to find his feet and train himself as best he can. There is now a Director of Training, and each principal department is securing its own departmental directors. The whole system of training is being worked out and co-ordinated, and the young civil servant to-day is receiving advantages which no, civil servant in this country, or I may say in any other country, has hitherto enjoyed.

Finally, on the subject of the organisation of the Civil Service—because I have hitherto been concerned with the individual, and the quality of the Service, and the steps taken to maintain and raise that quality—there have been steps of interest and significance. In the first place the principle of devolution has gained a good deal of ground in recent years. You will remember that, before the war, the principle was already fairly familiar in the Ministry of Labour. There, decisions were taken on what is called the executive level, and not the administrative level, which, though it sounds the same, is considerably higher. Now, we find that regional organizations are already in existence in the case of the Ministry of Labour, the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Food, of course, and now, the Ministry of Health. In these regional offices, decisions taken are of considerably more importance than they were before the war where such offices existed. Decisions are now taken in many cases on what is called the administrative, as opposed to the lower, that is, the executive level.

I would add, while on the subject of organization, that, just as we have a new Director of Training in the Treasury to keep an eye on training throughout the Civil Service, and to give advice on training throughout the Service, so we have established during the war a new Director of Organization. We have a Directorate of Organization, and in each great Department there is established, or there is in process of being established, a Departmental Director of Organization.

Therefore we have a Directorate of Organisation established centrally, with Departmental Directors in each principal Department. That gives some idea of the fact that the Government is not asleep. Many of these steps, I repeat, were planned during the period of the Coalition Government. Where that is so they have been speeded up, but they have also been supplemented in one or two ways that I have described.

I would end by asking your Lordships to consider whether in fact there is much ground, whether in fact there is any ground, for criticizing our Civil Service to-day. Do not let us suppose that it is perfect. The Civil Service has been improved throughout the last 150 years or more, ever since Burke's great speech in 1780 or, coming closer, ever since the great reforms of 1855. It has been improved partly by internal self-criticism and partly by such discussions as the noble Marquess has initiated. When I say I am grateful to him for it I am not speaking ironically; I think it is most helpful to have a discussion of this kind. But when all is said, I think it will be agreed that we owe it to the Civil Service, after all they have passed through in the war, to offer them our tribute; when we think of the Service, which is still to-day, as it always was—I venture to say more to-day than ever it was—a source of envy and despair to all foreign students of political institutions, a Service which has discharged unparalleled responsibilities during the war, unostentatiously but with unparalleled success, a Service which need fear comparison today less than ever with any Government service on earth.


Before the noble Lord sits down, and with the noble Marquess's permission, may I ask the noble Lord whether he can tell me whether there is any lack of candidates coming forward for permanent commissions in His Majesty's Civil Service? I do not quite know whether he mentioned that point I would like to know whether there is a lack of complete sufficiency of British subjects coming forward for permanent commissions in His Majesty's Civil Service.


I should say that there was no evidence of any lack at all.

5.14 p.m.


My Lords, if the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, who opened this debate, will forgive me for a moment, there is one point I should like to make which has not been raised in the course of the debate. Before I come to it, however, may I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hawke on his maiden speech which we all listened to with great pleasure? I hope he will often contribute to our debates in this House. Naturally we, on this side, join wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, in the tribute he has paid to the Civil Service. No country has a Civil Service like ours, and certainly our gratitude to them should be redoubled after what they have done under the appalling strain of this war. If there is any deterioration at all in Whitehall, I should say it is not amongst the civil servants but amongst the Ministers, and that of course reacts upon the civil servants all the time.

I think the noble Lord opposite did less than justice to the noble Marquess when he talked about the effect of nationalization upon the civil servant. Really what does nationalization mean if it does not mean more responsibility for Ministers? And more responsibility for Ministers means more work and increased strain upon the Civil Service. Establishing your boards is not going to make any real difference to the men who really carry the weight in advising the Ministers. I think the noble Marquess was perfectly right on that point, and the noble Lord made no answer at all, if I may say so without disrespect.


My Lords, since the noble Lord has said I made no answer, it is necessary for me to attempt to say one word that may appear to be an answer. I evidently did misunderstand the noble Marquess. I withdrew and expressed regret because I had taken him to think that the Civil Service would be called upon to operate the nationalized industries. That did not appear to be the gist of his remarks—indeed he expressly disclaimed any such intention—and that was cleared up. At the same time, it is obvious that some increased responsibilities will fall on the Government service when we attempt to construct a planned economy. Someone has to make the plans at headquarters, and I must not be thought to deny that some increased responsibilities will fall on the Government service in Whitehall What I was concerned with was the larger point which, if I had understood the noble Marquess correctly, would have involved hundreds of thousands of individuals.


I am glad the noble Lord has satisfactorily explained that point. What I wished to say a word about was really the question of the training of political Ministers, because it is the quality of their political leaders that very often makes the main difficulties of the Civil Service. I am not making a Party point of this matter at all. I think, as a matter of fact, there has been a deterioration over a long period in one particular way, and I rather think the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, who has had long experience of Whitehall, will confirm me in this view. I know a great deal of most of the Departments in Whitehall. About a quarter of a century ago, when I was in the Civil Service, I was in Downing Street. I was then out of Whitehall for a long time. When I came back to it I noticed a very great change: that was the magnification of the position of Permanent Under Secretary, and, in many Departments, a great disappearance of any utility in the Parliamentary Under-Secretary.

It depends very much on the Cabin Ministers whether they use Parliamentary Under-Secretaries or not. Many of their do not use them at all, and as one watches affairs from day to day in connexion with any Government—with this as with others—one seems to see that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary has some responsibility in some Departments and not at all in others. That is a matter that, needs to be watched from the point [...]view of the lead that the Civil Service are going to have, and the Civil Service themselves should attend to it. It is in the Under-Secretaryships that Cabinet Ministers are trained, and if a man doe not get responsibilities he will not have the same experience, the same judgment and the same capacity when he rises to the higher rank of Cabinet Minister training of Parliamentary Under-Secretaries does seem vital, and I hope that from now on Cabinet Ministers, Instead of centralizing things largely in themselves, as so many have done for a long time past, will give real opportunities to their Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and see that they carry responsibility for some particular branch or branches of the Department's affairs.

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, and I am particularly glad that I was fortunate enough to dangle the bait in front of the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, which he proceeded to swallow and to give us that very admirable maiden speech. The noble Lord who has made the speech from the Government Bench—because I am not going to say "has replied to my Motion"—endeavoured to take me to task for what he called a reckless and unsubstantiated statement.


Hear, hear.


I have tried, since I have been a member of this House, not to make statements which could be called reckless or unsubstantiated In the course of my speech I put in some detail the facts on which I formed that opinion. It may have been a wrong opinion, but I should not have put it forward if it had not been my opinion, and I do not quite follow why the noble Lord should challenge it as being either reckless or unsubstantiated. He went on to beat breast, to beat the box and to talk about the honour of the Government.

When a Minister talks about the honour of the Government one generally knows he has got nothing else to talk about. That was completely irrelevant. He said we were under the impression that the Government were not going to follow out the plan of nationalization to which they had pledged themselves. He really misunderstood what we were saying. The whole point was that not only had they pledged themselves to carry that out, but they were in fact carrying it out at quite an excessive speed, and without pausing to think of the strain they were putting on civil servants in so doing. That was the whole burden of what we were saying, and we were fobbed off with some expression about the honour of the Government. I am not going to deal again with what I said about the Coal Industry Nationalization Bill. I think it was reasonably clear and it will be in the recollection of most of your Lordships. If my noble friend misunderstood it, he has at least handsomely apologized for it.

Having got to that stage, I proceeded to be greatly encouraged because the noble Lord stated he was going to tell us what the Government were going to do about it. From that moment, he plunged into some interesting but, for this purpose, wholly irrelevant details on the subject of recruitment. The point of this debate really was that in our view this was an urgent and pressing problem, which had arisen in the peculiar circumstances of the moment, which was largely due to the impetuousness with which legislation was being thrust upon this assembly, and one which wanted dealing with now. He started to tell us what arrangements were being made for recruitment. You might just as well tell a general in the middle of a battle that the birth rate is going up and that he will get more recruits in 20 years' time!


May I ask the noble Marquess whether he really regards it as quite irrelevant to his Motion to describe the steps which are being taken by the Government to persuade temporary civil servants who have succeeded during the war to remain in the civil service, and to advertise for 50 new Principals? Are those steps really irrelevant?


That is quite a different point to the one with which I was dealing, and the noble Lord surely knows it. What I was dealing with was the preliminary dissertation to which he treated us on the subject of the new methods of recruitment.


I am very sorry to break in again, but I must point out that the topics to which I alluded in my intervention just now come under the heading of recruitment. They are, in fact, a considerable part of the plan for recruitment.


Are these the gentlemen who are being put through these examinations, and who are being given the third degree over three days in the searching viva voce examinations to which the noble Lord referred? As far as the immediate present goes, which is so far as the importance of this Motion goes, except in the last few words of his speech the noble Lord, I think, told us nothing that the Government were going to do to take off the strain, the existence of which he freely admitted, from the Civil Service. I must, say it seemed to me a singularly disappointing reply. It was nothing pertinent to my Motion to conclude with a panegyric of the Civil Service—well deserved and well received. I had, I thought, made it plain at the outset that I was making no attack upon individuals, but merely pointing out difficulties in the system as it exists at the moment. With the situation created by those difficulties the noble Lord in his reply made no solid attempts to deal in any way. I think the reply on behalf of the Government, having admitted the overstrain and having said they were going to tell your Lordships what measures they were taking to remedy that overstrain, can only be regarded as wholly unsatisfactory. This is a Motion which it would not be suitable to divide upon, and therefore I can only ask leave to withdraw.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.