HL Deb 15 October 1998 vol 593 cc1043-5

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have been consulted about the rearrangement of the examination for entry to the European Union civil service which was declared to be invalid owing to serious irregularities.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the institutions of the European Union are responsible for making their own arrangements for recruitment of staff. The Government would not expect to be consulted on the matter. However, we have received a number of representations regarding the conduct of the competition and have conveyed these concerns to the Commission.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that reply. Does he agree that that episode must be most disappointing for the candidates, who must now wait several more months, and must also be expensive for the EU? As the United Kingdom has valuable experience and a good reputation for public examinations, a tradition of the old Civil Service Commission, are the Government nevertheless in a position to help to avoid another fiasco of that kind?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree that the effective postponement of the first stage of the examination will be very disappointing for the candidates involved. I agree that we have expertise that we can bring to bear in relation to it. However, at the end of the day, it is a matter for the European Commission, which is responsible for setting the terms of the examinations. In the long term, we believe that the recruitment system requires reform. We shall press that point at every level. We understand that the Commission has a number of working groups at present, including one chaired by Sir David Williamson, its former secretary-general and himself a former UK civil servant, looking at the whole question of the Commission in the future. However, allowances must be made for cultural differences and the understandably strong preponderance of continental tradition within the Commission. Change is not likely to happen overnight.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord telling the House that the Commission is its own master in those matters, responsible to no one except itself? As I understand it, from what I have been told by Ministers who have spoken from the Front Bench, the Commission is ultimately responsible to the Council of Ministers. Will the noble and learned Lord confirm that that is still the case and that the Commission cannot do exactly what it pleases regardless of any other national or even personal sentiments on the part of the citizens of Europe?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the noble Lord is indeed right. The Commission is responsible to the Council of Ministers. The point that I was ineptly seeking to make was that it is not for the British Civil Service to decide how those appointments are to be made. Those decisions are for the Commission, subject to the Council of Ministers.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the reason that the situation came so quickly to public attention was the role of the European Parliament, which exposed it two days after it happened, summoned the appropriate Commissioner to come to the European Parliament, and has made a satisfactory resolution of that problem a condition of the discharge for 1998?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am not sure of the precise timing. I know that the matter was raised before the European Parliament at an early stage and very quickly thereafter it was agreed by the Commission that the first stage of the competition would be scrapped. The press also had a role to play in bringing the matter to the attention of the European Parliament.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, recognising that this was a disappointing and chaotic exercise, is the Minister yet satisfied that enough British recruits have presented themselves for examination and entry to the European Commission given the very large shortfall of British applicants and recruits that we have suffered in recent years?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we are disappointed by the number of British people who apply for those jobs. The Cabinet Office in particular takes steps to try to ensure that those people who may be considering applying know all the details of the jobs available. But we still believe that the figures are too low and we are doing as much as we can to try to increase the percentage of British applicants so that more British people take up jobs.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that it is intended that those examinations should take place only every five years? Without revealing any confidential information, can he tell us what were the nature of those irregularities?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I understand that the Commission decided to cancel this particular first stage when strong evidence was presented that the questions had been leaked in advance. Separately, there were allegations, which have not been made out, of inadequate invigilation procedures such as people bringing in personal organisers and people arriving with mobile phones and going to the lavatory for long periods of time. But none of those allegations, which were reported widely in the press, has yet been made out. As regards the point about five years, I understand that the examinations normally take place every five years but the Commission will not wait another five years before the first stage is re-run. It is expected, although I cannot give a date, that they will be re-run in the early part of next year.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it may not be surprising that British applicants are not encouraged to apply for posts in the European Commission in view of the permanent tone of Euro-scepticism in the press and in some political parties? Therefore, people may not feel that they are batting for Britain by working for the Commission, and it is that which we need to change.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I hope that press articles and the views of certain political parties do not deter people from applying for what are extremely worthwhile jobs in the European Commission. The more people that apply, the better from our point of view.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I believe I am right in saying that the continental system requires sponsorship in such applications. That is not something that is practised in this country but is normal abroad. Is that one of the difficulties which make it harder for British entrants to be considered?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I would be surprised if applicants needed sponsorship but I do not know the answer to the question. Perhaps I can write to the noble Baroness.

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