Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)



John Austin

  120. Notwithstanding the fact that local authorities now will have a scrutiny role in relation to that, do you think there is some merit in having as a matter of course a local authority representative on the board?
  (Sir William Wells) We do not have them as a matter of course because every single non-executive is appointed on merit. We have absolutely no bar against councillors being non-executives and in fact we have appointed a significant number of councillors, particularly on PCTs where we think they have a very important role to play, but they are there because they measure up to all the qualities that we insist upon for a non-executive, not because they are councillors.


  121. Can I just go back to the performance review issue which Doug kicked off on? Your memorandum, which was very interesting, refers to various tools for assessment in respect of chairs and non-executives: self-appraisal, standards of the trust, CHI reports and the views of the organisation's chief executive. Having served as a health authority member for a fair period of time and knowing how the service operates, the relationship sometimes between chairs and chief executives is not particularly harmonious and sometimes the fact that it is not harmonious is a positive factor rather than a negative factor. I can see all sorts of problems arising whereby the chief executive desperately wants shut of the chair who has actually been quite effective. How do you balance that out? If you have got all these different elements how do you weigh up the different parts of these elements?
  (Sir William Wells) That is an extremely good point which I have to say we have no perfect answer to. We have to remember that the chief executive is the accounting officer and therefore you have to take into account the views of the accounting officer. We almost certainly will not do that directly from the chief executive but we will do it through the strategic health authority and the director of health and social care. That is the line that we go through, which I think removes you from what I might call the emotion of a relationship, but it is only one of the many factors that would be taken into account in assessing whether a person's performance has been consistently good. Those are the words we use. A person's performance, whether they are a chair or a non-executive, has to be consistently good over the four year period for which they have been appointed for them to be considered for re-appointment without contest.

  122. Let me give you an example. I was a health authority member like Jim or John or Doug and other people. I attended every meeting regularly and tried to be very thorough in my work. I got into the ribs of what was then the general manager because I felt the general manager was not, frankly, up to the job that he had been appointed to do. I got into the ribs of the chairman. I cannot see that I would have had a cat in hell's chance with this appraisal process of being re-appointed because I was a member of the awkward squad. I believed that I was doing a job on behalf of the people in my area reasonably effectively. How do you square that kind of scenario with this performance review process?
  (Sir William Wells) I think we just need to look at the void in which we were operating in the past. There was not any performance appraisal. In most parts of the country there was none at all. There was no evidence, there was nothing. Therefore you had to draw the opinion out of the ether and that was the reason why of course predecessor governments decided there should not be any re-appointment without contest, because there was not any evidence or enough evidence to go on in order to be able to re-appoint without contest. Dame Rennie made it very clear that she thought this was a huge waste of resources and I have to say we agree. It is for that reason that we are now introducing the performance appraisal system which has never been in place before. Having said that, there is a huge learning curve. Performance appraisal in the National Health Service, even amongst executives, I regret to say is almost non-existent, which is a parlous situation. Therefore, it is not going to be perfect to start with and that is why we are going to have to work from a wide range of opinions. The thing that you can be assured of, which did not happen before, is that there is going to be a much greater knowledge of the relationship between chairs and chief executives than there ever has been before. We are going to be introducing chair and chief executive joint training. It has never happened before. In that way you will start to be able to flush out tensions and the like. The strategic health authority have relatively few trusts for whom they are responsible in comparison with the old regions that there were before, so the strategic health authority chair should know very well. It will be a combination of all these factors. I would agree with you that I think in some cases chairs and non-executives have not been re-appointed because they have been outspoken about things which they were perfectly entitled to be outspoken about. If you get into a situation where people feel they cannot do that, then you are losing someone of real value as a non-executive in the first place. It is not an easy area; it is one that we are determined to spend a lot of time and effort on in order to get it very much better than it has been in the past.

  123. One or two of my colleagues, you will not be surprised to know, would like to raise the issue of political appointments. Can I begin by asking you how you define political activity?
  (Sir William Wells) We define political activity in accordance with the form which everybody receives with their application documents. There are a lot of tick boxes. I do not know whether you have seen it but it is probably fairly well known to you. They have to tick the boxes and they have to put in details of involvement.

Mr Burns

  124. It is over the last five years, is it not, unless it has changed?
  (Sir William Wells) Yes.


  125. That is more in a formal party-political sense. I can think of many people who are as political as I am, but they are not in the party. They are political on a range of issues.
  (Sir William Wells) Some people declare if they are independents.

  126. I just wonder again whether you declare formally your independence. We have an independent MP. Is he political?.
  (Sir William Wells) It is down here—"independent or other". You have got another box to tick and so it is pretty all-embracing.

  127. I just get the impression that we are all political in some way or another.
  (Sir William Wells) Of course we are.

  128. That is the point I was making. You accept that?
  (Sir William Wells) This is here because OCPA wanted it. This document is here because OCPA feel that it is very important that we track the percentages of people who have declared political activity.

  John Austin: If you were to ask a range of questions with a political content do you not think that you might determine if there was a different balance politically in the appointments than the figures would suggest?

  Mr Burns: Would it not be easier for the Committee, so we do not go round this in circles, if Sir William read out the questions so that it becomes quite clear what they are asking for vis-a-vis political activity?


  129. If it is not too long.
  (Sir William Wells) It is not. You should name the party or body for which you have been acting. If you have been or are an independent or have sought or obtained office as a representative of a particular interest group you should state this. You should tick all the relevant categories. The relevant categories are: obtained office as a local councillor, MP, MEP, etc; stood as candidate for one of the above offices; spoken on behalf of a party or a candidate; acted as a political agent; held such office as a chair, treasurer or secretary of a local branch of a party; canvassed on behalf of a party or helped at elections—and that is interpreted pretty broadly. Leaflet dropping is considered to be a political activity.

Mr Burns

  130. Putting up posters in their gardens?
  (Sir William Wells) Putting up posters, yes. Undertaken any other political activity which you consider relevant. This is pretty all-embracing, I have to say, and it is not us. We did not invent the form.

John Austin

  131. It does not in any way indicate what the person's political inclination or views are. You might get a better answer if you asked them which newspaper they read.
  (Sir William Wells) There is another box where you have to declare which party you have done the activity for, including the "other" part.

Dr Naysmsith

  132. Sitting on school governors' appointments and various kinds of health boards and so on, I have heard people say time and time again, "I am not political" and then they say things like, "Education and health are not political", and you find out quite clearly not very long afterwards that they regularly vote Conservative but they honestly believe that they are independent and non-political. You are not picking up such people.
  (Sir William Wells) Can I make a comment, Chairman? This form is nothing to do with the Commission. This is a form which OCPA require. We are merely their collecting agent.

Mr Burns

  133. Before we get on to the main questions, you just mentioned something that is of particular interest to me. Are you saying that if someone was appointed as chairman of a trust and they had filled in the form as "blank" for "political activity", and their house and garden were stuffed with posters at a general election time for a political party, they would have inaccurately completed the form?
  (Sir William Wells) No.

Julia Drown

  134. It could have been their spouse.
  (Sir William Wells) I have read quite a number of these and leaflet dropping seems to be quite a favourite one and it seems to me that that is a positive action.

Mr Burns

  135. Sir William, have you read or heard before the statement in Dame Rennie's audit where she says that the audit that she carried out after her appointment following complaints of possible bias in appointments revealed that "although there is no conclusive evidence to indicate that those who declare activity on behalf of the Labour Party are more successful at interview than those who declare no political activity, they do seem to be more successful than those of other political hues." Are you familiar with that?
  (Sir William Wells) Yes.

  136. Would you accept that as a result of Dame Rennie's audit and other concerns being expressed the Government sought to try and distance themselves from controversy by setting up an independent audit which you now head?
  (Sir William Wells) I would not know. They have set up an independent Commission. The object for which they set that up—I think that is up to them.

  137. Can you explain something to me which does puzzle me? If you look at the last full year of the Conservative Government, 8.2 per cent of those who declared their political allegiance were members of the Labour Party. Contrary to what probably about six people around this table think, 7.2 per cent were Conservative and 1.3 per cent were Liberal Democrat. Up until the point where the Secretary of State stopped making these appointments, which was at the end of June 2001, the figures had gone up to about 25 per cent Labour, 4.5 per cent Conservative and 2.9 per cent Liberal Democrat. If you take the first six and a half months that your organisation was dealing with this issue, it was 4.9 per cent Conservative, 23.5 per cent Labour, so slightly down, and 5.4 per cent Liberal Democrat. If you then take the latest available figures, or the latest ones that the ministers have made public, which is from the day you started on 2 July until 4 April, the number of Labour Party appointees of those who declared a political interest are at an all-time high of 26.5 per cent, Conservative 4.5, and Liberal Democrat 4.4 per cent. Can you explain to me, given that certainly Members of Parliament believe that the setting up of your Commission was to try and reduce the accusations of political favouritism biased in favour of the ruling party, why the figures so far of your appointees have shown that even more Labour Party people are being appointed to these bodies than ever before?
  (Sir William Wells) Yes; exactly what the figures do say.

  Mr Burns: I did ask a question in that, which was, given that you were set up to try and dispel the belief that these bodies were being packed by one political party or another and you were an independent body, can you explain why it is in your first nine months of operation that there is a record number of Labour Party sympathisers being appointed to these bodies, so that in fact you have achieved so far the exact opposite of what everyone thought you were being set up to do?


  138. Could I ask a question to clarify this? Do you keep any record of party affiliations proportionately of the applications?
  (Sir William Wells) Could I come on to that?

  139. Yes, because it is a fairly important point. There may be more applications from Labour Party members.
  (Sir William Wells) The first point I make is that as far as we were concerned the Appointments Commission was not set up to dispel any political bias in any particular direction. It was not part of our terms of reference and was never part of any of my briefing. The Appointments Commission was set up in order to put in a new system which was transparent, open and appointed on merit. We issued these figures as soon as we had got them and if you asked me what I would—


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