Examination of Witness (Questions 548-559)|
THURSDAY 9 MAY 2002
548. We are delighted to have as a witness this
morning Baroness Prashar, who is the First Civil Service Commissioner.
We have asked her to come and talk about our public appointments
inquiry, but I am sure we are going to range more widely over
Civil Service issues. Thank you very much for coming. Would you
like to say a few words by way of introduction?
(Baroness Prashar) I would very much
welcome that. Can I first say I am very grateful that you should
invite me to give this evidence. I am very pleased to be here.
What I want to do in my opening remarks is to say a little bit
about the role of the Civil Service Commissioners and what I have
been trying to do since I have been in post for the last 18 months.
I recognise that you are looking at public appointments and patronage,
but I think it would be helpful at the outset if I say something
about the role of the Commissioners. As you are aware, the Commissioners
were a creation of the 19th century, a response to the problem
of patronage, very much the subject of your inquiry, which had
been identified as one of the main reasons for the Service's endemic
inefficiency and public disrepute. So it was that from the outset
the role of the Commissioners was not so much about regulation
but as a process of ensuring an efficient Civil Service, fit for
purpose and respected by the public, a role that it shares with
the government of the day. The Commissioners today continue that
long tradition. Successive Orders in Council may have adjusted
our specific responsibilities, but the Commissioners remain independent
of the Civil Service and ministers. We alone have responsibility
for interpreting the principle of selection on merit, after fair
and open competition, for all Civil Service recruitment, for ensuring
through audit that it is applied at low levels and for specifically
approving appointments to the most senior posts in the Civil Service.
We are not just concerned with recruitment, because at the beginning
of 1996 we were given a further role, which is to hear and determine
appeals in cases of concern about propriety and conscience raised
by civil servants under the Civil Service Code which cannot be
resolved in internal procedures, and to report on such appeals
made to us. To date, we have determined only four appeals. In
all four we found in full or in part for the appellant. More recently,
under the terms of the Special Advisers' Code, civil servants
may also appeal to me, the First Commissioner, if they believe
that the action of a Special Adviser goes beyond the Adviser's
authority or breaches the Civil Service Code. As I said, I have
been in post for the last 18 months, but it might help you to
know that I was a part-time Commissioner from 1990-95, so when
I took this job I came with a pretty clear agenda of what I wanted
to achieve. My objective was to make the role of the Commissioners
relevant to the modern-day requirements of the Civil Service and
the reform which was initiated in 1999, yet to retain the core
values of appointment to the Civil Service on merit through fair
and open competition. I do believe that the reform programme's
aimto bring in new talent and increase diversityis
very important and necessary, because the Civil Service does need
to change and evolve to meet the needs of a modern society. I
also believe that, amidst all the changes, it is equally important
to uphold the basic principles of recruitment, not because they
are there, but because they have a timeless quality and enduring
value. Despite their 19th century origin, in my view, they do
in the 21st century provide a very sound and flexible basis for
the reform agenda. If the Civil Service is to be equipped to meet
the objectives of the reform agenda, it must be able to guarantee
that its members have been recruited for their skills and ability
to do the job, and that is on merit, and merit alone, I am sure
you will agree, is a very modern concept. Equally important is
the concept of fair and open competition, because assurance that
selection is by fair and open competition is just as necessary
to protect the rights of candidates as it is in providing the
best candidate for the job. Very briefly, I would like to take
you through what steps I have taken since my appointment to increase
the effectiveness of our role. One of the first things I did was
to appoint new Commissioners. They were appointed for the first
time through fair and open competition. They come from diverse
backgrounds and have very diverse experience and expertise, and
they were, of course, given a very comprehensive induction to
increase their effectiveness. We are now a team which I believe
will carry more authority and add value to the recruitment process
by bringing different perspectives and expertise. It is through
our commitment and professionalism that we uphold the principles
and ensure that the best possible person is appointed. We have
also been engaged in very active dialogue with Departments in
order to get a shared and common understanding of their needs.
Our role is to identify how best we can contribute to the reform
agenda. Through this dialogue we have also been encouraging Departments
to start thinking of recruitment much more comprehensively, that
is, to identify needs, scope the jobs early on, talk to all the
stakeholders, think through the whole process at the outset before
developing job descriptions and person specifications, and of
course, that also involves discussions about the right pay, encouraging
them to work harder to get the right talent to apply and work
to realistic timetables. We have also set up a process to provide
structured feedback to Departments on recruitment, because we
believe that the experience we gain we need to feed back into
Departments to improve their processes. We have also been working
with the Civil Service Management Board and the Cabinet Office
on recruitment principles and their interpretation, and recently
we sent out new guidance to Departments. To support this work
we have set up internal groups, and we have been looking at first
principles on how we interpret what is merit and what is fair
and open competitions, and I think that informs the way we advise
Departments. These are some of the initiatives that we have undertaken,
but also, on the other side, we have given some preliminary consideration
to the implications of a possible Civil Service Act, and have
attempted to influence the debate. We believe there is a need
to reaffirm the traditional recruitment principles of appointment
on merit after fair and open competition, which, as I said earlier,
remain entirely relevant to current-day needs. I think there is
also a need to review the contents of the various Civil Service
Codes and to provide greater clarity. There is also the need for
better mechanisms for civil servants to lodge an appeal to the
Commissioners where there is a prima facie reason for thinking
that one or the other code is being infringed, or, possibly, for
the Commissioners to make inquiries if there are reasonable grounds
for concern that the various codes are not being observed. We
also believe that a Civil Service Act would place the role and
the character of the Civil Service more directly under the oversight
of Parliament and would thereby provide assurance of its continued
impartiality and core values at a time of reform and change.
549. There are many questions that you can help
us with that we are having trouble getting our minds around. One
that I would like you to help us with immediately is the question
of what "the Crown" is. In your note here you say that
the Commissioners are appointed directly by the Crown. What is
(Baroness Prashar) It is a historical term, I suspect,
but I presume it is an appointment by royal prerogative, by the
Queen. This is to make sure that we are independent.
550. The Queen did not appoint you, did she?
This is a little tale we tell ourselves, is it not?
(Baroness Prashar) I have to say I have never paid
attention to that, because what I pay attention to is the fact
that we are independent and regulated by the Order of Council.
I am not a constitutional lawyer so I am afraid I cannot throw
any more light on that.
551. You see it written down, "appointed
directly by the Crown", but of course, it is absolute nonsense,
is it not?
(Baroness Prashar) If you take it literally, it may
appear nonsense, but I think what it really means is that we are
independent of civil servants and we are not part of the government.
It is to make sure that we act independently.
552. Let me put it differently: "They report
annually on their work to the Queen." Do you mean you go
round to the Palace with your Annual Report and sit down and have
a chat about it?
(Baroness Prashar) This may amuse you, and it amused
me. When I became a part-time Commissioner in 1990 that used to
be the case, I am afraid. The report was published, and it used
to be a treat for the Secretary working to the First Commissioner
then to actually go round to the Palace to personally take the
report. It does not happen now, but it is a report that is published
and given to the Queen. If you look at the report, it actually
does say that. I have a copy here: "To Her Majesty the Queen."
553. I am sure these are fascinating conversations
that go on, but I noticed that in this very nice speech that you
made on these matters in the House of Lords last week you were
suggesting, it seemed, that instead of all this nonsense, you
really wanted to be accountable to Parliament.
(Baroness Prashar) Let me clarify. That is not what
I intended to say. It is important that we remain independent,
and I think there are ways in which that can be done. If you look
at the Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority for example,
he is independent, and therefore the appointment is made by royal
prerogative. What I think would be important is that when our
reports are published, or if we were given further powers, our
reports could be scrutinised by a Parliamentary Select Committee.
In other words, what we do can be reported to Parliament. That
is the way I would like to see it.
554. If it were reported to Parliament, for
example, we could routinely ask you questions about these things.
What is extraordinary is that this is the first time we have seen
you. Is this not because you report to the Queen?
(Baroness Prashar) It is extraordinary, but I think
even now you can see me, and I am sure any Select Committee could
call me, because it seems to me that what we do should be of interest
to Parliament, and therefore what is in a report should be questioned
by Parliament. But somehow we need a mechanism which ensures that
we remain independent.
555. I see this report of the interview in The
Times with the new Cabinet Secretary talks about "a marked
departure from the approach of his predecessor." I am intrigued
by the fact that you were one of those who interviewed him for
this job. Did you ask him if he was going to display a markedly
different approach from his predecessor, including to things like
Civil Service legislation?
(Baroness Prashar) I do not think it would be right
for me to go into the kind of interview questions that were asked
of all the candidates who were interviewed by the panel. Obviously,
questions would have been asked about how they would do the job.
We made recommendations to the Prime Minister. Also, I should
make my involvement in that process clear. Although I am the First
Civil Service Commissioner, as you know, we only chair competitions
which go to open competition, which go outside. Internal competitions
are not chaired by me. I was involved, I suspect, to ensure the
integrity of the process.
556. I am not trying to be tricky, but knowing
what you believe about the need for Civil Service legislation
to protect these core values in statute, it would be extraordinary
if in interviewing a prospective Cabinet Secretary you did not
ask whether his view of the world was similar to yours.
(Baroness Prashar) I think it would not be right for
me to go into the detail of the questions asked.
557. I do not want to go into the detail; I
just want broad brush.
(Baroness Prashar) If you are really asking whether
that was one of the criteria in terms of the recommendations,
as you know, there are different views. Not everybody believes
that there should be a Civil Service Act. Some say that we have
managed for the last 150 years without an Act and we can continue
to do that. For my part, I have not come round to my view now.
As I said, I was a part-time Commissioner, and therefore I have
a longer view, and I have felt for a long time that it would be
helpful to have a Civil Service Act. I think that Orders in Council
can be changed without any reference to Parliament, and it seems
to me that we need to enshrine the constitutional position and,
its impartiality in a statute, so that any changes that take place
on the constitutional aspect should not be done without reference
to Parliament. The Civil Service exists for the public interest.
That is not to say that one would want to inhibit the evolution,
development and the reform of the Civil Service. That is why I
am of the view that we need a piece of legislation which is narrowly
defined, which does not get involved in the management issues,
but is purely confined to the constitutional position of the Civil
558. You say that some people say we have managed
without an Act for 150 years. In fact, those are precisely the
words used by Sir Andrew Turnbull in the Times interview.
I quote: "We have lived without one for 150 years."
Clearly, that view is different from the view you are expressing,
and I just think you probably would have tested him on this.
(Baroness Prashar) As I said, the Civil Service Commissioners
are an independent body, and we have a perspective from what we
do, and I think we are entitled to have an independent view. It
does not necessarily have to be in tune with everybody.
559. Can I go back to the question of the royal
prerogative. When you were appointed, how was that done? Who interviewed,
selected, went through the files, made the decision and exercised