Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

Memorandum by Sioned-Mair Richards (MPP 07)

  My name is Sioned-Mair Richards. I was the Mayor of Carmarthen in West Wales for the year 1998-99. During my year of office I met the High Sheriff of Dyfed on many occasions. Not having really known about this post before my year of office or having met one, I wondered how you got to be appointed to this post and asked what the process was. It appeared that a name was given to the Queen who made the appointment. This name was given by the incumbent High Sheriff ie the new Sheriff is proposed by a previous Sheriff. In effect this means that a group of people who know each other, appoint each other.

  I was invited to a lunch hosted by the High Sheriff in honour of the High Court Judge who had come to Carmarthen. The lunch was full of either previous High Sheriffs or those to be—they knew up to three years in advance who it would be. Although the High Sheriff was an elected councillor in Pembrokeshire this did not have any bearing on his taking the post and was a matter of coincidence. I felt that the fact that he was an old Etonian and moved in the same social circles as the other people at the lunch had more to do with his appointment than the fact that he was a holder of elected office elsewhere. I sat there wondering whether we really had an elected democracy as these people were continuing to run things between them as they always had and, while they were very nice people, they were not part of an open, democratic process.

  As well as needing to be known by the right people, being the High Sheriff requires you to be fairly wealthy as the High Sheriff "uniform" of velvet breeches, jacket, sword etc can cost several thousand pounds—unless you can get them second hand from a previous sheriff who is the same size. You attend all sorts of functions around the county—and Dyfed is very large—but have to finance this from your own pocket.

  The question is, does this matter? I believe that it does. While the post does not wield direct power, there is enormous influence which is used by a self-perpetuating group of people. It is unclear how one arrives in this post, there is no "job description" and it appears that the post is not open for anyone to apply for.

  I assume that this process is similar all around England and Wales, not just in Dyfed. You have had evidence to the Committee before Christmas from Mr John Savage, High Sheriff of Bristol who has described the process as he sees it which appears to agree with what I found out about the role. You have also received evidence from Mr Jon Snow, Channel 4 News and Mr Philip Collins, Director of the Social Market Foundation who have come to a similar conclusion.

  It seems to me that breaking down class barriers and encouraging all people to take roles in public life will continue to be hard while there is still a layer which is appointed mysteriously, which appears to be self perpetuating and depends on who you know rather than on what you can offer. I am not convinced that there is any need for High Sheriffs but if the Committee believes that there is then surely a new system of appointment is called for which is open, transparent and fair.

  I would also raise the question of Lord Lieutenants who I understand are appointed by the Queen. Again I realise that this is an honorary post but, for example, the Lord Lieutenant of Dyfed chairs the committee which selects JPs. This seems to give a large piece of influence over the lay judiciary for someone who again is from that class or layer of people who appoint each other.

  Clarification of the roles of Lords Lieutenants and High Sheriffs, how they are appointed and the extent of their powers is needed if we are to understand how our society is run and by who. It may appear to be "Ruritanian" and not to matter but while it continues to play what can be a very influential role—in rural areas in particular—then it should be open to Scrutiny and the public should feel confidence that an unfair appointment system is not being perpetuated.

  I would ask the Committee to enquire about these appointments and to consider making recommendations to reform this system.

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