Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)



  380. Thank you very much indeed for that. We will start with some general questions and then we will perhaps come back to the specific areas that you have raised. This inquiry that we are doing concerns patronage and public appointments. "Patronage" is a rather perjorative word but it does get at the idea that these are people appointed by ministers. Why should members of public bodies be appointed by ministers?
  (Mrs Roche) It is a good question. I suppose ultimately when you look at the numbers of appointments made—something like over 1,000 bodies and 30,000 appointments—you have to look at what would be the most appropriate system. At the end of the day ministers are accountable for their actions and their responsibilities to Parliament but what is needed is an open and transparent system as to the way in which that appointment system takes place. That is why it is absolutely right that we have the Commissioner who is there to make sure that there is probity and there is an open system. It seems to me that the key thing with this system is that people appreciate what the system is and I think our real difficulty is that people do not know how the system works, how you go through the process, and the qualities that we are looking for. We need to open the whole thing up.

  381. We shall get on to all of that. If for a second I can stay with the big picture before we go into the detail. The reason I asked the question, and in your answer you got into this territory, is that people say that ministers have to do it because they are accountable for these bodies, but ministers are accountable for civil servants but they do not demand the right to appoint civil servants.
  (Mrs Roche) No they do not, but we are responsible for the advice that we might give to Parliament as a result of some of the actions that those public bodies take. You have to look to what other sort of system you could possibly have. You have to look at the line of accountability. If you did not have ministerial responsibility at the end of the day then members of the public could quite rightly say, "Here we have public bodies who have a great measure of independence who are operating in a complete vacuum." I think in terms of public reassurance, because vast systems of public money can be spent by these bodies, people do have to know that there is some connection with the electorate. It seems to me that the best connection is, first of all, to ministers and then to Parliament and then of course from Parliament to elected Members of Parliament and then the electorate.

  382. But it would be quite possible for ministers to specify the qualities that they wanted in public appointees but not actually be formally responsible for making the appointments. Just to extend the question, and I know Chris wants to come in, we have done this precisely in relation to the Health Service. We have set up an NHS Appointments Commission to break the link with ministerial appointments because that had seemed to be contaminated. The argument would be if we can do it in one field, why not across the board?
  (Mrs Roche) If we look to see what appointments take place, and looking at the appointments I have made in my ministerial career, you are quite right, ministers are there and they are acting within the criteria and they will set the criteria. Ministers certainly do not get into the stage of going out there and saying, "So-and-so would be a suitable person, I know them," that is not the way this works. By the time it gets to ministers it is at the very, very end of the process and names would be put to ministers and by that stage it would have gone through officials who are looking at the final balance. I regard the minister as being a final check in the process and a necessary check, ministers being the body, as I say, that is accountable to Parliament. Chris?
  (Mr Leslie) Barbara's point is right and what you have raised is a pretty big constitutional question about the role of public bodies and where they sit. Sometimes we should not neglect the obvious and the obvious here for me is that a lot of public bodies are exercising functions on behalf of the executive as opposed to the work of the legislature and are therefore accountable to the legislature through ministers in their executive roles. So even with the NHS Appointments Commission the appointments are still ultimately made by ministers who are the vessels where the buck stops ultimately for the actions, the advice and the policy that actually is implemented by those public bodies on behalf of those ministers. That is the constitutional position. To alter that may be possible but then you would have to look at the wider constitutional settlement.

  383. Do you know how much time ministers spend worrying about appointments?
  (Mrs Roche) It is a good question. In a sense it is driven by the imperative. A submission will come up. It will depend on the department. From time to time there will be departments which will have a lot of appointments and there will be others which will have very few. I would guess—and this is from my own experience and the anecdotal experience of other ministers—the thing that exercises ministers most (and it is difficult to quantify the time) is the lack of diversity in the list that comes up. There are too few women, too few people from black and ethnic minorities, and a pretty limited age group. That is the thing that exercises people most and that is a common complaint. You will get ministers who say, "There are no women or no black people on the list", and officials will say, "We could not think of anybody in the process", and the ministers will say, "Go back there and try again because we want to see a balance."

  384. There is no reason why an Appointments Commission could not be charged with that responsibility to get that balance but we have explored that. Do you know how many public appointments are outside the orbit of the Commission for Public Appointments?
  (Mr Leslie) I think most of public appointments come under the remit of Dame Rennie Fritchie's Commission which is working on enforcing the code. There are a small number of Crown appointments which are vested with the Prime Minister and, again for, historic reasons tend to be made by him. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a classic example. Helen, you might have an idea about specific numbers.
  (Ms Ghosh) I believe it is about half of the total number of appointments that are made. The NDPBs and the Prime Ministerial appointments fall outside the remit of the Commissioner but for the reasons that Chris said.

  385. I do not think that can be right. The NDPB appointments come within the orbit of the Commission.
  (Ms Ghosh) Which are at 30,000 appointments. I expressed myself wrongly. About 15,000 appointments of the very specialist kind that Chris describes, for example ecclesiastical appointments, are not within the remit of Commission for Public Appointments.

  386. Just as a way of clarifying things it would be very helpful—and I know it is difficult for you to say just now—if you could let the Committee have a note on those outside and then of course the question would be, when we are talking about a range of Prime Ministerial appointments/prerogative appointments, what is the rationale for having a category of appointments outside the orbit of the person who has been put in charge of making sure the system works well.
  (Mrs Roche) I would say history but Chris?
  (Mr Leslie) A lot is history. The short life so far of the existing Commissioner for Public Appointments has been pretty good in its record and it has extended quite rapidly over a large number of appointments. Not all appointments are the same. Some are quasi judicial or tribunal based and they have different criteria, qualifications and processes. We are constantly looking at the scope. We will be looking very shortly at the existing orders covering the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Devolution is an issue we need to start to reflect a little bit more. As those constitutional changes come so too we have got to look at the scope of the work of the Commissioner.
  (Ms Ghosh) As the Minister said, many of those appointments are extremely specialised, regius professors in universities and so on. There would be an issue about the efficiency of pulling them all in under the auspices of the Commissioner.

  387. Any information you can give us will be gratefully received.
  (Mrs Roche) We will do that.

  388. Thank you. We are trying to compose a Committee entirely of those with the same name. We have only made progress in one direction so far.
  (Mrs Roche) We might have to look at the diversity on that!

Mr Wright

  389. Taking you back to the question of gender, you mentioned how you have been to some of the regional seminars. What were the main reasons given for women not being able to take up public appointments or not putting themselves forward for public appointments?
  (Mrs Roche) Thinking it is not for them. What is fascinating about this is that if you look in most of the regions and you look at local appointments, if you look for example at lay magistrates or you look at the local health trusts or school governors, women are extremely well represented at sometimes well over 50 per cent, but that somehow does not translate into national appointments. First of all, sometimes they feel that what is required is technical knowledge that they did not possess. There is a great deal of apprehension, to be absolutely frank, and that is a criticism of the process. There are stories of women who have applied and never had any feedback and that is a major criticism. People not understanding how it works. They think that somehow the central list means that you have access to all the departments and that clearly is not how it works at the moment. Thinking perhaps it is all a bit too London centric. Remuneration is an issue. All of those things can be a barrier. The most interesting thing sometimes is the application form itself. We have changed the application form. At one stage it had a section listed "honours". There is nothing wrong with honours at all but there was an implication that if you did not have an honour perhaps you might not be considered for a public appointment. All of those things.
  (Ms Ghosh) To put a gloss on that, the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions recently did some research into precisely this point and, as the Minister said, there is a whole group of issues but probably the ones that came out as top of the list of the reasons why women did not get involved were awareness of the opportunities existing, which of course is part of the object of the regional seminars, but also issues around confidence and whether my competencies fit the model. As well as the series of regional seminars, what we are looking at very closely is how we can more actively make women particularly at the very local level (where, as the Minister said, there is diversity and the figures look good) apply and how do we translate that from the local level up to the regional and smaller national appointments. We think possibly one way we might do that is to give regional offices a more active role in identifying women and people from minority groups at a local level and actively picking them, mentoring them and giving them shadowing opportunities so they both have access to information and they grow their confidence. Also we are well aware that we need to make the availability of opportunities more transparent. We are developing—and again we know it will not necessarily hit the most disadvantaged groups—a much more rational web site sort of system. I think people find the current system of a central register and then individual departmental advertising systems rather untransparent, but to have a central system where, possibly with help from the government office in the regions or local contacts, local women could get access directly to a departmental list under the area of their interest, see the opportunities coming up, hit a button, and get an application form, would be a wonderful way of dealing with this problem of awareness. Awareness came out at top of the list.

  390. Do you find any regional variations?
  (Mrs Roche) We are about halfway through. It seems to me from what I understand so far on the feedback that the issues are very, very similar. It is lack of awareness about the process, and it is really getting over the message that serving on a public body can be very rewarding in terms of the contribution that you can make to public life. It also sends to people the message that they have the skills to do it. I do not think there are many regional variations. Things are remarkably constant, as I say, in terms of numbers of women who are active in local life.

  391. I would suggest that perhaps in the public bodies in which I have been involved, a large majority of the women would be professional women, whereas in my constituency, for instance, we have a large proportion of people with high benefit dependency at the lower end of the economic scale. They themselves would find an obstacle in terms of what their aspirations are but also one of the important things is ability to travel. It is a very important subject. They may well have to travel to and from places.
  (Mrs Roche) That is right and one of the reasons people are put off from applying is that they think that all the bodies will be based in London, which is not the case. Sometimes expenses are available for people and there is no awareness of that. We are trying to do two things. The first thing to say about the seminars is that we aimed the seminars at those women who already have some experience of public life. We are aiming it at people who are perhaps already magistrates or school governors, perhaps very active school governors, or members of local trust boards. So they are active locally but they have not made the leap to national. We want to do something about that fairly immediately. I absolutely agree with you that there is a different programme that we need to encourage about getting more people in their own communities as well in terms of working people to become school governors or to become magistrates. That really is a task. There is a particularly important reason for this. If I look at another side of the work I do in terms of the present government offices or some of the new deals for regeneration programmes, we want very many of those to be community led. They are totally community led. The onus is not on the local authority, it is on the local people who have got control of the monies and therefore we need to encourage more people to come forward and feel that public service is a good thing and, of course, that has to start in schools.

  392. Is there not an argument, taking what Helen has just said, that rather than taking it down to regional level for appointments perhaps there is an argument to take it down to more local levels to people who know the localities, for instance a hospital trust or—
  (Mrs Roche) You are quite right, people have seen what we have done and they have said, "We want one in our area." We cannot do it everywhere. There is nothing to stop people using the template that we have come up with or some of the packs and information on ways of doing it, and organising it themselves. We could say this is what we use. This is the method that we have found successful for example in the way in which we have done it. We have had somebody who has been on a public body and shown how they have made it and what they have done. Dame Rennie Fritchie has been very helpful and come along and spoken and given an overview. We have done some case studies. That has proved to be a very helpful template and we have had some good feedback on it. There is no reason at all why we cannot provide a do-it-yourself pack for people to do it which other local bodies may well want to take on.
  (Mr Leslie) We had a useful debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday. It looked precisely at many of the issues raised here and how we can get greater regional and national diversity as well. A lot of these issues we have got to focus in on a lot more because of the perceptions that you have talked about. What certainly I am interested in, and Barbara I know is interested in, are fairly radical thoughts. I know you are going to produce a report and we want to look at suggestions about how we can engage more with local communities and particularly lower income groups from wider social backgrounds as well. This is exactly what we need, not diversity just for the sake of it but because it enriches the output of the bodies we are talking about.
  (Ms Ghosh) Back to the local point. For example, one issue we might like to explore is whether we can make more use of local strategic partnerships. From my previous experience working on regeneration type projects you get these marvellous local people emerging through things like chairs of tenants at a very, very local level who you know could be stars. Very often they will get involved in things like local strategic partnerships and perhaps that is a way at a local authority level we could harness that kind of local community involvement to make them aware of the opportunities and, as I say, to mentor and shadow and all the kind of things the Minister is describing. That would be a micro climate in which one might try and do that.


  393. There used to be a phrase "ladder of participation".
  (Mrs Roche) That is exactly it. We all know from our own constituencies the person in the local church, the parish council, the local organisation for the disabled without whom that bit of the community would not run. Some people are perfectly happy to carry on doing that and that is great, you do not want to take them away. Very often many of those people have transferable skills that you could use and therefore it is providing that ladder of opportunity and progress if people want it, and not everybody will want to do it but some will.

  394. It is about getting people on the ladder and moving them up it if they want to go. If we could see the DTLR evidence that would be extremely useful to us. When Dame Rennie came she talked about "pale grey and stale males".
  (Mrs Roche) I cannot possibly think who she was talking about!

  Chairman: Most of us here, I am afraid, apart from you. Annette is not one of those.

Annette Brooke

  395. Thank you, I think, but I am an ambassador for the Guides, to put my credentials forward on those grounds.
  (Mrs Roche) I am afraid I stopped at the Brownies. I can exclusively reveal I was a Pixie!

  Chairman: I was expelled from the Boy Scouts.

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: What for?

  Chairman: This is for a private session. Annette, come on.

Annette Brooke

  396. I did not lead you astray. I think it is a very good initiative that the Girl Guide movement has organised today because it is just the sort of thing we want to have a promotion on. You do not need your own daughter, everybody here could have adopted one. We need to know more about those initiatives. I do not know very much about the seminars but who gets invited and how are they advertised? Could you expand a bit on that.
  (Mrs Roche) It is done by invitation but what we do do is consult with people in the regions—the local business community, the local authority, local magistrates, local health boards. This is not targeted at everybody, it is targeted at women who are already in public life in some way. We are looking for something like 100 people to take part because that is where it is workable. It is run over a morning where what we do is there is an overview, some case studies, advice on preparing your CV. We have got the Women's National Commission involved because it is no good running a seminar and leaving it at that, you have to provide some sort of support so we have got a network with the Women's National Commission showing where other posts are coming up as advertised appointments and there is a website. We launched the first one through the good offices of the WI in Abingdon. There are all sorts of partner bodies that we use.

  397. I have a slight concern that there is an element of patronage in who gets invited to these things because you mention local experience and certainly my local experience is that there are some leading women in the area but they tend to hold quite a few positions and they will always be the first people invited to something. How do we break through that?
  (Mrs Roche) It is correct to say that we are targeting these, you are absolutely right, because in a sense it is part of this ladder. Given that we have got only something like 34 per cent of women, we have got 4.8 per cent of ethnic minorities, and we have got 1.5 per cent of women from black and ethnic minorities we do need to try and make some sort of step change. The great thing to do would be to say we are going to go for it straightaway but the first bit of the strategy is to look at why is it that you have got all these women involved locally. If you look at the figures they are there as magistrates, they are there as school governors, so why is this not translating into public life? In the short term that is the strategy but there is a wider area of work that we need to do which, as Tony says, is that ladder and then inviting more people. I see these things spreading. You start here and then you go wider.

  398. I agree there is a longer term agenda to really widening participation. Could I ask Christopher a question. I have got a quote which is probably out of context from you from a debate and it is talking about appointments to non-departmental public bodies and task forces and you say that the Government want to keep numbers to a minimum and the five-year review process will look at the fundamental questions, etcetera, etcetera. What progress are you making in reducing the number of these appointments?
  (Mr Leslie) I was talking about the number of bodies. In 1997 there were around 1,128 something like that and now we are at about 1,025 so there has been roughly a ten per cent drop in numbers, but sometimes circumstances come along where a particular issue requires greater attention and we may need to look at establishing a public body here and there. We are not being completely inflexible about it but we do want to keep a lid on the vast proliferation of the number of quangos because of wider concerns about the history of the quango state in general. We recognise that public bodies play an important role. They oversee about £25 billion of public expenditure on behalf of ministers, so they are very important, as the appointments to them are very important. That is really where we are with that. I do not know whether you think that is sufficient or not but I think we have always got to keep an eye on the numbers.

  399. Do you have any targets or are you thinking about targets in the context of moving towards regional government in terms of the fact that there might be much more scope for elected bodies given elections in the regions?
  (Mr Leslie) We have got a White Paper on Regional Governance coming out shortly. There may be or there may not be issues addressed in that and I would not want to pre-empt it today. Suffice to say if you look at our manifesto commitment on elected regional assemblies—

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