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EU Commission: Recruitment

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 20 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the rate of recruitment of United Kingdom nationals to all levels of the European Commission is satisfactory.

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.

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?

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 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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.