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Civil Service Fast Stream

Volume 774: debated on Monday 11 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to make socioeconomic diversity reflecting the nation the primary criterion for future recruitment into the Civil Service Fast Stream.

My Lords, we have no plans to make socioeconomic diversity part of the Civil Service Fast Stream selection criteria. Selection must always be based strictly on merit, which is why we anonymise applications. Any data collected will be done on a voluntary basis and used anonymously to help improve overall recruitment efforts. Diversity data would not form the basis of any individual recruitment decision.

Is my noble friend aware that his Answer is enormously welcome? Is it not true that, as far as gender equality is concerned, 54% of the fast stream are now female and therefore that dimension has been addressed? Is there not still an overriding need for the fast stream for our country to recruit young men and women, without discrimination, who have leadership qualities to take our great Civil Service forward?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. It is obviously a good day to be discussing how we appoint leaders. There is more to be done, as my noble friend rightly says, on various aspects of improving diversity, but it is crucial that we abide by the principles of Civil Service recruitment as set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, namely that selection must be on merit on the basis of fair and open competition.

My Lords, in a debate on recruitment and assessment services in March 1996, I detailed the needs of the Diplomatic Service for public servants with,

“a high degree of loyalty, integrity, impartiality, stability of character, intelligence and linguistic aptitude”.—[Official Report, 8/3/1996; col. 558.]

Does the Minister agree that all these qualities are still of primary importance?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. He obviously speaks with a great deal of experience. As the nephew of a diplomat, I am somewhat biased but I completely agree. On his final point about language skills, more needs to be done, as always. We need to make sure that we are getting the best diplomats who are not just aware of the culture of the countries to which they are posted, but are also able to speak the language. I am delighted that the Foreign Office language centre reopened in 2013 and is doing much to address this.

My Lords, will the Minister explain the purpose of collecting these data if we do not do anything with them?

First, let us see what the data say; then, if they say that there are talents in pockets of society who are not applying and we think should be applying, we will redouble our efforts to ensure we get more applications from those groups.

My Lords, I am fascinated by the noble Lord’s reply regarding the language school. Many of your Lordships will know young people who would be perfectly competent civil servants but who have failed to be admitted to the fast stream because of their inability to pass a maths exam. Is it not time that the Government looked at that?

I am sure that is the case and that we need to redouble our efforts to improve standards in maths right across the board.

My Lords, the Select Committee on Social Mobility found that many companies, particularly accountancy firms, have reverted to the model of recruiting at graduate level but also recruiting at 18 and sending everybody through to the same professional outcome. Will the Minister confirm that the apprenticeships available in the Civil Service also enable people to be in the fast stream from 18 and to go right to the top of the Civil Service from that basis, so that we do not miss the best talent that has not gone to university?

My noble friend makes an extremely good point. Apprenticeships will be key. The high-level apprenticeship talent programme aims to bring in 750 people this year, and around 18% of highers come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I will write to her specifically on the point about the fast stream.

Will the Minister ensure that the Cabinet Office team being put together under Oliver Robbins in the new European Union unit will be gender-balanced and representative of all our nations and regions, as well as of the population, to ensure that the interests of the whole country are central to the preparation for the Brexit negotiations?

The noble Baroness makes a good point. As the head of the Civil Service has pointed out, we are determined to make sure that we get the brightest and best to negotiate and advise on an outcome that represents the views of our entire society. I am unable to go beyond that at this precise juncture.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the Government’s policy is to maintain a United Kingdom Civil Service and ensure that civil servants from the devolved Administrations are exposed to Whitehall and vice versa?

Indeed, I can confirm that, and my noble friend makes a good point about ensuring that civil servants from Scotland are exposed to Whitehall.

My Lords, I joined the foreign service in 1960 as a working-class boy from the University of Wales. There were only two women and no one from the ethnic minorities at that time. Does the noble Lord agree that our schools, because of the collapse of language teaching, are often unable to provide sufficient language competence and we need to look carefully at language potential? Such matters should never trump merit and competence.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. We have come a long way but there is always more to be done. I concur with him about language skills.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as well as having competence in language skills, it is important to know about religious literacy because of the different places to which people are posted?

That is absolutely right and is key. As noble Lords said earlier, we need to ensure that diplomats have a grasp of culture, not just language.

My Lords, several Members from the Labour Benches have asked questions and we have not had anyone from the Lib Dems for a while.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that last week evidence emerged that staff employed in the Civil Service from black and minority ethnic communities are sometimes paid significantly less than their white counterparts? Will he assure the House that this is not the case? If he does not have the reply now, will he undertake to look into the matter and write to me?

My Lords, as a member of the Official Opposition party, I ask the Minister whether he is receiving the same reports as me that morale in the Civil Service is plummeting because of the suggestion that all the best and the brightest should have the futile task over the next few years of extricating us from the European Union instead of improving our education, housing and transport and all the other important things that need doing. How will this affect recruitment to the fast stream?

I am sorry; I do not agree with what the noble Lord has said. I am interested that he is part of the Official Opposition; I wonder which is the unofficial opposition. All I would say to him is that we need to ensure we get the very best to undertake this task. However, at the same time, as he rightly says, we need to ensure that we continue to attract, and retain, the best right across the board.