Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 600-619)



  600. Lord Stevenson when he came before us said it would cost too much in terms of stamps to tell people who had applied for a people's peerage—that is my shorthand—why they were unsuccessful.
  (Baroness Prashar) Unlike applications to be Members of the House of Lords, we do not get that number of applications for posts in the Civil Service, so it does not cost so much if they ask for it. If people ask for feedback, it is actually given. That is part of career development. I am not sure there is any career development in the House of Lords.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  601. I would like to go back to clear up one or two things which were instigated by our Chairman. You have told us that you have been the First Civil Service Commissioner for 18 months now, so you were appointed in August 2000. Prior to that you were a part-time Commissioner from 1990-95, and there are 15 Commissioners in all. You have graphically explained to us how you were appointed, by a very high-powered committee, if I may put it in shorthand, but you went through some sifting levels: the Prime Minister and then the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
  (Baroness Prashar) No; it had to be cleared by them.

  602. When you say "cleared", does that indicate that you could have been obstructed from becoming First Commissioner by someone somewhere?
  (Baroness Prashar) I suspect that would have been the case, but I presume, because I was not involved in that sense, and I suspect I am guessing, that if they had objected to my name, they probably would have had to re-open the competition in the way we re-open the competition if the preferred candidate is not accepted.

  603. I am not seeking to embarrass you in any way at all, but I would like to put this point to you. You obviously spoke with pride and sincerity when you said you were independent. Do you not think that independence has been somewhat compromised by having to be approved by certain institutions or certain people after the most high-powered committee which recommended your name?
  (Baroness Prashar) I think not, because I do have pride in the fact that we are independent, and that independence is in how we do the job and how we exercise the powers that we have. I can say this with confidence, that since I have been in for the last 18 months I have not had any interference and I have not in any way felt inhibited in what I have had to do.

  604. How are the other Commissioners appointed?
  (Baroness Prashar) As I said at the outset, they also were appointed through open competition and I was involved in the process. It was I who determined the kind of Commissioners I wanted. We advertised. They were interviewed and the interview panel was chaired by me, one of my part-time Commissioners who was already a Commissioner, the Secretary to the Commissioners, and I asked for a representative from the Cabinet Office. In fact, it was Sir Richard Wilson I wanted on the panel but he nominated someone else. That was a panel which appointed the Commissioners. Then they were approved by the Privy Council as part of the Orders in Council.

  605. Would I be right in saying that if you felt that an applicant to be one of the Commissioners was not, in your view, the right person, you would in effect have the right to say no and deny that person the appointment?
  (Baroness Prashar) Indeed, yes. The Commissioners were really a choice that I made. I was very clear about the kind of people I wanted, the number I wanted, and there was no obstruction in what I wanted to do.

  606. So you would still hold that the other Commissioners appointed were appointed with an acceptable sense of independence?
  (Baroness Prashar) Yes.

  607. I note you have devoted your life to the campaign against discrimination. As I can see from reading your biographical details, you have committed yourself to the public service, and I applaud you very much for that, but I think you are also Chairman of the Parole Board for England and Wales.
  (Baroness Prashar) I was, for three years. When I got this job, I resigned. It was a full-time job.

  608. How were the you appointed as Chairman of the Parole Board?
  (Baroness Prashar) If I may say so, that appointment too for the first time, when I was appointed, was through open competition. Prior to that all the chairmen had been hand-picked, and they were invariably former junior Home Office ministers. The other members of the Parole Board were also appointed through open competition, and I have to say that when I became Chairman I also appointed judges, because a proportion of the members of the Parole Board are judges, and even judges were appointed through open competition, which caused a bit of a stir within the judiciary, but now that is an established practice.

  609. You have also been Chairman of the National Literacy Trust.
  (Baroness Prashar) That is a voluntary organisation, which I personally established along with Sir Simon Hornby some 10 years ago. I was Deputy Chairman and became Chairman last year.

  610. I am told that there are about 30,000 public appointments, and you have just told us that you resigned as Chairman of the Parole Board when you took up your job as First Civil Service Commissioner. Would it be your view that of those 30,000 appointments, no one person should be a member of more than one quango, or do you think there are exceptional cases where they could be on more than one?
  (Baroness Prashar) It depends. The Parole Board was a full-time job, five days a week. I was Executive Chairman. I could not have done this job and carried on as Chairman of the Parole Board. It depends on the nature of the public appointment. Some public appointments are about one day a month, some are one or two days a week. It just depends, and I think it is in the judgement of the person concerned whether they are able to give the time. That is the crucial thing. If you take a public appointment you have to be sure that you have the ability and the time to put into that. I would not want to make a stipulation that they should be on only one.

  611. My final question is this: of these 30,000 appointments you presumably would accept that because some are very specialised and, some are more general, we need a mixture in the method of appointing people—I am not inviting you to disagree with this—some of them are nominated, some are appointed, some are elected, and one witness has suggested to us that people might be appointed by lot, making the point that that in effect is how we choose people to serve on a jury. Would you have any view about that?
  (Baroness Prashar) I think it is right that there are different routes to getting public appointments and I do welcome the fact that they have become more open and there is more open competition, because if I look back, to take an example, if the Parole Board job was not advertised and they had to nominate somebody, I am sure they would not have come to me. In that sense, open competition does open things up. I prefer it being more open. But I am not sure about the jury service method of picking people out and saying, "You must serve on these bodies." To serve on bodies you have to have the interest and the expertise; you have to be able to make a contribution. As you were saying earlier, if you put people on who are already not competent and they feel that they are not making a contribution, it may impact on their self-esteem. I think jury service is different to serving on a public appointment. I would be more in favour of opening up, more outreach, making people more aware of what is available and encouraging people to apply than saying to people, "You must serve on a public body."

Brian White

  612. You said earlier on that one of the key roles is the fact that civil servants have permanent jobs. Why, given the changes in the world outside, where there are very few jobs for life, should the Civil Service be the one body that is exempt from that kind of change and still have jobs for life?
  (Baroness Prashar) When I used the word "permanent" I was not saying you were there for life, because, of course, the world is changing and nobody now has a job for life. The Civil Service itself is opening up. To give an example, we have seen almost a doubling of the number of open competitions. Two years ago there were just over 100; now there are 202 open competitions, so of course, there is a lot more flow, and I think it is healthier for any organisation to have a flow of people coming in and out. By "permanent" I mean that you have a group of people who are committed to a particular set of values and have a job that they do. There is, of course, some merit in continuity as well, because in a way, it is important to have a memory in an organisation and certain jobs in terms of whatever you do. It is important to have people who are there who understand the nature of the organisation and have grown up with it, but supplemented by people who come in and out. That is really what I meant.

  613. So this set of values is a set of values over decades so as to concentrate on policy, not implementation, a whole series of values within the Civil Service which does not recognise that the world has changed out there?
  (Baroness Prashar) I am not talking in terms of what you are saying, about policy and delivery. It is more about skills and competencies and not values. To me, the values are about impartiality, integrity, objectivity, ability to serve the government of the day, and that is why I was making a distinction between the constitutional position of the Civil Service and the organisation and development of the Civil Service. Of course, you need different skills and competencies, and that is really what needs to develop and to change, and that is why I am very keen that when we talk about a Civil Service Act. By entrenching the constitutional position and the values, we would not be inhibiting the organisational change and development of the Civil Service.

  614. So when you have somebody like me who argues that we should move away from the Civil Service as we know it towards a cabinet system as they have in Europe, are you not a block to that kind of change? Have you looked at the cabinet system in terms of your role?
  (Baroness Prashar) I have not looked at that. There is a general comment I would like to make here. This is something which derived from my general experience of working in organisations and looking at other countries. I do not think it is always wise to say that we should emulate another country. You can learn from them, but I think things grow organically within a particular context, and I think we have to look at our Civil Service in the context of the way it has evolved and the way it needs to change. My personal view is that our Civil Service system has served us well, but that is not to say it does not need to change and evolve in terms of skills and competencies for what it needs to do. I have never been a civil servant myself, but I have worked with the Civil Service most of my career, so I am aware of areas where it needs to change, and I think that change is possible, without wanting to almost cause a revolution in the way of shifting to a cabinet system or any other.

  615. I am not sure what the actual equivalent in the European Civil Service of your job is but presumably there are European equivalents. Have you looked at those?
  (Baroness Prashar) No. I have to say, I have been in the job only 18 months, but what we do get, of course, is people coming here to talk to us, and we get visitors from places like Uganda or India, where there are comparable Civil Services, and there are people doing similar jobs. But as for Canada, New Zealand, Australia, I cannot say that I have done a deep study or that I have visited them yet.

  616. You say that head hunting is an acceptable way of making public appointments.
  (Baroness Prashar) Not public. I was talking about Civil Service appointments. I think it is important that we do not confuse the two.

  617. Can you define what checks and protections there are for the head hunter route into permanent appointments, and what are the ways that you audit the companies that do it?
  (Baroness Prashar) The check that we have is when a head hunter is employed to do a search, they are made fully aware of our requirements, what one is looking for, and they also know what the role of the Commissioners is and how we act as custodians of the principles of recruitment, and in terms of giving them a brief as to where they should be looking. I know issues like diversity and making sure there is a widening of the pool and all that is part of that, and obviously, as you well know, if they want the business, they have to do the job properly. I will say what I said earlier. We do actually meet with them on a regular basis. We have a yearly meeting with them, and they are quite helpful, because in a way, we want to be fully aware of the state of the art in terms of recruitment, the different processes there are, and they are helpful sometimes in identifying for us what is good practice, the innovative ways which are being used in other sectors for recruitment. They are useful in that sense.


  618. Can I pick up one part of that exchange with Brian White? You talk about a particular set of values. Are you saying that this particular set of values is distinctive to the public sector, public service, Civil Service? We have had witnesses from the private sector on an inquiry we are running telling us this is fantasy; these are values that they have too. The second part of the question is, your founding document, Northcote Trevellyan and all that, was not just about getting probity; it was actually about getting efficiency, because cronyism was inefficient. Brian's point about should efficiency not be at the centre of your thinking too seems to me to be a proper question.
  (Baroness Prashar) Let me take the second question first. I absolutely agree with you, because in my opening statement I did say that it is through fair and open competition that we make sure we get the best person, and therefore the Civil Service is efficient, because in my view, it is no good having an impartial Civil Service which is incompetent. The competence is just as important as the impartiality, and you are quite right; it was about efficiency, fitness for purpose, and I do think—and I repeat what I said earlier—that when you appoint people on merit, you get the best person for the job, and that is how you ensure efficiency and competency. But I have to say that how effective we are in getting the right people for the job does, to some extent, depend on the government departments and the Civil Service itself developing what we, the Commissioners, say is a proper human resource capability. Let me explain what I mean by that. Recruitment at the current level of open competition and the bringing on of talent, is a new phenomenon for the Civil Service. Since the launch of the reform in 1999 Civil Service has been thinking hard how to develop its human resource capability. It is in partnership that we work with departments and that is why we work very hard to make sure that we get in dialogue with them at an early stage, to identify the kind of people they are looking for, what kind of competences they are looking for, it is a very important part of that, and at the same time ensuring that people are recruited on merit and that merits are determined against the job description.

  619. Then in a nutshell this idea of uniqueness and a set of values.
  (Baroness Prashar) The uniqueness is the impartiality, the integrity, and objectivity. The Civil Service exists to serve the Government of the day to the best of its ability and therefore I think it is important that attention is paid to the health of the organisation itself, how it is evolving, how it is changing, is it fit for purpose. If I may say so, I do not think we have done that as well as we could do. This is why I come to the point that the Civil Service exists in the public interest and therefore we should be paying attention to its morale, to its health and its capability and attention needs to be paid to that yet retaining some of these core values.

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