Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 991 - 999)




991.  Could I welcome our witnesses to the Committee as we begin to conclude our inquiry into the public appointments system? It is good to see you here with your supporting people. My clerk tells me that you are all sitting in the order of the organogram that was given to you. I gather you have not followed that. Minister, you are going to say a few words to kick us off?

  (Mr Alexander) I thought it might be helpful first of all to introduce Helen Ghosh, who is the director of our machinery of government team within the Cabinet Office. Given that you are moving towards the conclusion of your investigation, I thought it might be helpful if I set in context my own remarks. First, my own view on why the public appointments and diversity agenda is so important to our work in government. Secondly, what I see as my role as Cabinet Office Minister in advancing that agenda and finally a word on progress that has been made since you saw Chris Leslie and Barbara Roche earlier during your inquiries. Firstly, why it is so important? I would judge the correct starting point as a recognition of our commitment as a government to the success of the public realm. As I believe you said at the outset of your inquiry, delivering better public services in part depends on appointing better, more able public servants. NDPBs play a crucial role in delivering those services directly to the public, whether directly or in an advisory capacity. Executive agencies spend more than £25 billion of public money, almost a quarter of the social security budget, and can have a vital impact on people's lives whether it is advising on medical treatment or funding local sports facilities. Of course we need to ensure that these are the most talented and effective people that we can find to grow the pool of talent from which these appointments come and then the more confident we can be that they in turn will be able to deliver. That is why we need to encourage and enable people from all sections of the community to come forward and to ensure that we are making the most of the skills and experience that our out there, ready to be tapped. What is my role within the Cabinet Office? As the Minister responsible for both NDPBs and the appointments policy, I have two main interests. First, the NDPBs are fit for their purpose, that they are well led and well run and focused on their objectives and their customers and provide good value for money for the taxpayer. All these are primarily the responsibility of their sponsoring ministers and departments of course but I and my team have a role in challenging and supporting departments in fulfilling their sponsorship functions. Secondly, I have to support and, if necessary, cajole departments in their work to attract talent from the widest possible pool. Our best practice advice and our outreach work with OCPA, with the equality unit, are perhaps the best examples of this work. Finally, what progress have we made recently since last you heard from Barbara Roche and Chris Leslie? Firstly, we have been doing work to build up better data on this subject, something I know this Committee and Dame Rennie Fritchie are keen on. As well as preparing for publication of Public Bodies 2002, we are setting up a database which will help us answer questions on diversity which at the moment we are still unable to answer. We have also been looking at whether the service currently provided through the public appointments register really meets the needs of members of the public in this post-Nolan world of job advertising and we are developing some ideas for change. I am looking forward to getting shortly from our officials a list of top 20 ideas for improving our record on diversity and the Short Life Working Group has been taking forward our work in this area over recent months. I will be happy to try and answer your questions.

992.  In general terms, we are looking at a system that was put in place by the Nolan Report. We call it the Nolan Rules, I think. Is it the view within government that the Nolan Rules are working well, are adequate, have solved all the contentious issues in the public appointments field or are there some problems that have arisen out of them?

  (Mr Alexander) I would certainly see the Nolan recommendations as the foundation for our work in this area. It clearly defined the remit initially for Dame Rennie Fritchie's work and the office in general. Already, I think it is clear in the work that Dame Rennie personally has been taking forward that that does not delimit the scope for further improvements. There is also a recognition of the strength of commitment the government feels to upholding the Nolan Rules. In some ways, we have moved beyond the strict terms of the rules in recent years.

993.  She did have some criticisms in her latest annual report about how it was going. She pointed the black spot at various government departments for not involving independent assessors properly, not following her code of practice. That is quite a challenge to government if they are not working the system that she is supposed to be monitoring properly. How have you responded to those observations from her?

  (Mr Alexander) I would uphold her right to continually challenge government. That is in many ways why she is there, to be both a watchdog and also an encourager of best practice. That is where I think in the Cabinet Office we can work closely with her. There is the very important role as the guardian of procedures, by which these appointments are made, which I would certainly uphold, but I think that can be supplemented and this is some of the work Helen and her team have been taking forward within an internal process of government where, along with the rules which are upheld by Dame Rennie Fritchie, we within government can act as a support and encouragement to departments, as they seek to take those rules forward themselves. It might be appropriate for Helen to say a little in terms of how our own best practice guide within the Cabinet Office is working in terms of assisting departments in avoiding being in a position where they can be named and shamed. If I recollect, that was a rendition by Dame Rennie just in this year's report and again it is evidence of the seriousness in government that we attach to Dame Rennie's views in this area of policy.
  (Ms Ghosh) You quite rightly pick out the point that in the Commissioner's report she does highlight some things in the Departments whom her auditors visited this year, though if she were able to appear before you at the moment she would reinforce the point that I have heard her say in many contexts that, overall, departments carry out the processes extremely well and these are very much exceptions rather than rules. One of the particular bits of work that we are doing with Dame Rennie's team is to discuss in detail with departments how the best practice rules apply to them. My team is involved at the moment, for example, in a series of workshops going round all the departments, not just picking out people who are named and shamed, but departments as a whole, to refresh their memories about the best practice guide which I think Dame Rennie describes as excellent, to talk them through their current issues and problems with the processes, with representatives from OCPA there as well, and to get feedback from them about the practicalities of how things work. Of course, across departments, depending on how many appointments they make, there are very wide variations in both the numbers and the skills of departments in making appointments. There are very different issues for them about how they can meet the OCPA guidelines and get appointments made quickly and effectively for the purposes of their NDPBs. Developing our best practice guidance is something we make live by these visits to departments.

994.  I think it is still a mystery as to the relationship between this thing called the Public Appointments Unit, which we always joke should be called the Public Disappointments Unit, and individual departments who do the bulk of the finding and appointing. This seems an impenetrable system which is full of potential for overlap and confusion. How can you reassure us that there is not confusion here?

  (Ms Ghosh) There are two issues. The first is one that the Minister referred to, which is the role of the Public Appointments Unit, the role of the Public Appointments Register, in finding talent. The very reason we are looking at how the Public Appointments Register currently runs is because we think that effectively it is a dinosaur left over from a different age. It is left over from the days when you just had a list of the great and the good and it was a very untransparent process. Post-Nolan, with the fact that all departments are advertising, it is very confusing. That is one of the bits of feedback we have from the excellent series of seminars which the Women in Equality Unit ran for women. We had lots of enthusiastic women across the country saying, "Great, we would love to be involved." Their number one requirement was how do we know what the vacancies are. At the moment, we can only say, "Put yourselves on the Public Appointments Register" which does not let people know when there are vacancies. There are 4,000-odd people on it and I have about three people running it, if I may be vulgar enough to talk about money, and no more money to put in. They simply could not do a proper, "Here is a vacancy that might suit you" recruitment job. We are very conscious that there is a disjunction there. The kinds of ideas we are looking at are whether or not we could do something that was a synergy with what departments already do in advertising and website terms and possibly set up a one-stop website.
  (Mr Alexander) It seems to me there are two challenges, one internal and one external. How do we get the balance right between the centres of departments? That is an internal conversation, ensuring that we are there when departments are appointing people so that they can get access to best practice, good advice, making sure not just that OCPA discovers when wrongdoing has occurred but that there is help in advance of that to ensure that it does not occur. That is one of the areas that Helen is charged with, within government. While that may not have surfaced in public debate, I am confident that that work is being taken as a growing awareness of the need to conform to these guidance rules but also as an opportunity to garner assistance from the centre in this area. The second point is at least, if not more, of a fundamental challenge, which is how are we outward facing in this whole issue of public appointments. I think the era when Whitehall was best is so obviously passing in that we need to get beyond the culture that says, "As one of the great and the good, you will apply to a single department which is a single repository of knowledge and information about public appointments" and instead we proactively go in search for people who are qualified and able to make a contribution as a public servant; and, at the same time, we work harder as a government than we have in the past in making sure that there is a level of information available about the kind of appointments which may interest people. Perhaps my constituency experience is exceptional, but I have not often met constituents of mine who have said, "I am desperate to serve on a public body." You are far more likely to find somebody who says, "Can I get into a particular agency or institution" because of their own interests. In that sense, we have to upscale our work in making sure that there is a genuine interactivity between opportunities available and candidates who potentially would be interested but do not at the moment have access to that information.

995.  At the moment, you are saying there is no easily accessible directory of current available appointments, but you are hoping to make sure there is shortly?

  (Ms Ghosh) Indeed. In projects of this kind, anything which involves IT takes some time. We are hoping to possibly build on some existing software. You may have seen the DWP work training site which Job Centre Plus runs, which is similarly a one-stop shop for vacancies. We might be able to build on something like that to make that kind of gateway into public appointments so that people can say, "I am interested in this kind of topic. What is there out there?" and they will whizz through into the individual department's sets of vacancies.
  (Mr Alexander) Not only does it provide a better service to the citizen in the sense that you can find out specific appointments that are available, but it potentially transforms your own internal workings within the department and challenges some of the traditional structures of government in the way that it surfaces information which means it is not only of assistance to us in giving us up to date information in terms of issues of diversity and vacancies as they exist, but it simultaneously provides better service to the citizen.

996.  Last week we were told by a leading authority on diversity in the public appointments area that she believed the single most important thing that could happen would be public bodies acquiring a duty to promote equality. That would turn around the whole way in which this is approached. Is that something that commends itself to you?

  (Mr Alexander) I cannot say I am familiar with who the individual was. I have recently had a conversation with the Equal Opportunities Commissioner, Julie Miller, who was arguing about the merits of the approach adopted by the Welsh Assembly in terms of a positive duty. I am not sure if it was the same source, but I can assure you that as soon as she got in touch with me and said that this was an issue of concern to her, I made sure that we had her into the department and a very interesting report has just been published on the work on diversity within Wales. I was intrigued from a Scottish MP's point of view. I could not recollect this issue during the passage of the Scotland Act. How do you get to the situation where positive duty and further diversity are contained in the Wales Act? She said it had partly been that people had an interest during the passage of the Bill in Parliament but, as had been anticipated, it was a very effective lever within Wales, cascading across the whole range of the public sector. In that sense, it was a very productive meeting I had and I found what she had to say of interest. The general point I made was I think we are only at the beginning of our understanding of the potential for creative policy making that a devolved constitutional architecture in Britain gives us. It is exciting for ministers to have the opportunity to learn from innovation taking place in Edinburgh, Belfast or elsewhere. The specific point that I put to her in terms of how to take forward this work was to make sure that we were centred on the evidence emerging in Wales and that we would continue our dialogue with the Cabinet Office, but also that it was important to continue to build those relationships across government, in particular with Barbara Roche and the Equalities Unit.

997.  It sounds as though, if we float something towards you, you may be receptive. We have been wrestling as we have had our sessions on this with what ministers do and what other people do. We had some interesting evidence a week ago from Sir William Wells who chairs the NHS Appointments Commission, a body that we recommended should be established. He was adamant about two things. One was that it was he and not ministers, the Commission and not ministers, who did the appointing. Secondly, that this was a model that should be extended across government. Are you going to be equally sympathetic to these kinds of ideas?

  (Mr Alexander) I spoke to civil servants following that advice and when I asked the question from an official point of view, whether it was pretty clear as to who was right, Sir William Wells or Chris Leslie, back came the response that both of them were right. On the basis of experience in government, the government did not surprise me. It seems to me a common sense point. The constitutional reality in terms of the statutory authority is that it rests with ministers. It is equally a constitutional point that secretaries of state have the authority within their departments to determine how that ministerial authority is exercised. As it transpires, with the Department of Health and the establishment of the authority which involves Sir William Wells, that has been delegated to an authority. I took trouble to look at the evidence that was given before this Committee and it does not seem to me that there was any substantive contradiction. I am pleased to say that during our time we have not had any involvement of ministers at all in any of the appointments we have made. That, to me, does not seem inconsistent with the statutory reality that the Secretary of State and ministers are still accountable to Parliament.

  Chairman: I recognise a third way position when I hear one. I suspect that is something we will want to explore a little further.

Mr Hopkins

998.  I am a new Member of the Committee, but I was interested in your suggestion that you wanted to select public appointees from the widest possible pool of talent. In the 1970s I worked at the TUC in the economic department and I was responsible for organising TUC representatives on the regional planning councils. We gathered together nominations throughout the country, submitted them to government and nothing happened for eight months. Then we would get a letter back from officials saying, "We do not care for your nominations. We make these alternative suggestions." This was in the middle of the social contract of the Labour Government and Len Murray had to go to John Silkin and say, "This is part of the agreement. We want our people on" and it was very easy to see why these people were not appointed. If somebody said Sir George Jennings, CBE, retired general secretary of the Button Makers Amalgamated Society, he would get on. If it was Jim Smith, convener at British Engineering and Electric or whatever, he would not. It was very obvious what it was about and it was about politics. You can have a nice balance of ethnicity, gender, age, wisdom and everything but if somebody is not politically acceptable they do not get on. Last week, I asked Sir William Wells what happened if somebody came up for an appointment on a health service body who had a difference of view about an aspect of government's modernising agenda. He said, "That would be a difficulty." Political control continues. Is the hidden hand still operating? Is it just business as usual with a different guise?

  (Mr Alexander) I would not say it is business as usual. I would probably take issue with a vision of where we are today being directly analogous with the 1970s. Of course there is a talent pool and this idea that we must contribute to public bodies but I would not say it is the sole repository of that kind of talent or ability. I think that sort of vision of our society is far too narrow a reach in terms of what we aim for in the area of appointments. We seek genuinely to reach the widest possible talent pool. That said, trade unions in particular may well be the kind of institutions who are collecting people with the kind of skills which should be made available for public appointments. This is also true of a range of community organisations. A couple of weeks back there was a major seminar held in Leicester which particularly focused on ethnic communities where a range of people who were actively involved in community organisations in the east Midlands came and heard about the potential to be involved in public bodies. Patricia Hewitt spoke at that meeting. In that sense, in terms of our ambition and our reach, it extends to trade unions but beyond them to wider civil society and a range of different groups and organisations. In terms of how does the process work within government, I think it is fair to say that ministers do remain accountable in terms of decisions that are reached. On the other hand, we have a far clearer understanding post Nolan of what is the appropriate way to delimit the important task and ensuring that there is democratic accountability through the minister and on the other hand we build public confidence by a procedure which is overseen by the watchdog of OCPA but also is more transparent and recognisably fair and open in its practices. I believe that on the basis of that aspiration for diversity and an enduring commitment to merit, you can build the kind of public realm that we would like to see. It is a continuing task. Very legitimate questions continue to be asked but I think you would be hard pressed to sustain a case that, if you look at the level of public disquiet that gave rise to the Nolan Inquiry a decade or so ago, as against where we are today, we have not made considerable progress in recent years.
  (Ms Ghosh) I am sure as a new Member of the Committee you are probably taking Dame Rennie's report to bed every night, but there are some very interesting figures in her article, where she said that in the 2001-02 appointments 20 per cent of the appointments or reappointments were people who declared that they had been politically active which is still a relatively low figure, 14 per cent Labour, three per cent Conservative and 2.5 Lib Dems. Dame Rennie would make the point that she would be worried that, whatever percentage of people in the pool of applicants, the proportion of people who successfully came through the system were greater than the percentage of people in the original pool of applicants who were politically active. She sees no evidence of that, so it suggests that the transparent processes are not assisting people with political activity.

999.  One can have a situation where all of these people belong to one party—shall we say the Labour Party?—but some are ruled out and some are ruled in by some kind of hidden hand. I have been in politics long enough to know that this does happen in the real world. I would like to hope that we can be a bit more genuine and accept a range of debate and not have this degree of political control which operates so obviously in our society.

  (Mr Alexander) If you have evidence of political partiality, I would be keen for you to raise that directly with the Commissioner. On the more general point, I think there is a challenge that we face in making sure that the architecture in this area is right. May I just quote the words from the opening impression to this Committee's work? The chairman said, "The power of enlightened people is growing and the public needs to be reassured it will be treated fairly and honestly." The following sentence: "It is vital that the patronage exercised by ministers and others is not misused." I believe our challenge is to maintain the democratic accountability and legitimacy of ministers. There is a risk, if people were to feel that unelected officials are somehow appointed as distinct from elected ministers. On the other hand, we have to be honest in recognising that there are concerns in terms of how ministers exercise that power. That is why we have broadly the framework right on the one hand, maintaining ministerial accountability so that ministers can be brought before this Committee or the floor of the House; on the other hand, putting in place post-Nolan architecture which allows for public confidence and a greater degree of transparency in the process. That is not to say that there is not scope for improvement in the future but we need to be clear in terms of what our objective is. I for one maintain the view that we do want ministers to continue to be accountable, not least given the sums of public money involved, but on the other hand we have to make sure that the procedures and practices are strong enough to sustain public concerns.

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