Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1020 - 1039)




1020.  Perhaps when you write us a note you could include something about those public appointments which are beyond the responsibility of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and therefore of you and the Cabinet Office. I am thinking particularly about a variety of prerogative appointments of which the House of Lords' Appointments Commission is one. It would be quite nice as part of our mapping exercise if we could just to see the range of appointments that fall outwith the system that was set up under Nolan. Would that be possible?

  (Mr Alexander) Of course I would be happy to furnish the Committee with a note. The only point I would make would be a general but related point in terms of to try and contextualise this discussion, there are about 30,000 public appointments, and about 15,000 fall within the remit of OPRA under my present understanding of its remit, but in addition to that there are a significant number of appointments which fall first of all to the Lord Chancellor in terms of his appointments and also a very large number of further appointments which are basically tribunals which presently do not fall within the remit of OCPA, nor indeed the body that oversees the Lord Chancellor's personal appointments in terms of the semi judicial appointments that he is responsible for. The only point I would add is we actually therefore do map out how many appointments there are that fall outwith OCPA. The number that are actually involved (and obviously in terms of the specific question you asked in terms of the Crown Prerogative) is tiny relative to the number of public appointments, and the idea that somehow there are 15,000 that fall under OCPA and the same again which are somehow unregulated, unaccounted for or unidentified is somewhat wide of the mark.

  Chairman: It would be helpful if you could cover that. I understand what you are saying. Of course I understand that but it may well be that that small category includes some quite interesting appointments we would like to know about. As part of our search for the truth it would be very kind if you let us have an indication.

Brian White

1021.  One of the interesting things that came out of William Wells' evidence was that the historical way of looking at somebody was to look at their CV and see what jobs they had done. He wanted to move away to look at the competencies and trying to identify those competencies so that somebody who was a housewife could have acquired those ones even though they had not been through a series of jobs. He also said one of the key things was where a particular competency was not evident that they would identify the final training that was needed and suggest ways forward. Have you changed the Public Appointments Unit's database to go down that route?

  (Mr Alexander) I will let Helen answer in a minute in terms of the on-going work. I would emphasis it is on-going in terms of design, development, evolution and changes at the centre. I would first of all draw the attention of the Committee to some work. Dame Rennie has done some quite interesting work in terms of apprenticeships and public appointments because I think, again consistent with our understanding of untapped pools and potential, there may well be the opportunities for people to gain the kind of experience that has been outlined in some of the planning work that Dame Rennie has taken forward. It is interesting to try and map out how people can take the kind of journey that Helen described from being involved in tenants' associations at a local level and potentially to move on from there. In that sense I think we need a more nuanced understanding of what the barriers towards people being brought out are, and it is why it is so important we share the kind of information detail captured in terms of the reality as to why people are not serving on public bodies at the moment. I think that will inform some of the work that is being undertaken at the centre.
  (Ms Ghosh) The answer to your question about have we done something sophisticated with the public appointments register is no. It simply does not have that kind of competence base. It is classic CV, what jobs have you done stuff, and as we increasingly recognise it is a bit of a dinosaur we have not done that. There are two things which are emerging from the work of the Short Life Working Group, which I think would assist with this process. At the moment although there is guidance given by Dame Rennie about what the application forms should look like, there is not actually a standard application form, and one of the propositions which the Minister might have to broker with his departmental colleagues, is should there be a standardised application form. Certainly across the civil service, for example, we have moved to a competence-based approach and all the interested, experienced stakeholders and advisers we have consulted on that say that would be an excellent idea. The other thing which we would want to pursue—and it really fits into this whole equipping more inexperienced people in a better way—is CVs. People do not understand how to write a CV. They tell us what jobs they have had and they cannot think of their own experiences in a competence kind of way. That is the kind of help particularly the women who have been at home with children for a long time need. Again, that is a practical thing we can do and the regional offices might have a role to play there with seminars and support and all that kind of thing.

1022.  You will be aware that one of the things this Committee has tried to do in this particular inquiry is to move away from the usual suspects and we have had evidence from people like Billy Bragg and Mark Thomas. On of the things they said was that there are a number of public appointments, where it is more than accountability in the executive type job, where something akin to the jury system where you were selected at random might be a way forward of attracting people. Have you got any views on that?

  (Mr Alexander) When the invitation arrived on the mat from the Committee for me to appear I thought you were favouring the usual suspects with a vengeance! It is the third appearance of a Cabinet Office Minister before this particular investigation. I am aware of the evidence that was given by some people who perhaps you have not heard from before. I have to say I simply disagree. There is not a direct parallel to be drawn between, for example, jury service and some of the vital work that is done by advisory or executive bodies because my starting point is our objectives. First of all, there is merit in terms of the people being able to do what are vital jobs—we are talking about a combination of executive and advisory committees and £25 billion of public money—but on the foundation of an enduring commitment to merit a recognition that we need more diversity, because the best way to achieve the genuine calibre of people we need is to leave no individual and no community behind, and we have to recognise that in this country we do not have a single community, religion or gender to waste if we are going to pursue that agenda of merit and diversity. In that sense I do not see how that can easily be reconciled with the idea that somehow there should be a lottery of individuals who suddenly find themselves responsible for advisory committees on British lighthouses or seed potatoes or whatever the individual specialty is.

1023.  Rather than pursue that here can I perhaps ask you to look at some of the evidence in local government where citizens juries have been selected along those lines, some which have brought people into the process and they have gone on to do what you are looking for. The point they made was they have never been asked before.

  (Mr Alexander) That to me is a different and vital and indeed valid observation. I myself would certainly concede that one of our biggest challenges is people who have never been asked before. I do not think the idea that because someone has not been approached before necessarily prejudges what should be a criteria or means of selection of those individuals. Certainly I am unyielding in my determination to make sure that people are aware of the opportunities to serve. I do not think that necessarily leads to a prescriptive outcome in terms of how we should select candidates. It is certainly the case in my own locality in the West of Scotland in the work of some of the local authorities and local citizens' juries that they have been able to assist significantly in the local policy-making process, but I think it is, again, a distinction that needs to be drawn between advisory committees who are often advising about highly specialised areas of public policy and citizens' juries which, from my understanding today, would certainly suggest there is an additional means by which particularly local councils can gain access to a range of views within that locality. In that sense perhaps there is a clearer distinction that can be drawn between an important and useful tool for making sure you are aware of the broad range of views within the communities on a range of public policy matters and sometimes very specialist work that is needed for advisory work in an area.

1024.  We have talked a lot today about ministerial accountability. One of the fears that I have is that we have the independent appointments we talked about and we get into a situation where ministers are still being blamed but they do not have levers with which to effect change. I am thinking of Postcomm as the classic example. The question I really want to ask is how do you see some of these appointments being accountable to Parliament? We have had, for example, Andrew Turnbull coming to this Committee before he took up his appointment, we had the Chairman of the Bank of England Appointments before the Treasury Committee and we have had the Information Commissioner come to this Committee on a regular basis in order to follow up. How would you see some of these appointments being made accountable to Parliament?

  (Mr Alexander) I think there is again a constitutional point probably underpinning this whole discussion. The principal means by which parliamentary sovereignty is upheld is there is a responsibility on ministers to answer for their conduct either before a parliamentary committee or on the floor of the House. I think it could therefore be confusing to the clarity of responsibility, which I personally think is important, if ministers are capable of being scrutinised on the actions of people appointed, by whatever method, within their respective departments if it was somehow suggested that a process whereby committees could themselves scrutinise potential candidates was necessarily a victory for parliamentary scrutiny. It seems to me if a parallel were to be attempted to be drawn with senators in the United States for example and presidential cabinet appointments that, to me, does not seem to work in a British parliamentary system where the principal means of scrutiny is the floor of the House where ministers are held accountable for their decisions. All of that being said, of course it is perfectly within the competence of a committee such as this to summon a range of different people to help seek the truth, as the Chairman puts it.

1025.  One of the things that is happening and will happen more in the future is cross-departmental initiatives. We have had Sure Start which had two ministers, we have got OFCOM which has just been appointed again under two departments and if the modernising government agenda is to be successful we are going to break down the silos a lot more than has happened in the past. So we are going to have these overlapping responsibilities. That has challenges for you in terms of public appointments where they will be responsible to more than one minister, so how do you tackle that aspect of it?

  (Mr Alexander) It is probably more incumbent upon ministers to make clear that ultimate responsibility lies with them in those circumstances and I think that would be a fair observation because it is important that there is clarity as to who can be held to account for conduct. On the other hand, I would have to say I am broadly optimistic in terms of the scope of not just departments but, in particular, ministers to work together effectively. The example you cite of OFCOM I had some experience with because I served briefly in the Department of Trade and Industry. The commonsense view of Whitehall watchers was that to watch the DTI and DCMS work together in pursuit of what was a significant piece legislation would speak to the capacity for Whitehall departments to make life difficult for each other. I have to say that was not my experience either at official or at ministerial level. I think in such a challenging area of public policy as the establishment of a new communications regulator, if we see the kind of effective joint work that we experienced there, then I am broadly optimistic that this can be an effective way for departments to work. Two other observations I would make. First of all, I would look at the kind of scrutiny that the House can bring to bear where there is joint working, for example the work of Lord Puttnam's Committee. The fact that there is joint working within governments between departments does not exclude the possibility of again a more intelligent and porous form of policy, for example pre-legislative scrutiny, as we increasingly see in Scotland, or indeed here at Westminster. The final point I would end with in terms of this particular challenge is to return to the observation made about e-government. The reality is that in addition to the responsibilities I am discussing with the Committee today I am responsible for e-transformation in government and perhaps there is no better example of where, first of all, you need to work effectively with ministerial colleagues because as e-transformation Minister you are acutely aware that the budget holder tends to be the Secretary of State of the respective department who is undertaking the immediate expenditure, but it is also the case that this technology has the potential to transform internally the operations of government to harness its true potential in terms of how it faces outward to the citizenry. In that sense—it is a mug's game predicting these matters—I would be surprised if in 20 years' time some of the present structures that have existed be replicated in an identical fashion, but I do not hold responsibility for responsibility of government issues.

Brian White

1026.  Having been on Lord Puttnam's Committee I have never worked so hard in my life. One of the criticisms that we have had of public appointments is you get Joe Bloggs who gets a part-time job here and a part-time job there and he acquires them almost as trophies, how do you deal with that in terms of the monitoring that you do? Do you monitor whether Joe Bloggs has X number of appointments and if you do what do you do about it?

  (Ms Ghosh) It is one of the issues we are trying to pick up on our database. I am sure Dame Rennie raised it with you when she was here earlier in the summer. We do not know the extent of it now. What we are trying to do by building up a database, which is effectively turning the information from public bodies into an intelligent database of which we can ask questions, to be able to pick up how many people appear to have more than one appointment. Of course there are lots of difficulties with that because of the issue about Joe Bloggs, how many Joe Bloggses are there, and all those sort of matters, so it is quite an interesting issue about how you define the data.


1027.  There is only one Dame Helena Shovelton.

  (Ms Ghosh) Indeed there is.
  (Mr Alexander) Not that we would seek to personalise this.

1028.  I mention that because she was an interesting witness for us, talking about these issues, in fact raising issues to do with pensions and about people who served in multiple public appointments. Julie Mellor from the EOC raised the same point about the need for proper support, including pension arrangements. It is not a trivial point.

  (Ms Ghosh) A lot of those issues come back to remuneration. I think the policy issue is, of course, if those people are the best people fitted for the job should it rule them out?
  (Mr Alexander) It is a serious point. It speaks to at least a couple of issues, one is the point about remuneration, that is something being considered in terms of what impact in reality it has in terms of the unwillingness of people to come forward. I am cautious of returning to the Audit Commission, but I understand the reasons for that. I think it also speaks to what Brian White identified as the person who somehow gets these jobs as trophies. If you unbundle the sentiment behind that it speaks to the fact that somehow there is a illegitimacy round some of the people who in the past have achieved public appointments. I think first of all we have a responsibility to fix the process to make sure we rob public appointments of any suggestion that it is illegitimate that people are appointed on whatever grounds that may be and make sure the procedures are sound. Then it obliges you to take seriously the integrity of that process and if that does mean that somebody has made it on their own merit, recognising the challenge of diversity, and gets through the process and is appointed to one then it begs the question if they are capable of and willing to serve in a separate capacity is there a separate rule that says it is illegitimate for somebody to serve on another public body. I for one think, (a) it is one of the issues which is being looked at in terms of how we can attract a wealth of talent. If we are serious about procedures we have to regard the procedures and the integrity of the procedures as being the principle guardian of public interest in this regard, not a random number that you must only serve on one public body at a time or you can serve on a certain number sequentially or whatever the particular view of some critics might be.

Kevin Brennan

1029.  Brian White has raised a few of the issues I wanted to. In your little discussion on constitutional matters it did trigger in my mind why, perhaps, we are a little bit concerned about the fact that there is a proposal that there should be a select committee with the word "constitutional" in its title because we tend to delve round these areas quite a bit ourselves. Is there any constitutional objection to the idea of having confirmation hearings by select committees for very senior appointments? You mentioned you felt some constitutional unease, is there a blockage?

  (Mr Alexander) Perhaps it would be helpful if I explain where I come to this conversation from. I come as the minister with responsibility for Cabinet Office's responsibility in terms of providing advice and support to departments as they seek to adhere to the guidelines set down in terms of public appointments. I speak with suitable modesty in terms of (a) my ability to speak on behalf of the government about constitutional issues per se or (b) to take a wider view. The reality of how the debate has found expression it seems to me has been within individual departments. For example the question round the Treasury and the MPC and whether appointments to the MPC should be the provenance of the Treasury Select Committee and confirmation hearings, or whether it should be a departmental matter. Government has made its position clear in terms of its response to the Treasury in that regard. The point I was making is a more limited one, I do think in terms of the issues I am dealing with on a day-to-day basis, which is, are ministers accountable for individuals who are at the head of the NHS bodies, for example, and can a minister be called to account for that. The danger is confusion about where the accountability of risk could creep in and whether that line ought to be followed which was somehow the responsibility for the appointment but was not that of the minister but that of the legislature. I think in that sense there is a distinction to be drawn between the executive making the appointment, ensuring that the procedures are dually followed and then the executive being held to account by Parliament for the consequences of that choice as distinct from seeing Parliament as a legislature and must itself be involved at an intermediate stage of the appointment procedure.

1030.  You are trying to keep our hands clean.

  (Mr Alexander) I think Parliament has a vital job to do and so does the executive.

1031.  In terms of the other issue that Brian White raised about the possibility of this practice, is this, perhaps, experimenting in a limited way with using a random selection or a lottery—the National Lottery have done some of this itself. It is not an easy thing to do and it would be radical, one might even say it might be bold in that it would not be the quiet thing to do. Would it not be worth trying a little wee pilot of this to see whether or not it would bring a little bit of spice to the soup?

  (Mr Alexander) Are you trying to tempt me into a commitment? It seems to me the sensible way forward on this first of all is to look at the evidence and see whether the assertions made by individuals who have come and given evidence before this Committee or indeed existing practices can support what I think should be our set of objectives, which is, first of all, merit and qualifications to do the job, and that may, and certainly should, differ significantly from what has been a traditional understanding of the skills or the experience that you need to serve on a public body. Secondly, in support of that we are absolutely sincere in achieving a more diverse range of people and skills to devote to the body.

1032.  I recommend we use that method to choose our head of state!

  (Mr Alexander) I was going to start that conversation but I can see looming headlines as I pursue a particular line.

1033.  I will not press you any further. I was just interested if we were to recommend pilots whether you might be interested.

  (Ms Ghosh) One of the recommendations that the Short Life Working Group might make is that NDPBs need to think more imaginatively about the wider pool of consultation, it is not necessary you feed in the views of ordinary people by having them on board, should they look at how they consult their customers, the people out there and that is as good a way for many members of the general public, a much more attractive way of feeding their views in on the way the service is run than requiring them to be a member of the board. That is something that we might be taking up.

1034.  In a sense political parties are driven by this and focus groups, that is what we are talking about.

  (Mr Alexander) I would make a couple of observations, first of all the way focus groups tend to work is that people are recruited locally and they are paid £10 to spend an hour and a half in a living room talking about their views, from policy to adverts, or whatever else is being discussed by the newspaper or the consumer groups who are seeking to establish their views. If we want the best out of this diverse talented group of people they need to be motivated to serve. You actually might construct an argument per se that there is a group of people that are willing to serve and have no idea what they want to serve so let us put them all into a lottery and pull the names out of a hat. My own experience suggests that people feel most equipped to serve if there is a particular local opportunity that can be identified. In that sense I would not underestimate the importance of motivation alongside merit and ability. In that sense the idea that something akin to jury service, people should be randomly selected and told they are now serving on a particular public body, is not the way forward.

Sir Sydney Chapman

1035.  I would just like to raise two points and first of all preface it by apologising for being late. It seems to me that a retired industrialist or a retired civil servant or a retired trade unionist that have very busy lives would be ideal people to be on certain of these public appointments and quite properly could be on two or even three. I would just like to get on the record, your sentiments about that and whether you think on balance that it would be seen to be fairer if nobody had more than one public appointment?

  (Mr Alexander) I agree with you. Rather than base our claim I believe we should show the supporting evidence for this that the system is fair, that it draws talent and it is seen as being transparent and legitimate on the basis of the procedure that is established rather than, as I alluded to, other arbitrary views that you can only serve on one public body and you cannot serve on more than one sequentially after you have done a couple before. That does not seem to me to be the way forward. The way forward seems to be, let us get the rules right and then try and track the widest range of people to put in an application through which those rules are upheld and then we will have a beneficial result to speak of, which might be a case that a particularly able and talented former female trade unionist in Leicester finds herself in a position where she has both the time and the motivation to serve on more than one body.

  Sir Sydney Chapman: The second question is, I suppose my colleagues will say I must declare a possible interest in it, first of all, can we have assurance that there is no age limit on any person seeking an appointment?

Kevin Brennan

1036.  That is a vested interest!

  (Ms Ghosh) You may have seen that one of the cases that Dame Rennie specifically picked up in her "name and shame" report was, was there such an age limit and there is not.

Sir Sydney Chapman

1037.  Would it be your personal view that in this day and age it is quite wrong that a person cannot serve as a juror, whether he or she wants to is another matter, if they are over aged 70?

  (Mr Alexander) First of all, a necessary and important caveat, I would not seek to intrude on the departmental responsibilities of other ministers. All I will say by way of response is my driver in the government car service has just spent two weeks on jury service and I have spent a considerable amount of time between home and my department discussing the experience that he has had—it is not something that I have done myself being disqualified first as a lawyer and then as an MP—and his experience was exactly that, that it was a real example of pulling people from a very wide range not just of ages but also of professional backgrounds and experience who found common causes in taking forward a number of cases in the local court. In that sense without being prescriptive as to what age you should or should not serve we should uphold the principle that there is a talent pool to draw on.

  Chairman: You have heard Sydney's application, he would like a nice portfolio.

Mr Hopkins

1038.  I have a point about control, which I think has got worse rather than better, control of political appointments, the resistance of the government to abolish or have a wholly elected House of Lords is surely only about securing control and reinforcing control. The fact is that Wakeham was not even permitted to consider abolition and since then there has been enormous resistance from Downing Street to a wholly elected House of Lords, with reduced powers to avoid threatening the primacy of the Commons. This is common parlance and common conversation amongst many of us, so you cannot pretend it is not there.

  (Mr Alexander) I was speaking to Lord Macdonald of Tradeston and what was common parlance was the fact that the Government lost seven votes in the last week. It seems to me is a curious line of argument to suggest that somehow there is a lack of enthusiasm for reforming the House of Lords because everything is not rosy at the moment, notwithstanding the limit on the number of hereditary peers. The view of the House of Commons in recent days has been rejected by the other House and in that sense I would not wish to be drawn in to what, as you can imagine, are highly contentious matters that are being discussed by the joint committee at the moment, but I would question the assertion that somehow it is solely a matter of control as you describe it.

  Chairman: It is well worth having a reply because I think this is a byway—

Mr Trend

1039.  I was rather hoping to go down another byway! I wanted to ask how the Civil Service Bill is getting on. I think that is fair enough. Various Secretaries of the Cabinet and Ministers have been to see us and sometimes we are about to have a consultation paper and sometimes we are about to have a Bill. It may be a few weeks or a few months. As you are there, and of course as it involves appointments in some sense, can you give us any news about the future prospect of a Civil Service Bill?

  (Mr Alexander) Of course, the Government's views on this matter are well-known. First of all, their views have been given before this Committee and elsewhere. Secondly, in terms of an updated position, I was personally involved in terms of the responsibility that the Government gave to the Wicks Committee. I have to say I still await the response of this particular committee in terms of its own draft Civil Service Bill and indeed we are awaiting the outcome of the Wicks Committee as well. But I will end where I imagine you thought I would start which is to say you cannot expect me to anticipate any particular piece of legislation.

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