Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)



  120. Just a mess and you thought it best to go.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I just thought it was the right and proper way out of it from the point of view of the fact that I think the lottery is a very important thing in this country: it is important to the people who play, it is important to the bodies that get the money, and, frankly, it should not get to the point where one's own sense of self and ego gets in the way.

  121. OK. That is the lottery; take us on to the Audit Commission.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) The Audit Commission, I knew when I was appointed for a three-year term that there would be a decision on whether I stayed on. I had no idea how that decision would be made and I had no conversations on the subject with anybody in the department. I was asked by one of the civil servants if I wished to carry on, which I said I did, until I had a meeting with the minister, who told me that my performance was good but they had decided not to give me another term.

  122. Hearing this news, you said what?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I did not say very much. I have never thought it very good to keep arguing the point when decisions are made.

  123. It must have struck you as odd to be told that your performance was very good but they did not want you to carry on.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) Yes. "Odd" is perhaps a reasonable word.

  124. And you cannot throw any more light on this.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I honestly cannot. I understand that one is supposed to be appraised, but I was not involved in that appraisal system, so I do not know what system took place. I cannot honestly tell you that; I can only tell you the outcome.

  125. The interesting point here is: does this lead you to think there are some difficulties about the re-appointment process in some of these jobs if this kind of thing can happen?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think it could be helpful to people who are in the post and for the organisation to be given a period of time where it is possible to appoint a successor, so that people either know if they are going or know if they are staying and so that there can be a continuity in the way an organisation is run. I was told that I was not going to have my appointment renewed in August and I was due to leave at the end of November. I worked straight through, as I hope people would have expected of me, in a conscientious fashion until the end of November. My deputy, who has full-time work elsewhere, was not able to work for very long as the chair instead. I do not know this but I think it must be very difficult for her now, if she has been facing a considerable period of time where she needs to chair the Audit Commission. But that is supposition rather than knowledge.

  126. Three years seems to me to be a terribly short period of appointment anyway. Would it not be better to have a longer period of single appointment, then perhaps leave open the question of re-appointment after that?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I would personally find that, as a candidate or a person in the post, helpful. The only similar experience I have had of chairing an organisation over a longer period of time is the Citizens' Advice Bureau, which, interestingly, has annual elections. You have to go up in front of the entire CAB service, which, I have to say, for the faint hearted, is not something to be recommended—it is very direct when you can see everybody voting precisely how they wish in front of you—however, having survived that cauldron of experience, they felt that if somebody was the right person and they were going to back them, the chances were that five years was the right period of time. Certainly in terms of effecting change and doing different things, five years was the period that it took to do that rather than three years. If I had left the CAB service after three years, I would not have been able to do some of the things that I was able to do. So I think a period of time is important and helpful to the person in office and to the organisation for knowing what is going on. I also think it was very useful in the CAB service that you knew at the end of five years you would go. There was absolutely no question about this—this was not to do with performance, you could have gone before—but, as far as I was concerned, I knew that was coming to an end, I could plan, I could make sure there was an election between people coming afterwards and you felt you were leaving the organisation in a sort of controlled and efficient fashion, which, when you have done a good and big job, is actually of value to you. It is what you leave behind rather than what you do at the time that is important and how that then carries on going.

  127. Just to be clear, your non re-appointment to the Audit Commission remains a complete mystery to you.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) Well, I think it probably would have gone entirely unremarked but for the fact that I said . . . I mean, if you noticed—and it may be you did not notice—I was not the person who ever was the one going to the press at the Lottery Commission. I am not the one that seeks to go to the press or seeks to have a high profile in that regard. I did not seek to do anything particularly when I left. What I did find difficult was that people were saying that I had wanted to go and I had not wanted to go. Everybody who knew me knew that was not true and therefore I found that difficult and felt the need to correct it.

  128. But you still cannot throw any more light on the whole decision?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) No. I have been told all kinds of extraordinary rumours. I have no reason to know whether they are true or not and I do not think it would be either fair or proper to share them with you.

  129. I cannot promise that my colleagues do not have a taste for extraordinary rumours! But thank you for that. Could I just ask Graham Mather one question. When I read your booklet, which I enjoyed very much, as I was reading it I thought this was a tract against what was happening and I was getting quite involved in the argument. Then, suddenly, at the end, you tell us that this is ". . . one of the most promising developments in British public life since the last war" and I was a bit thrown by that. I wonder if you were really of divided mind here.
  (Mr Mather) I think that the question really ought to be approached from the perspective of why it is happening. This process can only be happening if two groups of people are content with it. One of those groups are ministers: they have handed over these responsibilities to the appointees voluntarily. The other group are civil servants: they have at least acquiesced in this process and they show an enthusiasm for it. I think my view is that it is benevolent because it means that people who have careers with greater experience in these very complex and technical and often politically risky issues are operating in a format in which they can take good decisions while ministers can increase the amount of time they spend on things which are more congenial, that some of us call the showbiz aspects: the networking and presentation and even spinning. The civil servants, I think, feel that it brings in more talent and expertise which they do not have within the civil service and also for them it is rather like having royal commissions in permanent session: you have responsible bodies which, provided they are satisfied with the appointments to them, are likely to have longer term strategies, be less politicised, have fewer legislative delays than the departmental system. So my view is probably, therefore, the same as the implicit view of those two groups: that this is a good thing and it would not have happened if it was not a good thing.

  Chairman: That is fascinating. This was reported as a great indictment of the appointee state yet it sounds if you are an enthusiast for it. You want to do a bit of fine tuning and make it work better, but on the whole it is splendid.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  130. Mr Mather, you wrote that pamphlet in 2000. Have your views been reshaped or changed in any way since then?
  (Mr Mather) I suppose to one degree. There is some incoherence in this system which is beginning to become apparent—and I wrote an article recently highlighting, for example, that in the health area there seem to be nine interlocking bodies which have some responsibility for improving health standards and a tenth, the Commission for the Quality of Health Care, most recently appointed in order to bring together the work of the other agencies in this field. I think I would simply say that there are signs that incoherence may be breaking out; that the model itself may be rather a good one but if you set up bodies which have vague powers, which overlap, which interact with each other with no-one holding responsibility—I called it the "snoopocracy", everyone is checking on everyone else—it is in a way an excessive audit function out of control, then I would put in that caveat, that I believe in those circumstances there may be more confusion than benefit.

  131. Dame Helena, I respect the point you made about you do not want to speculate on why you were not re-appointed to the Audit Commission, but may I put it perhaps not very diplomatically but less confrontationally: I suspect you will have some pretty colourful views about the role of politicians in the appointments process now.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) No, not really. I think politicians play roles as ministers, which is that they seek to choose the person whom they think will best put forward the way in which they want that organisation to run. I do not think that is surprising. I have been appointed by two governments, not one, so, as far as I am concerned, the only line that I felt I had particularly to offer in going for public appointments was a knowledge of users (which not very many people have in the level and depth that I have) and the ability to articulate that, and, secondly, I genuinely cannot think of when I have ever been associated with any one party, and therefore I am entirely independent of the political system in a direct representational way, and so that can be useful in making appointments of this kind of nature for reasons that you are outlining.
  (Mr Mather) Chairman, if I might just come back to your point about fixed term appointments. I am a member of the Competition Commission Appeal Tribunal at the moment. We were appointed after some human rights cases in Scotland had raised the issue of independence. As a result of those, the members were appointed for two consecutive terms of four years, from which they could only be removed after a report from a High Court judge suggesting some impropriety, but the members cannot be re-appointed for further terms. It seems to me that to some extent this procedure, which is used in central banks around the world, quite long terms with no re-appointment thereafter, may achieve the best of all possible worlds, because it may protect against too short appointments with apparently questionable decisions on re-appointment or non re-appointment, and yet in the mind of the holder of the office it means that they really do feel able to operate without fear or favour, with their minds completely off the question: "If I do this, I probably won't be re-appointed."
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I do not work on the appeal side of the Competition Commission, I work on the reporting side of it, so that I am undertaking an inquiry, for instance, at the moment, and I was re-appointed without question during the same period when I was not being re-appointed in another department.

  132. I have just one more question to put to both of you, if I may. It is a sort of an omnibus question. We are told that there are 30,000 public appointments and we understand that about 809 per cent of them are unpaid. Is it your view that because relatively few are remunerated this might not attract the somewhat high calibre people who would serve well? Or do you think the balance is roughly right, that some appointments clearly have to be paid because they demand a tremendous amount of time, whereas many others just a marginal amount of time? I say that with qualification because I know that non executive directors of health authorities, for example, are paid £5,000 a year and that has been the case for 10 years. It has not changed. I would just like to explore your views on this. With your background in the Citizens' Advice Bureau, Dame Helena, it is clear that your interest in serving the public was formed in trying to help people with their problems when you were involved with the CAB and you became national chairman. What is your general view about whether we should recommend that there should be a more constant approach in the form of remuneration or not?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think, interestingly, it less important at the senior level than it is at getting the width and breadth of people actually to join in in the first place. It is absolutely vital for most people to earn a living. It takes a considerable time to undertake most public appointments and most people do not have the luxury of being able to do that without being paid. I know certainly I was not in that position. I can remember clearly a moment at the Audit Commission—which at that time when I was first appointed was my only paid employment, where I was paid the princely sum of £3,000, which a year is not exactly enough to live on—when there was debate around the table because others were embarrassed at being paid so much, because they felt it was wrong in public service terms that they should be paid £3,000, and there was an article in the Guardian saying that we were all fat cats for getting so much money. It is extremely difficult within all of that to express a viewpoint with colleagues round the table that says, "It is really important for me to earn enough money to do this job and I cannot do it unless I am paid." You may be in the minority and therefore it is more difficult to be able to say that. My own view is that if you wish actually to bring people into the public sector to do public appointments, and really to encourage a very large number of people to come into that who perhaps are not engaged and not disposed to do so or who cannot start at a local level because they do not get onto the sort of first rung of the ladder, then you really have to address the issue of pay because, without that, people cannot find the time and cannot make the time to be able to do the work. From a personal view it is different, but from a generalist view I think pay is an absolutely integral, equal opportunities issue of the public appointments system. I always have felt that. I heard recently something that made me extremely nervous because I know that nowadays users are wanting to be involved more and more, that different ways of looking at committees are being looked at so that "professionals" would be remunerated but users who came along might not be. This is quite wrong. It is like somehow there is a second group of people who can just come along with experience and that is what is needed and valuable but their time is not. Everybody's time is valuable, so for those people, it is probably the most important thing of all.

  133. That is very helpful.
  (Mr Mather) Could I draw a very sharp distinction between the two groups of bodies, one which are decision-taking bodies and one where what is being sought is representation of a wide range of people to become involved in the organisation. At one end of the scale let us say it is a board member of the new OFCOM communications' regulator; at the other it might be a local body of a community nature. In the first case, it seems to me, it is terribly important that those people are paid at market rates, that they are fully compensated, that the search is really to find those few highly able individuals who can do those jobs better than anyone else. At the other end of the scale, the representational role—which is perhaps more akin to a university council, a voluntary body bringing together the community and a range of validating skills—it seems to me it is perfectly understandable not to pay. I think in those cases many people will be prepared, subject of course to the time constraints which Dame Helena mentioned, to give their services without the charge and represent a range of community dimensions and we should accept that gratefully and gracefully.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I would not necessarily agree, but Graham and I frequently do not, so that is not the issue. We always find a way of disagreeing while at the same time getting on perfectly amicably, which is quite an interesting thing. I think it is more than just pay. I think there are issues to do with paid holidays: if you are paid on a daily basis, you never get a paid holiday. There are issues to do with pensions which are absolutely endemic in all public appointments. None of them are pensionable. In a world where we are all concerned about pensions and where every time you work for a public body you get no employer's contribution to your pension is quite a thing to have if that is your main income. There are many people who are now doing portfolios where that is, indeed, the case and the portfolio adds up to an income, which is fine—you know, you can do that, but you do work extremely hard, which nobody every believes, but that is fine—but there is no way in which you can then actually make the sort of provision which anybody who is working in any other kind of job at that level would expect as a right to make. So there are some basic inequalities in the way it is thought through and between departments, because the rates of pay are so radically different in different departments.

Brian White

  134. I remember when I worked for Abbey National, they used to give me a day's paid leave to be a councillor. That is very rare. Is not the whole question of public appointments excluding people with real jobs? It is a set group of people who have aspirations to be in politics, who find a whole group of public appointments which gives them a reasonable living that allows them to do these kind of things? It is a very narrow band of people from which you are actually able to select.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I am a great believer in selecting on merit but I do think you need the field to be as wide as possible. There is no doubt in my own mind and from the numbers of different people I know who are competent that they just cannot go into this work because either they cannot get time off work to do it or, alternatively, they are not going to be paid enough within it to satisfy their employers that if they hand over that it compensates for their actions.

  135. I was interested in reading Graham's paper—and I got quite worried, because I actually agreed with a lot of what you wrote and it really worried me, but never mind. In a general election you have a complete change in direction within the country but, fundamentally, decisions of most of the public service will not change because there are all these appointed bodies who have their own agenda, which is not necessarily the agenda of the government—and I am not saying which way that government has gone. Is that not a fundament problem for our democracy: so why should people vote?
  (Mr Mather) I believe it is both a problem for the old model of democracy as well, on the other side, as a potential advantage. I say that because we have all been party to debates where people have said, "We must end this swing from one party to another with dramatic changes of policy"—it was very common in the 70s and 80s: one minute they are nationalising, the next minute they are privatising. Now, happily, we have a consensus in many of these areas. We all believe in the market, and that is why you may have found a surprising number of things to agree with in my paper. So I think we are all market supporters now. I am not unaware, however, of a particular problem, and we see that by comparing the American system with ours. If we have given away powers to unelected bodies which have got quite long-term agendas and then the elected part of the system decides it wants to change course quite dramatically, it may, as you suggest, find it very difficult to do that. It may find it difficult to call back power from the unelected. The thrust of this paper is that politicians ought to think about the rules by which they can call back power. They ought, for example, to use public service agreements and service delivery agreements with the agencies to set out what the old department system expects; they ought to build in arrangements for what happens if something goes wrong (as the Monetary Policy Committee has an arrangement with the Chancellor of the Exchequer); they ought to agree concordats (again, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed a concordant with Sir Howard Davies of the Financial Services Authority about how it will carry out its role). So it is now over to the elected politicians to make sure that by taking their eye off the ball they have not lost control in a way in which they would find difficult to get back and would lead to democratic deficit problems.

  136. I always use the example of the electricity regulator and the gas regulator, where the electricity regulator thought that environmental considerations were quite properly a part of their remit, whereas OFGAS chose the opposite conclusion, that environmental considerations were outwith their remit. As a result we have OFGEM. That was two regulators in effectively the same industry coming to two totally different conclusions against the different groups who were trying to hold both of those regulators to account and could not get them to change their views, whichever way they wanted them to go. Is that not one of the issues that we need to address?
  (Mr Mather) I believe it is. The regulators recently at European Policy Forum gatherings have complained that in many cases now it is not clear who takes those difficult environmental or social decisions. Are they as regulators expected to take them? Does the department wish to take them? Or has the department left it in a sort of limbo where on a touch-feely basis they will respond to political pressures? The regulators tend to believe, in my opinion, that we are now in that third box: it is too touchy-feely, and that the respective roles of central departments and the regulatory industries ought to be clarified. I think it is important that this happens quite quickly or else we will run into difficulties of the sort mentioned.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) May I add something to that. I think one of the interesting things is when you are on the regulatory side is that what you constantly do is to go back to the legislation to see where your remit lies. Quite often the problem is with the way that the legislation has been cast or written, such that things have not been clarified. I think this is a very real issue for the way in which those different acts are brought together. That is where I would seek the absolute need for clarity at that stage, as to how you wish the regulator to take things forward. I do not know anybody within the regulatory world who is not doing that (ie, searching in the legislation to see the route forward) because they all wish to do this in the right and proper way but it is not often clear.

  137. Should this relationship between the appointed state and accountability be part of the proposed civil service bill that we are talking about? Is that the vehicle for taking it forward?
  (Mr Mather) Some are already in the sectoral pieces of legislation, as Dame Helena mentioned. If it were to be addressed in the Civil Service Act, I think the drafters of that would have to be very careful to make sure that they captured exactly what is in the separate sectoral legislation and did not inadvertently set up some other cross-currents or incoherences.

  138. My final question is on the relationship between those who are appointed on to boards of groups like CAB, and people who are advocating on behalf of a user group or a disadvantaged group, whatever the issue is. How do you get that level of accountability from the appointed people to the people who actually end up using the service?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think it is almost impossible to get that right. I think you can try very hard to get different users in different ways and expand on their ability to participate. I think it often happens at local level well—tenants representatives, for instance, on housing associations—but you do have to accept on the whole that bodies will be representing people to do this and the bodies themselves can have, of course, agendas to which they operate. So I think it is very difficult. What I have always found interesting is how an awful lot of saying what users want and need is a matter of checking back and making sure that you are properly consulting with people who will have particular views. For instance, my life has now moved on and I am working for the British Lung Foundation and it would be essential, within that, if I was to represent users' views to a select committee then I would want to have gone back and checked with the people who are the users with whom we would be involved. I would not wish to represent a view that was my view rather than theirs.

  139. This move to the consumer panels within various things is not a useful way forward then.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) The same people, I think, often, on the way round. That is the difficulty. There seem to be smaller numbers of people in the consumers/users' world that people can get forward to do representative work.

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