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Column 548Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Pike, Peter L
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Prescott, Rt Hon John
Quin, Ms Joyce
Reid, Dr John
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Roche, Mrs Barbara
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Column 548Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Strang, Dr. Gavin
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Wright, Dr Tony
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Eric Clarke and Mr. Joe Benton.
Column 548Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill read the Third time, and passed.
[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Treasury and Civil Service Committee of Session 1993-94, on the Role of the Civil Service (House of Commons Paper No. 27), and The Civil Service: Taking Forward Continuity and Change (Cm 2748), containing the Government's observations thereon.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Willetts.]
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. David Hunt): "The British Civil Service is a great national asset. Since the 1870s, it has been the permanent and impartial instrument of all administrations. Governments have always seen it as their duty to preserve its efficiency and honesty for their successors." Those are not only my views; those are the words of the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service in November's report. That report demonstrated the strength of the consensus between the Government and the Select Committee. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) and their colleagues on having produced such a valuable report.
The civil service plays a vital part in underpinning the constitution and in sustaining good government in this country. It always has, and it always will. The important challenge facing us all is to retain and strengthen the traditional principles that have made the Westminster model the envy of the world--independence, impartiality, integrity, objectivity, and permanence-- while at the same time making the changes necessary to bring our system into the 21st century.
That will require a combination of continuity and change. That is why, eight months ago, my predecessor published the White Paper, "The Civil Service: Continuity and Change", which was the first Government document since the Fulton report, more than 25 years ago, to address the role and future of the civil service as a whole. It built on ideas stretching back to the great Victorian reformers, Northcote and Trevelyan. The emphasis on accountable management and on developing the professional skills of civil servants can be found in Fulton, and has been carried forward strongly through the initiatives of the Government since 1979.
Those twin themes--continuity and change--reflect the need for continuity in the long-standing traditions of the civil service, and also the need for the service, like other large organisations, to change in order to improve performance. In the White Paper, the Government strongly reaffirmed their commitment to the established values of the service, which include--as well as integrity and political impartiality--recruitment through fair and open competition, selection and promotion on merit, and accountability through Ministers to Parliament.
The Treasury and Civil Service Committee said of those values: "They are as important today as in the last century; their importance should not diminish in the next . . . These values reflect rather than inhibit the jobs to be done. They are relevant to civil servants serving the public as well as to those serving Ministers directly. They can and should act as a unifying force for the whole Civil Service."
The Government's further Command Paper, published in January this year, "Taking Forward Continuity and Change", accepted most of the Treasury and Civil Service
Column 550Committee's conclusions and recommendations, in particular the Committee's proposals for a new civil service code and for a new independent avenue of appeal to the civil service commissioners. With Her Majesty's approval, the appointment of Michael Bett as the new First Civil Service Commissioner was announced last week, following open competition. I had my first formal meeting with him earlier today, and he will oversee the enhanced responsibilities of the commissioners for interpreting the principles of fair and open competition for all civil service recruitment.
The commissioners will publish a recruitment code for Departments and agencies, and will audit their performance against it, and will approve all appointments from outside to the senior civil service. The First Civil Service Commissioner will attend the senior appointments selection committee, which is chaired by the head of the home civil service. He will be able to comment on senior selection processes in the commissioners' annual report.
The Government are now consulting civil servants and the civil service unions on the code. We shall also take into account any further comments from the Select Committee, and we will of course listen carefully to all contributions made in the debate. Legislation is not necessary to introduce the code or the new functions of the civil service commissioners. Action under the prerogative can include implementation of the code once consultation is complete, and the new role of the commissioners can be created through a revised Order in Council. But any such action would be without prejudice to the possibility of legislation thereafter. I make it absolutely clear that the Government have an open mind about legislation. We set out our views in "Taking Forward Continuity and Change", but it may be worth amplifying them for the benefit of the House.
Legislation, as the Select Committee itself acknowledged, would need to be narrowly based. It would cover the powers of the civil service commissioners concerning selection for appointment to the home civil service and the diplomatic service, their powers to investigate complaints arising from the civil service code, and their power to report to Parliament on the number, nature, and outcome of complaints put to them.
Such legislation would also cover the powers of the Minister responsible for the civil service, in respect of terms and conditions in the home civil service--and, of course, the corresponding powers of the Foreign Secretary- -and would introduce a new power for the Minister to issue the civil service code. If the code had already been issued the legislation would confirm it. Legislation would also include a power to make orders to amend it, which would be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament.
I am, however, very cautious about opening up the possibility of change in the constitutional position of the civil service. The Government would consider the introduction of a Bill only if we were satisfied that the proposed legislation would sustain the existing constitutional position, retain the flexibility of existing arrangements for regulating the terms and conditions of civil servants, and preserve the current position of civil servants under general employment law.
I would also want to be satisfied that such legislation would be supported in all parts of the House. As the hon. Member for Durham, North will know, I have already
Column 551invited Opposition parties to take part in discussions, and I hope that in the debate we shall be able to explore some of the important issues that lie before us.
The values of the civil service are vital, not only in a constitutional sense but to ensure that all our citizens are treated equitably under the law. The integrity and objectivity of the service help to ensure that the right decisions are taken, and that those decisions are implemented honestly and without wasting taxpayers' money. Selection and promotion on merit are crucial principles in support of any effective organisation. The values of the civil service go hand in hand with effectiveness and efficiency. It is the Government's duty to obtain the best possible value for every penny of public money handled through the civil service. That means sustaining the traditional values but also adopting new best-practice techniques to help to increase the quality of service to the citizen, and the efficiency of that service.
Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington): I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend at this early stage in his speech, but he has already said how important it would be to ensure that any legislation did not change the constitutional position of the civil service. He then described the characteristics and merits of our civil service, which are indeed terrific. May I ask him, for the benefit of the House, how he defines the constitutional position of the civil service? Even after taking part in the preparation of the Select Committee report, I am still slightly unclear about that. What is the Government's view?
Mr. Hunt: I had hoped that, for the benefit of my hon. Friend and others, I had set that out in the earlier part of my speech. The constitutional position of the civil service rests on the traditional principles of independence--that is fundamental--impartiality, integrity and honesty, selection and promotion on merit, and permanence. The constitutional position is reflected in those key principles. I said that I welcomed what the Select Committee had said, so clearly I share the view that it is vital that the traditional principles be preserved.
A possible change to the constitutional position comes whenever legislation is proposed in this House, because it is open to hon. Members on both sides of the House to propose amendments. One can envisage a situation in which some of those amendments might have a fundamental effect on the constitutional position that I have set out.
That is my concern, but some of those fears may be put to rest during our discussions with Opposition parties. Widespread consultation can provide one with a feel for the way in which the House, the civil servants and the unions wish to proceed. One can make a judgment about whether any legislation would affect the constitutional position.
Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool): Would not the values, traditions, independence and integrity of the civil service have been more effectively upheld if the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner had gone to somebody from the civil service who was steeped in the service's traditions and ethos, rather than to somebody from the private sector, whose qualifications seem to be a string of public and quango appointments in the gift of the Government, together with his long-standing support for the Conservative party?