Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Brian Peacock, Chairman, Milk Development Council (PAP 15)

  To make a contribution to the debate I propose to work through the questions posed in the Select Committee paper [13th March 2002] as a logical process to deal with the issues raised and provide comment.

  I should make it clear that these views are mine and not the views of the Milk Development Council.

GENERAL

  1.  There is a clear justification for many public offices being filled by appointment rather than election. The expense and bureaucracy of agreeing the qualifications and eligibility of each electorate and the cost of organising elections is, in many cases, potentially too great.

  However, there is a need for a review of the appointment process for some bodies to determine whether elections would be more appropriate. This could be a role for the office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments working to an agreed set of criteria to measure appropriateness and potential cost.

  2.  In addition to the problems of establishing the electorate and the question of cost, the introduction of elections to some bodies would create a new culture of "representation" within the body.

  The introduction of elections would inevitably cause the development of internal pressure groups and lobbying which would commit the successful candidate to represent his/her group. The development of groupings within a public body may well not be to the overall benefit of the body. This aspect would need to be considered in any election/appointments review process.

  3.  The introduction of a system similar to jury service for public appointments as part of an individual's civic duty would not be appropriate unless the process was backed up with a detailed database of the public experience and attitude of the people being considered—an impossible task. Without the ability to consider the detailed background of candidates there would be a serious danger of appointing totally inappropriate people to public bodies.

  4.  The main priority for improving the system of public appointments are to extend the range of people involved not just more women and ethnic minorities but the encouragement of people with appropriate experience. This brings into play the question of public understanding.

    The public appointments process is clearly not understood by members of the public. A co-ordinated PR campaign is needed to explain the process to the public, to emphasise that the procedure is fair and demonstrates that it is open and transparent.

    This is a very important issue which would make a great difference to the encouragement of a wider range of appropriate applicants.

    A review of the publicising of appointments would be worthwhile to ensure that advertising is placed in a wider range of publications relevant to the appointment—there currently appears to be too much reliance on broadsheet newspapers.

    No case has been made for changing the balance of many of the bodies to involve national, regional or local government as part of the structure—ie the greater inclusion of more local councillors on NHS Trust Boards. In fact most bodies need to remain totally independent of all government influence to protect effectiveness and to truly represent the interests of their stakeholders.

    However, in contrast there is a strong case for introducing a system of Parliamentary confirmation of the appointment for the Chairman of certain key bodies to make the final appointment truly public, as is the case in the USA.

  5.  The present mechanics of government departments publicising appointments and drawing up short lists etc. is a sensible devolution of power and does not appear to cause problems, and is seen to be fair.

  However, the role of the independent assessor is often not clearly understood. Indeed the importance placed on the role of the assessor needs to be more clearly described within the process and the person concerned more positively introduced during the interview.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE

  1.  If the various public bodies are to remain independent of government there is no place for politicians in the public appointment process, other than Ministers fulfilling their ministerial role.

  Currently it is difficult to provide evidence that the politicians play an improper role in the system and that there is from time to time political bias in the process. However, the perception of the general public believes that politicians do in fact impose their views in the process and provide political bias. This is particularly so for bodies that include local government in-put—hospital trusts, police authorities etc. There is a positive public view that politically biased appointments are made.

  The elimination of this perception is a challenge that needs to be faced by the current ministerial appointments system rather than an independent appointments commission.

  The attractions of an independent appointments commission are out-weighed by the detailed and knowledgeable input provided by the ministerial system.

  If a truly non-political process is followed there should be no need for political bias to be imposed to address an imbalance accumulated under a previous government.

  However, the Commissioner for Public Appointments should be given sufficient powers to monitor all Ministerial appointments to ensure independence and absence of political bias.

  2.  As stated previously I believe there is a strong case for Parliament to approve the appointment of people to certain key posts within major public bodies. This would have the benefit of raising the general publics knowledge of this important appointment and provide the confidence that the process was being monitored. It would also ensure that the best possible person available was being appointed in an open manner and would highlight the care and attention that is given to public appointments. Equally, Parliamentary confirmation would give the person concerned a clear understanding of their accountabilities and the confidence to achieve these challenges.

DIVERSITY IN PUBLIC APPOINTMENTS

  1.  Clearly there is a need to ensure that public bodies reflect the mix of the population and that a greater number of women and ethnic minorities are needed. However, there is also a need to involve people with the appropriate merit, skills and experience which requires the attraction of people who are already fulfilling important and responsible roles elsewhere. In the increasingly competitive commercial environment this will be an increasing problem.

  2.  Serious consideration needs to be given to providing not just an increase in the number of remunerated members but a system of providing compensation to employers for the use of a member's time on public appointment duties. Many companies and organisations will not at the present time allow employees to serve on public bodies thereby preventing talented people serving in the public and national interest.

  3.  The principle of diversity needs to be applied to the wider list of public appointments including the Privy Council and Lord Lieutenants, as currently there is a demonstrated constituency from which appointments are made. Even this level of appointment needs to be under the scrutiny of the Commissioner for Public Appointments with demonstrated diverse selection including advertising.

PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING

  In the early part of this paper I have highlighted the need for significantly improving the public understanding of the whole system of public bodies and the appointments to these bodies.

  The current lack of interest in the political process with its low election turnout emphasises the lack of interest in public affairs. This tendency needs to be addressed—this can only be done by raising awareness through better and more targeted advertising of the importance of public bodies and the appointments to such bodies.

OTHER ISSUES

  1.  The role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments is pivotal in ensuring a workable, transparent and fair system whose remit should be extended to cover all public appointments. This remit should be extended to select those appointments which need confirmation by Parliament.

  2.  On the assumption that a proportion of the Lords require appointment rather than election this should be treated in the same way as any other major public body.

  The Appointments must ensure diverse interest, without political influence, that upholds the principle of merit. The definition of merit needs to be more clearly defined, not only to encompass those persons who have achieved much in life but also those with wisdom and intellectual power with opinions and views bringing new perspectives to the legislative process. This selection process needs to be carried out by a truly Independent and diverse body approved and monitored by the Commission for Public Appointments.

  New appointments to the House of Lords should be confirmed by the House of Lords itself.

  3.  For the sake of good order all people being considered for appointment, even important people for high level appointments, should be asked to complete application forms at least for record purposes. Equally, they need to be interviewed in the normal way, albeit in an informal setting.

  As their confirmation, would in my view, require Parliamentary approval the above process would seem essential.

B D Peacock

April 2002


 
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