Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1 - 19)



Mr Tyrie

  1. Good afternoon, Dame Rennie. Thank you very much for coming before us this afternoon; it is very kind of you to come back. I understand that you have an opening statement you would like to make?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I have, if I may.

  2. And I feel, rather than say any more, let us hear that?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Thank you. First, can I offer my condolences to Dr Wright. I am so sorry to hear of his news. I welcome the opportunity to talk to the Committee about my first annual report as Commissioner for Public Appointments. My overall objective is to ensure a fair, open and transparent process that delivers people who are fit for purpose and has the confidence of the public. In addition to accounting for the previous year's results, my annual report took a detailed forward look at the ways in which I planned to carry them forward during the forthcoming year. I would like to use this opening statement, if I may, to summarise very briefly what has been achieved in the five months since my report was published. Before doing so, I would like to say a word or two about appointments to NHS bodies. Last year, I responded to calls to look into the NHS appointments process. This Committee took an active interest and, a few days after the launch of my annual report, published its own report on the scrutiny. I welcomed the report, even though it revealed a difference of opinion on some of my recommendations, and I wholeheartedly endorse the Committee's conclusion that these differences are `less important than the need to tackle the issues that had been identified, and to ensure that the NHS finds the best people it needs'. Soon after, the NHS announced it would set up an independent Appointments Commission, as indeed this Committee had recommended. I welcomed that proposal, provided that the Commission was truly independent and its members appointed through fair and open competition. I recently met the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and reaffirmed my position. Having referred to this specific matter in which the Committee had a particular interest, I will turn to the more general themes of raising public awareness, attracting good candidates and increasing public confidence. In terms of attracting candidates, the MORI study and the lack of real improvement reflected in the gender and ethnic minority figures that appeared in my report illustrate the size and nature of the task. Whilst headlines on cronyism attract most attention, far less notice is given to the problem of attracting a broader and more diverse pool of suitable candidates. I said earlier that the process has to deliver good people who are fit for purpose; by that I mean individuals who, through their skills and qualities, can help a public body fulfil its objective. However, there is another dimension to this. Diversity within the membership of a public body is not only morally right, it benefits that body's performance. We must therefore make sure that the public appointments process delivers diverse as well as meritorious candidates. To this end, the work on merit and balanced boards has progressed since the publication of my annual report. In October, my office held a seminar at which representatives from all Government Departments were able to express their views on the approach set out in my report, and how this could be developed in a way most helpful to them. The Committee may be interested to know that, although I am independent, in the spirit of joined-up working, and indeed proportionality, my office is now liaising with other interested organisations with the aim of providing joint guidance on this important issue, next spring. Of course, the success of all our endeavours to make the process fairer and more open rests on raising public awareness, and I will therefore conclude by saying something about a major initiative, Public Service Week, that was outlined in my annual report, and arose, in part, in response to the MORI findings. During the week commencing 20 November, a variety of events were staged at six different venues throughout the United Kingdom. This initiative had the support of Ministers, and was developed in conjunction with the Public Appointments Unit in the Cabinet Office, and with the co-operation of other interested organisations, in particular the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission. One of its principal aims was to make people more aware of the wide range of public service opportunities available to them and how they might apply. Current public office holders took part in information sessions for members of the public. We also held a number of seminars, for example, to define barriers and to begin to develop ways of overcoming them, and also to look at ways of promoting, amongst employers, the idea of public service by their employees. Public Service Week also marked the beginning of an ongoing `shadowing' project. This is a new initiative that enables people who would like to understand more about the role of an appointee to spend time with someone who already holds a public appointment, or with a number of board members. To date, my office has organised 120 such shadowing arrangements. Public Service Week was the first event of its kind. The immediate response, by those who participated, was predominantly positive and the activities gained a lot of media coverage, where perhaps it was most useful, at local level and in ethnic minority media. Given the nature of the exercise, it will not be possible to produce statistics to directly measure its success in increasing the pool of candidates, but it has clearly had the immediate effect of raising the profile. Of course, Public Service Week was part of the ongoing process by which I am pursuing my overall aim to ensure a fair, open and transparent process, that delivers people who are fit for purpose and has the confidence of the public. I am certainly not complacent, but I am optimistic and I look forward to discussing with the Committee this afternoon the details of my first full year in post, and what has been achieved since the publication of my report. A rather lengthy introduction, but I wanted to cover so many things. Thank you very much.

  3. Thank you very much for that. Can I begin by going back to this Committee's report on your findings on NHS bodies. Your findings were trenchant, to say the least; you found systematic politicisation of the appointments process, you were, clearly, deeply concerned about it. Do you stand by all the conclusions that you came to at that time, in the light of some of the comments that were made in our report?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I understand the concern in your report, in particular in relation to councillors, and I would like to take this opportunity to reaffirm what my intention was there. Of course, many councillors are fit for purpose and should be, absolutely, appointed when they apply. My concern was two-fold. One, that being a councillor seemed to be, in some circumstances, an additional criterion that had added weight; that was not mentioned in an open and transparent way right at the beginning. And the second was that, the number of people coming forward saying that now NHS Boards had so many people who held political office, it seemed to me that unless you were politically active you would not be considered; and that was my concern, not that, of course, councillors could apply, or should be appointed if meritorious.

  4. The Government has come forward with a number of suggestions on how they can deal with the problems that you outlined; how confident are you that they are now being addressed adequately?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I recognise the Government has had a great deal on its plate, and particularly the NHS, looking at a National Plan and putting it into place, and there has been quite a long time between my report, your report and any evident action in the public domain. To this end, recently I met with Gisela Stuart, the Minister there, to say that I was underlining that, if there was going to be an Appointments Commission, this Appointments Commission should be fair, open, independent and properly recruited; and I wait to see what the advertisement might say. My concern, I think, was in relation to the role, and if the role is purely related to the appointments process then I welcome that very much, I think that is the spirit in which members of this Committee were suggesting such a thing. However, I have begun to hear that the role might be much broader and encompass appraisals, mentoring and other responsibilities in relation to the people appointed. And my concern there is that if there is a much broader role required, if indeed many of the things that Regional Chairs currently do now are now going to be done by this new group then I wanted to make sure it was not just a change in name but a change of true approach. I am concerned that those who might be interested in being reappointed, and not be reappointed, might suggest that the person who is appointing them may have not dealt with them in a fair and open way; and, indeed, people who are applying for the first time, when someone else is reappointed, they may say, "Well, I haven't had a fair deal because you've been involved in this person's development so you have a vested interest in them going on." I do not want to put too many hostages to fortune out there, but I just want to think in advance of the complexities and the difficulties that might arise if the role becomes too broad.

  5. As you know, the reactions of members of this Committee to your report were varied, and that is evident from the voting pattern that one can see at the end of the report that we published, and others will have very different views on all these decisions, which they will be expressing in a moment. From what you have just said there, it sounds as if you are not reassured that we have in place a system which is going to prevent the kinds of systematic politicisation in the future that you identified originally?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I do not want to cause alarm. What I want to say is that I have yet to see what is going to be in place before I can confidently say I wholeheartedly endorse it; and if this process is to take place on 1 April there is very little time to have advertisements and a process that would have opportunity for many people to see if they might like to come forward.

Mr Trend

  6. Why do you think the Government has been dragging its feet on this?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I can only speculate. I know there is a great deal to be done, with the National Plan and a great many things. I have had a concern that those who hold appointments in the NHS have come to me and asked the question, "Is it being taken seriously? We've taken it seriously, we who are appointees in the Health Service, and we wait to see what the Government is going to do, and then there is a gap." So I believe it is being taken seriously. I think it is rather the pressure of the many things on the agenda, but I think it is important for me to keep up my request for information. I wait to see what is going to happen in relation to a number of my recommendations.

  Mr Tyrie: I would like to come back and ask you a number of questions about other aspects of your report in a moment, but, before I do, Brian White would like to ask some questions about the NHS.

Mr White

  7. One of the NHS Trust Chairs came to me, we were discussing a whole range of other things, and it happened to come up, your report, and her comment was, running a fairly sizeable Trust, that she felt totally demoralised by your comments, that she felt she had only been appointed because of her political background, and clearly that was not the case, and you actually undermined her ability to do her job. What would you say to that Chair of the Trust, when you are supposed to be creating a boost to morale in the Health Service, to that Chair, who feels totally let down by your comments?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) First of all, I would say, my role is not to boost morale in the NHS, my role is to regulate, monitor, to advise and to report.

  8. Sorry, I meant the appointments process?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I understand. However, I would say that, first of all, I am very sad if that is the case, and I know that a number of people, perhaps three or four people, have come to me and said, "Because I have held political office and was appointed, I am concerned that people think I might not have been appointed on merit." And I put that in balance with the several hundred people who came forward and said, "You have given us a true picture; we've known about it, and we now believe it is in the public domain and something will be done about it." And I certainly would want to stress that all those who have held political office, or are new, in some way, in the NHS, should not think of themselves as anything other than appointed on merit, and if they have concerns they should properly go to the National Health Service Executive in Leeds and ask for reassurance, from their documents, that they were properly appointed on merit. I certainly suggested to one person they should do so, and they were well satisfied with the answer they got.

  9. But do you accept that the climate that you are trying to create is to undermine that?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) No, I do not accept that at all. I do not accept that. I set out to find out what was happening, and, in as balanced and open and honest a way as I could, I told the story, and I do not think you would want me to hold back from putting forward what I believe to be the right story and the right situation for the reasons of one or two individual sensitivities; but I am very sorry if anyone feels that. And I hope that, however long this person has been in role, they have been able to demonstrate, through their skills and abilities in what they do, to themselves and others, that they are there on merit.

  10. One of the criticisms of your report was you looked only at the two Labour regions in the North East and North West, with the details, and it came out that one of the things that came on there was political affiliation. I happen to know, in my own region, and we have talked about this separately, that there are people who put down `no political affiliation' on their description, when the person I am thinking of happened to have been the former Chair of the Conservative County Council. And this is a perception amongst Conservatives, that, when they do it, it is public service, but when Labour do it we are putting it down as political activity. How do you actually marry those two things? And how do you go about ensuring that, when people put down `no political activity', that may be strictly true within the limited definition of the wording, but does it not give a distorting effect, that you then report upon?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) No. All applicants for a public appointment are asked to complete the question in relation to activity they have undertaken during the last five years, and they are asked to tick a box that says, "Can you give details, if you have (a) obtained office as a local councillor, MP or MEP; stood as a candidate for one of the above offices; spoken on behalf of a party or candidate?" And then "(b) acted as a political agent; held office, such as treasurer or secretary of a local branch of a party; canvassed on behalf of a party or helped at elections; undertaken any other political activity which you consider relevant?" And "(c) none of the activities above apply." So it is not about affiliation, it is not asking about membership, it is asking about activity. This was a question that people were encouraged to ask as a result of the work of Lord Nolan and the Committee. So I think they are appropriate questions to be asked. I know we have been in correspondence, in the past, where you telephoned and I wrote back, about people who do not fill in the box; so you have those who say, "Yes, I have done some of these things," people who say, "No, none of the above apply," and others who do not fill in the box. Now I cannot speculate as to what parties people might belong to, if they have done any of these things and choose not to fill in the box. But I do think it is important that people complete the questionnaires; and, therefore, it is a matter for Government Departments, and certainly the Cabinet Office secretariat who are working on best practice to ensure that, at interview stage, those who are being interviewed and at any kind of stage using the application forms, people are asked to make sure that they have filled these in.

  11. But, given that it distorts the figures, why do you not recommend that it is compulsory to complete, "Are you a member of a party?", and have powers to say that if people do not fill that in then you take some sanction against them? Why do you not do that?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Because it is not a question that we would ask, "Are you a member of a party?", that is a private concern. It is, "Have you undertaken activity?"; this is the question that was agreed would be asked, and therefore this is the question we ask. I can encourage more people to fill it in, and others in Government Departments can encourage, and I recognise that if people choose not to fill it in, as sometimes choose not to fill in the `disability' box, or something else, then it may have an effect on what a true number is and what a number is that is recorded. But we must ask the question, and I must make public the recorded answers.

  12. But you have no proposals to look at that further, or to make recommendations to Government about the use of that box?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I have already, with Government Departments, asked them to ensure a number of things, in completion of application forms, and this is one; so I have already, working with Government Departments, said it is important that people fill in the boxes that are there, if they have something to say.

Mr Tyrie

  13. Just to complete that bit of questioning, Brian was onto an interesting point; are you forbidden by any statute from suggesting, is one forbidden from asking a question, like, "Are you a member of a political party?"?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I think the Neill Committee looked at this issue and decided it was not an appropriate thing to do; and, therefore, so far, I have taken a line from that, which says we are looking at activity, sometimes because activity can indicate skills you have learned elsewhere that you can transfer. But it is not something that I have in mind to do, and it is not something, as far as I know, that the Nolan or Neill Committees would make a recommendation about. I would say that I am not forbidden to do it. It has not been in my mind to do. But I am already concerned about the number of people, as we go out and try to encourage a wider range of people to come forward, who are concerned that, if they are not able to demonstrate membership of a political party, they might not be selected; I think that is not true. And I would not want that to be a concern, or to add to that concern.

  14. You are saying you need information, which at the moment implicitly is information which a Nolan or a Neill Committee recommendation was suggesting should not be collected, or should not be required. Therefore, is it not really with that recommendation that you have an issue; your questions, your series of questions, are really trying to obtain by the back door what Lord Neill has ruled out by the front?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) No; and I am not asking the question, of course, Government Departments are asking this question. But the question is not being asked about, "Are you a member of a political party?" but, "Have you undertaken political activity, on behalf of a political party, in the last five years?" So I think there would have to be a much wider debate, than me, to make suggestions that this would be an appropriate question.

Mr Turner

  15. Are you saying that you do not think it is right that you should make a recommendation that it should be compulsory to fill in that particular box?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) No, I am not saying that. I am saying, it is not right for me to make a recommendation about political party membership. It is right for me to encourage Government Departments to ensure that application forms are filled in. I have guidance which I issue to Government Departments, and my guidance is about a proper way to approach things. It is called "guidance", it is not called the "rules and regulations", and so, therefore, I would guide people towards ensuring that these are filled in.

Mr Tyrie

  16. Did you seek agreement, through some kind of consultation exercise, on the character of those questions about political activity?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) Since these questions were in place before I was appointed, I would have to come back to you and tell you what process was gone through before these questions were asked, and I would not like to try to speculate; but I can certainly do that.

Mr Turner

  17. Can I just ask whether or not you think it would be useful, within the statistics that you have collected and presented, if actually you made a note of those appointments where the boxes have not been filled in; in other words, that we were not looking at a percentage of the whole, we were actually looking at a percentage of a known figure, it might be something different?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) The process is this, that Government Departments collect these statistics and then they give them to me; so I do not have these application forms personally to go through. One of the things that Government Departments are very concerned about is extra bureaucracy, and rightly so, because so many people are expecting them to do things faster. So I do tread carefully when I go to a Government Department and say, "There's another piece of information I want you regularly to provide." It does not mean I will not do it, and what I am doing, currently, between now and the beginning of the next financial year, April, is looking at all of my guidance and looking at where is it loose, where is it tight, where are the pieces missing, and what can we do to improve the guidance. So certainly I will think very carefully about what you have said to me today, in relation to how we update and amend and improve the guidance.

  18. I do not think it would be particularly difficult for a Department to say X percentage Conservative, Labour, etc., Y percentage none, and Z percentage not filled in, and that would give a better appreciation of the figures?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) I agree.

  19. Can I put just one other point here then, separate from that. You make the point that people somehow feel that if they are not members of a political party, or have not carried out political activity, they would be precluded, or discouraged, from being appointed to a board. Have you felt that there is somehow the opposite of that effect, that people are politically active; because they have to put that forward, they are somehow being treated as almost pariahs, and that political activity is questionable, in relation to activity on what is maybe a less than clear political scene, in other words, public service, in the general sense?
  (Dame Rennie Fritchie) In the same anecdotal way as I wrote the report, I can give you my anecdotal evidence, but I have not done a piece of research that has asked this question in a way that could be measured as evidence. But what I can say is, yes, some people have come forward and said, "Look, does this mean now that someone like me might not be considered, because there are so many people like me already there and they are not getting a very good press?" And I say, "Absolutely not," and I stand on platforms and say political activity should be neither extra reason for appointment or any disbarment, and I am very much encouraging people to come forward. And, indeed, I think I might have mentioned at my last meeting with the Committee, I had two people who wrote and said, "Look, I think I'm not being considered because I am politically active." And I investigated that fact on their behalf. And on one occasion, that the process had not quite finished, I went back and said, "This person thinks they have not been properly dealt with," and the Department went through and found they had been discarded and they should have been in the list, and they were put into the list as a result of that complaint to me.

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