Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Questions Posed by the Select Committee on Public Administration


  1.  What, if anything, is the justification for such a large number of public offices (around 30,000) being filled by appointment rather than election?

  2.  What problems might arise if elections were held for membership of some public bodies, instead of the current system of appointments?

  The Government believes that, as Ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the electorate for the existence and work of the public bodies sponsored by central government departments, it remains appropriate for people serving on such bodies to be appointed, rather than elected, and for Ministers to retain ultimate responsibility for all such appointments.

  3.  Should a public appointment be part of an individual's civic duty? Would a system similar to jury service be effective and fair?

  The Government is committed to encouraging the broadest possible range of different people to consider playing a part in public life by serving on a public body and to ensuring that the people who hold public appointments more closely reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom. The over-riding principle governing public appointments is the principle of selection on merit from those people with the necessary will, skills and ability to serve on the body concerned at the time the opportunity arises. Any arrangements based on compulsion, except in extenuating circumstances, would seem unworkable, not least because appointments for which particular individuals might be well-suited and willing and able to carry out might not come up at a time that would be convenient to them.

  The Government is also committed to Citizenship Education, which is now part of the Personal, Social and Health Education and Citizenship framework in primary schools and, from September 2002, will be a compulsory subject from September 2002 in secondary schools.

  Citizenship Education has three strands. The first is social and moral responsibility so that pupils learn self-confidence and socially and morally responsible behaviour, both in and beyond the classroom, towards those in authority and each other. The second is community involvement so that pupils learn how to become helpfully involved in the life and concerns of their neighbourhood and communities, including learning through community involvement and service. The third strand is political literacy so that pupils learn about the institutions, issues, problems and practices of our democracy and how citizens can make themselves effective in public life, locally, regionally, and nationally, through skills and knowledge thereby providing young people with a better understanding of our democratic institutions and what it feels like to take part in decision making.

  Citizenship Education will provide a focus for engaging with the issues of civic values and how to be active citizens, thereby fostering a climate where more people choose to play an active part in civic and community life generally, helping to make a difference by helping to improve their community or society. Citizenship Education will therefore also support the objective of ensuring that a wide range of people from different backgrounds and from all parts of the United Kingdom put themselves forward as candidates for public appointments. To ensure that the development of citizenship does not end in schools, DfES have contracted with the Learning and Skills Development Agency to manage a developmental phase to stimulate active citizenship within post-16 education and training. Eleven citizenship education development projects are currently looking at different ways of teaching citizenship and making social and moral responsibility a reality through active engagement at local community level in the post-16 sector.

  In addition, the Government also seeks to promote citizenship in the NHS in four main ways. These are by increasing opportunities for people to influence decisions and bring about change by equipping them with the skills to be able to do this; by changing decision making processes and by promoting individual rights and responsibilities in the NHS. An example of how this is intended to work in practice is Patient Forums. Subject to passage of the NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill Patients Forums will be established in every trust from Spring next year. They will be made up of local people, they will monitor and review local health services and make recommendations to trusts about them. The Forums will also select one of their number to be put forward for appointment to trust boards by the NHS Appointments Commission. This will create over 600 new voices for patients at the top of local NHS bodies.

  4.  What are the main priorities for improving the system of public appointments—should it for instance be to extend the range of people involved in bodies, to improve the effectiveness of the bodies in providing advice or administering services, or to change the balance so that elected national, regional or local government has more of a role in public life?

  The Government considers that there are two main priorities in relation to public bodies. Consistent with the Government's commitment to modernising all public services, all public bodies need to fulfil their functions effectively and efficiently, whether their direct customers are the general public or Government Departments and Ministers, as is the case with many advisory non-departmental public bodies. The system of public appointments has to support the achievement of this key objective and that is why the over-riding principle must remain that the selection of people to serve on these bodies is based on merit.

  Secondly, the Government also remains equally committed to achieving permanent change by substantially increasing diversity in public appointments and at all levels of appointment. The Government considers that it is axiomatic that boards whose members have relevant but diverse experience and backgrounds are in the main likely to be more effective than boards whose make-up is less diverse although, clearly, the nature of the skills and backgrounds required of individual members, and the overall balance, are likely to vary from board to board because the range of public bodies is so varied and because in some cases a requirement for certain experience is specified in the relevant legislation. But, generally, the wider the range of candidates for individual appointments, and the more diverse their backgrounds, the more confident that Ministers can be that they are making their selection from the best of all potential candidates.

  In line with the Government's commitment to increasing diversity, each department has published demanding targets for increasing the proportion of appointments held by women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. These take account of the current position and the number of appointments expected to come up annually. Some, but not yet all, departments have also set targets for increasing the proportion of appointments held by disabled people. The latest targets were published in February 2002 in Public Bodies: Opening up appointments: 2002-05, which is available at the Public Bodies website ( The Government will continue to report progress in achieving these targets.

  In May 2002, the Government published a White Paper—Your Region, Your Choice—taking forward the Manifesto commitment to make provision for directly elected regional government to go ahead in English regions where people decide in a referendum to support it and where predominantly unitary local government is established. The Government believes that directly elected regional government can play a part in bringing democracy closer to the people, strengthening accountability and helping to re-invigorate the political process in England. The White Paper sets out the precise functions and format of elected regional assemblies. The full text can be seen at

  5.  Government departments publicise public appointments, assess applications and draw up shortlists for interview. Independent assessors take part in the process and appointments are made on merit. Is this a sensible devolution of power to departments or does it cause problems and create unfairness?

  6.  Are there any aspects of the Government's approach to public appointments which appear to be inconsistent or unclear?

  The Government is not aware of any evidence to this effect and does not have any present intention to change significantly the arrangements by which public appointments are made generally. Individual departments do however from time to time review the way that the appointments processes for which they are responsible are handled.


  7.  Is there any evidence to suggest that politicians sometimes play an improper role in the current public appointments system? What are your main concerns, if any?

  8.  What part, if any, should politicians play in the public appointments process?

  9.  Is there any evidence to suggest that there is political bias in the public appointments process?

  10.  Is political bias ever acceptable in the appointments system, for example to correct a political imbalance accumulated under a previous Government?

  The Government is committed to upholding the over-riding principle of selection based on merit. This is in line with the Code of Practice issued by the Commissioner for Public Appointments which states that appointments should be governed by the overriding principle of selection based on merit, by the well-informed selection of individuals who through their abilities, experience and qualities match the need of the public body in question. The Code also states that political balance is only a consideration where there is a statutory requirement or, in strictly limited instances, where the nature of a public body makes it essential that individual political parties are represented on it, eg the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

  11.  What role if any should Parliament play in public appointments?

  12.  Do you believe that an independent appointments commission should be introduced instead of ministerial appointments?

  As noted in the Government's response to the Committee's First Special Report [HC 317] the Government continues to agree with the views expressed on the issue of who should be involved in the appointments process by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its First Report [Cm 2850]. The Committee concluded that Ministerial accountability and selection on merit should be the key elements of the appointments system for public bodies. They considered, but ruled out, a role for Select Committees and instead recommended the appointment of an independent Commissioner for Public Appointments.

  On the question of an independent appointments commission, many public appointments are to bodies directly concerned with the work of particular departments. It therefore seems logical for the departments that best understand the different tasks and context of the different bodies concerned to carry out the appointments process and for the Ministers who are accountable to Parliament for the existence and work of the bodies concerned to retain ultimate responsibility for making the appointments. Where there is a clear case for change the Government will act, as it did in establishing the NHS Appointments Commission; in due course there will be an assessment of how successful this has been and whether there are any lessons for other appointments.


  13.  Is there evidence to suggest that the current system is not attracting applications from the widest pool of candidates?

  As set out in the latest edition of the annual Public Bodies publication, which is available at the Public Bodies website (, women held 34 per cent of the appointments to the bodies concerned at 31 March 2001, an increase of approximately 2 per cent since September 1997. In addition, 4.8 per cent of these appointments were held by women or men from ethnic minority backgrounds, which is up by a third since September 1997 and should be seen against the background that people from such backgrounds make up approximately 6.5 per cent of the economically active population; women from ethnic minorities held 1.8 per cent of the appointments concerned, an increase of around two thirds since 1997. Finally, at least 1.5 per cent of the appointees were disabled; comprehensive data on the total number of appointments held by disabled people is not yet available but is being compiled for publication and will appear, for the first time, in the next edition of the annual Public Bodies publication.

  The Government is committed to further progress on diversity in public appointments. The normal length of appointments and the fact that the incumbent can in some instances be eligible for reappointment have always meant that it will take time for the Government's overall objectives to be met. However, the published targets set by individual departments, and the action plans that they will pursue in order to achieve them, should mean that, by 2005, further, substantial progress will have been made. Work is also in hand with the intention of finding ways to broaden the range of options available to drive up progress on diversity, in its widest sense, while preserving the over-riding principle of selection based on merit.

  As part of the effort directed towards increasing diversity in public appointments, the Women & Equality Unit in the Cabinet Office is running a series of regional seminars for women interested in serving on a public body. The seminars are targeted at women considered to have the necessary skills and competences to be strong candidates for public appointments. There will be specific seminars focusing on women from ethnic minority backgrounds, women members of trades unions and businesswomen, and the women who attend the seminars are invited to join an e-network, established by the Women's National Commission in partnership with the Women and Equality Unit in Cabinet Office. A core function of this network is to provide regular and up to date information on public appointment opportunities as they arise. The aim of the seminars has not been simply to promote awareness of the possibility of registering an interest in serving on a public body but instead to raise awareness of the various opportunities available and the various routes to obtaining information and applying. The seminars have helped women to find out more about the public bodies dealing with areas of interest to them and provided information on upcoming opportunities so that they can get in touch direct with the relevant sponsor department and ensure that they are invited to apply when the positions are publicised.

  There will also be other outreach activity aimed at raising awareness of public appointment opportunities generally and at ensuring that, as part of our emphasis on increasing diversity, applicants are encouraged from every part of the UK.

  In addition, in July 2001, the Cabinet Office issued to departments a Guide to Best Practice in Making Public Appointments. This details best practice in the handling of individual appointments processes and preparation, including the drawing up of role and person specifications, and also gives information on sources of candidates and on the selection process. The Guide has been widely disseminated across Whitehall and has also been made available to the devolved administrations. The intention is that this should be reviewed periodically to take account of new developments. Cabinet Office also intends to make a stronger effort to help sponsor teams within departments apply best practice in making appointments to the bodies they sponsor as part of the effort to ensure that the published departmental targets are met.

  14.  How can greater diversity best be combined with reassurance that the principle of merit in public appointments is being upheld?

  As noted above, diversity and merit are not incompatible but inextricably linked. This is recognised in the Commissioner for Public Appointments' Code of Practice which states that the principles of equal opportunity and diversity must be inherent within the appointments process and that departments should take positive action wherever possible to attract suitable candidates from all sections of society. The Cabinet Office Guide to Best Practice in Making Public Appointments provides guidance on this for departments.

  15.  Would a more consistent use of remuneration for members of public bodies help to increase diversity in their membership? Are there any possible drawbacks to an increase in the number of remunerated members?

  A study commissioned by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Making a Difference: Women and Public Appointments (December 2001: identified six factors as being particularly relevant. In order of relative importance these were awareness of public appointments; attractiveness of public appointments; confidence in applying for public appointments; time required to fulfil the duties of public appointments; childcare and cash. On cash, the study noted that, although there were mixed views on the issue, on balance it seemed that the relative lack of remuneration and the inequity of levels of remuneration across different public bodies was becoming a real barrier to enabling a broad cross section of women to participate on such bodies. A copy of the study is enclosed.

  While there is therefore some evidence that remuneration might have an effect on decisions to apply or not to apply for appointments generally, it is not conclusive and other factors may have a more significant effect, including those identified by the study or the availability of support or training for potential candidates before application. Nevertheless, the Government intends to explore the issue of remuneration further.


  16.  Is the public appointments process understood by members of the public and seen to be fair, open, transparent and easy to travel through?

  The resources to promote wider understanding to the public at large or to attempt to measure it are limited. Certainly the Government would wish any potential applicant to have ready access to a full understanding of the system and, through outreach and other activity, the intention is that the system should be seen by all to be fair, open and transparent.

  The Government also welcomes the efforts of the current Commissioner, Dame Rennie Fritchie, and her predecessor, Sir Len Peach, to raise awareness of the opportunities offered by a public appointment and, through the work of her office, to sustain confidence in the propriety of the appointments process generally.

  17.  What improvements, if any, should be made in the way in which advertising or publicising public appointments are made?

  The Commissioner's Code of Practice sets out certain requirements in relation to public appointments to ensure that all appointments within her remit are publicised in an appropriate way. This issue is also addressed in Cabinet Office's Guide to Best Practice in Making Public Appointments.

  The Government is keen to make it as easy as possible for citizens who wish to play a part in public life, and might therefore be interested in appointment to a public body, to find out what appointments are available. Currently, many individual departments maintain a website detailing current appointment opportunities and the Public Bodies website (, maintained by Cabinet Office, includes links to all departmental websites and a forward look at public appointment opportunities coming up over the year ahead. Individual departments also carry out various activities from time to time aimed at raising awareness generally and with specific groups in particular.

  However, the study commissioned by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Making a Difference: Women and Public Appointments (December 2001:, identified that the lack of awareness of the opportunities that are available as the most important barrier to increasing the participation of women. The Government therefore intends to explore ways of removing this barrier, which applies generally and not simply in relation to women. One possibility under consideration is the development of a single on-line source of information on public appointment opportunities, which would be continuously updated and widely publicised.

  18.  What is your understanding of the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie?

  The post of Commissioner for Public Appointments was established by the previous administration in 1995, in response to a recommendation made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its First Report [Cm 2580].

  The functions, powers and duties of the Commissioner are set out in the Public Appointments Order in Council 1995, as amended by the Public Appointments Order in Council 1998. Her role is to regulate, monitor and report on ministerial appointments to health bodies, advisory and executive non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), public corporations, nationalised industries and the appointments of the utility regulators. Details of these appointments are set out in the annual Public Bodies publication. The Commissioner's remit does not cover non-ministerial appointments to the bodies covered by Public Bodies (3,595 appointments at 31 March 2001), appointments to tribunals (12,864 appointments at 31 March 2001) and boards of visitors to penal establishments (1,357 appointments at 31 March 2001).

  The Government intends to amend the Order in Council again shortly to take account of changes in the individual bodies within the Commissioner's jurisdiction and to make some small necessary adjustments to her functions.


  19.  There are a growing number of sometimes informally-constituted partnership bodies and task forces charged with carrying out public functions, especially at local level. Should these bodies be subject to the Commissioner for Public Appointments' Code of Practice?

  The Government does not have any present intention to extend the remit of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

  20.  Are there ways in which the system of independent assessors for public appointments can be improved?

  The Government fully supports the principle of independent scrutiny of public appointments and recognises the vital role that independent assessors play in this. Independent Assessors are selected and engaged by departments to help them and their Ministers make effective public appointments based on merit. They are also to a certain extent the Commissioner's eyes and ears "on the ground", ensuring that individual appointment processes conform to her Code of Practice. The Government welcomes and fully supports the efforts of the Commissioner, as set out in her revised Code of Practice, regarding the role of independent assessors and to improve their selection, induction and training as well as their links with her Office.

  The Government is committed to complying with the requirements of the Commissioner's Code and to making the best possible use of Independent Assessors in appointments processes. It will continue to keep the use of independent assessors under review, as necessary, in conjunction with the Commissioner.

  21.  What is your opinion of the Government's proposals for future appointments to the House of Lords? Should it be treated in the same way as other public bodies?

  The Government does not believe that it would be appropriate to treat the House of Lords as just another public body since it is a chamber of Parliament. The Government's proposals, set out in its White Paper The House of Lords: Completing the Reform (Cm 2591) are aimed specifically at distancing appointments to the House of Lords from the Government of the day.

  Appointment of independents would be made by an independent Appointments Commission, whose nomination would be subject to confirmation by the House of Lords itself and which would include representatives of the main Opposition parties. That Commission would build on the work of the existing non-statutory Appointments Commission in opening up the process of nomination of selection. That Commission would also determine the arithmetic make-up of the House, according to certain principles, and would be responsible for inviting the political parties to make nominations to fill political appointments.

  The result of these proposals, compared to the present system for the nomination of life peers, would be a massive reduction in the powers of patronage of the Government of the day.

  22.  Are there any lessons to be learned by Government departments about the way in which the Scottish Executive and the National Assembly for Wales approach public appointments?

  Officials with responsibility for co-ordinating the approach to public appointments within the different central government departments, together with officials who perform this role with respect to the appointments that are the responsibility of the devolved administrations and staff of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, meet regularly to discuss developments. While the range of appointments is so varied, these contacts also provide an opportunity to learn from each other as with the development of Cabinet Office's Guide to Best Practice in Making Public Appointments, issued to Departments in July 2001.

  23.  The Commissioner for Public Appointments' remit covers specified Ministerial public appointments and her Code of Practice, which is based on Nolan principles, sets out the regulatory framework for these appointments. Should the remit be extended to all other appointments?

  The Government does not have any present intention to extend the remit of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

  24.  What is your opinion of the reforms recently introduced in the system of appointments to NHS bodies?

  The NHS Appointments Commission has now been operating for a full year, and in that time it has made 307 chair and 1,275 non-executive appointments. The introduction of post-specific recruitment by the Commission, rather than generic recruitment, has been welcomed by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The Commission has also introduced a standard appraisal system for all board members. As with Ministerial appointments, all appointments made by the Commission have to comply with the Code of Practice issued by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The Commission is also required to follow criteria determined by the Secretary of State for Health in deciding who should be appointed to NHS boards.

  25.  Should every candidate, even important people for high level appointments, be asked to complete application forms and attend interviews in the normal way?

  While the Government agrees with the conclusion reached by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its First Report [Cm 2850] that "for the appointment of senior people to major national bodies it will remain important not to subject them to an overly bureaucratic process", it is committed to ensuring that all appointments within the remit of the Commissioner for Public Appointments are made in strict accordance with her Code of Practice. The Code recognises the need both for proportionality and to allow departments the flexibility they require to deal efficiently and effectively with the diverse range of appointments they make. The Code also recognises that, as the range of appointments is so varied, occasionally a situation may arise which is not covered and where this arises or if any significant departure from the Code is in contemplation, the Commissioner's Office will be consulted.

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Prepared 26 June 2002