Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Natural History Museum (PAP 4)


  The Natural History Museum is a Non-Departmental Public Body and as such pleased to receive the opportunity to respond to the issues outlined in the paper by the Public Administration Select Committee. The Museum is governed by a Board of Trustees, in accordance with The British Museum Act (1963). It is the appointment of Trustees that we would like to discuss initially in this response, prior to responding to the questions posed in the PASC paper. Our responses are focused on our institution in particular, rather than public bodies in general.


  The Museum has 12 Trustees; eight are appointed by the Prime Minister; one is appointed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the recommendation of the President of the Royal Society; and three are appointed by the Board of Trustees themselves. The appointments are part-time, unpaid and normally last for five years with the option of a second five-year appointment.

  The current system of appointment for the Prime Ministerial appointments is defined by DCMS. When a vacancy arises on our Board of Trustees the Museum nominates three candidates, each of whom possesses the necessary skills and experience needed to maintain the appropriate balance across the Board for the purposes of governing the Museum. The three candidates may be substituted by other individuals at the discretion of officials to generate a final short list. The final short list is considered by a DCMS advisory panel who then submit the name of the nominated candidate to the Prime Minister for consideration.

  Our 12 Trustees collectively have very high standing and experience in the academic and business sectors, and in public affairs. In our opinion it is vital for three reasons that their quality and balance of skills and knowledge is maintained. First, the public must be able to have confidence in the standards of leadership and governance set by the Board; second the Board must command the respect of the Museum's highly qualified and dedicated staff; and third, the Board must have the diversity of experience necessary for the delivery of the wide array of functions carried out by the Museum. We have been fortunate to date that DCMS has not replaced any of the candidates whom we place on the short list, and we are consequentially blessed with an extremely effective Board of Trustees.

  We would be concerned if any nominations were substituted, in view of the specific skill sets that we require in each member of our Board, and the knowledge of the candidates in the area that the Museum staff and Trustees possess.

  The issue of political influence in the process is mentioned in the PASC paper. Our Board of Trustees was established to govern the Museum, and as such it is our belief that they should be able to select their Chair from amongst their number, rather than having a political appointment imposed upon them. In view of the longevity of the institution (it was a founding part of the British Museum in 1753) and its custodial function of developing and maintaining the collections on behalf of the nation, it is vital that our independent corporate governance is maintained.



  1. and 2.  Appointment procedures can be clear, transparent and publicly defensible if the goals, methods and criteria are well-defined and well-publicised. Such procedures can lead to high quality appointments. Elections bring no guarantee of transparency and fairness (eg Who selects the candidates?, Who is the electorate?, How is its membership defined?), and there can be no guarantee of merit in the elected candidate.

  The Museum is strongly opposed to the election of its Trustees. It could be highly damaging in terms of the balance and quality of the Board and would be a highly retrograde step.

  3.  Absolutely not, for the reasons given and 1 and 2 above.

  4.  The main priority is to avoid imposing a "one size fits all" solution for all public bodies. There should be sufficient variation across the various public bodies to ensure their own needs and requirements are met. As long as all systems are clear, transparent and publicly defensible there is no need to have a single mechanism for all the 1,000+ public bodies.

  5.  It is a sensible devolution, but could be improved by streamlining it.

Political Influence on Appointments

  7. and 9.  Not so far, but vigilance is needed, particularly if Government move to having greater direct involvement in the appointment process.

  8.  Ratification of nominations against published criteria rather than direct selection.

  9, 10 and 11.  No comment.

  12.  Not if the procedure outlined at 8 is followed.

Diversity in Public Appointments

  13.  There is no evidence that the system fails to attract applications from the widest range of candidates who satisfy the criteria required of potential Trustees.

  14.  By having a procedure whereby each public body sets out clearly and publicly the experience and skills required for its Board Members, their duties and the process by which nominations for ministerial considerations are made.

  15.  We have no evidence that a lack of remuneration is a deterrent. Payment would in any event be only nominal, given that payment at the level appropriate to the skills and experience of many of our Board members would be unaffordable.

Public Understanding

  In terms of appointment to our Board, there is a statement published on our internet site outlining to members of the public the skills and experiences that we look for in our Board members, and inviting people to nominate themselves if they consider that they have the necessary attributes. This is our way of contributing to Government's commitment that appointment to our Board is open, transparent and based on merit.

Other Issues

  25.  No, especially if a large number of applicants is put through this procedure for each vacancy. This would be a severe deterrent to high quality applicants.

  We trust that our comments are of use to the Committee, and look forward to hearing its recommendations in due course.

Sir Neil Chalmers,


April 2002

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