Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 940 - 959)



  940. Who are you sending your applications to?
  (Professor Rees) To the National Assembly. They will decide how to select assessors for the process of selecting assessors.

  941. So they have asked for applications but they have not decided how to do it.
  (Professor Rees) I have no idea. It would not be right for me to know, would it? I am a candidate.


  942. The question of who owns the independent assessors: would it not be better if someone like Dame Rennie Fritchie owned the independent assessors?
  (Professor Rees) I do not think they need to be owned as such. Dame Rennie Fritchie has an extremely good relationship with all the independent assessors. She provides them with information, she invites them to seminars, she provides training, and I feel there is an excellent relationship there. I think you might put the question round the other way: given the number of public appointments and given the difficulties of providing UK coverage with different legislation, given this business of promoting equality in Northern Ireland and in Wales and different situations in England and Scotland, you might argue that there should be a Dame Rennie Fritchie in each of the four countries.

  943. We have heard suggestions—not from Wales—that some of these so-called independent assessors are simply the existing appointed people like themselves, ie retired civil servants as opposed to civil servants, and calling them independent assessors, which makes the system all right. This is a serious matter. We need to make sure that the independent assessors are what they say they are.
  (Professor Rees) I absolutely agree, which is partly why we have the situation in Wales that we have. That is an attempt precisely to respond to that internal paradox.

Mr Prentice

  944. There is a lot to think about here and I am struggling with some of this. From my lay perspective, I am wondering whether appointing someone is really an art or a science.
  (Professor Rees) I suppose it is a bit of both, but the intention is to make it more of a science, and the difficulty, it seems to me, is in actually specifying what is precisely needed in the post. One of the things that I have observed over my years as an independent assessor is that quite often if somebody leaves a board, they come to the end of their period of appointment, the attempt is made to replace that person, whereas I think when you get to that situation, it is an opportunity to say, "What is the purpose of this Board? What are the competencies that you need on the Board as a whole? What competencies are already represented on the Board and what are needed, bearing in mind this underlying agenda of modernising the public service and moving that agenda forward?" Therefore, you devise the competencies in that context, and very often in the early days what we saw was, "We want somebody who looks like X" and what you get is somebody who looks like X. That is one of the ways forward in all of that, and also to try to take best practice from normal job appointments. That field of work in trying to make the appraisal process more scientific is very well developed and I think the public appointments system can learn from it.

  945. Does it just mean breaking down the job in the search for the relevant competencies to millions of little boxes that the applicants have to tick? Is that what is meant by "scientific"?
  (Professor Rees) No. It simply means being sure about what the competencies are that you want. We are not necessarily doing psychological testing or anything like that. It is a fraught area, but certainly I can report from my own experience in the early days that there was no discussion about the competencies. "What we want is a good egg." That was more or less as involved as it got, and good eggs appeared—good eggs remarkably similar to the good eggs that were already on the board. So I think it is a question of thinking of those broad competencies, but not in a kind of over-mechanistic way.

  946. I understand that. When you were speaking earlier you talked about merit, and I am interested in this. You talked about the enigma of merit. What do you mean by merit? What is the enigma of merit?
  (Professor Rees) People use the term "merit"—"We will appoint on merit", "We are looking for people on the basis of merit"—but they never really describe exactly what it is that they mean by that. That is what I think needs to be further articulated. If I could go back to the Training and Enterprise Councils that we used to have, for example, the idea of merit there in terms of appointments to the TECs was articulated, and one of the criteria was basically you had to be a chairman of a small or medium sized enterprise. That, to me, is institutional sex discrimination because it is far more likely that men will have that opportunity or that position than women. So the concept of merit was actually being translated into a specific set of experiences that one gender was much more likely to have had than another. So merit was being conflated with a particular set of experiences there. That is why I think we need to be more rigorous about what we mean by merit. We can talk about integrity and all those kinds of things. That is fine. But what we are really talking about is fit for purpose.

  947. Are we saying, "We want someone with this kind of life experience and this kind of person with work experience"? Is that what we are talking about?
  (Professor Rees) I think we are thinking about people who are able to do these kinds of tasks, and the point is, where they have achieved the experience to enable them to do those tasks does not matter. So we are moving away from traditional employment-based applications to ones that list the tasks: "You have to be a team player. Give us an example of your team playing skills." "You have to be able to sift information and analyse it and come to a reasonable decision on an appropriate outcome." You can have that skill from a whole range of different experiences, including bringing up children. That is what I mean about merit, that we too often use as a shorthand for merit a particular set of experiences derived from very traditional kinds of backgrounds, very often male employment backgrounds, and what we need to think is what are the particular skills that are needed—team player or whatever—and how we can present this opportunity in a way that people can read into it "I can do that", including a woman who has stayed at home looking after children for many years and running play groups.

  948. One final question. I have asked it before of other people who have come before us. In the drive for greater diversity, how do we encourage people from really dramatically under-represented groups to come forward? I give you the example of Moslem women. I do not know how big the Moslem population is in Wales—probably not very big—but in some parts of the country, including my own, we are probably talking about 15 per cent, which is a big chunk of the population. Yet Moslem women are invisible in the public sphere. You are an expert on gender and diversity. Short of just launching a roadshow into east Lancashire—and I do not know how many applications that would bring forward—how do we actually tackle this problem?
  (Professor Rees) I think that is a long haul, because there are particular cultural issues about being in public life. You are well aware of them. I can describe what happened when I was the Equal Opportunities Commissioner for Wales. We were vexed by exactly this issue, and the Director of the EOC called a conference of ethnic minority women in the area. It was really the first time that these women had been brought together, and it was an opportunity for their voices to be heard on almost any subject that they were interested in. What came over clearly was that Bangladeshi women in particular, who did not speak English, or indeed Welsh, had no way of interacting with social services, health services, on a satisfactory basis. They were unaware of what services were available, they were unaware of how to access those services and so on. A considerable amount of work has been developed since then setting up this organisation called MEWN Cymru[1], which means "being in" in Welsh. It is Minority Ethnic Women's Network. They have branches in different parts of Wales, particularly in the cities. This has worked at a voluntary level with support from the Equal Opportunities Commission and others, to try to develop not only a knowledge and awareness of public services, but the beginnings of engagement with it, and confidence among some of these women to start participating in these activities. This is a slow business, but it is developing at a grass roots level, and it now means that there is this organisation that can be consulted, for example, by the Assembly and other organisations. It can be relied upon to provide a voice. There are other ethnic minority groups in Wales, of course, all-Wales organisations, but this is the only one that focuses on the women's voices. So I think it is grass roots work in that kind of way that can eventually hopefully produce Moslem women candidates for these kinds of appointments. But there is no quick fix.

  949. Just to accelerate the process, because you said it is a long haul—10, 20, even 50 year—I wonder whether we should set gender/ethnicity targets. We have them for all sorts of things but the Government has not yet embraced gender/ethnicity targets. Is there a case for that?
  (Professor Rees) I am not a great fan of these things myself, because it seems to me what you can end up with is a desperate attempt to get some of these unrepresented groups on to committees without the appropriate support and without an appropriate culture to receive them and make the most of them. It can be a very uncomfortable experience for them, and it can put other people off. On the other hand, having said that, I think it is worth noting that in at least three European Union Member States there is legislation that says there must be a gender balance on all public committees. In two countries it is 40 per cent and in one it is 30 per cent, and the world has not come to an end in these countries. What is extremely interesting is, of course, some women have been fast-tracked into this, but if you talk to men in Finland, working perhaps in the private sector, who are involved in the public sector in some way, they say they now feel discomfited if they are on a board of directors or whatever and there is not a gender balance. They feel they are missing part of the equation, they are missing a whole set of insights and experience that they are getting on these gender-balanced public committees. If we had legislation like that in this country, it would mean we would have to put all these other measures into place to make it work, and that is what those three countries—Sweden, Finland and Italy, now France are going for it as well—have had to do. So targets in themselves I think are very crude. You need a package of measures. Legislation is something I will certainly invite the Committee to consider on sex equality, but I do not think it is appropriate for ethnic minorities; it is far more complicated. There are other approaches. I have to say the gender balance in the National Assembly has completely transformed the governance. It is extremely interesting.

  Mr Prentice: I have just come back from Finland, and I met one male Finnish MP when I was over there for a week and probably about eight or nine women MPs, and it seemed to me that women in Finland really are the movers and shakers.

  Brian White: Most of the country did not vote.

  Chairman: We only have Annette, but it is quite an "only".

Annette Brooke

  950. I would just like to refer to the answer Sir William just gave me, and I think as a mere woman it was a put-down, that I have to understand that these are multi-million businesses and you need to have the right skills to be on the board. If I heard that sort of phrase—and I have been a housewife for the last ten years—I think I would just run away and hide. I felt pretty put down just then, so somebody with less confidence than I have would have felt pretty awful. What do we do about that sort of thing?
  (Professor Rees) I absolutely agree. I could not agree more. This is something that is being addressed in the action plan. It is all part of the agenda of modernising the public service. You cannot bring people in who are not used to the particular cut and thrust of a style of working and expect them to work effectively unless you change the culture of the way in which that organisation works. This is extremely delicate, because the people who are running it in the way that they are running it are doing so out of the goodness of their hearts, and it has always worked for them. Essentially, it is quite challenging then to say, "We may have to re-think how the business of the committee/board is conducted." So there has to be a real openness and a real commitment to that. One of the ways that I have tried to influence this in the National Assembly on all the panels for which I have been an independent assessor is to say to candidates, "You will be aware that the National Assembly has to pay due regard to equality of opportunity in all that it does, and this of course includes the Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies. What would you do on this Board to promote equality?" That is one of the criteria, that is one of the competencies that we are concerned with, an openness to this agenda, ideas about how to deliver on this agenda through public bodies. By including that, over time only people who have reasonably acceptable answers to that, or are prepared to engage with it and be open to suggestions about that, should theoretically get through. I can remember in the early days of public appointments interviewing people for what was then one of the biggest quangos in Wales, and saying, "What about this issue of equality of opportunity?" We had replies along the lines of "Well, I am a big employer, and frankly, I am only interested in appointing on merit." The second one was very much along the lines of "Oh, I know what the legislation is and how to make sure I don't fall foul of the legislation." The third one is, "Well, my wife's a woman, so don't worry, I am kept up to speed on all that business. Next serious question, please." Making it clear in the interview process that that approach to the equality issue is not acceptable basically changes the whole agenda. The candidates realise this is an important issue, and if they want to get on the board, they have to sign up to this. They do not have to be terribly knowledgeable about it, but they have to sign up to it. It is part of government policy in Wales to promote equality, and it is part of its statutory duty. So with that background, it is easier to try and push this forward amongst new candidates. It is more challenging to change the culture of existing boards, but that is being addressed through training and through strong messages from ministers and so on. But I could not agree with you more, and nothing would be worse than improving the diversity of candidates, getting people with different backgrounds on to the boards, and then subjecting them to being patronised, humiliated, ignored, whatever. That would just be disastrous. It would be better if things carried on in their own sweet way, I think, than to subject people to that.

  951. Thank you for that. Whilst I applauded what you said earlier about the idea that you had to attract minorities, perhaps to school governing bodies, and then have a process, I feel that could be a bit of a cop-out if we do not attack the culture as well. I hope you would agree with that. It is just too easy to say, "Go away and work hard and you will get there in the end." That is very patronising as well. I take the point that it is useful if you have done something, but it is actually thinking of the skills that we need. We were talking about the government defining the role, and following on from what you have said, it is the definition of the role of the body. I do not know how much input the Government's Women's Unit actually has in the definition of roles throughout. Do you know of any work that has been done in that area, and is it something that this Committee could ask about?
  (Professor Rees) I certainly think it is something that is well worth asking about. What I do know is Dame Rennie Fritchie has put a lot of emphasis on the need to identify what is required and to think imaginatively about the job rather than simply cloning past members. So I think there is a lot of work going on there. What is going on in the women's equality unit on this particular issue I am not terribly familiar with.

Mr Trend

  952. I am concerned about a number of the things which you have said. In particular, you said that if people want to get on the board they have to sign up to a certain cast of mind, a certain received set of attitudes. This worries me hugely, but I think it is probably that you have said nothing about the party politics that worries me even more. This Committee recommended a way of trying to clarify, purify, the system of public appointments, which broadly speaking the Government of the United Kingdom accepted and has acted on. Whether it works well or not it is probably too early to say, but the system which you have involving ministers still might seem to some of us to retain some of the old problems. In the system is there any way of asking people what political allegiance they have? Is that asked of them?
  (Professor Rees) Shall I deal with the first question about the set of attitudes? It is not so much a set of attitudes; it is ensuring that applicants are aware of the obligation of ASPBs to promote equality. That is the statutory responsibility of the Assembly and it is quite different from UK/GB and Scotland. It would be like asking a candidate for an NHS board "Are you into promoting health?" It is not really more than that. But because it is a new statutory legislation, people may or may not be aware of it, and therefore it has to come out in that way, whereas with a health appointment you would assume people were into promoting health.

  953. So you are arguing that it is because of the statutory basis. What about the point about party politics?
  (Professor Rees) I really think the Conservative Party did enormous good through Nolan, introducing independent assessors, and took a giant step forward in turning that culture around which had been more or less the same historically for a long, long time. I think that was an extremely important step forward, which has obviously been built on since then. The situation in the National Assembly for Wales appointments is that people are asked if they have been politically active in the past five years. They are not asked for affiliation or vote or anything prior to five years, and it is made clear on the form that this will neither help nor hinder them, nor will having no political activity at all. It is an awareness thing, particularly if you are going to make a press release about an appointment. If you are not aware that somebody is extremely politically active in some part of the country, that can cause all sorts of embarrassment. So basically, the appointing panel needs to be aware of activity.

  954. So the appointing panel knows this. We were hearing earlier from Sir William Wells that that is not the case in his work.
  (Professor Rees) It is different. This is devolution. There are differences.

  955. So the appointment panel still knows what political parties these people are affiliated to. We thought it was a huge step forward that we got rid of this.
  (Professor Rees) The thing is, if this person is politically active in a political party, the chances are it may well be known anyway. It is public domain stuff. That is different from affiliation.


  956. Everybody in Wales knows everybody.
  (Professor Rees) We are all related to each other! I agree there is an issue there, but it is hard to convey how inclusive things are in Wales, with all the cross-party committees and this joint cross-party commitment to making the Assembly work. It is much less of an issue than it is in Westminster.

Mr Trend

  957. Are the figures on political affiliation of people appointed published?
  (Professor Rees) No.

  958. So they are known only to the appointers.
  (Professor Rees) The appointment panel, and, as I say, it is really about sensitivity at the press release stage.

  959. I understand that, but again, Sir William Wells can tell us the affiliation, and he has figures, and he was looking into an extraordinary similarity in the figures now and before, which may reflect all sorts of things. I do not see why Wales should be different. There are examples of political fixing from Wales and from Scotland and from England which are very similar, and anecdotally sometimes worse in areas where one political party has been in power longer than the others. Why should Wales be different? I do not think you are all related to each other at all. I do not think there is political consensus.
  (Professor Rees) Information about political affiliation is not collected. It is political activity in the last five years.

1   Note by witness: "Cymru" is Welsh for Wales. Back

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