Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 824 - 839)




  824. Can I welcome you very much on behalf of the Committee. As you know, we are engaged upon an inquiry into the whole public appointments system. Although we are not particularly focusing upon the health service, we are particularly interested in what has happened to the health service and therefore it seemed a very good idea to bring in you from the NHS Appointments Commission to talk about what you are doing on the appointments side and see what we can learn from that about some of the wider public appointments issues. That is the context for the invitation. We are very glad that you were able to come. I understand you are willing to say a few words by way of introduction.

  (Sir William Wells) If I could, Chairman, very briefly, first of all say that we are pleased to be here because we think we do have something to offer to the debate. Albeit that we have only been in operation for just over 12 months, during that period we have made over 2,000 appointments from 32,000 people who made inquiries, just to give some idea of the scale. As you know, one of the main reasons for the creation of the NHS Appointments Commission was the alleged politicisation of appointments within the NHS and I am pleased to say that during our time we have not had any involvement from ministers at all in any of the appointments we have made. Indeed, the board of the Commission does not know the political activity of any of the people who are coming up for recommendation for appointment, so that we believe we have certainly achieved that objective amongst many others which were set up. I wanted to say that right up front.

  825. Thank you very much. Do you want to add anything, Dr Moore?
  (Dr Moore) No, that is fine.

  826. Before we head into that, let me say that we like to think here that we had some kind of role in your genesis because we did recommend in our report looking at the NHS appointments system that there should be an independent commission, and then, immediately following our recommendation, one was announced. So, as I say, we like to claim that you owe yourself to us!
  (Sir William Wells) Thank you very much.

  827. What I am slightly perplexed about, though, in what you have just told me is this business about not knowing anything about the particular affiliation of people that come up for appointment. How do I match that up with what I read here about your ability to give reliable figures on the political background of these people?
  (Sir William Wells) A very good question. We are required by OCPA to collect information on people's political activity. The forms are quite clear. We have a pack here that we send out to all, and one of the questions is: Do you have any political activity? If you do, there are certain other boxes that you have to tick and then that is returned with their application for the particular post in question. That particular page from the application form is then detached by our offices in Leeds and London and is then purely inputted for the statistics which OCPA require, and which we make public, because we think it is very important that people should see what the situation is. The application forms are then, without the political activity page, sent to the short-listing committee for short-listing, interview and so forth, so that the people who are involved in the appointments right from the very beginning have no knowledge of the political activity of any of the individual applicants.

  828. That is interesting. When Dame Rennie Fritchie of the Office of the Commission for Public Appointments was getting exercised about the pattern of appointments, before you existed you were not able to remedy that because you did not know what the political affiliations of the people were.
  (Sir William Wells) We did not attempt to remedy it, I have to say. We have a very simple credo: we appoint on merit and it is not our concern whether somebody has declared political activity or not declared political activity. That is what the Appointments Commission was set up to do, actually to appoint the right people to do the job, not because they were a member of a political party.

  829. So if everybody whom you appointed belonged to the same political party, that would not cause any difficulty for you.
  (Sir William Wells) It would certainly make us look quite seriously at whether there were any built-in biases in our appointment process. Indeed—and I said this to the Health Select Committee—it is interesting—and we do not know whether it is worrying or not, and I will come back to that in a moment - that we have in fact actually appointed people in the first year of the Commission in almost exactly the same political proportions as occurred when ministers were making the decision, and that is without us knowing whether we were appointing people. We are not quite sure that that tells us, so we are going to submit it to an independent organisation to analyse statistically, right from application through to decision, to see whether there is any conscious or subconscious bias being built in in any particular direction or in any particular geographical area, because, clearly, we need to look at our procedures to make quite sure that we compensate for it if that is the case, and we will make the outcome of all of that public because we think this is a very important point.

  830. It may just show that there are vastly more able and meritorious Labour people out there than Conservative or Liberal Democrat?
  (Sir William Wells) It may well do so. It may well do so, Chairman. Exactly. We just want to know. The figures are very simply, if I remember them, something like 72 per cent of the people we appoint have no declared political activity. So we are only talking about a relatively small proportion. Of the remainder, 26 per cent are Labour, 4.5 per cent are Tory and 4.4 per cent are Liberal Democrat. This is almost statistically the same as it was prior to our appointment.

  831. Before I hand over, may I ask one further preliminary question just to get the feel for all this. In your memorandum to us, very helpfully describing how you do it, you say, "The final appointment is made by the Appointments Commissioners sitting as a board, following a recommendation from the Regional Commissioner on the basis of the views of the panel." When the minister came to see us in April, he said. "So even with the NHS Appointments Commission the appointments are still ultimately made by ministers . . . that is the constitutional position." How are we to reconcile these two things?
  (Sir William Wells) As far as we are concerned, that is not the case. We explain our accountabilities. We are accountable to the secretary of state for the proper running of the Commission in terms of its money and the like, in the way that any special health authority (as we are constituted) has to. That is the proper machinery of government. We are not accountable to the minister for the appointments that we make. We are accountable to OCPA, Dame Rennie Fritchie, for the process that we undertake—her organisation audits us to make sure that we are following the process correctly, and they will refer cases if they feel that there has been an injustice—and we are accountable directly to parliament for the scrutiny of our overall activities.

Kelvin Hopkins

  832. I have been involved one way or another with public appointments for about 30 years, both in my professional life, before I was in parliament, and privately and politically, and I do indeed know Rosie Varley very well, your Eastern Regional Commissioner. In the past there clearly was a grapevine that public appointment was somehow stopped at official level when people who were unsuitable or regarded as unsuitable were rejected mysteriously. I know this from my time in the TUC particularly. They might all have been nominally Labour Party but some were executive and some were non-executive for political reasons. I am hoping it is much more open and much more transparent now that you do not have this kind of filter, and if somebody interviews well and clearly has good qualifications then they are just regarded as a suitable appointment. Is that fair?
  (Sir William Wells) Yes. We have changed the process very significantly. First and foremost we actually now appoint to specific roles. Previously there was a generic advertising campaign: Do you want to be a non-executive in the NHS? and people were interviewed to be a non-executive in the NHS and when a vacancy came up they were slotted in. We did not think that was at all satisfactory and therefore we now select/interview for particular posts. That helps because it simplifies, number one, the system. Two, we are very open and we are very transparent: everybody can inquire why they were not appointed and we will let them have a copy of the interview notes. Never before did that happen. What you are alleging happened before could not happen now because they have an ability to be able to see why they were not appointed. As I said before, we have eradicated as best we can party political bias in whichever direction, and we have been much faster and more responsive to the needs of boards, which is another important point. The previous system tended to generically reject or not reject people, without actually a view of what was wanted, sitting round the table of the board of a particular trust or a strategic health authority and the like, and now we actually are much more responsive to the boards needs, so hopefully we are building better teams to carry out the work which they are required to do.

  833. I know that many of the people who are appointed put themselves forward in effect. Do you find it is difficult to get sufficient people to come forward and that you do not always get the people coming forward you would like to appoint? Are there problems with the quality of the people coming forward?
  (Sir William Wells) I am actually very pleased. I was a regional chairman beforehand and therefore responsible for making recommendations to the secretary of state for appointments and we were having considerable difficulty in getting required numbers. I think a lot of this was because people just did not know how the system worked, they found they were rejected for no reason and such and so forth. Now we are getting huge numbers of applicants—as I said, 32,000 for 2,000—and that in itself creates a different problem, which we might address later. So we are not concerned about the numbers. We are concerned—again, this is something which no doubt you will wish to cover—that in some areas we are not getting as broad a representation from the population as we would like, but in terms of sheer volume it is okay.

Mr Trend

  834. On the question of these regional similarities between the old system and the new system and the national similarities and the work you are going to do with the independent audit here, is that something which you will be able to publish at some stage?
  (Sir William Wells) Yes. Absolutely.

  835. In what sort of form.
  (Sir William Wells) We are going to be asking for an analysis of the database, just giving them the database of all the appointments that we made and asking them to analyse it and to see whether there are any inconsistencies and the like, and then we will ask them to produce a report. We will look at it and we will then decide whether action needs to be taken. If action does need to be taken, we will decide what action, and we will publish the report together with our views on how we can, if necessary, make any correction.

  836. It is a deeply fascinating overall statistic.
  (Sir William Wells) It is.

  837. Which suggests there may have been nothing wrong with the original system.
  (Sir William Wells) Well ... it is conceivable.

  838. May I just dwell on the change which was made—as the Chairman rightly says, with our support. What size operation and what cost of operation do you now run?
  (Sir William Wells) We employ about 50 people in two offices, one in London and one in Leeds, and our budget is £3.5 million.

  839. Does that include the expenses of all the people who are now paid, remunerated?
  (Sir William Wells) By far the biggest cost for that is advertising: we advertise every single post, I think quite rightly because they are public posts. The cost of staff we employ. The cost of doing all the interviewing and the short-listing and the like.

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