Examination of Witnesses (Questions 641-659)|
THURSDAY 23 MAY 2002
641. If I could call the Committee to order.
We are delighted to have Julia Middleton with us, who is the Chief
Executive of Common Purpose, and also Amelia Sussman, also from
Common Purpose, to give evidence as part of our inquiry into public
appointments and patronage, and we are particularly interested
in the work that Common Purpose has been doing on this front,
and we wanted to hear some more about it. Would you like to say
a few words, to start with, just to get us going?
(Ms Middleton) Certainly. There are two
of us. Julia, I run Common Purpose. Amelia, who runs the campaign
that we launched a while ago, called `Just Do Something', which
is to get people into public appointments. I am also an independent
assessor, on public appointments. Common Purpose, as you probably
know, has had over the last ten years, about 12,000 people who
have been through our programmes, so a lot of my perception of
this issue comes from speaking with the many people who have been
on our programmes round the country. I would summarise their impression
as follows, that, firstly, they have no idea what public appointments
are, what the scope or what the system is strikes them as deeply
non-transparent, most of them think it is a fix, everybody thinks
that if you are on something you then become on everything, once
you are in you are on everything. Most people sit back and say,
"It couldn't possibly be me, absolutely not; it couldn't
possibly be me," and you can only get them round that when
you say, "Well, if he can do it, you can do it." Most
people on public appointments, it seems to me, seem to think that
you wait to be approached; there is deep conviction that there
is not much point in doing it anyhow, because nothing will ever
change. And all those perceptions, to my mind, are heightened
if you are a woman, if you are from a black and minority ethnic
community, if you are disabled, if you are from anywhere other
than the South East, and if you are under 30. I am not suggesting
what I have just described is the truth, I am just suggesting,
with a certain amount of conviction, that it is the perception,
and that is almost as important. And, at a personal level, I spend
a lot of time feeling that I am sort of in the middle of these
extraordinary groups passing in the night, one minute someone
is asking me if I know somebody who is something or other, and
the next moment someone is asking me if they know an opportunity,
something or other. And groups never seem quite to do anything
other than pass in the night. The things that we are passionate
about are, one, that the information needs to be more available
about the full options and what they involve, and that is why
we launched this site, called `Just Do Something'. Secondly, from
our point of view, we spend a lot of time trying to challenge
citizens to get out of this "Nothing will ever change mindset"
to realise that it is perfectly legitimate to be in the public
realm, but not to be elected, and really to try to say to people,
"If you have a good board, you usually have a very effective
organisation; so, therefore, you must do this, it is part of being
a citizen." We try to encourage people to plan their careers
as citizens and actually to work up to posts and work through
things and learn things; and the other thing I think we feel very
passionate about is the sheer sadness, that very, very few people
under 30 are engaged at all. I met somebody the other day, trying
to persuade them to go on the board of an FE college, and she
said to me, "I'm 24," and I said, "Okay,"
and she said, "Well, I haven't got wisdom." Wisdom seems
to be what makes us all feel better about getting old, I am not
sure it adds a great deal of value. "I haven't got experience."
"Yes, but you did grow up in this community, you understand
this community and you have succeeded in this community, and the
board of the FE college can't be full of people aged 24, but we
badly need you on it." And that was a complete revelation
to a 24 year old, who then said, "Yes, of course, I must
apply." So this need, it seems to me, in terms of planning
careers as citizens, is to get people in at an early age and to
get them contributing their knowledge and learning more and working
their way through the system; that is obviously particularly important
if you believe diversity is important, which, of course, I do.
642. Fascinating. Thank you very much. Did you
want to add anything to that?
(Ms Sussman) No. I think that encapsulates it.
643. Just to get a sense of what you are about,
just in a rather sort of practical way. I represent an area, it
is an ex-mining area, we have great difficulty in finding people
to sit on public posts, and Health Service posts, notoriously,
we cannot find them. Now, if you were to descend upon my constituency,
what might you do to it?
(Ms Middleton) I would start by not descending, I
would probably be invited; and, of course, please forgive me if
it is rude, but I believe it is quite important, I, of course,
would be going to talk to them, not as a politician but as a fellow
citizen, and quietly to try to persuade them that this matters,
and to overcome a lot of those points earlier. I was not brought
up in this country, but I am always amazed by that humility and
modesty and that sort of "It couldn't possibly be me,"
would try to tempt people out of that, not to bully them but to
tempt them. I would tell them if you go to Just Do Something.Net
that we do, there are endless stories of other people "like
you" who have done this. So I think there is a whole tempting
thing, and to give people a real sense that they can change things.
As Amelia says, if you are a school governor, and you are a good
school governor, that means the chances of it being an effective
school are greatly heightened.
(Ms Sussman) I think you do not underestimate the
learning curve involved, there is always going to be one, but
that should not be big enough to put people off.
(Ms Middleton) I would also argue that there is this
legitimacy stuff. I think that people have this perception that
at one end there are politicians and that at the other end there
are citizens, and my passion is, of course, that in the middle
there is an active civil society. But people have sort of gone
to sleep on the active civil society and conned themselves into
believing that there is no space, that you are not allowed to
do anything unless you are elected, and that there is no point
in being in this middle space because nothing will ever change.
And all those perceptions, I think, need changing. There is this
middle area called an active civil society, and you do not have
to be party political to be in it, which, of course, party political
does put a lot of people off, and that is a legitimate and important
space to be in, as a citizen.
644. Everyone will sign up to all that. The
bit I want to get to though, which is the bit that you are doing,
you see, if we have people in here, as we do, who are trying to
do things about all this, whether it is the Cabinet Office or
whether it is the Commissioner for Public Appointments, after
you, we are going to have Operation Black Vote, and so on, it
is not as if we have not got people subscribing to the theory,
but we seem to have great trouble with the practice. All these
people are energetically, they would say, doing all this stuff,
and they run road shows everywhere, and they are busily trying
to bring people in, and yet we seem not to be cracking the problem.
I want to know if you have got the answer to it?
(Ms Middleton) I have not got all the answers, I have
got some thoughts. No doubt you are on this Committee because
you believe in it. I do, certainly, and, as an independent appointer,
have seen it, but also seen it round the country, there is an
act of faith in the appointer that one has to get straight. There
is first an act of faith, that opening this out to more people
is not just going to be a hassle, and that the methods of doing
it are not just a pain, that you do not just appoint people you
know, and that there is an act of faith, that if you take the
time to go further out, there are extraordinarily talented people
out there, who may take a little longer to find, but they are
very talented and can add a huge amount. We must encourage people
who are making the appointment to look outside. I know, in theory,
everything I have said, sure you would not have any problem with,
but I do not see it put into practice as much as one would hope.
645. So, when you talked about perception, and
you said you are not saying this is the truth, let me just ask
you, do you think it is the truth, when you give that view of
how the world seems?
(Ms Middleton) I think there are some good examples
of things changing, but I see a huge amount of it not changing.
646. If you were put in charge of the Public
Appointments Unit, how would life be different?
(Ms Middleton) I would never be put in charge of the
Public Appointments Unit, because I believe that I can do more
to encourage citizens and to make this an exciting democracy outside
Government than inside, or outside Whitehall than inside. I think
there is a limit to what you can achieve inside, and there are
some good things that I think you could do more, but I think you
also need, you know, this is a marriage and there is the other
side, and what I want to do is to badger fellow citizens to wake
up and realise that they are not delivering on their side of the
(Ms Sussman) I think the role of the Commissioner
is quite tricky, because she has got a very important regulator
role, which is important, but, at the same time, it is quite hard
for her to campaign towards more openness; because it is analogous
to the Charity Commission, they are seen both as a regulator and
a campaigning organisation.
647. Yes. I think what we are trying to tease
out though is, knowing all that, what should she be doing, or
what might she be doing?
(Ms Sussman) She should certainly be making sure that
the processes are opened up as wide as possible. I saw, in some
of the transcripts previously of this Committee, that occasionally
Departments go through a process where a couple of names are chucked
into the hat, from civil servants, who have been asked to produce
a woman, or someone, from the BME communities, and that may be
seen like a quick fix, but I think there are other, much more
thorough, and actually come up better with the goods, in the end,
if they pursue other avenues.
(Ms Middleton) For example, as a woman, frankly, I
am bored with being asked to apply, because I know you are just
trying to fill the short-list with more women. Even me, you have
to give me some sense that there is a point, and I know there
is an enormous number of women like me who are actually rather
bored of having to fill these short-lists full of women. So I
think there is an act of faith from both sides. I would like the
systems to be more awake, but there are some applications of principle
and there is a willingness amongst the appointers to take a little
bit of time on this; whenever you want to make an appointment,
it is usually because you have a vacancy, and if you have got
a vacancy, and I do it at Common Purpose too, you really want
to fill it. The pressure of really wanting to fill it means that
sometimes you go for somebody who is within your circle, rather
than outside it, and you do not take the time to go and find more
people. And if you do that too many times then you undermine people's
faith, and in my view, also, undermine an important piece of democracy.
648. If you do not want to be the Commissioner,
what advice do you offer the Commissioner, in terms of appointments;
do you ever do that formally?
(Ms Middleton) I think there have been times, as an
independent appointer, where I have said, "Look, these are
not the rules," and I have found it very difficult when,
for example, then there is a waiver on the rules, which has occasionally
happened to me. I think that sometimes one should set the rules
and have a small period when everybody adapts to them, but from
then on not waive them much. So I think that there are whole issues
about real consistency and making sure that not just some Government
Departments but that all Government Departments really begin to
do what the system says they should do.
649. You are not saying that the formidable
Dame Rennie is a soft touch, are you?
(Ms Middleton) I am sure she is not a soft touch.
650. But if she is waiving the rules when she
is leaned on by Departments?
(Ms Middleton) Dame Rennie is not a soft touch, but,
equally, producing change in Westminster and Whitehall is no doubt
an elegant piece of finesse that is very difficult to get right,
and I am sure she has to use her judgement on occasions. What
I am saying is that I think that we have now got to a stage where
really we should not waiver on anything, we should say, "This
is the system." I must say that I was outraged by the series
of questions. Your last question, which I am desperate for you
to ask me, so that I can answer it, is, can you occasionally have
people who are so swanky that they should not be required to go
through the normal process; to which my response would be, would
you seriously give a public appointment to somebody who thought
they were so swanky that they did not have to go through a normal
process? Even that question, to me, strikes me as slightly extraordinary.
And I have had it asked of me.
651. The question is put because, as you will
well know, there is a strong body of opinion out there, amongst
people who regard themselves as if not swanky but distinguished,
who say, "It's bad enough doing these things in the public
interest; if you ask us to jump umpteen hoops on the way, we will
go and do something else"?
(Ms Sussman) I think it is worth taking that risk.
I think the other thing is that overt terms of office are very
important; there is a reluctance to plan in advance and to advertise
appointments that may come up, not, say, within the next three
months but over the next year, because it appears insulting to
the people who have currently got the term of office. But, actually,
terms of offices should be right up front and transparent to the
652. If you know that the rules are being broken
in some of these Departments, or whatever, what do you do about
(Ms Middleton) It is an interesting concept, answering
that question, because I do not particularly want to make life
miserable for a lot of different people, but it is also an interesting
concept in Government, having any job title that has the word
`independent' first; it is very tricky to do it and you have to
make a judgement occasionally, and then sometimes go with the
flow, and then find some other way of making your point. And,
indeed, I think I probably have; but it is a very tricky one.
653. So if there is wrong-doing, you do not
think you have got a civic responsibility to raise that formally?
(Ms Middleton) You will have seen me for, what, how
many minutes; the thought that I would not raise it is notI
definitely raised it and acted upon it, but there is a limit to
what I could act on.
654. You have done it formally in the past then,
objected to the way it has been done, the appointments, you have
objected to the way some appointments have been made?
(Ms Middleton) I have objected to the waiving of something
and then dealing with something in another way, yes. And, yes,
it is tricky; it is an elegant piece. The other one, I know we
are throwing out a lot of ideas, but one of them that seems to
me to be very interesting is this question of numbers of days,
that there are some appointments, occasionally I would look at
it quite tough and say, "Do you really mean two days a week
for this appointment; do you really, really mean two days a week
for this appointment?" Because two days a week inevitably
means that you can really only go for somebody who, for some reason,
is doing a portfolio life; and I would argue that sometimes you
see people on two days a week, who, really, it is almost becoming
an executive job, not a non-exec job, and there are a number of
bodies where I see, where I certainly could not apply for it myself,
because there is no way I could clear two days a week. I could
probably clear one day a week, but certainly not two, and it will
be 15 years before I could. And, perhaps, I do not know, but you
may want me, or people like me, when I am 44, rather than 60.
655. I wonder what point you are making there,
because presumably some jobs are two days a week?
(Ms Middleton) There are, but there is a huge number
of them, chairs, I quite agree. But some of the members of quite
a lot of committees is a lot, I cannot remember, what is the Housing
Corporation, I think it is six a days a month; and the inevitable
consequence of that is that you can really only appoint somebody
who has a portfolio life.
656. As opposed to a real life?
(Ms Middleton) That is not at all true, I did not
say that. I mean, a portfolio life is very good, and sometimes
people have them aged 22 and sometimes they have them aged 72,
and within it there is a lot of scope. You might have it because
you are the second income earner, or whatever it is; but it does
mean that you are going for a certain group of the population,
and you are excluding another larger group. I might ask if I were
the Chief Executive of this organisation have they got enough
distinction between the exec. and the non-exec.
657. Can we go back quite a stage; why do you
think we have trouble with an active civil society these days?
As politicians, I suspect we all feel it, too, because, I know,
50 years ago, there were millions of people in the political parties,
it was more like America and it was a respectable thing to do,
to join a political party, but that is dying out, literally dying
out. Lots of other organisations, public, voluntary organisations,
people would join because they felt it was important to make a
contribution, and this has changed, and it has changed significantly
in the last 25 years, and you are, commendably, trying to do something
about this. But what is the reason that we are losing this sense
of voluntary participation?
(Ms Middleton) If I answer slightly in the negative,
first, not because people are more selfish, not because no-one
cares, I suppose for those two, not for all those reasons that
everybody tends to get excited about, I believe. I was talking
to somebody the other day who was saying to me, "You know,
young people aren't angry, the way we used to be angry;"
and the answer is, young people are still angry but they are also
frustrated and feel that there is nowhere to take that. That is
one of the reasons, for example, I would like to see more young
people in public appointments. I think that there is a sense of
frustration, there is a sense of this middle ground not being
respected. And we have had 12,000 people on our programmes and
I spend most of my time going up and down the country, speaking
to them and saying to them, "If that's the problem, do not
make me a list of the 12 people, other than you, who should do
something about it; do something yourself." At which point
they sort of look blankly at you and say, "But, how? Why?
By what right? I'm not elected, I can't do anything." And
then you just have to make sure of cajoling and inspiring people
and make them realise that they can actually change things. I
think people want to be engaged, are, indeed, engaged, a great
deal more engaged outside the South East, and some of our perceptions
are based on the fact that we are in the South East too much of
the time. People may want to get involved, but not necessarily
through the party machine any longer.
658. I sometimes wonder if it is something to
do with the fact that people are having the responsibility for
an event or an organisation or process, is a much greater potential
obligation to them that it used to be; it is a parallel feel,
but people organising street parties for the Jubilee this year.
And one of the reasons they are being put off is they are overawed
by the public liability insurance, on a form which appears to
make you sign up for every catastrophe you can imagine, apart
from acts of God and nuclear war, and people are reluctant to
put their name to what appears to be a document which implies
huge responsibility. Whereas, I would almost wonder, and I will
just float this to you, if, in the old model, people came forward
more because there was a greater sort of collective responsibility,
and now it is becoming more individual. And I wonder if that is
a problem, because people do not necessarily want to feel that
they have to take out £5 million of insurance every time
they meet their friends in the street. We are a more regimented
and bureaucratic, red-tape society, we discourage this actively,
(Ms Sussman) I think it may be that within the `not
for profit' sector, it is quite interesting, or the education
sector, for example, people are wary of joining governing bodies
until they are absolutely clear what the liability of the members
is. But, in a way, I think, a lot of those issues have been addressed
now and people's minds have been put at rest. In a way, it is
similar to the liabilities, I think, of non-executive directors
in the corporate sector. Provided people are clear what their
responsibilities are and go through a learning curve of realising,
then I do not think that is a barrier.
659. Do you think it would encourage people
if, and one of the people we have had before the Committee suggested
that they should be coerced, in a sense, that there should be
a form of sort of national service that, I suppose, as a schoolchild,
you would have to do a certain number of hours, just like you
have to do jury service, if that is the same sort of idea of civil
society, I am not sure I agree with them, but I would be interested
to know? And what about the question of remuneration, where more
people would be paid to do this; and is that an important part
of the contract, in the modern world?
(Ms Middleton) Forcing people, very much like the
jury duty, I saw that somebody said that previously. My experience
is that that is not a great way to get people to do things; you
inspire them to do things rather than force them to do things.
(Ms Sussman) Our experience of 12,000 people who have
gone through our programmes is that volunteering their time is
not an issue, they are only too passionate and committed to do
(Ms Middleton) As long as they know it has an impact.