Examination of Witness (Questions 560-579)|
THURSDAY 9 MAY 2002
560. It was done through open competition. It
was advertised. I applied. The interviews were chaired by Sir
Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary. There was another Permanent
Secretary, one current part-time Commissioner and two people from
the outside. Once the decision was made, it was a process that
had to be cleared with the Prime Minister and I think also with
the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Then it had to
be approved by the Privy Council, who, as you know, look at the
Orders in Council. At least, I think that was the process.
561. So the primary selection was really done
by civil servants.
(Baroness Prashar) Yes.
562. I am not critical of that at all. It is
arguable whether the Civil Service, the political part of the
government or Parliament, or indeed the Privy Council would be
more able to produce an independent person, and I suspect it would
depend on different circumstances at different times. How big
is your staff?
(Baroness Prashar) Currently, there are altogether
15 Commissioners, including myself. I work three days a week and
the others are part-time, and that depends on the number of competitions.
But we do meet as a group once a month.
563. What sort of back-up do you have?
(Baroness Prashar) We have a small Office of the Civil
Service Commissioners. There is a Secretary to the Commissioners,
but he has other responsibilities. He is also responsible for
the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the House of Lords Appointments
Commission and business appointments. Then there are two other
people who manage the organisation of competitions and keep under
review the recruitment code. I have a secretary and some other
support staff. I think in total it is about seven.
564. As far as I can see, there are two main
parts to your job. One is to make sure that recruitment is done
properly and the other is to act as a whistle-blower's confidant.
How are you convinced at the end of the year that you have taken
as much care as one can to ensure that patronage is not being
used in an improper way?
(Baroness Prashar) We do that through chairing competitions
which go out to the outside, and by doing that we act as custodians
of those principles. By chairing competitions, we guard the integrity
of the process. Then we audit competitions which we are not directly
involved in. That is one side of it. On the question of appeals
under the Code, I believe that our powers are restrictive, because
we cannot initiate inquiries; we have to depend on a civil servant
complaining to us, lodging an appeal with us after they have exhausted
the internal regime. Other than that, it is very difficult. It
is a narrowly defined role at the moment.
565. On the second of these duties, you are
not able to be proactive, but on the first, could you have an
investigation of your own? If you thought something had been done
improperly, that patronage had been exercised improperly, could
you call for files or start an investigation?
(Baroness Prashar) If our audits on posts other than
in the senior Civil Service throw up something, I would certainly
write to the Permanent Secretary concerned, and draw their attention
to that, but I have to say that, since I have been there, there
really have not been any serious concerns in terms of patronage,
in terms of recruitment. At the senior level, because we are directly
involved, it may help to explain to you the process. Once a decision
has been made that a particular competition is going to go out,
the Department would get in touch with us. I personally chair
the most senior Civil Service competitions and the Commissioners
will chair Grade 2 and Grade 3. We look at the job description,
make sure that the advertisement to go out is clear and open,
the pay scales are right and so on. We would then get involved
in the whole processlong-listing, short-listing and interviewsand
ultimately the selection panels make a recommendation. We would
list candidates in order of merit. As you know, if a minister
chooses not to accept the first candidate, we have to re-open
the competition. There has been a question about the level of
ministerial involvement. Ministers have an involvement in so far
as at the outset the Department or the head hunters can talk to
them about the kind of person they are looking for, and they are
kept informed at the listing stage, but they cannot say, "I
would like a particular person." They can make an input into
the kind of person they are looking for. There is a very measured
involvement of ministers, but they do not have a choice at the
end of the day.
566. Is it possible to quantify in some crude
way how often there is disagreement between ministers and panels
who choose people for their consideration?
(Baroness Prashar) It does not happen often, and again,
I can only speak for the last 18 months since I have been First
Commissioner. We have not had to re-open a competition for this
567. Your views on possible changes to arrangements
in the Civil Service came over very clearly in your speech to
the House of Lords, which I have read. The entire version has
been circulated. Can I ask a question about the second part of
your responsibilities, when civil servants feel there is nowhere
else to go. You have dealt with four cases. Do you publish details
(Baroness Prashar) Yes, in our Annual Report we would
publish the appeals that we have handled, but we do not name the
departments or the individuals.
568. It is probably fruitless to ask this question,
but I will try nonetheless. There has been a cause célèbre
in one government department in recent weeks, and this has been
the most difficult moment between the Civil Service and the Government
for, I should think, at least a decade. I can think of other examples
when a government which I supported was in power when there were
very difficult passages. It is not unique to this government at
all, but it does happen from time to time, and has the potential
for damaging political careers very seriously but also Civil Service
careers; it can be very unfair on the civil servants, who are
not able to defend themselves in the way that politicians can
and do. Would it be possible to indicate whether this once-in-a-generation
cause célèbre came within your purview? Did
somebody bring this to you? Did they regard you as a point of
arbitration or perhaps of conciliation in what has been a very
difficult passage? Were you involved in this?
(Baroness Prashar) The answer is no, but I have to
say, repeating what I said earlier, that we are the last port
of call. If a civil servant feels that there has been a breach
of the Civil Service Code, they have to go through the internal
procedures first, and if they are dissatisfied, then they come
to us. We are the last port of call.
569. Can I go back to the Crown. Who signed
your letter of appointment?
(Baroness Prashar) It came from the Cabinet Office.
I am afraid I did not get it directly from the Queen.
570. Can I turn to the question of merit, which
you have raised a number of times in your opening, which I am
very interested in. Does that apply throughout the Civil Service
or just for certain grades?
(Baroness Prashar) It applies throughout the Civil
571. A young constituent came to me recently.
She had applied for a job and was told that she was rejected because
she had not used key words. Is there any key word you could give
me to help her?
(Baroness Prashar) I am afraid I cannot help you with
what the key words are.
572. Is there any way I can access them?
(Baroness Prashar) In what context did she mean "key
573. She was told that was why she had failed.
She was only applying for a job in a grade she was already in,
so I found it unbelievable that she had been rejected because
key words had not been used. You say you audit all these processes.
How do you audit private employment agencies who are employed
by civil servants to interview people?
(Baroness Prashar) We work very closely with head
hunters, and head hunters are fully aware of the processes that
are involved, and in fact, we try and see head hunters at least
once a year. We had a meeting with them last year. They are quite
an important part of the process. So they not only have to understand
our role, but they have to understand what the Code says and what
it means in terms of process. They are fully briefed about what
is required. We do try and get into a dialogue with them and keep
them fully informed, and when they are taken on by Departments,
the Departments themselves brief them about the processes.
574. Would the Department continually have contact
with them? For instance, if they were mistaken, in my opinion,
in saying that people were not using key words, would that be
rectified in the future?
(Baroness Prashar) I am sure, because it seems to
me that for an individual who feels that this is why they were
turned down, it would be worth asking what the key words are.
Mr Lyons: I am trying very hard, I can assure
575. I am very interested in ministerial involvement
in public appointments and in Civil Service appointments as well.
You mentioned how ministers are often involved at the outset and
are asked for suggestions.
(Baroness Prashar) Not suggestions; they are asked
about the kind of person they would like.
576. So a minister would never give a name?
(Baroness Prashar) When you are developing a person
specification or a job description, they can say what kind of
person they are looking for.
577. So they would say, "I would like someone
who has a certain Andrew Turnbullness about them" or something
(Baroness Prashar) If head hunters were to search,
they can recommend names and they would be considered along with
others. That is where the fairness and openness comes in.
578. Would you consider it improper then if
at the outset there was a meeting between a minister and civil
servants to discuss an appointment at which the civil servants
said, "Minister, we would like to know what kind of person
you have in mind," and a name was mentioned by the Minister.
Does that occur, do you think?
(Baroness Prashar) I have never been a fly on the
wall to see what discussions take place between civil servants
and ministers, but it seems to me that it would be inappropriate
if they were to say, "I want this particular person,"
but not if they were to say, "This is the kind of person
I am looking for, and you might like to talk to So and So."
579. I am talking about something between those
two things. I am not saying that they would say, "I want
this particular person" and I am not saying they would say,
"I want somebody with two arms, two legs and a degree from
Oxford or Cambridge." But if they actually said, "I
would like Mr X or Mrs X to be considered and approached,"
would that be appropriate? I am just trying to establish what
your views are on that.
(Baroness Prashar) I would not think that is inappropriate,
because when you are using search consultants, they ring up a
whole range of people and say, "Can you recommend people?"
The important thing really is that you can talk to all the sources
you want to in terms of identifying the best talent, because the
objective is to get the best talent to apply, but the process
of actually being interviewed and short-listed is what we guard,
to make sure that it happens on merit.