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Civil Service: EU Nationals

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they are under an obligation by European law or European directives to grant European Union nationals access to posts in the United Kingdom Civil Service; and whether they have any plans to do so.

My Lords, the EC treaty guarantees to workers from each member state the right freely to reside and take up employment in other member states. In the United Kingdom, the European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 1991 and the European Economic Area Act 1993 had the effect of opening up Crown employment to nationals of the European economic area with the exception of those posts requiring special allegiance to the state, which are reserved for UK nationals.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Northern Ireland Office claims that EU legislation requires it to open up the latter posts, requiring special allegiance, to Irish nationals, as agreed at the recent meeting at St Andrews. The Northern Ireland Civil Service is small, with little interchange with the rest of the United Kingdom, but it has nevertheless maintained its ethos and integrity during difficult times. As it now faces a unique challenge in its future political masters, this is not the time for competition from a larger body which does not share the same ethos, particularly on political independence. Nor would such a change be consistent with the Good Friday agreement. Does the Minister not agree that the parachuting-in of Ministers with no organic connection with Northern Ireland society should not now be replaced by parachuting in similarly handicapped Permanent Secretaries with potentially conflicting interests?

My Lords, the Permanent Secretary, for one, would be a reserved post, so there would be no question of “parachuting in”. I recognise the implications for Northern Ireland. What is at stake for the British Civil Service, however, is the ability to tap into the pool of talent represented by those from other countries who have the right to live and work here, and increasing the availability of such people for posts in the Civil Service while recognising that certain posts and functions, such as the Security Service, will necessarily be reserved for British nationals.

My Lords, would it not be a serious mistake to isolate Northern Ireland from Civil Service developments elsewhere? I have always had my doubts about the advantages of the 1922 restrictions limiting access to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The people of Northern Ireland deserve, and are able to get, the best people for the best job, wherever they come from in the UK and the European Union.

My Lords, my noble friend is knowledgeable about Northern Ireland. He will recognise that that kind of thinking led the Prime Minister to say in October that he thought it timely that we regularised the rules on aliens seeking opportunities in the Civil Service, both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. That is why an Order in Council is being proposed, which will be subject to parliamentary consideration, to give effect to this.

My Lords, I recognise that there is broader issue for the British Civil Service as a whole, but does the Minister accept that we on these Benches welcome the open attitude of Her Majesty’s Government to recruiting to major Whitehall departments nationals from other EU member states, some of whom rise to quite senior positions? There is no question of mixed loyalties. Could not the same open principle be progressively applied to Northern Ireland? It is not just a question of southern Irish nationals, but others from elsewhere in the European Union. We read in the newspapers, for example, that some of the Catholics joining the Police Service of Northern Ireland are Polish.

My Lords, the Order in Council will apply to Northern Ireland as well as to the rest of the United Kingdom. Individuals will be chosen on their merits and will be selected in accordance with the Civil Service rules on selection. We are conscious that 79,000 posts in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs out of 97,000 public service posts in the Civil Service are reserved. That does not make a great deal of sense when we need to fill the posts with people with the requisite talent and ability; and that is why the order is being introduced.

My Lords, the Minister has not said what examination successes those who are given these posts have to achieve prior to their engagement. I invite him to do so now.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that a massive number of skills are necessary across the Civil Service. At the highest level, the Civil Service examinations are regarded as among the most testing in the country, but at lower levels, different tests are applied. I assure the House that anyone who applies for a Civil Service post will be treated fairly, but he or she will get the post only if they merit it.

My Lords, should we not pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for his enormous contribution to trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland? Is it not a great shame that he was not there to see his efforts come to full fruition? While we are doing that, can we not find it within our hearts to praise the Prime Minister for keeping at this most difficult of tasks?

My Lords, I shall resist the second invitation, but the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, stands on the record.

My Lords, do Her Majesty’s Government think that the British people would have voted in 1975 to remain in what they were assured was a common market if they had known that they were voting for this sort of arrangement?

My Lords, this sort of arrangement obtains in France. Does the noble Lord think that the French are any less jealous of their position or any less nationalistic than the British?