Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-461)



  440. All I am trying to establish is that when that happens, and it does happen and it should happen, is there a procedure by which an official would record the fact that a minister has suggested a particular name, and the name might be suitable, it might not be but it might be suitable, and then later on in the process it is clear where that suggestion has come from so that the Commissioner can actually be aware of how the name was originally suggested?
  (Mrs Roche) I suppose it would depend on how that suggestion was made. If it was a sort of "oh, so and so might be interested", that might get recorded in the Private Secretary's note, it might not.
  (Ms Ghosh) The straight answer is there is no formal procedure, as far as I am aware. The whole point is once a person has got in through the door, or rather put in their application, in a sense you would not want them to be flagged up "this is a ministerial case", you would want everybody to be considered on the same flat playing field.

  441. I am not talking about it being on their application, I am talking about when Dame Rennie Fritchie is doing her job of monitoring the propriety and the methods that are used to appoint people to public bodies, would she be aware of that?
  (Ms Ghosh) Not necessarily.
  (Mrs Roche) Not necessarily.

  442. Do you think she ought to be in order to do her job?
  (Mrs Roche) Certainly if there was a feeling on behalf of the officials or the independent assessors that there had been an impropriety, or even the suggestion, then of course Dame Rennie should be involved. As I understand it, Chris is the expert here, that is how Dame Rennie's relationship with the independent assessors works, is it not, they are her eyes and ears?
  (Mr Leslie) That is right, but ultimately ministers are responsible and accountable for who they appoint and if a minister feels that they want to make a particular appointment then they account to Parliament for that, that is the way the system works.

  443. I am just thinking in terms of complete openness and transparency, which is what we desire, as to whether that piece of information is a relevant one for the Commissioner to consider. I do not know what my opinion is on that, I just wonder what your view is.
  (Ms Ghosh) When she does her post hoc audit of the appointment she would have access to all the relevant papers. If it were a case where that was formally recorded obviously she would be able to pick that up. As the Minister said, if the minister happened to say "you might consider so and so, he" she, I hope, "might be the right person", it is so informal that you would not necessarily have a record of it.

  444. We had some interesting evidence last week from Mark Thomas, the comedian, I suppose, cum journalist or whatever, who made an interesting suggestion about some public appointments, that they might be done by some sort of lottery, perhaps we should consider a random selection. I noticed recently with all the economic problems in Argentina they actually had a game show whereby the prize at the end of it was a job rather than money.
  (Mrs Roche) The Minister of the Economy.

  445. If you want to get genuine diversity rather than self-selection into these sorts of bodies is not the answer perhaps some sort of random selection, go out there, find them, ask them, train them and pay them?
  (Mr Leslie) I watched the Mark Thomas Product on television, bits of it, last night.

  446. I missed it. Did we get on?
  (Mr Leslie) You were featured actually.

  447. Thank you, I did not know that.
  (Mr Leslie) I noticed the suggestion about a jury style selection. My own view is that that obviously would radically conflict with the principle of appointment on merit, that is getting the best person, the best qualified person, for the job. Obviously there are certain situations with juries where you have a trial by your peers and so on, but if you look at the list of public bodies some of them are very specialist scientific advisory groups and it would be very dubious whether we would be serving the nation well if we selected those at random. I can see the concept involved, that you might increase diversity, but you might also have a detrimental effect on other areas.

  448. What he said to us in evidence last week was that the way he sees it part of the problem with public bodies is everybody comes from a similar background, and you are trying to overcome that with some of the things you have described. He said "They will not share exactly the same points of view but they will have a similar value system. What you want on there are people who do not have those values, who ask the wrong questions, who have to have things explained and who have to start from scratch." Is there not any argument that you can see for, I am not saying appointing whole bodies in that way but for having an element of random selection to bring a little bit of grit into the oyster?
  (Mr Leslie) I think there is merit in having lay people on the boards of some of the very specialist committees to serve precisely that purpose, a non-executive director function of asking questions, making sure things are explained in plain English, making sure that the specialists account to those who are non-specialist on those particular boards as part of the dialectic process that goes on in those public bodies. I think you have got to get the balance right and most people in this country would want the best people for the job on some of these particular public bodies.
  (Mrs Roche) I know Dame Rennie was saying, and this may have cropped up in some of the informal seminars that you have had, about the example of some of the lottery bodies with the lottery numbers who had done it and a random selection of people but then interviewed them to see if they fit into some process.

  449. Apparently a barrister won on the lottery and it did not really work.
  (Mrs Roche) There is nothing wrong with barristers, they have a role to play in life.

  450. Just to probe one more time on this. Would you consider having some pilots maybe on an element of random selection to some bodies? If we are saying that the qualifications that are needed in order to decide whether somebody is guilty or not guilty of murder is to be a random citizen, that you have sufficient expertise to be chosen at random as a citizen, is it not the case that in order to serve on one of these public bodies you could be a citizen?
  (Mr Leslie) But if you are the Advisory Committee on Ancient Wrecks and Monuments and you want to select from the totality of the country at large, I do not know, you have got to look at who you are selecting from amongst. Also the propensity of people to want to get involved is important. Those boards that will want to look at increasing their own diversity will obviously be able to consider for themselves their own composition and make recommendations if they wish to broaden out, if they wish to look at things like this, that is what they have done in the National Lottery situation.
  (Mrs Roche) Just one comment and one observation on that. The point with a jury is an interesting area but what a jury is charged with is not to make a finding on the law but to make a finding on fact as citizens applying some sort of test, it is a finding of fact. What I think we require from appointments on public bodies is to add value. Something that comes out very, very strongly from the seminars from those women who are members of the black and ethnic minorities who have got on to public bodies and have then come along to the seminars to say how they have done it, their advice is you do turn yourself not into the overwhelming expert but being able to ask the searching and the penetrating questions and you do gain experience from being on a public body which may well equip you to get on to a public body which could be more difficult technically, but using those analytical skills that you have acquired from another body you can do that. As a lay representative it allows you to at least put those questions to people who have the technical expertise.


  451. Just very, very quick. Our new friend, Mr Thomas, and this was the main burden of what he said to us, said it is all right having these codes that say all these bodies should have registers of interest and things like that, but in fact when you do a bit of work on it you find that they are not properly reported, it is a bit hit and miss what people report on. Who is monitoring this? He says that you cannot go to Dame Rennie Fritchie because it is not her territory to look at this kind of thing. Do we not need to do a bit better than this to give the public confidence in the system?
  (Mr Leslie) I had a look through the evidence that he supplied to you when he appeared before you and I dug out the guidance that we have issued from the Cabinet Office to public bodies about requirements for registration of interests and conflicts of interest. I think it is quite clear that there are requirements for members of public bodies to comply with the law and also to comply with best practice and have those registers kept. Certainly I will want to look a bit more at what we can do to record those efforts made by public bodies to open up their proceedings, to be more transparent about their membership. I think in the next edition of the volume we produce to public bodies I will certainly want to see some level of summary included about transparency and openness.

  452. The point is if people are not doing it, or it is being done imperfectly as the evidence seems to suggest, what happens now? What can you do about it?
  (Mr Leslie) I have certainly started to look through the evidence provided and I think we will discuss it with our departmental colleagues who have responsibility for those particular public bodies and look to see whether there are any intractable difficulties. I have not spotted anything earth shattering. We have got to keep bearing down to make sure that we do have open registers and interests, I think that is an important principle, I certainly would not quibble with that.

  Chairman: We have not got time to explore this in greater depth. Michael?

Mr Trend

  453. The Chairman indicated earlier that we might cover other subjects and I would like to ask the Minister a specific question about a slightly different matter which touches upon her responsibilities. We heard earlier from the Parliamentary Secretary that we were going to have the White Paper on regional government in due course and he smiled.
  (Mr Leslie) I smile a lot.

  454. I am sure somewhere at the back of his mind he knows.
  (Mrs Roche) Shortly I think the Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday.

  455. If there is a date in the back of his mind there will be a flag going up saying "For God's sake don't say 5 June" and that is the way the Government works, it properly has its own confidential information. I wonder if the Minister heard Mr Blunkett on the Today Programme this morning?
  (Mrs Roche) I did not, no.

  456. He was on twice, once around the words he chose to use yesterday, in which I thought he was very robust, but he was also on on the question of a document which has appeared in today's Guardian, a leaked document I suppose, about questions to Lord Rooker in the House of Lords, what Lord Rooker should or should not say. The advice was not to mention a matter which had been very controversial for some Liberal Democrat peers as far as I understand, and I am not an expert on this at all, legislation was involved and clearly the Government was protecting its position. But when given these facts, and David Blunkett clearly knew all about this matter, he chose to attack the civil servant and blamed the civil servant for writing such a silly thing and it was a reprehensible thing to do. In recent times there have been a number of examples of government ministers turning on civil servants who are unable to reply for themselves or defend themselves in specific cases. It may well be in some cases that civil servants are to blame but the previous view that government should not blame individual civil servants appears to be becoming somewhat weaker as time goes on. I wonder if the Minister could at least consider that the government has a responsibility to protect the people who serve the government and not to leave them out to dry in the way that I think the Home Secretary was doing this morning. It is too easy to blame the civil servants.
  (Mrs Roche) I think you raise an extremely important subject. I do think that the subject is an important one. I did not hear the interview this morning. I was in my office and, sadly, the only deficiency I can find about the Cabinet Office is that the aerial on my radio is so bad that I can hardly get a reception, but there you go. I do not agree with almost the overall picture that you paint of relationships between officials and civil servants. I understand completely the point that you make that officials are there to serve and cannot answer for themselves. I can only speak from my own experience of a number of different government departments to say that I do not think that this Government could have got off to such a good start as it did in 1997 without the help and support of the Civil Service. I thought it was quite remarkable how they could suddenly implement a programme in the robust and professional manner that they did. Speaking for my ministerial colleagues, we are grateful to them. I think that the system works best when there is confidence and respect on all sides. In my general experience I think that is generally the case.

  457. The point I am trying to make is that any of us who have been at all close to government know what politicians ask for and need and require is notes of what to say, what to say if pushed, what to say if pushed very hard, what not to say, what never to say. That is just grown-up stuff, that is how it works. When a politician is caught out on this, to turn around and casually say the civil servant is reprehensible is too easy. I think there is a tendency in government, modern government, your Government, to do this more than was the case in the past. I can think of other examples but this may not be the relevant occasion to go into them.
  (Mrs Roche) I do not think this is the case. I think that generally ministers appreciate the fact that generally speaking there is a whole reform that needs to be done, the whole thing about modernising government, but generally speaking we are extremely well served by our officials.

  458. I would be content if you just heard what I said and would consider if in this case, and perhaps in others, people could be more careful because it does cause a tension.
  (Mrs Roche) Of course, Mr Trend, I note what you say.


  459. I have a few more questions. I want just to ask about the question of payment to people on public bodies, which seems to me to be a recurrent issue. We have not really got time to do it properly now but very quick answers would be appreciated. Would it not help first of all if there was more standardisation because this is a completely random situation at the moment as to which bodies you get remuneration on and of what kind? Does this mess not need sorting out?
  (Mrs Roche) It certainly came up from the DTLR research.
  (Mr Leslie) We need to be fairly grown up about it and rather than take potshots at appointees to public bodies, who I think do a lot of good work, often on a voluntary basis, we need to recognise if payment needs to be a consideration to enable us to broaden diversity, to particularly engage lower income groups and wider, more diverse social backgrounds then we do need to eventually look at that much more closely. It is too easy to sometimes throw figures around on salaries and remunerations. I do think we need to have a more sophisticated debate about it.

  460. Why do we not just cut through all the target stuff on diversity and say that we should have straight quotas and that there will be equity for men and women? At least all the bodies will know what they have to do to do their job and go out and do it.
  (Mrs Roche) If you go for a quota line you then come up against the question of appointment on merit. I think those targets are achievable but what you need to do is put in the positive measures in order to achieve them. I think that is the best way.

  461. Okay. I wanted to get on to a whole lot of other stuff on the Cabinet Office, PSAs, performance targets, external reporting, league tables, but unfortunately we cannot. It has been very kind of you to come along, we have had a very interesting and useful discussion. Thank you for the offers to supply more information to us.
  (Mrs Roche) If you would like to come to the seminars we would be very happy to welcome Members of the Committee there.

  Chairman: I think we are discussing this as a possibility anyway. We thank you for your invitation. Thank you very much indeed.

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