Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1000
THURSDAY 31 OCTOBER 2002
1000. Why have we set up a separate system just
for the National Health Service if that model is one that is applicable
(Mr Alexander) I do not see them as being
contradictory. It still remains the case that Alan Milburn, the
Secretary of State for Health, is responsible to Parliament for
the operation of the health service and within the public appointments
system there is a range of people who will be appointed in the
improvement of the health service. On the other hand, a decision
has been made by ministers, implemented through government, that
he will delegate that authority in terms of what I think it would
be fair to say was a genuine degree of public concern at the time
about the process of appointments within the health service prior
to the report and prior to the election of this government in
1997. That is a reflection of the constitutional reality that
we have the potential for devolved structures within individual
departments. Nonetheless, the reach of the central guidance stretches
not just across the Department of Health but across Whitehall.
We have a continuing responsibility in terms of ensuring that
Dame Rennie Fritchie's code is followed.
1001. Can I remind the Committee that I do have
an interest in that I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation
for Democracy. I am still not entirely happy about the Leslie/Wells
row. Sir William definitely disagreed with the position put by
Chris Leslie. Chris had told us that the NHS Appointments Commission
appointments are still ultimately made by ministers. That is the
constitutional position. The word "constitutional" sent
up a red flag straight away. Sir William Wells said, "As
far as we are concerned, that is not the case." He said he
was only accountable to the department for administrative matters,
not for appointments. We looked at the Act of 1977 and the Statutory
Instrument SI2001 793, which does appear to give the Secretary
of State power to do whatever he or she wants to do. I can understand
the creative tension which you were discussing earlier but is
this a good position, the ambiguity and particularly the ability
of Sir William to say that that is not the case?
(Mr Alexander) I would not suggest that
there is a flaw in terms of the constitutional position. There
may be further illustration of that constitutional position. It
does seem to me to be an important guarantor of parliamentary
democracy that ministers remain accountable for their conduct.
On the other hand, I do not see any difficulty in circumstances
in which a secretary of state chooses to exercise that authority
by delegating a range of his or her functions to a particular
body. I do feel it intrigues me as to the concern of the Committee,
as to whether there is too much ministerial authority or too little.
Our challenge is to maintain ministerial authority to the extent
that the minister remains accountable to Parliament for the conduct
of public bodies. On the other hand, to make sure that the architecture
that sustains the decision of the Commission or the processes
of any individual department sustains public confidence around
the procedures by which people are appointed.
1002. You used the word "conduct".
That is also a very broad word that can cover the appointments
as well as the administration of this process. Sir William Wells
was very clear that ministers had no part in appointments. I put
to you the case that an incoming government with a radically different
view would seek to exercise, or a present government which has
fallen out very badly with one particular personthese are
not residual powers; they are real powers.
(Mr Alexander) It is one of the biases
of Westminster sovereignty and democracy that any government can
exercise its ability according to the notion of absolute sovereignty.
In terms of the operation of the system as it exists at the moment,
it is perhaps to overstate the case to suggest that there is a
Wells/Leslie row. It may be that the construction used by Sir
William Wells implied that there was a constitutional difficulty
with this. I would not accept that.
1003. Could you send a note to the Committee,
setting out what you understand to be the answer to this constitutional
conundrum, based upon the advice that you had which squares this
(Mr Alexander) Sure.
(Ms Ghosh) It might also be helpful for the Committee
to have a detailed account of the actual process. Although there
may be some confusion in some minds about these different roles,
there is a very clear procedure set down about the role of the
Minister in specifying what is required and then what the Commission
will do, which clarifies quite a lot of those issues. We will
send that as well.
(Mr Alexander) It is interesting that you suggest
a constitutional conundrum. It seems to me one of the virtues
of the British constitution is to contain far greater conundrums
than have surfaced in this Committee's work.
1004. The Welsh example we were discussing earlier
has involved the Assembly much more. There were some good parts
in the Welsh example and some bits in which the UK government
is ahead in that it is more transparent. There are nevertheless
dark suspicions from time to time in the press about certain appointments.
Broadly speaking, the area we have covered so far is more a tribal
matter than a party matter. It is about politicians and people
who are not accountable. There has recently been a row in the
press about James Strachan. These are delicate matters. Outside
the political process, you get involved in the media process.
Sometimes there is a plum public appointment where there is a
public feeling that they would like character X from the television
and there are lots of ways in which a pure, merit based system
can be disturbed. How can the government best cope with these?
(Mr Alexander) One of the questions I
put to the Equal Opportunities Commissioner during a meeting in
recent days was whether the progress that she felt had been so
successful in Wales was reflected solely in the statutory basis
for a positive duty; or whether shorn of the statutory basis there
were still positive lessons that could be learned and shared with
the rest of the United Kingdom. That was one of the areas where
I was keen to try and get beneath the assertion that things are
getting better in Wales. There is a positive duty written into
the Welsh Act. There are often constraints on legislative time
available and I am keen and hungry to learn what lessons we can
from elsewhere if there are steps that can be taken in terms of
promoting our agenda in terms of diversity. On the point about
parties and tribes, I would not draw a Berlin wall between political
parties and tribes. Within the Labour Party we are more than capable
of being tribal and party political at the same time. On the substantive
point you made, it will not surprise the Committee that I feel
it would be inappropriate for me to say anything about an appointment
that has not yet been made, given that I have set such store by
integrity in the process.
1005. Not talking about individual cases but
as a matter of principle if we have cleaned up the public appointment
system why on earth should there be any difficulty at all about
appointing anybody, whether or not they are married to politicians,
if they have passed the merit test? Why cannot we just be straightforward
(Mr Alexander) I am keen not to break
my own self-imposed rule of commenting on a specific. I also find
myself in the curious position of, for once, wanting to quote
The Guardian newspaper on 29 October which directed itself
to exactly this point and I felt made interesting and important
points about the fact that if you get the procedure right then
people deserve to be judged on the basis of what they can contribute.
1006. Why is the government so coy?
(Mr Alexander) It does not require an
overly suspicious mind to suggest that if, in the context of the
specific example, a general point no doubt worth making could
be misinterpreted as being part of a discussion about a specific
candidate, is not unreasonable for government ministers in a time
of genuine concern on the part of certain sections of the press
about a potential appointment that we call canny about commenting.
1007. I was very interested in what you said
earlier on diversity that you are building up a database on diversity.
I want to know what information you want to have that you do not
have at the moment.
(Ms Ghosh) Essentially, the information
we have at the moment is pretty patchy because the information
available derives from people's applications. What do departments
know about people being appointed to their NDPBs? What they see
on the application form. As you probably know, at the moment effectively
the only questions that people are asked, other than you can generally
tell whether a person is male or female, are have they asked under
the guaranteed interview scheme for a guaranteed interview because
they regard themselves as disabled and the form about political
activity. We do not systematically at the moment, through the
application process, collect that kind of data. Obviously, there
are issues there which are tricky about whether or not we should
move to making those standard questions of importance with the
advent of the Article 13 requirements. We raised these issues
and it is something the NDPBs will be thinking about.
1008. Do we collect information by ethnicity
(Ms Ghosh) No.
1009. Why not?
(Ms Ghosh) There is no reason in principle
why we should not do so. There is no policy reason.
1010. Would you like to?
(Ms Ghosh) It is an issue we would need
to discuss with departments. With all these ethnicity surveys,
as you know, there are always some who say it should be an irrelevancy
1011. You are an expert and I am asking you.
(Mr Alexander) I am probably the expert.
Of course we can set ourselves targets and it is important that
we are in a position to measure them. That is why we are taking
forward work on this issue, but it does also involve discussions
with department in terms of reality on where appointments are
made. On the one hand we at the centre are charged with the responsibility
for working with departments and cajoling them and encouraging
them and then
1012. It seems strange to me. At the moment,
government departments collect masses of information on ethnicity
and on gender but not ethnicity and gender combined. How can we
have a sensible discussion about increasing the number of black
women, Asian women, and Moslem women? Do we collect information
(Ms Ghosh) No, we do not.
1013. It is all finger in the wind.
(Mr Alexander) I am not saying the government
should not do this. There are genuine discussions which take place
within government and that is not by means of an excuse. It is
just the reality of things. It also speaks to the potential if
we could get this database right about capacity for read across
and having a far more intelligent source of information than some
of the information that is available. I would not wish any disrespect
to my colleagues but in preparation for this Committee I have
been working hard at reading Public Bodies 2001, which
is not the most user friendly guide. We can both simultaneously
equip ourselves with better tools internally to argue the case
for exactly the kind of work that you, I imagine, are keen for
departments to undertake at the same time as making it more user
friendly for people who want to find out what is available in
terms of opportunities to serve.
1014. What did you find out from Patricia Hewitt's
seminar in Leicester that you mentioned earlier? What did you
learn about how we can attract more women from the ethnic minorities
into public bodies?
(Mr Alexander) I understand Helen had
staff members at the seminar. On the basis of a conversation I
have already had internally within the department, what potential
talent there is in the area of Leicester because you have a range
of women from the ethnic community in Leicester and the surrounding
areas who have tremendous skills and experience on the basis of
working within community organisations in that locality. In that
sense, it affirms me in my view that there are still untapped
pools of potential talent out there which we have a responsibility
to access. Secondly, there is interesting research which has emerged
from the DTLR which is trying to establish a hierarchy of reasons
why people do not serve on NDPBs within their own area of work.
Helen perhaps can give you a better sense of that.
(Ms Ghosh) This is the DETR survey of women and public
appointments and the list is awareness of public appointments,
the attractiveness of public appointments. Coming back to the
lessons we learn, mainly they want to do something that is actively
making a difference, not just sitting on a committee without really
changing things. Confidence. Do they have the skills. Do they
feel they are equipped to appear before selection committees?
Can they do it when they get there? Time, a barrier for all of
us, childcare and remuneration was the last on the list. The Ginger
Group that Chris Leslie set up, people with experience on NDPBs
and others and the Short Life Working Group are all things which
we are trying to look at in some way. For instance, the issue
of remuneration is a very complicated one and we need to do some
work on that in terms of tracking what is out there. What people
want is practical examples. They want role models. My staff who
went there who ran our stall and answered questions said that
nobody wanted to talk to them at all. They wanted to talk to these
dynamic women in the East Midlands who had done it. That is a
lesson for us. They wanted things that made a difference. Lots
of them were very much used to running tenants' associations,
setting up the single regeneration budget and making a difference.
The question was persuading them that, at the next level up, possibly
at the regional level, they could do similar sorts of things.
The third lesson which arises from that is this idea of ladders.
How do you get somebody who has no experience, who has never been
on a committee and does not understand how it works into local
activity, up to the RDA or some national body? Increasingly, although
regional offices quite rightly say there is a resource issue here,
we are thinking of a much more active role of the regional offices
in picking up local talent, developing it, possibly working on
whether there could be schemes where local colleges of further
education work with regional offices to identify talent, to give
people skills so that they are ready for regional appointments
and then they can move on. The key thing people want to know about
is what are the vacancies and how they can apply. That is why
the Public Appointments Register stuff is so important.
1015. We may get a Bill on regional devolution
in England in a week's time. I am interested if any work has been
done at all about how to regionalise the public appointments procedures
and so on.
(Mr Alexander) You will not be surprised
if I suggest it would not be appropriate to comment on any potential
legislation in advance of the Queen's Speech. I would remind the
Committee of what we said in the White Paper on regional government
in which we made clear that departments would first of all have
to consider locating outside London and the south-east. That speaks
to an awareness of the relevance of an evolving policy around
regional government in England to this whole agenda, and also
it reinforces the point that Helen made. If we are serious about
our work in terms of diversity and outreach, notwithstanding the
important work we have to do in the centre in terms of accessibility
of websites and information, the best Cabinet Office Minister
or regional team on this area is as nothing compared with someone
who in the local community who has said, "This is an area
worth getting involved in and taking forward." It seems to
me it is analogous in some ways to a delivery message. The idea
that as a government you can pronounce from Whitehall how you
should be grateful for what has happened in the health service
because we have spent X on the health service seems to be rapidly
and thankfully giving way to a far more sophisticated understanding
of what people are concerned about in their locality. In that
sense, there is some parallel with our challenge in terms of communicating
the potential work for public bodies. We have to get it right
at the centre but that in itself is not sufficient. We have to
make sure that rooted within communities there is an awareness
of the opportunity that people have to serve on public bodies.
1016. Are you responsible for the House of Lords'
(Mr Alexander) The House of Lords stands
separate from this whole area in terms of
1017. Does that mean no?
(Mr Alexander)public bodies because
clearly it is part of the legislature rather than part of the
executive arm of my responsibilities. I understand the remit of
this Committee's investigation is publicly appointed bodies as
they apply to ministers in the executive.
1018. Does that mean no?
(Mr Alexander) As I say, the House of
Lords itself stands separate.
(Ms Ghosh) To interpret the question, do you mean
to appointments of the people who sit on the House of Lords' Appointments
1019. Yes, appointments to the House of Lords'
(Ms Ghosh) I believe it is the case,
although we can formalise this, that strictly speaking the appointments
are made by the Prime Minister to the House of Lords' Appointments
Commission, but, as with some of his other processes under the
terms of the OCPA rules, in practice the Cabinet Office does the
legwork, as it were.
(Mr Alexander) I would not wish to suggest for a moment
I was not fully aware of every area of responsibility of my work,
but one of the questions I might have asked officials was to make
absolutely certain that I was aware as to every potential piece
of patronage and appointment that I have responsibility for in
terms of my role in the Cabinet Office. I fear that my reach does
not extend to the House of Lords' Appointments Commission, rather
to two particular bodiesthe Civil Service Appeals Board
and the work of the COI, so in terms of my responsibilities as
Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, it is not me.