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Civil Service College

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 24 April 1996

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2.45 p.m.

In view of present uncertainty, what are their proposals for the future of the Civil Service College.

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government recognise that the Civil Service College has a continuing role in the provision of training and development courses self-evidently linked to the Civil Service. I am pleased to announce to my noble friend that the college is now developing a number of partnerships with the private sector which will enhance its status in the provision of courses for those in the public and private sectors.

My Lords, first, I am much obliged to my noble friend for her courtesy in this matter. I hope I may ask her whether she will deliver a message to her right honourable friends to the effect that, while a few windows open in such an institution can only do good, nevertheless it would seem more than a little eccentric to put the control of a college, the purpose of which is to train civil servants, in the hands of those who have no knowledge whatever of the running of that service.

My Lords, I do not imagine that my noble friend would expect me to start delivering messages when the right honourable gentleman whom he might wish to receive the message can no doubt read Hansard himself. However, it is right to say that, as with other government agencies, we have considered a number of options. As I said before, we have made no proposals to change the position of the Civil Service College.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, when we on this side hear such phrases as "partnerships with the private sector" in relation to the Civil Service College, we become extraordinarily suspicious having regard to the experience we have of the way in which the Government have handled the creeping privatisation of the public services in recent years? The noble Baroness said that the Government have considered various options in relation to the Civil Service College. Can she give us an assurance that the option of privatisation has been ruled out?

My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord should get too excited about what he has heard in the past: The noble Lord would not expect me to comment on any plan that the Government might have in the future. I repeat that we have made no proposals to make any change to the position of the Civil Service College in the public sector. However, I thought that the party of the noble Lord opposite was now quite interested in privatisation.

My Lords, I am sorry to come back to this matter but it is important and it is the noble Baroness who has the official brief. Is privatisation of the Civil Service College ruled out or is it not?

My Lords, I do not think it is appropriate to assume that I shall commit this Government or any successive government indefinitely in the future. I am quite sure that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, would not expect me to do that. He may shake his head but I am absolutely certain that he would not expect me to do that. I heard one of his noble friends suggesting that the party opposite would win the election, which of course it will not. How do we know what the party opposite will do in future?

My Lords, the Civil Service College has never quite fulfilled the high expectations we held out for it on the Fulton Committee but it performs a valuable service. I heard with interest the assurances, limited though they are, which the noble Baroness has just given.

Can the noble Baroness give us one further assurance? Has the question of converting the college into a trading fund—to use the modern jargon—been completely ruled out? It is a fate which overtook a comparable education institution, the Fire Service College, with not very happy consequences to date.

My Lords, all I can say is that a number of options are being considered which will involve joint approaches with private sector organisations. Those discussions are at a sensitive stage; and I do not wish to risk prejudicing progress by being more specific.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, at the height of the influence and fame of the Civil Service, there was no Civil Service College? Civil servants were thought to be adequately prepared by following proper courses at real universities. Would we not perhaps do better to go back to that arrangement?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Beloff is a great expert on this subject and no doubt his views will also be considered.

My Lords, when the final decision is taken, will the House be informed? Shall we be given an opportunity to debate the issue?

My Lords, as noble Lords know, these matters are for the usual channels. The usual channels will have an opportunity to consider the matter if the noble Lord wishes to put it to them.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that, in determining a balance between public and private sector use of the Civil Service College, the needs of the Civil Service rather than financial revenue to the college will be paramount? Does the Minister also agree that the Government's commitment to the European Year of Lifelong Learning involves lifelong training? Initial training for civil servants at universities is excellent, but there is a need for updated training during the professional life of civil servants.

My Lords, I can give that commitment. The college provides a wide range of courses. It does its very best to look after the civil servants who attend for the courses, and others too. Noble Lords should know that civil servants do not use the Civil Service College alone, as my noble friend Lord Beloff said. Something like 35 per cent. of senior management attend there for the courses. But, overall, only 5 per cent. of the Civil Service do so. The remainder of civil servants are trained in their own departments by other civil servants.

My Lords, while the last thing I would wish to do is to load my noble friend with unfriendly messages to her colleagues: nevertheless, perhaps I may ask her to give them some very friendly advice. Words such as "a number of options are being considered" are a very good way of stirring up suspicions which may not be necessary.

My Lords, my right honourable friends in the other place are, as I am, always delighted to receive advice from the noble Lord.

My Lords, will the Minister dispel the theory that only those with a university education are suitable for entry to the Civil Service? Is the noble Baroness aware that, of the private secretaries that I had during my time as a government Minister, two had left school at 15 years of age and both were, and still are, outstanding civil servants?

My Lords, that indicates the excellence of ordinary education; and I am delighted to hear that.