Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)|
THURSDAY 14 MARCH 2002
Mr Gordon Prentice
160. I am generally pretty sceptical of expert
elites because I think they can screw up, and they do. I just
wanted to ask Graham Mather about government by quango. Are there
any quangos that, in your view, have performed disastrously, and,
if so, why have they performed disastrously? You have done a study
on this, so you would know.
(Mr Mather) I do not believe that there have been
performance levels recently which would qualify as disastrous.
I think that some of the new decision-takers encounter problems.
For example, the gas regulator, Ofgas, in its early existence,
developed very poor relationships, especially with its regulatees.
To some extent, it has been corrected in the move away from a
single regulator who might bark up the wrong tree or get some
personalised antagonism, replacing them with boards. It is very
difficult for a board to be completely perverse, although things
may go wrong in the board. I do not think there have been disasters.
161. You mentioned in your paper the Postal
Services CommissionPostcom. Are they doing a good job?
(Mr Mather) I think they would feeland I would
also feel, that the jury is out, because they are a very newly-established
162. Taking big decisions?
(Mr Mather) I agree with you; they are taking big
and important decisions. Like every other new decision-taker,
they are facing tricky circumstances in which some of the plans
of their regulatee do not seem to strike a chord with the public.
163. What does that mean?
(Mr Mather) Consignia's public statements, it seems
to me, may cause some concern in the public, and they will expect
the regulator to address that. We are seeing that happen in real
time before us now; whether the regulator succeeds, will emerge,
I guess, over the next 12 months.
164. Does the fact that the Government is the
sole shareholder in Consignia make any kind of difference to the
way in which the Government relates to Postcom, the regulator?
(Mr Mather) I suspect that you have identified a conflict
of interest, as we lawyers call it, which could be expected to
cause difficulties, in that there is an obvious incentive.
165. If you were advising us about this conflict
of interest, what would you say?
(Mr Mather) I think that conflicts of interest should
be avoided and removed wherever possible. I would add that the
regulators I talk to, and regulatees alike, say there are often
particular difficulties when the regulator is dealing only with
one organisation; that it is much better if you are a regulatory
board if you are covering five or six regulatees; if you are dealing
with only one, the relationship can become too narrow, too focused,
and there is not enough breadth to it.
166. You are relaxed about us being governed
by quango. In what other areas of public policy do we need frankness?
Do we need "Ofcop", or whatever?
(Mr Mather) I suspect that a national police regulator
would be a desirable innovation in that it would allow some of
the best practice we see in other areas, in gas, electricity and
waterwhich have clearly been in the public interestto
be applied in an area which is obviously an area of no less importance.
It seems to me that the lack of a central focus, the lack of independent
expertise, and the lack of talented people with no axe to grind,
sitting in a board framework in the area of law and order, is
something that ought to be remedied.
167. Can I ask Dame Helena about head-hunters?
I think we should have some head-hunters in front of us in this
Committee! Did you have any sense when you were interviewed by
PriceWaterhouseCoopers that they were following a specific brief
that had been given to them by the department, or was it largely
the case that the head-hunter was just having a rough idea but
was doing a wide trawl?
(Dame Helena Shovelton) This is some years ago, so
I will do my best to recollect accurately what my view was of
that. I actually asked why they had contacted me because it took
me by surprise. They said it was because the department had suggested
this. That is the only thing that I can tell you. I do not know
what their brief was because I never saw that, but I can say that
I believe it would be normal for the department to put people
in positions of head-hunting on a pretty straightforward brief
of how they wanted the job done. I suspect that is likely to be
the case, otherwise what would you be appointing against? Would
you be doing a beauty parade, if you did not have something to
judge them against? I cannot see how you could do that, and that
is traditionally done.
168. How do we get greater diversity in these
public bodies? How do we get Muslim women who are invisible? How
do we get Muslim women into quangos and public bodies? How do
we do something about the under-representation of certain groups?
If you look at Who's Who? the number of people in public
bodies that went to Oxbridge or live in the south of England is
staggering. How do we correct that?
(Dame Helena Shovelton) I think you have to start
within the locality where people are. The sort of thing that I
personally found quite frustrating is thatand forgive me
for harking back to the CAB service, but that is quite good at
identifying different groups of people wishing to be involved
in its organisation, and seeking to operate to provide a service
to a community made up of people from the community in some sot
of balance. That is the aim of most bureaux. In point of fact,
there are many competent people within organisations like CABand
I only talk about that because I know it so welland they
do not get taken on and forward in the way that it would be possible
to do. I think this is wrong. I think all kinds of voluntary bodies
are ones where people are inclined to come forward and get their
teeth first into wanting to help and serve the community, and
being seen as community leaders; but somebody needs to proactively
then go into each geographic area and try and talk to people around
the place. Everybody knows who these people are. You know in every
town you live in who are the movers and shakers and how people
come forward; but you have to go out and say that. One of my best
remembered moments is this. I happen to live in Tunbridge Wells,
which is not well known for being a stronghold of ethnic minority
population. However, I thought it was extremely important that
people who were living in the area, who were from ethnic minority
populations, felt they could visit a Bureau which had people from
the same population, either Muslim women or Hindu men, whichever
it was that was suitable and applicable. I made a point, as a
Bureau manager, in every speech I gave to every single organisation,
even if they were only all-male, all-whiteand I patently
was not saying what needed to be heardof mentioning that
this was an ambition of mine to encourage people into the organisation.
It was a very good moment for me that when the first meeting was
held of the people who lived in Tunbridge Wells who felt they
did not fit into the "all-white" categoryand
it was literally a huge number of different people who joined
that groupthat the very first decision they took was to
say that they would encourage people to come and be advisors in
the CABbecause I was the only person in town who had been
sending that message. You do have to send that message, and you
have to mean it; and then you have to do something.
169. It is not just about races, though, but
about life experience.
(Dame Helena Shovelton) I agree, but I do think there
is a particular issue about people from different minority groups.
That is why I am saying that. I think there is also an issue about
age. Nowadays, anybody who is over 70 feels they have been completely
wasting their lives, but at the same time their health is so much
improved that they are fitter than they have ever been, so where
does that all fit in? There are all kinds of things that do not
stack up in equal opportunities terms. You have to not only send
the message but be seen to be doing it. If you do not, then everybody
believes the message has no purpose.
170. That is very helpful. I would just like
to put the last question to Graham Mather. Does it matter that
groups are under-represented when you believe that quangos should
be run by experts?
(Mr Mather) Yes, indeed, it does matter. I would draw
the distinction between a decision-taking body doing a particular
taskthe Monetary Policy Committee, for exampleand
a representational body. However, I agree entirely with what Dame
Helena said about the techniques. I do not think I can add anything
constructive beyond what she said on techniques to improve diversity,
but I would just point out that at the MPC level you are drawing
on the way society has operated in universities and other agencies;
in the Treasury, you are drawing from a pool which has already
been, we hope, replenished by open access to people and talent
and merit. We should be unabashedly, in my view, meritocratic.
Going back to your earlier question about experts fouling up,
I would not want to be cast as someone who thinks that pointy-heads
or two-brains, who have no connection, should take the key places
in our national lives. In the European Commission, we saw that
a highly elitist body unelected was induced to resign by parliamentary
scrutiny of its failures. I think that is the model. We cannot
say Britain has suffered from too much expertise in those public
service areas that I mentioned, I would suggest, so we need to
tilt that balance, but we need to make absolutely sure that democratic
scrutiny, or control of it, proceeds in line with that.
Mr Kevin Brennan
171. You have both served on quangos at various
times. I have got this friend who wants to get on to a quango.
How would you recommend they go about it?
(Mr Mather) I suppose it is breaking the duck, is
it not, in the existing model? It is coming to the attention essentially
of the departments. How would they do that? They would write to
the Public Appointments Unit and fill in a form and go on the
register. They would, I suppose, seek to get on what Dame Helena
called the lowest rung of the ladder, because I think in practice
it is observation of performance of one body which tends to lead
to appointment on another.
172. Would you agree with that, Dame Helena?
(Dame Helena Shovelton) No, not at allyou have
finally got your total disagreement!
173. How would you go about it?
(Dame Helena Shovelton) I think that the only way
nowadays is to answer advertisements and then prove your worth.
I think that is the only way on to the ladder. You can find other
routes, and people will be put there, but they will all be from
the same selected groups. I have no idea whether your friend is
within or without that circle. From my point of view, I got started
on this because somebody wanted to find a user representative,
so you would go out there and find people from the different categories
and then you look; but nobody knew how to find anybody at that
stage, so there was a desperate search around the place for anyone
who could possibly come forward, and that was how I came through
that system. From that moment on, I was then thought to be within
the circleso then you start to fit into Graham's category.
However, for anybody now starting, I do believe that the largest
number of appointments come within those consumer bodieswhich
are huge numbersthrough the DTI, and they are all round
the country. It is not just London-based, which is a good thing.
The second thing is the Department of Health, because there are
more appointments made through that at local levels than most
others. I think that, genuinely, people are looking for people
with talent and commitment to be able to do those jobs, and that
they are being awarded in such a way that I think it is fair.
If you have the stamina to undertake going through this process,
it can frequently be over a year from when you apply to when you
are appointed. For most people, life has moved onyou may
not even be free to do it. The worst I ever had was going through
something very early on in my life, when I was first appointed
Chair of NACAB and I was seeking, because that was a voluntary
job, to find a way to earn a living. I applied to join CRUC (Central
Rail Users' Consultative Committee)obviously you can see
I was determined! I applied as a result of an advertisement. I
went through a process, quite swiftly, of being interviewed. I
was given the very clear impression when I was interviewed that
I was not a person of merit. I took, therefore, no view of any
future likely appointment to that body. Several months passed.
I saw them advertise again, and several days later I received
the letter telling me that if anything more useful that had happened
in my life since the first appointment, I could willingly send
it to them, but otherwise all first candidates were completely
hopeless. I did not reply. Another five months passed, and I received
a letter saying I was now in the last three. If that is how you
treat people who are going through the process, the likelihood
is that stamina is the thing you need more than anything else,
and a sense of the ridiculous that means you can cope with the
often different and difficult things put in your way.
174. Actually, it was me. I did try applying
once to go on to one of these things, and I failed. I thought
I was quite well qualified and quite expert. As a second choice
I got elected insteadit was a lot easier! Do you think,
Graham, on the basis of what you have written, that I have made
the wrong career choice by going down the elected path, given
the fact that in your paper you say everything now is being run
by quangos, and that you believe that this will happen more and
more? What sort of future is there for elected politicians? What
career, as a relatively newly-elected MP, have I got to look forward
(Mr Mather) I speak very humbly, as someone who has
hopped from one to another on a random basis, but it seems to
me that elected office has something which appointed office can
never give you. Without being too lyrical, the feeling when your
fellow citizens elect you to something, under whatever electoral
system, is a magical one, and it brings its own responsibility,
a much broader one perhaps, or a less focused expertise, but something
that is satisfying in its own terms to an enormous agree. I suspect
that we are seeing the institutions reverting to what they ought
to be doing. It seems to me that it is really a post-war mistake
that ministers, elected politicians, should try to run public
services. The system is not designed for it. They are not very
good at it for reasons of time pressures, and other activities,
expertise and all sorts of other reasons. What elected politicians
are, or ought to be, expert at is holding people to account, reflecting
the views of their fellow citizens, drawing the lines, making
key decisions. It seems to me that Parliament has an opportunity
to become more powerful. We may be seeing a parliamentary renaissance,
internationally, globally. As the power of the quangos and, for
that matter, the non-governmental organisations, the consumer
bodies and the experts, in whatever form, increase, so the need
for elected people skilfully to represent societies and communities,
and hold them to account, increases too.
175. Can I put an alternative view to you. Whilst
I accept what you say, what you are really talking about is the
way central government, the state, is running public services
directly; but would not a better answer than creating a parallel
quango state be to devolve power democratically and centrally,
and have these services run in the old way that you are suggesting
might have existed before, in the great municipal councils or
the devolved bodies in England, Wales and Scotland? Is that not
an alternative way to the quango model?
(Mr Mather) It is an alternative model, and it is
a perfectly valid model. The problem with it, of course, is centralisation.
Effectively, central government has refused to allow its local
counterpart the autonomy to run services in a localised and devolved
way. I suppose the jury is out and the academic work is only just
beginning on Scotland and Wales and the lessons of the assemblies,
but we are already seeing political pressure points when differentiated
servicescare facilities, for exampleare provided.
It seems to jar dramatically with our vision that everyone has
the same sort of service, however under-performing they may be.
I think your model is perfectly possible, but it would require
us to make another step-change which, so far, we have not politically
been prepared to do.
176. Dame Helena, there is an article in the
paperwork from David Hencke in The Guardian who states
that you expressed your frustration in being denied another term
in the top job with no explanation from those who appointed you.
Is it a fair comment that you were frustrated about that?
(Dame Helena Shovelton) I think he decided I was frustrated
rather than that I was frustrated, but that is the way of journalists,
in my experience.
177. Would you accept that if a politician said
they were frustrated because they had been denied a term with
no explanation from the electors, they would be laughed at?
(Dame Helena Shovelton) I think it is entirely different.
Had I been putting myself up for election, I would have been able
to speak for myself and say what my platform was. I would have
been able to go round and convince people that I was the best
person to do the job. I had none of those opportunities either.
That is equally frustrating.
178. I always detect a general fear of democracy,
a fear of the power of democracy and a desire therefore to run
the country by appointment. Am I being terribly unfair?
(Dame Helena Shovelton) You are to me, certainly.
I cannot speak for Graham! I am a tremendous believer in the power
of parliament, and everything that I have ever done
179. Not just parliament, but democracy.
(Dame Helena Shovelton) Well, democracy, and local
democracy as well. I have worked with local government in an extensive
way, and tried to do everything I could to make sure that they
had the power that was properly and rightfully theirs, and argued
often for things to be put in a local context instead of a national
context, so that the power was nearer to the people who could
make the proper rational choice as to whether or not that was
being done well, because they knew the person who was doing it
and could make a judgment in a local context, which is often very
difficult: what has one MP done, compared to another; how do you
know how your MP has done? All those things are hugely difficult.
(Mr Mather) That approach would be unfair to me as
well because I am a humble chronicler of truth, and I have tried
to describe in my work what is happening. I then had a humble
view that these developments are, on the whole, benevolent for
the reasons I have set out. However, I think it is also the case
that if we look at the history at national or local government
level, of trying to provide particular public services, it has
not worked. It seems to me that it would be much better for democracy
if local councillors had the freedom to decide what is in the
interests of their area and the financial resources to back their
bets; and if they want to run a strongly corporate municipal business
plan, a Birmingham model, or if they want to take a very laid-back
rural approach, that should be entirely up to them. That seems
to me to be democracy working. Acting as agents for the central
state, simply administering its decisions, does not seem to me
to have much to do with democracy.