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House of Lords

Thursday, 15th February 1996.

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

Recruitment and Assessment Services

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What benefits they expect Recruitment and Assessment Services to be able to confer on existing customers and in what wider markets will the services be able to pursue business opportunities following privatisation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): My Lords, Recruitment and Assessment Services will be able to exploit its considerable expertise in graduate and other recruitment with new customers in the private sector. In combination with the skills--and the capacity for investment--which a private sector buyer will bring, RAS will be well-placed to develop its services to take full advantage of opportunities in other markets, both in the private sector and in the wider public sector. All RAS's customers, including existing ones, will benefit from success in developing high quality services across a wider customer base.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I hear the hopes expressed by my noble friend. Will he try to persuade his colleagues to reveal the thinking that lies behind a very far-reaching proposal which has not yet been much discussed in public and which seems to suggest that they perhaps undervalue an institution which has been famous both for its intelligence and its total lack of corruption, which is a rare combination in our times?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I could not agree more with the last part of my noble friend's remarks. The excellence and expertise within RAS is something very special. But we debated this matter some three weeks ago. I understand that arrangements are being made for us to debate it more fully at another time. I believe that the Government's reasons for setting out these proposals have already been clearly stated. I stress one key point, which is that nothing in the Government's proposals will undermine the integrity and the quality of the service provided by RAS. At the moment it is a centre of excellence, and it will be no less so when it is in the private sector.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, is it not most regrettable that such a very important change should have been announced as a decision already taken in reply to a Question for Written Answer in another place, without any comparable Statement being volunteered in this House? Further, that original reply was very short

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on explanation and left quite a number of queries totally unanswered--queries such as the position of the existing staff. Is that quite the way to treat the Civil Service?

Earl Howe: My Lords, my understanding is that when a Statement is made in another place, an opportunity is offered for that Statement to be repeated in your Lordships' House. I am not aware of the discussions that took place through the usual channels. Perhaps I may finish answering the noble Lord's question before he asks a supplementary. The decision to privatise RAS reflected the view of Ministers that privatisation was the best way to secure the long-term interests of the staff and the customers as well as the interests of the taxpayer. As I said, your Lordships will have an opportunity to debate this matter at some point in the fairly near future.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is not a question of a Statement being made in the other place? The issue is that it was an arranged Question for Written Answer. Why was this House not informed?

Earl Howe: My Lords, not every Question that is tabled and answered in another place is repeated in this Chamber. If that were the case, then your Lordships' Hansard would, I suggest, be unnecessarily cluttered. I understand that this is a matter close to many noble Lords; but, as I said, we have had an opportunity to debate the matter already, and we shall have a further opportunity to debate it on another occasion. I believe that noble Lords will be well placed to put forward their views.

Lord Shepherd: My Lords, without trespassing on another place, does the noble Earl agree that it was a placed Question which the Government wanted to receive to be able to make that Statement? If that was the procedure in another place, presumably it would have been open to the Government to have tabled the same Question here through one of their noble friends in order that the Answer could be available in our Hansard. Is that not a fact?

Earl Howe: My Lords, to be perfectly honest, I am not aware of whether it was a placed Question. I shall make it my business to find out quite clearly. I shall let the noble Lord know. Whenever such matters fall to be announced, consideration is given by the appropriate Minister in the department concerned as to whether a Statement or Question should be repeated in your Lordships' House. I am not aware of the reasons why that was not done in this case.

Lord Acton: My Lords, can the Minister say how privatisation will improve RAS in its vital task of recruiting the fast stream entry?

Earl Howe: My Lords, RAS is a centre of expertise. Making that expertise available to the private sector will not only be of advantage to commerce and industry, it will also bring with it efficiencies and thus better value for money for existing customers in the public sector.

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That is why I believe that this proposal is in the best interests of the taxpayer, the Civil Service and the country as a whole.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in his first Answer, the Minister referred to the opportunities for investment which will be available to RAS in the private sector. Can he give the House any specific examples of cases where RAS in the public sector has failed either to meet its own objectives or to perform to the satisfaction of its customers as a result of failure of investment possibilities?

Earl Howe: My Lords, indeed, no. RAS has fulfilled all the objectives set for it as an agency. We have every reason to be proud of the way in which that agency has been run. The point I sought to make was that if RAS expands its horizons as is now proposed, further investment will be required. It is appropriate, if RAS is serving the private sector, that that investment should come also from the private sector.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, can the Minister say whether there was any consultation with the Civil Service before the decision was taken?

Earl Howe: My Lords, there was consultation with the customers of RAS, who are the group of government departments which avail themselves of RAS's services in recruiting to the fast stream of the Civil Service. There was no consultation with the staff.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, will my noble friend do his best to ensure that the promised debate takes place before it is too late, and that it is not sidelined to a Friday Sitting?

Earl Howe: Clearly, my Lords, that must be a matter for the usual channels.

European Court of Human Rights

3.10 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to seek the approval of Parliament for their decision to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg in cases affecting British citizens over the next five years.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, the decision to renew the United Kingdom's acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the court for five years, as well as the right of individual petition, was announced on 13th December and has been communicated to the Council of Europe. Parliament has been kept fully informed.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that she has not answered the Question? I did not ask whether Parliament had been informed.

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I asked whether the agreement of Parliament to this substantial transfer of authority had been obtained. Is my noble friend aware that it has not been obtained? Yet it is still possible for this body, this so-called court, to impose a charge on the British taxpayer at the moment at an annual rate of £40 million. Surely it is for Parliament to approve or disapprove of such a proposition.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend. This has been a matter of discussion for over 30 years. I was unaware that he thought that renewal of the optional articles required parliamentary approval. In those 30 years renewal has never been the subject of advance debate or scrutiny. A similar Question received Written Answer in the other place. There was an exchange with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on 7th December. Subsequently a Question was tabled in the other place on 10th January and in your Lordships' House on 29th January. Perhaps I can point out that we are talking about the European Court of Human Rights. We contribute £2.25 million annually towards the administering of the convention which covers both the Commission and the Court of Human Rights.

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