Standing Committee F
Thursday 13 April 2000
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 15, at end insert
`and to the range and balance of experience between the various members of the Council'.
I am pleased that you, Mr. Benton, and my colleagues and I have made it to this early start. I was metaphorically motoring down the Corridors to be here on time. Before I generate any notes, as I may need to later, I thank the Minister for honouring his undertaking at the previous sitting to supply details of the application pack for appointments to the Learning and Skills Council, which I have received. In fact, I have received a duplicate set of documents. It is not the first time that that has happened at the Department and it delayed me momentarily, because I needed to check whether there were any differences between the documents, as with the child's game in which one looks for differences in the picture and lists them.
Being a literary man, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) will no doubt remember the Latin tag bis dat qui cito dat, which means he gives twice who gives quickly. In this case, the Minister has done better than that, because he has supplied the information quickly and supplied it twice, so I thank him for that. We will no doubt have an opportunity to study the ideas in the long years of the Committee-if it goes on that long-or on another occasion.
Our discussion at the previous sitting and the amendment raise important issues in connection with public appointments. I think that it is probably unwise-certainly for Opposition Members-to spend too much time reminiscing about ministerial experience. In some parts of the British Isles, people who have been abroad on colonial service are known to the locals as ``when I's'', because their sentences always begin, ``When I was.'' I shall not do that, but I think that it might be germane in this case, because the Minister has the responsibility for making public appointments and I have some experience of that. It is a complicated and difficult matter.
I will make one general point. The Minister had to change his timetable because Second Reading did not take place in the Commons first-that is an open secret-and he was therefore unable to start the selection process, so he should take his time and not feel obliged to hurry to make the appointments. Picking up on my breathless remarks a moment ago, it is important that we do not make early selections that we later regret. The Minister should consider carefully what he is trying to achieve with the balance of the appointments, which brings me to amendment No. 4.
The Secretary of State has to appoint the members of the Learning and Skills Council. Under subsection (3), he
must have regard to the desirability of appointing a person who has experience relevant to the Council's functions.
That is a personal test. I would be extraordinarily surprised if the Minister were disposed to receive advice supporting the appointment of anybody who was not a serious player in the business of education or did not have a serious interest in the subject. The Minister would have failed us badly if he appointed such a person, and I am sure that he does not wish to do that.
For people to establish their bona fides, they must have experience. The Minister will remember the rather jocular exchanges we had at the previous sitting, pointing out that Members of Parliament might have relevant experience. Plenty of hon. Members have been active in further education. They would have to disqualify themselves from membership of the House, but so be it. I do not think that many volunteers have rushed to fill in the Minister's application pack yet. However, it is unlikely that a person lacking in experience relevant to the council's functions would progress through the sifting process, although it is sensible to provide for that possibility, and that is much precedented in earlier legislation.
Unless the Minister's response is particularly inept, I will not be disposed to press the amendment to a vote. The purpose of the amendment is simply to sound out the Minister's intentions on the wider issue. He can make a limited number of appointments-between 12 and 16, as specified in subsection (2)-so he does not have much headroom, and he will be under huge pressure when making appointments. It will be of no surprise to anyone familiar with the public appointments process to learn that, as Ministers in another place have already made clear, it is not common or wise for Ministers to appoint representatives of specific interests. That is not what we are about. We want good people.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcom Wicks) indicated assent.
Mr. Boswell: The Minister is nodding.
We do not want people who regard themselves as delegates of a particular interest group. Our amendment is designed to probe for information not about the competence of the individual, because that is already covered, but about how the Minister will build up his team-from his Cabinet, to use the political analogy-and achieve a range and balance in his appointments. We should spend some time on that important subject.
I have formulated the amendment to allow for a series of tests. The first and most controversial test would be for a degree of political balance. I would have no complaint if the Minister appointed people who had no political connections. They may have a distinguished record in public life or in education, but no political handle. We must avoid any skew in the political bias of appointments-we touched on that rather obliquely during the previous sitting. The Minister will know of Dame Rennie Fritchie's recent report on appointments in the national health service. I appreciate that he was not personally responsible for making choices in that Department, but he may have had collective responsibility.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Dame Rennie's report, which is available from the Vote Office, clearly shows that there is no evidence of bias towards Labour party members in the national health service posts that are within the gift of Ministers and others, and that Conservative appointments still hold overwhelming sway in the NHS?
Mr. Boswell: With respect, there may be different interpretations of the position, and that is not my understanding of the overall report. Of course there is a lag, and it would be neither reasonable nor sensible to remove people appointed by another Government until they had reached the end of their natural span of appointment. In my local experience of health authority appointments in Northamptonshire, and in Dame Rennie's findings on the national position on new appointments, there is some concern about the level of bias. I say that to the hon. Gentleman without intending to be too controversial.
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): The hon. Gentleman talked about his local situation, which reminds me that a Liberal Democrat local councillor was appointed as a non-executive director in north Staffordshire a few weeks ago. One might think that it would be difficult to estimate the lady's politics given that she is a Liberal Democrat, but it is clear that she was not a Labour nominee.
Mr. Boswell: The hon. Lady will have to do better than to cite a particular example to make a general cae.
Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): The chairman of my local health authority, Michael Griffiths, was once known as the quango king of the country, having been appointed to three quangos by the Conservatives. He is a known Conservative, and was reappointed as recently as last October by a Labour Administration.
Mr. Boswell: Indeed. I have a feeling, Mr. Benton, that you might become somewhat weary of rehearsing the cases cited by hon. Members. There could be other cases, and I am concerned, for example, about the political affiliations of appointees to the east midlands regional development agency and, therefore, about its political balance. However, we shall not go into that now.
I am glad that I have got the point of controversy out of the way at the start-it will have woken everybody up, if they were not already paying attention. However, my substantial point is that there is the potential in any public appointment mechanism for a political skew. The Minister does not seem to be the kind of person who sets out in the morning saying, ``How am I going to dish the Tories today? Well, I have a choice between A, B and C. C is a Tory, so he is out, and I'm not certain about B, but A is a darn good Labour Member.'' There is, of course, the interesting issue of whether appointees are old Labour, in which case I might have a dialogue with the Minister, or new Labour, in which case I would be less sympathetic. However, that is a problem for other members of the Committee.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I have woken up. The issue is the need for transparency. To come back to education, I tried to find out the political affiliations of school adjudicators. The Minister told me that that was not a question that we asked. I then found out that the adjudicator who is about to make a decision on the closure of three primary schools in the north-east was the deputy leader of Sheffield city council when the Secretary of State was its leader. The man might be perfectly honourable, decent and capable, but the fact that that connection is lurking in the background raises the suspicion that something might not be quite right. That is the point that the hon. Member for Daventry is making and which we want to be clarified in the Bill.