§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord Allen of Abbeydale
rose to call attention to the role of the Civil Service; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I cannot claim that the topic selected for this debate is the most glamourous that can be devised. However, it is important and I am most grateful for the impressive list of speakers. So impressive is it that I was tempted to speak very briefly and then to sit back and listen. It was a temptation that I decided to resist.
1526 From a plethora of documents I pick out the Government's White Paper of last July, the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee of another place and the White Paper which the Government slipped out last Thursday with all the fanfare of a reply to an arranged Question for Written Answer. I believe that some of the Government's conclusions may have to be looked at afresh when we have the Scott and possibly the Nolan reports. And so far we have had only the most sketchy outline of what is to happen to the Diplomatic Service, a matter on which the recent White Paper was totally silent. The White Papers, incidentally, have the slight disadvantage of being printed on glossy paper, which makes them quite difficult to read in certain lights.
I am not against change and I recognise that the service cannot be exempt from a share in the mistakes and failures of our post-war history. There are legitimate criticism which, no doubt, we shall hear as the debate proceeds. But when I sat on the Fulton Committee, for instance, I found that the Civil Service was one institution in this country which commanded respect elsewhere, even in France. My theme tonight is to ask whether, notwithstanding all the fine words in the White Papers, the changes already made and those in prospect may be going too far in risking the loss of some of the virtues of the service. I have in mind integrity, loyalty, political impartiality and objectivity, and an ability to respect confidences.
In the time available I shall concentrate on just two topics out of many. The first is the management and provision of services by the executive agencies set up under the Next Steps programme. The second is the support of Ministers on issues of policy.
Nearly two thirds of the Civil Service now work in the executive agencies, if one includes the executive structures of the two revenue departments. Each of them has its fashionable key performance targets and is run by a chief executive. The Government, for some reason, seem especially proud of the fact that a majority of those chief executives come from outside the Civil Service. Last December, we had a weighty report extolling the virtues of these new creations and reminding us that between them they had won no fewer than 30 charter marks. The concept found favour with the Commons Select Committee, so it is perhaps churlish to harbour any reservations.
I wonder whether the recent discussions about the Prison Service and, notwithstanding all the explanations, the doubts which many of us still have about the blurring of responsibilities at the top, may prove to be a foretaste of the need to revise our traditional notions of ministerial responsibility to Parliament.
I have time to touch on only a couple of other aspects. The first is the issue of financial probity. I believe that the Welsh Development Agency is not technically a Next Steps body and I shall not dwell on its lamentable record. But it strikes me that the recent White Paper is perhaps a shade over-complacent in ruling out any possible connection between the upheaval in the service and the report of the Public Accounts Committee that it had come across a number of serious failures in 1527 administrative and financial systems which represented a departure from the standards of public conduct established over the past 140 years.
If there is no conceivable cause for concern, I wonder why the White Paper announced that a new handbook would be issued to all agency chief executives setting out the rules on conduct and financial propriety. The Comptroller and Auditor General, in his evidence to the Select Committee, went further and urged that there should always be discussion with a new chief executive on those issues before he took up his post, and not just on what contribution his expertise would bring. I ask whether that is to be done.
My second point in that context is that one of the main aims of the Northcote-Trevelyan report was to mitigate the evils which resulted from a fragmented service. The theory of a uniform service was still alive at the time of Fulton but now it seems to have gone and instead we have the vision of a federal structure—ominous words, those—of autonomous units. Some of those brought in from outside have difficulty in recognising that they are civil servants. I wonder what will happen over the years to any concept of a public service ethos and just where loyalty will lie.
There may also be some rather strange practical consequences. With delegated powers of settling pay, two civil servants doing strictly comparable jobs may receive quite different rates of salary, something that has just been condemned roundly by the Audit Commission in respect of local government. I know that we cannot put the clock back but there are real dangers. When the Minister responds, I wonder whether he will be able to give us any words of comfort.
I turn to my second main theme—helping Ministers on the development and implementation of policy which I believe, unlike the Home Secretary, cannot be altogether separated. What is now in prospect is a senior Civil Service of some 3,500 individuals down to the present Grade 5, whatever that may be, including all agency chief executives. The inclusion of those executives prompts me to ask whether, when they complete their contracts, they will be subject to the normal restrictions on civil servants taking other jobs when leaving—the two-year moratorium and so on—and if so, whether they are warned about that at the outset.
As I understand it, before any single vacancy among those 3,500 is filled, the question of whether to advertise, either in the service or by full open competition, will have to be considered. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that the first advertisement for a permanent secretary post has appeared, and that in Mr. Portillo's department. Contracts are to be introduced for all 3,500, normally for an indefinite term but with specified periods of notice. There is to be a single pay scale for all permanent secretaries, the individual's position within that range being settled by a remuneration committee which will include outside members.
As I see it, the problem is that there is more to work of that kind than measurable management skills. We are talking of people who, on what has happened hitherto, have devoted a career to administration and to gaining 1528 experience of the unique relationship between the Executive and the legislature, with a strong service-wide ethic, and trained to tender independent advice, whether palatable or not, to governments of any political complexion. The July White Paper says that the contracts will put those people more on a par with their counterparts in other walks of live. But there are not any counterparts in other walks of live. There is a special art of government, so I believe, which cannot be acquired overnight, as the Clinton Administration found out. There is a need for a profession, as someone put it, which is able to translate the language of politics into the language of government. I believe that deeply, but I do not get much sense of it from the two White Papers. Behind all the words, they make one wonder whether any place is to be left for the public service ethic in a world of contracting-out and market testing.
I ask your Lordships to consider whether someone brought in from outside, with a business ethic and on a short-term contract, could be counted on to act, as the relevant Permanent Secretary acted, in setting down his objections to the Pergau Dam project, which was something by no means without precedent. I do just wonder.
On a practical point, the prospect that the number of posts at the top will be reduced as the service shrinks and that some of that reduced number of posts will be filled from outside serves only to diminish the attractiveness of the service for the prospective bright young entrant.
As regards pay, there is already a great deal of scepticism about performance-related pay for people of lesser ranks. I am baffled to know what are the criteria for a permanent secretary. Does he score a mark every time he prevents his Minister doing something foolish and lose one every time he fails to do so? Or possibly, is it the other way round? How on earth is the remuneration committee to know?
One feature of the latest White Paper is to be applauded; that is, the decision to introduce a code of ethics with a right of appeal. There may be arguments about the contents of the code and the appeal procedure but I have gradually come round to the view that the case for some sort of code is indeed made out.
I am not so sure about the need for legislation giving statutory backing to the terms and conditions of service of civil servants, presumably including diplomats. In the recent White Paper the Government suggest that there is something to be said for legislation if it can be based on a cross-party consensus. It is interesting that they are talking of consulting the other parties on that fairly narrow issue when, as far as I know, no initiative was taken by way of cross-party consultation on the drastic changes already decided by the Government without even seeking a parliamentary debate.
My time is nearly up. I just wish to say that if things go on as now proposed and if, in a couple of years, a bright young man were to ask me whether I should recommend his joining the service as a career, I fear that having first enjoined him to have a care about talking of anything so old-fashioned as a career, for the first time I should tell him to hesitate for a very long time indeed and to consider carefully other possibilities 1529 before joining the service which I was proud to serve for the whole of my working life. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen, for bringing this subject before it this afternoon. Indeed I believe that the House will be grateful to him in a longer-term sense for his most notable contributions to our deliberations. I am especially grateful to him for special services rendered nearly 30 years ago.
As the noble Lord said, there is a notable list of participants in the debate, although there are some notable categories of absence. For example, there is no noble Lord present, whose experience is primarily a business experience, to tell us about the virtues of business values and business practices in the Civil Service; nor is there a very strong what I would call "mainstream" Conservative representation among today's speakers. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, is to speak. But, sparkling a speaker though the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, may be, I do not believe that he exactly represents the mainstream governing Conservative tradition.
However, we are very rich in Permanent Secretaries. The debate is almost a reunion to me. I say that because, among the speakers today, there are no fewer than three Permanent Secretaries who—and I am not sure how to put this: if I say, "Who served me", I would regard that as being presumptuous; if I say, "Who I served with", that would not be exactly true because that would imply that I was a Permanent Secretary which, alas, I am not; but if I say, "Under whom I served", that would not be true either. However, in making a farewell speech once to a very powerful and authoritative Permanent Secretary—not, I should add, a Permanent Secretary in your Lordships' House—I said, as a joke, that I had assembled the four Home Secretaries who had served under Sir Charles.
It is the case that there are three speakers with whom, whatever the appropriate word is, I served as a Minister when they were Permanent Secretaries. There is a fourth from another branch of the service who I think once believed that I was due to come to him as Secretary of State—indeed, I would have done so had the electorate not decided otherwise—who braced himself for the experience. As a result of that, I have been left with an almost unalloyed admiration for the British higher Civil Service as it has evolved and developed. It has certainly not been static in the 140 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report and the 120 years since it was implemented.
Perhaps some of the virtues of the higher Civil Service have been what are called "mandarin virtues". But the field of recruitment has been by no means exclusive. Of the three most outstanding Permanent Secretaries whom I had, two of them were without the benefit of Oxbridge. Indeed, one of them was a boy entrant into the Civil Service but, nonetheless, he became a distinguished Permanent Secretary. I also believe that they maintained genuine political 1530 impartiality. For example, when my experience with working in the Civil Service began in 1964, I believe that, on the whole, senior civil servants welcomed the change of government. That was not because of any ideological prejudice, but because they thought that 13 years was long enough—so, indeed, it was; and longer is more than enough—for the healthy working of the system. But, I should say that they maintained their impartiality by becoming fairly quickly disenchanted with the deficiencies of the new government, although certainly not to the extent of ceasing to do their best for us.
Similarly, I never found that civil servants wanted to dominate Ministers and do their job for them. If a Minister cannot make up his mind, then the civil servants will have to move in, fill the vacuum and provide him with some sort of makeshift policy. But, in my view, high quality officials always prefer a strong Minister to a weak one. They have a very shrewd conviction that someone who is putty in the hands of the department, will be putty in the hands of the Cabinet and will be pushed around by the House of Commons with the general result of low standing and low morale for the whole department.
I believe that what senior civil servants want—and rightly so—is a Minister who will treat them with respect and courtesy and give rational consideration to their arguments. But if the decision goes against them at the end of the day, they will nearly always accept it and carry out the contrary decision with loyalty and goodwill.
Just so that it will not be thought that I am painting too idealised a picture, I should stress that on about two occasions I received bad advice on major policy issues. However, it was my fault for taking that advice. When I set those two occasions against the innumerable ones on which I received good advice, it is as nothing in the balance.
I have been talking about 25 years ago. But is the position as rosy today? I am afraid that I do not think so. Civil Service morale is pretty poor. The prestige of being a high functionary has not fallen as much as that of being a Minister or an MP; but it is not what it was. As the quality of Ministers has gone down, so the dependence of officials upon them has become greater. In my view, they have become more dependent on Ministers for their promotions, for their honours and even, as may now be the case, for the renewal of their contracts. Yet it is essential that officials should speak fearlessly and forthrightly at times to Ministers. There is a danger of creating a web of caution and sycophancy.
Equally, the field of the operations of civil servants has been invaded by quangos, by businessmen brought in to do jobs that have hitherto been performed by officials—with precious little evidence that they do it better—and there are also too many junior Ministers who can often get in the way of the proper relationship between the Secretary of State and his senior officials. It is extraordinary that, as the functions of government departments and the number of their senior officials are cut down, so the number of junior Ministers is at a record level. I suppose that it is thought to be the only way of stopping their intriguing on the Back-Benches. 1531 All that, combined with a Government-encouraged climate which increasingly worships Mammon rather than respects public service, gives me serious worry about the ability of a battered Civil Service to retain its drawing power for high quality applicants. I earlier cited two exceptional people who did not need Oxbridge to get to the top of the Civil Service. Nonetheless, it is the case that those universities with their traditional encouragement of articulateness, both on paper and in speech, and emphasis upon critical methods of thought rather than purely specialised knowledge should remain important reservoirs of recruitment for the Civil Service.
However, to cite a by no means wholly irrelevant parallel, the percentage of Oxford graduates going into teaching has fallen from 30 per cent. before the war, to 8 per cent. 20 years ago to 2 per cent. today. That has not been good for teaching and I doubt whether that has been good for the University of Oxford. But the scissors effect of the lure of Mammon and a battering of the prestige of teaching has done the deadly work. The numbers involved in entry to the higher Civil Service have always been much smaller, but I could see the same process—certainly upon the highest quality of potential recruits—operating there.
Unless this Government, or a future government, take early action to restore the quality and the morale of the Civil Service, I see the dismal prospect of our weakening what has been one of Britain's most famous world assets, and in the name of what?—of introducing business values and business methods into the public service. At least since the end of the 19th century Britain, to be blunt, has not been particularly good at business. Such success as we have achieved has mostly come from refugees or other immigrants. But what Britain has been particularly good at has been maintaining a Civil Service which has been outstanding throughout the world. Cannot we have some sense of proportion and of historical perspective?
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, it is wholly appropriate that this important debate should be introduced by a distinguished, retired civil servant with an outstanding record of service to our country. I am glad that he started his speech by saying that we can be justly proud that we have a Civil Service which is able, loyal, impartial and wholly incorruptible. Would it not be nice if that could be said of all other countries in the world?
As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, has just said, there is normally a strong bond of trust and confidence between the civil servant who advises on policy and the Minister who has to make decisions. The civil servant is the expert. He puts the pros and cons of a particular course of action before Ministers, and the effect that a particular course will have on other activities. The Minister is the amateur. He has to make up his mind what course to take having received the advice, and above all of course, if he is wise, he has to ask himself: can I get this policy accepted in Parliament and will it be regarded as fair and reasonable by the 1532 public? The relationship between Ministers and officials is the hallmark of our system of government. It serves us well. It provides for both innovation and continuity.
I remember very well, as a young, very green Minister, in 1970, being sent to the then Department of Health and Social Security. It was thought by the pundits that the Conservatives would lose that election. Therefore I was agreeably surprised when I reached that department to find the amount of work that civil servants had done on what Conservatives had been saying in Opposition. The papers were prepared for us on day one. That, I think, is a remarkable tribute to the way in which our Civil Service operates.
The noble Lord, Lord Allen, mentioned executive agencies. I have also been asking myself the question: how do these fit in with the traditional Civil Service? I am glad that the Government have made clear in successive White Papers that the arrangements for policy formation will remain unaltered and that the executive agencies will deal with administration. They have performance targets. I believe their work has sharpened administration in our country. I believe that they are more responsive now to those they serve and that they provide better value for money. All this is of course in keeping with the Citizen's Charter.
Some doubts were expressed when agencies were first introduced whether there would be a dilution of parliamentary accountability. I think one only has to look at the recent troubles within the Child Support Agency to see that Parliament has adequate means of giving Ministers a rough ride if it feels that that is necessary, and of persuading Ministers that they should change course. In some of the other agencies, for example those which pay out social security benefits or those which collect taxes, there is little difference in practice as regards parliamentary accountability. It was always the case in the old days that a Member of Parliament who had a constituent with a grievance would take up that case with the local social security office or the local inspector of taxes, where he would normally receive satisfactory redress. That still obtains today. However, the Member of Parliament still of course has the all-important reserve power in that if he is dissatisfied with the answer he is given from the agency, he can reserve the right to take up the matter with the Minister concerned or to raise it on the Floor of the House of Commons.
There has been a good deal of criticism lately of the role of quangos as distinct from elected bodies, such as local authorities. I believe that local authorities have an important role in the government of our country. They are a link in the democratic process. They give local people opportunities to serve their community and to gain experience about the way government works. However, elected councillors do not guarantee good administration or a response to the needs and wishes of people. All your Lordships, I am sure, will recollect cases of oppressive regimes running council house estates. One of the many great advantages of the sale of council houses is that one can now paint one's own front door the colour that suits one and not the colour that suits the local council. 1533 Another example is the local management of schools. We now have a situation where governors, parents and teachers are able to make decisions based on their local knowledge. I suggest to your Lordships that this is a better arrangement than having to refer decisions to slow moving county council bureaucracy. I suggest that there is a case for quangos and for bodies that are appointed and not directly elected to assist in administration in an increasingly complex society. What really matters is whether these bodies are effectively accountable. Do they have clear terms of reference? Do they have performance targets? If they do, it seems to me that they have a valuable function to perform.
I now turn to the more controversial area of the National Health Service. There is criticism of National Health Service trusts and of GP fund-holding. I realise that these are controversial matters, but I do not believe that they would have developed to the extent that they have unless there was a popular demand for them. I believe that the Government deserve credit for the reforms in the Civil Service which have been introduced in recent years. I believe equally that the Civil Service has nothing to fear from these reforms. It enables it, in my view, to give more attention to helping Ministers to get policies right for the benefit of the community. This is the job that only our Civil Service can do, and on the whole it does it superbly well.
§ 5.29 p.m.
§ Lord Barnett
My Lords, I, too, wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on introducing not an insignificant debate, as he seemed to imply at the outset, but a rather important one. Like him, in general I agree with paragraph 1.1 of what the Government say in the July White Paper. They state that our Civil Service has:a high reputation, nationally and internationally"—as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, even in France—for its standards of integrity, impartiality and loyal service to the Government of the day".However, the fact that there have been two White Papers in six months and a report of an important Select Committee in another place indicates that there are grounds for concern, which I share, that standards are in serious danger of deterioration. There is a danger of the erosion of the very ethos of the Civil Service, and the qualities of which we are rightly proud.
A survey of more than 4,000 civil servants, referred to in paragraph 84 of the Select Committee report, found exactly that; namely:a belief that the public service ethos is being eroded".I have two major concerns. The first is the devolution to agencies or quangos. Today 20 per cent. of officials are based in those non-departmental agencies. Last April they numbered 110,200, according to a Written Answer which I received yesterday, and at the same date there were 533,000 civil servants in the Civil Service.
My second concern is the effect of 15 years of single party government on the Civil Service we care so much about.
1534 On the first point, I do not necessarily complain about the transfer to quangos. Indeed, I welcome the point made in paragraph 3.9 of the January White Paper about the improvement in value for money. That is very important. But my concern arises in relation to issues raised by probably the most important all-party Select Committee—which I had the honour to chair myself—the Public Accounts Committee. Robert Sheldon, my successor as Chairman, who has been chairman for 11 years and therefore has great experience, referred in evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee to the eighth report of the Public Accounts Committee issued last year. That was a devastating report. It covered various non-departmental bodies, including the Welsh National Development Agency and the Wessex Water Authority.
Much worse was what he said in replying to questions from the Select Committee. In reply to question 1576 on page 92 of the report he said that he found a common thread running through recent examples. That has to be worrying, coming from an all-party Select Committee. There was no disagreement in that committee about the point that Robert Sheldon made.
I am pleased that, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said, the Government have at last recognised that there is a serious problem. David Hunt, the Minister concerned, will announce new guidance on ethics for quango members. Indeed, there is a possibility of a new code for civil servants, possibly having statutory status. I do not know whether statutory status will be necessary, but Mr. Hunt spoke of the possibility of setting up the code of practice jointly with the Opposition. I hope that my noble friends will co-operate and work to find an appropriate code which can work effectively. If it is not agreed between the three major parties, it will not work effectively.
My next major anxiety concerns the effect of 15 years of single-party government. Sir Robin Butler himself conceded (in paragraph 81 of the Select Committee report) that the length of time one party has been in office might give rise to scepticism about continuing impartiality. There is the possibility of further evidence of falling standards when the results of the Nolan and Scott inquiries are published.
Jim Plowden, the former head of the Central Policy Review Staff, has said that a number of Ministers are reluctant to entertain unfavourable advice and, as a consequence, officials are reluctant to tender it. That is understandable. Apparently junior Ministers are asking civil servants to draft political speeches. Perhaps the civil servants can draft them better than the Ministers, but it cannot be right for civil servants to accept that approach.
We are told that civil servants can appeal to Sir Robin Butler. There has been only one appeal in nine years. That is hardly surprising. I regret to say—because I like Sir Robin—that I fear that he has compromised himself. He did so especially by agreeing to investigate charges against Ministers at the request of the Prime Minister. He should have refused. I am not sure to whom he could have appealed, but he should have refused to carry out such an investigation. That is one of the ways in which he compromised himself. 1535 Elizabeth Symons, General Secretary of the First Division Association, told the Select Committee that civil servants fear that if they appeal they will be singled out and pilloried by Ministers. That is not a matter that we can laugh away. It is very important. I therefore welcome paragraph 2.10 of the January White Paper which indicates that the Government now propose, as the Select Committee recommended, to establish an independent appeal procedure to Civil Service commissioners. I am sure that that is right and I am delighted that that is to happen.
Despite my welcome for the White Paper, it still does not deal with the major issue raised by Vernon Bogdanor, a very respected Reader in government at Oxford, published in the Independent last Wednesday and raised by many others in recent times. That question is, where does ministerial responsibility lie? For example, following the escapes from Parkhurst the present Home Secretary said that he is responsible to Parliament for policy but not for operational matters.
I agree that it would be a nonsense if every time a prisoner escaped the Home Secretary had to resign. That would not be sensible. However, Vernon Bogdanor quoted Sir John Woodcock's report on Whitemoor prison:'There exists at all levels within the service some confusion as to the respective roles of ministers, the agency headquarters and individual prison governors'. Nor is it surprising that he said there was difficulty in determining what was an operational matter and what was policy".The White Paper does not dispel that confusion between policy and operational matters. I hope that the Minister will look at that question, and consider doing so this evening. I see him smiling. He obviously has it in his speech already. Therefore, I hope he will do so because it is not unimportant.
I conclude by repeating that I have great respect for our civil servants—as every other speaker has said in the debate so far—and their standards, which are high in comparison with most other civil services throughout the world. However, it is vital that we should be vigilant to prevent slippage of the kind to which I have referred. With those reservations, I welcome the White Papers as a move in the right direction.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Lord Armstrong of Ilminster
My Lords, I should like to join with those who have congratulated the noble Lord—and my former master—Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on initiating this debate on the role of the Civil Service.
In a memorandum of guidance issued in December 1987 by the then head of the Home Civil Service (and wild horses would not drag his name from my lips) it was stated that:The Civil Service is there to provide the Government of the day with advice on the formulation of policies, to assist in carrying out decisions, and to manage and deliver the services for which the Government is responsible … Civil servants should conduct themselves in such a way as to deserve and retain the confidence of Minister … it is the duty of a civil servant to make available to the Minister all the [relevant] information and experience at his disposal … and to give to the Minister honest and impartial advice, without fear or favour, and whether the advice accords with the Minister's view or not …1536 Finally, as my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead (who is also a former mas[...] said:When the Minister has taken [...]ecision, it is the duty of civil servants loyally to carry out tha[...]ecision with precisely the same energy and good will whether they agree with it or not".Nothing has happened since December 1987 to invalidate those words. Indeed, I was encouraged to see that those principles inform the draft code of conduct recently formulated by the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee in another place and by the Government in their response to that Select Committee.
I am not absolutely convinced that there is a need for a new code. However, I have no objection to producing a code which encapsulates what is already implicitly, if not explicitly, in existing guidance of one kind or another. I do not believe that it is necessary to give the proposed code of conduct the force of legislation. Indeed, given the difficulty of changing a statute once it is on the book, that might make it more difficult to adjust the code to meet changing conditions. Perhaps such a code could be scheduled to an Act, rather like the Highway Code is scheduled to the Road Traffic Act.
I wish to comment on only one aspect of the report's provisions. It is an issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Allen, referred. It relates to the provision for appeals to the First Civil Service Commissioner. The grounds of appeal now proposed, covering as they do not only issues of conscience but any requirement to act in a manner inconsistent with the code, are too wide and are likely to make the recourse to appeal more customary and more frequent than it need be.
I am also doubtful about the need for making the First Civil Service Commissioner the appellate authority. Such matters are best dealt with within the internal framework of the system, including recourse in the final analysis to the head of the Home Civil Service. If the objection to that procedure is that a civil servant might hesitate to resort to it for fear of possible damage to his prospects for future advancement, I am not persuaded that appeal to the First Civil Service Commissioner would be any less intimidating or less likely to affect departmental views on the appellant's fitness for promotion. I fear that appeal to an external authority could undermine the confidence between Ministers and civil servants on which the relationship depends.
I welcome the reaffirmation by the Government of their commitment to the maintenance of a permanent Civil Service based on the values of integrity, political impartiality, objectiveness, selection and promotion on merit, and accountability through Ministers to Parliament. Those values have stood the country in good stead for many years and are as relevant and important to public life and good government today as they have ever been.
I do not see any sign that the commitment of civil servants to these values has been compromised by the fact that one party has been in government for 15 years. I have no doubt whatever that if there were to be a change of party in government at the next general election, incoming Ministers would find a Civil Service which would serve them as faithfully, impartially and loyally as it has served the present Government and their predecessors. 1537 However, if the values [...]which I have referred are to be maintained it is not [...]ugh just to reaffirm them, or even to entrench them in[...]vodes of conduct. They have to be defended and protected in deed as well as in words. And I begin to share the apprehensions of those who fear that some of the management changes which the Government have been making, and indeed the sheer volume and pace of change in recent years may, perhaps unintentionally, put the maintenance of those values at risk.
I have supported the principle of executive agencies under the Next Steps proposals; indeed, when working in government I worked hard to bring about their adoption. But the arrangement works most satisfactorily in areas of activity where there is little political content and therefore little risk of political controversy and damage to the relationships between Ministers and civil servants. In my view, it would be unwise to extend the agency principle to areas of activity where the process itself is a matter of high political interest and potential controversy. Murphy's law (I believe it is called) is relevant here: if something can go wrong, one day it will; and, as we have seen in the case of the Child Support Agency, when something goes badly wrong it brings the agency principle itself into disrepute and is liable to undermine confidence between Ministers and civil servants.
I could go into detail on various aspects of the changes which have been made, and their possibly difficult effect. But time is too short to allow me to do that. I shall simply say that the pace of management change—often major change—in the public service during the past 15 years has been intense and seemingly relentless. One change follows another almost before the first has been wholly carried through. I have no doubt that there is room—perhaps there will always be room—to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the public service. But the uncertainties and the disruption resulting from constant and unremitting change can have, over time, a deeply unsettling effect on morale in the public service.
As my noble friend Lord Allen pointed out, the decentralisation of responsibility for pay and grading carries the risk of fragmentation and of undermining the cohesiveness of the Civil Service and the sense of public service as an honourable vocation and a reputable profession.
Civil servants take pride in doing their jobs as well as they can as a matter of individual self-esteem and of pride in public service in the best sense. But against a background of restless change and disruption there is a danger that civil servants may come to feel like the man in A.E. Housman's poem:Oh, let me lie abed and rest.What's to show for all my pain?Ten thousand times I've done my best,And all's to do again".That feeling, exacerbated most recently by the sharp reductions in numbers at senior levels in the Treasury and elsewhere, is liable, I fear, to create a sense almost of despair which could drive increasing numbers of existing civil servants—I am sorry to say that they are 1538 usually the better ones—to seek employment elsewhere, and discourage the recruitment of the more able people upon whom the future of the public service depends.
In this situation the virtues and values of the public service as we have known it come under great strain. Like the dikes at Nijmegen, they might not be able wholly to withstand the pressures put upon them by the process of unremitting change, however strongly the Government believe in and reaffirm the importance of maintaining them. Once impaired, they become difficult to restore.
I share the hope that the Government will be sensitive to this danger. I believe that the public interest in the maintenance of a permanent Civil Service staffed by people of high quality and based on the values of integrity, impartiality and objectivity, would now be best served by a deliberate slowing down of the process of management change. No piece of machinery can give of its best if it is being radically overhauled all the time—particularly if it has to stay on the road while it is being overhauled.
The time has now come for a let up in the process of change: for a period of assimilation of the changes that have been introduced; for reaffirming and, what is more, re-establishing by deed as well as by word the virtues and values which have made the British Civil Service one of the best—perhaps the best—public service in the world; and for restoring the confidence between Ministers and civil servants—a two-way confidence—which is an indispensable foundation of the ability of civil servants to serve the Government of the day as they should do and as they wish to do, and of Ministers to get the best out of the civil servants who are responsible to them and who are keen to give the best service they can to the Government and to their country.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, it is many years since I had any direct responsibility for the Civil Service, and that arose because at that time the Civil Service was administered in the establishment division of the Treasury. I am afraid that my experience therefore antedates that of all the noble Lords who have so far addressed your Lordships. My diffidence is increased when I find my name among some of the most eminent public servants of our time, if not of any time. I join in the expression of thanks to my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale.
Since I shall be suggesting that there are some limitations which should be acknowledged to the role that the Civil Service can play, perhaps I may say at the outset that so far as my experience and knowledge goes our own Civil Service is by a considerable measure the best in the world.
The Northcote-Trevelyan reform brought in a middle class meritocracy; and that brought in, too, the middle-class virtues of probity and loyalty. As regards probity, at the most, the Pontings, the Pottingers and the Tisdalls are rare figures. The recent directive by Sir Robin Butler as to airfares, air vouchers and free travel shows that the austere standard of financial probity is being rigidly adhered to. 1539 As for loyalty, my only demur is on the question of leaks, of which there have been far too many recently. When the noble Viscount replies, I should like him to tell us, if he can, how many identified leaks there have been; how many of those have been investigated; what the investigation has shown—in other words whether the leaker has been identified—and, finally, what disciplinary action has been taken, where it has applied. That seems to me to be a matter of great importance. We have had two extremely damaging and worrying leaks in the past two days, but they are merely the last of a long series.
The next question which I believe your Lordships would wish to consider is whether we are suffering from over-government in Whitehall. The Brussels bureaucracy provides a dangerous and menacing warning. I say that, presuming myself to be a convinced European. There are several reasons why we have over-government from Whitehall. The first is the proliferation of numbers which is endemic in any bureaucracy, not only government. When I was a law officer, the department was scarcely, if at all, larger than when it was instituted at the end of the last century. Since then, it has increased a hundredfold. Part of that is due to taking over Northern Ireland, but it is a small part and is by no means an unusual feature of any department.
The second reason we have over-government is the doctrine that the gentleman in Whitehall really knows best. To a great extent he does know best. He can take a broader and longer vision than the individual who is affected by the decision. But there are limits to his knowledge. However skilfully the shoe is cobbled, it is only the wearer who can tell where it pinches. That is why we should apply the principle of subsidiarity, moving the decision as near as possible to the person affected by it. Perhaps I may draw attention to the Swiss constitution which embodies the principle of subsidiarity as part of its ethos.
The third reason I think we suffer from over-government is simply that the Civil Service is a necessary repository of power. As Acton tells us, all power tends to corrupt and the first sign of corruption is generally an itch for greater power. So we have some extraordinarily worrying developments. There were the repeated efforts by the Department for Education—four efforts consecutively—to intrude upon academic freedom. That was finally repelled by your Lordships.
The most striking example was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dean: the Child Support Act 1991. That is a major invasion of the magistrature by the bureaucracy. I think it is generally acknowledged that it has worked out disastrously for the citizen and disastrously for the Government.
What is the answer? I have no doubt that one answer is that we should restore the former function of the legislation committee of the Cabinet. I am certain that if that committee had, as part of its remit, to consider the drafting and constitution aspects of any measure, the Child Support Act would never have survived. It would have been referred back to the department. There must be other ways by which, through constant vigilance, we may repel the advance of bureaucracy at the expense, 1540 say, of the lay magistrature whose decision-making is close to the citizen. I commend to your Lordships the thought that the legislation committee could well be revived in its previous form.
I have come to the end of my time, but I want to raise the question of the regional dispersion of the Civil Service. I gave the noble Viscount notice of that; perhaps he can reply without my saying anything. I draw attention also to London weighting. I have made several suggestions which indicate some limitation on the role which the Civil Service can play. I do so without derogating in any way from my admiration for the way the Civil Service has functioned, particularly since the Northcote-Trevelyan reform.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Lord Merlyn-Rees
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, told us that he had thought of cutting his speech. He was right not to; his wisdom shone through, as it did to me as a junior Minister in the department of which he was the Permanent Under-Secretary 30 years ago. I was glad to take his advice, as I was that of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, on security. In view of what has been said, I trusted him implicitly to do the right thing in the defence of this country. A temporary civil servant would have been no use to me in those circumstances. Also reminiscing, two current PUSs were formerly my private secretaries. I am sure that their behaviour will be in the same tradition as that of PUSs in the past.
The happy conjunction of the publication of the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee and this debate enables me to say, fitting in with what has been said, that the recommendation of the Select Committee that agency chief executives should be directly and personally accountable to Select Committees would be wrong. I am glad that the Government have rejected it. I am also happy to see the acceptance by the Government of the principles of an independent line of appeal to the Civil Service, despite the changes that have been made in the past. I think that that is right.
Some people may have been surprised when I appeared in court as an expert witness on the Ponting affair. I shall explain why. I would not want the man in my office, but on the Franks Committee we had recommended that it should not be a criminal offence to do what he did. It was on that precise point. If the matter had been better handled, I do not believe that the trouble would have arisen.
As to the Civil Service Code, there is sense in that, although I am by no means an expert and I should need to read it again. On the whole matter of the report and the changes that will take place, I hope that all junior Ministers—and there are far too many of them—read it when they come to office, together with the procedure for Ministers.
For three or four years I was a member of the committee of privy counsellors which vets (if that is the right word) civil servants, generals, admirals and air marshals who take jobs when they leave government service. It does a good job and there is no force of law behind it. There is no time to develop the point, but I believe that if senior civil servants have to go through 1541 that procedure their political lords and masters should go through the same sort of procedure if they take jobs too soon, in the same vein as those they had as civil servants. It would be difficult, but it is hard for civil servants to go one way and their lords and masters another.
On the relationships of civil servants to Ministers, I look forward to the Scott report. In the same respect, I read the book by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. His account of the Westland affair makes very interesting reading. It arose, it seems, because of the too personal attachment of civil servants to Ministers. The account is well worth reading. Regretfully, I missed the debate last week on prisons and the discussion on the division between policy and operational matters.
The White Paper states:The Government's view remains that Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the policy, administration and resources of their departments, including operational action, successes and mishaps, whatever the extent of delegation and whether they were personally involved or not".I raise the point because over the weekend I was in the company of prison officers. The subject arose of the difference between policy and operational matters. One of the officers said that in his view the trouble at Everthorpe—there was, I suppose, an insurrection—was caused because home leave had been stopped as had going out to work. Both had been stopped so suddenly that the trouble that arose was not an operational matter. It arose because of policy changes emanating from the Home Office. I was also told that prisoners who are now unable to go on home leave from a Category D prison or out to work have to undergo risk assessments by the police but that the police do not have the necessary manpower for the task and that the Home Office had not dealt carefully with the issue. It had not dealt with the matter at all; it had not made sure that enough police were on hand.
I turn to the question of junior Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, is not in his place at the moment. When the noble Lord was Minister of State and I was Home Secretary, the matter arose of a chief constable whom I was to sack. I should have remembered that there are other noble Lords present who will remember the incident. Fortunately the man resigned, so the action was unnecessary. But we were girding our loins to do it and going through all the correct legal procedures. Somebody suggested that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, should handle the matter and that I should not, because at the end of the day the man would have the right of appeal to me. I would have sacked him and would also have had to act in appellate fashion. I was firmly advised that there is only one god, and that is the Secretary of State. Ministers of State and junior Ministers have no authority at all.
I read in the paper from time to time that so-and-so is the Minister for prisons and so-and-so is the Minister for this, that and the other. It is a pure creation of the Secretary of State and the department. It has no legal force. Ministers, whether Secretaries of State or not, are very unwise when they stand at the Dispatch Box and 1542 say "My department this" and "My department the other". They will soon find out whose department it is. It shows an attitude of mind which is mistaken.
I want to raise one other matter. The report deals with the executive agencies. I am very interested in devolution of some government matters to the regions. Indeed in Northern Ireland there is a very efficient Civil Service. Education is very near the ground. Those who deal with it know the schools and universities. They are not distant things because government concerns 1½ million people. The Government have decided to beef up regional offices in Leeds and other places. The Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Employment, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Transport and the Home Office will be locating a senior member of staff in regional offices. I am glad to see that. In Leeds, where I am chairman of the South Leeds Groundwork Trust and temporarily national chairman of the foundation, I deal with the local officers who are absolutely first class. But to whom are they responsible? There is a Cabinet committee, I presume, which somehow co-ordinates activities. We have to be clear. I have here a list of all the responsibilities. I am glad that certain matters are being dealt with in the regions, but if questions are asked about the agencies, I hope that the responsibilities of the new regional offices will be included. I am told that they work quite well. There is a lot of sense in what they do.
Looking back, it is very easy to congratulate ourselves. When I first came back from the war, I taught at a grammar school. We were great ones for clapping each other in the morning, or clapping what the school had done. The French assistante leant over to me one morning and said, "This place will clap itself to death if it is not careful". So far as the Civil Service is concerned, we ought to be proud of it. In the period of 11 years during which I was a Minister civil servants served me well. They will continue to serve well in the future; of that I am sure. But the powers-that-be should listen to the advice offered in today's debate. Too much change is taking place, and if care is not taken a great deal will be lost in the doing.
§ Baroness Trumpington
My Lords, I hate to rise, but I remind your Lordships very gently that when the clock indicates nine minutes, we are actually in the tenth minute. We are running slightly behind schedule at the moment.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ Lord Bancroft
My Lords, the time limits and the excellent earlier speeches confine me to two propositions. My first is that, so long as we have our parliamentary democracy, the essential role of the Civil Service—though not how that role is discharged—should be unchanging; namely, to act both as a ballast and, if need be, an engine in a constitution which includes a volatile and increasingly powerful Executive, and a volatile and, until very recently, increasingly regimented legislature; a ballast and engine of permanent officers, duly subordinate to Ministers yet possessing sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist and to some extent influence those who are from time to time set 1543 above them. I quote, of course, the timeless verities of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report. Those verities extend from the Permanent Secretary advising the Minister to the youngest clerk in a local office caring for clients beyond the call of duty. On a personal note I relished all the many Ministers I served except one.
In order to perform its role effectively, the service must be self-confident. Something has gone far wrong when too many civil servants are furtive or apologetic about their occupation. Partly as a result of the service's loss of self-confidence, some of our fellow citizens have lost confidence in it.
I simply cannot fathom the Government's refusal to commission an independent attitude survey of its employees. As a result, we all have to rely on anecdotal evidence. Mine is uniformly depressing at all levels. Heaven knows, I am no supporter of navel gazing but anecdotes show deep anxieties. I beg the noble Viscount to come back to us with a more satisfactory response on this point.
As others have remarked, the service is also handicapped by being mucked about too much, too rapidly and too incestuously. We needed a weighty Royal Commission at work some years ago. I am in no way overlooking the Select Committee in another place, which has been admirably persistent. I find myself welcoming most of the words but only some of the proposed actions in the latest White Paper. There is a gap between the words and the actions—the almost total break-up of a unified service into hundreds of semi-autonomous agencies, each under its own chief executive. Some arm's length agencies and indeed quangos-yes; but not hundreds. It makes for a cat's cradle of lines of accountability, rather like the work of a clever idiot trying to map Tom Tiddler's ground. Will the noble Viscount draw that last point to the attention of one or two of his ministerial colleagues?
Will he also be kind enough to mention to the same colleagues that it is distressingly simple minded to seek to separate policy and operational matters? Does he agree that while the acts of conception and birth are separate, they are also intimately linked—at least to the extent that one informs the other. Does he further agree that there is an intimate link between concept (that is, policy) and implementation (that is, operational matters)? Will he confide in us the Government's definitions of "responsibility", "answerability" and "accountability"? The partial attempt in the White Paper, although not unfamiliar to me, falls below the level of acceptability in the new circumstances.
My second proposition is that it is the natural condition of any public service to be corrupt. If that is much less true in this country than in others, it is because for a long time now, but by no means time out of mind, our Civil Service has maintained high standards of probity. That has not come about by accident. High standards have persisted because they became deeply ingrained in the ethos of the service. That ethos was rapidly absorbed by new arrivals, whose very method of recruitment to the service—by open competition—set the tone. They soon learned from their elders what was expected of them. Indeed, until I left Whitehall, I continued to ask myself, "What would 1544 Bridges (my noble friend's father), Brook or Serpell have done in like circumstances?" The ethos was further safeguarded by the tradition that the service offered a lifetime's career. That is now largely disappearing. It had the merit of building a deep commitment to the service and to its reputation. To become set in one's ways is not an unmitigated evil, if the ways have virtue. Standards are now at risk.
For years I opposed a code of ethics as I saw no need for it. But I now see the need with piercing clarity, given the fragmentation of the service. As a result of this, staff will remain largely unexposed to the ethos, which in the past was taken for granted. So, as a fellow repentant, I welcome the Government's conversion to the need for a code. I welcome too the introduction of independent redress for those who find themselves pressed to depart from those established standards. That is particularly necessary with the disappearance for many of a right of appeal to a long-serving permanent secretary, who is in no doubt about what is properly required of civil servants.
Many of the new agencies will be headed by people who themselves have had little or no previous experience of public service. I surmise that there will be a muddling number of differing categories of civil or public servants in the future. Will the noble Viscount confirm that, despite the apparent muddle, it will be crystal clear to which categories the Civil Service code and Civil Service status will apply in terms of recruitment, conditions of service, pensionability and acceptable post-retirement work —a point touched on by my noble friend Lord Allen?
The Government's proposed code is too general. I believe that after further consultation it should be embodied in legislation. I am glad that the Government have an open mind on that.
Finally, the appointment of the new part-time first commissioner on an initial short contract will be vitally important, given his enlarged responsibilities. Will the noble Viscount be kind enough to provide assurances on two points? First, while of course being subject to ministerial approval, will the selection process be free from any ministerial influence? Secondly, does he agree that it is essential for the new guardian of the Civil Service ethic to have been long marinaded in the public service? The advertisement which I have refers only to experience with company boards or with the public sector. Nowhere in the advertisement is the term "public service" used. That is crucial. It is not a matter of semantics.
Muddle makes for complexity, which in turns breeds mistrust, for what cannot be readily understood is not readily trusted. Simplicity should be the aim. The Government have still to convince us that the latest White Paper will bring the service to the frontier of achieving it; ripe also for reunification, with ethos intact, when the present ministerial fever abates.
What we have witnessed so far is partly a bold leap into the future and partly a disorderly retreat into the unreformed past. Meanwhile, I salute with sympathetic 1545 admiration those at all levels of the service who continue to serve their country with such devotion and probity.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ Lord Croham
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for initiating this debate, and especially for the powerful way in which he opened it. I entirely agree with his remarks. I also welcome the proposals in the White Paper about a code of conduct, for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, has just given.
In particular, I like the proposal for a final avenue of appeal when doubts about conduct, legality and propriety occur. However, I would not expect that final avenue to be utilised any more frequently than the other avenue of appeal which already exists when improper decisions about spending have been made; namely, the exposure of the impropriety to the Comptroller and Auditor-General and thence to Parliament. That possibility is powerful enough to make it virtually unnecessary to invoke it. I believe that it is a much stronger safeguard in its relevant area than what is now proposed for the rest. It is vital that the new arrangements involving the role of the First Civil Service Commissioner should not be allowed to affect that longstanding safeguard. As regards that role, I myself would have thought it better to have given it to the Parliamentary Commissioner and not to a Civil Service commissioner.
The enhanced role and strengthening of the Civil Service Commission is one of the main features of the White Paper which came out last week. Provided that the person appointed as First Civil Service Commissioner is fully acceptable to all parties in Parliament his inclusion on the Senior Appointments Selection Committee should help to remove the suspicion that there could be party political bias in top appointments.
However, in my experience in the rare cases when Ministers have expressed strong views about candidates for posts, it has been more a question of personalities than about suspected party affiliations or sympathies. It would be a much cleverer Minister than most whom I have known who could detect whether their senior civil servants have any party affiliations.
As regards the commissioner's contribution to senior appointments, if it is to be anything more than a negative one it would be necessary for the commission as a whole to have much more contact with the ongoing work at senior levels in departments than it has had in the past. I do not believe that that would be desirable.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, pointed out, if the First Civil Service Commissioner is not to be an existing serving senior civil servant, it raises the question of what he will know. It also raises the question, if he is not to be a civil servant, of what the role of the commission itself is to be. Is it to be a special government department or a quango and to what extent will Ministers be able to give it directions? Indeed, what is its range to be if the service is fragmented? We must await more details.
1546 The main concerns which I have, and which the White Paper does nothing to diminish, are that many recent developments run the danger of fragmenting the service and that its whole ethos will be destroyed. This is a possible consequence of the proposals that central grades should be abolished; that there should be a new pay system for senior civil servants, with a number of overlapping pay ranges, and that organisational structures should be flat though different from department to department. These may be ideas in line with private sector practices and some modern management theories, but such ideas tend to be short-lived.
Just before I retired from the Civil Service I was taken to task by a committee of the other place because the proposals for unified grading which the Fulton Committee had recommended had not been fully implemented. Unified grading was seen as essential to the ease of movement of staff about the service and to the bringing of the professional classes into senior management posts. Shortly after the war a number of posts in intermediate grades were created in order to improve the co-ordination of new tasks. Now unified grading and hierarchies are frowned on.
With good will, most forms of organisation can be made to work but too much variation in pay in a public service usually causes endless problems for assessment and negotiation, and arbitration if that is permitted. It should not be forgotten that the pay of individuals in the public service has always been ascertainable through either the Imperial Calendar or its successor the Civil Service Yearbook and that when differentials are detected they are followed by claims. In those private sector posts where remuneration is public knowledge, as for company chairmen and chief executives, strenuous efforts are made not to have less remuneration than the peer group.
The White Paper also discusses appointments to senior Civil Service posts from outside the service. Such appointments are not new. They have been essential for some professional posts and have at times been very fruitful in general administration. But the proportion of outside appointments and the nature of their contracts has to be watched if key qualities of the Civil Service are to be maintained. I have observed that where in the private sector there is a strong sense of loyalty to the firm there is always an expectation of long-term employment and promotion from within, unless the appropriate talents cannot be found inside. Where firms rely on recruiting staff on strictly short-term contracts there is rarely any sense of belonging to the firm and the idea of loyalty to the firm is laughable. Nor do talented senior people in the private sector accept jobs on genuinely short-term contracts. They demand rolling contracts so that if their services are no longer required they can obtain a payment of two or three years' salary, part of which is tax free. Someone on a short-term contract can be expected to be loyal to the terms of the contract, but that is all.
What I find lacking in the White Paper is any understanding of what it has meant to be a member of the Civil Service or of the factors which have influenced people to remain in public service out of a sense of 1547 loyalty. A department of state is an institution with a history; it has been developed into a working team and its members are concerned about its standing, its performance and its long-term objectives. Morale is not just a word in a list of worthy qualities; it is a vital element if a department or a service are to be any good. And it has to be supported by leadership. Senior members of departments are not just there to do the job of the moment under contract but believe that their duty is to ensure that the department functions efficiently, effectively and lastingly. That involves the duty of training, developing and encouraging their potential successors. Concern for such things is what distinguishes a service from a mere employment. Excessive fragmentation of the service will result in it being just a collection of employments. Many years ago one of my colleagues asked in an interview about his responsibility, and he said that he considered himself responsible to his concept of what made an ideal civil servant. That is an attitude that strikes a chord with those of us who have served in the British Civil Service, and in your Lordships' House. I do not find that degree of understanding in the drafting of the White Paper.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I have been neither a Minister nor a Permanent Secretary; I almost hesitate to speak. But what I wish to say is atmospheric, reflecting a general but widely-shared fear that we risk destroying a great national asset.
Within the service morale is low and the Civil Service is no longer perceived by young graduates as the natural goal for high flyers. Even in my time undergraduates would say to me, when I asked why they were not sitting the CSSB examinations, that the service had become like Marks & Spencer; it is not a public service anymore so it is more sensible to go into Marks & Spencer and be better paid.
Fortunately, I gather from inquiries in Oxford that, though there remains scepticism about the value of Next Steps, undergraduates are slowly beginning to think that it might be worthwhile to enter in the hope that something may be done to salvage the public service for which they care.
The White Paper says:The Civil Service needs … to make better use of its most important resource … by providing the prospect of a career with a good employer, offering challenge and reward".But what does it do in practice? It takes people whose whole ethos is public service; disinterested, objective, committed to helping to shape national policies—as they did in the crucial years after 1945 about which Peter Hennessey writes so brilliantly in Never Again—and to working together, and it introduces a totally different set of values. Suddenly, in order to succeed civil servants are required to be competitive; to be market tested; to give value for money measured not by quality but by statistics: how many pieces of paper are handled; how many ticks are placed in boxes; how many successful sound bites are produced for citizens charters?
I am not arguing that there is not merit for some, and for some satisfying challenges in the various agencies. But I do oppose the application of this demi-business 1548 culture to all the operations of the public service and to the judgment and assessment of quality and performance and hence the prospect for advancement by inappropriate and even suspect criteria. It is repeating the mistake made in academic assessment today where someone who publishes six relatively trivial though perfectly respectable articles will be judged to have done better than the serious scholar who takes some years to write a book and produces nothing in the interval.
Throughout the Civil Service, the agencies and the non-departmental public bodies, people are writing endless business plans, market plans, financial audits, budget reviews and strategic plans. There are endless rehearsals of what has been done and what will be done but with no time left to do the central work or to think cohesively and broadly. There are too many buzz-words; too many charters; too much time spent projecting images. As one official put it to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, they have all been "scrutinised to death".
The Government will say that that is all a necessary radical process from which a slimmer, meaner and altogether more satisfactory Civil Service will emerge. Statistically, that may be so. But what will the qualities of the staff be? Who will want to enter a service where there is deep insecurity? The young today are accustomed to being mobile in the City. They understand that to reach the top in the public service and secure really good jobs requires experience and commitment. What are they to make of a system under which, if an outsider wins an agency chief's job, he or she can expect whatever the market dictates, but a career civil servant can expect only his or her existing salary?
Civil Service pay has never been high and is now well behind the market. Civil servants must perceive themselves not to be valued. If the best leave, where will the successors to the present senior civil servants come from? The Government are devaluing their best asset—a highly motivated and dedicated body of people in a long and honourable tradition. To some extent that springs from a mistaken perception of Oxbridge elitism among the so-called mandarins. But as the then Secretary of State rightly pointed out to the committee, Oxbridge today is very broadly based and the perception of social bias in the Oxbridge intake is wholly unfounded. Incidentally, those who regard it as ridiculous to take someone with a degree in philosophy overlook, as the Treasury does not, that they have the best possible training for the higher reaches of information technology and artificial intelligence.
Far from pushing their reorganisation further, I hope very much that the Government will pause and consider urgently how best to motivate existing members of the service to stay. Unilever and ICI promote from within to managerial and boardroom status. Why not the Civil Service? I have always wished that we had the equivalent of ENA—the École Nationale d'Administration—in this country. It gives the valuable exposure to other experience but it also reinforces pride in being one of the elite—a civil servant. The Government should be thinking how to restore the public perception of the Civil Service, which it has 1549 become the fashion to denigrate, as a splendid career and civil servants as people who are valued, trusted and needed.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Hunt of Tanworth
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Allen on arranging this debate and also those concerned for the impeccable timing of it in relation to the White Paper. I almost began to smell inside information, which would, of course, have been in breach of paragraph 10 of the new Civil Service code.
I agree with much that former colleagues of mine have said today but in the time available to me I propose to concentrate on the proposed new Civil Service code and the right of appeal for those who feel aggrieved under it. I can understand why government witnesses to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee of another place argued against a code of ethics or conduct and indeed I do not find all the arguments put forward for it at all convincing. There is, however, one argument which seems to me to have been growing in importance and which has now in my view become decisive. This is the fact—other noble Lords have referred to it—that the Civil Service is becoming less of a unified and homogeneous body with a shared tradition and culture which does not need to be written down and which is absorbed by the new entrant almost by a process of osmosis.
The Civil Service used to be a very centralised body in so far as establishment and personnel matters were concerned. But the whole object and intention of executive agencies is precisely so that everything does not have to be laid down and overseen by the centre. I do not quarrel with that. However, as different agencies start to develop their own cultures and traditions, we cannot rely on homogeneity and osmosis to reinforce the ethic of a non-political, fair-dealing Civil Service, particularly when executive agencies are under pressure to achieve their performance indicators and targets and possibly have temptation at times to cut a few corners to do so. Similarly, the greater degree of recruitment, particularly at senior level, from outside the service, however desirable it may be for other reasons, means, as has already been said, that not all senior officers have grown up in the service; and to me it calls for a more formal definition of what the public service means.
This question of homogeneity seems far more meaningful than any question of so-called politicisation, which has been argued by some people and which I simply do not believe. There are arguments against any party—whichever party it is—remaining in power for too long. It introduces a kind of sloppiness in administration and so on. But that is nothing to do with partisanship. I am absolutely certain that the Civil Service today, just like the Civil Service which I grew up in, would treat a change of party in government as a kind of challenge to be met.
The draft code in the White Paper, based as it is largely on the text prepared by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, deals with both duties and rights and has much to commend it. In the time available I 1550 would make only one detailed point about it and one more general and important one. In the White Paper the Government provided a very helpful crib to the changes which they had made to the original Select Committee draft. I was fascinated to note in paragraph 5 that the Government had struck out "fairness" and substituted "impartiality" in a sentence saying how civil servants should conduct themselves, vis-à-vis Ministers, Parliament and the public; along, of course, with integrity and honesty. That is fair enough. But I wonder whether "fairness" should not appear in the following paragraph which concerns how the public expect to be dealt with: sympathetically, efficiently, promptly and without bias or bad administration.
This may sound a detail but no one is value-neutral or completely objective and, in handling the affairs of the public, civil servants must observe due process or neutrality of process in order to ensure that individual cases throughout the country are treated on a similar basis. That is the reason for much of the red tape associated with Civil Service procedures. I hope that the need for neutrality of process, which is not quite the same as an absence of bias, will be reflected in the final draft of the code.
My more important point concerns the right of appeal to the Civil Service Commissioners for civil servants who feel that they are required to act in a way inconsistent with the code and have not had satisfaction through the normal departmental channels. I accept the need for an outside point of appeal and I cannot think of a better one than the Civil Service Commissioners. But how wide should this right of appeal be given? This point was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong.
Paragraph 11 of the Government's draft code offers it not only on matters of legality and ethics but also where a civil servant believes he or she is being required to act in a way,which is otherwise inconsistent with this Code or raises a fundamental issue of conscience".The words used are "or raises a fundamental issue of conscience", not "and raises a fundamental issue of conscience". Is this really the intention? The code covers a very wide range of activities, not all of which involve issues of legality or conscience. I hope that careful thought will be given to how this right is defined to make it clear that it relates to genuinely improper requirements placed on civil servants and is not an avenue for civil servants whose real grumble is about a Minister's policy or his behaviour. Misuse of this procedure or extending it too widely would not help the Civil Service and could become the shortest cut to politicisation of the Civil Service.
I have an open mind on the desirability of introducing the new code under the prerogative or by legislation. I would have tended to prefer the use of the prerogative so far as the role of the Civil Service Commissioners is concerned, for the reasons given in paragraph 2.15 of the White Paper, and to mark the fact that they stand apart from the normal Whitehall departments. However, the wording of the following paragraph in the White Paper would now seem to imply that the Government will legislate if there is inter-party agreement. That 1551 wording worries me quite a lot because it implies that if the Government then proceed under the prerogative there has been inter-party disagreement and that would be the worst thing of all for the Civil Service. I very much hope that the consultations which will take place are successful and that there is inter-party agreement on the code.
§ 6.38 p.m.
§ Lord Greenhill of Harrow
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Allen, on his opening speech. When he invited me first to call on him in his office in 1969 I knew at once that he was not an ordinary civil servant. He had copies of Private Eye open on his desk.
I hope your Lordships will not think it unreasonable for an elderly retired Diplomatic Service officer to seek some assurance that the proposed reform of the Home Civil Service will not lead to the weakening of the strength of the Diplomatic Service. Some of the projected reforms will doubtless be applicable to both services. But it is important that they do not damage the Diplomatic Service and prejudice the United Kingdom's ability to pursue the objectives of a global foreign policy.
My suspicions were somewhat aroused by the glossy White Paper which has some of the characteristics of a commercial catalogue. The first White Paper issued some months ago made a brief reference to the Diplomatic Service and further details were promised. Such details do not appear in the present document. I hope that a further document is not intended. I know that some significant reforms of the Diplomatic Service are already being considered in the same way as for the Home Civil Service. One example is the consideration of "contracted" senior officers. I question the wisdom of that. Can noble Lords imagine the head of state of a foreign country being impressed by a British ambassador whose contract he knows is coming to an end and who has made only a temporary financial commitment to the service.
As your Lordships know, the form of the present Diplomatic Service is based on an Order in Council which establishes the procedure for recruitment and the terms and conditions of the service. In my opinion that is most important. There is some suggestion that it should be superseded in future by legislation. Would not that legislation destroy inter alia the sense of service which is a very valuable feature at present?
The Home Civil Service, so long admired, is in the process of shedding functions to agencies and is increasingly subordinated to consultants. I had experience of seeing this in action in the Select Committee on the King's Cross Bill. In contrast, the Diplomatic Service faces the problems of additional responsibility as the new pattern of the world requires us to participate in new problems affecting our safety and our economy. We may be helped by the European Union. But the Secretary of State, Douglas Hurd, says rightly that we must control our own national defence. I agree with that and I believe that we should also control our own diplomatic machine.
1552 Our Diplomatic Service, I know, is under modernisation and internal reform. It is sharing experience with the Home Civil Service. It is greatly helped by its own inspectors who travel worldwide and see for themselves the problems on the spot. The last nine years of my own 30 years' experience were in Whitehall under different governments and contrasting political parties. The new White Paper includes a proposed Civil Service code on pages 43-44. I see little in it which has not been accepted practice in the Diplomatic Service over many, many years.
The working relationship between members of the Diplomatic Service and Ministers has been, in my experience, frank, cordial and loyal. Members have not been self-seeking, deceitful or exercising their own private political views. I can see here several Members on all sides of the House who can give testimony to that. Successive governments were able to rely on their staffs despite the changes. I hope that that state of affairs will continue.
I was myself once considerably nonplussed by a Foreign Secretary's remark and I shall repeat it. It was the late Michael Stewart—Lord Stewart of Fulham. He asked me to explain a complicated disarmament question, which I did. When I had finished he said: "You explained very well the interests of Her Majesty's Government, but tell me", he said, "what are the interests of mankind?" I was completely nonplussed by that.
There is one possible cloud on the horizon to which I was going to refer, but I shall not, in regard to the Scott Report. I hope that it is responsibly dealt with and does not lead to a determined attempt to move the settling of diplomatic affairs to the television screen.
Another point I wish to make concerns the qualifications and abilities of the members of the future Diplomatic Service. It has become fashionable to accuse both the Home Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service of not knowing what goes on in the so-called "real world". My guess is that, as regards the Diplomatic Service, sometimes its members know more than most of what goes on in several real worlds.
For many years the service has seconded individuals to industry and finance, and vice versa, and recruited outside staff with special abilities. But from time to time politicians from both parties have held high diplomatic appointments. Most have been highly successful and welcomed by their staffs. I had personal experience of working with Lords Franks, Harlech, Cromer, and Caradon and the journalist, Mr. Freeman. No doubt such appointments will again be appropriate in certain circumstances and will no doubt include Ladies this time. However, I hope that we shall not follow the methods of the United States in that respect.
No doubt some of the proposed reforms to the Home Civil Service can be followed in the Diplomatic Service. But the Government will be taking a risk if all the present White Paper is fully implemented. In my view, the Diplomatic Service must act in parallel with the 1553 Home Civil Service but must continue to be independent and separate in order to adapt to future global developments.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, it is recorded that Abraham Lincoln was approached by a delegation who informed him that General Grant was addicted to whisky. His reply was, "If you will be good enough to tell me the brand of whisky, I will send a cask to each of my other generals". In other words, Abraham Lincoln, like great men, was concerned with the outcome. He wanted to know that there would be victories and he credited the general who brought him victories.
The public in general is very remote from the interesting problems that we have been discussing this afternoon about the internal morale of the Civil Service and about the possibilities of appeals if there are matters of conscience. Things of that kind are important and interesting, but the public are concerned about whether Britain is being well governed—that is, has the Civil Service any responsibility, which can be pinpointed, for various things which have happened and which are, to a greater or lesser degree, unwelcome?
In our debate on Monday afternoon it was pointed out how between them the Department for Education and the Treasury managed, from a perfectly sensible idea that people whose education benefited from the public purse might pay back some of it when they achieved larger incomes, to create chaos. In our debate this afternoon it was pointed out how many good intentions by different government departments towards dealing with the problems of children are vitiated by the apparent inability of Whitehall departments to act together satisfactorily. I do not believe that I need rehearse other examples which will be apparent to many noble Lords.
In thanking the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for introducing this debate, I only regret that he did not emphasise even more strongly the absurdity of the notion that administration or management can usefully be separated from policy. It is like the general who says, "My strategy was splendid, but it was the wretched people on the ground who messed it up with their tactics".
Whether or not we get it right must largely depend on the quality of the civil servants employed. Therefore, my own interest has been—and I echo some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park—in the recruitment process which, like everything else, has undergone many changes. We now have the Recruitment and Assessment Services Agency which has taken over the role which the Civil Service Commission once enjoyed. I have been looking at its constitution and what attitudes can be derived from the kind of tests which it imposes on would-be applicants. It seems to me that this is an agency which is excessively weak. It is manned, for short periods, by persons from other departments, and we know that that means persons whom other departments believe they can spare. The documents it produces are written in a jargon which betrays all the influence of modern 1554 managerial newspeak and little of the discipline, intellectual and linguistic, which is presumably to be expected of the people it is trying to recruit.
The agency works, as many noble Lords will know, through panels of three. One is the chair. It was a chairman in the published document about the new system, but it is a chair in its internal documents—a very vigorous piece of furniture which writes, interviews and looks after things in general. The other two are a psychologist and a departmental assessor. It is pointed out that the two, as it were, lay members of the board, although they all have to agree on the report, are not expected to understand the psychologist's contribution, because that is very technical. It is also suggested that the psychologist must try to demystify his or her contribution by explaining to the candidate what it is that he or she is trying to find out.
The agency tries to meet what it claims are demands from the departments that its reports should be better formatted. I do not know exactly what "formatted" means. I suppose that if you can have matted hair you can have formatted reports.
Members of the panels are told that they must not use what is called "familiar language"—clubby terms such as "Wykehamist". I never thought of Wykehamists as very clubby, but no doubt in the recesses of that body Wykehamists are thought to be clubby. It goes on in that way, and I shall not bore your Lordships with further quotations from its grammar or syntax. But the impression that it leaves, combined with other information one has, is of a serious denigration of intellectual qualities in the people being sought, and that is of some importance to noble Lords. It applies of course to the Diplomatic Service, which it also handles, and noble Lords will realise that it is also how our Clerks are being recruited or will be recruited; that is to say, the business of being able to work in a team; to get through a test involving an in-tray and an out-tray; circular discussions among teams—all that modern newspeak—is given preference.
It is said that the intellectual qualities are guaranteed by the fact that everyone who is allowed to proceed to these tests must have a first or second-class degree. If they are so remote from the world that they believe that a 2:2 from the University of Loamshire is a guarantee of high intellectual performance, then those civil servants at any rate are as remote from the real world as it is often thought civil servants in general are.
It is important that we should look, as the Treasury Select Committee did not look, at the general method of recruitment and of what is being looked for. The general public does not mind. They would not mind if all civil servants were Oxbridge, provided they felt that they were getting good government. The accent on being politically correct (gender conscious) and all the types of things which fill these documents and their conversations is something which threatens our future.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Lord Bridges
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale for selecting this subject for debate and for his excellent introduction. The Civil Service is not exactly a popular topic, and that 1555 comes as no surprise to former members of the public service who have been taking part in today's discussion. We are well aware that we continue to be grouped in the public mind with mothers-in-law and Wigan Pier as objects of ridicule. I borrow that phrase, which is not mine, from a speech made by a former head of the Civil Service (my father) in his Rede Lecture of 1950 on this very subject.
I should at the beginning declare an interest. I am a member of this breed: for four generations my family has contributed a number of members to the public service. I have some pride in being the great grandson of one of the architects of the Victorian Civil Service who was, for no fewer than 18 years, the Permanent Secretary at the Board of Trade. His name was Thomas Henry Farrer, and he came to this House in his retirement. As a former member of the Diplomatic Service, I do not forget the life of my great uncle, Cecil Spring-Rice, ambassador in Washington in the difficult years of American neutrality between 1914 and 1917 and removed from his post by Lloyd George when he became Prime Minister to make way for a political appointment. With that personal background, your Lordships will understand why I take a particular interest in the Government's policies towards the Civil Service. I suggest that they need to be looked at in a long perspective as well as with close attention to detail.
The creation of a unified public service in this country was one of the notable achievements of the last century. It stands with the other great Victorian reforms such as the creation of a universal education system, the improvements to our system of criminal justice, the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the extension of the franchise, and so on. We should not forget that it was a deliberate move away from the atmosphere of political corruption and jobbery in the 18th century, which was a source of much public disgust. Northcote and Trevelyan have been mentioned, but the person who led the foundation for those reforms was none other than Edmund Burke in a series of important Bills which he steered through the other place from 1780 onwards.
The underlying principles of the Victorian Civil Service—the great reform—are worth reciting. Some of them have been mentioned already. They are important: selection of entrants by a competitive system; the supervision of that system by an independent body; promotion on merit; and political neutrality. In their White Paper, the Government specifically confirm their endorsement of those principles. I am glad. My concern is that some of the individual reforms in the White Paper, and some already introduced, do not fit very well with those principles. I shall explain in a moment my grounds for concern.
Before going into those matters, I should like to mention a few other general considerations; first, the quality of the administrative machine we have inherited from the past. By international standards, that machine is outstanding. It gave us the civil apparatus which enabled us to win two world wars and to manage the great transfer of power which took place in 1945. More recently, in travelling around, I have heard in most European capitals—not just in France, which has been mentioned—admiration of the manner in which the 1556 Cabinet Office secretariat and the Civil Service generally in London handles the co-ordination of our European policies. The policies are a different matter; it is the way in which they are carefully co-ordinated and prepared that commands admiration. All the other countries wish that they had such a system.
Then there is the issue of political neutrality. I had a ringside seat for two changes of administration. The first was in 1964 as a Private Secretary in the Foreign Office and the second was 10 years later as a Private Secretary at 10 Downing Street. Those are always difficult times. I doubt whether members of incoming administrations appreciate to the full the determination of the Civil Service to work for the incoming government and to give them their wholehearted support. I heard with gratitude and strongly support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. The desire to support a new government is held regardless of the respect or personal liking that civil servants may have had for those leaving office. Political neutrality too, is an asset that we should not lightly throw away. As has been pointed out, it is easy to maintain if there are fairly frequent changes of government and if there is broad national consensus on at least the main policies.
Then there is the issue of cost. Of course there is need for strict financial discipline in Civil Service pay as in other matters. The White Paper states an important assumption on page 9. It says that,pay and price increases should be offset, or more than offset, by efficiencies and other economies with adjustments as necessary for workload".The last six words are crucial. One may prune any extravagances that one may find and curtail marginal matters. However, beyond that one will have to cut into the main stem if one is to make economies year on year. I am not sure that the present Government understand how difficult it is to do that without reducing workload and function. The creation of Next Steps agencies may have masked the problem temporarily in statistical terms but the problem is still there. Nor can all policies be readily measured by cost benefit analysis, important though that is. There are a number of areas in which that analysis does not help. Foreign policy and defence are two such areas and the principles of Civil Service reform may be another.
Returning to the text of the White Paper, I have two main anxieties. They relate to the process of selection and recruitment and the issue of political neutrality. As regards selection, the crucial point is the way in which candidates for the most senior posts are chosen. It is clearly the intention that most of these posts will be filled by a new procedure after public advertisement. It is not clear exactly how that will be carried out. We are told that the Civil Service Commission will audit the procedure and approve all outside appointments. We are also told that the first commissioner will sit on the senior appointments selection committee.
But some further explanation seems to be required. Who exactly will make these appointments? Will Ministers have a role? What will be the chosen criteria? To whom will the selectors be responsible? Furthermore, who will determine the salary levels? Will they be within published scales or applicable ad hoc to 1557 attract particular candidates? That appears to have been the procedure used to select the director of the prison service. In order to clarify uncertainty, it would be helpful if the Government could tell us more. Personally, I shall reserve judgment on the reforms until they have done so.
Finally, there is the matter of political neutrality. I can briefly illustrate my worries by the following comments. I read in the press that the Government intend to reduce the senior staff in the Treasury from 24 to eight and that the eight people will be chosen by the new procedure. Let us suppose that that happens. If subsequently there should be a change of government—and I assume that that will eventually occur—what will be the attitude of the incoming administration towards the senior officials? Of course, much will depend on the answers to the questions that I have just posed, but it is extremely important to avoid the situation in which neither group has confidence in the other. Very often, these government changes take place when rapid decisions need to be taken on financial matters. An incoming Chancellor of the Exchequer who lacked confidence in the senior team at the Treasury would surely put into effect policies worked out outside the Treasury. We should do well to recall what happened in the great row about import surcharges in 1964.
I am not a natural ally of Colonel Blimp and I believe in the steady need for reform and innovation. However, I also believe in principles. I hope that the noble Viscount will be able to convince me that the Government will not damage the essential principles of our Civil Service.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, this has been an impressive debate, not least the last speech by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. He raised some extremely important questions which I hope the Minister will answer today or in the near future. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, derives pleasure from the fact that on the Benches today are some of his most distinguished colleagues from the public service, and a slew of young Ministers who were once under his guidance are now older Peers and who learnt a great deal from him about the public service. It can be fairly said that the noble Lord, Lord Allen, is the very model of the finest type of public servant. I say that as one who had the great honour of serving with him—not under or over but with—as Minister of State at the Home Office when he was Permanent Under-Secretary in that department.
One of the features of the debate has been an almost elegiac sense of the passing of one of the finest assets that this country has ever had. It is the British Civil Service and the concept of public service that has for so long been associated with it. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, referred to his ancestor, Cecil Spring-Rice, and I could not help recalling the words of the famous hymn that he wrote:I vow to thee, my country all earthly things aboveEntire and whole and perfect, the service of my love".1558 That is perhaps a Victorian way of putting the sentiment of devotion and loyalty by which so many civil servants in this country have been marked; but all of us recognise that something fundamental has changed. I must ask the question that was echoed in many speeches today: why is it that we in this country seem to destroy the very things that we do best and seem to be so reluctant to recognise that they have added greatly to our reputation?
It is difficult to deny that not only we in this country but others live in a time of great disillusionment and cynicism as regards the processes of government and the personalities of those engaged in it. Much of that cynicism is directed at Ministers and politicians, and not primarily at civil servants. We should be living in a world of astonishing complacency if we failed to recognise that several events during the past few years—from the Spycatcher case, which appeared to make the Government look obsessive, through the Matrix Churchill case, which appeared to make Ministers deceptive, to the Pergau Dam case, in which fortunately the beacon behaviour of a particular Permanent Secretary upheld the highest traditions of the civil service—have raised profound questions in the minds of our fellow citizens about the probity, efficiency and honour with which in the broadest sense governance is conducted today.
I wish to comment on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, in a most significant and impressive speech. It is the anxiety felt by many about the use of patronage to appoint people to quangos and executive agencies, and the great uncertainty about the lines of accountability from those quangos and executive agencies to Parliament and the wider public. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, referred reasonably tc the idea that quangos might have a useful role to perform provided that the highest standards of public conduct are maintained. I could not help asking myself why the chairman of the Welsh Development Agency, so heavily criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, was almost immediately after leaving that position appointed to be a governor of the BBC. It seems a strange way of recognising outstanding public service.
Perhaps I may raise three issues which have been mentioned extensively in the debate, each of which raises some very troubling questions. The first of those is the issue of ministerial accountability. Ministerial accountability to Parliament is the very linchpin of the unwritten British democratic system. Once ministerial accountability ceases to be clear, the whole of our structure begins to become shaky.
I echo the contribution of three other noble Lords in the debate who said that it was extremely troubling that in another place, the Home Secretary, on 10th January, in his reply to the right honourable Member for Berwick, attempted to distinguish between his responsibility for policy matters and his responsibility for operational matters in relation to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees—prison escapes.
That is a very dangerous fudge. Ministers are responsible for what goes on in their departments. That has been made clear repeatedly. It is not only troubling 1559 but it is a slippery slope away from the sense of responsibility which is so crucial to try to make that false distinction between operational and policy areas.
But it is possible to do that just because the creation of executive agencies has raised major ambiguities which remain unresolved. When we discuss, as we do, the issue of a code of conduct for civil servants, it is very important indeed that that code of conduct should reflect the responsibility of heads of executive agencies and deal with some of the particular issues in regard to their relationships with the public and who is responsible for them.
The second area of concern that has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords including the noble Lords, Lord Bridges and Lord Bancroft, affects the issue of appointment by merit—open promotion—which was referred to in the case of the director of the Prison Service. It is troubling when Ministers intervene in appointments, as seems to have occurred on that occasion. That would go a long way towards destroying the trust which is essential between the Civil Service and Ministers and potential Ministers which has been one of the great achievements of our Civil Service.
I have no objection to the idea of open advertisement for certain posts. Indeed, I believe that I was the first Secretary of State ever to appoint a senior official as a result of open advertisement—the appointment of the Director-General of Fair Trading. I see nothing wrong in that reform. But I believe that it must be quite clear who makes the appointments and that many of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, are crucial questions which deserve a full response.
The third area of concern affects the issue of objectivity and neutrality. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, will allow me to question that fundamental statement about the role of the Civil Service—what is sometimes called the Armstrong Memorandum, which was the work of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. The Armstrong Memorandum has become the basis of much that has been quoted in the White Paper and also in the accompanying paper from the First Division Association and the IPMS. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for not warning him that I should be raising this point but as I am winding up the debate, I did not know that I should be referring to it until a few moments ago.
The Armstrong Memorandum states:The Civil Service as such has no constitutional personality or responsibility separate from the duly constituted Government of the day".I recognise fully the outstanding intellectual abilities of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, but I am troubled as to whether it is the case that there is no responsibility other than that to the duly constituted government of the day, whatever they do. I am not referring to the present Government or any other particular government. But at present, we are entering into commitments to international treaties where our signature lies on them; for example, the European Convention on Human Rights. We are committed to upholding the rule of law. I wonder whether that statement deals with the possibility—and heaven knows, we live in a world 1560 where we have seen it happen!—that the government of the day might go beyond that for which it would be proper to have responsibility.
That is an issue which is raised particularly by the question of misleading Parliament, deceptive statements and any steps which Ministers may take which breach the rules of proper behaviour. We must address those matters, although we may not wish to do so, because we do not live in quite the world of homogeneous values in which we once lived.
I conclude by raising a few questions which I shall address to the noble Viscount. The first of those questions concerns the proposed code of conduct. How will that code of conduct deal with the period between leaving the Civil Service and taking up a job in an area which may be related to one's previous post in the case of those who are on fixed-term, renewable contracts? For example, if the Director-General of the Prison Service were to take up a post as a director of a private security agency, what is the period of time that would be required to elapse between those two positions? That is an extremely important question if we are to retain respect and belief in the probity of our public service.
The second question that I wish to raise is more minor but is not unimportant. Perhaps the noble Viscount will tell the House whether there is any common statistical base among the executive agencies of the Civil Service which will enable the monitoring of discrimination on both gender and racial grounds to be conducted properly because I understand that that is becoming increasingly difficult.
Finally and thirdly, I ask the Minister to give us a fuller statement about the proposal that there should be a right of appeal for civil servants to a body outside their direct senior officer. What is the Government's view about that at present? I apologise by speaking for one minute longer than I should do but I had been told that there was a minute in hand so that I trust that the government Chief Whip will not be too angry with me.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I start by joining in the congratulations offered to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for raising an issue which the House has clearly found important. Not only that, it has given rise to what has proved to be an extraordinary debate. There have been 17 speakers in the debate: six former permanent secretaries, three former Cabinet Ministers, two former very senior civil servants and one or two people like myself who, at one stage, was an incorporated civil servant, if that is the right way to put it.
It is interesting that consistent themes have run throughout the debate. With the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, nobody has spoken favourably about the Government's attitude. If I had to sum up the whole flavour of the debate in a sentence, it seems to me that there was intense pride in what we had in the form of the Civil Service, great unease as to what is now taking place, and considerable uncertainty as to what the future may bring. 1561 I believe that that is fair summary of the speeches that we have listened to during the past three hours. If that is right, the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, deserves more than the usual formal congratulations of the House for giving this subject an airing at this particular time. The noble Viscount the Leader of the House who is to reply to the debate has a formidable task before him in answering the queries which have been raised and in reassuring those noble Lords who have spoken.
One point of agreement that has emerged is the crucial importance of the British Civil Service to the proper working of our governance. Since the 1870s, that great national asset has been the permanent and impartial instrument of all administrations, guaranteeing constitutional and financial propriety. I know of no other Civil Service in a comparably-sized country in the world about which one could make such a proud claim with so much historical basis in fact and in accuracy. We must remember that the Civil Service numbers not only those who advise Ministers in Whitehall, but also the remainder—the overwhelming majority of the service of over half-a-million people—from departmental messengers to prison staff, from those who calculate social security benefits to official receivers, and indeed many others.
Our Civil Service has exemplified public administration founded upon principles of public service, impartiality, integrity, accountability and selection and promotion on merit. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am very happy to pay our tribute to the way in which those qualities in public service and public administration have been exemplified in the Civil Service.
When the Minister responds he will, no doubt, say much the same thing and promise that the Government will continue to stand by their principles in their dealings with those who administer the policies that they make. He may do so, but the whole tenor of the debate seemed to have been in the opposite direction. Recently, a group of senior civil servants expressed the following view:Civil servants have felt undervalued and beleaguered; cost-cutting and short-termism has often appeared to displace a rational approach to the improvement of the efficiency and effectiveness of the service".They concluded with the words, "Current morale is low". Once again, the Government's claims and the real experience of those affected by them do not precisely and entirely coincide.
After 15 years of a single party in government, there are some in the Civil Service who fear that the Civil Service may be perceived as the property of one party by those in charge. I believe that all the other issues only serve to reinforce that threat of loss of independence—the redundancies consequent upon efficiency drives, performance-related pay, the apparent greater politicisation of the higher grades, agency status and contracting out, and the lines now being drawn between the accountability of Ministers and of those under them. It is those matters which have led to what many believe to be an unprecedented loss of morale.
1562 No one quarrels with the need for increased efficiency—certainly, I do not—but that is an issue where good management skills must be applied. Low morale is in itself a major threat to increased efficiency; there is little point in cutting jobs and thereby saving money if the people who remain feel so threatened and under such pressure that they cannot work as well as they used to. Redundancies, or, perhaps, the threat of them, may make civil servants less willing to give unwelcome advice to their managers or to Ministers. Do we really want a Civil Service where it is those who keep their heads down who are the ones most likely to make progress? I think not.
Nearly 150 years ago, the Northcote-Trevelyan Report produced a blueprint for the modern unified politically impartial Civil Service which we now regard as the norm. The unity of the service was to be fostered by uniform methods of recruitment and systems of promotion across all departments. In 1968, the Fulton Report sought to reinforce that unity through shared methods of recruitment and shared structures for pay and grading. In 1987, the Government set out the advantages of service-wide pay and personnel management arrangements. They said that,staff can move easily between Departments and do any work for which their qualifications and experience suit them; machinery of government changes can be effected quickly and easily; Departments do not compete against each other for the same scarce skills.Government policy now seems to me to have abandoned that approach and with it many Civil Service pay agreements, some concluded as recently as 1992. Gone, apparently, is the idea of a single employer paying individuals on the same grade and doing the same job—albeit in different departments—the same amount of money. The new thinking seems to be that departments and agencies can pay the "market rate" which may apparently differ now from department to department. The Government's 1987 objections seem to have vanished. Perhaps the noble Viscount the Leader of the House can tell us why there has been such a change over the past six or seven years.
The fragmentation of unified pay structures has been accompanied by the introduction of performance-related pay. The practical experience of performance-related pay—at least, so far as concerns the Civil Service—is that it is both demoralising and ineffective. Many of the functions carried out by civil servants are in their nature difficult if not impossible to measure. Quite apart from that, the pay budgets of departments remain cash limited, so that they cannot afford staff who are performing well above the expected level. Indeed, one hears the rumour of a marked decrease in box markings for the year before performance-related pay was introduced to the year of introduction. It seems that staff are being given the message that their performance has suddenly declined, when in fact it has done nothing of the sort. But, of course, it is much cheaper to do it that way. There is no objective research to show that performance-related pay improves performance. I believe that it is time for the Government to commission an independent study themselves to find out what difference, if any, it has made. 1563 Finally, the role of the Civil Service is threatened by the drive to contract out as many services as possible—even those which verge on the judicial, such as the traffic commissioner, or those where most would agree it is for the state to take responsibility, such as the administration of justice or the incarceration of offenders. It seems as if almost nothing has been ruled out; not even the Serious Fraud Office, with the extensive powers of search, seizure and interview that that body possesses.
Clear issues of public service, confidentiality and impartiality are raised by contracting out. There are also very serious questions as to whether contracting out really does save any money. Indeed, actual payments often exceed the agreed operating costs. One should not ignore the fact that many companies to which matters are contracted are in business in order to make profits.
I should like to say a few words about agency status. I believe that the dangers involved have been exemplified recently by the numerous problems that we have had in the prison service. We are now told that the Minister with responsibility for prisons is responsible only for policy; the Prison Service Agency is responsible for operation. First, I should add that that is not a distinction that I entirely appreciate. I do not quite see how one can draw such clear lines between that which is a matter of policy and that which is a matter of operation. We are told that all the recent problems have been operational and that, therefore, the Minister does not have to accept criticism. But he can pass it on to the paid officials. That must be wrong.
Ministers cannot hide behind their civil servants; indeed, it would be very wrong if they were to try to do so. That is especially so when those officials are part of an agency. Lines cannot be conveniently drawn between policy and operation. For example, we await the report of Mr. Justice Scott into the arms to Iraq affair and the use of public interest immunity certificates. Ministers must not be allowed to carry out the same exercise in taking refuge behind their advisers. It must be clear: civil servants may advise, but Ministers take ultimate responsibility for what is done and for how it is done. It is a reflection of what has been happening recently that this now has to be said.
We cannot manage in this country without a Civil Service which is trusted by everyone and which feels itself to be valued and trusted by Ministers. We still believe that our Civil Service is among the best in the world. But, I close with the following question. Unless government attitudes change, how much longer will we be able to say that?
§ 7.28 p.m.
The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)
My Lords, I can certainly agree with almost everyone who has spoken this afternoon in saying that we have had a most interesting and important debate. I must say that I intervene now with some diffidence for many reasons, 1564 but mainly because I feel rather as I imagine a novice Freemason must feel when stumbling into the reunion dinner of the inner ring—
My Lords, nor would I.
We have had a short debate and I am sure that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not manage to answer every point that has been raised. However, I undertake to write to noble Lords if any points remain unanswered. Nevertheless I will do my best tonight.
On 13th July last the Government published a White Paper on the Civil Service entitled Continuity and Change and my noble friend Lord Wakeham repeated a Statement in your Lordships' House on that White Paper. Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Richard, during his remarks on that occasion said, among other things,our existing Civil Service … has an enviable reputation for certain qualities: its impartiality; its independence of advice, irrespective of who is in government and the nature of that government; its continuity; and, finally, its sheer professionalism".—0[Official Report, 13/7/94; col. 1833.]I was of course delighted to read those words, although I was not fortunate enough to hear them. They are a tribute to the enduring achievement of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, so often mentioned with approval this afternoon. If the noble Lord, Lord Richard, will allow me the impertinence, they encapsulate with his usual happy phraseology the Government's views of what are the essential qualities we should expect of the Civil Service. As he himself said during these exchanges, on that all sides of the House can agree.
However, certain allegations have been made by the inner ring this evening. I think they can be encapsulated in the use of the word "morale". I shall come back to that in a minute. I would say to my noble friend Lady Park in particular that it is interesting, during a time of change when morale will inevitably be at risk, that the number of people applying to the Civil Service has been consistently high. There has been an annual average in recent years of 10,000. I would underline that by saying that the figures for 1993 show that for the first time for a number of years the numbers successful in the fast stream entry exceeded the numbers the Civil Service was seeking.
I return to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and in particular to his remarks today. It cannot have escaped the noble Lord's notice that the world has changed a little since 1853. I hope it has not escaped the notice of the noble Lord, Lord Allen. Although I was a little more doubtful about this—if he will allow me to say so—I hope it has not escaped the notice of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. The pace of change, stimulated by an unprecedented technological revolution, has accelerated at a vertiginous rate over the past 20 years. Indeed it would perhaps be churlish not to recognise that the Labour Party, when it was in Government —that is now an awful long time ago as a number of your Lordships have observed—understood that change of this nature demanded a re-examination of the way the Government was administered. 1565 As long ago as 1968 the Fulton Report—on which commission the noble Lord, Lord Allen, was. such an ornament—recognised that we needed to introduce a more professional approach to management and more modern methods of recruitment and training. Your Lordships will remember that the Fulton recommendations led to the establishment of what is now the senior open structure, and the foundation of the Civil Service College which, I think your Lordships will agree, is one of the outstanding successes of recent reforms.
The technological revolution I referred to a moment ago has led to a revolution in management techniques. It tends to do so. It did so, after all, at the time of the first Industrial Revolution. In our case information technology in particular has given great power to the individual. It has enabled management to introduce, in the jargon, much flatter structures. It has made financial control a much more exact science. It has made administration more flexible and less hierarchical. Above all, perhaps, it has become essential for large organisations to institutionalise change while at the same time maintaining stability—an apparently paradoxical double objective which demands new attitudes of mind which I suspect both Northcote and Trevelyan would have found alien and at least as difficult as we do.
Having said that, I wholly accept the strictures of the noble Lords, Lord Bancroft and Lord Armstrong, and my noble friend Lady Park when they pointed out the dangers of permanent revolution. After all, I think it was Chairman Mao who advocated a state of permanent revolution—
in the wake—as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, also points out—of one of his intellectual predecessors, the late unlamented Leon Trotsky. Of course we are well aware that such a state of affairs failed. I think a state of permanent revolution is a profoundly un-Tory attitude, and certainly I would be the last to disagree with the idea that consolidation is as important as change and should certainly follow periods of radical change.
The world outside Whitehall is, nevertheless, being forced rapidly down this road that I have described. That is the world with which the Civil Service has to deal. I may risk —I am aware of this—the charge of impertinence when I say to the various distinguished former permanent under-secretaries who have spoken this evening, that the Civil Service would not with ease be able to deal with that outside world unless its organisation to some degree reflected the change that was happening on the outside. Indeed the outside could not respect and understand our public administration unless it functioned along something of the same lines.
I am told that the great Sir Humphrey Appleby—a man who I am sure really existed, although we are told by the BBC that he was merely a figment of its imagination—was keen on maintaining the art of public administration as a high priestly mystery. I have to suggest that this will not do in an age which puts a 1566 premium on openness and accountability. Therefore it is only sensible that the Government should have given such a high priority to the reform of public administration since 1979. I will not weary your Lordships—particularly in view of the relatively limited time available to me—with a full account of what has happened in the past 15 years, even if I had time to do so. However, it is perhaps worth highlighting some of the principal changes to illustrate why I believe that the reforms have a coherence which is entirely consistent with our aim of satisfying the demands of the age in which we live and at the same time living up to the aspirations of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms.
The Financial Management Initiative that was launched in 1982 set out to introduce a system which clarified management's responsibility for expenditure. That is a theme of management responsibility which has run through your Lordships' debate like a thread. I think it is important to realise that there are practical results to this initiative. Managers begin to see their objectives clearly. They have acquired a responsibility for making the best use of their resources and of course were given access to the training, information and expert advice which continuous change dictates must be constantly available. I am sure your Lordships will accept that it is no longer possible to rely solely on the training available at the beginning of a career if we are to be able to deliver the sort of quality of service we should rightly demand.
I would remind your Lordships that if the Financial Management Initiative was to work, it was equally important that the structures that provided government services should also be reorganised. The Government therefore commissioned an efficiency scrutiny which examined management across the spectrum of government undertakings. That scrutiny resulted in a report entitled Improving Management in Government: The Next Steps. Again that is a subject that has been much alluded to this evening. However, I must say that, listening to your Lordships this evening, I rather failed to recognise the series of reforms which were described by the Select Committee in another place as,the single most successful Civil Service reform programme of recent decades".I equally have to say that I find it difficult to disagree with that assessment. There are now 102 agencies in existence and 62 per cent. of all civil servants now work in agencies or other organisations working along Next Steps lines. They range in size from the Benefits Agency with 65,000 employees to Wilton Park—formerly, I believe, the responsibility of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill—with 32. Their occupations and activities are at least as diverse.
As my noble friend Lord Dean so rightly pointed out, the result has been greater clarity, devolved responsibility, better control of resources and proper and regular review, all of which is consistent with the objectives which the Government have set themselves.
I say to both my noble friend Lord Beloff, whose speech I listened to with my customary enjoyment, and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that the reforms are now beginning to produce results. I shall not weary your Lordships with endless examples, but to take just two, 1567 the Driving Standards Agency has reduced the waiting time for driving tests from 13 weeks in 1988 to less than six weeks today. Her Majesty's Stationery Office's new business supplies service can supply 4,000 items in a 48-hour service.
Of course reorganisation is a mechanical and important process, but it is not that alone which delivers results. The Citizen's Charter has by implication been dismissed with faint praise this afternoon. I remind your Lordships that it too demands openness. The second element of the revolution is competition. Openness and competition are the engines that drive the search for accountability to the consumer and for improved services. We forget that before the code of practice on access to government information and individual charters were issued it was much more difficult for the Queen's subjects to obtain information on which to base complaints, or indeed where to address them. One does not want to place too much weight on this argument, but to that extent an increase in the incidence of complaints may paradoxically be a sign of improvement rather than the reverse.
Equally, Competing for Quality—which covers the competitive element of the process I have just described—with its introduction of the private sector into the provision of public services, has also begun to yield dividends in terms of performance. I am sorry that none of your Lordships sought to acknowledge that this evening.
During the past two and a half years the annual cost savings that have been identified amount to well over £400 million, on average a saving of 20 per cent. on the £2,000 million of activities that have been reviewed so far. Incidentally, it is a tribute to the quality of the staff in the Civil Service that in the market testing part of the programme in-house teams have won 73 per cent. of the work by value.
All that has been important. However, the Government believe that there remains scope for further improvement in both efficiency and quality of service. We said so in last year's White Paper. We believe that further delegation was and is the key to achieving both objectives. It is for that reason that the White Paper proposed that departments should take greater responsibility for deciding their organisational structures, the pay of their staff and the best mix of efficiency measures to meet the never-ending pressure to raise standards and to control costs.
Departments and agencies are already beginning to implement the White Paper. Your Lordships have described some of the effects that that will have on the senior Civil Service. We hope and believe that these changes will develop a smaller, better paid and better motivated Civil Service and that as a result it will be equipped to maintain the standards and values which, it has been made plain this evening, are the very minimum that the country expects from its public administrators.
In that context it is worth my saying to the noble Lords, Lord Allen and Lord Bridges, that not only was the British Civil Service formerly respected throughout the world for its professionalism and integrity, but it is still respected. I also suggest to the noble Lords that it has acquired a further feather in its cap in its 1568 international reputation. It is clear that our Civil Service has gained a worldwide reputation as a leader in public service reform. We are helping many governments in that field, notably the South African Government, in the huge task which they face. Curiously enough, the United States is pursuing reforms which bear many similarities to our own, and we are also in close contact with the administration of that country.
Of course your Lordships are right to stress the implications of our reforms for the staff in the many departments which are affected. Noble Lords are right to say that we are witnessing dramatic changes. Of course change and uncertainty are very unsettling for people in the course of their careers. It is essential that we make every effort at our disposal to keep staff informed, to maintain morale and to enable them to adapt to the new demands upon them. I believe strongly that consistency is one of the most important elements. If what we say will happen does happen, then the credibility of the Government among those who serve them is less likely to suffer in a time of inevitable change.
The government White Paper of last summer invited comments from interested parties. Comments were received from 50 individuals and organisations, and the Government have considered those comments. However, the most important response was the very thorough report of the Select Committee published last November entitled The Role of the Civil Service. It was notable that the report's conclusion enjoyed the unanimous support of the committee.
I shall not go through those conclusions. However, the Government have now responded to the Select Committee report and to the other responses to the White Paper. The document, again rather catchily entitled Taking Forward Continuity and Change, accepts most of the Select Committee's conclusions. Underpinning the approach we intend to take is the importance we attach to maintaining values and standards.
We therefore acknowledge that the committee's proposed Civil Service code should apply across the Civil Service. Although the Government have amended the committee's draft code slightly, they admire the original draft and intend to use its amended version as a basis for further consultation.
A number of noble Lords asked me detailed questions about the code. I have very much a weather eye on the clock. I hope that your Lordships will allow me merely to observe that the debate has been listened to and will be read with the keenest of interest and I am sure will form an important part of the consultation process. I am delighted that so many noble Lords, notably the noble Lords, Lord Barnett, Lord Croham, Lord Merlyn-Rees and Lord Bancroft, among others, welcomed the part of the report which recommends a Civil Service code.
We have also accepted the Committee's other recommendations. For example, there will be a new line of appeal to the Civil Service Commissioners for alleged breaches of the code or on issues of conscience. To emphasise and reinforce the well-established independence of the Commissioners, as your Lordships have observed, the first Civil Service Commissioner will in future be a Crown appointee. I have noted the 1569 reservations of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, about that decision and the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, and others on the subject. I hope that noble Lords will allow me to write to them in view of the pressure on time.
The same applies in relation to the important matter of accountability. On the issue of accountability I shall merely say that it is important to draw a distinction when responsibilities are discussed. However, I emphasise that in the end Ministers are responsible. If my right honourable friend the Home Secretary had devolved responsibility for events in the prison service, I doubt whether he would have been given such a grilling as he was in another place. He was rightly willing and able to answer.
This has been a short debate on an important subject, and I believe that the House should be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen, for introducing it. I hope that we shall return to the question at regular intervals, particularly as I know that those who are responsible for these matters, both Ministers and civil servants, will pay close attention to the views that your Lordships have expressed. I hope that noble Lords, especially the noble Lord, Lord Croham, will accept that the Government cling firmly to the Northcote-Trevelyan principles. As the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, observed, they are indeed eternal verities. Nevertheless we shall seek to maintain them in a way which reflects the opportunities with which today's social and technological change has presented us.
The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said that we should look at the subject in the long term. If all the mainstream political parties can achieve a degree of consensus on the way in which the Government's administrative machinery should work, between us we should have made an immeasurable contribution to the future stability of the country and, indeed, towards increasing the British people's respect for our national institutions.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Lord Allen of Abbeydale
My Lords, I have a few minutes available to me, but I do not propose to prolong what has been a fascinating debate. I should like to thank all those who have taken part. I still believe that the debate ought to have taken place in government time. The noble Viscount referred to the Statement which the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, made last July. He will have noted that the noble Lord went pretty far in agreeing that the Government might provide time for a debate; but there it is. We have had to take up three hours of our Cross-Bench allocation.
I made it quite clear at the beginning—and I think all who have spoken made it clear—that there is no objection to change and that we all recognise that time marches on. For my part, I shall read carefully what the noble Viscount says. But I note with pleasure his undertaking that he and his colleagues, and those who advise them, will also read carefully what has been said. The thoughts which have been expressed from all sides of the House require careful consideration.
1570 I shall not pick out more than a few points for special mention, and I shall do that briefly. The first is the fear which some of us have about the long term impact on recruitment, notwithstanding the figures which the noble Viscount quoted, at a time of high unemployment. Secondly, there is continued uneasiness about the distinction between policy and operations. I am not sure that the remarks of the noble Viscount are entirely satisfying. Thirdly, although it is comforting to note that one does not wait so long now for a driving test, there is a much more important issue underlying the debate: the question of ministerial responsibility for matters which are being dealt with more and more remotely from the centre.
I note what the noble Viscount said about writing to cover the points with which he has not dealt in his speech. I was surprised at two omissions. First, he made no comment on the point that I raised—the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, pursued it with much greater eloquence—on the restrictions on the short-term agency chiefs taking up employment when they leave. Can the head of the Prison Service take up a role with Group 4 when his contract expires? I believe that that is an important point. Secondly, we have still been left with no word whatsoever about the Diplomatic Service. No doubt we shall be told the answers in the letters that we shall receive. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion, for Papers, by leave withdrawn.