Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by English Heritage (PAP 17)

BACKGROUND

  This document forms the response of English Heritage to the PASC's consultation paper on public appointments and patronage. English Heritage is an executive non departmental public body of the Department for Culture Media and Sport. It is the Government's lead body for the historic environment in England. Its tasks include:

    —  advising national and local government on all aspects of the historic environment;

    —  advancing understanding of the historic environment through survey and research;

    —  giving £38 million a year in grants to historic buildings, sites, parks and gardens;

    —  managing 409 historic properties (including parks and gardens) on behalf of the state;

    —  running the National Monuments Record;

    —  through our educational work, increasing public understanding of the historic environment.

ANSWERS TO SPECIFIC QUESTIONS IN THE CONSULTATION DOCUMENT

  English Heritage does not feel it is in a position to answer all the questions posed as many are not directly relevant to us. The following are our views on particular issues of interest. Please note that the NDPB Board Members of English Heritage are referred to as Commissioners.

Question 2—What problems might arise if elections were held for membership of some public bodies, instead of the current system of appointments?

  Direct elections for Commissioners would increase involvement, representation and interest from members of the public. However, Members appointed in this way would most likely come from political parties and candidates such as local councillors would dominate. Therefore, involvement by "genuine" members of the public may not be as high as one might expect. However, clearly there would be an increase in directly elected NDPB Board members and this would alleviate the criticism sometimes levied of appointed board members and the perceived misuse of ministerial patronage.

  If such elections were held it would be difficult to imagine how they might operate for a body such as English Heritage. Representation would rightly be demanded from all geographical areas of our operation. Equally, it is imperative for English Heritage that its Commissioners have an in-depth, detailed and well respected knowledge of our varied and diverse activities. Although all Commissioners have a core EH wide role, we have separate detailed role specifications for Commissioners and require appointees to have detailed knowledge of areas such as archaeology, conservation and planning. This is a requirement of the National Heritage Act 1983. It is unlikely that directly elected board members would possess the skills and experience required. English Heritage is keen to only have Commissioners who have a national standing and reputation in their fields. Therefore, it is envisaged that any directly elected Commissioners would need to be in addition to our current core of appointed commissioners so that there is no denigration of our skills base. On balance, it is felt that elections for Commissioners of English Heritage is not appropriate.

Question 3—Should a public appointment be part of an individual's civic duty? Would a system similar to jury service be fair?

  Appointments to the Commission are for long periods—typically three years. It is felt that this is a minimum period needed given the time taken to get up to speed with English Heritage's diverse areas of operation and to ensure consistency. Appointments along the lines of jury service would seem unlikely to produce candidates for a national NDPB that would be willing, equipped or able to provide the high level and long serving input we require. Additionally, we feel that an individual should choose to put him or herself forward for service on a public body, rather than being "volunteered". People so appointed may do so because they feel they ought rather than because they want to. There is also a danger that they will not be respected as being skilled enough to undertake the role, irrespective of their actual ability.

Question 4—What are the main priorities for improving the system of public appointments—should it for instance be to extend the range of people involved in bodies, to improve the effectiveness of the bodies in providing advice or administering services, or to change the balance so that elected national, regional or local government has more of a role in public life?

  English Heritage believes that the priority should be to improve the speed, efficiency and transparency of the appointment process. Equally, there should be an emphasis on encouraging applications from suitably qualified candidates from a broader cross section of society.

Question 5—Government departments publicise public appointments, assess applications and draw up shortlists for interview. Independent assessors take part in the process and appointments are made on merit. Is this a sensible devolution of power to departments or does it cause problems and create unfairness?

  It is not the experience of English Heritage that interviews for appointments to the Commission are held as suggested by the question. The DCMS independent advisors consider applications forms and paper submissions. A final decision is made by Ministers in the light of their comments and those from the Chairman of English Heritage. Candidates may be short-listed from either the public appointments unit database or from suggestions made by the Chairman of English Heritage or from DCMS officials. There is a strong argument in favour of holding formal "recruitment" interviews.

  Although there is no evidence that it is the case, the current process is open to criticism on several grounds:

    (a)  There may be questions regarding who the independent assessors are and how qualified they are to make a decision.

    (b)  As indicated in the consultation document, there could be questions regarding the patronage of ministers and the basis on which their decisions are made.

    (c)  As with (b) above there is the possibility that the role of the Chairman of English Heritage in the appointment process could be questioned given his role in suggesting candidates and commenting on others.

  English Heritage does not in any way imply that there is impropriety arising from the current process of appointments, merely that there it creates the opportunity for impropriety to be perceived. As long as the process of ministerial appointments continues, there should be effort to increase awareness of the system and transparency in order to dispel criticism.

Question 12—Do you believe that an independent appointments commission should be introduced instead of ministerial appointments?

  The option of an independent commission to undertake appointments does have some merit. Subject to its rules and remit, this could have the significant advantage of removing cynicism regarding patronage and could perhaps be in a position to promote appointments to a more representative cross section of society. However, such a body would need to be sufficiently resourced to undertake what would be a mammoth task. Additionally, there would need to be mechanisms to ensure that appointments were of the highest calibre and that those making the decisions had a detailed knowledge of the work of the body to which they were appointing.

Question 16—Is the public appointments process understood by members of the public and seen to be fair, open, transparent and easy to travel through? and Question 17—What improvements, if any, should be made in the way in which advertising or publicising public appointments are made?

  There is a significant misunderstanding, lack of knowledge, cynicism and apathy as regards public appointments.

  To counter the above, English Heritage feels that government departments could do more to promote their vacancies and the current process. Additionally, it is suggested that there could be a central website through which all appointments to quangos and similar bodies should be advertised. This could provide a "one stop shop" for advice on processes, procedures and current opportunities.

Question 25—Should every candidate, even important people for high level appointments, be asked to complete application forms and attend interviews in the normal way?

  We feel that for the sake of avoiding criticism, the procedures should apply equally to all, irrespective of their seniority. As indicated in our answer to question 5, the DCMS do not hold formal interviews for appointments to the Commission of English Heritage. However, there is a trade-off in this respect in that very formal open procedures could be a disincentive to the senior and `heavyweight' candidates sought by English Heritage.


 
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