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House of Lords

Thursday, 15th October 1998.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.

EU Commission: Staff Examinations

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have been consulted about the rearrangement of the examination for entry to the European Union civil service which was declared to be invalid owing to serious irregularities.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the institutions of the European Union are responsible for making their own arrangements for recruitment of staff. The Government would not expect to be consulted on the matter. However, we have received a number of representations regarding the conduct of the competition and have conveyed these concerns to the Commission.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that reply. Does he agree that that episode must be most disappointing for the candidates, who must now wait several more months, and must also be expensive for the EU? As the United Kingdom has valuable experience and a good reputation for public examinations, a tradition of the old Civil Service Commission, are the Government nevertheless in a position to help to avoid another fiasco of that kind?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree that the effective postponement of the first stage of the examination will be very disappointing for the candidates involved. I agree that we have expertise that we can bring to bear in relation to it. However, at the end of the day, it is a matter for the European Commission, which is responsible for setting the terms of the examinations. In the long term, we believe that the recruitment system requires reform. We shall press that point at every level. We understand that the Commission has a number of working groups at present, including one chaired by Sir David Williamson, its former secretary-general and himself a former UK civil servant, looking at the whole question of the Commission in the future. However, allowances must be made for cultural differences and the understandably strong preponderance of continental tradition within the Commission. Change is not likely to happen overnight.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord telling the House that the Commission is its own master in those matters, responsible to no one except itself? As I understand it, from what I have been told by Ministers who have spoken from the Front Bench, the Commission is ultimately responsible to the

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Council of Ministers. Will the noble and learned Lord confirm that that is still the case and that the Commission cannot do exactly what it pleases regardless of any other national or even personal sentiments on the part of the citizens of Europe?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the noble Lord is indeed right. The Commission is responsible to the Council of Ministers. The point that I was ineptly seeking to make was that it is not for the British Civil Service to decide how those appointments are to be made. Those decisions are for the Commission, subject to the Council of Ministers.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the reason that the situation came so quickly to public attention was the role of the European Parliament, which exposed it two days after it happened, summoned the appropriate Commissioner to come to the European Parliament, and has made a satisfactory resolution of that problem a condition of the discharge for 1998?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am not sure of the precise timing. I know that the matter was raised before the European Parliament at an early stage and very quickly thereafter it was agreed by the Commission that the first stage of the competition would be scrapped. The press also had a role to play in bringing the matter to the attention of the European Parliament.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, recognising that this was a disappointing and chaotic exercise, is the Minister yet satisfied that enough British recruits have presented themselves for examination and entry to the European Commission given the very large shortfall of British applicants and recruits that we have suffered in recent years?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we are disappointed by the number of British people who apply for those jobs. The Cabinet Office in particular takes steps to try to ensure that those people who may be considering applying know all the details of the jobs available. But we still believe that the figures are too low and we are doing as much as we can to try to increase the percentage of British applicants so that more British people take up jobs.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that it is intended that those examinations should take place only every five years? Without revealing any confidential information, can he tell us what were the nature of those irregularities?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I understand that the Commission decided to cancel this particular first stage when strong evidence was presented that the questions had been leaked in advance. Separately, there were allegations, which have not been made out, of inadequate invigilation procedures such as people bringing in personal organisers and people arriving with

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mobile phones and going to the lavatory for long periods of time. But none of those allegations, which were reported widely in the press, has yet been made out. As regards the point about five years, I understand that the examinations normally take place every five years but the Commission will not wait another five years before the first stage is re-run. It is expected, although I cannot give a date, that they will be re-run in the early part of next year.

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it may not be surprising that British applicants are not encouraged to apply for posts in the European Commission in view of the permanent tone of Euro-scepticism in the press and in some political parties? Therefore, people may not feel that they are batting for Britain by working for the Commission, and it is that which we need to change.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I hope that press articles and the views of certain political parties do not deter people from applying for what are extremely worthwhile jobs in the European Commission. The more people that apply, the better from our point of view.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I believe I am right in saying that the continental system requires sponsorship in such applications. That is not something that is practised in this country but is normal abroad. Is that one of the difficulties which make it harder for British entrants to be considered?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I would be surprised if applicants needed sponsorship but I do not know the answer to the question. Perhaps I can write to the noble Baroness.

Gulf War: Undiagnosed Illnesses

3.13 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When the outcome of their investigations in relation to the undiagnosed illnesses among servicemen and women who served in the Gulf War is likely to be announced.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, the first results from one of the two MoD-funded epidemiological studies investigating the health of British Gulf veterans are expected to become available around the turn of the year. The MoD is also funding other research programmes and there is a considerable programme of research being undertaken by the United States Government. The results of this work will appear as the individual elements are completed. Scientific research is, of course, only part of a wider programme of work to address the health concerns of Gulf veterans, which will continue as long as it is needed.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, has my noble friend seen the disquieting statement by

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Professor Malcolm Hooper--a scientist appointed by the Government to investigate these illnesses--that our troops in the Gulf were treated like "guinea pigs" and that a "conspiracy of deceit" obscures the true extent of their problems?

Is it too early yet to say anything about the findings of Professor Simon Wesseley's study? And to how many of the Gulf war veterans--service men and women who have already died of illnesses dating back to their service--has this country's debt of honour gone unpaid?

Finally, when will the Prime Minister be responding to the Royal British Legion's request for a public inquiry?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I have seen the remarks of Professor Hooper in relation to the Ministry of Defence and as I understand it my noble friend accurately reports them. I am frankly at a loss to follow Professor Hooper in his view that the Ministry of Defence is pervaded by a culture of deceit and conspiracy in these matters. Anybody who knows the activities of my former colleague, Dr. John Reid, in this respect would reject, as I do, such allegations totally out of hand. I am confident that his successor, Mr. Henderson, will follow down the path that Dr. Reid set.

The paper produced by Professor Wesley has already been discussed informally with him and a number of individuals who have a professional interest in that subject. Those discussions are a matter for Professor Wesley and we look forward to seeing the results of his study when they are published.

In relation to the public inquiry requested by the Royal British Legion, that matter is under advisement from the Ministry of Defence and we expect to be able to give a formal response in the near future. I fully share my noble friend's remarks about the debt of honour that this country owes to our veterans of the Gulf conflict. However, at this moment we have no final figures as to the number of those veterans who have died since the conflict. To assist the House, I am able to say that the figures we have available at the moment indicate that approximately 400 deaths have occurred among the 53,000 Gulf veterans since 1st April 1991.

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