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Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I would like to add a few words to what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said. I agree with him on both points of substance that he made. First, this is another piece of doctrinaire nonsense coming from a Government who have clearly lost the confidence of the people of this country and are clinging to office with one of the smallest majorities one can recall of any recent British government. As their grip on power lessens, their enthusiasm to proceed with doctrinaire absurdities of the kind we are discussing this evening becomes even greater. When, in his introductory statement, the noble

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Earl referred to the unions being consulted, he did not find it necessary to tell us that the unions had been consulted but had indicated their strong opposition to what the Government proposed. It might have been a little better if he had indicated that when he made his speech.

I turn to the other issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, at the beginning of his speech; namely, the extraordinary way in which the Government are treating the Select Committee set up to discuss the RAS. The noble Earl will recall our debate in this House when the Government were decisively defeated, a number of senior figures in his own party being among those voting against.

From what Ministers said on that occasion and subsequently, we understood that the Government would take seriously into account the views of this House. They have chosen not to do so. Instead, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, pointed out, there was a debate in the other place on the last day before the Whitsun Recess at which, according to press reports, there were half a dozen MPs on one side of the House and eight on the other. That contrasts with this crowded House on the occasion of our debate on RAS. At the end of the Commons debate, the Government secured their majority. In the meantime, a Motion had been passed in this House--a Motion with which the Government themselves were associated--asking a Select Committee of this House to consider the RAS issue and submit an interim report.

I am a member of that committee. I have no intention of referring to its private discussions. I shall comment only on what has been said in public session. It was made quite clear to us by Mr. Freeman that the Government's decision on principle was clear, unmistakable and unyielding. Mr. Freeman indicated the position to us in the clearest terms. I do not believe that anybody who was present yesterday afternoon could have had the slightest doubt about what he was saying. He went on to add that, of course, the Government would consider what the Select Committee said. Then--I hope that I do not do him an injustice in quoting him, but I believe that I remember his words correctly--he said that the Government would "respond within days" to our report. What does "within days" mean? Does it mean that there will be any serious discussion among Ministers collectively on a serious report from what I hope is a serious Select Committee, which is, and will be, devoting a substantial amount of time to discussing the major issues involved and raised during our debate in this House?

As I indicated, speaking for myself, I was astonished that the Government chose to table this Motion in the Commons which, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, so far as the other place was concerned, had had RAS slipped into the middle of it. The Motion was not solely about RAS. Obviously, RAS was inserted deliberately by Ministers, so that they would obtain their majority on this particular question in the other place before the Select Committee started its work.

I do not wish to be disagreeable about this matter, but I find it inconceivable that, had the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, still been Leader of this House, the

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House would have been treated in such a fashion. A Select Committee was set up to look into the Government's proposals to privatise RAS. It is outrageous not only to have in reality that decision questioned but to have a government Motion put down in the other place on the fundamental issue of principle and then for the Minister's colleague, Mr. Freeman, to use the decision in the other place to justify the Government's decision to proceed in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, indicated.

I find it extraordinary, at a time when Ministers are queuing up to proclaim their enthusiasm for this House as at present constituted, in order to prevent significant constitutional change in terms of its composition, that they have behaved in this manner. They have testified enthusiastically to our almost unique qualities. But when their own interests are involved, they are prepared to be involved in an episode of this kind, which indicates a degree of contempt for this House which is truly remarkable.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I should like to say a few words in support of the speeches that have already been made. I was appointed to the committee which met yesterday and considered this matter in public. I was delighted to be invited to serve on that committee because I felt that it was to consider a matter of great importance.

The noble Earl will recall the circumstances of the appointment of the committee and the overwhelming expression of view in this House--initiated from the Cross Benches by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, with the support of his own side and indeed all parts of the House--to reject this particular proposition. I thought that was one of the occasions when this House was performing its responsible job. It was examining a proposition initiated by the Cross Benches and considered on its merits.

The Government responded by setting up a committee. I always assumed that when a Select Committee was formed in this House, it would produce a report which would be discussed in the House before a judgment or decision was formulated. It is quite obvious to me that that will not happen. First, there will be no time to consider the report. Secondly, consideration of these matters will be rushed into a few weeks before the Recess.

The House of Lords has always prided itself on the quality of the reports from its Select Committees. I suggest that in the timescale now made available, it will be impossible to produce a balanced and sensible report on this matter. Let us consider the situation. A group of fairly experienced individuals sit on the committee and examine this matter. They hear evidence from various experts who are commanded to attend. But at the end of the day the report will be of no significance whatsoever because on the last day before the Recess the Government announced that they were now going to proceed with the privatisation of the RAS. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, the announcement has been made and an invitation published in the Financial Times for proposals to be submitted for the scheme. The Government are in the process of selecting and shortly

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will give their final conclusions on this matter; and at the same time a committee in the House of Lords is considering that same matter but with no relevance whatsoever.

If anything is a matter of contempt of the House of Lords, that is contempt. It is also wasting the time of a lot of people who have a contribution to make to these matters. It is a rather surprising coincidence that the piece of legislation which is before us tonight enables us to express these anxieties. In the Order Paper for tomorrow is printed a Question for reply on Thursday. It invites the Government to delay the proposals in connection with the privatisation of the RAS until the committee of the House of Lords has made its report. Perhaps between now and Thursday the Minister will influence his colleagues to accept that perfectly reasonable request. I look forward to a positive response on Thursday.

7 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Richard, Lord Harris and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, have taken this opportunity to raise the question of the possible privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services. With the leave of the House, I shall gladly respond to their points.

Let me state the position on this issue as it affects your Lordships' House and your Lordships' Select Committee. Your Lordships will be aware, as has been mentioned, that this matter was debated and approved in another place--incidentally, it was approved by a majority of 75. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, suggested that it was quite wrong that another place should have been debating this issue. I put the question to him: why should not the other place be allowed to discuss this matter? If the position had been reversed and another place had discussed it first, does he believe that this House should have been prevented from discussing it?

By allowing debate in the other place it was not our intention to place in jeopardy the recommendations of the Select Committee. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster indicated that we expect to be able to give careful consideration to its report, assuming that it is available as expected before the Summer Recess. He indicated yesterday that there were areas where he hoped the committee could provide advice, including safeguards. Therefore to suggest that this House has been ill-treated is misplaced.

Lord Richard: My Lords, perhaps the Minister will allow me to intervene. Shall I tell the noble Earl what is wrong? If we look at the terms of the Motion moved by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 22nd May, it was not that the House,

    "[notes] the Government's policy with regard to the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services";
but that it,

    "welcomes the Government's policy with regard to the privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services".
What is wrong is the use of the word "welcomes" and the use of the Whips to obtain a majority behind that at the very time when the Government are saying to us,

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"Yes, we wish to have the examination of the Select Committee; we wish to look at it before reaching a final conclusion".

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