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Public Service—(Competition)

Volume 203: debated on Tuesday 12 July 1870

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Motion For Papers

, in rising to move for Copies of any Treasury Minute that may have been passed on the subject of first appointments to the subordinate offices in the Public Service by unrestricted competition; and, of any Correspondence that may have taken place thereon between the Treasury and the Heads of the other Departments, said, that he was informed that the Government did not intend to assent to the Motion, and, therefore, he hoped that he might be allowed to make a short explanation of the reasons for asking for these Papers. Very early in the Session the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett) moved a Resolution in favour of unrestricted competition, but withdrew it upon an assurance from the head of the Government that the subject was under consideration, and that it was hoped that soon a plan for unrestricted competition would be adopted. In February the Home Secretary, when asked for the Papers, had said that he would give the House the best information when the correspondence was in a more advanced state. On the 4th of June an Order in Council was issued, which partially established the system of unrestricted competition for appointments in the public service. It might be said, therefore, that it was now too late to ask for a correspondence on the subject. He did not think so; because the House had a right to be informed of the proceedings of the different Departments of the Government in relation to a matter of this kind. The change which had been adopted by the Government in that matter was more nominal than real. On the 4th of June an Order in Council was passed, by which situations in the public service after the 31st of August next were to be given by unrestricted competition with certain exceptions. Schedule A of the Order in Council contained all the offices which were to be open to unrestricted competition, and Schedule B contained all those excepted from its operation. The 7th section of the Order in Council was to this effect—

"In case the chief of a department to which a situation belongs and the Lords of the Treasury shall consider that the qualifications in respect of knowledge and ability deemed requisite for such situation are wholly or in part professional, or otherwise peculiar, and not ordinarily to be acquired in the Civil Service, and the said chief of the department shall propose to appoint thereto a person who has acquired such qualifications in other pursuits, or in case the said chief of the department and the Lords of the Treasury shall consider that, either for the purpose of facilitating transfers from the Redundant List, or for other reasons, it would be for the public interest that examination should be wholly or partially dispensed with, the Civil Service Commissioners may dispense with examination, wholly or partially, and may grant their certificate of qualification upon evidence satisfactory to them that the said person possesses the requisite knowledge and ability, and is duly qualified in respect of age, health, and character."
That section gave such large powers to the heads of Departments and the Lords of the Treasury that in conjunction they could appoint anyone to an office in Schedule A without any examination whatever. Nor was that all; for by section 8 of the same Order in Council power was reserved to the chiefs of Departments, with the concurrence of the Lords of the Treasury, to add situations to or withdraw situations from either of the Schedules A and B, so that they might undo all that had been done by the Order in Council. The hon. Member for Brighton had dwelt upon the evil effects of giving situations in the public service upon the recommendation of Members of that House; but another species of patronage of a not less prejudicial character would still be left in full force—namely, the appointments which might be made under the 7th section of the Order in Council that he had quoted, and which the Government might confer on their friends. There were two kinds of strength possessed by Governments. The first was that which they derived from possessing the confidence of the country, and which enabled them to carry out great measures that were understood and resolved upon by the country. The other was that which they had heretofore derived from official patronage—a very mischievous source of support, as he conceived, and one which he desired to see rapidly diminished, and ultimately extinguished. When the House was told not many days since that its Address, if carried, was not worth more than the paper it was written upon, it would do well to inquire whether the power of the Government had not increased, was not increasing, and ought not to be diminished. The hon. Member concluded by moving his Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That there be laid before this House, Copies of any Treasury Minute that may have been passed on the subject of first appointments to the subordinate offices in the Public Service by unrestricted competition:
"And, of any Correspondence that may have taken place thereon between the Treasury and the Heads of the other Departments."—(Mr. Sinclair Aytoun.)

regretted to find that his hon. Friend was of opinion that the Order in Council on the subject of open competition was not worth the paper on which it was written. He doubted very much whether the House would agree with his hon. Friend in that opinion. As far as he could judge, he believed that the House, on the contrary, had shown an appreciation of that Order in Council and of the motives which influenced the Government in putting it before the public. The views of the Government were stated to the House by his right hon. Friend at the head of the Government, and the House was able to judge of those views and also of the sincerity of the Government in endeavouring to carry them out; and he ventured to think that Order in Council showed very considerable and reliable evidence of the sincere opinions of the Government in favour of the principle of open competition, and their desire to apply it as far as practicable. His right hon. Friend, in answering a Question put some time ago on the subject, stated that the correspondence which had passed between the Treasury and the other public Departments had been of a confidential nature; and the House would understand that if it had not been of a confidential nature, its very object probably would have failed. The Government approved the principle of open competition; but the method of bringing about its acceptance and adoption which they pursued was to invite a confidential expression of the opinions of the various heads of Departments, and under those circumstances it was impossible for them to produce the correspondence, which had been invited in confidence. The result, however, of the correspondence was before the public in the shape of the Order in Council to which his hon. Friend had referred. He would not now occupy the time of the House in discussing the Order in Council, which, however, the Government would be ready to discuss whenever his hon. Friend called the attention of the House specifically to it. The present Motion asked for the production of the Treasury Minute; but there was no Treasury Minute to produce. There was a Treasury Circular addressed to the various heads of Departments, asking them to enter into confidential communication, as he had stated, with the Treasury as to the method in and the degree to which the principle of open competition could be applied.

said, that having originally brought forward that question, he could not but feel extremely pleased that the Government had gone as far as they had done in the matter. He could only wish that their scheme had been somewhat more complete. It certainly seemed to him—and perhaps they would be able to judge better after they had had more experience—that too great a power had been reserved to the heads of Departments in regard to appointments in the Civil Service without examination. He must say that of the two he preferred the modern system of competition. What he objected to in the scheme was that officers in the Foreign and Home Departments were excepted from the Order in Council.

said, they had consulted every head of a Department on the subject, taken his opinion, and acted upon it. The heads of the Home Office and of the Foreign Office thought it would be better the system should not be extended to them. To that they saw no objection, because the great mass of the Civil Service were willing to come in. The matter was in the nature of an experiment, and they felt that if the proceeding were to succeed, it was better it should do so with the consent of all concerned than to force it violently on unwilling persons, who were responsible for the conduct of the Departments, merely because his right hon. Friend and himself happened to be entirely in favour of it. The thing would be very shortly tested, and then it would be seen whether it could be safely extended. The House would observe that the 7th section only extended the system to first appointments. They did not maintain that promotion after the first appointments, or to what were called Staff appointments should be dependent on competition. He was certain that nothing was so likely to injure the plan as to attempt to force matters. They could not decide in every case by competition who were best fitted for a particular service. When they came to select persons of particular qualification—lawyers, for example — the best way to do so would not be by competition. A much better way would be to look about for persons who had proved themselves to be able lawyers and to take them. Competition, after all afforded but an erring standard. It was only the best expedient among many. If heads of Departments were free from all possible influences, and could give their minds wholly to see who were the fittest persons, they might do better than by examination; but being frail they might be mistaken, and, therefore, it was thought better to introduce the competitive system. But that did not apply to Staff appointments. As to the 8th section, much the same might be said. It was quite posssible mistakes might be made in the first instance, and that officers might be put under competition which it would be better to withdraw. Of course, whether the thing would be thought to work well or not would depend not upon the heads of Departments or the Treasury, but upon the public opinion of the country, and if public opinion ratified the experiment it would be perfectly impossible for anyone to enforce this section in such a way as to throw the system back. He hoped, therefore, the House would believe that the hon. Gentleman, he was sure most unwittingly, had exaggerated the matter when he said that these clauses were so great a dereliction from principle that they would entirely defeat the object in view.

wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary why he was opposed to the principle of open competition? However, as the right hon. Gentleman was not in his place, he would put the question another day. He must say that the answer of the Chhancellor of the Exchequer had only confirmed him in his suspicions.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.