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House of Lords

Wednesday, 20 February 2008.

The House met at three o'clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

EU Commission: Recruitment

Lord Anderson of Swansea asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bach: My Lords, the United Kingdom currently holds the highest number of director posts and one of the highest number of director-general posts in the European Commission. Her Majesty’s Government are working to ensure that recruitment of UK nationals to EU institutions broadly reflects our proportion of the total EU population. We are actively considering how to improve EU professionalism in the fast stream. The UK vision of an outward-looking global Europe is gaining ground in the EU, regardless of the number of UK nationals in the Commission.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, whatever one’s views on the European Union, surely it is in our national interest that we send our high-flyers to Brussels; yet, as I understand it, the number of people undertaking Civil Service training for the fast stream last year fell to just three. Can my noble friend say why this training scheme will be abolished? Is he satisfied that EU recruitment figures last year recorded that only 2 per cent of applicants were UK nationals and that, even for stagiaires—internships—France had five times more applicants and Italy nine times more than the UK? Surely we can do better. What are the Government doing to improve the situation?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is vital that we have high-flyers in Brussels. We are extremely successful at the top end, but he is right to say that things have not gone as well as we would have liked at the lower end. Our expectations of fast-streamers have changed since the programme was introduced many years ago now, in 1991, and departments—especially since the introduction of PSG—want their fast-streamers to acquire a broad base of experience and not to specialise too narrowly in any one area of their business, such as Europe.

We have not abolished the training scheme; it has been suspended while the Cabinet Office conducts an internal review to see how we can do better. I agree with my noble friend that we certainly need to do better. There is a need to make joining the EU Civil Service appear more of a positive career move. We are therefore actively engaging with the EU and

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encouraging it to re-examine its recruitment strategy, but we are also internally investigating ways of improving EU professionalism in the fast stream so that we can continue to defend UK interests.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what is being done on language training facilities and recruitment policies for both the Home Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service to meet not only current needs in the Commission for secondments from Britain but also future needs when the External Action Service comes into being?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we put a large emphasis on languages. The system that I am discussing—the concours system—seems alien to many British applicants for a number of reasons, one of which is the requirement to complete a central part of the examination in a second foreign language and to have a third language before one can be promoted above the initial entrance grade. That arguably weights it against mother-tongue English speakers. Therefore, it is crucial that we do more to improve our language training.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the Minister recall that the European fast-stream initiative began when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister? To their credit the Major Conservative Government carried it through precisely to increase the number of high-quality British applicants to the Commission and to provide them with training in the British Civil Service and a return base to the British Civil Service, if that was the way in which their career went. The Labour Government’s neglect of the European fast stream in the past few years has been appalling. As the Minister says, it is suspended for a review. Will the Government give a commitment that the European fast stream will be continued and that more people will be encouraged to enter that dimension of the fast stream of the Civil Service?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I should make it absolutely clear that the fast-stream programme has not been abolished; it has been suspended because things have changed. How can we make EU careers more attractive to UK nationals? The relatively low entry grade into the EU Civil Service under the EU Civil Service rules means that UK civil servants with a few years’ experience would have to take a retrograde step in seniority and pay. We need to make joining the EU Civil Service appear a more positive career move. That is precisely what the internal review that the Cabinet Office is undertaking is intended to do. The concours for generalist entries are infrequent; they are much more specialist. However, our excellent home civil servants tend to be generalists.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does my noble friend realise that this matter is of great urgency? Not only is it important that British civil servants should play their part in the lower echelons of the European Commission, but it is vital that they should be available for recruitment into the cabinets of the Commission—not only of British commissioners but of others, too.

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Lord Bach: My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend. We need to move quickly on this. However, I emphasise that at senior level our representation in Europe is among the best, if not the best.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the European Commission recruitment policy has recently abolished the upper age limit, which may be good news for some people around the place, including some of your Lordships? Will he explain the role of the EU staffing unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—I think that that is where it is located—and how it interrelates with the European Personnel Selection Office? There seems to be overlap between these agencies, which may be the cause of the filtering and delay in relation to the success of our recruitment policy.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting point. I shall write to him with a considered answer on the relationship between the two. However, there is concern both internally and as far as the EU recruitment policy is concerned.

Finance: Interest Rates

3.08 pm

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Chancellor will make announcements on fiscal measures at the Budget in the normal way.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, may I remind the noble Lord that on 4 February in London the Chancellor of the Exchequer told international bankers what he would do in next month’s Budget? He said that he would take measures,

We have had the interest rate cut, small though it be, but, with rising inflation and soaring government debt, how can we have tax cuts to stimulate growth? All the talk is of tax increases in the Budget. Is that not the sure road to recession?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord is as well informed as ever and therefore knows the answer to the question; the Chancellor made that clear a month or two ago. He will be fulfilling that prediction in the Budget. It will be appreciated that the British economy is established on firm and sound foundations. It is of course the case that there is a great deal of international turbulence at present, and that is why the Financial Stability Forum is so crucial in seeking to produce worldwide stability with regard to finances. Within that framework, the Chancellor will make his decisions clearly known at the time of the Budget.

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Lord Newby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, given the weak state of public finances, the truth is that there is no wriggle room at all for the Chancellor in terms of fiscal stimulus or fiscal anything else, even if he were minded to do that? Have the Government any plans to review the nature and operation of the golden rule which, with the passage of years, looks increasingly unfit for purpose?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the golden rule has served this country well and over a decade has provided the outstanding achievements of the British economy. Of course the Government will follow the golden rule. I emphasise that it is supplementary to the work on monetary policy, but the Chancellor does not use fiscal policy to regulate interest rates; the noble Lord is all too well aware of the independence of the Bank of England in that respect.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, is it not obvious that the Chancellor’s spending spree, which has taken the share of GDP spent by the state up to 45 per cent, has resulted in a squeeze on growth and that unless we cut taxes we are going to enter an era of stagflation?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the House will recognise that the constraints on growth reflect the changing international position, to which the British economy and the Chancellor acting responsibly will need to respond. There is no doubt that it limits action regarding the Budget, but I maintain the obvious point regarding the fundamentals: that this country still has the highest level of employment of the advanced economies; that this country still has one of the lowest inflation rates; and that this country still has one of the lowest set of interest rates. Of course we appreciate that the world is moving into a period of extreme difficulty for national economies. Fortunately, we are well placed to withstand the challenges that are approaching.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, why is my noble friend underselling the situation? Is it not the case, as the Prime Minister—unless my ears deceive me—said at Question Time in another place today, that the public finance figures announced today for January are among the best on record for that month?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Prime Minister did say that. In my earlier answers, I have merely been trying—anticipating that my noble friend might intrude—to follow the same level of modesty that he usually displays on such issues.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, that is all very well, isn’t it? But surely to goodness is not the Treasury paying more interest payments on government borrowing than at any time since 1979? I agree with the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches that there are strong suspicions that in fact the golden rule is in the process of turning to lead.

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the House is all too well aware of the one feature of the golden rule that is causing short-term difficulty, which is the unanticipated costs regarding the support of Northern Rock. I emphasise again that the Government are consistent in their strategy. Despite the blandishments of the Opposition spokespersons and those on their Back Benches, the Government will not depart from the golden rule and will not try to use fiscal policy to determine the development of the economy in the terms that the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, do not the answers to this Question reflect the incompetence—financial incompetence—of this Government?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I was hoping to suggest to the House that that might be a minority view.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, on the inexpertise of this Government and, indeed, of the noble Lord, on recessions, would he nevertheless consult with the party opposite, which has a deep and profound knowledge and understanding of them? It faced many during its period of stewardship.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, during the 1990s the Labour Party and subsequently the Labour Government learned well the lessons of misrule that had occurred under the previous Administration. The past decade has shown how differently we have conducted the economy.

Olympic Games 2012: Legacy

3.16 pm

Lord Addington asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, good progress is being made to put the infrastructure in place to make the United Kingdom a world-leading sporting nation and to ensure a sporting legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The legacy action plan, due to be published shortly, will report annually on progress towards that aim.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Are we not rather rich in plans and guidance on the Olympics which cover everything from infrastructure right down to tourist attractions, but which are very low on sport? When are we going to get something that refers to a key part of the legacy, which should be the way that we up participation rates in sport? If the Olympics provide good mood music, it is no good without anywhere to dance.

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that latter point is certainly so, but the noble Lord will give the Government credit for the £755 million to be invested during the next three years to deliver a world-class system for PE and sport. The great emphasis that the Government are placing upon sport in schools will be appreciated by the House, as will the extent to which Sport England is devoting itself towards producing high-class athletes and improvements in sport generally. Furthermore, the House will have seen the Government’s commitment in more general terms to improve the health of the nation by a strategy to deal with obesity. Although that responsibility has been taken away from Sport England so that it can concentrate on sport, it is nevertheless an important dimension for other departments.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that this is the last major legacy strategy that has not yet been published? He assures us that it is being thought through. However, the most important matter in which people are interested is that the strategy has not yet been funded and we have no idea how much money the DCMS is likely to put in to motivate young people right across the country to participate in what used to be known in my day on the Sports Council as “sport for all”—which has disappeared in the past few years, unfortunately. Could he ensure that the strategy is published and say what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to attempt to reduce bureaucracy in their management of sport, which is costing a fortune to every governing body?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, excessive bureaucracy regarding sport has a long history and it has always been a difficult issue for Governments to address in reconciling the conflicting sporting bodies. That is why in my original Answer I emphasised the focus of Sport England on the delivery of sport—which it intends to carry out. The noble Lord is right that the legacy action plan in sport has still not been published; it will be in the next two or three months, if not earlier. There is no doubt at all that it is a crucial lynchpin of the legacy that we intend to develop from the Olympic Games and has a crucial role in the build-up to the Olympic Games.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, will the legacy action plan suggest what percentage of that vast amount of money, to which the Minister referred, will go to the north of England? I have heard nothing about the planning or the percentage of the money from the Olympic Games that will go to the north of England, where we are completely devoid of any involvement in the Olympics at the moment.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I want to emphasise that the investment in Sport England and the sharpening focus of its role is not related to London and the Olympics. It is related to the legacy position, but directed toward improving sporting performance and opportunity across the whole country. The north of England will, of course, expect its fair share of those increased resources which are

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being devoted to that end. It would not be possible for us to deliver a sporting legacy for the nation if that were concentrated only in the south-east. There is no intention that that should be the case.

Baroness Billingham: My Lords, is it not the case that there are already good indicators that sport is, in general, becoming much more exciting to young people? That is because of the stimulus of the 2012 Olympics, and also because sports’ governing bodies now have excellent programmes which they are linking with schools to make thousands of children more aware of their particular sport. That is a very important start. Is it not also the case that a heartening number of people have signed up to the volunteering side of the Olympics? That, too, is something to which we should surely be looking forward.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend is very knowledgeable on these issues. Her last point latched onto the case that, even in advance of the baton of the Olympic Games—the torch—being handed over to London, there is clear evidence of increased interest in sport. That is bound to increase substantially as soon as London takes over from Beijing as the Olympic city.

Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, would the Minister be kind enough to write to me—and to put a copy of his letter in the Library—listing the organisational bodies in sport that have been consulted in preparing this legacy document? I declare an interest as a member of the Football Association board.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I will be delighted to give an undertaking to write to the noble Lord on that matter. At this stage, I could not possibly list the bodies, but I will certainly write to him and put a copy in the Library.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, when the Minister mentioned Sport England in his previous reply, he said that the whole country would benefit. What does he mean by “country” in that context?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I was referring specifically to Sport England. As the noble Lord will speedily have realised, that applied only to England. As he may recall, his noble friend had asked me about the northern part of the country; I had assumed that to be northern England rather than north Wales. If the noble Lord wishes to address a question to me about what we are doing for sport in Wales, I will be delighted to respond to him positively.

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