Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Engage Network (PAP 57)



  Disabled people make up a sizeable minority of the population of the UK. In 1999 the Department of Social Security estimated that there were 8.6 million disabled adults in Britain.

    —  1 in 4 households has a disabled resident[6].

    —  1 in 6 of the population are disabled people[7] (in Northern Ireland we are told it is as high as 1 in 4)[8].

    —  Two thirds of disabled people are over 65.

  Despite the size of the population disabled people are significantly underrepresented in positions of power or authority. The Public Appointments Unit have published figures suggesting that only 440 people out of almost 30,000 who held public appointments were known to be disabled people. [9]

  We believe that no system of public appointment can be considered fair and open to all when it is so unrepresentative of the total population.


  We believe that the most critical actions Government must take in order to remedy this situation and meet its aspirations are:

    —  Insisting all departments adopt targets and action plans for the appointment of disabled people in public life, monitor progress towards the achievement of these and be held accountable; the current situation where approximately half of departments cannot or will not say what proportion of appointments are disabled people is entirely unacceptable.

    —  The current benefit rules which mean that for most (although not all) appointments disabled people automatically lose any benefits they may be receiving must be urgently remedied.

    —  There should be a Government website which is accessible to everyone including disabled people as a single source of information on all Government public appointments. This might be extended to include local and regional appointments.

    —  Disabled people should have the same choices and opportunities for mentoring, shadowing and training as everyone else.


  By not involving disabled people in public life society as a whole is missing out on a considerable pool of talent. There have of course been disabled people who have reached positions of power or authority but these individuals are the exception rather than the rule. Peers such as Baronesses Wilkins and Marsham, Bert Massie CBE Chair of the Disability Rights Commission, The Rt Hon David Blunkett MP and Anne Begg MP, are all examples of disabled people who are prominent in public life.

  The experience of being a disabled person is not being reflected in positions of power or authority. This leads to poor Governance and decision-making. Organisations that don't have input from disabled people at the highest level cannot expect to promote social inclusion in their activities.


  Engage is a network of disabled people who hold, or are interested in holding appointed or elected public and political office at a local or national level. It was set up to:

    —  Encourage more disabled people to participate in the decision-making process at all levels.

    —  Highlight the under-representation of disabled people in public life.

    —  Create a climate where the participation of disabled people in public life is welcomed and expected.

  The Engage Network was set up in direct response to disabled people feeling that they were disenfranchised and discriminated against by being excluded from public appointments.

  All members of the Engage Network were invited to feed into this submission.


Q4.   What are the main priorities for improving the system of public appointments—should it for instance be to extend the range of people involved in bodies, to improve the effectiveness of the bodies in providing advice or administering services, or to change the balance so that elected national, regional or local Government has more of a role in public life?

  Extending the diversity and range of people appointed in order to make the bodies more representative of the population as a whole, is the key to improving the overall system of public appointments.

  It will do this by:

    —  Providing more diverse governance. Only boards and management that reflect diversity will be able to properly respond to the wide range of diverse needs that exists within society.

    —  Increasing public confidence. A greater range of people appointed to positions of power or authority is more likely to reflect their views and experiences of society as a whole. Disabled people will feel more confident in public institutions if they believe that their views are being heard and that the body will act to meet the needs of everyone in society, including disabled people.

  Increasing the range of people appointed to bodies is especially important where they oversee a large service delivery function. This is important as the perspective of a wide range of users including disabled people must be primary in order to set the right priorities and use resources to achieve Best Value.

Q5.   Government departments publicise appointments, assess applications and draw shortlists for interview. Independent assessors take part in the process and appointments are made on merit. Is this a sensible devolution of power to departments or does it cause problems and create unfairness?

    "We have to have a system that is seen to be fair to all people at all levels"

  Engage Member

The current system of public appointments is not working because it is in general failing to appoint disabled people. Where an organisation is not able to recruit the right staff one of the first structures that is investigated is the recruitment procedures to find out if they are working. This process needs to be undertaken across all Government departments.

  To avoid unnecessary replication of work we believe that this research should be done across Whitehall with the aim of standardising policies, procedures and practice for appointing suitably qualified disabled people to public bodies.

  The final outcome of this investigation should lead to a national set of guidelines that work across all Government departments. This should include a standardized application procedure with common forms, post specifications, criteria and assessment.

  Through the innovative use of technology this process could be undertaken using the Internet. This will also lead to cost savings as the process will become largely automated.

  A diversity Tsar could be appointed to monitor applications across the minority groups with the powers to ask public bodies to change application and recruitment procedures.

  All Government departments should set clear, challenging and achievable targets for the percentage of disabled people appointed. Progress towards achieving these targets should be monitored.

Q6.   Are there any aspects of the Government approach to public appointments, which appear to be inconsistent or unclear?

    "The present system and the way in which the present Government controls it is very unclear and inconsistent when it comes to including people on the edge of society"

  Engage Member

Disabled people often lose benefits when they are appointed to public positions. This problem must be resolved to allow all disabled people to participate. See appendix 1 for further details.

  There is a great deal of variation in payment made for different appointments. A system needs to be introduced that can assess or grade positions in a transparent and fair way for all appointments.

  Different departments have different approaches to evaluating the number of disabled people they have appointed to public bodies. For example, the Department for Overseas Development does not record or set targets for the number of disabled people it appoints. The Lord Chancellors department has recorded that 1.4 per cent of its public appointments are disabled people but it has not set any targets for improving this figure. Both departments recorded numbers and targets for women and people from ethnic backgrounds. [10]

    "When I last filled in a form, I was shocked to find that it did not ask whether or not I had a disability"

  Engage Member

There also appears to be no agreement around definition of disabled people with some Departments unable to come up with a definition. It is unclear why the departments concerned did not consult the Disability Rights Commission for advice on this matter.

Q13.   Is there evidence to suggest that the current system is not attracting applications from the widest pool of applicants?

    "I consider the fact that I have had lifelong experience of disability, and have had a career and life `in the community' being part of my possible contribution to committee work"

  Engage Member

The Public Appointments Unit report, Opening Up Public Appointments, 2002 highlights the fact that disabled people are significantly under represented on a wide range of public bodies. Only 1.5 per cent of the total number of appointments were reported to have gone to a disabled person.

  We believe a realistic target achievable in two years should be nearer 20 per cent should be across Whitehall.

  The Engage Network was set up because disabled people felt that they were not represented in positions of power. Many of our members have found it difficult to navigate application procedures or feel that their experiences and skills are not as valued as other applicants.

Q14.   How can greater diversity be best combined with the reassurance with the principal of merit in public appointment is being upheld.?

    "I believe an accessible selection process designed to show who has the necessary experience and expertise for the post in question will both widen the pool for selection and uphold the principal of merit"

  Engage Member

The most important consideration is to ensure that all posts are accessible.

  Disabled people are discriminated against and prevented from playing their part in public life as long as their basic access needs are denied. This happens if the application process is not available in accessible formats or that the interviews or meetings of public bodies are held in inaccessible buildings. It also happens where meetings are not managed to encourage full participation from all members including disabled people.

    "There are still tribunal offices in use which are inaccessible to disabled people"

  Sadly many disabled people assume that they will be discriminated against in such a way so it is also important that all posts are seen and promoted as being fully accessible.

  The principal of merit is very difficult to define in a practical way. What may be more useful is identifying a set of tasks that need to be undertaken for each post. This process should be standardised throughout Government and should be made public.

  Individuals without the necessary skills could then attempt to gain the skills and experience needed to meet the requirements of the post if they do not already have them.

  Disabled people should have the same opportunities of having a mentor or shadow as women, young people and minority ethnic groups.

  Consideration should also be given to people who have gained experience outside the work place. For example a person who has been a patient with a chronic medical condition may have as relevant experience as a doctor nurse or NHS manager when applying for a public appointment in the health service.

    "I was told my work experience was not relevant. They did not consider my life skills, which would have made me very relevant. They also told me access was difficult"

  Engage Member

Consideration should also be given to guaranteed interview system throughout Whitehall for disabled people who meet the criteria of a post. Many companies, voluntary organisation and Government departments do this already through the Positive About Disability scheme.

  Where the unique perspective on disability is considered important to the skills mix of a board, personal experience of disability should become one of the personal specifications against which a proportion of the candidates are assessed.

  Obviously people with limited exposure to public life may not have had the opportunities to obtain the relevant skills and experience. It is important that organisations such as political parties, trade unions, campaigning groups and other voluntary bodies encourage disabled people to take part in their structures.

  Disabled people are often excluded because these feeder organisations are themselves inaccessible. Special recognition may need to be made when disabled people apply for posts that they have been denied many opportunities other groups in society take for granted. Training, mentoring and shadowing opportunities will help prepare disabled people for public life

  There are impairments such as mental illness or learning disability, which may be considered by some to prevent a person undertaking a public appointment. This is however not the case. A person's ability to fulfil any kind of public office should be based on what they can offer as an individual not on assumptions about their impairment: for example the recent appointment of people with learning disabilities to the Disabled Rights Commission and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. With suitable support people with a learning disability can make unique and specific contributions to all aspects of public life.

  The same is true for people with mental illness. Society in general has a fear of mental health problems that is unfounded. Most people have periods of mental distress, which does not affect their capacity to undertake work. It is important that people with experience of the mental health system can input into all the services that affect their lives. By excluding such people it is doubtful if any body can be truly representative or provide a high quality service.

Q15.   Would a more consistent use of remuneration for members of public bodies help to increase diversity in their membership? Are there any possible drawbacks to an increase in the number of remunerated members?

    "Remuneration should be, as a minimum, be based on ensuring that no one appointed is ever out of pocket"

  Engage Member

Many disabled people are unable to take up public appointments with remuneration, as they will have their benefit cut. Engage has raised this crucial issue with the Government. Please see appendix 1 for further details.

  Access to Work funding should be available to enable disabled people to take up such positions. If people knew that fair remuneration would be made they may be more likely to apply for posts.

  Many disabled people incur extra costs due to their impairment. These include for example, extra travel costs from having to use taxis because public transport is often inaccessible. It is good practice for all transport and subsistence costs to be met by the public body for both interviews and meetings of public bodies. Funding needs to be provided to ensure that these extra costs are not met by the disabled person.

  Disabled appointees are likely to have a range of particular access needs that must be supported with adequate funding. For example a visually impaired public appointee may require documents to be converted into Braille.

Q16.   Is the public appointment process understood by members of the public and seen to be fair, open, transparent and easy to travel through?

    "A more accessible system of appointments is needed, using a range of media and formats to ensure that disabled people are able to make choices to apply"

  Engage Member

The Engage Network was set up in part because disabled people did not see public appointment processes as being fair.

  Standardisation of the process may help encourage disabled people to apply. The ease of the process will be enhanced if the standard application procedures are supported by further information. This could be done through a website or series of leaflets.

  Citizenship classes in schools and other institutions should include information about public appointments. This could explain why public appointments are important and how to apply. Information could also be provided through the careers service and employment and New Deal advisors.

Q17.   What improvements, if any, should there be in the way advertising or publicising public appointments are made?

    "TV has to be used in order to open these posts up to all. Adverts in newspaper such as the Sun and the Mirror and more local papers has to be a step in the right direction"

  Engage Member

The current system of advertising public appointments is not working. Many members of the Engage Network have found it difficult to find out about the opportunities that are open to them.

  A single point of contact through a Government website with information on all appointments will help. However creative advertising and networking strategies will also need to be introduced. This should include

    —  A national campaign on public appointments in general.

    —  Specific campaigns and seminars targeted at under represented groups using local and sector press.

    —  New media campaigning using banner exchanges with voluntary sector organisations websites.

Q19.   There are a growing number of sometimes informally-constituted partnership bodies and task forces charged with carrying out public functions, especially at a local level Should these bodies be subject to the Commissioner for Public Appointment's code of practice?

    "The code of conduct should apply to all bodies"

  Engage Member

All public appointments should be made under the same criteria. This needs to be as transparent as possible.

Q20.   Are there ways in which the system of independent assessors for public appointments can be improved?

  Independent assessors need to have a good knowledge about disability and the positive contribution disabled people can make to public bodies. This could be done through mandatory disability awareness training.

  Assessors should also reflect the diversity within the population and so include people from different backgrounds including a representative group of disabled people.

Q22.   Are there any lessons to be learned by Government departments about the way in which the Scottish Executive and the National Assembly for Wales approach public appointments?

  Members of public bodies on Wales have a requirement that they should speak Welsh. For many posts the willingness to learn is an acceptable alternative to already being a Welsh speaker. This flexibility could be a useful model for disabled people who may not have specific skills but are able to learn them.

Q24.   What is your opinion of the reforms recently introduced in the system of appointments to NHS bodies?

    "Little has been done to identify the needs of disabled non executive directors"

  Engage Member

We are pleased to see that the NHS has started to try and address the issue of serious under representation of disabled people on its boards. We think that the reforms that it has introduced for the recruitment of non-executive directors are a step in the right direction, however in our opinion they do not go far enough.

  For genuine involvement of disabled people on NHS bodies there are resource implications and well as attitudinal issues to be address. As such Engage would encourage an early review of the process so that disabled people are not only represented but also are able to have a real voice on NHS bodies

Q25.   Should a candidate, even important people for high level appointments, be asked to complete application forms or attend interviews in a normal way?

  All applicants for all posts should be treated in the same way to ensure equal opportunities monitoring. Allowing a system where senior level public appointments are not transparent will compromise the whole perception of fairness.


6   Disability in Great Britain, DSS Research Report, No 94, 1999 Labour Force Survey Autumn 2000 (September-November) identifies almost 200,000 people with a disability in Northern Ireland. Back

7   ibid. Back

8   Labour Force Survey Autumn 2000 (September-November) identifies almost 200,000 people with a disability in Northern Ireland. Back

9   Opening Up Public Appointments 2002. Public Appointments Unit, Cabinet Office. Back

10   Opening Up Public Appointments 2002. Public Appointments Unit, Cabinet Office. Back

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