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House of Lords

Wednesday, 10th July 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Recruitment and Assessment Services: Privatisation

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are now able to provide evidence that the proposed privatisation of Recruitment and Assessment Services (RAS) would result in net savings in the future cost of the recruitment of civil servants.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, indicative bids for RAS and for the fast stream contracts have now been received and are being evaluated. We are confident that we can secure value for money for customers and the taxpayer from the sale.

Lord McNally: My Lords, have Ministers any idea just how demotivated and demoralised civil servants are by the Government's constant ideological and political interference in their once proud independence? Is there not a case for Ministers to call a moratorium on such behaviour until they receive a mandate from the electorate, or a government take office which can restore pride to our Civil Service?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord would be absolutely astonished if I even thought of beginning to agree with his contention. As he well knows, the Government are wholly committed to an independent-minded Civil Service which will continue to flourish in the best traditions of the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement in the past century. He will be as aware as I am that the world changes, and that the evolution of the Civil Service--which has been endorsed by a Select Committee in another place, together with the code which it suggested and which we also endorsed--is entirely within the confines of that particular principle.

Lord Bancroft: My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that last week the Deputy Prime Minister told the Select Committee on public service that it had been his settled intention to privatise RAS for some months regardless of what this place said or did? Does he agree that that places the government spokesman in this House--and indeed this House itself--in some difficulty? Does he further agree that the only course open to this House is to debate and decide on the merits of the Select Committee's report in the confident expectation that colleagues will shame the Deputy Prime Minister into accepting the requirements of good faith and the courtesies due to Parliament?

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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, as regards a debate on the Select Committee's report, I stand by the assurances that I have given your Lordships' House that if the Select Committee is in a position to deliver the first part of its investigation, which concerns RAS, to the Government in time for the Government to give it rapid but due consideration--the kind of consideration that the noble Lord and I agree should be given to the recommendations of a Select Committee--the usual channels will be encouraged by myself to try to find a time before the Recess in which the first part of the Select Committee's report can be debated. I understand that initiatives have been taken in that regard. I hope they will come to a satisfactory conclusion.

I read with considerable care the answers given to the Select Committee by my right honourable friend when he appeared before it. There is no doubt at all, as he made clear, that the Government have a settled intention to privatise. I would be wise to remind the noble Lord of my replies to the House in this respect. I used what may be considered too vernacular a term, but if the Select Committee suggests what the Government clearly understand to be a showstopper as to why the settled intention should become unsettled, we shall take that showstopper into consideration. That would, of course, unsettle the settled intention which my right honourable friend mentioned.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal used an uncharacteristically large number of words in that answer. He gave a somewhat defensive impression. The central point is: is the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal saying, or is he not, that whatever the Select Committee says, and whatever is said in this House in a subsequent debate, following the first debate with its overwhelming majority, the Government will take no notice of that?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that the Government will always take careful note of what this House says. I refer him to what I said to the House on 11th June last. I said that,

    "if there appeared to be by implication any suggestion which would make ... a show-stopper to the project for privatisation, the Government could take note and act".--[Official Report, 11/6/96; col. 1572.]

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that at the meeting to which the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, referred between the Select Committee and the Deputy Prime Minister, the latter, as I understand it, was asked a categorical question; namely, would the deliberations of the Select Committee be taken into account when it reached its decision? As I understand it, the answer from the Deputy Prime Minister was firm. He said that the decision had already been taken and would be proceeded with anyway. That is at odds with what the noble Viscount is telling us now.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I refer to the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. It is the Government's settled intention to privatise. If the

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Select Committee's report gives a judgment and a reason as to why we should not continue with that, the Government would, of course, be duty bound to take account of it. However, that must be within the Government's own judgment to decide. It is not a judgment that we can turn over to the Select Committee. However, it would, of course, be most unwise to ignore what the Select Committee says. It would be extremely wise for the Government to think carefully and to consider what the Select Committee says. Assuming that we can manage to arrange a debate through the usual channels before the House rises, I shall endeavour to give a reasoned reaction to the Select Committee's report during the course of that debate.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, is it not the case that the agreement that the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal reached to consider the report of the Select Committee, and to consider it seriously, was an agreement reached under pressure; in other words, under the pressure of the vote in your Lordships' House earlier this year? If that is the case, surely it is not open to the Deputy Prime Minister directly to contradict--as he appears to have done--the undertaking of the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I think that if I had been sitting where the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is sitting this afternoon, I should have been tempted to make the same mildly meretricious point. The truth of the matter is perfectly clear. I said to the House, in the wake of the debate that Friday to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, refers, that we would take careful note of the views of the House. It was proposed to me through the usual channels that this would be a suitable matter for the Select Committee to look into in the first instance. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, would agree with me that I did not demur for a second that this was a suitable matter for the Select Committee to investigate; in fact I welcomed it. If that is pressure, then I hope that the usual channels would negotiate rather more forcefully on our behalf. The noble Lord clearly feels that such pressure could be effective in dealing with my noble friend the Chief Whip on this side of the House.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, would my noble friend the Leader of the House agree that what the Deputy Prime Minister said or did not say to the Select Committee can in no way bind irrevocably the decision of another place, any more than the closing of 16 coal mines when Parliament was not in Session bound another place?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend is so familiar with the political career of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. I stand precisely where I have always stood on the issue. I welcome very much the House's interest. The Government will take the report seriously when it appears. We shall react, I hope, with our normal courtesy, and will give reasons for our decision when the debate is held.

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Gulf War: Illness Study

2.41 p.m.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as patron of the Gulf Veterans Association.

The Question was as follows:

    What was the source of funding for the contract for research into Gulf War syndrome to be conducted at King's College Medical School, and who is responsible for selecting those who will conduct the research.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): My Lords, the study to be undertaken by Dr. Simon Wessely at King's College Medical School is being funded by the US Department of Defense as a result of its calls for proposals on possible causes and treatment of Gulf War veterans' illness. Dr. Wessely's research project is one of 12 selected by the research working group of the US Persian Gulf Veterans Co-ordinating Board.

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