Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760-779)




  760. Could I very much welcome our witnesses this morning, and call the Committee to order. It is very kind of you to come along and help us with our inquiry. As you know, we are trying to have a decent look at the whole public appointments system, to see how it is working and how it is not working and how it might be improved, and we are particularly wanting to hear from groups who are trying to improve the range of people getting appointed to these bodies, and, obviously, you represent organisations who are directly engaged in that enterprise, and so we really do want to hear what your experience is. I apologise for the fact that we have got quite a lot of you sitting there; please do not feel that you have all got to answer any question that we may put, I suspect it may come easier if we just divide up the tasks a bit. But I think the main thing is, if you feel that we have not asked you something that you particularly want to say to us, or there is something that you have come particularly to say, do make sure that you say that, at some point, so that you do not go away feeling that "They never asked us the real thing that we wanted to mention." Having said that, let me kick off, and can I ask just this rather general question. You, in your different ways, whether you are concerned with gender, equality or with disability, are concerned to get a broader range of people on these public bodies; the public bodies themselves want to have a broader range of people on them, they want to fill their reports, which show that they are improving their gender balance, their racial balance, their disability balance, their this balance, their that balance. So you have got all you people pressing for this to happen, you have got the bodies themselves, who want to be able to report that they are doing it; why are we having so much problem with it?

  (Ms Mellor) I think all the issues are different. On gender, I think we have probably made more progress than we have on race and disability; but I will leave my colleagues to look at that. I would say, we have made the progress we have through a combination of ministerial leadership, in different Departments, and the adoption of the Nolan Principles, and I think there are two big gaps, in terms of improvement in the profile of women in public appointments, and one is about outreach and the other is about consistency. So, in a sense, your question about, if there are all these things going on, why have we not made more progress, I would say the biggest reason is because there is not a consistent approach. There are lots of ad hoc initiatives, which are very welcome, but until every Department looks at every part of its process, from "What is this role, what skills, what experience is required, where are we going to find those skills, how do we do outreach, does it need to be paid to attract women who might not be able to get paid time off, because they are likely to be in less senior positions?", for example, until they look at every aspect of the process and build in what is the gender impact here then I do not think we will see the progress to more representation that we seek.

  761. That is helpful. Can we just sort of roll that back a second, and then we will just take it slowly for us. You said, the two big things that have helped have been Nolan and ministerial initiatives—
  (Ms Mellor) Ministerial leadership.

  762. Could you just expand both of those, and tell me why Nolan has helped particularly, and then tell me the kind of ministerial leadership that has helped?
  (Ms Mellor) I think ministerial leadership is straightforward; when there is the drive from the top then the whole system knows it needs to be doing something, and it will not happen without that.

  763. Yes; are you meaning that those Ministers whose responsibility it has been to develop these issues have led, or that there has been differential leadership within Departments, on these issues?
  (Ms Mellor) Both. For example, I would commend to you the work that has been begun by the old DTLR, where there was the leadership in that Department, at the political level, to say "Our profile is around a quarter of our public appointees are women, compared with an average of 35, 38; we need to do something about this." And they commissioned some research to look at why, and make recommendations, and are now following that through; and I believe part of that was about the political leadership. And I would commend that report to you, in terms of looking at what the solutions are, on gender, in particular.

  764. So the conclusion of that is, more political leadership, in more Departments, would produce more people?
  (Ms Mellor) Not on its own. I think, with anything like this, it is a multi-pronged approach, but I would say it is critical. Nolan has been another critical part, and you asked why that had made a difference; and I think it is the emphasis in the Nolan Principles on merit and the scrutiny of the process and an open and transparent process, are the three aspects of the Principles that have made a difference in the way that Departments have approached the process of public appointments.

  765. I am not sure I understand that. Why have those things, which are good principles in themselves, helped to get more women in?
  (Ms Mellor) Because I think there has been an onus, a responsibility, on Departments, actually to look at whether the processes they have will deliver the Nolan Principles. So there is a principle of appointment on merit; that means you cannot look just at who has some experience in an industry, I think Rennie Fritchie referred to "male, pale and stale," or something, is the way she put it. If you look for an experience profile, you can end up with the same group of people; whereas, if you look for competence and skill, you are more likely to find a variety of people who may not have a traditional experience profile but actually do have the skills and expertise to contribute. And that is where merit and being clear about what is it that is required to fulfil this public appointment, what are the skills and competence, have made a difference. Does that help?

  766. It helps, yes; is there a conflict between merit and diversity, do you think?
  (Ms Mellor) Absolutely not, no.

  767. There cannot be?
  (Ms Mellor) No.

  768. They are different objectives, are they not?
  (Mr Massie) It is the definition of `merit', of course.

  769. I know, but tell us about it?
  (Mr Heiser) It is interesting that for disabled people Nolan has not had this effect; and, yes, of course, support Nolan completely. But I think the question about merit somehow goes to the nub of the point, but also, on the question of leadership, just picking up what Dame Fritchie said, "male, stale and pale," I do not see able-bodied there. So even those people with the greatest commitment here are still not picking up the issue of disability. So I think that is about leadership and how leadership needs to be reformed. On the issue of merit, I think the challenge is actually to see that what merit means, in terms of filling places on public bodies, it is something about appropriateness for the task, and only if the people filling those places believe that appropriateness covers diversity will the diversity be realised.

  770. I see we are on dodgy ground here, we will have to tread carefully; but do you think you ever have to dilute merit tests to achieve diversity objectives?
  (Mr Massie) Yes, you do.

  771. I see I am getting "Yes" on one side, and "No" on the other?
  (Mr Massie) Okay; let me give you my answer to that, they can give you theirs. I have sat on two public bodies, on which there have been people with learning disabilities; at the Disability Rights Commission, we made a point, Ministers made a point, about appointing someone with a learning disability, who has actually made quite an important contribution. I was for 16 years a member of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, which, in its later years, has had someone with a learning disability. Now, if you said for someone with a learning disability, apply the usual test on merit, they are not going to get through, realistically, the application form is hostile, the written language skills might not be there, they might need a lot of help; and yet when you say, "Okay, we're going to bring you on, because you have a particular perspective," actually you then find that people with learning disabilities can contribute a great deal, they actually have an insight which many of us miss. And one of the issues, coming into the mainstream now, from the field of learning disability, is access to information; why do we use the words we use, which seems to obscure, rather than illuminate. And one of the people I worked with said, "Look, we need public timetables to be accessible," by making them accessible to people with learning disabilities, they suddenly become accessible to everybody; so that they are actually making quite an important contribution. But if you used a straightforward merit test and you did not recognise that some people have a different set of skills, which can contribute enormously to public life, then public life is deprived of those skills; so that is where I see the conflict. I am not saying that you should be putting people onto public bodies who cannot do the job, we do not want tokenism, but disability covers such a wide range of impairments that the "one solution fits all" just really is totally inappropriate.

  772. I do not want to labour it too much, but it just seems to me that we just have to clear our mind about some of these things and be open with what we are trying to do. If your objective is to make sure that a public body is representative then that would make you give highest priority to the diversity agenda, but if you say your highest priority is to attain certain skills on that body, that is your highest priority, then there may be a conflict with the diversity and the representational agenda?
  (Ms Mellor) Picking up on what Bert has said, I would argue that, actually, one of the crucial points you have made is about what you need in a team, and so, when you are recruiting to a public body, and there are several posts, as well as some core competencies that you might require, you might actually want some different profiles to contribute to a heterogeneous team. And that is where actually thinking, what is this body trying to achieve and what kind of contributions do we need to enable it to achieve it, and so that would be where, actually, if part of it is about being close to user needs, for example, and it is appropriate to look at learning difficulties, in particular, then you want to make sure that, across the team, you have got that range. And so it becomes part of the criteria, which is why it is so important actually to be clear what the role is, what the range of competency is and what the range of experience profiles are, that you need.

  773. I am almost done. Can I just say, on something you said earlier on, is your headline message to us that if we want to do better on this front then consistency of approach is the key, and to make sure that all these different bits of the jigsaw are actually together in the right place, all over the...
  (Ms Mellor) It is; and perhaps if I could add to that, by saying, I think the biggest stimulus to achieve that kind of consistency would be to have a duty on the public sector to promote equality across all the grounds; we do have it currently on race, but if we had it across all the grounds then, combined with political leadership and senior management leadership, you would have a legal responsibility to be looking at every aspect of your policy design, your public appointments, the processes of managing the organisation, it would look at the whole lot, including public appointments. And I think that would be a huge stimulus for change; we have seen it where the Welsh Assembly have such a duty, and the combination of the political will and having that duty has meant they have made enormous progress in a very short space of time.

  774. This is a legal duty?
  (Ms Mellor) Yes.

  775. And what if people fail their legal duty, how do we know if they have failed their legal duty?
  (Ms Mellor) Perhaps I will pass that to Danny, because the CRE have more experience of it.
  (Mr Silverstone) We have got 13 days of experience, because the amended Act took force on May 31; but it will require 43,000 public bodies to promote race equality, to consult on race equality schemes, to produce race equality schemes and to eliminate racism from all their areas of work. And this is a step change in our legal enforcement powers and the public policy position within the country, which obviously we, in the CRE, would like to see applied to gender and disability as well, which I am sure is a view supported by Bert and Julie. So, in a sense, we are slightly ahead of the game, in terms of our colleague Commissions, because we are now actively wishing to use the greater powers in the Act to see improvements in public appointments for minority ethnic people.

  776. I am sure colleagues will want to explore this with you. I will not hog it.
  (Mr Silverstone) I wonder if I could just come back on your own exchange with Julie, on the issue of consistency and also on the issue of merit versus diversity, because these are concepts that have dogged the field of equal opportunities for 30 years, and you are quite right to raise them. Opponents of equal opportunities tend to characterise such policies and procedures as either being a sort of Stalinist rule book, consistency-dominated approach, that requires everybody to do the same thing, in the same way, to achieve the same outcomes; and certainly my experience is that that has not achieved equality, and certainly not the sort of practice that my Commission is supporting or commending. And you have only got to look to the States, in the seventies, with their very crude, early attempts to deliver equality through tokenistic approaches to appointments, where a whole area of public service, like the Fire Service, would suddenly become 40 per cent black over three years, you would have a black Deputy Chief Fire Officer, who had never served as a fire-fighter. That was an extreme example of tokenism, where the diversity issue took precedence over the merit issue. I think that the stakeholders and communities that we represent, and all the polls and all our collective experience suggest this, take great umbrage at notions that they achieve positions in public bodies, or in public positions, or in private positions, through any other basis than their merit, their experience, their skills. But I think that, in addition to some degree of consistency, which is also important, we need a great deal more transparency and intelligibility about what these public body, non-executive roles are. And, again, I am aware of some recent MORI polling which the Commission for Public Appointments has recently put into the public domain, which suggests how difficult it is even for broadsheet readers to understand what some of these public bodies actually do, even at the point they are applying to join them, and how few of them train and induct and support new entrants into their public positions. And this is, indeed, something which our own Commissions are actively considering now, as we welcome in a whole raft of new Commissioners to our organisations; and maybe that is an issue we could pick up during the discussion.
  (Ms Mellor) Can I just come back on the consistency issue, because, from what Danny said, I want to make sure there is not a misunderstanding about what I mean. I do not mean consistency in the sense of having the same process, with the same interview questions, for every person, I mean consistency in the sense of each Department looking at the whole process, from what is the job, through to monitoring exit interviews, doing exit interviews to find out why people are leaving, consistency about looking at each bit of the process and saying "What's working, what's not, what can we do to improve this process to help us get the best candidate that will represent the whole of Britain?" Does that make sense?

  Chairman: Yes; that is all on the record.


  777. Let us go back to transparency. The Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission each have 15 Commissioners, and they are all appointed by the relevant Secretary of State; do you think that is a good thing? The correct answer is probably, he is required, under Act of Parliament, to appoint the people; but, putting that aside, do you think it is a good thing that a Secretary of State should decide completely who are the Commissioners of these very important bodies?
  (Mr Massie) I would take the line that somebody has to decide, and it rather depends on the Secretary of State, I suppose. But if it is not the Secretary of State then who else; there are other techniques. Certainly, my impression is that Ministers take the appointments very seriously, and do influence appointments, and I have been involved in situations where candidates who, in my view, would have been perfectly acceptable, have all been rejected by the relevant Secretary of State, for reasons which, of course, I would not know, because names are put forward, and beyond that one would not get feedback. And I am not talking about my own sponsor departments, but I have been on interview panels for public bodies. I do not think it needs necessarily to be the Secretary of State, but I wonder if part of the question is whether there is a political dimension to the role Secretary of State, and whether Secretaries of State might lean at different times in the calendar towards different types of candidates, and I suspect that does happen. And I think the DRC response to that would be, if the power remains with the Secretary of State then let us stop playing around, let us say, so many appointments will be political appointments by the Secretary of State and the rest will be on merit, and at least that would be transparent.

  778. We have had a host of, not necessarily on these appointments, suggestions, that public appointments, in some cases, somebody said, should be by ballot, lot; others, and this is the next point I want to put to you, how essential do you think it is that, in the appropriate bodies, they should not necessarily be experts with great experience, but there should be a proportion of lay people, who can bring an outside thinking, perhaps, instead of the in track, on the rails, approach? Do you have any comments on that?
  (Mr Silverstone) We have recently had the experience of recruiting six new Commissioners, and took the decision, in the search process, in the advertising process, which was all run by our parent Department, the Home Office, to specify that we particularly wanted to attract candidates with a business background and a union background, and, hopefully, candidates with some experience of working with young people; but, beyond that, we were interested in anybody who had an interest in our work.

  779. Sorry, you said appointing six Commissioners?
  (Mr Silverstone) Yes.


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