Civil Service: Specialists

– in the House of Lords at 11:13 am on 16th February 2006.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 11:13 am, 16th February 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that the training of specialist civil servants is sufficiently broad to enable them to relate their work effectively to government policies in general.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the Government recently introduced the new Professional Skills for Government programme to ensure that civil servants, wherever they work, have the right mix of skills and expertise to enable their department or agency to deliver effective services. As well as ensuring that civil servants have the skills required to work in government, such as analysis of evidence, the framework covers the professional skills required in each profession in government, such as skills for statisticians.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but do the Government realise that, because of their highly specialised education, scientists and technical experts in the UK need the same broad training about institutions and policy that the Government provide to policy-making civil servants and to parliamentary staff? Does he realise that, unless something is done, the Government will have continuing difficulty in promoting specialists to senior managerial positions in the Civil Service and specialist agencies?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

Yes, my Lords, of course we recognise the value of specialist staff; they represent about one-third of the senior Civil Service. In 2004–05, we recruited 169 civil servants from outside the Civil Service; of those, 63 had recorded specialist skills. The Professional Skills for Government programme exists precisely to ensure that all senior staff are given the right balance of training and support to deliver the business for which they are responsible. Our approach to core skills is designed to ensure that all specialist senior staff are given the support that they need to operate in central government.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, given the events of this week, in which a senior civil servant has resigned and we have seen the debacle over the "no smoking" Bill, would it not be better for the training to be given to Ministers rather than civil servants?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

Actually, my Lords, I was thinking that it might help if the Opposition had some training.

Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour

My Lords, we see in the Government's response to the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that special advisers can now convey instructions to the Civil Service and commission work from it. Is it not clear that this is the first time that special advisers have come between Ministers and civil servants and that we urgently need an Act of Parliament to control this or to clarify it?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I wondered how long it might take to get round to talking about a Civil Service Bill or Act, a debate which we have had many times before. It is not my understanding that special advisers give instructions. That is not the nature of the relationship. They might seek to request work on behalf of Ministers, but they will work very much within the framework set for them by Ministers. They are there to assist both the Minister and the Civil Service staff in taking forward important policy work. That is the nature of that relationship.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson in the Lords, Scotland, Spokesperson In the Lords (With Special Responsibility for Civil Service Reform), Cabinet Office

My Lords, in a statement in October, Sir Brian Bender, who, I understand, is the head of the profession for policy and delivery, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was referring—indicated that there was a need to get away from the notion of generalists. Is it the Government's general view that there is to some extent a shortage of the specialists required?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the Professional Skills for Government programme is designed to see the end of the era of the gifted amateur. We are trying to work much harder to ensure that there is a strong core profession in the Civil Service. Generalists are important, but we need to ensure that we have that professional expertise. There are many professions throughout the Civil Service, and our Government are committed to ensuring that we raise the quality of professionalism in the Civil Service. That is an important aspect of our modernisation programme.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour

My Lords, is there continuing validity in the Northcote-Trevelyan concept of a higher Civil Service staffed by generalists formed by a broad but rigorous education in the humanities and characterised by independence of mind and a commitment to the public domain?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I certainly see a value in the Northcote-Trevelyan ethic—we have had many discussions and debates about that. However, in the senior Civil Service—I am describing a group of about 30,000 civil servants—we require expertise at a professional level for lawyers, accountants, human resources and IT experts, auditors and in medicine and specific science disciplines and so on. It is terribly important that we work and invest in that if we want to raise standards of public service and ensure that we have the right people in the right jobs.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox Baroness Wilcox Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Constitutional Affairs, Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a great initiative that is to be encouraged? However, does he also agree that if he really wants to recruit the very best people into the very best of our Civil Service, we need a Civil Service Act, to encourage people to come in and know that we will protect their independence once they are there?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Baroness is kindly inviting me to agree with my own Government's policy. I am most grateful for that. The Government are committed to raising standards in public service. That is exactly what we seek to do. It is much better for us to spend our time focusing on professional development and improving levels of expertise and rather less time focusing on the narrow range of issues which I understand that colleagues are concerned about and relate to a particular aspect of the Civil Service. If the Opposition party was serious about its modernising proposals it would see the value of investing more in high-quality staff so that our services were truly excellent.

Photo of Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what percentage of permanent secretaries have degrees in science or engineering?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I would not begin to answer that question this morning. I do not have the data at my fingertips, but I am more than happy to write to the noble Lord on that point. This is an important and serious debate, not one for petty political point scoring. We should all get behind the programme and be proud of it, as it will raise standards in public life and across our public services.

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, I actually know the answer as it was in July 2004, when we had the Civil Service debate, because I did the research: one out of 19 permanent secretaries had a science degree. As the Minister is telling us that improvements are happening, could he at least tell us what the trend is? Has he doubled, tripled or quadrupled the figure?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I guess that we could double it quite easily by recruiting another one, if the noble Lord is right—I have no reason to doubt that he is. In a sense, he makes an important point. We need to plan for the future, which is why it is important that we have the Professional Skills for Government programme. I am sure that, over time, the Civil Service will benefit greatly from its development. Certainly, civil servants who use the programme are already beginning to reap the rewards from it.