Examination of Witness (Questions 940
THURSDAY 24 OCTOBER 2002
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 suggestionsnot from
Walesthat 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.
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
(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
(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 appearedgood 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 neededteam player
or whateverand 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 Walesprobably not very bigbut 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 Lancashireand
I do not know how many applications that would bring forwardhow
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
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 haul10, 20, even 50 yearI
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 countriesSweden, Finland and Italy,
now France are going for it as wellhave 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
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 phraseand I have been a
housewife for the last ten yearsI 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.
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.
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