Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)

BARONESS PRASHAR, CLARE PELHAM AND HON MR JUSTICE GOLDRING

20 MARCH 2007

  Q60  Keith Vaz: Indeed.

  Baroness Prashar: Also, steps were taken immediately and everything has been put in place, but I really do think it would be a great pity to continue to labour it and exaggerate it. Of course we regret that the mistake happened but I think it would be a pity if people used that to damage the JAC. If I may say so, it is not in our, your or the country's interests to do that because the JAC has a very important role to play. Our credibility is very important because if we have credibility then the appointments we make will have credibility. Therefore, the reputation of the JAC is extremely important.

  Q61  Keith Vaz: Baroness Prashar, of course it is; that is why you are sitting before us, and if it happens again the Committee will have you back because we do think that it is very strange and disappointing that on your very first set of appointments a properly funded organisation should have these problems. You describe them as human errors. You describe them as management failures. Has there been any disciplinary action taken as a result of what has happened? Who takes responsibility for this?

  Baroness Prashar: I will ask my Chief Executive to answer that.

  Clare Pelham: I take responsibility for it. I am the Chief Executive of the organisation. I want to speak with some sensitivity because the member of staff concerned is currently on sick leave and so has not had the—

  Q62  Chairman: I am sorry, but that is the story that is usually told in all comparable circumstances.

  Clare Pelham: I understand exactly what you are saying but I am sure that you also understand how difficult it is to be on sick leave and to hear yourself discussed.

  Q63  Keith Vaz: We do not know who that person is, of course, nor do we want to know who the person is. We hold you responsible, as you have taken responsibility, and the Chairman of the Commission. The fact is that the people who really feel let down are the candidates, some of whom will not get appointed because they are not going to be chosen, who will feel that there is something wrong with the whole system. You have written to every one of the candidates and apologised for what has happened. Have there been any further complaints from any candidates about this? Have any candidates suggested that the whole sift should happen again?

  Baroness Prashar: No.

  Q64  Keith Vaz: Not a single candidate has written to you?

  Baroness Prashar: No. We have had several letters asking us for further explanation, but nobody has written to complain, and I think it would be a pity in a way, because when we found out there was a mistake people who were not sifted in were looked at again and I thought that was the fairest thing to do. We can tell you that everybody was treated fairly. I would like Mr Justice Goldring to say something about that because it was he who was extremely helpful in making sure that this competition ran smoothly.

  Mr Justice Goldring: I think you probably know what exactly happened. Once we appreciated that the references had not been taken into account we looked again at everybody who had not been selected for interview. Those who had been selected for interview went on to interview and so they were not prejudiced. Those who had not been selected for interview were looked at afresh, their references were taken into account and a number of other people, I think it was 59 in all, were selected for interview and they have now all been interviewed.

  Q65  Keith Vaz: But, Sir John, because you have other things to do, you are sitting in court, you do not realise that this is exactly the point we put to the Lord Chancellor when he came before us about a year ago to tell us exactly the same thing had happened in the appointment of the immigration judges to York. The sift had gone wrong, the references had not been looked at, and what worries me is that you are relying on the same members of staff who cocked it up at the Lord Chancellor's Department. That is why I keep going back to the fact that if you are independent you should have your own staff because, as you yourself say in the statement that you issued in February of this year in response to the Chairman's letter to you, you thought the previous system of selection was both cumbersome and lengthy. You thought you would improve on the system but how can you improve on the system when you have the very same people who administered the previous system operating in your new independent body? Is it not the case that the same mistakes are going to be made again?

  Clare Pelham: Perhaps I can add a word of explanation. The Chairman alluded earlier to the fact that some competitions were being run by the JAC under the old DCA processes while they were developing their own selection processes and you have been sent a copy of the letter which explains those new processes. One key feature of the new processes is that instead of a paper sift for appointments below the most senior levels and except for very small competitions there will now be a qualifying test rather than the huge amount of paperwork which has previously been a feature of the DCA processes.

  Q66  Keith Vaz: But references are obviously going to play a very important part and will continue to play a part in this. Sir John will know that references from senior members of the judiciary carry weight when people make applications. Could somebody tell me about the importance of references in this whole process?

  Baroness Prashar: Let me answer that question. As Ms Pelham has said, in competitions, where there will be a qualifying test, references will be sought after people have passed the qualifying test. In competitions, where there will be no qualifying test, we will seek references. Those will be considered alongside people's CVs and their self-assessment. Of course, we need all the information we can get in terms of determining who goes forward, but let me clarify that under the new processes we have made the process of reference-seeking much more open. We now ask candidates to provide names for their referees and we have what we call Commission-nominated referees and the candidates are fully aware of who they are likely to be.

  Q67  Keith Vaz: Sorry; can you repeat that? Commission-nominated referees? What do they do? Is this a new development?

  Baroness Prashar: It is a new development. It is making the process of reference-seeking much more open and clear. What we do is ask candidates to identify, like in any other job, who are the referees that they would like us to approach. Then we have clearly stated in the information given to the candidate that the Commission will be seeking references when we have got Commission-nominated referees.

  Q68  Keith Vaz: And who chooses who becomes a Commission-nominated referee? I am sorry; I have never heard of this before.

  Baroness Prashar: This is a new thing and it is something that we do.

  Q69  Keith Vaz: Okay, so who are these people?

  Baroness Prashar: These could be, if you are a solicitor, your managing partner, or if they happen to be an academic—in other words line managers who can give you some information.

  Q70  Keith Vaz: They know the candidate?

  Baroness Prashar: Absolutely, and the candidates are fully aware of who the Commission-nominated candidates are. In that sense we have made the process of reference-seeking much more open and clear. That information is obviously used and, after you have interviewed the candidates, the CV, the track record, the references and the assessment made at interview, all the information goes into making a judgment on which candidates meet the criteria that we have developed to assess merit.

  Q71  Mr Tyrie: It has been a very helpful exchange and I think that your memorandum was very frank, making clear that there has been a mistake, and it is really valuable, when this happens, that somebody says, "Yes, there has been a mistake", so thank you for doing that. You say the guide was wrong to say that the sift was based solely on the candidate's self-assessments. You have also said you have learned the lessons of this. Have you established why the guide was written in that way? I know that someone is now on sick leave but presumably the cause of this does not lie just with one person.

  Clare Pelham: That is one of our lessons learned, that in this case the responsibility did lie with one person. They were asked to organise the competition in a way that made it clear that references would be considered at sift, and mistakes were allowed to be put into the guide which went out to applicants, and at the same time the team supporting the competition went about seeking the references in line with the original intention although the guide to applicants was faulty.

  Q72  Mr Tyrie: There was no internal system of checking this guide before it went out, so there is some serious administrative error inside the Department at the moment, or there has been? Is that right?

  Clare Pelham: It has always been the responsibility of the selection exercise managers to quality assure their own team's work and now we have put in place, as we said in our memorandum, that the director responsible will always give authority for any material to be put into the public domain.

  Q73  Mr Tyrie: I think that is very helpful and clearly a step forward in the management improvements that I think are going to be absolutely essential, judging by the impression that we have as a Committee. As far as we can tell pretty much the same people who were doing this before are still doing this in your organisation at the moment and clearly there is a need for a shake-up. Do you think that, given all the difficulties you have had and given the fact that you have now put in place a new approach for dealing with referees, it might be a good idea just to publish your draft proposals for the new guide now as a draft and say, "This is the guide we are proposing to publish. Comments please"?

  Baroness Prashar: This information is available. Our new processes are on the website and, when the competition begins, along with the application form a clear guidance and information pack goes to the candidates.

  Q74  Mr Tyrie: I am just talking about this new referee system, whether you should put that out and give the opportunity to those who will be affected by it to comment on it now, before the process is working, for the next round.

  Baroness Prashar: All the key interested parties were given the information before we implemented the changes at the beginning of November, so people were made aware of this and we have not had any negative comments in response to that.

  Q75  Mr Tyrie: People have had an opportunity to make negative comments, and I have no reason to suppose that is also flawed, but seeing that you have already had one problem it might be a good idea to try and make sure you do not have another unforeseen one. Could I just ask Mr Justice Goldring, when you said there was no need to deal with those who had gone forward for interview in this process, were people judged on a points system on the basis of their self-assessments?

  Mr Justice Goldring: Yes.

  Q76  Mr Tyrie: And presumably the points system creates gradations and those gradations then go forward to the interviewers?

  Mr Justice Goldring: There is a points system on the transitional provisions. We are moving away from this points system. That is what obtained.

  Q77  Mr Tyrie: I am just on the question of the pre-existing system.

  Mr Justice Goldring: The answer is yes.

  Q78  Mr Tyrie: So some people may have found themselves with a lower points score at interview stage, even though they got an interview, than they might have had if they had been able to have a proper referee system?

  Mr Justice Goldring: They might have had fewer points had the references been taken into account. That is the way one can look at it.

  Q79  Mr Tyrie: That is what I have just tried to say, but you have put it much better because you are very used to summarising things in your professional life. Therefore, there is an injustice left in the system in that these people, although they got into the interview system, got into it with a lower points score than they would otherwise have expected?

  Mr Justice Goldring: Assuming that the interviewing process works properly people will be selected solely on merit. What may be the consequence is that more people are interviewed than otherwise would have been the case.



 
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