Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report

1. Introduction

1. Public appointment, and patronage, are integral to all levels of government in the United Kingdom. The system extends from the centre of power, where some unelected Ministers still hold major offices of state, down to the level of local authorities and local services. This is the case in all modern democracies, but patronage runs especially deep in Britain because of our history as a constitutional monarchy, with the royal prerogative allowing Ministers to exercise wide, diverse and often ancient powers of patronage.

2. The establishment in recent decades of hundreds of unelected public bodies—referred to in the Committee's Fifth Report of Session 2000-2001[3] as the "quango state"—has further entrenched the role of appointment. But the "appointed state" ranges far wider than the "quango state". Tens of thousands of appointed people are involved in many aspects of the governance of Britain—from the highest courts in the land to magistrates' courts, from central decisions in the NHS to local care trusts, from overseeing the BBC and independent television, the regulation of utilities and inspection of prisoners' conditions to the provision of social housing, post-16 education, tribunals, skills training, museums and local lottery grants. Crucial decisions affecting the health of communities, the preservation of the national heritage, the liberty of individuals and the prosperity of companies are taken by appointees. In short, public appointments matter.

Our focus

3. In this inquiry, we have had two central objectives. Firstly, we have sought to discover whether government is applying proper and consistent principles in public appointments, and to consider what procedural improvements may be needed. Secondly, and more positively, we have examined ways in which the system might be enhanced to encourage a wider and more diverse range of people to apply for public service. Taken together, these improvements will make public appointments fairer. They should also, as we shall see, help to produce more effective public services, delivered and guided by bodies which better reflect the reality of life in Britain today.

4. This report does not, however, seek to examine all types of public appointment. Judicial and tribunal appointments, for instance fall within the remit of another select committee. Public appointments under devolved authorities are a matter for their own representative bodies. Thus we concentrate in this report on public appointments within the sphere of central government and also confine our inquiry largely to 'the quango state'—Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs), public corporations, 'other' public bodies, task forces and ad-hoc advisory bodies sponsored by government departments.

A census of the appointed state

5. Before examining these issues, we found it instructive to attempt to calculate how many people were involved in the operation of this "appointed state". We discovered early on that there are no precise figures for the very large number of people who are appointed to this great variety of public bodies and positions, nor even for how many public bodies exist.

6. The Committee first attempted to 'map' public bodies in its report "Mapping the Quango State", identifying some 300 executive NDPBs and over 530 advisory NDPBs in central and devolved government; more than 5,300 local quangos; and some 2,300 local partnerships, boards of action zones etc, bringing together local authorities and public agencies, local voluntary bodies and private enterprises.[4] The latest official count of public bodies sponsored by government departments and regulators at central level found 834 of them in April 2002.[5]

7. For this report we have tried to estimate the numbers of appointees on these bodies. These figures can only be indicative: the data are collected on different bases, and some are out-of-date (most notably for 'local public spending bodies' which include training bodies that have been replaced in England and Wales by Learning and Skills Councils). Nor is the list comprehensive—for example, service on social security, employment and various other tribunals is omitted. Even with these reservations, which would make it misleading to come up with a headline total, it is a formidable list.

Table 1: The Appointed Magistracy: Appointed Members of Public Bodies in the UK (2001-03) [6]
Parliament (the reformed House of Lords, inc. hereditaries, law lords, archbishops and bishops) 690
Board members of executive and advisory non-departmental bodies, public corporations, etc. (central and devolved government) 21,901
Task forces, ad-hoc advisory bodies, policy reviews 1,895
The courts (the judiciary throughout the UK; lay JPs, etc., except for district court service in Scotland) 29,338
Members of NDPB tribunals (not of social security & employment tribunals, etc) 11,572
NHS (health authorities, primary care trusts, NHS trusts, other NHS bodies, commissions & tribunals) 4,591
Local public spending bodies (registered social landlords, training & enterprise bodies, board members of higher and further education institutions) 47,647
Local partnerships (statutory and on local authority initiative)* 75,000 (est.)
Prison service (members of Boards of Visitors) 2,002
School governors**381,500
* Members are elected to a few neighbourhood regeneration boards alongside appointed and co-opted members
** Includes parent governors who are elected to governing bodies alongside other categories of member

Our inquiry

8. Our inquiry has been a comprehensive one. Between March 2002 and March 2003, we held 14 oral evidence sessions with 37 witnesses, and received 70 memoranda. We also took evidence on a very useful visit to Bristol on 9 and 10 December 2002, which taught us a great deal about the way local appointments are made. We are grateful to all our witnesses, and to our Specialist Adviser, Professor Stuart Weir, Director of Democratic Audit, at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and to his staff; and to Pauline Ngan, who checked data and undertook additional research. We also sent a questionnaire to government departments asking for data on their appointees and information on their processes of appointment. We are most grateful to those departments which answered the questionnaire in full. The results of the survey inform the conclusions that we have reached and provide valuable evidence on the workings of the system. We also grateful to Dame Rennie Fritchie, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and to the staff of her Office (OCPA) for their co-operation in our inquiries.

3   HC 367 Back

4   Fifth Report of the Public Administration Select Committee, Mapping the Quango State, HC 367, 2000-2001, paragraphs 8, 27 and 28. Back

5   Public Bodies 2002, Cabinet Office, TSI, 2003, Table 1. Back

6   Sources (in descending order): House of Lords briefing, 3 February 2003; Public Bodies 2002, Cabinet Office, 2003; Public Bodies 2002, Cabinet Office, 2003; Judicial Appointments, Lord Chancellor's Department, Error! Bookmark not defined., Scottish Court Service, communication 2003 & Annual report, Northern Ireland Court Service, 2002; Public Bodies 2002, Cabinet Office, 2003; Public Bodies 2002, Cabinet Office, 2003 & Public Bodies 2001, Cabinet Office, 2002; Public Bodies 2001 (Annex), Cabinet Office, 2002; Skelcher and Sullivan, The Arithmetic of Partnerships, PAP 70, Public Bodies 2002, Cabinet Office, 2003, Scottish Prison Service, communication, 2003 & Public Bodies 2001, Cabinet Office, 2002; School Governors' One-Stop Shop, communication, 2003 & estimate calculated from website Error! Bookmark not defined.  Back

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