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Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 40-53)



  40. What about the people's peers? Was the whole experience of people's peers and the House of Lords Commission damaging in the sense that a lot of people who might have considered putting their names forward for a public appointment, after that, just decided not to?
  (Dame Rennie) First of all, I do not regulate the appointments that go forward to the House of Lords.

  41. I am interested in your views, though.
  (Dame Rennie) I am about to give them to you. Firstly, I am speaking as a person who reads the paper. I am concerned at anything that is portrayed, whether it is about task forces, special advisers, the House of Lords or anything else that has the headlines that say, "It is for a few" or, "Not for you" or it is interpreted in a particular way, anything that acts as a deterrent for people. I am concerned about how certain things are portrayed and what people's understanding is. I am going out to people who have never thought of themselves in terms of public appointments to encourage them. However, no one has come forward and said, "I was thinking of either the Lords or a public appointment. What do you think?" For many, that would have been a step beyond what was in their thinking.

  42. Over 3,000 people applied to become people's peers and a number of them got in touch with me, people who had been rejected, who were very upset that they were not given the reasons for the rejection, because they considered that they could do the job. When I put this to Lord Stevenson he replied, from memory, that there was a problem about the cost of the stamps. What is wrong with giving people the reasons for their rejection, not specifically about the House of Lords, but across the board?
  (Dame Rennie) There is nothing wrong. It is one of the things I have been working on this year with departments and with independent assessors to see how, in their note taking and documentation of the interview process, they are able to themselves document why this person for what reasons and why not this person, what is missing? If someone asks for feedback, there is a proportionate way to give it. What I would be concerned about is if we have 700 people applying for a particular post, if all 700 wanted detailed information about why they have been sifted out, we would have an army of bureaucracy working away to try and find that information and give it to them. If someone gets as far as an interview or even if someone is sifted out at interview, we need to have some information that is defendable and able to be made visible to people. One of the concerns is that if, in the view of the panel, on this occasion, this person did not demonstrate their suitability, afterwards, someone may say, "I am suitable and here is all the extra evidence." You have to say, "We can only look at you on that day with what we have, as we did with everyone else." People sometimes push and push, once they have got a bit of information.

  43. It is a pity there is no continuous assessment. It is just a snapshot at a moment in time. People screw up but they can do the job and they have got the track record.
  (Dame Rennie) I acted as an independent assessor recently and one of the questions I ask every time I am on a panel is: have we had the best of you? Have we really had a good impression? When you get out of here, are you going to think, "Oh, I did not really let them see me at my best. Let me put the record straight."

  44. I know this is not your remit, but as someone who thinks about these things, does the fact that the appointment of special advisers do not have to meet any kind of merit test cause you any kind of difficulty?
  (Dame Rennie) Where it causes me difficulties is when I am asked by members of the public, who think I know about all sorts of things in detail, and they say, if everything is now being done in an open and transparent way tell us how this or that can happen? I cannot tell them, I can only tell them with regard to the things I look at rather than anything else. I do not know in detail how special advisers are chosen, because they are not within my remit. I cannot put the record straight because I do not have enough information and informed thinking.

  45. Your approach is that you generally think that all public appointments should have some procedural test applied to them?
  (Dame Rennie) With all public appointments we should be clear of the purpose, we should be clear that the widest range of people know about it if there is an opportunity to be considered and there should be some criteria publicly known that is used to test whether or not this is the right person for it and then some form of independent scrutiny. It should be monitored in some way so that we can give the public confidence in the fact that it happens.

  Chairman: That is probably as far as we are going to get with you.

Annette Brooke

  46. I just briefly wanted to ask about the position. I see you have a breakdown and I was quite interested as far as you approached that, my main question, and perhaps we can pick it up a later meeting, is when we have a situation where there is a chief executive of a body—a hospital is an example, I am sure there are many more—you have the chief executive, then you have the board, and I am interested in the influence the chief executive can have in the appointment of the chairman of the board? We all have experience of head teachers and chairs of governors and their rather cozy relationships, I just wondered how you monitor that through the vast array of bodies you must look at?
  (Dame Rennie) If we go back to when trusts came into being, first of all—and I was round at that time, not in this role—my perception of how it was done was that in many cases chief executives were asked to go and find a chair. A little bit like that game, my children used to play: the farmer takes a wife, the wife takes a child. In the same vein, the chief executives find the chairman, the chairman then finds the non-executives and that is how they were set up within a time scale. There was not a huge amount of thought about governance and probity and coziness, and so on. This is my personal view from experience of being around and having a role in the Health Service myself at the time. I was involved in the setting up of a trust and I saw what was happening and I think it has taken a quite a while to get over that and away from it. I would be concerned now if the chief executive had a role in the selection of a chairman or non-executives on their board. Part of the role of non-executives is to be external and to monitor the performance of executive officers and the chief executive. If the chief executive had a role, you could feel dependent on that person, although you were partly there to scrutinise them, so I would be concerned if there was any kind of formal role. The process, as it stands now, is set up to prevent that happening. If there are occasions where it does happen I would like to know about it, because I would be very keen to go and talk to Sir William Wells at the NHS Appointments Commission and the Appointments Commissioners about what needs to be done to close the gap.

  47. My question was particularly because I have seen it, a chief executive going out and finding a chairman. It also occurs to me, again from observations locally, there is quite a lot of self perpetuation, moving from one body to another, which is why one thinks there is a discussion going on between chief executives. You mentioned, not formally, but clearly there will be informal discussions because you are not going to want to have conflicts in terms of personalities, but how do you resolve that, actually getting a relationship that is going to work, which is fair enough, but where the whole power of scrutiny and leading in a certain direction is not totally undermined?
  (Dame Rennie) I think there are several things there. First of all, I can see the chairman and the chief executive having a conversation about the composition of a board overall and saying, for example, we need a non-executive director who has financial experience because we need someone who has the ability to chair the audit committee. If you have somebody who does not understand anything about finance chairing the audit committee, you might end up with a scandal about the spending of money inappropriately. The chief executive may have a conversation with the chairman, and then the chairman and the chief executive need to have a conservation about how we encourage people to come forward, if there are people in the local community to come forward. I can see there is a legitimate reason for that. In terms of the people moving round from one board to another, there is a balance, I think, to be struck, and each time we have to think about it. If people feel part of what they are about is to give public service and they developed an honourable track record of making a contribution locally to public service, I would not want to deter them by saying you can only do this once or twice and then you are not allowed to. I am concerned there is a kind of musical chairs game sometimes and that people look only internally. Sometimes there are good reasons to say if two bodies are merging we need to have enough corporate memory in the non-executives to ensure that some of the difficult issues being tackled will continue to be tackled well; and then you need make a case for it. It has to be watched very carefully so there is not just a reshuffling of the pack as people move round. I certainly hear this from colleagues in the Scotland, Wales and in Northern Ireland more often than I do in England, but I do hear it in some of the English regions.

Mr Heyes

  48. On that very point, in your introduction you talked about the mix of your team of independent assessors, you said that you thought you were moving towards getting good gender mix and age mix, and so on.
  (Dame Rennie) Sadly not a disability mix.

  49. You did say, perhaps with a hint of pride, that half of your assessors were from the regions, beyond London and the southeast, is that not a dreadful metropolitan bias, should 80 per cent of your assessors not be from the regions or is there good reason why half of them are London based?
  (Dame Rennie) That is an interesting question. We set out to encourage a wider range of people to come forward and we did not set out to say, let us have so many from here, there or else where. Many of the bodies are national bodies and I am concerned that our national bodies might mainly comprise people who live within the locality of London, where those for the national bodies tend to come forward, I am concerned that national bodies have the broadest range of people from the regions. The hint of pride, yes, there is one, because it was hard to get that far. I have not finished.

  50. Are you still pushing?
  (Dame Rennie) I am still pushing. I think I probably got more from the regions than anybody else.

  Mr Heyes: I just wanted to make the point.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  51. I should explain, I am the newest member of the Committee, this is my very first meeting, but I was on the predecessor committee about six years ago with the Chairman. I am also the oldest member of the Committee, and therein lies a hint to the question I have, it seems to me our society are becoming older, people are retiring earlier, there is an immense wealth of talent and skill to be tapped in to for public appointments. I would have thought it would be natural that the composition, the age structure of people—there are at least 30,000 people holding these public appointments—will be not so young. Do you welcome that? Is it the case?
  (Dame Rennie) I do not know about the 30,000, but certainly of the 12,500, or so, that I regulate there is a much larger number of people in the upper age range. I welcome anyone who wants to be involved in public service. I say public service because I think public appointments are part of a much wider territory and that we must think about public service alongside public appointments and encourage people to do a range of things. I will not be encouraging the boards to end up appointing people of any one gender, because they are making decisions that affect whole communities and those whole communities' views and experiences need, more often, to be broadly reflected round that table, because the experience of a few is going to be different to the whole. I would like to see more young people coming forward and I still want to see people being appointed on merit.


  52. Thank you very much. Can I ask one final question, which is, you were set up as this reassurance device to make sure that people felt there was nothing funny going on. Of this funny halfway house we neither have a properly independent appointments system nor one that is left to ministers, we have a system where you do little dipstick exercises and issue guidance, and all of that, why do we not go to one or the other, why do we not go to one that makes this appointment wholly independent? We have done it now with the Health Service, instead of having an NHS Appointments Commission why do we not have an Appointments Commission making all the appointments?
  (Dame Rennie) I do not know. If this was a recommendation of this Committee and it was taken forward then that could happen. I found that so far the Appointments Commission of the NHS is proving to be doing a good job and giving comfort to many of those people who hold appointments and are considering applying. To date it has been a positive experience. One of my principles, indeed the first one, is Ministerial responsibility and these are ministers' appointments and if they became something else then the principles would have to change. I do not know why not. Since this is the very first principle and I am there to uphold, it would be odd for me to say do not let ministers do it any more. However, if others and ministers themselves felt there should be another way to do it then it would be an interesting and a much broader debate, in which I would be happy to take part. As to how can these appointments can be properly made; how the public can be reassured; how we can have good people and how we know people are delivering? That is a much broader question.

  53. Let us regard that as the beginning of our next conversation with you. We have had an extremely interesting session with you, thank you very much, indeed, for coming along.
  (Dame Rennie) Thank you.

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