HL Deb 01 April 1996 vol 571 cc4-7

2.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking in the light of the rejection by this House of their plans for the privatisation of the system for recruitment to the Civil Service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe)

My Lords, the Government are still considering their response to the opinions expressed by the House on this matter. We have also noted the recommendation that a Select Committee on the public service be established which might consider as its first report the Government's plan for the future of Recruitment and Assessment Services.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can he say when we are likely to hear what the Government's decision is, given the clear view of this House as expressed and related in the Question?

Earl Howe

My Lords, at the conclusion of our debate on 8th March, my noble friend the Leader of the House gave an assurance that the Government would come back to the House once our conclusions on the way forward are finalised. As my noble friend will understand, they are important and complex issues to which we shall need to give full and careful consideration. That process is still continuing. Clearly, we hope to report to the House as soon as we can.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the Minister will recall the debate on 8th March; he took part in it and I listened to it. Can he go this far and say that, until the Select Committee has reported on this aspect of the public service—I understand that the committee is to be set up shortly and this is to be the first matter that it will consider—the Government will take no further action towards the privatisation of the service?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I note carefully the suggestion of the noble Lord. It is one that we shall consider in preparing our response to your Lordships.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there are two distinct issues in this Question: onė is the merits of privatising the selection of the Civil Service, with which some of us may well have sympathy; the other, which some of us see as far more important, is that no temporary government should have the right unilaterally to interfere with the selection of the Civil Service?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord will recall from the debate that selection for the Civil Service will remain with the Civil Service Commissioners. That was one of the central points that I stressed in the debate. The Government's proposals for RAS do not have any bearing on the noble Lord's anxieties.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that it would be slightly surprising were we to appoint a Select Committee of this House to consider this issue without receiving an undertaking from the noble Earl that the Government will not announce their final decision on the matter until the committee has made its recommendation to the House?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I note the anxiety expressed on that score. Clearly it is one that we shall need to bear in mind.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, whatever changes may be considered within the structure of the Civil Service, can the Minister say that, before they are finalised, all staff associations involved will be consulted?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the staff of RAS and the staff associations are being kept fully informed of progress as we go along.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, when is the report of the Liaison Committee likely to be considered by this House?

Earl Howe

My Lords, unfortunately I am not in a position to say. We hope that the Select Committee will be established very soon. I understand that, if it is, its terms of reference are likely to be approved tomorrow. Its membership should then follow on from that in a week or two. It will be for members of the committee to decide what their programme of work should be.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is understood that he may be inhibited from giving any formal undertaking, but that, pending the report of the Select Committee, it would be desirable that there should be a moratorium? It would be inconsistent with the setting up of such a committee that any further positive action should be taken.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I can only repeat to him that this is clearly a concern which we shall need to take fully into account.

Lord Bancroft

My Lords, simply for the avoidance of doubt and as a superfluous postscript to the many questions that have been asked on this subject, perhaps I may ask the noble Earl whether, in addition to postponing action until after the Select Committee has made its interim report, any action will be postponed until after this House has had an opportunity to debate that report.

Earl Howe: My Lords, a further debate on the future of RAS is a matter for the usual channels, but I note the noble Lord's suggestion.

Lord Hayhoe

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those of us who know the Civil Service well—I had some responsibility for it both as a Minister in the Civil Service Department and in the Treasury—and who were very concerned when they first learnt of this privatisation proposal would welcome the careful consideration which a Select Committee would give to it? Certainly, speaking for myself, I hope that at the end of the day this proposal will be dropped.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am only too well aware that on 8th March I was in a minority of—I shall say no more than a very small minority. So my noble friend's opinion does not altogether surprise me. However, I am sure that your Lordships will accept that the Government will give careful consideration to this matter in the light of the opinion expressed by your Lordships. We shall hope to report to the House as soon as we can.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, for the record, the Minister was in a minority of one on that occasion.

Noble Lords


Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I beg the noble Earl's pardon. At whatever time the Government come back to fulfil the undertaking given by the Leader of the House on 8th March, will the Minister give an assurance that it will not be in the non-debatable form of a Written Answer or an answer to an Unstarred Question but in a form which enables the House not only to debate the matter but to express a view on it?

Earl Howe

My Lords, no decisions have been taken. I note the noble Lord's wish. Whether we have a further debate is, of course, something for the usual channels to decide.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Molloy asked about consultation with the staff representatives but the Minister referred to information being given to them. Can he give an undertaking that there will be genuine consultation?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Civil Service, as a customer of RAS, has been consulted all along because clearly it is the one which needs to ensure that the contract with a privatised body, should this occur, is satisfactory. However, following the Government's decision, I can reassure the noble Baroness that staff have been kept informed of progress through regular staff meetings, information bulletins and things of that kind. The acting chief executive and senior managers will work closely with the Cabinet Office to ensure that the sale is presented in the most favourable light possible.