Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Environment Agency (PAP 36)

  The Environment Agency welcomes the consultation on Public Appointments and Patronage by the Public Administration Select Committee, and the opportunity to put forward views on this important subject.

  The Environment Agency is governed by a Board whose members are appointed by Ministers. The Agency also has statutory executive Flood Defence Committees, together with Environment Protection and Fisheries, Ecology & Recreation Advisory Committees, members of which are appointed either by Ministers, Local Authorities or by the Environment Agency itself. Taken together, there are more than 750 non-executives in these groups. We also have non-statutory Area Environment Groups, appointments to which are also covered by the Nolan principles.

  The appointments process that we manage is organised in accordance with the Nolan guidelines to meet high standards of propriety. Arrangements are in place to ensure, as far as is practically possible, that individuals from all parts of the diverse communities of England and Wales are encouraged to put themselves forward for membership of Agency Committees.

  Responses to the individual questions in the consultation document are given below.

GENERAL

1.   What, if anything, is the justification for such a large number of public offices (around 30,000) being filled by appointment rather than election?

  An important distinction needs to be made between:

    (a)  local bodies responsible for the provision of local services where accountability lies with elected members who represent local constituencies; and

    (b)  National bodies who are responsible for implementing national policy and carrying out executive functions on behalf of departments of national government and whose accountability is to parliament through Ministers.

  In the first case, where flexibility of response to local circumstances, accessibility and local identity are important considerations, elected representation is the most effective model to ensure accountability. In the case of national bodies, executive accountability and funding is the responsibility of central government, with ultimate accountability in the hands of the relevant Minister. In such cases, appointment rather than election is the appropriate model to ensure that membership of the bodies concerned comprises a cross-section of suitably qualified and experienced people.

  It remains important for the balance between functions carried out by appointed and elected bodies to be kept under review to reflect the need to maintain effective and efficient service delivery and arrangements which best serve the public interest.

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

  It is important that for statutory regulatory bodies considering complex technical matters such as the Environment Agency, members can be selected on the grounds of the expertise and experience they bring, rather than their appeal to the electorate.

  It is also vital to consider the scope of the organisation concerned; the comments under question 1 regarding geographical scope are again relevant; it is easier to justify election to clearly local bodies than to those covering a wider area and/or range of responsibilities. With elected systems, it is important for individuals to be able to identify with their elected representative(s).

  Where a body is, like the Environment Agency, executive and responsible through Ministers to Parliament, direct election would create a clash of accountabilities. A person elected to such a body could justifiably claim that the electorate's support for his or her manifesto takes precedence over any other form of accountability. To attempt to regulate for this conflict by defining which powers and functions of the body were subject to Ministerial direction, and which to the elected mandate, would be an onerous or even impossible task. (Even in the case of Flood Defence Committees, where the executive powers lie with local government but the Agency is the national operating authority under DEFRA's policy lead, direct election would cut across the line of accountability to the local authorities created by the Committee's levy powers.)

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

  For appointments to specialist technical and regulatory bodies, it is vital for members to be selected for their range of experience and technical expertise, which would not be provided through a system similar to that used in relation to jury service.

  That being said, there is undoubtedly a need to promote the ideal of civic duty and responsible citizenship, to encourage more people from all walks of life to put themselves forward for public office of all kinds.

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?

  The main priority must be to improve the quality of decisions or advice produced by public bodies. In many cases, this will not be demonstrable if the range of people appointed is too narrow. Therefore, efforts need to be made, both by Government and others involved in making public appointments, to encourage a wider range of individuals—outside the traditional "middle aged white male" stereotype—to put themselves forward for public appointments. It is increasingly important that appointed bodies are representative of the community that they serve. There should still be the correct geographical balance, specialist/generalist knowledge and commitment to the body concerned. For a national regulatory body it is important to have a national spread of membership but members need to see their primary responsibility to the body concerned and relevant Secretary of State, not to a national or regional electorate.

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?

  The role of departments in conducting open and objective appointments processes on Ministers' behalf is to be supported. In practice, however, the process is often very extended and the quality of communication with candidates poor, with the result that able and busy people—including those who may have been actively encouraged to consider applying—are discouraged by the process itself. There need to be some quality standards that should include limits to the time that Ministers have to consider recommendations at different stages of the process. Candidates, including those excluded from long or short lists, need to be better informed at all stages of the progress of their application. If this requires greater delegation of elements of the selection process to officials, it should be supported.

6.   Are there any aspects of the Government's approach to public appointments which appear to be inconsistent or unclear?

  In our experience, making the right appointments depends more on the availability of suitable candidates than on any policy issues. More effective headhunting of candidates from diverse backgrounds is required. Government and Government bodies need to do more to develop potential candidates from under-represented groups.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE ON APPOINTMENTS

7.   Is there any evidence to suggest that politicians sometimes play an improper role in the current public appointments system? What are your main concerns, if any?

  We do not believe that there is evidence of any improper political interference in any of the multitude of appointments made to the Environment Agency each year.

8.   What part, if any, should politicians play in the public appointments process?

  See answers to questions 5 and 7 above.

9.   Is there any evidence to suggest that there is political bias in the public appointments process?

  In the case of the Environment Agency, there is statutory provision for five Local Authority members on each Regional Environment Protection Advisory Committee. These are appointed according to procedures agreed through the Local Government Association to meet clear criteria that provide for a balance on political, tier of authority and geographical grounds. Whilst application of such criteria is often challenging, it has largely been successful in the past and demonstrates what can be achieved. We have no evidence of political bias in the appointments process.

10.   Is political bias ever acceptable in the appointments system, for example to correct a political imbalance accumulated under a previous Government?

  Where there is a significant political imbalance, this needs to be adjusted but only within the context of selecting people with the appropriate qualities, skills, experience and geographic origin. Appointees with a declared political background or history are no less likely to act objectively than those without, and care should be taken not to discriminate against them. The Agency has no experience which would suggest that those appointed to its Board or other Committees act other than in the best interests of the body and the public interest generally, and we believe that too much can be made of the question of perceived "political balance" on public bodies.

11.   What role if any should Parliament play in public appointments?

  The most appropriate role for Parliament is scrutiny and ensuring transparency in the processes, rather than scrutiny of individual appointments. It should be noted that Parliament is able to call Ministers to account for activities of bodies generally and appointments to them.

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

  It is not clear how this would be more objective or balanced than the present process. Presumably, Ministers would still be accountable for appointments; if this were to be-say-a Cabinet Office Minister responsible for such a commission rather than Minister in the relevant Department, this would be a retrograde step because it would divorce responsibility for appointments from the accountable Minister.

DIVERSITY IN PUBLIC APPOINTMENTS

13.   Is there evidence to suggest that the current system is not attracting applications from the widest pool of candidates?

  It is difficult to attract the best candidates when appointment processes are lengthy and benefits (to the individual or to society as a whole) are not as clear as might be possible. Indeed, good candidates who have an interest in a number of opportunities may be lost because of the time processes can take. Diversity is important and there is a lack of candidates from diverse backgrounds with the requisite skills and other qualities.

14.   How can greater diversity best be combined with reassurance that the principle of merit in public appointments is being upheld?

  As already noted, we regard it as increasingly important that appointments are drawn from and represent a wide cross-section of our diverse society. Application of the Nolan rules, combined with creative means of targeting audiences, should ensure maintenance of both merit and diversity in appointments.

15.   Would a more consistent use of remuneration for members of public bodies help to increase diversity in their membership? Are there any possible drawbacks to an increase in the number of remunerated members?

  Remuneration, however small, could help encourage people to apply. Remuneration also reinforces the value of the job to be done, although status remains important. It is important that extending remuneration arrangements should not be allowed to blur distinctions between executives and non-executives or undermine the public service ethos.

  Levels of remuneration should be more consistent across public bodies in reflecting the size and complexity of roles and responsibilities.

PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING

16.   Is the public appointments process understood by members of the public and seen to be fair, open, transparent and easy to travel through?

  We believe it is unlikely that the appointments process commands a wide level of public understanding, given the nature of the process. Promotion of greater clarity should encourage a wider range of potential applicants.

  We do not think that the process is particularly open or easy to travel through.

17.   What improvements, if any, should be made in the way in which advertising or publicising public appointments are made?

  There is scope for wider advertising to promote diversity. Care may be needed to avoid advertisements dumbing down what is required, resulting in applications by people who lack the requisite skills, with consequent disillusionment when not selected.

18.   What is your understanding of the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie?

  The Commissioner for Public Appointments has the responsibility for overseeing the systems for public appointments and recommending improvements, for monitoring the way in which it is operated and for looking at substantial problems with its operation.

OTHER ISSUES

19.   There are a growing number of sometimes informally-constituted partnership bodies and task forces charged with carrying out public functions, especially at local level. Should these bodies be subject to the Commissioner for Public Appointments' Code of Practice?

  Partnerships and task forces are encouraged by government policy as a means of delivering integrated solutions and more effective public services. It is important not to put unnecessary hurdles in the way of these partnerships being formed. The key consideration in membership of partnerships is whether the bodies constituting the partnership are making a genuine contribution to the joint effort. If they are, they have the right to nominate those persons that they think will best represent their interests. The question of public appointment will therefore not arise.

20.   Are there ways in which the system of independent assessors for public appointments can be improved?

  More training and more cross-comparison between departments would be desirable. Some Government departments are more rigorous than others, and independent assessors comparing notes would help.

21.   What is your opinion of the Government's proposals for future appointments to the House of Lords? Should it be treated in the same way as other public bodies?

  Not a matter within the Agency's remit.

22.   Are there any lessons to be learned by Government departments about the way in which the Scottish Executive and the National Assembly for Wales approach public appointments?

  So far as the Environment Agency is concerned, the National Assembly for Wales applies a policy of openness and transparency to public appointments, which mirrors the policy in England, and there are no substantive differences in the approach adopted.

23.   The Commissioner for Public Appointments' remit covers specified Ministerial public appointments and her Code of Practice, which is based on Nolan principles, sets out the regulatory framework for these appointments. Should the remit be extended to all other appointments?

  The remit has been extended to other appointments including those made by the Environment Agency, by Ministerial directive.

24.   What is your opinion of the reforms recently introduced in the system of appointments to NHS bodies?

  No comment.

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

  It is important for the application of the Nolan principles for consistent application and interview procedures to be applied equally to all candidates, with full documentation of all stages in the process. It would be extremely difficult to form a fair judgement in a competitive process without such requirements.

May 2002


 
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