Examination of witness (Questions 40 -
WEDNESDAY 6 DECEMBER 2000
40. There has been debate in this country, for
probably about a decade or more now, about the role of politicians,
and following on from Michael's question about somehow, if you
put it to civil servants or officers or a professional body, you
take the vested interest out of it, and it comes back to the point
you made in your Foreword about the merit principle being under
threat from the role of Ministers. Is that a valid criticism,
that there is too much of the democratic side, and that we ought
to have a bit more of democratic deficit?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I have never heard anyone suggest
that we should have more democratic deficit, and I certainly would
not be a person to suggest it, or personally support it. But people
do not say, certainly to me, that they want to see more civil
servants and officers running things, as opposed to politicians;
what they are saying is, it is important that lay people come
in, who are not civil servants, officers or politicians, but can
be part of a body, who can make a contribution, that comes from
the lay community.
41. I have got a couple of questions on the
processes you use, and I am going to ask a question on the auditors
and independent assessors and the kitemark. Can I start with the
independent assessors? Can you just define the role of the independent
assessor, how they are appointed, and how you define the independent
element of the independent assessors, what are they independent
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) The independent assessors are
people who are asked to sit on, in the main, panels for executive
bodies, who are independent of that Government Department, and
independent of the body that is being interviewed for, who have
an understanding of what the proper process should be. And they
do one of two things, they either observe and give a good housekeeping
seal of approval that says, "This was done properly,"
or they observe and take part in the process, interviewing as
an additional person, and different Government Departments use
them differently. So that is one major role, on executive bodies.
On advisory bodies, because of proportionality, not everyone is
interviewed in that same long process, then the role of the independent
assessor is to oversee the whole process, look at all the paperwork,
look at what was done, and say, "Yes, this has been done
properly, and all the proper stages were taken account of."
They are intended to be independent of the body and not a member
of that Department. How are they selected; well, in a variety
of ways, because Government Departments have traditionally selected
their independents in a whole range of ways, including the tapping
on the shoulder, to say, "Would you like to be an independent
assessor?", because there was no particular guidance, other
than there should be independent scrutiny, as to how it should
be done. I have taken a particular interest in the independent
assessors, as I think you remember, and so, having consulted very
widely about independent assessors, how they are appointed, and
so on, I am about to do two things, with the support and agreement
of Government Departments, Permanent Secretaries, and so on. First
of all, working with Government Departments, we are looking at
best practice and producing guidance about how independent assessors
should be sought, appointed, trained, assessed and make their
contribution, and that Government Departments will continue, in
the main, to find their independent assessors but following a
guidance, and that independent assessors will have a handbook,
a guidebook, about what their role is all about. The second thing
I am going to do is set up a small, independent register of independents,
that I will be advertising for, for the small Departments who
have no possibility of, they have a few appointments and generally
they have a hard time finding, independent assessors. So I will
be practising what I preach, by myself advertising for, against
criteria, selecting and ensuring that there is proper training,
and that my office will take a responsibility for training, in
relation to independent assessors, setting out what should be
42. How do you ensure that they actually conform
to common standards?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) This, of course, is a difficulty,
because each Government Department chooses their own and does
it in their own way; and, therefore, I was concerned that there
was not a broadly coherent way of me being able to give assurance
that independent assessors are all doing their proper job, because,
of course, they do not belong to me, they sit within Government
Departments. And so, I think, how I am ensuring it, and as I know
you will ask me this question the next time I came to see you,
have I done it, and am I satisfied it is working? I am working
quite hard, with three people in my office, in particular, working
very hard, at consulting. On Monday of next week, we have a meeting
with a number of independent assessors, drawn from a wide range
of places, to look at what are the things we need to get most
right. And by April I hope to have something I could very happily
show you, that would say, "This is how we are ensuring a
43. The cynic in me would say, well, is not
that what a personnel officer does in a private company, and they
do not have the kinds of problems that require an independent
assessor, they just get the personnel function working properly?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) So, are you suggesting we do
not have independent assessors?
44. I am saying that, if you look in the private
sector, the issues of conflicts of interest are dealt with in
a different way, that is not necessarily as bureaucratic or as
cumbersome, that allows these kinds of issues to be addressed.
My question is, have you looked at the private sector, and, if
so, what lessons can we learn; and do we need the independent
assessor, should it not be combined with the personnel function?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes, I have looked at the private
sector, and talked to the private, the voluntary and other sectors
about what they do and how they do it. Of course, these appointments,
which are ministerial appointments, the process is not generally
led by personnel specialists, it is led by people within an office
who are not personnel people.
45. Is not that part of the problem?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) That is not for me. Can I say
that I know that there has been an enormous amount of work recently,
in particular by the Cabinet Office Public Appointments Unit,
and a new senior civil servant has been appointed to do a range
of things, including, my understanding is, a lot of work on diversity,
and a lot of work on best practice and improving the process.
And my office is working with him and his staff to try to ensure,
because, of course, that is their role and not mine, that that
works. But, in relation to independent assessors, we are back
to the public perception, and Mr Trend's point about, if the public
do not feel there is an independent person there, overseeing this
and saying, "I can stand up and say this was done properly;"
then the figures might be even worse.
46. Can I just go on to another conflict of
interest. You have appointed Pricewaterhouse and Ernst & Young
to do various things, but auditors actually get a lot of money
from these other services, and does not that provision of services
that they are looking at, the consultancy work, conflict with
their role of auditing?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I am not sure I wholly understand
the question in relation to what I would use them for.
47. You use Ernst & Young to audit yourself?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Absolutely right.
48. And then you use them to do other services
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) No. I use them in relation
to auditing and the complaints process, which is part of the audit
process; if someone complains about something and I want a detailed
audit done on the records, I would use Ernst & Young.
49. But these companiesI am trying not
to be specificsell services to these other Departments
as well, consultancy services, and is not that a conflict of interest,
when you are trying to do an investigation and they are trying
to sell consultancy services as well?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Certainly, in all of the presentations
to me and the person from the Treasury who is there with us, and
other members of my office, when we did the selection and final
sifting, and so on, all those who came through the process had
to demonstrate how they would work with propriety, and be able
to demonstrate that there was no selling on of consultancy services
in relation to any of the work they were doing for us. And that
is something that we will be auditing, in their relation with
50. Dame Rennie, we have touched already on
ministerial involvement in appointments, and over much of this
year this Committee has concerned itself from time to time with
the Ministerial Code, and I believe that you actually wrote to
the Committee, in June, making some comments on one particular
section of the Ministerial Code, Section 51, which relates to
appointments made by Ministers. I wonder if you could just use
this opportunity, of your return to us today, to say a little
more about why you wrote to us on that topic?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I was invited to see if I would
want to make any contribution. I was concerned, in terms of openness
and transparency, that part of what I need to be able to do, in
my assurance to the public, is to say, "This is the process,
there are seven steps to it," or eight steps to it, or ten
steps, "and this is what is happening." If additional
steps are added in, if, for example, it is going to a Minister,
or it is going to the Prime Minister's office, then I would want
to be able to see that this is known in advance and everyone knows
this is part of the process. Certainly, some of the people who
complain and say, "Where has my appointment gone to?"
want to know in advance the stages that it is going to go through;
and I think what I was urging was that the final stages of the
process should be as evident as the beginning stages, and that
I would hope that that might be taken into account in the Ministerial
51. Thank you for that. Is that an issue that
you have raised, for instance, with the Cabinet Office?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) It is certainly an issue that,
when asked to describe to you one of the things that might be
useful, I had certainly shared it. It is not the biggest problem
on my agenda, as it were, it is more an opportunity to demonstrate
openness than something that I see as an active problem at the
52. Can I just ask something about complaints.
Michael Trend referred to the unflattering MORI findings, perhaps,
about recognition, and yet it is interesting that the number of
direct complaints that you have received, I think, has gone up
by something like eight times between 1997 and 1999, five direct
complaints in 1997-98 up to 38. And yet there seems to be a conflict
here between the lack of public recognition, represented by the
MORI survey, and yet more people bringing complaints to your attention?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes; indeed, I would say that
the reason people are complaining is because they now know about
us, and I suppose I need to demonstrate the difference between
the two. I think the general public do not know necessarily what
a public appointment is, separate from many other appointments,
and they do not know necessarily that it is regulated in the way
that it is, and I think a great deal needs to be done. In relation
to people applying and complaining, following a meeting with the
Neill Committee and, I believe, with this Committee, one of the
things I thought was a useful thing to do was to produce a leaflet
that goes into every pack, from every Government office, when
someone applies to an advertisement and says, "I'd like to
be considered for...; please send me this pack." Each Government
Department now has a pile of these complaints leaflets, or leaflets
that say, from me, "This is the proper process you, as a
member of the public, need to know, these are the principles that
are being applied, and if you are not happy about the process
this is where you come to complain." So, in a sense, those
people who are interested to apply now have a bit of paper that
tells them what should be done and where to go if they are not
happy; but the general public, of course, do not have that.
53. What do you see as the likely consequences
for this increase in complaints, if it were to continue, on the
way in which you work, as Commissioner, your office works?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) In relation to the complaints
we get, they are many and varied, sometimes they are quite straightforward
requests for, "I believe I was the best person, and I don't
see why I wasn't appointed because I now know who has been appointed
and I don't think they're as good as I am, and, therefore, is
there anything funny going on here?" And I am able, quite
quickly, to gather the papers, and with the Department, go through
it and I am able to give an assurance. Or if not, I then go back
and do a bit more digging. And I may say, "There are gaps
in the paperwork, I can't give you the complete assurance."
It is fairly straightforward. And, with those fairly straightforward
ones, as part of my work, working with Departments and with the
best practice people in the Cabinet Office secretariat, I am saying,
when I meet them on a regular basis, "These are the things
that are coming up again and again that need to be improved, so
please sort it." And I produced two bulletins, one for all
those in the Government offices who manage these processes, to
say, "These are the latest things I'm concerned about, so
please pay attention," and one for independent assessors,
a bulletin called `The Sentinel', it is something printed on our
computer in-house, not a grand thing, but saying, "Here are
the complaints that are coming up, please be vigilant; please
ensure they don't happen." So I think that a great deal can
be done, not just to let them drift but to work together with
others to improve. But there are other complaints, that take a
great deal of time. There are the more complex complaints, indeed,
one complaint I have had recently went back before Nolan, and
had many things they had wanted to draw to my attention. That
has taken a great deal of work and a great of time from my office.
So there are many more complex complaints. Sometimes I have felt
and believed it has been important to do two things. One is to
go and see that complainant, wherever they happen to be, if it
is easier for them, to come to me, or, in the case of Scotland
or Northern Ireland, I go there, and really listen to what is
underneath this and what really needs to be satisfied, and I have
done that a number of times. Or, if I think that it is something
that is going to require such assurance to the complainant, as
Mr White had said, in working with my auditors, I might say to
my auditors, "Work with me on this, so that when I go to
this complainant I've got an absolutely solid piece of evidence
that they will be able to take assurance from." And so it
is the complexity, rather than the rising number, that concerns
54. Rather than the volume?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Because the volume, I think,
is something thatso far, this year, I have had 19 complaints,
to me directly, but, I think, working with Departments to quality
assure we reduce the shorter-term ones, but the longer-terms ones
sometimes take many, many weeks and a great deal of work.
55. So we should beware of simply judging in
terms of numbers of complaints?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Absolutely.
56. It is the nature that is really important?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Yes.
Mr Lepper: Could I ask just one, final, very
perhaps trivial question, I am not sure. Looking at the programme
for Public Service Week, last week, you had, quite rightly, events
in Belfast, in Scotland, in Cardiff, in Wrexham and Manchester.
Mr Tyrie: But what about your constituency,
57. I was not going to be so crass as to mention
my own constituency, Chairman; but not London or the South of
England. Were there reasons for that, or is it sheer chance?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) Not entirely. Manchester, because
it is centrally situated in the country; and for people who come
from outside London there is often a great deal of complaint that
everything seems to happen in the South and in London. I had hoped,
indeed, to have one in the South and one in Manchester, but actually
getting that organised proved difficult, but when the choice came
to have just the one, it seemed to me appropriate, and it is my
choice, to say the North had it.
58. I was not going to do an advertisement for
any particular venue, Chairman, but I am interested in what you
said about the charge that sometimes things do centre on London
and the South, I did wonder whether there was that thinking behind
the choice of venues.
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) The Manchester Evening News,
interestingly, the first question the reporter there asked me
was, "Is it because there are more problems here that you
come here?" It is a mind set. I was able to say, "Absolutely
not," because Manchester has a reputation for doing interesting
things, working in the community, the whole range of things, and
a lot of interesting things were happening in Manchester, and
it seemed good to build on them, as, indeed, there are in many
Mr Lepper: She said, diplomatically.
59. I would like to end with two, quick questions.
One is, you said that lack of awareness of what you do is a major
problem; are not, ultimately, the only people who can give you
that kind of profile and awareness Ministers? It is when very
senior Ministers mention your work that you are likely to get
the kind of coverage that is required, and that public service
weeks are a step forward but they are only going to take you a
very small part of the way. Have you considered asking senior
Ministers to launch some sort of campaign to encourage more people
to come forward in their relevant Departments, for selection?
(Dame Rennie Fritchie) I think there were two things
in there, and I am sure you will put me straight if I have got
them wrong. The one is knowing about me and my work, and the other
is about public appointments.
1 Ernst & Young were contracted by OCPA until the
31 March 2000. Subsequently PriceWaterhouseCoopers were appointed
to undertake audits and other consultancy work as required. Back