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Civil Service: Training and Development

Volume 738: debated on Monday 2 July 2012

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of reductions in Civil Service numbers and training budgets, and the closure of the National School of Government, what steps they are taking to ensure that civil servants receive the necessary training and development to provide high-quality policy advice to Ministers.

My Lords, as the House will be aware, we published the Civil Service reform plan on 19 June, which set out recommendations on training and development, among other proposals. Civil Service Learning is now in place to provide greater choice, flexibility, quality and value for money. It ensures that the current and future skills requirements of civil servants are met. Civil servants can access more than 130 e-learning resources, 75 classroom-based courses and 4,000 learning resources through the Civil Service Learning website. The new policy curriculum is also available through Civil Service Learning. It provides a comprehensive range of policy training and was developed in consultation with people currently working on policy and with subject matter experts in specific policy areas.

I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. Given that these reforms are coming at a time when the Civil Service is reducing in size by some 23%, thereby putting a premium on sharper and more agile policy advice, which as the reform plan itself says should be clearly based on “robust evidence”, will the Minister explain what evidence exists to show that opening up the policy development process to external competition, including from the private sector, will lead to higher quality, more cost-effective and, above all, impartial policy advice?

My Lords, it is not entirely the case that all Civil Service training was provided by the public sector before this. The evidence is to be found in particular in the rather critical NAO report of last year. Among other things, it quotes the Civil Service people survey of 2010, which said that,

“only 48 per cent of civil servants said that the learning and development they had received in the last 12 months had helped them to be better at their job”.

A lot in the NAO report was critical of the inefficient and divided provision of training, particularly between different departments. It discovered among other things that the cost of comparable courses in different departments varied by a factor of four.

My Lords, do we not have to be extremely careful in going down this kind of path? We have a first-class Civil Service that is actually the envy of the rest of the world. Certainly, when I was a special adviser, although I had my disagreements, they were disagreements at a level that enabled me to appreciate both the integrity of civil servants and how excellent they are. Are we not in danger of undermining the Civil Service with this kind of approach, rather than appreciating the excellent people who work for us?

My Lords, I would have loved to have met the noble Lord when he was a special adviser to observe his skills. We are working with Ashridge, Roffey Park, Westminster Explained and a number of other providers. As we have been working with them, we do not see that this in any sense endangers the impartiality or quality of the Civil Service. Roffey Park, as noble Lords know, is a non-profit making organisation that provides top-class skills. We think that there are advantages in having central control of the Civil Service buy-in, which is Civil Service Learning, but with a variety of provision by a variety of providers.

My Lords, the National School of Government provided extensive residential accommodation for extensive residential courses. The Civil Service and other providers are moving away from extensive residential courses to shorter ones, very often for one day each. It is intended that the different mix will be better met and more efficiently provided by a range of different providers.

My Lords, are civil servants given any training in the precise workings of this place and, indeed, the other place? Sometimes, the impression is given that the ignorance is complete.

My Lords, certainly there are training courses for civil servants in how to work with Parliament, particularly for those going into private offices. I have met a number of civil servants who have been through such courses.

Does not the Minister protest too much? Is not the key driver of this move away from the school and a return to learning on the job simply cost saving?

It is not the key driver, but it is one factor. The National Audit Office report’s discovery led from the next generation human resources proposals of 2009, so we are talking about some continuity from one Government to another. The discovery that the provision across different departments was so remarkably unco-ordinated and could be provided much more cheaply should naturally be taken into account by any Government—the previous one or this.

My Lords, I warmly welcome these reforms. I declare an interest as a former Civil Service Minister and underpin the remarks that have been made. Does the Minister appreciate the importance of recognising the integrity, independence and impartiality of our Civil Service, while embracing the need for further education and training?

My Lords, I am very happy to put on the record yet again our deep commitment to a high-quality and impartial Civil Service. I remind everyone that the challenges to the Civil Service at the moment—the data revolution and a whole set of new ways of working—are such that we need to look on a regular basis at the balance of training provided and the way in which one may necessarily have to change to adjust to different circumstances.

My Lords, I am tempted to ask whether the Government are now training civil servants to deal with ministerial U-turns, but I will not. I have a serious question. Last week, the Prime Minister set out a new programme of welfare reform: not for this Government, but for after the next general election. Will civil servants now be working on that policy agenda and preparing policy advice for the ideas set out by the Prime Minister?

My Lords, that was a good joke. The Prime Minister’s speech set out proposals for what he thought the Conservative Party should do post-2015. That is rather beyond my brief.

My Lords, what is being done to ensure that civil servants communicate in plain, concise English? Will he arrange for all civil servants to be given a copy of Sir Ernest Gower’s classic work, The Complete Plain Words, so that they write and speak English and we get rid of the appalling jargon that disfigures so many public documents?

I thought that the noble Lord was going to pay attention to Civil Service spelling mistakes. Perhaps I should inform the House that I discovered some rather bad spelling mistakes in Hansard last week, which I have reported to the Hansard writers.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister could answer the question put by my noble friend on the Front Bench. Is the Civil Service now being asked to work on the welfare reforms spelt out by the Prime Minister the other day? It is a simple question.

My Lords, the Prime Minister was setting out some long-term thoughts on how the policy should be developed after 2015. I have no knowledge of the Civil Service being asked to work on that at present.