Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 560-579)



  560. It was done through open competition. It was advertised. I applied. The interviews were chaired by Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary. There was another Permanent Secretary, one current part-time Commissioner and two people from the outside. Once the decision was made, it was a process that had to be cleared with the Prime Minister and I think also with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Then it had to be approved by the Privy Council, who, as you know, look at the Orders in Council. At least, I think that was the process.

  561. So the primary selection was really done by civil servants.
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes.

  562. I am not critical of that at all. It is arguable whether the Civil Service, the political part of the government or Parliament, or indeed the Privy Council would be more able to produce an independent person, and I suspect it would depend on different circumstances at different times. How big is your staff?
  (Baroness Prashar) Currently, there are altogether 15 Commissioners, including myself. I work three days a week and the others are part-time, and that depends on the number of competitions. But we do meet as a group once a month.

  563. What sort of back-up do you have?
  (Baroness Prashar) We have a small Office of the Civil Service Commissioners. There is a Secretary to the Commissioners, but he has other responsibilities. He is also responsible for the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the House of Lords Appointments Commission and business appointments. Then there are two other people who manage the organisation of competitions and keep under review the recruitment code. I have a secretary and some other support staff. I think in total it is about seven.

  564. As far as I can see, there are two main parts to your job. One is to make sure that recruitment is done properly and the other is to act as a whistle-blower's confidant. How are you convinced at the end of the year that you have taken as much care as one can to ensure that patronage is not being used in an improper way?
  (Baroness Prashar) We do that through chairing competitions which go out to the outside, and by doing that we act as custodians of those principles. By chairing competitions, we guard the integrity of the process. Then we audit competitions which we are not directly involved in. That is one side of it. On the question of appeals under the Code, I believe that our powers are restrictive, because we cannot initiate inquiries; we have to depend on a civil servant complaining to us, lodging an appeal with us after they have exhausted the internal regime. Other than that, it is very difficult. It is a narrowly defined role at the moment.

  565. On the second of these duties, you are not able to be proactive, but on the first, could you have an investigation of your own? If you thought something had been done improperly, that patronage had been exercised improperly, could you call for files or start an investigation?
  (Baroness Prashar) If our audits on posts other than in the senior Civil Service throw up something, I would certainly write to the Permanent Secretary concerned, and draw their attention to that, but I have to say that, since I have been there, there really have not been any serious concerns in terms of patronage, in terms of recruitment. At the senior level, because we are directly involved, it may help to explain to you the process. Once a decision has been made that a particular competition is going to go out, the Department would get in touch with us. I personally chair the most senior Civil Service competitions and the Commissioners will chair Grade 2 and Grade 3. We look at the job description, make sure that the advertisement to go out is clear and open, the pay scales are right and so on. We would then get involved in the whole process—long-listing, short-listing and interviews—and ultimately the selection panels make a recommendation. We would list candidates in order of merit. As you know, if a minister chooses not to accept the first candidate, we have to re-open the competition. There has been a question about the level of ministerial involvement. Ministers have an involvement in so far as at the outset the Department or the head hunters can talk to them about the kind of person they are looking for, and they are kept informed at the listing stage, but they cannot say, "I would like a particular person." They can make an input into the kind of person they are looking for. There is a very measured involvement of ministers, but they do not have a choice at the end of the day.

  566. Is it possible to quantify in some crude way how often there is disagreement between ministers and panels who choose people for their consideration?
  (Baroness Prashar) It does not happen often, and again, I can only speak for the last 18 months since I have been First Commissioner. We have not had to re-open a competition for this reason.

  567. Your views on possible changes to arrangements in the Civil Service came over very clearly in your speech to the House of Lords, which I have read. The entire version has been circulated. Can I ask a question about the second part of your responsibilities, when civil servants feel there is nowhere else to go. You have dealt with four cases. Do you publish details of these?
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes, in our Annual Report we would publish the appeals that we have handled, but we do not name the departments or the individuals.

  568. It is probably fruitless to ask this question, but I will try nonetheless. There has been a cause célèbre in one government department in recent weeks, and this has been the most difficult moment between the Civil Service and the Government for, I should think, at least a decade. I can think of other examples when a government which I supported was in power when there were very difficult passages. It is not unique to this government at all, but it does happen from time to time, and has the potential for damaging political careers very seriously but also Civil Service careers; it can be very unfair on the civil servants, who are not able to defend themselves in the way that politicians can and do. Would it be possible to indicate whether this once-in-a-generation cause célèbre came within your purview? Did somebody bring this to you? Did they regard you as a point of arbitration or perhaps of conciliation in what has been a very difficult passage? Were you involved in this?
  (Baroness Prashar) The answer is no, but I have to say, repeating what I said earlier, that we are the last port of call. If a civil servant feels that there has been a breach of the Civil Service Code, they have to go through the internal procedures first, and if they are dissatisfied, then they come to us. We are the last port of call.

Mr Lyons

  569. Can I go back to the Crown. Who signed your letter of appointment?
  (Baroness Prashar) It came from the Cabinet Office. I am afraid I did not get it directly from the Queen.

  570. Can I turn to the question of merit, which you have raised a number of times in your opening, which I am very interested in. Does that apply throughout the Civil Service or just for certain grades?
  (Baroness Prashar) It applies throughout the Civil Service.

  571. A young constituent came to me recently. She had applied for a job and was told that she was rejected because she had not used key words. Is there any key word you could give me to help her?
  (Baroness Prashar) I am afraid I cannot help you with what the key words are.

  572. Is there any way I can access them?
  (Baroness Prashar) In what context did she mean "key words"?

  573. She was told that was why she had failed. She was only applying for a job in a grade she was already in, so I found it unbelievable that she had been rejected because key words had not been used. You say you audit all these processes. How do you audit private employment agencies who are employed by civil servants to interview people?
  (Baroness Prashar) We work very closely with head hunters, and head hunters are fully aware of the processes that are involved, and in fact, we try and see head hunters at least once a year. We had a meeting with them last year. They are quite an important part of the process. So they not only have to understand our role, but they have to understand what the Code says and what it means in terms of process. They are fully briefed about what is required. We do try and get into a dialogue with them and keep them fully informed, and when they are taken on by Departments, the Departments themselves brief them about the processes.

  574. Would the Department continually have contact with them? For instance, if they were mistaken, in my opinion, in saying that people were not using key words, would that be rectified in the future?
  (Baroness Prashar) I am sure, because it seems to me that for an individual who feels that this is why they were turned down, it would be worth asking what the key words are.

  Mr Lyons: I am trying very hard, I can assure you.

Kevin Brennan

  575. I am very interested in ministerial involvement in public appointments and in Civil Service appointments as well. You mentioned how ministers are often involved at the outset and are asked for suggestions.
  (Baroness Prashar) Not suggestions; they are asked about the kind of person they would like.

  576. So a minister would never give a name?
  (Baroness Prashar) When you are developing a person specification or a job description, they can say what kind of person they are looking for.

  577. So they would say, "I would like someone who has a certain Andrew Turnbullness about them" or something like that.
  (Baroness Prashar) If head hunters were to search, they can recommend names and they would be considered along with others. That is where the fairness and openness comes in.

  578. Would you consider it improper then if at the outset there was a meeting between a minister and civil servants to discuss an appointment at which the civil servants said, "Minister, we would like to know what kind of person you have in mind," and a name was mentioned by the Minister. Does that occur, do you think?
  (Baroness Prashar) I have never been a fly on the wall to see what discussions take place between civil servants and ministers, but it seems to me that it would be inappropriate if they were to say, "I want this particular person," but not if they were to say, "This is the kind of person I am looking for, and you might like to talk to So and So."

  579. I am talking about something between those two things. I am not saying that they would say, "I want this particular person" and I am not saying they would say, "I want somebody with two arms, two legs and a degree from Oxford or Cambridge." But if they actually said, "I would like Mr X or Mrs X to be considered and approached," would that be appropriate? I am just trying to establish what your views are on that.
  (Baroness Prashar) I would not think that is inappropriate, because when you are using search consultants, they ring up a whole range of people and say, "Can you recommend people?" The important thing really is that you can talk to all the sources you want to in terms of identifying the best talent, because the objective is to get the best talent to apply, but the process of actually being interviewed and short-listed is what we guard, to make sure that it happens on merit.

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