Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 980 - 990)



  980. Thank you. The point I am making is the thrust of your report and that of the National Assembly is how we get the relevant, good-quality, appropriate people to apply and also the diversity of people included in that. I want to look at the mirror of that. It seems to me that the more people that do apply the greater the likelihood of an increase in the number of people who are totally unsuitable, and they are totally unsuitable because they are either inadequate or they misunderstand or misinterpret the nature of the job that they have put in for. I would like to put to you a proposition—shoot it down but it is meant to be constructive: in recognising the size of the Principality compared with the population and size of England, do you think it would be feasible for anybody who puts in an application for whatever the public appointment is, in time, should have a personal interview so that—and we were talking earlier on about the housewife who has not been in the traditional career of being the chief executive of that or motivated for that but who might be a very excellent person for particular public appointments—if it was practical, to have an interview system for anybody who puts an application in in time, so that they could be either encouraged or they could be assessed and it could be diplomatically pointed out to them, "Sorry, we are not looking for you, with all your talents, you are not quite the right sort of person for these appointments generally", and you will also identify on a very constructive scale, I hope, those people who have hidden talents who would be quite excellent for public appointments. In relation to the ethnic dimension in the Principality, you would be able to get into contact with leaders of those ethnic groups who could identify the sort of suitable person who might be invited to apply. I am trying to make the thing proactive rather than reactive. I would welcome your comments on that.
  (Professor Rees) I very much like the spirit of what you are saying. It is extremely constructive, but I am not sure that giving all applicants interviews is an appropriate way to fulfil that spirit. It does seem to me, first of all, that improving information and awareness about public appointments helps individual people to know whether or not this is for them, that is one thing. There is an awful lot more work that could be done in that area to help people self-select so you do not get people presenting themselves who are not appropriate and a potentially damaging situation. Secondly, this is really in the spirit of what you are saying, we almost need a kind of coaching system. We need some seminars, some training, all over the country, to get people up to speed and to get to know more about what they would be letting themselves in for, but also to get their own competency developed and their way of communicating and expressing themselves well-honed so that they can have a greater likelihood of being appointed. One of the things that the National Assembly has been looking at is what I would call the "near misses", people who have been interviewed for a board and really fall down in one particular area. The one that comes up most often for me is women who have not got experience of corporate governance. It is obviously not just women but particularly women, and when they are asked a question about corporate governance they do not understand what it means because they have got no experience of it. You either know about it or you do not and it can be developed very easily. The idea is that perhaps the Assembly should run a couple of training courses a year on what corporate governance is. If this is the missing thing for you, you could be directed towards that with a special letter after your interview to say, "You would have been appointed if you could have known more about this, go on this training course and next time you will stand a better chance." So providing more training and background and confidence building for those kind of applicants would be really good. I think the Assembly has got quite professional at not sending all failed candidates "Dear John" letter but sending bespoke letters thanking them, etcetera, etcetera, to try to encourage them or point them in a different direction, maybe applying for a different tier or whatever it might be. That is quite constructive in keeping these people in the frame and trying to ensure that eventually they will fit the appropriate kind of post. I do not think one could interview all applicants because it would not be cost-effective. I think what we need is a series of measures that try to grow people, if you like, and help them to self-select at the most appropriate tier and to progress their own public service careers. What I think is extremely interesting in my own experience (over the last however many years it is) is that in the early days the people who would apply would be "the great and the good" and mostly one would have heard of them, read about them, know about them, seen them on television. Now the entire panel will be looking at people who nobody has heard of, and I think that is extremely encouraging.

Brian White

  981. How much of this change would have happened had we still had a Welsh Office, with the same policies? Was it the structural change and the legislative underpinning that has given this the impetus or could it have been done using pre-existing structures?
  (Professor Rees) That is a difficult question. There was obviously movement in this direction with the opening up before the 1997 election with Nolan and all of that, but I have to say I think there has been this paradigm shift and I think it is the clause in the legislation setting up the Assembly which has driven it. I think things have moved a lot faster than they would have done if we had not had devolution.

  982. So it is not simply enough for us to say to the Cabinet Office, "You have got to follow the Welsh Assembly"; it needs something more?
  (Professor Rees) I would like to see the UK Government adopt a duty to promote equality legislation. That would do it nicely. At the moment employers and all sorts of organisations have had a lot of diversity legislation on race, on disability, and there will be three more coming because of the Amsterdam Treaty on sexual orientation, religious beliefs and age. This is really cumbersome stuff for organisations to deal with, knowing what they can and cannot do on this, that and the other. To have a duty to promote equality, to my mind, is much neater and it turns the organisation away from being afraid of whether they are falling foul of this or that legislation into proactive, creative, innovative thinkers thinking "What can we do to promote it?" It just turns the whole thing round. It stops being a nuisance and becomes an exciting challenge.

  983. I would certainly agree with that. Can I come back to this consensual issue in Wales. There was a point made by Sir William Wells earlier on that if you were opposed to NHS foundation status you were unlikely to be appointed to an NHS board. How consensual do you have to be to get on to some of these public appointments? I am interested perhaps because I come from a non-conformist background. What do you have to do to attract non-conformists or allow non-conformists to play a role in public life?
  (Professor Rees) Starting with example, by appointing some non-conformist people, those that make people's eyebrows raise a bit and think, "How has that person got on there? This person is known to be very challenging", or whatever. That sends out a strong message about the openness of the system. Secondly, it seems to me the only restrictions on appointments should be the competencies that have to be identified for that particular post, and supporting whatever that organisation is there to do with all that that implies, and in the case of Assembly public bodies the duty to promote equality. There is no point in having an applicant for a post to a body whose prime aim is to get that body abolished. I think you have to have a certain amount, within a broad sense, of signing up to the body and what it is for. That does not mean to say in the nitty-gritty of particular dilemmas or policies you cannot have a whole range of different perspectives, but you have got to be generally supportive of what the organisation is there to do, otherwise it will become unworkable. But that is just a personal opinion.

  984. One of the dangers I perceive of this is that you are going to widen the category of people appointed to public appointments. Is there not a danger that they will become the next set of usual suspects and you are simply changing one set of people for a different set of people?
  (Professor Rees) But if the characteristics are so diverse, unless you are talking about those individual people, I would not be so concerned about it. I think the concern in the past was that the socio-economic and demographic characteristics of the people who held positions on all these bodies were very narrow. Not only that, many of them were multiple job holders. It was extraordinary when you saw how many people on this board were also on that board. That is one of the things the Assembly addressed by saying there should be a limit as to how many boards you could be on at a time and how long you could be on them.

  985. What is that limit?
  (Professor Rees) It depends if it is first, second or third tier. You could be on a top tier one and a one bottom tier one, there would be no problem about that. Certainly there has been a big shift away from the fact that you could count up on two hands the people running Wales basically, and that is how it was in the past.

Mr Hopkins

  986. First of all, our paths have crossed in the past. You may remember working for NALGO in the research department. I worked in research and you were the academic advisor for NALGO and NALGO was the very first union to redraft its entire constitution and rules in non-sexist language. In a lot of what you say, in a sense, my community is ahead of the game. 25 years ago we went out to recruit people from all the ethnic minorities and promote them in community politics and in every way. I think we are a long way forward and I would like to think that one of the reasons we have not had the problems in Luton that have happened elsewhere in the country is because we have done this. Our experience is that you have to be extremely sensitive about the different ethnic minorities and in Luton, where I am the Member of Parliament, even the Muslim community is widely diverse and one has to be extremely careful and have a good local knowledge before one makes an appointment. It is very simple to appoint what look like three ethnic minority people on a six-person body and not realise they are all from one community, and the other community gets very upset. At this stage in our development, this is very important. Will your assessors be very sensitive to these kind of issues in multiple ethnic minority communities like mine where this is very important, more important than political allegiance?
  (Professor Rees) What are the boards you are talking about?

  987. I am vice chair of governors for a sixth form college and we have five different ethnic minorities represented on that body. Privately we know from which community they come but every community in the town knows they have got their person on that body and there is a link going into the community the other way too. They are all recognised as fine people who are doing a good job and they are recognised in the community as professionals who have got the skills. If you do a matrix of skills there are accountants, teachers, whatever, so there is a mix of people as well. But it requires very good local knowledge and a lot of sensitivity. I agree entirely with what you were saying, by the way, but in making these assessments you have got to be aware of those factors.
  (Professor Rees) I think that is interesting. You are talking about school governing bodies there which are, of course, outwith this system in a sense. They have a different system.

  988. I am talking about our local health trusts as well.
  (Professor Rees) I am trying to think what would be the most locally based board that would engage with the issue that you are talking about and I think it is local health trusts, but even they are rather bigger, are they not, in terms of the geographical area that they cover? I am very conscious of the points that you have raised but I am not so sure that they come up with a responsive public body because they are not so geographically constrained, if you like. A lot of them are all-Wales bodies and if they are geographically spatially specific then they would tend to be much larger areas which would not have the same community dynamics that you are describing. It is extremely important for local boards and councils and also for schools, I absolutely agree, but I do not think it is such a problem for public appointments in the same way because of that lack of spatial specifics.

  989. We have a Luton primary health care trust, we have a hospital trust, and people are very sensitive to the membership of those bodies as well. They are not national but they are large communities—nearly a quarter of a million total population in the area.
  (Professor Rees) That is a very important issue. I think the thing is Wales is not so densely populated so I do not have much experience of what you are describing. It is a very good point, thank you.


  990. You have said a range of extremely interesting things to us. I want to finally bring you back to your recommendations. Your eyes lit up at the prospect of legislation, but I want to know generally if there are any more recommendations beyond the one you have given us that you would like to leave with us. I want to clarify the one that you have flagged up for us because I thought originally you were wanting to talk about the numbers game and you were citing examples from elsewhere about there should be so many and so many, but latterly you seemed to be talking about a general duty to promote equality. They are not the same approaches and I want to know which one you would prefer.
  (Professor Rees) I would prefer the duty to promote. I think the statutory legislation about gender balance on public bodies, however, is well worth considering and I think those countries that have gone down this road are well worth studying, not simply to look at the effects but to look at what bunking up measures have been introduced to make it work. We might want to learn a lot from those measures, even if we did not want to go down the road of setting those kind of quotas. I am very well aware—and I have been in the equality business for 30 years, thank you for reminding me—that quotas and target can be unbelievably contentious. They lead to a backlash and accusations of tokenism. I am very well aware of all that. However, they are working in these countries and they are producing some extremely interesting consequences. I would like to see us learning from those support measures that make it work. To me the best legislation we could have is a duty to make it work which I think would be welcomed by employers because it might apply to a lot of the legislation they are having to deal with and will be dealing with. In the duty there is one clear message in all that. There would need to be a lot of expertise and training around to enable people to work with it. I think it is a long-term strategy rather than a quick fix and it would need an awful lot of political will to make it work. I am very aware of that as well. Where I have seen it work as a consultant at the European Commission on equality issues—and I have done that for the last 15 years so I have quite a lot of experience of what different countries within and beyond Europe have tried to do to promote equality—it is my considered view that this kind of duty can be very effective and, of course, it has been a great pleasure for me, being based in Wales, to see this experiment, if you like, with the statutory duty to have due regard to equality working there. When I was EOC Commissioner for Wales I commissioned some research to evaluate the impact of that clause so far—and the Assembly has not been going for very long—and there is clear evidence that it has had an effect in a whole range of different areas, particularly in promoting[2] things like participatative democracy, transparency, all of that, some really quite radical stuff. So I think it would be enabling legislation and I would dearly like to recommend it to this Committee.

  Chairman: You have done and we are grateful for that. I think we should probably want to draw on you in a number of ways in thinking about these issues but it has been a wonderful start today. Thank you very much for coming and talking to us. It has been immensely valuable.

2   Chaney P and Fevre R (2002) An Absolute Duty: Equal Opportunities and the National Assembly for Wales. Cardiff: Institute for Welsh Affairs Back

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