Examination of Witnesses (Questions 824
THURSDAY 24 OCTOBER 2002
824. Can I welcome you very much on behalf of
the Committee. As you know, we are engaged upon an inquiry into
the whole public appointments system. Although we are not particularly
focusing upon the health service, we are particularly interested
in what has happened to the health service and therefore it seemed
a very good idea to bring in you from the NHS Appointments Commission
to talk about what you are doing on the appointments side and
see what we can learn from that about some of the wider public
appointments issues. That is the context for the invitation. We
are very glad that you were able to come. I understand you are
willing to say a few words by way of introduction.
(Sir William Wells) If I could, Chairman,
very briefly, first of all say that we are pleased to be here
because we think we do have something to offer to the debate.
Albeit that we have only been in operation for just over 12 months,
during that period we have made over 2,000 appointments from 32,000
people who made inquiries, just to give some idea of the scale.
As you know, one of the main reasons for the creation of the NHS
Appointments Commission was the alleged politicisation of appointments
within the NHS and I am pleased to say that during our time we
have not had any involvement from ministers at all in any of the
appointments we have made. Indeed, the board of the Commission
does not know the political activity of any of the people who
are coming up for recommendation for appointment, so that we believe
we have certainly achieved that objective amongst many others
which were set up. I wanted to say that right up front.
825. Thank you very much. Do you want to add
anything, Dr Moore?
(Dr Moore) No, that is fine.
826. Before we head into that, let me say that
we like to think here that we had some kind of role in your genesis
because we did recommend in our report looking at the NHS appointments
system that there should be an independent commission, and then,
immediately following our recommendation, one was announced. So,
as I say, we like to claim that you owe yourself to us!
(Sir William Wells) Thank you very much.
827. What I am slightly perplexed about, though,
in what you have just told me is this business about not knowing
anything about the particular affiliation of people that come
up for appointment. How do I match that up with what I read here
about your ability to give reliable figures on the political background
of these people?
(Sir William Wells) A very good question. We are required
by OCPA to collect information on people's political activity.
The forms are quite clear. We have a pack here that we
send out to all, and one of the questions is: Do you have any
political activity? If you do, there are certain other boxes that
you have to tick and then that is returned with their application
for the particular post in question. That particular page from
the application form is then detached by our offices in Leeds
and London and is then purely inputted for the statistics which
OCPA require, and which we make public, because we think it is
very important that people should see what the situation is. The
application forms are then, without the political activity page,
sent to the short-listing committee for short-listing, interview
and so forth, so that the people who are involved in the appointments
right from the very beginning have no knowledge of the political
activity of any of the individual applicants.
828. That is interesting. When Dame Rennie Fritchie
of the Office of the Commission for Public Appointments was getting
exercised about the pattern of appointments, before you existed
you were not able to remedy that because you did not know what
the political affiliations of the people were.
(Sir William Wells) We did not attempt to remedy it,
I have to say. We have a very simple credo: we appoint on merit
and it is not our concern whether somebody has declared political
activity or not declared political activity. That is what the
Appointments Commission was set up to do, actually to appoint
the right people to do the job, not because they were a member
of a political party.
829. So if everybody whom you appointed belonged
to the same political party, that would not cause any difficulty
(Sir William Wells) It would certainly make us look
quite seriously at whether there were any built-in biases in our
appointment process. Indeedand I said this to the Health
Select Committeeit is interestingand we do not know
whether it is worrying or not, and I will come back to that in
a moment - that we have in fact actually appointed people in the
first year of the Commission in almost exactly the same political
proportions as occurred when ministers were making the decision,
and that is without us knowing whether we were appointing people.
We are not quite sure that that tells us, so we are going to submit
it to an independent organisation to analyse statistically, right
from application through to decision, to see whether there is
any conscious or subconscious bias being built in in any particular
direction or in any particular geographical area, because, clearly,
we need to look at our procedures to make quite sure that we compensate
for it if that is the case, and we will make the outcome of all
of that public because we think this is a very important point.
830. It may just show that there are vastly
more able and meritorious Labour people out there than Conservative
or Liberal Democrat?
(Sir William Wells) It may well do so. It may well
do so, Chairman. Exactly. We just want to know. The figures are
very simply, if I remember them, something like 72 per cent of
the people we appoint have no declared political activity. So
we are only talking about a relatively small proportion. Of the
remainder, 26 per cent are Labour, 4.5 per cent are Tory and 4.4
per cent are Liberal Democrat. This is almost statistically the
same as it was prior to our appointment.
831. Before I hand over, may I ask one further
preliminary question just to get the feel for all this. In your
memorandum to us, very helpfully describing how you do it, you
say, "The final appointment is made by the Appointments Commissioners
sitting as a board, following a recommendation from the Regional
Commissioner on the basis of the views of the panel." When
the minister came to see us in April, he said. "So even with
the NHS Appointments Commission the appointments are still ultimately
made by ministers . . . that is the constitutional position."
How are we to reconcile these two things?
(Sir William Wells) As far as we are concerned, that
is not the case. We explain our accountabilities. We are accountable
to the secretary of state for the proper running of the Commission
in terms of its money and the like, in the way that any special
health authority (as we are constituted) has to. That is the proper
machinery of government. We are not accountable to the minister
for the appointments that we make. We are accountable to OCPA,
Dame Rennie Fritchie, for the process that we undertakeher
organisation audits us to make sure that we are following the
process correctly, and they will refer cases if they feel that
there has been an injusticeand we are accountable directly
to parliament for the scrutiny of our overall activities.
832. I have been involved one way or another
with public appointments for about 30 years, both in my professional
life, before I was in parliament, and privately and politically,
and I do indeed know Rosie Varley very well, your Eastern Regional
Commissioner. In the past there clearly was a grapevine that public
appointment was somehow stopped at official level when people
who were unsuitable or regarded as unsuitable were rejected mysteriously.
I know this from my time in the TUC particularly. They might all
have been nominally Labour Party but some were executive and some
were non-executive for political reasons. I am hoping it is much
more open and much more transparent now that you do not have this
kind of filter, and if somebody interviews well and clearly has
good qualifications then they are just regarded as a suitable
appointment. Is that fair?
(Sir William Wells) Yes. We have changed the process
very significantly. First and foremost we actually now appoint
to specific roles. Previously there was a generic advertising
campaign: Do you want to be a non-executive in the NHS? and people
were interviewed to be a non-executive in the NHS and when a vacancy
came up they were slotted in. We did not think that was at all
satisfactory and therefore we now select/interview for particular
posts. That helps because it simplifies, number one, the system.
Two, we are very open and we are very transparent: everybody can
inquire why they were not appointed and we will let them have
a copy of the interview notes. Never before did that happen. What
you are alleging happened before could not happen now because
they have an ability to be able to see why they were not appointed.
As I said before, we have eradicated as best we can party political
bias in whichever direction, and we have been much faster and
more responsive to the needs of boards, which is another important
point. The previous system tended to generically reject or not
reject people, without actually a view of what was wanted, sitting
round the table of the board of a particular trust or a strategic
health authority and the like, and now we actually are much more
responsive to the boards needs, so hopefully we are building better
teams to carry out the work which they are required to do.
833. I know that many of the people who are
appointed put themselves forward in effect. Do you find it is
difficult to get sufficient people to come forward and that you
do not always get the people coming forward you would like to
appoint? Are there problems with the quality of the people coming
(Sir William Wells) I am actually very pleased. I
was a regional chairman beforehand and therefore responsible for
making recommendations to the secretary of state for appointments
and we were having considerable difficulty in getting required
numbers. I think a lot of this was because people just did not
know how the system worked, they found they were rejected for
no reason and such and so forth. Now we are getting huge numbers
of applicantsas I said, 32,000 for 2,000and that
in itself creates a different problem, which we might address
later. So we are not concerned about the numbers. We are concernedagain,
this is something which no doubt you will wish to coverthat
in some areas we are not getting as broad a representation from
the population as we would like, but in terms of sheer volume
it is okay.
834. On the question of these regional similarities
between the old system and the new system and the national similarities
and the work you are going to do with the independent audit here,
is that something which you will be able to publish at some stage?
(Sir William Wells) Yes. Absolutely.
835. In what sort of form.
(Sir William Wells) We are going to be asking for
an analysis of the database, just giving them the database of
all the appointments that we made and asking them to analyse it
and to see whether there are any inconsistencies and the like,
and then we will ask them to produce a report. We will look at
it and we will then decide whether action needs to be taken. If
action does need to be taken, we will decide what action, and
we will publish the report together with our views on how we can,
if necessary, make any correction.
836. It is a deeply fascinating overall statistic.
(Sir William Wells) It is.
837. Which suggests there may have been nothing
wrong with the original system.
(Sir William Wells) Well ... it is conceivable.
838. May I just dwell on the change which was
madeas the Chairman rightly says, with our support. What
size operation and what cost of operation do you now run?
(Sir William Wells) We employ about 50 people in two
offices, one in London and one in Leeds, and our budget is £3.5
839. Does that include the expenses of all the
people who are now paid, remunerated?
(Sir William Wells) By far the biggest cost for that
is advertising: we advertise every single post, I think quite
rightly because they are public posts. The cost of staff we employ.
The cost of doing all the interviewing and the short-listing and