Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report


'There is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its facilities should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by quiet and regular operation, all that capacity'

(Thomas Paine[1])

'In all the work that we do what we have discovered is that leadership talent comes in all shapes, sizes, colours and genders'

(Hamish Davidson, chairman of the recruitment agency, Veredus Executive Resourcing, in evidence to the Committee, 13 February 2003[2])


This report is the first major Parliamentary examination of the new appointments procedures for public bodies. The system, established in the 1990s, sought to base appointments on merit and to subject them to independent scrutiny. The creation of the post of Commissioner for Public Appointments, combined with independent assessment in every department, has brought greater integrity to these processes. Overall, there has been considerable improvement in the public appointments system in recent years. Nevertheless, we make a series of recommendations that are designed to improve the resilience and further increase the integrity of the process. In particular, we argue that

  • the Commissioner for Public Appointments should assume full responsibility for recruiting and training independent assessors, the Commissioner's 'eyes and ears';
  • the independent assessors should be involved in every stage of appointments;
  • the remit of the Commissioner and her Office should be extended to a fuller range of public bodies;
  • whether particular bodies should come under the Commissioner's remit should be recommended by the Commissioner and reported to Parliament;
  • the Commissioner and her Office should become wholly independent of the executive; and
  • the Commissioner and her Office should be funded sufficiently to fulfil this wider range of responsibilities.

We recommend that departments employing recruitment consultants in public appointments should ensure that they are fully conversant with the statutory Code of Practice governing appointments and the principles that underlie the Code, and comply with these provisions.

The general public still believes that appointments are the preserve of the privileged few, even if not always a 'fix', or the product of 'cronyism' as often alleged by the media. We are satisfied that the Government is genuinely committed to opening up appointments to a wider range of people, and especially to increasing the proportions of women, members of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities on the boards of public bodies. There has been real progress in doing so since 1997, but appointed members of these boards are still overwhelmingly (in the Commissioner's phrase) 'male, pale and stale'.

Diversity on public bodies must be increased. In our view, more representative bodies would assist the Government's goal of increasing public confidence in the integrity of the appointments process.

We do not believe that merit and diversity are incompatible. We are satisfied that attempts to achieve greater diversity have not led either to unlawful positive discrimination or a dilution in standards. Greater diversity on public bodies is not simply a desirable goal. It is a significant component of the basic human right to equal regard and treatment, regardless of difference. The Government should bring forward a Single Equality Bill to promote equality and end discrimination for all minorities. This would provide a statutory framework for equality and more diverse appointment as well as satisfying international and EU commitments to equal treatment for all. The duty upon the National Assembly of Wales to promote equality has made a significant contribution to its determined strategy to make its public bodies representative of Welsh society.

Socio-economic background is a major barrier to increasing diversity on public bodies, not only inhibiting the recruitment of women, people from ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, but also a wider range of white men. Age and regional background are also likely to create barriers.

We have been impressed by the efforts of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Cabinet Office to encourage women and members of minorities to put themselves forward for places on public bodies. But we do not believe that these efforts yet match the scale of the task. It is necessary to counter long-established traditions that prejudice efforts to recruit more widely. Departmental policies on remuneration reflect these older traditions, with no real coherence or consistency. The majority of places, especially on advisory bodies, are unpaid. We found no evidence that remuneration is tailored to encouraging a wider range of people to apply for posts. We are also persuaded that meeting times, hours, expenses and benefit rules are not geared to the needs of working people, women, or those with caring obligations or disabilities.

Thus we recommend a high-profile national strategy to increase diversity and lay representation on public bodies. We recommend that the criteria for membership of boards should be widened from the current narrow terms to a wider competency-based approach; that more chairs and members of boards should be paid appropriately; that the terms on which people serve on boards should be made more flexible; and that mentoring and apprenticeship schemes should be more widely used to assist non-traditional members of boards to acclimatise to the demands on them.

More could be done to recruit able people from existing networks of women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and working people. But we also recommend that the Government should enter into an experiment with appointment by a form of lot, using as a model the pioneering work of the National Lottery Community Fund's regional committees, which randomly recruit people from the electoral roll and rigorously ensure their ability and suitability for public service. We also recommend the use of elections in some circumstances, especially at local level.

We assess the case for a more assertive Parliamentary approach to public appointments. We recommend that, in the case of key posts, select committees should have the power, after a hearing with proposed appointees, to issue a Letter of Reservation which would lead to the re-opening of the competition for a post.

Finally, we make the case for a Public Appointments Commission, on the model of the successful NHS Appointments Commission, to take over the actual process of appointment from ministers. Our view is that a single body of this kind, operating a transparent and standard process independently of ministers and fully accountable to Parliament, is necessary to create public confidence in the integrity of the system, to eradicate any element of patronage, and to provide a unified and professional focus within government for work on appointments. Ministers would continue to determine the roles of public bodies and the criteria and qualifications for board members, but would not be directly involved in making actual appointments. In the absence of such a commission, we recommend a new structure for co-ordinating public appointments within government.

All our recommendations flow from a recognition of the centrality of appointment in governance arrangements. This is why it is important to ensure that the process of appointment has integrity and is free from the taint of patronage. It is also why the public appointments system should be seen as an opportunity to enlist large numbers of people, of all backgrounds and groups, for the task of public service. Reform aimed at securing better public services therefore needs to include attention to the process of appointing those people who run many of these services.

1   The Rights of Man, 1791 Back

2   Q1291 Back

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Prepared 10 July 2003