Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 110-119)




  110. Could I, on behalf of the Committee, welcome our witnesses this morning, Dame Helena Shovelton and Graham Mather. It is very kind of you to come along and help us with the inquiry that we are just beginning into the whole public appointments system. You both have both experience and views on it and we would like to tap into those if we could. Would either or both of you like to say something by way of a short introduction?

  (Mr Mather) Thank you very much, Chairman. I think, as you said when you announced this inquiry into government by appointment, unelected people in Britain have a growing power and the public does need to be reassured that that is being bestowed fairly, honestly and with clear lines of accountability. The work I have done on the new decision makers and your work in mapping the quango state I think have a lot in common. I think that the massive transfer of power away from ministers to these new commissions, authorities, agencies, committees, is on the whole a very valuable thing. It brings more expertise, it means more independent people are taking decisions, they have better information, they take more balanced judgments, there is more long-term coherence than would have been the case in the politicised system. But there is a real accountability gap. It seems to me that the way to address this is not to put the process into reverse; it is not to re-inject ministers into decisions which they have handed over for other people, still less would it be to elect those people and thereby turn them into politicians themselves. Instead, it seems to me, we ought to look at the role of parliament. Its core role is of course filling the accountability gap. Civil servants themselves, of course, exercise power without being elected or publicly accountable in the meaningful sense and, in this respect, it seems to me, they are certainly no different from other appointees or, for example, from special advisors. Recently we have seen quite a lot of tension between these two groups, between the old traditional civil servants and the new appointees, and I think it would be a big mistake to weaken the flow of good new ideas into the system because of some internecine warfare between the old civil servants and the new appointees. I believe there are some outstanding people in the new public agencies and in the new units inside government, really profound thinkers with deep policy skills, and it would be very unfortunate if, for example, a new Civil Service Act banished the talented and removed these breaths of fresh air which are trying to make Whitehall work better. I think the new act certainly ought to make it possible to bring talent into the top end of ministries. Here the United States' system has much to offer and, in the same way, I think, to use a very topical example, the means by which Sir Richard Wilson's successor is appointed will send an enormous signal about whether the Government is serious about making Whitehall work better. If a new cabinet secretary had, for example, no experience of Europe, no experience of international economics, no experience of business or no experience of these new decision-making systems, then improvement in Whitehall would presumably be the result of luck or coincidence rather than the application of transferable skills. I would strongly urge the Committee, Chairman, with great respect, to insist that it have the opportunity to do as would happen in the US Senate or in the European Parliament and give the candidate, in a confirmation hearing, a grilling no less rigorous than would-be members of the Monetary Policy Committee, for example, would face at the hands of the Treasury Select Committee.

  111. What an interesting idea. Thank you very much for that. Dame Helena?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I am only here, basically, at your request, to try to provide you with whatever experience I can offer from having been party to playing three roles within the process at which you are looking. I have been an independent assessor, I have been a candidate, both successful and unsuccessful, in various different public appointments, and I have, as Chair of the Audit Commission, actually participated in choosing people and going through the process from that point of view. I am happy to be here to help in any way that I can on any process issues or questions which you have.

  112. Thank you for that. We would like to know, in a nutshell, what you think you have learned about the whole public appointments process and, indeed, the whole public disappointments process from your own experiences.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think it is an extremely long process and one which one needs stamina to go through as a candidate; patience as somebody choosing people actually to be members of a body, on that side of things; and some level of strength as an independent assessor. Each of those roles requires qualities which are, I think, important in terms of the outcomes. I have learned that you really do need to know how the systems work in order to make sure that they work well. That is difficult because it is not immediately obvious to candidates exactly how things will work and how things will happen. Personally, I have learned that going through the process is both rewarding and unrewarding but, at the end, if you are fortunate to be appointed it means that you have a very interesting and rewarding life—not in a monetary sense but in terms of the work that you do.

  113. We shall not stay with this, but it is quite nice to get a concrete feel for this. If you take the process of you being appointed, first of all, to the Lottery Commission, and then to the Audit Commission, could you just tell us how that worked?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) In the case of the Lottery Commission, I was approached by headhunters and asked if I would be interested in doing the job. (There had been a public advertisement system to which I had not replied.) As a result of being contacted by them and conversations that then ensued, my name went forward into the system. I, frankly, do not know how the system then operated because I was not party to that. I was then interviewed, along with others, I know, and I do remember very clearly that it was the day I had been told I had been appointed to chair the Audit Commission and I very nearly withdrew my application as a result.

  114. That might have been a shrewd move.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) Your comment, not mine. As far as I am concerned, it was then a matter, as usual with public appointments, of waiting to see what the outcome of that interview was. I did not go and see a minister for an interview.

  115. Was that done under the Nolan procedure?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) Yes. That was in 1999.

  116. And then the Audit Commission.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) The Audit Commission was a more complex procedure. There had not, I understand, at that stage when I was appointed, been public advertisement, but headhunters once again were involved, different ones—so each process was different. I was told at the beginning of that process that names had been put forward to them by the department, amongst others, and they had also searched for candidates and, as a result of my name being put forward several times and from different directions, I was then interviewed by the headhunter—that was PriceWaterhouseCooper. I then went forward to an interview which was with representatives of the different government departments that are involved; ie, the Department of Health, the DETR (as it was then), and also with an independent assessor. Nobody was represented on that panel from the Welsh Assembly, which would normally have been the case as they are also a deciding body in that particular appointment. I went through that process, I waited a considerable period of time to find out what had happened as a result of that. I was a member of the Commission so I just carried on working as a member of the Commission. From that moment on I was told that I would then be interviewed by ministers and was interviewed by Frank Dobson and Hilary Armstrong. I was told at that stage that not just the three departments had to agree but that consultation would then take place with the GLA, the TUC and the CBI, that although it was public consultation it was private—which I did not quite understand, I did not know what this meant—and although I was not actually told this, I was then informed that Number 10 also played a part in looking at that particular appointment—which I did not find particularly surprising because it is important that the job is put in safe hands—and as a result of all of that I was appointed.

  117. I must say, that does seem a rather—
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) It took a long time.

  118. —Byzantine and bizarre way of appointing a head of the Audit Commission, but can we just move on to ever more interesting territory, when you left these bodies, because one of the things which interests us is not only how people get to run these bodies but how they get to leave them as well. You have had these two very important roles and all reports are that you performed in an exemplary fashion in both of them, yet you departed or had to depart from two of them. You must tell us about this.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) Well, I think it is extremely difficult to "tell" about circumstances like that because they are fundamentally different, for a start. On the lottery situation we had so much legal advice—we had never had a meeting without lawyers for the entire process that we went through to do the choosing—and I felt we had conducted a fair process all the way through, but the courts did not decide that way. I felt it the right and proper and honourable thing to do to offer my resignation on the day of the judicial review to the minister concerned, which I did. He asked me to stay. I attempted to stay; I felt, though, that it was unlikely that the world would believe that we were as an organisation capable of making a fair decision if I was still at the head of it. I thought it was important that the decision was made fairly and well. Perceptions are very important, I think, particularly to the players of the lottery as much as anything else. So, from my point of view, I thought about what was the most sensible thing to do. I thought it important that we did not all go, that four people at least needed to stay for continuity's sake to be able to do this. We were all supposedly equal: we rotated the chair every year, so you were never in the chair long. I thought about it quite hard over a period of time and I felt that it was probably right and proper and the best thing to do if I went and then they could appoint a new and totally separate person who had never been part of the first process to head it up. I went and said that to Chris Smith and offered my resignation.

  119. So nobody leant on you to go?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) Absolutely not. Nobody leant on me.

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