Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 840 - 859)



  840. How many of these staff came over from, as it were, the established civil service?
  (Dr Moore) Probably about a quarter.

  841. Was that a net loss to the established civil service? I mean, how does the cost benefit work here?
  (Dr Moore) It was actually very similar.

  842. Were those people in the civil service then replaced? Do you know if that is the case?
  (Dr Moore) No, because the job was actually relinquished by the Department of Health.

  843. So it was a straightforward sort of privatisation, in a sense.
  (Dr Moore) If you like.

  844. One of the things I noticed in the paper that you sent to us is that you are, quite properly, quite impressed—you have every chance to be impressed—with the scale of the operation. You say, ". . . the scale of our operation ranks us with the larger senior recruitment agencies." So you are still growing and expanding.
  (Sir William Wells) We are because we originally were set up to deal with strategic health authorities, health trusts and primary care trusts. We have already been asked to carry out the appointments of a number of national posts within health and I have reason to believe that the secretary of state at the beginning of the next financial year will ask us to carry out all of the appointments in the National Health Service. So those will be a mixture of national and special health authorities and the like.

  845. Do you think there will be a prospect in the future that you might extend your remit outside the health area?
  (Sir William Wells) Perhaps I could answer that question slightly differently, to say that I think we have developed a model—and you were the ones who suggested it in the first place—which actually fits very well into the public sector and it could easily be adapted to deal with public appointments generally. All you would have to do is to tailor the selection and interview criteria to fit the particular jobs in question. You would probably have to recruit specialists, but that is not very difficult, but it would give independent probity and professionalism and it would still allow the sponsoring government departments to be involved in deciding what it is that they want. But our experience—and I think this is a very interesting point—is that when we have been asked to take on these ad hoc roles, the biggest problem is to get them to define what it is that they want. So half the difficulty, we suspect, with public appointments has and will continue to be that they are going out looking for something which they have not actually properly defined and that leads them then into all sorts of downstream difficulties. Because people say, "I wasn't considered." Why? "Well, because you decided something completely different at the time you made your appointment from the time when you made the initial inquiries." That is where you start to get difficulties. And of course, also, they do not make many appointments and therefore they cannot have a proper professional set up in which to deal with it.

  846. So—and this may be an uncharitable interpretation—you are now dug in, have quite a lot of staff, spend quite a lot of money and you are eyeing the possibility of empire building in other areas of public appointment. Do you think you are now an irreplaceable part of the machinery of administration in the country?
  (Sir William Wells) I have never thought like that.

  Mr Trend: I will come clean. When we were debating this amongst ourselves, there was debate about what happens with a new government, incoming with a completely different philosophy of how to run public services, and in particular the health service. Is it not legitimate for a new government to say, "We want to do things in a completely different way," and then to try to fix it, essentially, so that their people throughout the country . . . Indeed, some slightly more candid Labour members said that is precisely what happened in 1997.

  Brian White: What should have happened.

Mr Trend

  847. What should have happened, according to Mr White. You need the commanding heights; you do not want people who are going to be obstructive with, in your view, an old-fashioned philosophy getting in the way of exercising the mandate the country has given you to bring about profound change. I dare say that would now be impossible to do with the ombudsman service. An incoming government could not say, "We are not going to have this any more, throw it away," it has become woven into the fabric of our understanding of how the country works. I was wondering what level of confidence you felt, that this was now a transparent service which people valued for itself.
  (Sir William Wells) It is of course quite difficult—we have only been going for 12 months—but what I would say is that there are 4,500 people for whom we have responsibility, I have just completed a national tour and met with over 2,000 of them, and there is a huge and increased degree of confidence in the probity of the system. I think that if it was abolished there would be very, very considerable disquiet by the people who have been appointed through this system because they know where they are, they are being looked after, and they know that at the end their future is not just going to be decided at the whim of political change.

  848. Do you have a plan for a radical change of policy? How would the system withstand that?
  (Dr Moore) Could I come in here. I think we are in danger of confusing appointment with the role. It is totally appropriate for an incoming government, to use your example, to define the role, and to define the role and therefore the qualities that they are looking for in incumbents, in quite a different way from the previous government. But what we are arguing is that the appointment process itself, whatever the role or whatever the qualities required, should be open and transparent and that is difficult to move away from.

Brian White

  849. I do not understand that. Let us turn it round and say that I want to destroy the NHS: I get a whole stack of people to apply, get my people into appointments, and then we undermine what the government is trying to achieve. How do you stop that?
  (Sir William Wells) The people who are appointed to boards, one of the things that they have to sign off is that they will actually promote and support government policy. You actually could not do it in that way. I think the point we are making is that the role of a non-executive director was actually changed when this Government came in following the Tory Government, and they have created a different set of criteria from what they wanted their people to carry out—and that of course is perfectly proper and permissible for them to do but actually should not make any difference to the appointment process, because the people who are responsible for appointment merely appoint people to a new role and that must be something the Government will always hold to themselves. In fact we are in the process of being able to discuss with the Government a further refinement to the role of non-executive directors because we think it can be further improved to the benefit of the health service. So I think that is an ongoing situation.

  850. I am actually slightly reassured by the figures you gave because it proves to me what I have been saying all along that Dame Rennie Fritchie's campaign, her own invention, was not justified by the evidence, but then that is something I have said to her before. What I really want to identify is we talk about 72 per cent of people not having political affiliation.
  (Sir William Wells) Activity.

  851. You and I both know, Sir William—and I have used her as an example before—Mrs Gillian Miscampbell, who is on the description as "no political activity" but was the former Conservative leader of Buckinghamshire County Council. When you get obvious examples like that, where it is showing no political activity, you get the old squirearchy: If you support the government you are doing public service; if you want to change it, it is political activity. How do you get round those kind of issues?
  (Sir William Wells) We use the definition that is provided to us, which is if you have any political activity in the five years preceding your application you have to declare it. If you have not had any political activity during those five years, then you do not have to declare it. That is the time level. As far as what do we mean by political activity, this is pretty broad-ranging—you know, even to leaflet dropping and the like. But, being quite candid to you, we do not have the time or the resources or, I have to say at the moment, the inclination to check individually whether everybody actually ticks the box quite correctly. I am quite sure you are right, I think numbers of people will wish to hide the fact that they have got any political activity, but there is very little we can do about that. Clearly, if it is self-evident that they have got political activity, people will know that because they are being interviewed locally. Therefore, if they were leader of the council and they have not declared it, then we would correct that and probably disbar them.

  852. It was actually beyond the five years, so she is technically correct. I am not suggesting she has done anything wrong, but it was just to make the point, as an example, of where I think the figures actually mislead.
  (Sir William Wells) They may do. I think it is very difficult. It is not our definition. We are a collecting agency for the political information. That is all we are.

Mr Prentice

  853. Just to clear up the figures, you said 72 per cent have no political activity but in my brief it—
  (Sir William Wells) I am sorry, 63 per cent. I was talking, badly, from memory. I apologise. Sixty-three.

Brian White

  854. You have talked about merit. Does merit not mean in the image of the people making the appointment? So that, even though you may get cultural diversity and ethnic diversity, you are going to be appointing middle class people who have a professional background. Contenders for alternative medicine, for example, are going to be excluded because they do not fit into the mirror image of what you are looking for. How do you deal with that kind of diversity?
  (Sir William Wells) I think we have to go back to the criteria and the role. The current criteria to which we are working, which were introduced by Frank Dobson when he was secretary of state, are actually not achieving that which he wished to achieve. They are in fact actually confining the field rather than expanding it. Why? Because they are concentrated on knowledge and skills. Knowledge and skills do preclude large numbers of people who we believe would have the competency to carry out the role but, because they are well experienced in local affairs or whatever it happens to be, they get cut out of it at the sifting stage. We are concerned about that and we are working on it. I have talked both to the secretary of state and the minister of state about it and they are supportive of us coming up with an appraisal which actually changes the way in which we recruit people to a competency-based interview process, which we will make quite structured in order to avoid the point that you are making. At the moment the interviews are not structured and therefore you could claim that it just becomes a self-perpetuating group of people. And, I have to say, you are right: if you look at the cross-section of the people who are non-executives, they are mainly white and middle class, and that is not representative of the people for whom they are going to be responsible—hence us carrying out this exercise at the moment which we will be consulting on and then taking to ministers early next year.

  855. A lot of people take one look at the form and say, "I cannot fill that in."
  (Sir William Wells) We have actually improved the form very considerably. We have reduced it by about two-thirds in size, but again we will be changing that because it will be moved hopefully, if we get agreement from the secretary of state, to a competency-based application.

  856. People quite often find they would like to participate but the structure of meetings, the remuneration actually deters them—or it does not encourage them.
  (Sir William Wells) We have made it very clear to all chairs of the Commission that they have to have family-friendly and convenient meeting times and they have to take the views of the people who sit round the table—and not the executives, because they should come along, but the non-executives—as to that. Some people meet at half-past seven in the morning because that is most convenient for everybody because it allows them to get off to work or child-minding is easier at that time or . . . others meet in in the evening. Very few actually, except in deeper rural areas, meet in the middle of the day. That is the first thing. The second thing is that the cost of child-minding is provided and therefore it is very important that we do not preclude people with children because they are very important for us to have on the board. As far as money is concerned and time, this is something that we are in active debate about at the moment. At the moment a non-executive director is required to spend five days a month doing the job. This, we think, is extremely restrictive because it means that people who are in full-time employment have to persuade their employers to let them have over a month a year off work. And it is not on, because I have been to see the CBI and IOD and they are all saying, "Forget it." You know, "We will simply not campaign on your behalf to get full-time workers to do this." So we are looking to see what the consequence would be of two and a half days a month, which is much more acceptable to employers. It is also means that five days a month for the low paid, on £5,000 a year fee, just does not match up, so they say, "Forget it. We cannot afford to do it." Therefore, again, we are looking to shorten the time. If we cannot shorten the time, we are going to have to put a strong case to ministers that the remuneration has to be adjusted, otherwise we really are pushing increasingly towards those people who are financially self-supporting or are supported by a partner and this is only one section of the population.

  857. You have a number of people who actually use the appointment as the basis for a whole series of public appointments, so they are on the council, they have an NHS appointment and a government quango and they make up their earnings that way. How do you deal with that?
  (Sir William Wells) This is a question of balance. We of course require a full declaration at the time of the application forms as to what other public jobs they have. They have to declare that. If they then get through to the interview stage, they are examined very extensively about their time capability and conflict. A chairman of a social services committee, for example, it would be very difficult to have sitting on a hospital trust board. A number of people do not get it because we think that they are trying to build up a portfolio of public sector jobs just for the sake of doing it and therefore they cannot give us the time that we need. On the other hand, it is actually very helpful for us to have people who are active in other parts of the public sector on the board, because, you know, if they are involved in education they can bring knowledge of education and child care. Similarly, for people who are involved in the local authorities for social services—because there is a very strong partnership, particularly in primary care reform—it is very important that we have them. But we do not want everybody like that; we only want one or two like that because they have to be balanced with people with other skills.

Kelvin Hopkins

  858. Following on from my earlier question, really, I am not so concerned about social balance because I think that area is improving and is getting a much better ethnic balance as well, but it is the political problem. If somebody comes up for interview and is a member of my party, the Labour Party, but believes very strongly in direct employment and in-house services and is unhappy with what one might call the Government's modernising agenda, that would be clearly politically uncomfortable for somebody but he or she might make a very useful contribution and be a very, very good member of a trust's board in other ways. What happens in interview when people like that arrive?
  (Sir William Wells) Everybody is free to express any views and to have any views that they like, but these boards only work as a team. They are bound by the rules of cabinet and once they have made a decision they are all responsible for that decision and if they are not prepared to be responsible for that decision then they have to resign. So people have to examine their own conscience. They may well have strong views about certain things. Provided that they believe that they can carry out their role as a member of the board—and remember they are individually and collectively responsible for that—and reconcile those particularly strong views they have in any direction, there is no way we are going to disbar them. But if they become single issue people and we think they are single issue people, we tend to weed them out, I am afraid, because that is not what we want on this board. We actually want people who are prepared to bring in a certain skill, a range of skills and competences, but become part of a team.

Mr Prentice

  859. The Government wants to bring in foundation hospitals. Foundations hospitals are going to have a lot of flexibility, a lot of scope that other hospitals will not have. Would you look for a different type of person to join the board of one of these new Labour foundation hospitals? Or would you get anyone from the pool of applicants?
  (Sir William Wells) It is a moving feast.

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