Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 580-599)

BARONESS PRASHAR CBE

THURSDAY 9 MAY 2002

  580. When you interview and short-list these people, are you aware of how their application came about, whether it was via a head hunter or whether they replied to an advertisement or whether they had been suggested by a minister?
  (Baroness Prashar) It is never something which has come to me, someone being suggested by a minister. It would be a head hunter or through the advertisement. In a way, you can encourage people to apply or head hunters can approach them. Those are the two sources, and we are always aware that people have come through an executive search and that they have actually applied.

  581. Do you think it is important to the appointment process that you know the source of the application, whether it has come through head hunters or another source? Do you think it is an important part of the process for you to know that?
  (Baroness Prashar) I think it is important to know, because in recruitment you want to be aware which has been the most effective way of searching out. Particularly at senior Civil Service level, when we are looking for talent, the search is important, because sometimes you have to convince people to apply.

  582. So you think it is important that you know. Do you think it is important, if it were the case that a minister had originated the name suggested for an appointment, that you should know that?
  (Baroness Prashar) I think it would depend. If the minister was insisting that this person should be considered, and they found their way on the long list, yes, I would want to know, and that would be proper, but if they had said, "Look, this is the person," and the civil servant fed that name to the head hunter, who then approached them. . . . There are shades there. This is where I think we have to exercise our judgment.

  583. Would it not pose the people making the appointment a difficult dilemma if they were considering a person who they knew had been suggested by the minister? Do you think that would make it more difficult for the appointment to be fair and open and on merit?
  (Baroness Prashar) Not at all, because to us it does not really matter where the recommendation came from. We would be judging that particular person against the job description, and that would be the panel's decision. They would be interviewed and they would be assessed like any other candidate. It will not in any way prejudice us against or for the candidate, because, as I said, our job is to guard the integrity of the process, to make sure that whoever applies is treated fairly, that there is openness and that the appointment is on merit.

  584. Therefore, for us to know that the appointment is on merit, it would be useful, would it not, for us to know and for it to be recorded when a minister had originally suggested a name, so that then we could measure whether there was any particular preponderance of appointments of people suggested by ministers rather than by any other route?
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes. It does not happen often, but if it were to happen, it would be helpful to record it.

  585. So these informal meetings that take place at the outset of an appointment process—in your case we are talking about the Civil Service but we have also been looking at other public appointments—there should be a note recorded by civil servants of any meetings like this in which it is recorded that the minister has suggested an individual name, so that we can test and Dame Rennie Fritchie can test on other public appointments whether or not that influences the process.
  (Baroness Prashar) I think it would be helpful to state that there is a difference between public appointments and Civil Service appointments. As you are probably aware, public appointments are different in so far as they are not permanent; they are short-term, not often paid, and ministers have a different kind of involvement. Civil Service appointments are permanent, and it is for that reason that the process is slightly different, so there is no direct involvement of ministers in the way there is involvement in public appointments. It is important to bear the distinction in mind and not to confuse the two.

  586. One final question: nobody has complained to you about being ill-treated by Special Advisers under the Code of Conduct.
  (Baroness Prashar) No.

  587. Do you not think it is highly unlikely that there ever would be any complaint, because it is such a nuclear option, and a greater nuclear option than going to the head of the Civil Service, which they would do before they came to you? It is actually an unrealistic and frankly ludicrous thing to have in the Special Advisers' Code.
  (Baroness Prashar) I think you are right. The word "nuclear" has entered the vocabulary because that is the way it was described by Sir Richard Wilson. It is probably too daunting for a single individual to complain. I have to say I was quite amused that the sentence which says that a civil servant who feels he has been asked to do something inappropriate can complain to me or the Cabinet Secretary appears in the Special Advisers' Code. Not very many civil servants are going to read the Special Advisers' Code. So it is something about how people are aware and how these things are communicated.

  588. They might do if they were complaining about a Special Adviser.
  (Baroness Prashar) The point really is it is tucked away in the Special Advisers' Code, which I do not think civil servants would read.

Mrs Brooke

  589. In some of our previous evidence, we were told by the Permanent Secretary that the minister had specified requirements and said that a civil servant in a particular job did not have the requirements that the minister wanted, so there was a sideways move. (If we talk about that in the abstract and I will not be saying something that I should not.) That gives the minister a great deal of power, does it not, to actually move civil servants around by just drawing up specifications and, lo and behold, somebody is moved? Is there any degree of openness about that process?
  (Baroness Prashar) As you are probably aware, we are not involved as Commissioners in internal promotions or internal management moves. Those are of course the responsibility of the Departments themselves. We only get involved in open competitions. So I am afraid I am not in a position to comment on that. That is an issue you really ought to be raising with the Cabinet Secretary.

  590. I think we have. I am just wondering whether there is scope for taking that into another arena, because I do not think we have got to the bottom of how people could be just moved sideways by specification. I will leave it at that. That might be an interesting line to pursue within the Civil Service Act perhaps. What I really wanted to ask you—and it is changing the subject, but I know that you are concerned about this as well—is this. We have been looking at gender issues, and obviously other minority groups, in terms of public appointments. What do you think are the greatest barriers to being under-represented in groups?
  (Baroness Prashar) You are talking about public appointments now.

  591. Yes. I want to generalise and just have your views on it, please.
  (Baroness Prashar) I think in public appointments the barriers really are high. One is lack of knowledge and the other is lack of awareness of the range of public appointments. I think it is also the confidence of the people who might apply: "Do I apply? Will I be able to cope?" Some I think are quite daunted by the process, because there is a view that if there is an application, will they get fair treatment. "Is there discrimination against women or minorities?" So people do not want to put themselves in a situation where they might fail. Those are, in my view, barriers. One needs to raise awareness, tell people what is available, and encourage people to apply, make sure that the processes are fair, and possibly use role models where people can see people who have been successful and have contributed. The other thing if you are looking from the point of view of minorities, in particular, of which I have some personal experience, is that people feel they cannot quite relate to public bodies, because they do not have much experience of them, particularly women, if they have been isolated from mainstream activities, engagement with a public body is quite alien to them.

  592. Finally, I think this is going to be an important part of our report, and I think the questions are: is enough being done? What else could be done? But the other fundament point, which does not apply to under-representation of groups but seems to apply across the board, is that really, there is not very much interest proportionately in the number of places that are available. If you were to give one single piece of advice to this Committee, how do you think interest and actually wanting to be involved and some form of ownership of all these public appointments could actually be generated?
  (Baroness Prashar) I think this is pretty complex. There is not one thing you can do. This relates to what I was saying to you earlier, if some communities do not feel fully involved or engaged, or such that they have no stake in society, expecting them to put something back through a public body is probably a step too far. You need to have a number of strategies at local level. In my experience there is a level of involvement among minority communities, in particular in voluntary organisations, the non-governmental sector, where there is a great deal of community self-help. If one can begin to look at that particular group and see how one can connect the voluntary activity that they are involved in, be that advice-giving, health or whatever, one can begin to connect these communities to statutory public bodies. It seems to me that not enough work has been done to link voluntary activity with public service and involvement with public appointments. That is where they do get involved, and that is where they gain confidence. Recognising the skills and the confidence gained through voluntary activity and linking that with public appointments would be an important area.

  593. Have you any knowledge of the type of seminars that are being organised across the country where selected people are being invited?
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes, indeed I have.

  594. Do you think that that is targeted at the right people? I was quite concerned when we were talking about this a fortnight ago that you were perhaps just tapping into those who were already known anyway, because it is by invitation only to the seminars. Do you think a lot more work could go into the invitations or somehow making the seminars more accessible?
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes, you are right to some extent. If the seminars are by invitation, you obviously invite those who are known, and are already part of the network. So more outreach work is important. I do think that you have to do outreach through some of these informal community groups and very local voluntary organisations, where I think people are doing some sterling work and they can be connected to public bodies. As you know, we now have quite a strong network of radio and television programmes, and I am not sure how much use is being made of radio and television programmes to talk about what is available and how people can get involved.

Mr Prentice

  595. Can I follow on from the points that Mrs Brooke was making. I am very concerned about the invisibility of Moslem women in the public sphere. You told us earlier you have a clear agenda for what you want to achieve, bringing in new talent and diversity. How do we get Moslem women on to public bodies, reflecting the numbers that there are in the wider population?
  (Baroness Prashar) I think through some of the things I have already said. There are some very strong Moslem women's organisations around the country. They are involved at community level, and it is a question of almost step by step, making sure that outreach takes place. You identify organisations at local level where they are engaged and therefore they are drawn out. Building confidence, particularly in communities where women do not have the kind of freedom that may be available in other communities, is going to take a lot longer.

  596. I understand that, but I do not think we have time on our side. I think we have to force the pace. Outreach is fine as far as it goes. I was interested in what you were saying about role models. But what about gender targets?
  (Baroness Prashar) The point really is you can set gender targets, but how do you meet the targets if you have not reached the people? What happens with targets is that public bodies have a target to meet, and they will go to the very people they already know in an effort to meet the target. I know time is not on our side, but at the same time, if you want to make real change, it is important that you begin to reach out to those communities and those people who are not part of these networks.

  597. Let me make a prediction: I would say in ten years' time we will be no further forward unless we force the pace.
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes, I agree that we need to force the pace, but what I am really saying is, can you force the pace by setting targets? What you will do by targets, as I said, is you may get one person serving on several public bodies because they happen to be from a Moslem background. I am fully aware of this, because when there is pressure on public bodies or organisations to meet targets, they will use whatever method they can to get the targets met. That does not bring about the real change. To force the pace, I do think you should set the targets, but at the same time, you have to have an approach of outreach, which has to be meaningful outreach.

  598. I understand that, but the ethnic minorities are very often lumped together, and there is a huge difference between the black Caribbeans, the Moslem women from rural Pakistan, or what-have-you, and I am just trying to get some sense of how we ungently address this issue of making public bodies truly representative—not five, ten, 15 years down the track, but now. I do not want to labour the point. Can I move on to something else? I am interested in what you said about merit. You said, "How do we interpret merit?" At senior level, does it just come down to personal chemistry? If you have a lot of people who could do the job of a Permanent Secretary or Cabinet Secretary very well, does it come down to personal chemistry?
  (Baroness Prashar) Not necessarily. In terms of merit, the way we interpret that is that you have people who may be more competent to do the job, then it is a question of which is the best fit for that particular job. They have to have something extra. Merit is competence plus the best fit for the job. When you talk about chemistry, when we get involved in senior appointments, the line manager is only one person on the panel. The panel is only chaired by the Commissioner, and there will be some outsiders, so it is the collective opinion of the panel which determines who is the most meritorious candidate in a given situation against the person specification.

  599. It sounds on the face of it very scientific, and if it is scientific, is there any problem about telling unsuccessful candidates why they were unsuccessful?
  (Baroness Prashar) Often candidates ask for feedback, and feedback is given.


 
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