Memorandum by Mark Thomas (PAP 08)
1. If the public is to be engaged by the political process and to see Advisory Committees as representing them then it is essential that lay people are encouraged to come forward and are appointed to sit on committees. Expert knowledge is valuable but it is also important that those without great prior understanding are invited to join so members are forced to explain and justify decisions taken in a language and manner that is approachable. It will also challenge the perception that committees largely appoint, and are appointed by, those from the same peer group. It would encourage genuine independence and debate and raise questions that would seem irrelevant or unnecessary by those who currently sit on these committees and very often hold themselves unaccountable. (See recommendations 2-4)
2. In addition what is the point of openness and transparency without the ability to hold people to account. Conflicts of interests within the public appointments system must be seen to be the anti-thesis of a fair and open system. Without censure it seems there is little to encourage members to treat this basic level of accountability seriously. (See recommendations 5-7)
3. It should be the responsibility of the individual taking a public appointment to fully apply with the duties required of such a position. Therefore, it should be the duty of a committee member to observe absolute transparency and provide fullest details when asked. (See recommendations 8-9)
4. A rigorous and standardised procedure for all committees should be adopted and made clear. For example an easily accessible public register of interests in a standard form should be a minimum requirement. Bodies such as advisory committees can tap into a very real public interest and also inform the wider public on important issues. People may have an interest but not want to join political parties or are interested in single issue politics or may not understand how to interact with the process. Committees should be obliged to show how they have encouraged participation and have a point of regular contact that the public can contact. (See recommendations 10-11)
5. No one may serve on more than one public body at any one time. This will ensure those serving are fully committed to that bodies interests and are not put in a position where they must divide time and commitment between a number of panels. It will also ensure a greater number of opportunities for lay members and others who, at present, find the opportunity to serve limited or nonexistent. Lay members would engage the rest of the body to both explain and justify their findings, something the bodies should be doing to the wider public. (See recommendation 1)
Below I have set out a series of recommendations and have included three examples of where the system currently fails.
1. No one may serve on more than one public body at any one time.
2. A central register of those prepared to serve should be kept. This should not rely on people coming forward, but must be pro active and operate similar to that with Jury Service.
3. There should be no legal obligation but far more must be done through advertising to alert the public to the opportunities to take part in the democratic process via committee work and to encourage them to take up openings that are offered.
4. There should be an agreed percentage of seats held open to lay members.
5. Those failing to declare interests or avoid conflict of interests should be asked to resign immediately and will not be allowed to serve on any committee in future.
6. Where Members have failed to register an interest, any other persons holding a similar commercial interest in the same organisation should also be asked to stand down for an agreed period. This will ensure companies/bodies take seriously any potential conflict of interest that may arise through their staff taking on official duties, and take an active role in ensuring procedures are obeyed.
7. Where there is a significant failure of a member or a number of members to register interests the Committee Chairman should also be asked to resign immediately.
8. All interest should be registered within one month of taking up office. Subsequently any change should also be notified within one month. Any breach would be a failure to declare and be liable to the penalties outlined above.
9. Shareholdings should be properly listed. Where a nominee account is given, full details should be provided.
10. An easily accessible public register of interests in a standard form should be published along with a directory and diary for the committees work for the following twelve months, together with details of how the public may attend and submit material for consideration.
11. Committees should be obliged to hold a proportion of meetings at weekends and in the evening, and outside London, to encourage as wide a participation as possible.