Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 620-640)



  620. Someone from the private sector would say "that is exactly what we do with our organisations".
  (Baroness Prashar) That is true. We have had discussions with people in the private sector. I suppose the difference is their concern is bottom line and they are not working or operating within such a strong political context. Delivering services or providing policy analysis is a very different technique within a political context. I think there are differences. Of course, that is not to say that other organisations are not value based, of course they are, but they have their own different set of values and they work in very different contexts.

  Chairman: I wish we had more time to explore that with you and I am sorry that we do not but I am grateful for that.

Mr Wright

  621. I want to quickly return to the question of public appointments. The Commissioners are responsible for up to 12,500 of the 30,000 appointments. Do you publish any details of the representative groups, gender, ethnicity or, indeed, disabilities?
  (Baroness Prashar) We are not concerned with public appointments, but with Civil Service appointments.

  622. Right.
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes, in our annual report we do publish the appointments that we make with the proportion of minorities and so on. But the responsibility for diversity and equality of opportunity is for the Cabinet Office, we do not have that responsibility as such.

  623. In terms of the actual numbers of people on public appointments, and some of them have got many public appointments, do you not consider in terms of the Commissioners themselves, and looking through the list of the Commissioners I notice a lot of them have got a number of other appointments on outside bodies, that in certain circumstances there could sometimes be a conflict of interest?
  (Baroness Prashar) We are very mindful of that because, as you can imagine, they are part-time it would be very difficult to get people who are not doing anything else. That is one of the questions we do ask when we appoint them, whether there will be any conflict of interest in what they are doing. In all of them that was not the case. Obviously if there was a particular appointment being made where we felt there was a conflict of interest, we would make sure that they were not involved in that particular appointment.

  624. So when they are looked at in terms of the position of a Commissioner would you look at all the details, the Cvs?
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes.

  625. That would be your responsibility on that basis.
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes.

  626. What would be the position if something came to light after an appointment had taken place which they had left off the CV?
  (Baroness Prashar) It would depend but I think we would terminate their appointment.

  627. Can I just very quickly turn to the Civil Service Act. You said earlier that not everyone believes we need a Civil Service Act. Who do you think is heading up the campaign against the Civil Service Act?
  (Baroness Prashar) I do not think I would call it a campaign being headed up against it. I think what we need is a healthy non-partisan debate about this because to me the process of getting the Act is just as important as getting the Act. As I was referring to earlier, the Civil Service, its health, and where it is going, does not get discussed very openly because civil servants by training do not speak out in public, although there are exceptions. I think the time has come to have a debate about it to air the pros and cons, and merits and demerits. I have come to the conclusion that we do need an Act but it would be very helpful to have a debate to see what might be in the Act and to discuss with those who are against it and why they are against it. That is what I would like and I hope that your Committee will make a contribution to that.


  628. Thank you. Just a couple of very, very quick final questions, if I may. Do you think the principle of appointment on merit should apply to special advisers too?
  (Baroness Prashar) It depends on what kind of special advisers. In my view there are political advisers—and that is where the chemistry must be right and the comfort level—and I think it is for the minister to decide, but if you move into the area of expert advisers I think it would be in everybody's interest to make sure that you get the best person with that expertise. Then there may be some areas where it is evident that there are not very many people with that particular kind of expertise and do you really want to go for competition.

  629. Whatever the job specification is would you not want the best person?
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes.

  630. So I do not see why the principle of appointment on merit would not apply across the board. The point of ending cronyism is that you cannot just appoint your buddies to jobs at public expense.
  (Baroness Prashar) I make the distinction that to me there are two kinds of special advisers, political advisers who give political advice and I think—

  631. No merit there. There would be no merit test needed to come in there.
  (Baroness Prashar) I think with a political adviser it is obviously the chemistry, the comfort level and so on and it is for the minister to make sure that he or she has the best person that they want, but when it comes to expert advisers you are looking for certain expertise in a particular area and I think if they are making a contribution to policy development then it would be important to have that done on merit. Given my background, even if not as a Commissioner, I do believe that it does help if you appoint people on merit because you open it up to everybody and I think as a principle it is a good thing no matter what appointment you are looking at.

  632. So some special advisers should be appointed on merit?
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes.

  633. Thank you very much for that. Let me just quickly ask you this. In this country we never abolish institutions, do we, we set them up and we never get rid of them because we do not do that kind of thing, we let them just mutate or wither. Do we need Civil Service Commissioners? They were set up for a particular reason at a particular time. If we made sure we had a Cabinet Secretary who was safeguarding the Civil Service and we have now got a Commission of Public Appointments to make public appointments work well, why do we need the Civil Service Commissioners?
  (Baroness Prashar) Let me agree with you first because I do think that it is good to visit any organisation to say is it needed, is it past its time. I am not saying that the Civil Service Commissioners are needed because I am currently the First Commissioner—

  634. That would be a good reason.
  (Baroness Prashar) That would be a good reason but, on the other hand, as I indicated to you I am part-time and the Commissioners are part-time so we are not here for job protection. If we did not exist we probably would be invented. Although we have been around for about a century we have seen a growth in regulators. You mentioned the Public Appointments Commissioner. There are now various ombudsmen and so on. I think the Commissioners do provide protection. Although I would not want the Commissioners to become busy-bodies enquiring and taking up responsibility, I personally believe that self-regulation is a good thing and I would like to see Perm Secs and ministers themselves acting as custodians of these principles because it is in the public interest and they ought to be setting an example. But things do go wrong and the Commissioners provide protection and assurance. When things do go wrong civil servants can come to us and we provide that assurance.

  635. But they do not.
  (Baroness Prashar) I said they can given that we have proper powers[1]. It could give comfort to Perm Secs if they find a minister is difficult or a situation is getting out of hand. I think in that sense it is important to have an external body. Also it provides assurance to the public. If you did not have the Commissioners, and you did not have their annual report, then you would have to rely on the word of the ministers or the Perm Secs that things are fine. I think you need something which provides public assurance that the integrity, the impartiality of the Civil Service is being safeguarded.

  636. Let me put the same question from a different angle and I think is one probably you would be able to sign up to. Instead of just providing a sort of constitutional comfort blanket, which is what you are describing, for goodness sake why not give it a job? We need people who do all kinds of things. We need people who police the boundaries. We need people who go out and investigate issues, report on these big issues all the time. At the moment we have this situation, as Michael asked questions on earlier, about the Sixsmith affair and we have got chaos, the Cabinet Secretary's words, chaos reigning in a department, boundary lines being trampled across and a Civil Service Commission can have no role in this at all. Issues about secondees coming into Government, the public-private interface issues, all these crucial issues, this is the modern agenda for a Civil Service Commission, is it not?
  (Baroness Prashar) Absolutely.

  637. So I do not want to abolish you now, I want to send you off to do all these things.
  (Baroness Prashar) I happen to agree with you because I have to say one almost feels a sense of being impotent because you are watching what is going on. I did feel that it would be important for a body, whether the Commissioners or anybody else, to have the responsibility or the power to enquire, make sure the balance is kept and that boundaries are observed. I think a more proactive role for the Commissioners would be desirable.

  638. Good. That is probably the note upon which we should end. We have had a very interesting session with you and I am sorry we have ranged rather widely but we have got a lot out of it. Thank you very much indeed. Is this the first time you have been before a parliamentary committee?
  (Baroness Prashar) I have been before parliamentary committees before, that was some time ago, but this is the first time before you as a First Commissioner.

  639. I suspect that we will do this more often.
  (Baroness Prashar) You can examine our annual report in the future.

  640. We could ask the Queen to come and talk to us about it.
  (Baroness Prashar) Thank you very much.

  Chairman: Thank you.

1   Note by Witness: They don't at present but might in future if we have different powers. Back

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