Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)



Mr Gordon Prentice

  160. I am generally pretty sceptical of expert elites because I think they can screw up, and they do. I just wanted to ask Graham Mather about government by quango. Are there any quangos that, in your view, have performed disastrously, and, if so, why have they performed disastrously? You have done a study on this, so you would know.
  (Mr Mather) I do not believe that there have been performance levels recently which would qualify as disastrous. I think that some of the new decision-takers encounter problems. For example, the gas regulator, Ofgas, in its early existence, developed very poor relationships, especially with its regulatees. To some extent, it has been corrected in the move away from a single regulator who might bark up the wrong tree or get some personalised antagonism, replacing them with boards. It is very difficult for a board to be completely perverse, although things may go wrong in the board. I do not think there have been disasters.

  161. You mentioned in your paper the Postal Services Commission—Postcom. Are they doing a good job?
  (Mr Mather) I think they would feel—and I would also feel, that the jury is out, because they are a very newly-established body.

  162. Taking big decisions?
  (Mr Mather) I agree with you; they are taking big and important decisions. Like every other new decision-taker, they are facing tricky circumstances in which some of the plans of their regulatee do not seem to strike a chord with the public.

  163. What does that mean?
  (Mr Mather) Consignia's public statements, it seems to me, may cause some concern in the public, and they will expect the regulator to address that. We are seeing that happen in real time before us now; whether the regulator succeeds, will emerge, I guess, over the next 12 months.

  164. Does the fact that the Government is the sole shareholder in Consignia make any kind of difference to the way in which the Government relates to Postcom, the regulator?
  (Mr Mather) I suspect that you have identified a conflict of interest, as we lawyers call it, which could be expected to cause difficulties, in that there is an obvious incentive.

  165. If you were advising us about this conflict of interest, what would you say?
  (Mr Mather) I think that conflicts of interest should be avoided and removed wherever possible. I would add that the regulators I talk to, and regulatees alike, say there are often particular difficulties when the regulator is dealing only with one organisation; that it is much better if you are a regulatory board if you are covering five or six regulatees; if you are dealing with only one, the relationship can become too narrow, too focused, and there is not enough breadth to it.

  166. You are relaxed about us being governed by quango. In what other areas of public policy do we need frankness? Do we need "Ofcop", or whatever?
  (Mr Mather) I suspect that a national police regulator would be a desirable innovation in that it would allow some of the best practice we see in other areas, in gas, electricity and water—which have clearly been in the public interest—to be applied in an area which is obviously an area of no less importance. It seems to me that the lack of a central focus, the lack of independent expertise, and the lack of talented people with no axe to grind, sitting in a board framework in the area of law and order, is something that ought to be remedied.

  167. Can I ask Dame Helena about head-hunters? I think we should have some head-hunters in front of us in this Committee! Did you have any sense when you were interviewed by PriceWaterhouseCoopers that they were following a specific brief that had been given to them by the department, or was it largely the case that the head-hunter was just having a rough idea but was doing a wide trawl?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) This is some years ago, so I will do my best to recollect accurately what my view was of that. I actually asked why they had contacted me because it took me by surprise. They said it was because the department had suggested this. That is the only thing that I can tell you. I do not know what their brief was because I never saw that, but I can say that I believe it would be normal for the department to put people in positions of head-hunting on a pretty straightforward brief of how they wanted the job done. I suspect that is likely to be the case, otherwise what would you be appointing against? Would you be doing a beauty parade, if you did not have something to judge them against? I cannot see how you could do that, and that is traditionally done.

  168. How do we get greater diversity in these public bodies? How do we get Muslim women who are invisible? How do we get Muslim women into quangos and public bodies? How do we do something about the under-representation of certain groups? If you look at Who's Who? the number of people in public bodies that went to Oxbridge or live in the south of England is staggering. How do we correct that?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think you have to start within the locality where people are. The sort of thing that I personally found quite frustrating is that—and forgive me for harking back to the CAB service, but that is quite good at identifying different groups of people wishing to be involved in its organisation, and seeking to operate to provide a service to a community made up of people from the community in some sot of balance. That is the aim of most bureaux. In point of fact, there are many competent people within organisations like CAB—and I only talk about that because I know it so well—and they do not get taken on and forward in the way that it would be possible to do. I think this is wrong. I think all kinds of voluntary bodies are ones where people are inclined to come forward and get their teeth first into wanting to help and serve the community, and being seen as community leaders; but somebody needs to proactively then go into each geographic area and try and talk to people around the place. Everybody knows who these people are. You know in every town you live in who are the movers and shakers and how people come forward; but you have to go out and say that. One of my best remembered moments is this. I happen to live in Tunbridge Wells, which is not well known for being a stronghold of ethnic minority population. However, I thought it was extremely important that people who were living in the area, who were from ethnic minority populations, felt they could visit a Bureau which had people from the same population, either Muslim women or Hindu men, whichever it was that was suitable and applicable. I made a point, as a Bureau manager, in every speech I gave to every single organisation, even if they were only all-male, all-white—and I patently was not saying what needed to be heard—of mentioning that this was an ambition of mine to encourage people into the organisation. It was a very good moment for me that when the first meeting was held of the people who lived in Tunbridge Wells who felt they did not fit into the "all-white" category—and it was literally a huge number of different people who joined that group—that the very first decision they took was to say that they would encourage people to come and be advisors in the CAB—because I was the only person in town who had been sending that message. You do have to send that message, and you have to mean it; and then you have to do something.

  169. It is not just about races, though, but about life experience.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I agree, but I do think there is a particular issue about people from different minority groups. That is why I am saying that. I think there is also an issue about age. Nowadays, anybody who is over 70 feels they have been completely wasting their lives, but at the same time their health is so much improved that they are fitter than they have ever been, so where does that all fit in? There are all kinds of things that do not stack up in equal opportunities terms. You have to not only send the message but be seen to be doing it. If you do not, then everybody believes the message has no purpose.

  170. That is very helpful. I would just like to put the last question to Graham Mather. Does it matter that groups are under-represented when you believe that quangos should be run by experts?
  (Mr Mather) Yes, indeed, it does matter. I would draw the distinction between a decision-taking body doing a particular task—the Monetary Policy Committee, for example—and a representational body. However, I agree entirely with what Dame Helena said about the techniques. I do not think I can add anything constructive beyond what she said on techniques to improve diversity, but I would just point out that at the MPC level you are drawing on the way society has operated in universities and other agencies; in the Treasury, you are drawing from a pool which has already been, we hope, replenished by open access to people and talent and merit. We should be unabashedly, in my view, meritocratic. Going back to your earlier question about experts fouling up, I would not want to be cast as someone who thinks that pointy-heads or two-brains, who have no connection, should take the key places in our national lives. In the European Commission, we saw that a highly elitist body unelected was induced to resign by parliamentary scrutiny of its failures. I think that is the model. We cannot say Britain has suffered from too much expertise in those public service areas that I mentioned, I would suggest, so we need to tilt that balance, but we need to make absolutely sure that democratic scrutiny, or control of it, proceeds in line with that.

Mr Kevin Brennan

  171. You have both served on quangos at various times. I have got this friend who wants to get on to a quango. How would you recommend they go about it?
  (Mr Mather) I suppose it is breaking the duck, is it not, in the existing model? It is coming to the attention essentially of the departments. How would they do that? They would write to the Public Appointments Unit and fill in a form and go on the register. They would, I suppose, seek to get on what Dame Helena called the lowest rung of the ladder, because I think in practice it is observation of performance of one body which tends to lead to appointment on another.

  172. Would you agree with that, Dame Helena?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) No, not at all—you have finally got your total disagreement!

  173. How would you go about it?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think that the only way nowadays is to answer advertisements and then prove your worth. I think that is the only way on to the ladder. You can find other routes, and people will be put there, but they will all be from the same selected groups. I have no idea whether your friend is within or without that circle. From my point of view, I got started on this because somebody wanted to find a user representative, so you would go out there and find people from the different categories and then you look; but nobody knew how to find anybody at that stage, so there was a desperate search around the place for anyone who could possibly come forward, and that was how I came through that system. From that moment on, I was then thought to be within the circle—so then you start to fit into Graham's category. However, for anybody now starting, I do believe that the largest number of appointments come within those consumer bodies—which are huge numbers—through the DTI, and they are all round the country. It is not just London-based, which is a good thing. The second thing is the Department of Health, because there are more appointments made through that at local levels than most others. I think that, genuinely, people are looking for people with talent and commitment to be able to do those jobs, and that they are being awarded in such a way that I think it is fair. If you have the stamina to undertake going through this process, it can frequently be over a year from when you apply to when you are appointed. For most people, life has moved on—you may not even be free to do it. The worst I ever had was going through something very early on in my life, when I was first appointed Chair of NACAB and I was seeking, because that was a voluntary job, to find a way to earn a living. I applied to join CRUC (Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee)—obviously you can see I was determined! I applied as a result of an advertisement. I went through a process, quite swiftly, of being interviewed. I was given the very clear impression when I was interviewed that I was not a person of merit. I took, therefore, no view of any future likely appointment to that body. Several months passed. I saw them advertise again, and several days later I received the letter telling me that if anything more useful that had happened in my life since the first appointment, I could willingly send it to them, but otherwise all first candidates were completely hopeless. I did not reply. Another five months passed, and I received a letter saying I was now in the last three. If that is how you treat people who are going through the process, the likelihood is that stamina is the thing you need more than anything else, and a sense of the ridiculous that means you can cope with the often different and difficult things put in your way.

  174. Actually, it was me. I did try applying once to go on to one of these things, and I failed. I thought I was quite well qualified and quite expert. As a second choice I got elected instead—it was a lot easier! Do you think, Graham, on the basis of what you have written, that I have made the wrong career choice by going down the elected path, given the fact that in your paper you say everything now is being run by quangos, and that you believe that this will happen more and more? What sort of future is there for elected politicians? What career, as a relatively newly-elected MP, have I got to look forward to?
  (Mr Mather) I speak very humbly, as someone who has hopped from one to another on a random basis, but it seems to me that elected office has something which appointed office can never give you. Without being too lyrical, the feeling when your fellow citizens elect you to something, under whatever electoral system, is a magical one, and it brings its own responsibility, a much broader one perhaps, or a less focused expertise, but something that is satisfying in its own terms to an enormous agree. I suspect that we are seeing the institutions reverting to what they ought to be doing. It seems to me that it is really a post-war mistake that ministers, elected politicians, should try to run public services. The system is not designed for it. They are not very good at it for reasons of time pressures, and other activities, expertise and all sorts of other reasons. What elected politicians are, or ought to be, expert at is holding people to account, reflecting the views of their fellow citizens, drawing the lines, making key decisions. It seems to me that Parliament has an opportunity to become more powerful. We may be seeing a parliamentary renaissance, internationally, globally. As the power of the quangos and, for that matter, the non-governmental organisations, the consumer bodies and the experts, in whatever form, increase, so the need for elected people skilfully to represent societies and communities, and hold them to account, increases too.

  175. Can I put an alternative view to you. Whilst I accept what you say, what you are really talking about is the way central government, the state, is running public services directly; but would not a better answer than creating a parallel quango state be to devolve power democratically and centrally, and have these services run in the old way that you are suggesting might have existed before, in the great municipal councils or the devolved bodies in England, Wales and Scotland? Is that not an alternative way to the quango model?
  (Mr Mather) It is an alternative model, and it is a perfectly valid model. The problem with it, of course, is centralisation. Effectively, central government has refused to allow its local counterpart the autonomy to run services in a localised and devolved way. I suppose the jury is out and the academic work is only just beginning on Scotland and Wales and the lessons of the assemblies, but we are already seeing political pressure points when differentiated services—care facilities, for example—are provided. It seems to jar dramatically with our vision that everyone has the same sort of service, however under-performing they may be. I think your model is perfectly possible, but it would require us to make another step-change which, so far, we have not politically been prepared to do.

  176. Dame Helena, there is an article in the paperwork from David Hencke in The Guardian who states that you expressed your frustration in being denied another term in the top job with no explanation from those who appointed you. Is it a fair comment that you were frustrated about that?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think he decided I was frustrated rather than that I was frustrated, but that is the way of journalists, in my experience.

  177. Would you accept that if a politician said they were frustrated because they had been denied a term with no explanation from the electors, they would be laughed at?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think it is entirely different. Had I been putting myself up for election, I would have been able to speak for myself and say what my platform was. I would have been able to go round and convince people that I was the best person to do the job. I had none of those opportunities either. That is equally frustrating.

  178. I always detect a general fear of democracy, a fear of the power of democracy and a desire therefore to run the country by appointment. Am I being terribly unfair?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) You are to me, certainly. I cannot speak for Graham! I am a tremendous believer in the power of parliament, and everything that I have ever done—

  179. Not just parliament, but democracy.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) Well, democracy, and local democracy as well. I have worked with local government in an extensive way, and tried to do everything I could to make sure that they had the power that was properly and rightfully theirs, and argued often for things to be put in a local context instead of a national context, so that the power was nearer to the people who could make the proper rational choice as to whether or not that was being done well, because they knew the person who was doing it and could make a judgment in a local context, which is often very difficult: what has one MP done, compared to another; how do you know how your MP has done? All those things are hugely difficult.
  (Mr Mather) That approach would be unfair to me as well because I am a humble chronicler of truth, and I have tried to describe in my work what is happening. I then had a humble view that these developments are, on the whole, benevolent for the reasons I have set out. However, I think it is also the case that if we look at the history at national or local government level, of trying to provide particular public services, it has not worked. It seems to me that it would be much better for democracy if local councillors had the freedom to decide what is in the interests of their area and the financial resources to back their bets; and if they want to run a strongly corporate municipal business plan, a Birmingham model, or if they want to take a very laid-back rural approach, that should be entirely up to them. That seems to me to be democracy working. Acting as agents for the central state, simply administering its decisions, does not seem to me to have much to do with democracy.

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