Memorandum by Paula Ridley, Chair, Liverpool
Housing Action Trust,|
Chairman, Victoria and Albert Museum (PAP
This evidence is personal and based on 20 years
of public service. For the avoidance of doubt, I have always had
a "proper" job alongside my other responsibilities,
working in urban regeneration, economic development and television,
and am currently the Director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
I have shared this with colleagues on my current
boards, but the opinions expressed are my own. These questions
are timely and difficult, as instanced by their overlapping nature.
They cover advisory bodies, executive agencies, the appointment
of bishops and local partnerships. My responses are therefore
for the most part general, with some illustrations.
It seems to me that the over-arching issue is
that Boards should have the confidence of Parliament. Questions
of legitimacy and accountability of non-elected Boards or committees
delivering services to the public lie at the heart of this inquiry,
and how best this might be delivered.
Some Departments of State have addressed these
issues with their own NDPBs by tying them in carefully to Public
Service Agreements and making public explicit targets. The Departments
of Health and Education, charged as they are with policy delivery
themselves, clearly have close working relationships with their
Another question at the heart of this debate
is what are the public bodies for, and what, consequently the
role of the Board should be. It seems to me that there is a confusion
that Boards are in some sense a Parliament, supervising the work
of others. They are not. They are just thata Board, responsible
for policy and strategy. It is because of this that they need
a wide variety of skills and experience to contribute to that
debate, to help and on occasions to challenge the Chief Executive
(and sometimes maybe the Secretary of State), and to make informed
judgements on key issues.
No one Board replicates another in my experience,
either in composition or in what they see as the most important
issues facing them at any one time. Every Board needs a different
range of skills and expertise. But all of those I have been associated
with, paid or unpaid, work often beyond the call of duty to ensure
that corporately they deliver the best they can in the public
interest without fear or favour. This is not an argument necessarily
for the status quobut it is an argument for clarifying
the terms of engagement.
The perceived democratic deficit has been addressed
in a number of waysby new and improved appointments systems,
by holding meetings in public, by publishing minutes on the web.
Most Boards understand the need for openness now, and transparency
has crept into the most extraordinary places, including the Security
Service. Government does have a responsibility to ensure that
the best people do come forward to serve. However, most of the
public would feel more comfortable having the country's leading
medical practitioners appointed with no advertisement, rather
than the Board of Trustees of the V&A appointed after scrupulous
process, serving on the Committee for the Safety of Medicines.
Proportion is everything.
1. What if anything is the justification
for such a large number of public offices being filled by appointment
rather than election?
The first answer is that many of these bodies,
like, for example, the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, require
specialist knowledge of a particular discipline which allows informed
judgements to be made in the public interest. The Governor of
the Bank of England also needs specialist skills.
Secondly, many of these operations are running
vast businesses on behalf of the state. These need to be run efficiently,
effectively, with value for money in mind, and in the public interest.
It is of course the over-riding connection with
the public interest that highlights the perceived lack of democracy
or legitimacy when Chairmen and Boards are appointed by whatever
method. The spending of taxpayers' money is a serious responsibility,
and the days are over when public bodies saw themselves as totally
independent of any government influence.
There is no doubt that public bodies carry out
some of the most important tasks in public life. Though the committee
on the House of Lords concluded that democracy would be best served
by a chamber composed mainly of elected members with a minority
of appointed ones, there is no prima facie reason to assume this
is the solution to all aspects of public life.
Many of these bodies, in fact the majority,
are part-time. This means that their members will have other professional
calls upon their time, maybe related to the work of the public
body, maybe quite unrelated. They involve huge commitments of
time, generally quite unrelated to the job specification or the
remuneration (if any). Which takes precedence in a conflict of
time or date? How are we to ensure that the members are responsible
and abide by the Nolan principles?
So far we have relied upon an ethic of public
service which has corraled an army of professional help to the
service of the state on the basis that they simply wish to serve,
whether it is on the board of their local NHS Trust or the Board
of Trustees of a National Museum or Gallery. The vast majority
served conscientiously and well, though there were some examples
in some areas of self-appointing oligarchies replicating themselves.
The system of public appointments begun by Nolan and overseen
by the Office of the Commissioner has begun to ensure that there
is now an understanding that appointments to public bodies must
follow a transparent process.
2. What problems might arise if elections
were held for membership of some public bodies, instead of the
current system of appointments?
For a country which has just begun to experiment
with e-democracy, it is difficult to estimate what effect this
might have in the future on our democratic institutions. Nevertheless,
there is a huge resistance to standing for election amongst many
people who currently staff the majority of our public boards.
Indeed, these very people have chosen non-political public service
as they do not wish to be involved in the cut and thrust of political
life. Many, like myself, regard impartiality and independence
from political connections to be a critical safeguard.
Many people would not wish to join the hustings,
even if they were not standing on any political platform. There
is considerable doubt about whether the electorate wants to turn
out endlessly (cf local government); nor how representative electorate
or candidates might be. Election is often selection for a very
long time, and rules would be required to prevent people from
Calls for elected representatives also miss
the pointthat members of public bodies are not necessarily
representatives. They are members of a Board and required to act
corporately in the interests of the body concerned. Posts are
filled against specific job specifications on merit. This does
not mean, however, that boards should not try to ensure that they
represent as broad a spectrum of the public as possible.
Having said all this, there is no doubt that
in a form of participatory democracy, like the Housing Action
Trusts, the presence on the boards of elected members of residents
groups gives comfort that those interests will be represented.
Other bodies have attempted to address perceived gaps by ensuring
consumer, patient or other stakeholder representatives are included.
3. Should a public appointment be part
of an individual's civic duty? Would a system similar to jury
service be effective and fair?
We are all familiar with the lengths people
will go to avoid jury service, some for presumably quite valid
reasonsthat their employment is not secure, that they cannot
afford so much time off from running their business, and some
because they feel unsuited or unable to manage this task. Though
it is believed that one of the Lottery boards is experimenting
with this method, it is at the moment an experiment, and presumably
will be carefully monitored. On the face of it such a method could
not be used to find 30,000 people to serve on public bodies requiring
a broad range of specialist skills.
There are also traditional and philosophical
issues surrounding jury servicea system where you are tried
by your peers and the State prosecutes, with a potential loss
of liberty as a penalty. Indeed, the jury system itself is regarded
as inadequate in complicated cases such as commercial fraud, where
specialist judges now can sit alone.
4. What should be the main priorities
for improving the system of public appointments-extend the range
of people involved in bodies, 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 national life?
The answer to this question must be to improve
the effectiveness of the bodies. Otherwise, why have them? They
cannot be used purely as a method extending other agendas. Of
course, extending the range of people involved in them might well
have the effect of improving their effectiveness. The role that
locally and regionally elected members might play is often much
clearer in local and regional bodies than in national ones, where
those members have a close connection with either the advice or
services being administered.
In terms of national government, NDPBs are often
connected to government by cascading of PSA targets, and there
is a close connection with the sponsoring department approving
corporate plan targets and spend levels. Often these bodies are
locked in to government priorities and strategies, so nationally
elected members who could be pursuing alternative agendas are
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?
If these are public bodies, often charged with
delivering key parts of public policy, there seems little option
but to make appointments the responsibility of the sponsoring
department. Publicising appointments can have the advantage of
bringing forward well-qualified candidates who might otherwise
escape the traditional search process. Often a combination of
search and advertising is the best way forward. Boards themselves
should always be asked whether they have a candidate themselves
who would answer the job specification. Sometimes there may be
an obvious candidateand sometimes the obvious candidate
is the right candidate. This does not of course obviate the desirability
for transparency and openness.
6. Are there any aspects of the Government's
approach to public appointments which appear to be inconsistent
Departmental methods varysome interview
all candidates, some carry out a paper exercise based on the applications
received. There are inconsistencies between departments about
the involvement of the Chair of the Board on the interview committee.
Chairs rightly argue that if they are required to deliver performance
targets, they should at least be part of the process, which selects
the members charged with doing so. It may also be the case that
a "one size fits all" process is not appropriate, given
the wide variety of jobs to be filled.
Effective corporate working involves creating
an esprit de corps, which does not mean appointing friends
but appointing those with the most suitable skills for the task
in hand. Most departments are sympathetic to the problems of Board
appointments, and some assessors are extremely helpful in the
Much effort is expended to ensure that people
do not feel they have been treated unfairly, but perceptions of
unsuccessful candidates who may not be appointed or understand
the process may exist. It is also the case that the speed of the
process (often extremely lengthy) is unsatisfactory, and there
is little feedback to applicants.
7. Is there any evidence to suggest
that politicians sometimes play an improper role in the current
appointments system? What are your main concerns, if any?
I have no direct evidence of politicians playing
an improper role in public appointments.
8. What part, if any, should politicians
play in the public appointments process?
Politicians, and by politicians I assume we
mean Ministers, should take an appropriate interest in the appointments
made to their department's quangos without unduly influencing
the process. Many of these bodies are delivering their own departmental
targets, so they need to respect and understand the people chosen
to do this. This must never mean bringing pressure to appoint
friends to important jobs. In many cases, Ministerial responsibility
for their public bodies should be seen as a positive route of
9. Is there any evidence to suggest
that there is political bias in the public appointments process?
I have never come across any, but there have
in the past been perceptions that Health Trusts has appointees
politically sympathetic to the government of the day. I believe
the OCPA made some sensible readjustments. (It could of course
be argued that if the Government has a radical policy, say for
the Health Service, it would hardly be effectively delivered by
a Board composed of those who believe it should be abolished).
10. Is political bias ever acceptable
in the appointments system, for example to correct a political
imbalance accumulated under a previous government?
If there was demonstrable and evident political
bias, affecting the work of the public body, then clearly this
should be changed. Public bodies should work impartially in the
public interest and perceived political bias undermines the credibility
of the body and its ability to work effectively.
11. What role should Parliament play
in public appointments?
I think there may be a case to be made for a
Select Committee to see some major appointments, for example the
Chairman of the BBC, or the Chairman of the newly-constituted
Board of Railtrack, on the basis that these days both Chairmen
and Chief Executives are increasingly likely to be in the public
eye, and to satisfy themselves of the validity of the appointments.
If this was carried out scrupulously and fairly within a process
of properly considered rules, it might strengthen the postholder's
There are though two subsidiary points here:
one is that many people who put themselves forward are doing the
country a favour, and they could well be spending their time doing
other things. Secondly, there are some bodies where this would
not be appropriate, and which could lead to no-one wishing to
take up the post.
The real role for Parliament to play in public
appointments is in scrutinising the performance of the public
bodies on which appointees serve.
12. Do you believe that an independent
appointments commission should be introduced instead of ministerial
Not necessarily. It much depends on the job
to be done. Sometimes it might be singularly inappropriate.
13. Is there evidence to suggest that
the current system is not attracting applications from the widest
pool of candidates?
I have not seen the lists so I am not sure.
Taking on a public appointment is a huge and onerous task, often
involving considerable travel and disruption to working and domestic
life. Some people do not want to "work for free". It
is hard to separate the variables here.
I agree with Ministers that we should try and
find younger people. I am afraid this is easier said than done.
14. How can greater diversity best be
combined with reassurance that the principle of merit in public
appointments is being upheld?
This is difficult. Most women would not wish
to be appointed to any post because they were women, and I imagine
the same will be true of BME candidates. There is also the issue
of ensuring that there is proper representation of the whole population,
some of whom have not had the opportunities to acquire the right
mix of skills. To remedy this it has sometimes occurred to me
that a "ladder" might be developed, where women and
BME candidates were encouraged to join local and regional bodies
and trained in skills they might be missing. As they develop,
they would then be able to progress more confidently to bigger
bodies. It is not helpful to appoint people to boards where they
clearly do not have the appropriate skills and feel uncomfortable:
this can be counterproductive. Equally, there is also the possibility
of recognising that other, less traditional, skills might be useful
complements on boards.
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?
The whole question of remuneration needs revisiting.
It is totally inconsistent. It might well lead to more diversityfor
example, it is hard to see how some people could ever afford to
join major institutions which require huge time commitments but
which are unpaid, thus tending to perpetuate them as the prerogative
of the relatively well-off. Many women need the money to enable
them to take on the job at all.
Of course the drawbacks are that some people
could theoretically acquire a number of paid appointments and
a concomitantly large salary. Presumably this could be dealt with
by placing limits on the amount people could earn? But the other
side of the coin is that it is easier to remove under-performing
colleagues if they are paid than if they are unpaid.
It is also the case that public bodies are better
served by those in separate employment as they bring a wider experience
to the job.
16. Is the public appointments process
understood by members of the public and seen to be fair, open
and easy to travel through?
It is becoming far more widely understood and
accepted that there are processes of advertisement and appointment.
There will always be cases where disappointed candidates feel
that there was a stitch-up, but the process is becoming fairer
and more open.
17. What improvements, if any, should
be made in the way in which advertising or publicising public
appointments are made?
In my experience the advertising is done in
all the proper places, and people are becoming used to looking
there. I assume that advertising is also done in other specialist
journals and places where the required target appointees might
look. There is though a related problem of raising unfair expectations.
18. What is your understanding of the
role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments?
I understand her role.
All those I have met who serve on public bodies
are there to do their best. They work selflessly and are aware
of the need for regularity and propriety. They are not on the
make or on the take, and over the years have had to put up with
enormous amounts of hurtful and unfair press commentary. Public
appointees are often doing the country a favour, not the other
way round. The lifestyle is not that attractive! There is a real
problem in getting good and well-qualified candidates to come
forward. In my certain experience, even important people being
considered for high-level appointments accept that they will be
interviewed and may have to fill in forms (Q25) in the interests
of proper process. The real issue we are facing is how to improve
and expand the pool of people from which the country can draw.
Formerly Board of the Independent Broadcasting
Board of the Merseyside Development Corporation
Trustee, Tate Gallery 1988-98
Trustee, National Gallery 1994-98
Member, Royal Commission on Long Term Care for
the Elderly, 1997-99