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10.5 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I had intended to say, “We have had an excellent debate,” but we have not got that far. We heard a good opening salvo from the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). As he knows, I proposed a similar measure in 2004 as part of my Civil Service Bill. I should point out that when the prohibition was put in place in 1700, the civil service was very different, with a much narrower focus, and the world was completely different in many ways. Obviously, the Commonwealth and the EU had not been thought of, even distantly; they were not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Given the narrow focus of the civil service in those days, the prohibitions were probably justifiable; world conditions were very different. Over the years, there have been amendments to the provisions but, again, the conditions in which those amendments were made were very different from conditions today.

The European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 1991 was the most recent major change. It allowed nationals of the European Community and their spouses and children to take up specific civil employment jobs. In 1996, an amendment was made to the civil service management code to place restrictions on Commonwealth and Irish nationals, so that they could not be employed in posts reserved for UK nationals. That put Commonwealth and Irish nationals in the same position as nationals of other member states of the European economic area. The outcome of the developments that I have just outlined is that foreign nationals can be employed abroad under the Crown in civil posts, if it is considered appropriate. In the UK, non-reserved posts are limited to Commonwealth citizens, British-protected persons and nationals of EEA member states.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Would the hon. Gentleman like to hazard a guess on what the legal position might be of a Commonwealth citizen employed in the civil service, if his home country were suspended from, or chose to leave, the Commonwealth? Would his service contract be annulled? Would his employer be committing a criminal offence?

Mr. Heald: That raises an important question, because obviously at the time when the contract was concluded, the person met all the contract’s requirements. The hon. Gentleman is right that if the underpinning statutory basis for the person’s employment had gone—in other words, if he was no longer a Commonwealth citizen—it is arguable that he might lose his job. That sort of case probably does not come up often, although it could do. For example, the issue of whether Zimbabwe should be suspended from the Commonwealth has been discussed. Of course, many citizens of Zimbabwe live in the United Kingdom, and could take up the opportunity that we are talking about. The issue is a real concern. When the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) responds to the debate, he may wish to help us with that, because, personally, I have not found the answer. He is nodding, so I believe that he will consider that in detail.

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Mr. Greg Knight: Is it not sadly the case today that British citizenship is no guarantee of loyalty to the Crown? The perpetrators of 7/7, for example, were all UK citizens.

Mr. Heald: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. When the provisions were put in place, it was assumed as a matter of course that a British UK national would be loyal to the Crown, and that one could rely on that loyalty. That underpinned the measure, and it was not necessary to go beyond that. These days, the civil service management code expressly states that there is a contractual loyalty to the Crown. That requirement is imposed on civil servants, so extra protection is provided by an enforceable duty. It should not be a matter of legal nicety that British citizens should owe a duty to the Crown. After all, this is an important, free, democratic society, and it is a beacon to the world. In the 1980s, when countries to the east were looking to the west, the UK was very much seen as beacon of hope in terms of personal freedom and other freedoms such as economic freedom. One of the best things to have happened in our political lifetime is the fact that countries under the Soviet thrall are now free countries with their own democratic tradition, and are part of the EU. That is a good step forward.

When I introduced my Civil Service Bill, I wanted to provide an encompassing measure that explained what a civil servant was; that put the civil service code defining the role of the civil servant into law and made it a statutory requirement; and explained the roles of Ministers, civil servants and special advisers more clearly. We still need to do that. The hon. Member for Hendon may say that that is a much broader measure and that he wants to pursue one particular aspect but, in fact, it is all part of the same overall set of issues, which are important to our country. If we are looking at the role of a civil servant and who can be employed in the civil service, it is a bit odd to look at one issue, rather than at the whole picture. Notably, the Public Administration Committee thought that a larger measure was needed, which is why I introduced my Bill.

Something else that has changed since I introduced my Bill is the fact that the categories of reserved post that can be undertaken only by UK citizens have been altered, and the number of such posts reduced. That is why 95 per cent. of the posts are available more generally, rather than 90 per cent. My late right hon. Friend, Eric Forth, always opposed the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, because he thought that if someone wanted to come and live in this country and work in the civil service, they should follow a particular route. He said that foreign nationals desperate to work in the civil service could

The Bill would affect those who want to work under the Crown overseas, but in the UK, as the hon. Member for Hendon said, it is unreasonable to say that
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a citizen of Mozambique can work in the civil service but an American, for example, cannot do so. If an American is married to a British citizen they are not allowed to undertake such work, but someone from Mozambique can do so. Such distinctions applied to equally worthy individuals are very much a case of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Although my late right hon. Friend had a point, if we look at the reality of the Bill, we can see that it offers opportunities that are widely available in the EU and the Commonwealth. To add Americans, for example, to the list of eligible citizens is not a huge change.

Mr. Greg Knight: For the sake of accuracy, does my hon. Friend not acknowledge that part of the reason our late friend, Eric Forth, opposed the Bill had nothing whatsoever to do with its contents? As it was introduced by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), he took the view that the assassin of many other Bills should have a taste of his own medicine.

Mr. Heald: Yes. It is true, too, as the hon. Member for Hendon said, that the first time that he introduced the measure, it was competing with my Bill. Our late right hon. Friend was not a fan of my Bill, either, but he thought that if one Bill was going to fall, it should not be mine but the hon. Gentleman’s. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: a certain animus was involved, although no doubt there was admiration as well.

The Opposition believe that the hon. Gentleman’s measure deserves a Second Reading. Some of my colleagues would certainly like to raise issues about its details, but the Front-Bench team support Second Reading.

10.17 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on his persistence on this important matter? The anomalies that he identified justify the changes that he proposes. The purpose of my contribution is merely to clarify a number of points, not unlike the purpose of the observations from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). The intervention that he accepted from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) illustrates the nature of matters that I should gently like to pursue with my hon. Friend.

When I read the explanatory notes to the Bill and listened to the informative history lesson of rights in the civil service from 1700 onwards, I was slightly amused as I wondered about the historical position of the Welsh. I presume that at that time they were counted as being part of England, and as my hon. Friend’s Bill rightly refers to

it neatly closes any doubts about the rights of the Welsh to become civil servants. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred to our good friend the late Eric Forth, who was a consummate parliamentarian. He worked both for and against measures on which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon worked on Fridays, and he was a great advocate of the Friday process, for which we respected
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him. I shall not seek to emulate his oratory on the details, but I should like to pursue one of the themes that he raised. Clause 2 may provide the answer to the intervention by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. Subsections (1) to (4) refer to rules that may be made. I presume that if the rules were made, they would deal with the kind of detail that concerned the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

Mr. Heath: For the sake of clarity, I should point out that I was suggesting that there is an anomaly in the current rules, which would be extinguished if the Bill made progress.

Andrew Miller: Indeed, provided that the rules are appropriately worded.

I am interested in how the rules would work in practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon may wish to intervene on me or explain when he winds up the debate. The Government may also wish to reflect on the matter. The word “may” is extremely important. This, I promise the House, is the very short version of what Eric might have spoken about for an hour without being caught by the Speaker for repetition, hesitation or deviation. The loophole that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and everyone else wants closed requires the rules to be established, so the House would expect the Government to make rules that create equality among people who could legitimately aspire to be civil servants, in the spirit of the opening speech from my hon. Friend and the response from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire on behalf of the official Opposition.

The Bill enables the Government to take the necessary steps, but I assume that my hon. Friend and the House expect them to do so, in order to close the loopholes that have been identified and remove other anomalies that may have crept into the current rules as a result of the contradiction between national and European law. My hon. Friend has done the House a service, and we should welcome his efforts. I earnestly hope that the Bill will progress through its next stages, and that my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify the Government’s intention to remove the current anomalies within the framework of this excellent Bill.

10.24 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on yet again having the opportunity to present the measure and on speaking to it in such brief terms—quite out of the usual for his Friday morning contributions, but he covered the ground perfectly adequately and his intentions are clear to all of us.

I shall refer briefly to the Civil Service Bill mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). We are still in desperate need of a proper civil service Bill. It is extraordinary that the Government have not yet seen fit to table one. The hon. Gentleman’s was a valiant attempt as a private Member’s Bill, but the matter needs to be addressed by Government. I hope that the Minister, whom I warmly welcome to her new responsibilities and congratulate on her appointment, and her
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colleagues in the Cabinet Office will see such a Bill as the first priority for the newly convened Office. I hope that they will recognise the necessity for legislation in the next Session in order to regularise the position of the civil service.

Mr. Heald: I apologise. May I join in the welcome to the hon. Lady, who will make a tremendous addition to the Cabinet Office team?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have promised a civil service Act since about 1997, yet somehow it never seems to happen?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. I must be careful not to divert my attention from the Bill, but his comments are relevant because such an Act would undoubtedly contain the measure before us, were it to have been drafted before the passage—as I hope it will be—of the Bill. We must wait for events.

The present situation is self-evidently an anomaly. I would have some sympathy with those who might oppose the Bill if the position was that only British citizens were allowed to hold posts in the civil service. That would be an understandable, though not an entirely reasonable or correct, position. I would even understand it if the regulations specified British or Commonwealth citizens, on the basis that at least there would be a shared stated loyalty to the Crown. All citizens of the Commonwealth share our monarch as their head of state.

However, it is beyond the limits of common sense that the rules extend the right to be employed in the civil service to citizens of the European economic area, who cannot be said to have any loyalty to our Crown, although I understand the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire about pooled sovereignty, and to citizens of the Irish Republic, even before the accession of our country or theirs to the European Union. Let us recall that citizens of the Irish Republic have deliberately forsworn loyalty to the Crown and will make that abundantly clear, and properly so, in the context of their republic.

As we know from the latest regulations, the rules also allow people who fall into neither of those categories but are married to or in a familial relationship with a person who is a citizen of the European economic area to be considered for employment under the Crown. The test of loyalty to the Crown has not the slightest relevance to those people, so the present situation is nonsense. I share the view of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that the question of loyalty is a question of contract—of the terms of employment of the Crown. That is what ought to matter, plus suitability for the post—the merit of the case.

The hon. Member for Hendon did not make the point, but it is worth making in debate, that the Bill removes none of the conditions or obligations for entry to the country, work permits or leave to remain. All that regulation remains in place, so we are not talking about people emerging out of nowhere to be civil servants in this country. We are talking about people who have a legitimate reason to be here, have legitimised their presence in this country and are available to work in any capacity other than as an employee of the Crown.

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The Bill has great merit. I do not know why we have to decide that Mozambique is the exemplar of a Commonwealth country. I suppose that it is because it is the most recent one and because it does not share a history with the United Kingdom, being a former Portuguese possession, but it is a welcome entrant to the Commonwealth nevertheless. But the idea that a Mozambiquan and not a Montanan can be a member of the civil service does not make a great deal of sense to anyone who considers the matter for even 30 seconds.

I hope that the Bill will make progress. If the hon. Member for Hendon can enlighten me on the vexed question that I asked in an intervention on the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire as to the employment status and circumstances of a person who had been a Commonwealth citizen but was no longer one because his country was no longer a part of the Commonwealth, I would be interested—

Mr. Heald rose—

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman has thought of an answer.

Mr. Heald: No, I have not, but the point may go a little wider than the hon. Gentleman says. If, for example, someone were to lose their status for any other reason, the same issue would arise. For example, what would be the legal implications if someone who had had UK nationality lost it for whatever reason or changed it, having at the time when they took the employment had the correct nationality? The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) may have researched that, but it is an important point.

Mr. Heath: I share the view that it is an important point. There is a distinction between something that is essentially ad hominem—that somebody has chosen to relinquish their previous citizenship or has had it removed for a reason that is specific to that person—and the fact that a person’s country has ceased to be a member of the club that we call the Commonwealth, either by virtue of a decision of the rest of the Commonwealth or a decision of the Government of that country. Of course, that has happened—we have had examples of countries either leaving the Commonwealth or having their membership suspended. Therefore, it is not an entirely frivolous example. Whether the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote was suspended when their country was suspended from the Commonwealth was a question that I put in the context of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, but answer came there none from the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We wait to see whether the Minister has a briefing so compendious that it encompasses that point, but given that this is her first day in her new job, I do not expect her necessarily to have the answer in her head.

What I have said is sufficient to show that I support the Bill, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to do the same this morning. I hope that it makes progress so that we can clear up a small but significant anomaly.

10.33 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on introducing the Bill.
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This is his fifth attempt. As hon. Members know, he is something of an expert on private Members’ Bills and this Bill is testament to his skill and tenacity.

It is an honour for me to reply to the debate today—my first morning as the new Minister with responsibility for the civil service—and I thank hon. Members for their kind comments of welcome, which are much appreciated. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), for his excellent work in this regard, which I know was appreciated both inside and outside the House.

In the spirit of unanimity that we have found this morning, I am delighted to confirm that the Government support the Bill. It represents some sensible legislative tidying up to bring civil employment under the Crown, and in particular the civil service, in line with legislation applying to other employers, thereby enabling job opportunities to be offered to all who have the right to live and work in this country.

Mr. Greg Knight: I, too, congratulate the Minister on her new post. I think I can say on behalf of the Opposition that she will be missed in transport debates.

When was there last a prosecution under the present law of someone being so employed who should not have been so employed?

Gillian Merron: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his characteristically generous and warm comments, and I shall be happy to write to him with an answer on that point.

The rules governing eligibility for employment in the civil service on nationality grounds are complex and time consuming to administer, and as Britain changes as a country they look increasingly out of place. Any country, including our own, will want to put national security at the forefront when considering who is eligible for employment in sensitive posts. But the question before us, and the matter with which the Bill skilfully deals, is whether the rules as they stand on eligibility for employment in the civil service generally give us a system that does this essential task and enables the civil service to draw on the widest possible pool of talent, which I am keen to see.

Businesses in the United Kingdom economy benefit from the energy, creativity and talent of people of many nationalities who contribute enormously to our economic well-being and national prosperity. The Bill’s intention is to ensure that our civil service can do the same, while keeping in place essential protection for posts of a sensitive security or diplomatic nature.

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