Examination of Witnesses (Questions 840
THURSDAY 24 OCTOBER 2002
840. How many of these staff came over from,
as it were, the established civil service?
(Dr Moore) Probably about a quarter.
841. Was that a net loss to the established
civil service? I mean, how does the cost benefit work here?
(Dr Moore) It was actually very similar.
842. Were those people in the civil service
then replaced? Do you know if that is the case?
(Dr Moore) No, because the job was actually relinquished
by the Department of Health.
843. So it was a straightforward sort of privatisation,
in a sense.
(Dr Moore) If you like.
844. One of the things I noticed in the paper
that you sent to us is that you are, quite properly, quite impressedyou
have every chance to be impressedwith the scale of the
operation. You say, ". . . the scale of our operation ranks
us with the larger senior recruitment agencies." So you are
still growing and expanding.
(Sir William Wells) We are because we originally were
set up to deal with strategic health authorities, health trusts
and primary care trusts. We have already been asked to carry out
the appointments of a number of national posts within health and
I have reason to believe that the secretary of state at the beginning
of the next financial year will ask us to carry out all of the
appointments in the National Health Service. So those will be
a mixture of national and special health authorities and the like.
845. Do you think there will be a prospect in
the future that you might extend your remit outside the health
(Sir William Wells) Perhaps I could answer that question
slightly differently, to say that I think we have developed a
modeland you were the ones who suggested it in the first
placewhich actually fits very well into the public sector
and it could easily be adapted to deal with public appointments
generally. All you would have to do is to tailor the selection
and interview criteria to fit the particular jobs in question.
You would probably have to recruit specialists, but that is not
very difficult, but it would give independent probity and professionalism
and it would still allow the sponsoring government departments
to be involved in deciding what it is that they want. But our
experienceand I think this is a very interesting pointis
that when we have been asked to take on these ad hoc roles, the
biggest problem is to get them to define what it is that they
want. So half the difficulty, we suspect, with public appointments
has and will continue to be that they are going out looking for
something which they have not actually properly defined and that
leads them then into all sorts of downstream difficulties. Because
people say, "I wasn't considered." Why? "Well,
because you decided something completely different at the time
you made your appointment from the time when you made the initial
inquiries." That is where you start to get difficulties.
And of course, also, they do not make many appointments and therefore
they cannot have a proper professional set up in which to deal
846. Soand this may be an uncharitable
interpretationyou are now dug in, have quite a lot of staff,
spend quite a lot of money and you are eyeing the possibility
of empire building in other areas of public appointment. Do you
think you are now an irreplaceable part of the machinery of administration
in the country?
(Sir William Wells) I have never thought like that.
Mr Trend: I will come clean. When we were debating
this amongst ourselves, there was debate about what happens with
a new government, incoming with a completely different philosophy
of how to run public services, and in particular the health service.
Is it not legitimate for a new government to say, "We want
to do things in a completely different way," and then to
try to fix it, essentially, so that their people throughout the
country . . . Indeed, some slightly more candid Labour members
said that is precisely what happened in 1997.
Brian White: What should have happened.
847. What should have happened, according to
Mr White. You need the commanding heights; you do not want people
who are going to be obstructive with, in your view, an old-fashioned
philosophy getting in the way of exercising the mandate the country
has given you to bring about profound change. I dare say that
would now be impossible to do with the ombudsman service. An incoming
government could not say, "We are not going to have this
any more, throw it away," it has become woven into the fabric
of our understanding of how the country works. I was wondering
what level of confidence you felt, that this was now a transparent
service which people valued for itself.
(Sir William Wells) It is of course quite difficultwe
have only been going for 12 monthsbut what I would say
is that there are 4,500 people for whom we have responsibility,
I have just completed a national tour and met with over 2,000
of them, and there is a huge and increased degree of confidence
in the probity of the system. I think that if it was abolished
there would be very, very considerable disquiet by the people
who have been appointed through this system because they know
where they are, they are being looked after, and they know that
at the end their future is not just going to be decided at the
whim of political change.
848. Do you have a plan for a radical change
of policy? How would the system withstand that?
(Dr Moore) Could I come in here. I think we are in
danger of confusing appointment with the role. It is totally appropriate
for an incoming government, to use your example, to define the
role, and to define the role and therefore the qualities that
they are looking for in incumbents, in quite a different way from
the previous government. But what we are arguing is that the appointment
process itself, whatever the role or whatever the qualities required,
should be open and transparent and that is difficult to move away
849. I do not understand that. Let us turn it
round and say that I want to destroy the NHS: I get a whole stack
of people to apply, get my people into appointments, and then
we undermine what the government is trying to achieve. How do
you stop that?
(Sir William Wells) The people who are appointed to
boards, one of the things that they have to sign off is that they
will actually promote and support government policy. You actually
could not do it in that way. I think the point we are making is
that the role of a non-executive director was actually changed
when this Government came in following the Tory Government, and
they have created a different set of criteria from what they wanted
their people to carry outand that of course is perfectly
proper and permissible for them to do but actually should not
make any difference to the appointment process, because the people
who are responsible for appointment merely appoint people to a
new role and that must be something the Government will always
hold to themselves. In fact we are in the process of being able
to discuss with the Government a further refinement to the role
of non-executive directors because we think it can be further
improved to the benefit of the health service. So I think that
is an ongoing situation.
850. I am actually slightly reassured by the
figures you gave because it proves to me what I have been saying
all along that Dame Rennie Fritchie's campaign, her own invention,
was not justified by the evidence, but then that is something
I have said to her before. What I really want to identify is we
talk about 72 per cent of people not having political affiliation.
(Sir William Wells) Activity.
851. You and I both know, Sir Williamand
I have used her as an example beforeMrs Gillian Miscampbell,
who is on the description as "no political activity"
but was the former Conservative leader of Buckinghamshire County
Council. When you get obvious examples like that, where it is
showing no political activity, you get the old squirearchy: If
you support the government you are doing public service; if you
want to change it, it is political activity. How do you get round
those kind of issues?
(Sir William Wells) We use the definition that is
provided to us, which is if you have any political activity in
the five years preceding your application you have to declare
it. If you have not had any political activity during those five
years, then you do not have to declare it. That is the time level.
As far as what do we mean by political activity, this is pretty
broad-rangingyou know, even to leaflet dropping and the
like. But, being quite candid to you, we do not have the time
or the resources or, I have to say at the moment, the inclination
to check individually whether everybody actually ticks the box
quite correctly. I am quite sure you are right, I think numbers
of people will wish to hide the fact that they have got any political
activity, but there is very little we can do about that. Clearly,
if it is self-evident that they have got political activity, people
will know that because they are being interviewed locally. Therefore,
if they were leader of the council and they have not declared
it, then we would correct that and probably disbar them.
852. It was actually beyond the five years,
so she is technically correct. I am not suggesting she has done
anything wrong, but it was just to make the point, as an example,
of where I think the figures actually mislead.
(Sir William Wells) They may do. I think it is very
difficult. It is not our definition. We are a collecting agency
for the political information. That is all we are.
853. Just to clear up the figures, you said
72 per cent have no political activity but in my brief it
(Sir William Wells) I am sorry, 63 per cent. I was
talking, badly, from memory. I apologise. Sixty-three.
854. You have talked about merit. Does merit
not mean in the image of the people making the appointment? So
that, even though you may get cultural diversity and ethnic diversity,
you are going to be appointing middle class people who have a
professional background. Contenders for alternative medicine,
for example, are going to be excluded because they do not fit
into the mirror image of what you are looking for. How do you
deal with that kind of diversity?
(Sir William Wells) I think we have to go back to
the criteria and the role. The current criteria to which we are
working, which were introduced by Frank Dobson when he was secretary
of state, are actually not achieving that which he wished to achieve.
They are in fact actually confining the field rather than expanding
it. Why? Because they are concentrated on knowledge and skills.
Knowledge and skills do preclude large numbers of people who we
believe would have the competency to carry out the role but, because
they are well experienced in local affairs or whatever it happens
to be, they get cut out of it at the sifting stage. We are concerned
about that and we are working on it. I have talked both to the
secretary of state and the minister of state about it and they
are supportive of us coming up with an appraisal which actually
changes the way in which we recruit people to a competency-based
interview process, which we will make quite structured in order
to avoid the point that you are making. At the moment the interviews
are not structured and therefore you could claim that it just
becomes a self-perpetuating group of people. And, I have to say,
you are right: if you look at the cross-section of the people
who are non-executives, they are mainly white and middle class,
and that is not representative of the people for whom they are
going to be responsiblehence us carrying out this exercise
at the moment which we will be consulting on and then taking to
ministers early next year.
855. A lot of people take one look at the form
and say, "I cannot fill that in."
(Sir William Wells) We have actually improved the
form very considerably. We have reduced it by about two-thirds
in size, but again we will be changing that because it will be
moved hopefully, if we get agreement from the secretary of state,
to a competency-based application.
856. People quite often find they would like
to participate but the structure of meetings, the remuneration
actually deters themor it does not encourage them.
(Sir William Wells) We have made it very clear to
all chairs of the Commission that they have to have family-friendly
and convenient meeting times and they have to take the views of
the people who sit round the tableand not the executives,
because they should come along, but the non-executivesas
to that. Some people meet at half-past seven in the morning because
that is most convenient for everybody because it allows them to
get off to work or child-minding is easier at that time or . .
. others meet in in the evening. Very few actually, except in
deeper rural areas, meet in the middle of the day. That is the
first thing. The second thing is that the cost of child-minding
is provided and therefore it is very important that we do not
preclude people with children because they are very important
for us to have on the board. As far as money is concerned and
time, this is something that we are in active debate about at
the moment. At the moment a non-executive director is required
to spend five days a month doing the job. This, we think, is extremely
restrictive because it means that people who are in full-time
employment have to persuade their employers to let them have over
a month a year off work. And it is not on, because I have been
to see the CBI and IOD and they are all saying, "Forget it."
You know, "We will simply not campaign on your behalf to
get full-time workers to do this." So we are looking to see
what the consequence would be of two and a half days a month,
which is much more acceptable to employers. It is also means that
five days a month for the low paid, on £5,000 a year fee,
just does not match up, so they say, "Forget it. We cannot
afford to do it." Therefore, again, we are looking to shorten
the time. If we cannot shorten the time, we are going to have
to put a strong case to ministers that the remuneration has to
be adjusted, otherwise we really are pushing increasingly towards
those people who are financially self-supporting or are supported
by a partner and this is only one section of the population.
857. You have a number of people who actually
use the appointment as the basis for a whole series of public
appointments, so they are on the council, they have an NHS appointment
and a government quango and they make up their earnings that way.
How do you deal with that?
(Sir William Wells) This is a question of balance.
We of course require a full declaration at the time of the application
forms as to what other public jobs they have. They have to declare
that. If they then get through to the interview stage, they are
examined very extensively about their time capability and conflict.
A chairman of a social services committee, for example, it would
be very difficult to have sitting on a hospital trust board. A
number of people do not get it because we think that they are
trying to build up a portfolio of public sector jobs just for
the sake of doing it and therefore they cannot give us the time
that we need. On the other hand, it is actually very helpful for
us to have people who are active in other parts of the public
sector on the board, because, you know, if they are involved in
education they can bring knowledge of education and child care.
Similarly, for people who are involved in the local authorities
for social servicesbecause there is a very strong partnership,
particularly in primary care reformit is very important
that we have them. But we do not want everybody like that; we
only want one or two like that because they have to be balanced
with people with other skills.
858. Following on from my earlier question,
really, I am not so concerned about social balance because I think
that area is improving and is getting a much better ethnic balance
as well, but it is the political problem. If somebody comes up
for interview and is a member of my party, the Labour Party, but
believes very strongly in direct employment and in-house services
and is unhappy with what one might call the Government's modernising
agenda, that would be clearly politically uncomfortable for somebody
but he or she might make a very useful contribution and be a very,
very good member of a trust's board in other ways. What happens
in interview when people like that arrive?
(Sir William Wells) Everybody is free to express any
views and to have any views that they like, but these boards only
work as a team. They are bound by the rules of cabinet and once
they have made a decision they are all responsible for that decision
and if they are not prepared to be responsible for that decision
then they have to resign. So people have to examine their own
conscience. They may well have strong views about certain things.
Provided that they believe that they can carry out their role
as a member of the boardand remember they are individually
and collectively responsible for thatand reconcile those
particularly strong views they have in any direction, there is
no way we are going to disbar them. But if they become single
issue people and we think they are single issue people, we tend
to weed them out, I am afraid, because that is not what we want
on this board. We actually want people who are prepared to bring
in a certain skill, a range of skills and competences, but become
part of a team.
859. The Government wants to bring in foundation
hospitals. Foundations hospitals are going to have a lot of flexibility,
a lot of scope that other hospitals will not have. Would you look
for a different type of person to join the board of one of these
new Labour foundation hospitals? Or would you get anyone from
the pool of applicants?
(Sir William Wells) It is a moving feast.