Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Equal Opportunities Commission (PAP 40)



  The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has a statutory responsibility for promoting equality between men and women. One of the specific areas in which the EOC is currently working to promote equality is women's participation in public and political life. Our aim is a society with balanced representation of women and men, including disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, in all political and public institutions, to ensure that the widest possible range of experience is reflected in public life and that the skills of under-represented groups are made available to the public service. This requires change not just to the way in which people become members of those institutions, but to their working practices and conditions. The EOC welcomes the Committee's inquiry into appointments to public bodies, and, in particular, the Committee's interest in increasing diversity in public appointments.

  The focus of the EOC's own most recent work in this area has been on promoting balanced representation at a political level, while strongly supporting the important work the Government itself has undertaken to increase the diversity of appointees to public (as opposed to political) bodies, through the Public Appointments Unit (PAU) and the Women and Equality Unit (WEU), as well as through target-setting and initiatives by individual departments. The EOC is a member of the Public Appointments working group, advising the Cabinet Office on increasing the number of women successfully applying for public appointments; most recently, the working group has organised a series of seminars across the country, offering practical help, information and support to women thinking about applying for a national public appointment. In 2000, the EOC published a good practice guide How to Improve the Gender Balance of Public Bodies, which sets out the practical steps that can be taken to ensure equal opportunities appointment procedures and suggesting lawful positive action that could be used to encourage women to apply for appointments[1]. Earlier this year, we published a research briefing Women and Men in Britain: Public and Political Life[2], summarising the statistical information available on women's participation in public and political institutions.

  The EOC is itself a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) established under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. We have the following powers and responsibilities:

    —  To work towards the elimination of discrimination on the grounds of sex or marriage.

    —  To promote equality of opportunity for women and men.

    —  To keep under review the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act.

    —  To provide legal advice and assistance to individuals who have been discriminated against.

  Our sponsor department is the Women and Equality Unit at the Cabinet Office. Although we are independent from the government, we are responsible to the Minister for Women and Equality at the Cabinet Office, currently Barbara Roche. There are 15 Commissioners, appointed by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Minister for Women.

  In responding to the Committee's issues and questions paper, the EOC has concentrated on those areas where we have expertise; in particular the issue of increasing diversity in public appointments. We have set out some background statistics and summarised the barriers faced by women and other groups in applying for and obtaining public appointments, before answering those questions where we feel our expertise and experience has most to offer the Committee.

  This response reflects the EOC's published policy on public appointments, and has been approved by the Chair on behalf of the Commission.


  In 2001, there were about 30,000 people serving on the boards of national and regional public bodies (the four types of NDPB—Executive, Advisory, Tribunal and Boards of Visitors to penal establishments—together with certain public corporations and National Health Service (NHS) bodies). There has been a slow but steady increase in the number of women serving on the boards of these public bodies. In 1992, women accounted for 26 per cent of appointments, rising to 34 per cent in 2001. In 2000-01, 38 per cent of new appointments or reappointments were women[3].

  The percentage of women varies between different public bodies; as noted above, women account for only one third of the 30,000 national and regional public appointments. However, they hold around half of all local public appointments such as school governors, magistrates and local NHS boards, and are slightly more active than men in charitable and other voluntary activity[4].

  In 2001, the ratio of women to men on the boards of public bodies differed according to which Government Department had responsibility for them. The percentage of women ranged from a low of 13 per cent in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to 46 per cent in the Department of Health (DoH). There are also differences within departments. Only 17 per cent of appointments to executive and advisory NDPBs in the Home Office were women but 47 per cent of those to Boards of Visitors. In the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), 19 per cent of those on advisory NDPBs were women compared with 31 per cent on tribunal NDPBs.

  Women are less likely than men to be appointed to chair boards of public bodies. The vast majority of all appointments to public bodies are part-time. Over half are unpaid, receiving expenses rather than a salary. Women hold only 3 per cent of those positions that pay 50,000 or more.

  Despite people from ethnic minority communities comprising around eight per cent of new appointments made in 2000-01, only 5 per cent of people serving on a public body were members of an ethnic minority.

  Fewer than 2 per cent of appointees had a disability.


  The barriers to ensuring a better balance in public appointments are well documented; for example, the Office for Public Management undertook a research study for the Department for Local Government Transport and the Regions (DTLR) Making a difference: women in public appointments (2001) [5]which examined in detail the reasons why more women are not being appointed to DTLR sponsored public bodies and put forward practical suggestions to increase their numbers. The barriers identified by that research include the following:

    —  Awareness and attractiveness of public appointments—Many women who have the skills to serve on national public bodies are not aware of these opportunities or do not know how to apply. It is not always made sufficiently clear what the role entails or what the benefits are. There is a perception of a bureaucratic and potentially unfair selection process.

    —  Confidence in applying—There is evidence that women will not put themselves forward if they have only eight out of 10 required qualifications on a list, whereas men will apply if they have only six out of 10.

    —  Time required to fulfil the duties of public appointments can be barrier for women balancing the demands of a busy life. Timing and location of meetings becomes a critical issue, as does support from employers for taking time out of work to attend; this is particularly the case for lower paid or lower status work.

    —  Child or elder care—women still undertake the vast majority of caring responsibilities, and this can be a barrier, both in terms of time away conflicting with caring responsibilities and the costs of child or elder care. It is often unclear in advertisements whether child or other care costs will be reimbursed.

    —  Cash—there are mixed views on this but it appears that the relative lack of remuneration and different levels of remuneration across different bodies may be a barrier to participation for a broader cross-section of women; again, women are more likely to be in lower paid work.

    —  Over five times more men than women apply for DTLR public appointments—there is a case for more effective outreach activity, eg advertisements placed where women are likely to read them. Work could be done on the language and style of recruitment advertisements and the information packs sent out to candidates. The person specification may focus unduly on experience rather than on the competence and capabilities required for a role. Application forms should be reviewed; there is still a tendency for them to look too much like tax returns.

  The EOC encourages the Committee to study Making a difference, which contains a large number of suggestions for good practice to overcome the barriers it identified.



  1.   What, if anything, is the justification for such a large number of public offices (around 30,000) being filled by appointment rather than election?

  2.   What problems might arise if elections were held for membership of some public bodies, instead of the current system of appointments?

  3.   Should a public appointment be part of an individual's civic duty? Would a system similar to jury service be effective and fair?

  The EOC believes that any mechanism for filling positions on public bodies must:

    —  ensure that those taking up public appointments have the necessary skills to fulfil the duties of the post; and

    —  be designed to ensure that public bodies are fully representative of society, including balanced representation of men and women, of members of ethnic minority communities and those with disabilities.

  Whether a model delivers these requirements should be a factor in deciding whether it is the appropriate model to use. Achieving more balanced representation is not only a matter of equity, but also ensures that the wider perspective and different experience of all sections of the population are brought to bear on the functions carried out by public bodies.

  4.   What are the main priorities for improving the system of public appointments—should it be for instance to extend the range of people involved in bodies, to improve the effectiveness of the bodies in providing advice or administering services, or to change the balance so that elected national, regional or local government has more of a role in public life?

  The EOC believes the main priority for improving the system of public appointments is to extend the range of people involved in bodies, so that appointments are more diverse, more of the public are engaged in these important activities, and, not least, so that selection from the widest possible pool ensures that the most suitable candidates are appointed. At present, suitable candidates may not even be aware of the opportunities that exist.

  5.   Government departments publicise public appointments, assess applications and draw up shortlists for interview. Independent assessors take part in the process and appointments are made on merit. Is this a sensible devolution of power to departments or does it cause problems and create unfairness?

  The EOC would like to see greater diversity in public appointments and would prioritise the "mainstreaming" of equality in the public appointments process in every department; in other words, building an awareness of the need for greater diversity into every stage of the selection process. This would involve:

    —  analysing in detail the procedures and processes to identify where barriers to particular groups are currently built into the system;

    —  identifying what can be done to remove these barriers, starting with the job description, person specification, and advertisement procedure, the application forms and other elements of the application pack and the interview;

    —  providing the support needed by new appointees to enable effective participation and continuing enthusiasm.

  We recognise that this requires a properly resourced root and branch reform of the process. We suggest that this needs to be centrally driven and monitored; at present, the sponsoring department controls each appointment process. This results in a variety of approaches to increasing the range of people involved in bodies. While the focus of much of the work undertaken by the WEU and PAU has been to encourage a wider range of people to place their names on the PAU's central list of those interested in applying for public appointments, there is currently no requirement on departments to examine the list for suitable candidates to whose attention a vacancy might be drawn. This in turn may discourage those who have placed themselves on the list, who may wait for a very long time without ever being approached to apply for an appointment. Feedback during the application process is very important to ensure that applicants feel informed and valued.

  6.   Are there any aspects of the Government's approach to public appointments which appear to be inconsistent or unclear?

  It is understandable that individual departments are keen to retain control of the process of appointment to those bodies for which their Secretary of State is ultimately responsible; however, this has resulted in an inconsistency of approach in opening up recruitment procedures. Some departments are making much slower progress than others towards the overall Government target of 50 per cent of public appointments being held by women. The EOC would prefer a consistent approach; this may need greater central control of recruitment and appointment processes.

Political influence on appointments

  7.   Is there any evidence to suggest that politicians sometimes play an improper role in the current public appointments system? What are your main concerns, if any?

  8.   What part, if any, should politicians play in the public appointments process?

  9.   Is there any evidence to suggest that there is political bias in the public appointments process?

  10.   Is political bias ever acceptable in the appointments process?

  11.   What role if any should Parliament play in public appointments?

  12.   Do you believe that an independent appointments commission should be introduced instead of ministerial appointments?

  It is outside the EOC's remit to comment on these matters.

Diversity in public appointments

  13.   Is there evidence to suggest that the current system is not attracting applications from the widest pool of candidates?

  The number of women in public appointments is rising:

    —  In 1992, women accounted for 26 per cent of appointments, rising to 34 per cent in 2001.

    —  In 2000-01, 38 per cent of new or reappointments were women.

  However, there is evidence that this is not uniform across all government sponsored bodies and that the numbers of applications from women remain low in overall terms eg over five times more men than women apply for DTLR public appointments.

  14.   How can greater diversity best be combined with reassurance that the principle of merit in public appointments is being upheld?

  The EOC's view is that appointments should be on merit; however, lawful positive action to increase diversity is compatible with appointment on merit; positive action does not mean compromising on the quality of candidates, simply widening the pool from which eligible candidates might be drawn.

  Positive action is frequently confused with positive discrimination. Positive discrimination, which means appointing someone because they come from an under-represented group, regardless of whether they have the relevant skills and qualifications, is unlawful. However, lawful positive action allows an organisation to encourage applications from men or women where they have been under-represented in the past. The final appointment would then be made on merit, but the positive action will have increased the chance that a suitably qualified candidate from the under-represented group will have applied.

  Lawful positive action might take the form of publishing advertisements which specifically encourage applications from the under-represented sex, holding open days for members of the under-represented sex, and providing single-sex training for the under-represented sex in particular skills, such as chairing a committee.

  In addition, all Government departments and public bodies themselves should sign up to designing appointments processes that are designed to include the widest possible range of candidates. For example:

    —  The qualities, skills and experience required of candidates should always be described in a way that recognises that such attributes can be gained in a wide variety of ways, including through both paid employment and voluntary work.

    —  Nominations should be invited from as wide a variety of sources as possible. Both self-nomination and nomination by another person or an organisation or company, should be allowed. Allowing nomination by others should help increase the number of women applicants. Women are far less likely to self nominate than men, but this apparent lack of confidence does not of itself make them unsuitable for appointment.

    —  The timing of meetings and scheduling of events should not discourage those with family or caring responsibilities, eg early morning or evening meetings should be avoided, so that candidates with these responsibilities—still primarily women—will not be deterred from applying.

  15.   Would a more consistent use of remuneration for members of public bodies help to increase diversity in their membership? Are there any possible drawbacks to an increase in the number of remunerated members?

  There is some evidence to show that women are discouraged from applying because of the lack of remuneration. This may well be because women are more likely to be in lower paid employment and it cannot therefore be assumed that they can afford to undertake unpaid public duties where this means foregoing earnings. Further consideration should be made to paying compensation for earnings foregone on top of expenses payments, even if it is not felt that a salary is appropriate for every appointment. All public bodies should make it clear at every stage that expenses include the costs of child or elder care, and also make claiming them as easy as possible (within normal accounting procedures). We also advise consistency across different bodies.

  In the EOC's view, it would also be helpful for an examination of benefits system disincentives to participation to be undertaken.

Public understanding

  16.   Is the public appointments process understood by members of the public and seen to be fair, open, transparent and easy to travel through?

  There is evidence (for example, from Making a Difference) that much could be done to make the application process easier to negotiate, largely by following current thinking on good equal opportunities recruitment practices, for example, ensuring that person specifications are used that emphasise competencies and capabilities, rather than experience; the latter can make it seem that bodies are trying to recruit a particular type of person. Reducing, or at the very least explaining, the length of time an appointments process can take would also assist.

  17.   What improvements, if any, should be made in the way in which advertising or publicising public appointments are made?

  We recommend more outreach work and more opportunities for pre-application shadowing/mentoring. This should involve work with community groups, as well as with schools and colleges. Consideration should be given to giving more prominence to public appointments and civic contribution in the school curriculum.

  Outreach work could also involve local authorities, an increasing number of which have neighbourhood forums and other public participation initiatives. These activities might also be used to identify less obvious candidates to encourage and develop.

  We should like to see more work with employers and voluntary organisations to encourage sponsorship and support for employees/volunteers who are considering taking part in public life. These individuals should be seen as an asset; we would wish to see Government and the private sector encouraging a culture where employees, including more junior employees, feel able to ask for time off for public appointments. The existence of a right to time off for public duties is often meaningless where an employee is not in control of their own workload with an unwilling employer.

  Public bodies themselves might develop partnerships to identify people, eg through the banks' small business newsletters/networks. They could also heighten awareness of themselves through promotional packages and videos, use of the various internet "communities" aimed at women and at women's conferences/in women's magazines, etc. Women who are already serving on public bodies should be asked to take part in more promotional work.

  18.   What is your understanding of the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie?

  The Commissioner monitors, regulates, reports and advises on 12,000 Ministerial appointments to public bodies. Dame Rennie herself is a very effective advocate of greater diversity in appointments, while making clear her belief that this in no way undermines the principle of appointment on merit.

Other issues

  19.   There are a growing number of sometimes informally constituted partnership bodies and task forces charged with carrying out public functions, especially at local level. Should these bodies be subject to the Commissioner for Public Appointments' Code of Practice?

  The EOC would in all but the most exceptional circumstances recommend that the principles of openness and transparency are applied to any appointment process to ensure equality of opportunity; application of the Code may be the simplest way to ensure that this occurs.

  20.   Are there ways in which the system of independent assessors for public appointments can be improved?

  The EOC welcomes the use of independent assessors during the appointments process, but emphasises that assessors need to have received training in current equal opportunities good practice, for example, to ensure they are fully versed in overall competency—and capability-based interviewing and assessment and are aware of the need to avoid stereotyping of applicants. Ideally, such training would be a requirement for all those involved in the recruitment process.

  21.   What is your opinion of the Government's proposals for future appointments to the House of Lords? Should it be treated in the same way as other public bodies?

  The EOC welcomed the Government's proposal that the Appointments Commission will be required to ensure that the appointed members are broadly representative of British society, and in particular, that at least 30 per cent of new appointees are women and 30 per cent are men, working towards gender balance in the chamber as a whole over time, and to have regard to the importance of ensuring fair overall representation for both the nations and regions of the UK and from the ethnic minority communities. The existence of regional elected members should not deter the Appointments Commission from ensuring that nominated members are also representative of regions other than London and the south-east, which are over-represented in the current House. However, both this and the issue of gender balance and what the white paper refers to as "fair overall representation" will need to be reflected in the Appointments Commission's powers in relation to the nominations made by the political parties, including giving the Commission the power to refuse to accept an appointment or group of appointments by a political party that runs counter to these aims.

  There may, however, be difficulties in ensuring a fully representative chamber, unless enough people with a varied life experience and from a wide geographical spread are prepared to accept nomination for nomination or election. To assist in this, the EOC suggests the following:

    —  The requirement on the Appointments Commission to ensure that the appointed members are broadly representative of British society, and the particular requirements in relation to gender balance and fair representation for the nations and regions of the UK and from the ethnic minority communities should appear on the face of the Bill enacting these reforms.

    —  When inviting nominations, whether this is done by the Appointments Commission or by the political parties, the role of members of the second chamber member should be described in objective and transparent terms, so that those considering acceptance of a nomination have a clear idea of what is involved.

    —  It should be clear from the rules of the Appointments Commission and the rules applied to political parties in making nominations that lawful positive action and special measures to encourage nominations from under-represented groups can be used.

    —  The qualities, skills and experience required of prospective members should be described in a way that recognises that such attributes can be gained in a wide variety of ways, including through paid employment and through voluntary work.

    —  The criteria for selection, whether by the Appointments Commission or the political parties, should be gender neutral.

    —  Those involved in processing nominations and in the selection process both at the Appointments Commission and in the political parties should be trained in selection procedures that ensure equality of opportunity for candidates.

    —  Nominations should be invited from as wide a variety of sources as possible. Both self-nomination and nomination by another person or an organisation or company (with the consent of the nominee) should be allowed.

    —  The working practices of the second chamber will be very important in encouraging the broadest possible range of people to put themselves forward for election or nomination and to achieving real equality of participation for women; for example, long, anti-social hours act as a real barrier to participation by those with caring or family responsibilities, still primarily women. The expenses paid to members of the second chamber need genuinely to reflect the needs of members in fulfilling their Parliamentary duties effectively and their individual circumstances, including the distance of their main residence from London, the extent of their caring responsibilities, and the earnings they are giving up in order to participate in the second chamber. It will otherwise be impossible for those whose employment does not pay highly enough to be adequate when undertaken on a part-time basis to become active members of the House. This particularly affects women.

  The whole process of nomination and selection should be monitored and statistics kept and analysed in relation to gender, ethnic origin, disability and age. There should be a process of regular review to make any necessary adjustments to the process once the initial experience has been evaluated. These requirements should apply to both the Appointments Commission and nominating political parties.

  22.   Are there any lessons to be learned by Government departments about the way in which the Scottish Executive and the National Assembly for Wales approach public appointments?

  Although progress in increasing the number of women appointed to public bodies in Scotland and Wales was disappointing in 2000-01 (the number of new appointments of women actually decreased slightly compared with the previous year), both devolved administrations have now undertaken a radical review of the appointments system; the promotion of equality and diversity has become of much greater significance in the appointments process than previously. In Scotland, this is to be given legislative force, and EOC Scotland is represented on the working group to implement the legislation. The EOC believes that, as a result of these developments, there is likely to be much more rapid change in Scotland and Wales than has been possible to date elsewhere, so that public bodies there will more closely resemble the population they serve. The devolved administrations have the advantage of a single appointing body, rather than the diverse procedures found across different government departments for UK-wide and English appointments.

  23.   The Commissioner for Public Appointments' remit covers specified Ministerial public appointments and her Code of Practice, which is based on Nolan principles, sets out the regulatory framework for these appointments. Should the remit be extended to all other appointments?

  The Commissioner for Public Appointments (OCPA) issues a Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments to Public Bodies. This code of practice sets out the regulatory framework for the public appointments process and is a based upon seven principles as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The principles include equal opportunities.

  The EOC recommends that, if the remit is extended, then OCPA should produce guidance on what constitutes good practice in promoting diversity and this should be made widely available.

  24.   What is your opinion of the reforms recently introduced in the system of appointments to NHS bodies?

  The EOC believes the NHS Appointments Commission provides a good model for reforming procedures to provide consistency in appointments (previously recommendations were made to Ministers by regional chairs, offering potential for differences between regions), improved appointment processes and better support for appointees. The establishment of the Commission has allowed a review of appointment procedures, and these have been made more easily understood, more transparent, quicker and fairer than earlier procedures. In addition, the Commission is playing an important role in giving mentoring and support to Chairs and non-executive directors of NHS boards, and in ensuring that chairs and non-executives receive proper induction and training in their roles. Finally, the Commission is developing proper appraisal mechanisms as part of the support given to chairs and non-executives, enabling them to maximise their contribution to the board. These are all examples of good practice in ensuring that bodies are more representative of the public they serve, enabling a more diverse range of people to play their part more effectively.

  25.   Should every candidate, even important people for high level appointments, be asked to complete application forms and attend interviews in the normal way?

  The EOC believes that selection procedures for public appointments should be clear, objective, consistent and open, and should be monitored and evaluated. It is difficult to see how this can be achieved unless all applicants take part in a similar procedure, which should be susceptible to monitoring and independent evaluation.

April 2002


1   Available at Back

2   Available at Back

3   All the statistics in this section are taken from Public Bodies 2001 Cabinet Office (2002). Back

4   Social Trends 31 The Stationery Office (2001). Back

5   Available at Back

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