Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1000 - 1019)




1000.  Why have we set up a separate system just for the National Health Service if that model is one that is applicable across government?

  (Mr Alexander) I do not see them as being contradictory. It still remains the case that Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, is responsible to Parliament for the operation of the health service and within the public appointments system there is a range of people who will be appointed in the improvement of the health service. On the other hand, a decision has been made by ministers, implemented through government, that he will delegate that authority in terms of what I think it would be fair to say was a genuine degree of public concern at the time about the process of appointments within the health service prior to the report and prior to the election of this government in 1997. That is a reflection of the constitutional reality that we have the potential for devolved structures within individual departments. Nonetheless, the reach of the central guidance stretches not just across the Department of Health but across Whitehall. We have a continuing responsibility in terms of ensuring that Dame Rennie Fritchie's code is followed.

Mr Trend

1001.  Can I remind the Committee that I do have an interest in that I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I am still not entirely happy about the Leslie/Wells row. Sir William definitely disagreed with the position put by Chris Leslie. Chris had told us that the NHS Appointments Commission appointments are still ultimately made by ministers. That is the constitutional position. The word "constitutional" sent up a red flag straight away. Sir William Wells said, "As far as we are concerned, that is not the case." He said he was only accountable to the department for administrative matters, not for appointments. We looked at the Act of 1977 and the Statutory Instrument SI2001 793, which does appear to give the Secretary of State power to do whatever he or she wants to do. I can understand the creative tension which you were discussing earlier but is this a good position, the ambiguity and particularly the ability of Sir William to say that that is not the case?

  (Mr Alexander) I would not suggest that there is a flaw in terms of the constitutional position. There may be further illustration of that constitutional position. It does seem to me to be an important guarantor of parliamentary democracy that ministers remain accountable for their conduct. On the other hand, I do not see any difficulty in circumstances in which a secretary of state chooses to exercise that authority by delegating a range of his or her functions to a particular body. I do feel it intrigues me as to the concern of the Committee, as to whether there is too much ministerial authority or too little. Our challenge is to maintain ministerial authority to the extent that the minister remains accountable to Parliament for the conduct of public bodies. On the other hand, to make sure that the architecture that sustains the decision of the Commission or the processes of any individual department sustains public confidence around the procedures by which people are appointed.

1002.  You used the word "conduct". That is also a very broad word that can cover the appointments as well as the administration of this process. Sir William Wells was very clear that ministers had no part in appointments. I put to you the case that an incoming government with a radically different view would seek to exercise, or a present government which has fallen out very badly with one particular person—these are not residual powers; they are real powers.

  (Mr Alexander) It is one of the biases of Westminster sovereignty and democracy that any government can exercise its ability according to the notion of absolute sovereignty. In terms of the operation of the system as it exists at the moment, it is perhaps to overstate the case to suggest that there is a Wells/Leslie row. It may be that the construction used by Sir William Wells implied that there was a constitutional difficulty with this. I would not accept that.


1003.  Could you send a note to the Committee, setting out what you understand to be the answer to this constitutional conundrum, based upon the advice that you had which squares this circle?

  (Mr Alexander) Sure.
  (Ms Ghosh) It might also be helpful for the Committee to have a detailed account of the actual process. Although there may be some confusion in some minds about these different roles, there is a very clear procedure set down about the role of the Minister in specifying what is required and then what the Commission will do, which clarifies quite a lot of those issues. We will send that as well.
  (Mr Alexander) It is interesting that you suggest a constitutional conundrum. It seems to me one of the virtues of the British constitution is to contain far greater conundrums than have surfaced in this Committee's work.

Mr Trend

1004.  The Welsh example we were discussing earlier has involved the Assembly much more. There were some good parts in the Welsh example and some bits in which the UK government is ahead in that it is more transparent. There are nevertheless dark suspicions from time to time in the press about certain appointments. Broadly speaking, the area we have covered so far is more a tribal matter than a party matter. It is about politicians and people who are not accountable. There has recently been a row in the press about James Strachan. These are delicate matters. Outside the political process, you get involved in the media process. Sometimes there is a plum public appointment where there is a public feeling that they would like character X from the television and there are lots of ways in which a pure, merit based system can be disturbed. How can the government best cope with these?

  (Mr Alexander) One of the questions I put to the Equal Opportunities Commissioner during a meeting in recent days was whether the progress that she felt had been so successful in Wales was reflected solely in the statutory basis for a positive duty; or whether shorn of the statutory basis there were still positive lessons that could be learned and shared with the rest of the United Kingdom. That was one of the areas where I was keen to try and get beneath the assertion that things are getting better in Wales. There is a positive duty written into the Welsh Act. There are often constraints on legislative time available and I am keen and hungry to learn what lessons we can from elsewhere if there are steps that can be taken in terms of promoting our agenda in terms of diversity. On the point about parties and tribes, I would not draw a Berlin wall between political parties and tribes. Within the Labour Party we are more than capable of being tribal and party political at the same time. On the substantive point you made, it will not surprise the Committee that I feel it would be inappropriate for me to say anything about an appointment that has not yet been made, given that I have set such store by integrity in the process.


1005.  Not talking about individual cases but as a matter of principle if we have cleaned up the public appointment system why on earth should there be any difficulty at all about appointing anybody, whether or not they are married to politicians, if they have passed the merit test? Why cannot we just be straightforward about this?

  (Mr Alexander) I am keen not to break my own self-imposed rule of commenting on a specific. I also find myself in the curious position of, for once, wanting to quote The Guardian newspaper on 29 October which directed itself to exactly this point and I felt made interesting and important points about the fact that if you get the procedure right then people deserve to be judged on the basis of what they can contribute.

1006.  Why is the government so coy?

  (Mr Alexander) It does not require an overly suspicious mind to suggest that if, in the context of the specific example, a general point no doubt worth making could be misinterpreted as being part of a discussion about a specific candidate, is not unreasonable for government ministers in a time of genuine concern on the part of certain sections of the press about a potential appointment that we call canny about commenting.

Mr Prentice

1007.  I was very interested in what you said earlier on diversity that you are building up a database on diversity. I want to know what information you want to have that you do not have at the moment.

  (Ms Ghosh) Essentially, the information we have at the moment is pretty patchy because the information available derives from people's applications. What do departments know about people being appointed to their NDPBs? What they see on the application form. As you probably know, at the moment effectively the only questions that people are asked, other than you can generally tell whether a person is male or female, are have they asked under the guaranteed interview scheme for a guaranteed interview because they regard themselves as disabled and the form about political activity. We do not systematically at the moment, through the application process, collect that kind of data. Obviously, there are issues there which are tricky about whether or not we should move to making those standard questions of importance with the advent of the Article 13 requirements. We raised these issues and it is something the NDPBs will be thinking about.

1008.  Do we collect information by ethnicity and gender?

  (Ms Ghosh) No.

1009.  Why not?

  (Ms Ghosh) There is no reason in principle why we should not do so. There is no policy reason.

1010.  Would you like to?

  (Ms Ghosh) It is an issue we would need to discuss with departments. With all these ethnicity surveys, as you know, there are always some who say it should be an irrelevancy and others—

1011.  You are an expert and I am asking you.

  (Mr Alexander) I am probably the expert. Of course we can set ourselves targets and it is important that we are in a position to measure them. That is why we are taking forward work on this issue, but it does also involve discussions with department in terms of reality on where appointments are made. On the one hand we at the centre are charged with the responsibility for working with departments and cajoling them and encouraging them and then—

1012.  It seems strange to me. At the moment, government departments collect masses of information on ethnicity and on gender but not ethnicity and gender combined. How can we have a sensible discussion about increasing the number of black women, Asian women, and Moslem women? Do we collect information on religion?

  (Ms Ghosh) No, we do not.

1013.  It is all finger in the wind.

  (Mr Alexander) I am not saying the government should not do this. There are genuine discussions which take place within government and that is not by means of an excuse. It is just the reality of things. It also speaks to the potential if we could get this database right about capacity for read across and having a far more intelligent source of information than some of the information that is available. I would not wish any disrespect to my colleagues but in preparation for this Committee I have been working hard at reading Public Bodies 2001, which is not the most user friendly guide. We can both simultaneously equip ourselves with better tools internally to argue the case for exactly the kind of work that you, I imagine, are keen for departments to undertake at the same time as making it more user friendly for people who want to find out what is available in terms of opportunities to serve.

1014.  What did you find out from Patricia Hewitt's seminar in Leicester that you mentioned earlier? What did you learn about how we can attract more women from the ethnic minorities into public bodies?

  (Mr Alexander) I understand Helen had staff members at the seminar. On the basis of a conversation I have already had internally within the department, what potential talent there is in the area of Leicester because you have a range of women from the ethnic community in Leicester and the surrounding areas who have tremendous skills and experience on the basis of working within community organisations in that locality. In that sense, it affirms me in my view that there are still untapped pools of potential talent out there which we have a responsibility to access. Secondly, there is interesting research which has emerged from the DTLR which is trying to establish a hierarchy of reasons why people do not serve on NDPBs within their own area of work. Helen perhaps can give you a better sense of that.
  (Ms Ghosh) This is the DETR survey of women and public appointments and the list is awareness of public appointments, the attractiveness of public appointments. Coming back to the lessons we learn, mainly they want to do something that is actively making a difference, not just sitting on a committee without really changing things. Confidence. Do they have the skills. Do they feel they are equipped to appear before selection committees? Can they do it when they get there? Time, a barrier for all of us, childcare and remuneration was the last on the list. The Ginger Group that Chris Leslie set up, people with experience on NDPBs and others and the Short Life Working Group are all things which we are trying to look at in some way. For instance, the issue of remuneration is a very complicated one and we need to do some work on that in terms of tracking what is out there. What people want is practical examples. They want role models. My staff who went there who ran our stall and answered questions said that nobody wanted to talk to them at all. They wanted to talk to these dynamic women in the East Midlands who had done it. That is a lesson for us. They wanted things that made a difference. Lots of them were very much used to running tenants' associations, setting up the single regeneration budget and making a difference. The question was persuading them that, at the next level up, possibly at the regional level, they could do similar sorts of things. The third lesson which arises from that is this idea of ladders. How do you get somebody who has no experience, who has never been on a committee and does not understand how it works into local activity, up to the RDA or some national body? Increasingly, although regional offices quite rightly say there is a resource issue here, we are thinking of a much more active role of the regional offices in picking up local talent, developing it, possibly working on whether there could be schemes where local colleges of further education work with regional offices to identify talent, to give people skills so that they are ready for regional appointments and then they can move on. The key thing people want to know about is what are the vacancies and how they can apply. That is why the Public Appointments Register stuff is so important.

1015.  We may get a Bill on regional devolution in England in a week's time. I am interested if any work has been done at all about how to regionalise the public appointments procedures and so on.

  (Mr Alexander) You will not be surprised if I suggest it would not be appropriate to comment on any potential legislation in advance of the Queen's Speech. I would remind the Committee of what we said in the White Paper on regional government in which we made clear that departments would first of all have to consider locating outside London and the south-east. That speaks to an awareness of the relevance of an evolving policy around regional government in England to this whole agenda, and also it reinforces the point that Helen made. If we are serious about our work in terms of diversity and outreach, notwithstanding the important work we have to do in the centre in terms of accessibility of websites and information, the best Cabinet Office Minister or regional team on this area is as nothing compared with someone who in the local community who has said, "This is an area worth getting involved in and taking forward." It seems to me it is analogous in some ways to a delivery message. The idea that as a government you can pronounce from Whitehall how you should be grateful for what has happened in the health service because we have spent X on the health service seems to be rapidly and thankfully giving way to a far more sophisticated understanding of what people are concerned about in their locality. In that sense, there is some parallel with our challenge in terms of communicating the potential work for public bodies. We have to get it right at the centre but that in itself is not sufficient. We have to make sure that rooted within communities there is an awareness of the opportunity that people have to serve on public bodies.

1016.  Are you responsible for the House of Lords' Appointments Commission?

  (Mr Alexander) The House of Lords stands separate from this whole area in terms of—

1017.  —Does that mean no?

  (Mr Alexander)—public bodies because clearly it is part of the legislature rather than part of the executive arm of my responsibilities. I understand the remit of this Committee's investigation is publicly appointed bodies as they apply to ministers in the executive.

1018.  Does that mean no?

  (Mr Alexander) As I say, the House of Lords itself stands separate.
  (Ms Ghosh) To interpret the question, do you mean to appointments of the people who sit on the House of Lords' Appointments Commission?

1019.  Yes, appointments to the House of Lords' Appointments Commission.

  (Ms Ghosh) I believe it is the case, although we can formalise this, that strictly speaking the appointments are made by the Prime Minister to the House of Lords' Appointments Commission, but, as with some of his other processes under the terms of the OCPA rules, in practice the Cabinet Office does the legwork, as it were.
  (Mr Alexander) I would not wish to suggest for a moment I was not fully aware of every area of responsibility of my work, but one of the questions I might have asked officials was to make absolutely certain that I was aware as to every potential piece of patronage and appointment that I have responsibility for in terms of my role in the Cabinet Office. I fear that my reach does not extend to the House of Lords' Appointments Commission, rather to two particular bodies—the Civil Service Appeals Board and the work of the COI, so in terms of my responsibilities as Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, it is not me.

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