THURSDAY 31 OCTOBER 2002
Tony Wright, in the Chair
EXAMINATION OF WITNESSES
MR DOUGLAS ALEXANDER, a Member of the House, Minister of State, and MS HELEN GHOSH, Secretariat Director, Cabinet Office, examined.
(Mr Alexander) I thought it might be helpful first of all to introduce Helen Ghosh, who is the director of our machinery of government team within the Cabinet Office. Given that you are moving towards the conclusion of your investigation, I thought it might be helpful if I set in context my own remarks. First, my own view on why the public appointments and diversity agenda is so important to our work in government. Secondly, what I see as my role as Cabinet Office Minister in advancing that agenda and finally a word on progress that has been made since you saw Chris Leslie and Barbara Roche earlier during your inquiries. Firstly, why it is so important? I would judge the correct starting point as a recognition of our commitment as a government to the success of the public realm. As I believe you said at the outset of your inquiry, delivering better public services in part depends on appointing better, more able public servants. NDPBs play a crucial role in delivering those services directly to the public, whether directly or in an advisory capacity. Executive agencies spend more than £25 billion of public money, almost a quarter of the social security budget, and can have a vital impact on people's lives whether it is advising on medical treatment or funding local sports facilities. Of course we need to ensure that these are the most talented and effective people that we can find to grow the pool of talent from which these appointments come and then the more confident we can be that they in turn will be able to deliver. That is why we need to encourage and enable people from all sections of the community to come forward and to ensure that we are making the most of the skills and experience that our out there, ready to be tapped. What is my role within the Cabinet Office? As the Minister responsible for both NDPBs and the appointments policy, I have two main interests. First, the NDPBs are fit for their purpose, that they are well led and well run and focused on their objectives and their customers and provide good value for money for the taxpayer. All these are primarily the responsibility of their sponsoring ministers and departments of course but I and my team have a role in challenging and supporting departments in fulfilling their sponsorship functions. Secondly, I have to support and, if necessary, cajole departments in their work to attract talent from the widest possible pool. Our best practice advice and our outreach work with OCPA, with the equality unit, are perhaps the best examples of this work. Finally, what progress have we made recently since last you heard from Barbara Roche and Chris Leslie? Firstly, we have been doing work to build up better data on this subject, something I know this Committee and Dame Rennie Fritchie are keen on. As well as preparing for publication of Public Bodies 2002, we are setting up a database which will help us answer questions on diversity which at the moment we are still unable to answer. We have also been looking at whether the service currently provided through the public appointments register really meets the needs of members of the public in this post-Nolan world of job advertising and we are developing some ideas for change. I am looking forward to getting shortly from our officials a list of top 20 ideas for improving our record on diversity and the Short Life Working Group has been taking forward our work in this area over recent months. I will be happy to try and answer your questions.
(Mr Alexander) I would certainly see the Nolan recommendations as the foundation for our work in this area. It clearly defined the remit initially for Dame Rennie Fritchie's work and the office in general. Already, I think it is clear in the work that Dame Rennie personally has been taking forward that that does not delimit the scope for further improvements. There is also a recognition of the strength of commitment the government feels to upholding the Nolan Rules. In some ways, we have moved beyond the strict terms of the rules in recent years.
(Mr Alexander) I would uphold her right to continually challenge government. That is in many ways why she is there, to be both a watchdog and also an encourager of best practice. That is where I think in the Cabinet Office we can work closely with her. There is the very important role as the guardian of procedures, by which these appointments are made, which I would certainly uphold, but I think that can be supplemented and this is some of the work Helen and her team have been taking forward within an internal process of government where, along with the rules which are upheld by Dame Rennie Fritchie, we within government can act as a support and encouragement to departments, as they seek to take those rules forward themselves. It might be appropriate for Helen to say a little in terms of how our own best practice guide within the Cabinet Office is working in terms of assisting departments in avoiding being in a position where they can be named and shamed. If I recollect, that was a rendition by Dame Rennie just in this year's report and again it is evidence of the seriousness in government that we attach to Dame Rennie's views in this area of policy.
(Ms Ghosh) You quite rightly pick out the point that in the Commissioner's report she does highlight some things in the Departments whom her auditors visited this year, though if she were able to appear before you at the moment she would reinforce the point that I have heard her say in many contexts that, overall, departments carry out the processes extremely well and these are very much exceptions rather than rules. One of the particular bits of work that we are doing with Dame Rennie's team is to discuss in detail with departments how the best practice rules apply to them. My team is involved at the moment, for example, in a series of workshops going round all the departments, not just picking out people who are named and shamed, but departments as a whole, to refresh their memories about the best practice guide which I think Dame Rennie describes as excellent, to talk them through their current issues and problems with the processes, with representatives from OCPA there as well, and to get feedback from them about the practicalities of how things work. Of course, across departments, depending on how many appointments they make, there are very wide variations in both the numbers and the skills of departments in making appointments. There are very different issues for them about how they can meet the OCPA guidelines and get appointments made quickly and effectively for the purposes of their NDPBs. Developing our best practice guidance is something we make live by these visits to departments.
(Ms Ghosh) There are two issues. The first is one that the Minister referred to, which is the role of the Public Appointments Unit, the role of the Public Appointments Register, in finding talent. The very reason we are looking at how the Public Appointments Register currently runs is because we think that effectively it is a dinosaur left over from a different age. It is left over from the days when you just had a list of the great and the good and it was a very untransparent process. Post-Nolan, with the fact that all departments are advertising, it is very confusing. That is one of the bits of feedback we have from the excellent series of seminars which the Women in Equality Unit ran for women. We had lots of enthusiastic women across the country saying, "Great, we would love to be involved." Their number one requirement was how do we know what the vacancies are. At the moment, we can only say, "Put yourselves on the Public Appointments Register" which does not let people know when there are vacancies. There are 4,000-odd people on it and I have about three people running it, if I may be vulgar enough to talk about money, and no more money to put in. They simply could not do a proper, "Here is a vacancy that might suit you" recruitment job. We are very conscious that there is a disjunction there. The kinds of ideas we are looking at are whether or not we could do something that was a synergy with what departments already do in advertising and website terms and possibly set up a one-stop website.
(Mr Alexander) It seems to me there are two challenges, one internal and one external. How do we get the balance right between the centres of departments? That is an internal conversation, ensuring that we are there when departments are appointing people so that they can get access to best practice, good advice, making sure not just that OCPA discovers when wrongdoing has occurred but that there is help in advance of that to ensure that it does not occur. That is one of the areas that Helen is charged with, within government. While that may not have surfaced in public debate, I am confident that that work is being taken as a growing awareness of the need to conform to these guidance rules but also as an opportunity to garner assistance from the centre in this area. The second point is at least, if not more, of a fundamental challenge, which is how are we outward facing in this whole issue of public appointments. I think the era when Whitehall was best is so obviously passing in that we need to get beyond the culture that says, "As one of the great and the good, you will apply to a single department which is a single repository of knowledge and information about public appointments" and instead we proactively go in search for people who are qualified and able to make a contribution as a public servant; and, at the same time, we work harder as a government than we have in the past in making sure that there is a level of information available about the kind of appointments which may interest people. Perhaps my constituency experience is exceptional, but I have not often met constituents of mine who have said, "I am desperate to serve on a public body." You are far more likely to find somebody who says, "Can I get into a particular agency or institution" because of their own interests. In that sense, we have to upscale our work in making sure that there is a genuine interactivity between opportunities available and candidates who potentially would be interested but do not at the moment have access to that information.
(Ms Ghosh) Indeed. In projects of this kind, anything which involves IT takes some time. We are hoping to possibly build on some existing software. You may have seen the DWP work training site which Job Centre Plus runs, which is similarly a one-stop shop for vacancies. We might be able to build on something like that to make that kind of gateway into public appointments so that people can say, "I am interested in this kind of topic. What is there out there?" and they will whizz through into the individual department's sets of vacancies.
(Mr Alexander) Not only does it provide a better service to the citizen in the sense that you can find out specific appointments that are available, but it potentially transforms your own internal workings within the department and challenges some of the traditional structures of government in the way that it surfaces information which means it is not only of assistance to us in giving us up to date information in terms of issues of diversity and vacancies as they exist, but it simultaneously provides better service to the citizen.
(Mr Alexander) I cannot say I am familiar with who the individual was. I have recently had a conversation with the Equal Opportunities Commissioner, Julie Miller, who was arguing about the merits of the approach adopted by the Welsh Assembly in terms of a positive duty. I am not sure if it was the same source, but I can assure you that as soon as she got in touch with me and said that this was an issue of concern to her, I made sure that we had her into the department and a very interesting report has just been published on the work on diversity within Wales. I was intrigued from a Scottish MP's point of view. I could not recollect this issue during the passage of the Scotland Act. How do you get to the situation where positive duty and further diversity are contained in the Wales Act? She said it had partly been that people had an interest during the passage of the Bill in Parliament but, as had been anticipated, it was a very effective lever within Wales, cascading across the whole range of the public sector. In that sense, it was a very productive meeting I had and I found what she had to say of interest. The general point I made was I think we are only at the beginning of our understanding of the potential for creative policy making that a devolved constitutional architecture in Britain gives us. It is exciting for ministers to have the opportunity to learn from innovation taking place in Edinburgh, Belfast or elsewhere. The specific point that I put to her in terms of how to take forward this work was to make sure that we were centred on the evidence emerging in Wales and that we would continue our dialogue with the Cabinet Office, but also that it was important to continue to build those relationships across government, in particular with Barbara Roche and the Equalities Unit.
(Mr Alexander) I spoke to civil servants following that advice and when I asked the question from an official point of view, whether it was pretty clear as to who was right, Sir William Wells or Chris Leslie, back came the response that both of them were right. On the basis of experience in government, the government did not surprise me. It seems to me a common sense point. The constitutional reality in terms of the statutory authority is that it rests with ministers. It is equally a constitutional point that secretaries of state have the authority within their departments to determine how that ministerial authority is exercised. As it transpires, with the Department of Health and the establishment of the authority which involves Sir William Wells, that has been delegated to an authority. I took trouble to look at the evidence that was given before this Committee and it does not seem to me that there was any substantive contradiction. I am pleased to say that during our time we have not had any involvement of ministers at all in any of the appointments we have made. That, to me, does not seem inconsistent with the statutory reality that the Secretary of State and ministers are still accountable to Parliament.
Chairman: I recognise a third way position when I hear one. I suspect that is something we will want to explore a little further.
(Mr Alexander) I would not say it is business as usual. I would probably take issue with a vision of where we are today being directly analogous with the 1970s. Of course there is a talent pool and this idea that we must contribute to public bodies but I would not say it is the sole repository of that kind of talent or ability. I think that sort of vision of our society is far too narrow a reach in terms of what we aim for in the area of appointments. We seek genuinely to reach the widest possible talent pool. That said, trade unions in particular may well be the kind of institutions who are collecting people with the kind of skills which should be made available for public appointments. This is also true of a range of community organisations. A couple of weeks back there was a major seminar held in Leicester which particularly focused on ethnic communities where a range of people who were actively involved in community organisations in the east Midlands came and heard about the potential to be involved in public bodies. Patricia Hewitt spoke at that meeting. In that sense, in terms of our ambition and our reach, it extends to trade unions but beyond them to wider civil society and a range of different groups and organisations. In terms of how does the process work within government, I think it is fair to say that ministers do remain accountable in terms of decisions that are reached. On the other hand, we have a far clearer understanding post Nolan of what is the appropriate way to delimit the important task and ensuring that there is democratic accountability through the minister and on the other hand we build public confidence by a procedure which is overseen by the watchdog of OCPA but also is more transparent and recognisably fair and open in its practices. I believe that on the basis of that aspiration for diversity and an enduring commitment to merit, you can build the kind of public realm that we would like to see. It is a continuing task. Very legitimate questions continue to be asked but I think you would be hard pressed to sustain a case that, if you look at the level of public disquiet that gave rise to the Nolan Inquiry a decade or so ago, as against where we are today, we have not made considerable progress in recent years.
(Ms Ghosh) I am sure as a new Member of the Committee you are probably taking Dame Rennie's report to bed every night, but there are some very interesting figures in her article, where she said that in the 2001/02 appointments 20 per cent of the appointments or reappointments were people who declared that they had been politically active which is still a relatively low figure, 14 per cent Labour, three per cent Conservative and 2.5 Lib Dems. Dame Rennie would make the point that she would be worried that, whatever percentage of people in the pool of applicants, the proportion of people who successfully came through the system were greater than the percentage of people in the original pool of applicants who were politically active. She sees no evidence of that, so it suggests that the transparent processes are not assisting people with political activity.
(Mr Alexander) If you have evidence of political partiality, I would be keen for you to raise that directly with the Commissioner. On the more general point, I think there is a challenge that we face in making sure that the architecture in this area is right. May I just quote the words from the opening impression to this Committee's work? The chairman said, "The power of enlightened people is growing and the public needs to be reassured it will be treated fairly and honestly." The following sentence: "It is vital that the patronage exercised by ministers and others is not misused." I believe our challenge is to maintain the democratic accountability and legitimacy of ministers. There is a risk, if people were to feel that unelected officials are somehow appointed as distinct from elected ministers. On the other hand, we have to be honest in recognising that there are concerns in terms of how ministers exercise that power. That is why we have broadly the framework right on the one hand, maintaining ministerial accountability so that ministers can be brought before this Committee or the floor of the House; on the other hand, putting in place post-Nolan architecture which allows for public confidence and a greater degree of transparency in the process. That is not to say that there is not scope for improvement in the future but we need to be clear in terms of what our objective is. I for one maintain the view that we do want ministers to continue to be accountable, not least given the sums of public money involved, but on the other hand we have to make sure that the procedures and practices are strong enough to sustain public concerns.
(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 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.
(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.
(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 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Ms Ghosh) No.
(Ms Ghosh) There is no reason in principle why we should not do so. There is no policy reason.
(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 ----
(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 ----
(Ms Ghosh) No, we do not.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Alexander) The House of Lords stands separate from this whole area in terms of ---
(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.
(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?
(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.
(Mr Alexander) Of course I would be happy to furnish the Committee with a note. The only point I would make would be a general but related point in terms of to try and contextualise this discussion, there are about 30,000 public appointments, and about 15,000 fall within the remit of OPRA under my present understanding of its remit, but in addition to that there are a significant number of appointments which fall first of all to the Lord Chancellor in terms of his appointments and also a very large number of further appointments which are basically tribunals which presently do not fall within the remit of OCPA, nor indeed the body that oversees the Lord Chancellor's personal appointments in terms of the semi judicial appointments that he is responsible for. The only point I would add is we actually therefore do map out how many appointments there are that fall outwith OCPA. The number that are actually involved (and obviously in terms of the specific question you asked in terms of the Crown Prerogative) is tiny relative to the number of public appointments, and the idea that somehow there are 15,000 that fall under OCPA and the same again which are somehow unregulated, unaccounted for or unidentified is somewhat wide of the mark.
Chairman: It would be helpful if you could cover that. I understand what you are saying. Of course I understand that but it may well be that that small category includes some quite interesting appointments we would like to know about. As part of our search for the truth it would be very kind if you let us have an indication.
(Mr Alexander) I will let Helen answer in a minute in terms of the on-going work. I would emphasis it is on-going in terms of design, development, evolution and changes at the centre. I would first of all draw the attention of the Committee to some work. Dame Rennie has done some quite interesting work in terms of apprenticeships and public appointments because I think, again consistent with our understanding of untapped pools and potential, there may well be the opportunities for people to gain the kind of experience that has been outlined in some of the planning work that Dame Rennie has taken forward. It is interesting to try and map out how people can take the kind of journey that Helen described from being involved in tenants' associations at a local level and potentially to move on from there. In that sense I think we need a more nuanced understanding of what the barriers towards people being brought out are, and it is why it is so important we share the kind of information detail captured in terms of the reality as to why people are not serving on public bodies at the moment. I think that will inform some of the work that is being undertaken at the centre.
(Ms Ghosh) The answer to your question about have we done something sophisticated with the public appointments register is no. It simply does not have that kind of competence base. It is classic CV, what jobs have you done stuff, and as we increasingly recognise it is a bit of a dinosaur we have not done that. There are two things which are emerging from the work of the Short Life Working Group, which I think would assist with this process. At the moment although there is guidance given by Dame Rennie about what the application forms should look like, there is not actually a standard application form, and one of the propositions which the Minister might have to broker with his departmental colleagues, is should there be a standardised application form. Certainly across the civil service, for example, we have moved to a competence-based approach and all the interested, experienced stakeholders and advisers we have consulted on that say that would be an excellent idea. The other thing which we would want to pursue - and it really fits into this whole equipping more inexperienced people in a better way - is CVs. People do not understand how to write a CV. They tell us what jobs they have had and they cannot think of their own experiences in a competence kind of way. That is the kind of help particularly the women who have been at home with children for a long time need. Again, that is a practical thing we can do and the regional offices might have a role to play there with seminars and support and all that kind of thing.
(Mr Alexander) When the invitation arrived on the mat from the Committee for me to appear I thought you were favouring the usual suspects with a vengeance! It is the third appearance of a Cabinet Office Minister before this particular investigation. I am aware of the evidence that was given by some people who perhaps you have not heard from before. I have to say I simply disagree. There is not a direct parallel to be drawn between, for example, jury service and some of the vital work that is done by advisory or executive bodies because my starting point is our objectives. First of all, there is merit in terms of the people being able to do what are vital jobs - we are talking about a combination of executive and advisory committees and £25 billion of public money - but on the foundation of an enduring commitment to merit a recognition that we need more diversity, because the best way to achieve the genuine calibre of people we need is to leave no individual and no community behind, and we have to recognise that in this country we do not have a single community, religion or gender to waste if we are going to pursue that agenda of merit and diversity. In that sense I do not see how that can easily be reconciled with the idea that somehow there should be a lottery of individuals who suddenly find themselves responsible for advisory committees on British lighthouses or seed potatoes or whatever the individual specialty is.
(Mr Alexander) That to me is a different and vital and indeed valid observation. I myself would certainly concede that one of our biggest challenges is people who have never been asked before. I do not think the idea that because someone has not been approached before necessarily prejudges what should be a criteria or means of selection of those individuals. Certainly I am unyielding in my determination to make sure that people are aware of the opportunities to serve. I do not think that necessarily leads to a prescriptive outcome in terms of how we should select candidates. It is certainly the case in my own locality in the West of Scotland in the work of some of the local authorities and local citizens' juries that they have been able to assist significantly in the local policy-making process, but I think it is, again, a distinction that needs to be drawn between advisory committees who are often advising about highly specialised areas of public policy and citizens' juries which, from my understanding today, would certainly suggest there is an additional means by which particularly local councils can gain access to a range of views within that locality. In that sense perhaps there is a clearer distinction that can be drawn between an important and useful tool for making sure you are aware of the broad range of views within the communities on a range of public policy matters and sometimes very specialist work that is needed for advisory work in an area.
(Mr Alexander) I think there is again a constitutional point probably underpinning this whole discussion. The principal means by which parliamentary sovereignty is upheld is there is a responsibility on ministers to answer for their conduct either before a parliamentary committee or on the floor of the House. I think it could therefore be confusing to the clarity of responsibility, which I personally think is important, if ministers are capable of being scrutinised on the actions of people appointed, by whatever method, within their respective departments if it was somehow suggested that a process whereby committees could themselves scrutinise potential candidates was necessarily a victory for parliamentary scrutiny. It seems to me if a parallel were to be attempted to be drawn with senators in the United States for example and presidential cabinet appointments that, to me, does not seem to work in a British parliamentary system where the principal means of scrutiny is the floor of the House where ministers are held accountable for their decisions. All of that being said, of course it is perfectly within the competence of a committee such as this to summon a range of different people to help seek the truth, as the Chairman puts it.
(Mr Alexander) It is probably more incumbent upon ministers to make clear that ultimate responsibility lies with them in those circumstances and I think that would be a fair observation because it is important that there is clarity as to who can be held to account for conduct. On the other hand, I would have to say I am broadly optimistic in terms of the scope of not just departments but, in particular, ministers to work together effectively. The example you cite of OFCOM I had some experience with because I served briefly in the Department of Trade and Industry. The commonsense view of Whitehall watchers was that to watch the DTI and DCMS work together in pursuit of what was a significant piece legislation would speak to the capacity for Whitehall departments to make life difficult for each other. I have to say that was not my experience either at official or at ministerial level. I think in such a challenging area of public policy as the establishment of a new communications regulator, if we see the kind of effective joint work that we experienced there, then I am broadly optimistic that this can be an effective way for departments to work. Two other observations I would make. First of all, I would look at the kind of scrutiny that the House can bring to bear where there is joint working, for example the work of Lord Puttnam's Committee. The fact that there is joint working within governments between departments does not exclude the possibility of again a more intelligent and porous form of policy, for example pre-legislative scrutiny, as we increasingly see in Scotland, or indeed here at Westminster. The final point I would end with in terms of this particular challenge is to return to the observation made about e-government. The reality is that in addition to the responsibilities I am discussing with the Committee today I am responsible for e-transformation in government and perhaps there is no better example of where, first of all, you need to work effectively with ministerial colleagues because as e-transformation Minister you are acutely aware that the budget holder tends to be the Secretary of State of the respective department who is undertaking the immediate expenditure, but it is also the case that this technology has the potential to transform internally the operations of government to harness its true potential in terms of how it faces outward to the citizenry. In that sense - it is a mug's game predicting these matters - I would be surprised if in 20 years' time some of the present structures that have existed be replicated in an identical fashion, but I do not hold responsibility for responsibility of government issues.
(Ms Ghosh) It is one of the issues we are trying to pick up on our database. I am sure Dame Rennie raised it with you when she was here earlier in the summer. We do not know the extent of it now. What we are trying to do by building up a database, which is effectively turning the information from public bodies into an intelligent database of which we can ask questions, to be able to pick up how many people appear to have more than one appointment. Of course there are lots of difficulties with that because of the issue about Joe Bloggs, how many Joe Bloggses are there, and all those sort of matters, so it is quite an interesting issue about how you define the data.
(Ms Ghosh) Indeed there is.
(Mr Alexander) Not that we would seek to personalise this.
(Ms Ghosh) A lot of those issues come back to remuneration. I think the policy issue is, of course, if those people are the best people fitted for the job should it rule them out?
(Mr Alexander) It is a serious point. It speaks to at least a couple of issues, one is the point about remuneration, that is something being considered in terms of what impact in reality it has in terms of the unwillingness of people to come forward. I am cautious of returning to the Audit Commission, but I understand the reasons for that. I think it also speaks to what Brian White identified as the person who somehow gets these jobs as trophies. If you unbundle the sentiment behind that it speaks to the fact that somehow there is a illegitimacy round some of the people who in the past have achieved public appointments. I think first of all we have a responsibility to fix the process to make sure we rob public appointments of any suggestion that it is illegitimate that people are appointed on whatever grounds that may be and make sure the procedures are sound. Then it obliges you to take seriously the integrity of that process and if that does mean that somebody has made it on their own merit, recognising the challenge of diversity, and gets through the process and is appointed to one then it begs the question if they are capable of and willing to serve in a separate capacity is there a separate rule that says it is illegitimate for somebody to serve on another public body. I for one think, (a) it is one of the issues which is being looked at in terms of how we can attract a wealth of talent. If we are serious about procedures we have to regard the procedures and the integrity of the procedures as being the principle guardian of public interest in this regard, not a random number that you must only serve on one public body at a time or you can serve on a certain number sequentially or whatever the particular view of some critics might be.
(Mr Alexander) Perhaps it would be helpful if I explain where I come to this conversation from. I come as the minister with responsibility for Cabinet Office's responsibility in terms of providing advice and support to departments as they seek to adhere to the guidelines set down in terms of public appointments. I speak with suitable modesty in terms of (a) my ability to speak on behalf of the government about constitutional issues per se or (b) to take a wider view. The reality of how the debate has found expression it seems to me has been within individual departments. For example the question round the Treasury and the MPC and whether appointments to the MPC should be the provenance of the Treasury Select Committee and confirmation hearings, or whether it should be a departmental matter. Government has made its position clear in terms of its response to the Treasury in that regard. The point I was making is a more limited one, I do think in terms of the issues I am dealing with on a day-to-day basis, which is, are ministers accountable for individuals who are at the head of the NHS bodies, for example, and can a minister be called to account for that. The danger is confusion about where the accountability of risk could creep in and whether that line ought to be followed which was somehow the responsibility for the appointment but was not that of the minister but that of the legislature. I think in that sense there is a distinction to be drawn between the executive making the appointment, ensuring that the procedures are dually followed and then the executive being held to account by Parliament for the consequences of that choice as distinct from seeing Parliament as a legislature and must itself be involved at an intermediate stage of the appointment procedure.
(Mr Alexander) I think Parliament has a vital job to do and so does the executive.
(Mr Alexander) Are you trying to tempt me into a commitment. It seems to me the sensible way forward on this first of all is to look at the evidence and see whether the assertions made by individuals who have come and given evidence before this Committee or indeed existing practices can support what I think should be our set of objectives, which is, first of all, merit and qualifications to do the job, and that may, and certainly should, differ significantly from what has been a traditional understanding of the skills or the experience that you need to serve on a public body. Secondly, in support of that we are absolutely sincere in achieving a more diverse range of people and skills to devote to the body.
(Mr Alexander) I was going to start that conversation but I can see looming headlines as I pursue a particular line.
(Ms Ghosh) One of the recommendations that the Short Life Working Group might make is that NDPBs need to think more imaginatively about the wider pool of consultation, it is not necessary you feed in the views of ordinary people by having them on board, should they look at how they consult their customers, the people out there and that is as good a way for many members of the general public, a much more attractive way of feeding their views in on the way the service is run than requiring them to be a member of the board. That is something that we might be taking up.
(Mr Alexander) I would make a couple of observations, first of all the way focus groups tend to work is that people are recruited locally and they are paid £10 to spend an hour and a half in a living room talking about their views, from policy to adverts, or whatever else is being discussed by the newspaper or the consumer groups who are seeking to establish their views. If we want the best out of this diverse talented group of people they need to be motivated to serve. You actually might construct an argument per se that there is a group of people that are willing to serve and have no idea what they want to serve so let us put them all into a lottery and pull the names out of a hat. My own experience suggests that people feel most equipped to serve if there is a particular local opportunity that can be identified. In that sense I would not underestimate the importance of motivation alongside merit and ability. In that sense the idea that something akin to jury service, people should be randomly selected and told they are now serving on a particular public body, is not the way forward.
Sir Sydney Chapman
(Mr Alexander) I agree with you. Rather than base our claim I believe we should show the supporting evidence for this that the system is fair, that it draws talent and it is seen as being transparent and legitimate on the basis of the procedure that is established rather than, as I alluded to, other arbitrary views that you can only serve on one public body and you cannot serve on more than one sequentially after you have done a couple before. That does not seem to me to be the way forward. The way forward seems to be, let us get the rules right and then try and track the widest range of people to put in an application through which those rules are upheld and then we will have a beneficial result to speak of, which might be a case that a particularly able and talented former female trade unionist in Leicester finds herself in a position where she has both the time and the motivation to serve on more than one body.
Sir Sydney Chapman: The second question is, I suppose my colleagues will say I must declare a possible interest in it, first of all, can we have assurance that there is no age limit on any person seeking an appointment?
: Kevin Brennan
(Ms Ghosh) You may have seen that one of the cases that Dame Rennie specifically picked up in her "name and shame" report was, was there such an age limit and there is not.
Sir Sydney Chapman
(Mr Alexander) First of all, a necessary and important caveat, I would not seek to intrude on the departmental responsibilities of other ministers. All I will say by way of response is my driver in the government car service has just spent two weeks on jury service and I have spent a considerable amount of time between home and my department discussing the experience that he has had - it is not something that I have done myself being disqualified first as a lawyer and then as an MP - and his experience was exactly that, that it was a real example of pulling people from a very wide range not just of ages but also of professional backgrounds and experience who found common causes in taking forward a number of cases in the local court. In that sense without being prescriptive as to what age you should or should not serve we should uphold the principle that there is a talent pool to draw on.
Chairman: You have heard Sydney's application, he would like a nice portfolio.
(Mr Alexander) I was speaking to Lord Macdonald of Tradeston and what was common parlance was the fact that the Government lost seven votes in the last week. It seems to me is a curious line of argument to suggest that somehow there is a lack of enthusiasm for reforming the House of Lords because everything is not rosy at the moment, notwithstanding the limit on the number of hereditary peers. The view of the House of Commons in recent days has been rejected by the other House and in that sense I would not wish to be drawn in to what, as you can imagine, are highly contentious matters that are being discussed by the joint committee at the moment, but I would question the assertion that somehow it is solely a matter of control as you describe it.
Chairman: It is well worth having a reply because I think this is a byway---
(Mr Alexander) Of course, the Government's views on this matter are well-known. First of all, their views have been given before this Committee and elsewhere. Secondly, in terms of an updated position, I was personally involved in terms of the responsibility that the Government gave to the Wicks Committee. I have to say I still await the response of this particular committee in terms of its own draft Civil Service Bill and indeed we are awaiting the outcome of the Wicks Committee as well. But I will end where I imagine you thought I would start which is to say you cannot expect me to anticipate any particular piece of legislation.
(Mr Alexander) As I say, I am not saying anything at the end of the day that we have not said before this Committee and indeed before Wicks previously. I hope I am correct and not neglecting evidence I gave before Wicks, but certainly it remains the case that we look forward with interest to the work of this Committee and indeed the Wicks Committee as well, and I hope that that will inform the general process in the months to come.
(Mr Alexander) I will ask Helen to speak on the specifics in a moment but let me address the general point that you have raised. Of course, it is the case I am keen to see us move from a nation of passive citizenship, which I think has dominated this country for too long, to a notion of active, contributory citizenship. That may find expression in service through public appointments, it may find expression in volunteering, it may find expression in involving community organisations, but I think entirely consistent with the thrust of Government policy over the last five years has been that evolution towards what I hope is a more optimistic and contributory view of the role that the citizenry can play in the life of our country. It was therefore intriguing to me, I have to say, in preparing for this appearance today to see the word "patronage" in the title of your inquiry because in some ways - and I hope this is an accurate reflection of public opinion - that speaks to where concern existed at a greater level in years past. That is not to say there is not a continuing level of noise in the system and concern around particular issues which people may raise, but I believe very significant progress has been made since Nolan. One of the areas - indeed we were talking about it in the office earlier - where we can feel very legitimate pride, and it often is not ventilated enough when discussions take place about issues of public appointments and patronage, is the degree to which internationally Britain is leading in terms of this area. If you look at some of our fellow major industrialised countries and the operation of public appointments elsewhere, then I think we can take a legitimate pride (which of course should not lead to complacency) in the progress that we have made in recent years. In that sense there is real scope in terms of my responsibilities for the civil service to the kind of talk that is being given to time off for volunteering and engagement in wider issues around participation beyond work and the whole issue of work/life balance. This sits comfortably within a far broader political agenda of rehabilitating the public realm. It was a very different political philosophy that suggested that somehow there was an absolute demarcation that could be established between a failing state and an aspiration of private citizenry. We are coming to a far more sophisticated understanding that we alone who are serving in a professional capacity in public life are not equipped to build the kind of society we want; we need to build it together.
(Ms Ghosh) To be more mundane, one of the issues the Short Life Working Group has been looking at is this one, this question about time off from work. There are similarly issues raised for self-employed, who are giving up the capacity to earn by joining a public body. The group has had a look at the current statutory requirements, for example on business relations to Magistrates and jury service, obviously. It is recognised that there are difficult issues there in terms of burdens on business, and so on, and that possibly a more constructive route is to identify some good employers who currently do encourage their staff to take up these kind of opportunities and use that as a sort of best practice model to try and spread the word about how being involved in a public body helps everybody, it is not just that it serves the public as a whole it gives the individual skills and experience they can bring back to their professional life. It is most likely we would want to look at that approach, best practice, what the best companies do, spread that model round and emphasise the benefits to the companies concerned.
(Mr Alexander) Helen is absolutely right. In a previous life the DTI had the responsibility for corporate and social responsibility. It seems to me that part of the opportunity that we have in corporate social responsibility is to win the argument with companies that they personally benefit as individual organisations from giving their staff that level of exposure and experience. I can well remember a conservation I had with the senior manager on the Board of Directors at the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the most profitable and successful Scottish businesses at the moment, where he said, "I cannot tell you how valuable it has been to my frontline managers to be working with credit unions, because if you want to see people who understand credit control go and talk to volunteers who are running credit unions across Scotland." In that sense that seemed to me a key insight. One of the arguments we need to get up is persuading a range of organisations that it is in their own interest in terms of motivation of the workforce and productivity of the workforce for people to be involved. I certainly believe those arguments hold in terms of the kind of experience that we have, experiences in the public bodies.
(Mr Alexander) I am interested in the work that you are undertaking and look forward to receiving your thoughts in the future in this area. Until we are clear of those recommendations it is difficult to be more prescriptive than that. I would certainly be interested to have sight of anything you uncover. I think it also speaks to the earlier point you were making, about the need to make sure we get the right people into these organisation, on the one hand we have a challenge of making sure that we tool-up and skill people with the skills required. It also requires a degree of honesty in saying, many of these bodies have highly, highly important public responsibilities and it is vital that we make sure that people are both qualified and motivated to discharge those functions. The idea that somehow you randomly select a group of people on the street to serve on what are highly influential organisations that perform vital scrutiny functions you have identified with the question and I think that is something that should give the Committee cause for consideration before its final report is published.
(Ms Ghosh) Certainly this issue about the post appointment world is something which anecdotally is obviously fantastically important and we want to get more to the bottom of what we can do about it. There is no point in appointing a wonderfully diverse team into a NDPB if the chairperson is not welcoming, if the system is not welcoming, if they are treated like the token women/person from an ethnic minority, or whatever. One of things we are very keen to do in my team is to focus more activity on this whole question of NDPBs, training for chairs who also play a very large role in selection, looking at governments, to use that umbrella term, do they welcome these people. If there is a problem, if anyone encounters a problem, is there someone identified they can go to to talk about it? Are they mentored? A mentoring kind of structure might be very valuable for people from different backgrounds, and over the next year this is something that my team will be looking at very closely and talking to partners about.
(Ms Ghosh) It sounds like we are about to expire.
(Ms Ghosh) Certainly.
(Ms Ghosh) Very shortly. We are only held up by the fact that, as you know, Dame Rennie is away on sick leave at the moment. Because she was such a leading player on this what I am hoping to do is to produce the report of the group in the next month or so and then have an agreed report around Christmas time to put to the Minister.
(Mr Alexander) The Short Life Working Group sends it report to the group who are worried that they have a short working life!
Chairman: We are very grateful to both of you for coming along. Thank you.