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Earl Howe: My Lords, I very much respect what the noble Lord says. He has wide experience of these matters. We look to privatisation to provide a better service with better value for the taxpayer, consistent with the overall aim of recruiting the right people. There is enormous expertise in RAS in terms of graduate recruitment, as the noble Lord indicated, but recruitment to the fast stream of the Civil Service represents only about one-third of its business. By making that expertise available to the private sector, which RAS cannot do at the moment, we have the prospect of a broader-based business with lower unit costs and better value for customers.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does the proposal mean that what used to be the Civil Service Commission will be on offer for sale to private firms? If so, will there be very careful scrutiny of the fitness of any prospective buyers and plenty of time allowed for a necessarily delicate and detailed process, since the commission was widely regarded as having carried out its tasks well?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I stress that I am in full agreement with the underlying theme of my noble friend's question. Recruitment to the fast stream of the Civil Service must be handled with the utmost propriety. I stress also that that principle is in no way affected by the Government's proposals for RAS. Civil servants will remain in control of all appointments. The customers of RAS--namely, government departments--will be closely involved in setting up and managing the contract. Critically, the principle of fair and open competition on merit as the basis of selection will remain entirely unchanged. There is no question of the Civil Service Commission being privatised.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, does the Minister accept that in the 150 years since the Trevelyan-Northcote report the British Civil Service has

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become one of our most unique and prized national assets, and that the method of recruitment is an essential part of that tradition? Will he speak to his noble friend the Leader of the House and ensure, if this House is to discharge its proper constitutional function, that we have a full debate on this matter before there is any question of irrevocable decisions taking place? Will the Leader of the House--if I may address him directly for the moment--have consultations on this issue with party leaders and the Convener of the Cross-Benchers?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I should be happy to convey the noble Lord's remarks to my noble friend in so far as he has not already heard them, and I am sure that he has. The Government start from the premise that the administration of a recruitment service--that is to say, the operational mechanics of such a service--is not a task which needs to be undertaken by government. However, we recognise fully that appointments to the fast stream of the Civil Service represent a particularly important part of RAS's work. That is why we shall ensure that the Civil Service remains in control of the appointments to the fast stream not just through the terms of the contract with RAS, which will be tightly drawn, but by having civil servants on the panel of assessors.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, is the Minister aware that he has in no way replied to the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, today or in his article in December? If there is a three-year review of RAS in process, which will not be completed until the summer, what is the point of announcing in advance what the Government propose to do? Judging from the response of the whole of the House to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that there be an early debate on the issue, I hope that the Leader of the House will whisper in the Minister's ear that there is to be such a debate.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I have endeavoured to answer all questions put to me this afternoon. I am sorry if noble Lords feel that I have not done so. I said also in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, that we on this side of the House stand ready to listen to representations, and I am sure that we will receive them positively. My noble friend has indicated in my ear that he will be more than happy to have a debate on this subject if that is the wish of the House.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that undertaking is of course extremely welcome. Perhaps I may declare an interest, as one who was rejected by the Civil Service Selection Board more than 40 years ago and has been profoundly grateful ever since. I should have been a rotten civil servant. Do not the assets of RAS include not just the expert staff but a capital asset in the form of the tests which have been developed over more than 50 years? Even though they may be retained in the ownership of government, how could those capital assets be used for the benefit of the people of this country if privatisation were to go ahead?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord has himself drawn attention to a key point, which is that the assets of RAS consist not merely of the staff, to whose expertise I

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have referred, but to the qualifying tests and exercises. They will remain at all times the property of the Crown and in the Crown's control. That is an important control over what RAS can do, alongside the detail of the contract.

Lord Hunt of Tanworth: My Lords, as someone who a long time ago held the job of First Civil Service Commissioner, may I ask the Minister how the Civil Service Commissioners will ensure that a privatised body's natural wish to shave costs will not result in a lowering of standards or the degree of rigour of the tests, without themselves undertaking a degree of monitoring and second guessing which would themselves negate the whole object of the privatisation?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the strict requirement that fast stream recruitment to the Civil Service must be based on merit in fair and open competition will form the heart of the contract with RAS. Adherence to that requirement will be the subject of a periodic independent audit. If the requirement is not met, then RAS would lost the contract. I stress that standards of probity and impartiality will not be compromised.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that it is a little difficult to understand what positive advantage would accrue to the Civil Service as a result of this proposal?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the Civil Service, which is, after all, the customer in this exercise, has been consulted closely throughout. It will be involved closely in drawing up the contract and in monitoring it as it proceeds. I feel that the Civil Service will be able to control closely how RAS performs in the future.

Council of Ministers: Voting Statistics

3.25 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will state how many times in votes by qualified majority at meetings of the Council of Ministers during the period since the Single European Act came into force up to the end of 1995 (a) the United Kingdom has been in the minority and (b) Germany and France voted differently from one another.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, there have been two changes of voting system since the Single European Act. Voting figures for the period between the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty can only be obtained at disproportionate cost. Of 261 votes carried in the Council by qualified majority during the period 6th December 1993 to 31st December 1994, 197 were passed unanimously. Of the remaining 64 votes passed, Britain either voted against or abstained on

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21 occasions. During this same period Germany and France voted differently on 18 occasions. Final statistics for 1995 are not yet available.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that the figures she has been kind enough to give, covering the three years to the end of 1994, indicate that, despite all the Government's protestations of acting with independence and, indeed, courage from time to time, by and large they seem to have gone along with practically everything that has come before the Council of Ministers? That means, for example, that in the three years ending 31st December 1994, during which time 4,850 items of legislation were passed, for all its protestations of independence and sole judgment, the UK rode along with the rest of Europe. Do the German and French figures indicate that in the overwhelming number of instances the Elysee Treaty of 22nd January, 1963, by virtue of which right down to senior civil servant level Germany and France agree beforehand what would be their attitude at forthcoming Council meetings, seems to have been very effective indeed?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, at times I become a little weary when the noble Lord thinks that there is a plot in all of this. We will vote in favour of something only if we agree with it. If we disagree with it strongly, we will vote against. If there is a reason to abstain and not to vote against, we will do that. The myth of a Franco-German stitch-up in Europe, to which several noble Lords come every now again, is just as unfounded as the myth of the UK's isolation in Europe. When the noble Lord goes on to talk about other matters, including quoting more than 4,000 items of legislation, let us get one thing absolutely straight on the record. When I answer questions, I answer them explicitly, as did my noble friend Lord Chesham when he answered my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux explicitly about acts of legislation, and said:

    "These figures do not include acts of day-to-day management where validity does not exceed a few weeks".
That is why the figures in the Commission's annual report are higher than the Celex database. We only include acts that are meaningful. That is why we do not go along with all things only when they are in Britain's best interests.

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