Work and Pensions - Minutes of EvidenceHC 297-i

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House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

Work and PensionS Committee

Preappointment hearing for the post of Chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Paul Gray

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 31

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Work and Pensions Committee

on Wednesday 20 June 2012

Members present:

 

Oliver Heald

Debbie Abrahams

Karen Bradley

Sheila Gilmore

Glenda Jackson

 

In the absence of the Chair, Oliver Heald was called to the Chair.

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Paul Gray CB, preferred candidate for the post of Chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Good morning, Mr Gray, and welcome. I do apologise that our Chair is not here. She has a health problem at the moment but has asked me to chair today. We are looking forward to asking you some questions. I don’t know if there is anything you want to say at the outset, but if not, we will start.

Paul Gray: I don’t think so. If you are content to move straight into the questions, that is fine by me. Thank you.

Q2 Chair: My first question will help you to outline your view of the job anyway. You have now been the interim Chair for over six months. I just wondered if you would like to say what your experience has been, why you felt it was a good idea now to put yourself forward for the permanent position, and what you found challenging in the role.

Paul Gray: Thank you for the opportunity to come to the Committee this morning. When I was asked to take on the role on an interim basis, it was an invitation that rather came out of the blue. On the basis it was an interim appointment, I agreed to take it on without, frankly, any view at that stage as to whether or not it was something that would appeal to me to do on a permanent basis. Having had that experience for a few months, I very much enjoyed the opportunity of reengaging from a different perspective with some issues I was involved in within Government in years past. I was increasingly struck by the fact that in the world of social security and welfare this is a particularly interesting period, following the passage of the Welfare Reform Act and all that goes with that. I was enjoying working as interim Chair with a really interesting range of different people from different backgrounds and styles, so I found I was enjoying it and I thought I would very much welcome the opportunity to do it for a normal term of appointment.

What I found most challenging initially was getting back up to speed with issues I had not thought about in any degree of detail for a number of years. It is fascinating how after a gap of a few years there is always quite a lot to catch up with. Catching up with the subject content was challenging. In terms of the role of chairing a diverse group of experts in this area, I don’t think I found that particularly challenging. It relates quite closely to some of the other chairing experiences I have had. The challenge was mainly getting back up to speed on the subject content and then seeking to ensure that the relationship between the Committee as an independent statutory body and the Department gets to what I would regard as the right balance.

Clearly, it is very important that the Committee is independent and is seen to be independent, but equally my view is that there is no point in independence just as an end in itself. As a Committee it is important to act independently but hopefully in an influential way. What I have been seeking to do is to ensure that the relationships with the Department and a whole range of external stakeholders are appropriately critical but also essentially constructive and position the Committee so that, when we have things to say, they are listened to and hopefully we have a degree of influence.

Q3 Chair: This brings me on to my next question. My third question is very much in this territory as well. Obviously, you had a long spell as a very senior official in DWP (Department for Work and Pensions), and that must help, because a lot of the detail of the regulations and so on and the work of SSAC is complex. It must be very helpful to have that background. How do you ensure that you are sufficiently objective? Is it possible to distance yourself from your former colleagues and really feel able to be objective, have a bit of distance and criticise where you need to?

Paul Gray: It is a challenge, but it is perfectly doable. I would say it would have been much more difficult-and not, frankly, something I would have wanted to take on-to take on a role like this very closely after leaving DWP, certainly, or indeed even very shortly after leaving Government. A gap has been appropriate, though clearly I still do know quite a lot of the people within the Department, but were you to ask colleagues and Ministers I worked with and for when I was operating within the Department and within other parts of Government, I think the view they would offer to you is that I was never fearful as an insider of speaking truth unto power. I don’t feel any inhibition in this role, particularly after the gap, in making clear my views on issues or, more importantly, as Chair ensuring that the balance of views in the Committee is accurately and directly communicated to Ministers and senior officials in the Department when we think appropriate. Over the last few months I have sought to demonstrate that. Indeed, following our meeting last week, I have already registered some views with the Minister on a matter that was only coming to the Committee informally and in a preliminary way that are perhaps raising some significant questions about the appropriateness of what was envisaged.

Q4 Chair: Of course the alternative is that, in trying to be independent and showing that distance, it goes a little bit too much the other way. We did notice that in the Triennial Review findings one of the key recommendations is the need to improve the relationship between SSAC and the Department. What do you see as the problems there and how do you see the role of improving that relationship?

Paul Gray: As you rightly say, the report does refer to this issue, and the particular words it uses talk about continuing to build on the recent efforts in this regard, which I take as an acknowledgement that this is a course on which we have been embarked during my period as interim Chair. My view is that there have been times in the past when the relationship between the Committee and the Department has become-I will not say adversarial-too distant and not sufficiently engaged. As in all relationship issues, I am sure there were issues on both sides. Certainly, when I was the senior sponsor of the Committee within the Department, I felt at times that too much emphasis was being placed, on the Committee side of, "This is what we think." Too little attention was sometimes being given by the Department to ensuring that the Committee had full, open access to all the material that would help it in its scrutiny role.

I think it goes back to what I said in response to your earlier question about my view of independence. My desire-and I think the Committee’s desire-is to be independent but influential. That requires cultivating constructive relationships, which means there is a kind of free flow of information but that, when the Committee has critical things to say to Government, it feels entirely free to say such things straightforwardly.

Q5 Glenda Jackson: We are still drilling down on this issue of independence in my next question. I am grateful to you for the answers you have already given. How independent are you? Do you belong to any political party? Are you affiliated with any nongovernmental organisation that may view the work of SSAC as being central to their stakeholders?

Paul Gray: No, I never have had a formal political affiliation or any of those links, either in my past life or my current life.

Q6 Glenda Jackson: So you can maintain independence even though, along with everybody else on the Committee, you will undoubtedly be under pressure from some nongovernmental organisations? I am hypothesising. I should imagine there are quite a few nongovernmental organisations that will be highly suspicious of you because of your previous work with the Department. Have you come across that in any way?

Paul Gray: It has not been particularly evident to me. It is a thought that had occurred to me. I rather hope people are sitting and reaching judgment on action rather than on any prior conceptions. From my time as a civil servant I did put quite a lot of effort into maintaining relationships with a wide group of stakeholder bodies, and I hope I built up a reputation at that stage of being somebody who brought an objective view to issues.

I am also clear that the range of stakeholders who have an interest in working with the Committee will probably be coming from a wide range of different political perspectives, and I am extremely keen to make sure that we are engaging with all the appropriate stakeholder groups. Indeed, one of the things I was doing last week when we launched our initial consultation on the initial Universal Credit regulations was to use a part of the Committee’s meeting to review our list of our normal stakeholder contacts to make sure there was nobody we were missing from one perspective or another.

Q7 Glenda Jackson: That leads very neatly on to the next question because, as you said earlier, the Welfare Reform Act has brought about earthshaking changes in the whole of the benefits system. This is an extremely interesting time. What is your vision for SSAC, given these fundamental and huge changes that are taking place? Do you have sufficient resources to be able to deal with these changes?

Paul Gray: In terms of vision, I am entirely comfortable with the conclusions that have emerged from the Triennial Review-that our core task and activity should be focused around detailed scrutiny of the legislative proposals. There is a long tradition of social security primary legislation being essentially enabling, with all the detail to come through in the regulations. I did actually start counting through the Welfare Reform Act how many times the Act grants a regulationmaking power, and I gave up counting when I got well into three figures.

Glenda Jackson: Like the rest of us.

Paul Gray: This latest Act probably has not taken that historical phenomenon into completely new territory but probably has edged it a bit further. Particularly in the current context, I would see our most important task as ensuring that, as that primary legislation is now enacted over this coming year or so in a whole set of regulations, we make sure that we give primacy in our work to our focusing on that and, as I said in the last answer, making sure we are engaging with as many relevant external stakeholders in that process as we can. Sorry, what was the second part to your question?

Q8 Glenda Jackson: The future, really.

Paul Gray: You asked about resourcing. Inevitably, there are bound to be issues about resourcing for any body of this sort. I am keen to make sure that we are getting maximum bang for our buck in terms of where money is being spent. We are currently looking at how best to utilise and structure the secretariat resources. One of the things I want to explore is whether in future we might use some of our budget to get ad hoc bits of work commissioned from other people so we get the appropriate mix of external and internal input.

Where budgetary issues are inevitably bound to impinge is the extent to which the Committee is able to undertake tasks beyond that core task, such as the major piece of work that was under way on passported benefits when I took over as interim Chair. There is no doubt, though, that over the last year that did consume quite a lot of resources. It was perfectly possible for the Committee to do it, because there was very little routine regulation work coming through, as all the focus was on the passage of the primary legislation. We are now moving into a phase where there is going to be an intensive period of regulatory scrutiny. The reality and the common-sense approach is that we ought to be focusing our time and resources on that, and we should not try to be too ambitious about taking on other ad hoc bits of work over this next term.

Q9 Glenda Jackson: There will be changes in the actual responsibility for administering some of these benefits, which may or may not be passported. I cannot keep up with them. I am thinking of the requirements for local authorities-the decision makers as far as housing benefit is concerned and council tax benefit and things of that nature.

Paul Gray: Indeed.

Glenda Jackson: Do you have access to those Departments? Can you summon or question somebody from the Department for Communities and Local Government?

Paul Gray: Yes.

Q10 Glenda Jackson: You have those powers already, do you?

Paul Gray: I am not sure we, as a Committee, have quite the powers that you as a parliamentary committee have to summon people and require attendance, but I see no difficulty at all about us inviting other Departments to engage. One of the big benefits that has flowed from the passported benefits work is that, as a Committee, we have developed a much wider network of contacts in the other relevant Departments. What is particularly fascinating about that piece of work is, with the traditional system of automatic passporting, there has really been no incentive or need for people to look in any detail at what the impact of social security changes is on those other areas. One of the main benefits from our report was bringing light to bear on those issues. It is quite clear now that the Departments responsible for those various passported benefits are having to think about how we work this in future. There is not now some kind of automatic link and running like clockwork.

Q11 Glenda Jackson: Are they thinking now?

Paul Gray: Indeed they are. It has opened up the opportunity for us to continue to build on those relationships. You also mentioned the housing benefit changes, and it is quite clear that getting more involved in what is going on in local authorities is going to be very important to us. One of the things that we have offered as a Committee to Departments generally is to get much more closely involved than perhaps we have in the past in the monitoring and evaluation procedures for how the benefit cap, for example, is impacting and operating. We can do that.

If we ever get to the point where I feel as Chair seriously constrained by the resources we have available, then, going back to the earlier questions about independence, I will not be at all bashful about going to Ministers and saying, "I really feel we are excessively constrained here. You have given us a task to do; you have approved a Triennial Review report with the following objectives." I don’t feel that at the moment, but if we ever got to that stage then I won’t be backwards in coming forwards on the issue.

Q12 Glenda Jackson: What did you learn from the circumstances that led to your resignation from HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs) in 2007? I presume you did learn? Is the development applicable in any way to this particular post?

Paul Gray: I am not sure I see too much direct connection. You will be familiar or will have briefed yourself on the circumstances of my departure. There was a catastrophic security failure within the department. It was not something that I regarded myself as directly responsible for, but I took the initiative to regard myself as directly accountable and I took the initiative in saying, "Given the extent of this failure, I should take the rap for it," which I duly did. The generic learning from that was to be extremely vigilant in running any organisation, however big or small, about looking out for the unexpected risks. I had been aware in the months running up to that incident that data security issues were something that needed to be tackled. One of the ironies is that not many weeks before that particular incident, I had, through my top team, instituted a decision that said we would move to mandatory encrypting of all information that is going to leave the Department. Sadly, there had not been time to put that into effect before the particular issue arose.

As I say, I think the general lesson is to watch out for the unexpected risks. I cannot help feeling-a number of other people said this to me at the time and have since-that this was one of these things that comes completely out of the blue. A number of colleagues running big organisations have said to me, "There but for the grace of God, go I." There was a generic lesson learned. I am not sure there is anything terribly applicable to this particular role, but the general message I have taken is to be on the lookout for things that could go wrong and the unexpected.

Q13 Glenda Jackson: Data protection is quite important within the whole benefits system. It could be, given the kinds of changes that are being brought in and the compilation of data and how benefit claimants are going to be assessed. Is this something that you are alerting other people to?

Paul Gray: Yes, it is clearly an important principle. One of the things that has happened in Government since my demise from HMRC is there is now an awful lot more attention on that. To go back to passported benefits, one of the key findings from our study, which we published earlier this year, was the importance of ensuring appropriate sharing of information. If you have lots of different organisations all dealing with different aspects of an average citizen’s life, that kind of joining up is appropriate but, as you say, within that, it must be done absolutely according to appropriate data protection principles. That is a point that the Committee can and should make if it judges it appropriate. I don’t really see our role as a Committee as being a significant part of policing that. We have an Information Commissioner.

Glenda Jackson: No, I am not suggesting that you should be policing. It simply is on the issue of being aware of the unexpected. In a system in which the changes are so fundamental and in which technology is going to play an increasingly important part and where concerns on data protection have always been raised, I think it is quite useful. Anyway, thank you very much for that answer.

Q14 Sheila Gilmore: That leads me in to asking what kinds of activities you have spent your time on since 2007 before taking up this post. How does this post fit in with those other interests and activities you may have?

Paul Gray: After a few months’ reflection, I decided the main activity I was going to move into for a number of years was executive coaching and mentoring. I went through a formal accreditation process on that and embarked on the next stage of my career with the firm I now chair. From the word go, I was clear I did not want that to be a fulltime commitment, so I have a threeday-a-week commitment. That is my core role these days. I have a number of other pro bono roles in education.

Going back to what Mr Heald asked me at the outset, I was clear, particularly given the circumstances in which I left HMRC, that this was a time in life to do some rather different things. Although initially I was not looking for this particular role when I was asked to take on the role of interim Chair, for the reasons I explained earlier this seems a very good fit for me at this stage. It is also relevant that, when I took on my current coaching role, my informal understanding with my present firm was that this was something I would do for about five years. I am now four and a bit years into that.

I am pretty clear that next spring I will be running down the extent of my commitment in that area of my life. I may still want to do a certain amount of coaching, but I am now looking to a period-assuming I continue to have the benefit of good health-of perhaps having a range of roles, none of which are as time-intensive as a threedayaweek commitment. Taking on a commitment of five days a month, just over a day a week, apart from its inherent interest, fits very well with a rough plan I have for the next few years of maybe overall running down my total time commitments from probably four and half days a week at the moment to something less than that. In the context of running down my main activity, I would see this fitting extremely well in my use of time as well as deploying such talents as I have in areas of interest to me.

Q15 Sheila Gilmore: So you are confident that the time commitment is realistic?

Paul Gray: I am. Obviously, having been asked to be interim Chair for a few months, that has given me a chance to test the proposition and I have been comfortable with that. It has probably overall meant that I am spending rather more of my week on my commitments than I had been up to that point, but it has felt perfectly comfortable to accommodate that, having tried that for whatever it now is-six or seven months. I don’t feel that is an issue or problem going forward, particularly in the sense that I have hopefully gone through some part of my induction in terms of getting myself up to speed with some of the subject content.

Q16 Sheila Gilmore: Talking of getting up to speed, obviously you are engaging in this role with a number of stakeholders who are extremely well informed-probably extremely opinionated as well-and have a lot of experience and feel very passionate about their commitment. Coming into this not having done DWP things for some time, how have you set about gaining their trust?

Paul Gray: Of the stakeholder community?

Sheila Gilmore: Yes. Can you give any examples maybe of how you have done that in the last six months?

Paul Gray: I am starting to engage with them very actively. I have had a number of onetoone meetings, but within the DWP general stakeholder community activity I have been very active about making sure I am present at meetings where there are a range of other stakeholders. As it happens, the Committee’s traditional main stakeholder engagement event took place in November, just after I had been appointed, but I was not able to be at that first meeting because I had prior commitments. We are very actively planning that activity for this year and, as I said in response to one of the earlier questions, I would judge my reputation with key stakeholders as somebody who is engaged and objective and very interested in ensuring I know where they are coming from.

Q17 Sheila Gilmore: Obviously there have been a lot of changes since any previous involvement you have had in this area. It is a complex area and we are moving on again. How did you set about getting up to speed with this in a practical way? Do you think you have, and is that a further issue regarding time commitment?

Paul Gray: A combination of reading and conversations, essentially. I was not completely unaware of some of the shifts in focus and direction, but I have made sure I have done a lot of reading around the recent changes. I have had lots of conversations, both within Government and outside Government. When I moved from DWP to HMRC and inherited the challenges of overseeing the tax credit system, one of the interesting dimensions for me personally was that, although the political priority of the day had been to emphasise the distinctness of tax credits from the benefit system, I was very conscious at that time of ensuring that behind the scenes the two departments were very conscious they were dealing with different aspects of the same people’s lives. Coming back to the subject now, with Universal Credit and integrating tax credits back more into a uniform system, has been a particular interest and focus for me. I spent a day recently up in Warrington at the Department’s main centre where the Universal Credit project is being run from. I was extremely keen to spend serious time there getting underneath the skin of exactly how that reintegration was going, so that, as well as having a good understanding, hopefully, of the policy intention, I could perform part of my role and the role of the Committee of being a critical friend of the Department in terms of the do-ability of that challenge. Those are some of things I have been doing.

Q18 Glenda Jackson: The tax credit issue, from a constituency level, was a total and unmitigated disaster: terribly complicated for people to understand, vast delays, overpayments, underpayments, demands for payments back. If that was your responsibility, what did you learn from that that is going to be helpful, so that, when the Universal Credit comes in, we don’t go through that nightmare again?

Paul Gray: Extremely strong lessons in terms of designing processes and systems in a way that gives them a reasonable chance of being understood, followed and complied with by the people to whom that money is being transferred. With the benefit of hindsight, having inherited the tax credit system when I moved to HMRC at the point of implementation, undoubtedly the policy design there did not meet a number of those key tests. As in my earlier answer, one of the things I was keen to understand was what the customer experience would be for people who are currently tax credit claimants as they move to Universal Credit. A number of key parameters in the policy design have been changed from the tax credit work, which I think begins to address some of the concerns you and, in my experience, every other Member of this House had with the tax credit system.

Q19 Sheila Gilmore: Just a final question about the next period, which is very important. What is the role of SSAC in scrutinising draft regulations, and how do you propose to manage that process?

Paul Gray: It is something that I have been very actively engaged in over the last month or two in talking to Ministers and senior officials about ensuring, as a Committee, that we have the ability to do that and do it in a way that meets and responds to points I know were raised, particularly in the other House, during the passage of the Bill. I reached agreement with Ministers last month that all the draft regulations, even those that fall within the socalled sixmonth rule, would come to the committee, even though there is no statutory requirement for them so to do, and that we would adopt procedures under which we treat those informal referrals to us in exactly the same way as we would in relation to formal referrals that come to us of regulations post the sixmonth rule. Last week we had a major twoday meeting to start this process. I am very conscious there is a huge amount of material for us and other consultees to digest here. As I said earlier, we did then immediately after that meeting on the Friday launch a consultation process, and we will be extremely active over the next few weeks-going back to one of your earlier points-in engaging with our key stakeholders and encouraging their input to us.

I do not underestimate or minimise the scale of the task we have. It would be no exaggeration to say that the papers the Committee had in front of it last week were several inches thick, and I see our key task as being trying to distil the key issues we should be focusing on as a committee. We have flagged up a number of our first thoughts on what those might be in launching our consultation document on Friday.

It is also very important for us, as we said in our press release, to focus on the overall coherence of the package to make sure that there are not any major gaps in the process. It is going to be a major task for us in an uncomfortably short period over these next few months, but we, like everybody else, to some extent are prisoners in this of the rollout timetable for Universal Credit.

Q20 Karen Bradley: Perhaps you could tell the Committee what you think are the key elements in the effective evaluation of welfare provision.

Paul Gray: Welfare provision as distinct from the effectiveness of the committee?

Karen Bradley: The elements the Committee needs to have to effectively evaluate welfare provision. Sorry.

Paul Gray: The most important thing to me is making sure we have the right mix of skills on the Committee. There has been a pretty good tradition over the years of trying to make sure the Committee has some detailed technical experts around the finer points of social security law and regulations, and that we also have people bringing a slightly broader, more strategic perspective to that. What is particularly relevant at the moment here is that the Committee is going through a significant process of churn in terms of membership. We had a number of members whose terms recently expired and there are another two whose terms expire this summer, and three over the course of next winter. I see my key requirement, and indeed the Department’s key requirement, in ensuring we have effective evaluation, as doing our level best to make sure through the recruitment process that we maintain, or if anything enhance, the appropriate mix, and that we manage the transition.

Q21 Karen Bradley: What are you doing personally to make sure that is done effectively?

Paul Gray: There are three members of the Committee who have joined since I took over as interim Chair, and I have made my main priority seeking to support them through their induction arrangements. I have made myself available and ensured other resources are available and that they have maximum opportunity to get up to speed. In terms of the next turnover of members, it is obviously for the Department and the Secretary of State to make the appointments, but I have agreed with the Department that I will be a member of the selection panel. Indeed, we have now gone through a shortlisting process, and over the next fortnight or so have three days of interviewing 16 shortlisted candidates. One particular input I made and persuaded the Minister to agree to was to make sure that the skill specification for members reinstated a particular criterion that in the past has been in the selection but was dropped from the process last year, which was around expertise in social security law. I fully understood, and indeed support, the Minister’s wish to broaden the criteria in some other ways, and I think some of the new members who have recently joined have very helpfully done that, but I think it would not have been appropriate to continue to exclude expertise in detailed social security law. I persuaded the Department and Ministers that should be reinstated in this current exercise to make sure that we get the maximum breadth of expertise through this process.

Obviously, that exercise is still under way. We can only do the best job we can with people who have expressed interest. At this point I am feeling cautiously optimistic we will be able to have a successful refreshment of membership, and I also want to think very carefully and liaise with the Department about exactly how we stage the timing of those replacements so that we do not suddenly have several experienced members walking out altogether.

Q22 Karen Bradley: Were previous Chairs as actively involved in the recruitment process?

Paul Gray: Yes, I believe that they were. Indeed, if I go back to my own time within the Department, while I was a senior sponsor for the Committee there was only one recruitment exercise for members, which actually at that time, and rather ironically, I chaired. The then chair of the Committee was a member of the selection panel, just as I am to be a member on this occasion.

Q23 Karen Bradley: What will you do if you find that the shortlist does not actually fit the requirements and you don’t get the right mix of expertise?

Paul Gray: I will strongly encourage the Department that we should not make appointments that do not seem the right ones just in order to make the numbers up, and we should rapidly go through another exercise and do our level best to interest stronger candidates. Why I have just said I am cautiously optimistic is that, for this current recruitment exercise, the Department has decided to use a headhunting firm to help in that process, so there has been a process of search as well as spontaneous applications to try to make sure we get the strongest possible field.

Q24 Karen Bradley: Were headhunters used in the past, or is this a new development?

Paul Gray: I think it has varied. I am not sure. I think on some occasions the answer is yes and sometimes not.

Q25 Karen Bradley: What are your views about how effective the Committee currently is?

Paul Gray: I think it is broadly effective. Going back to earlier answers, I don’t think that the quality of the relationship was as good as it could be, and therefore the ability of the Committee while independent to be as influential as it might be was perhaps being compromised a little. I like to think over the last few months we have made a significant shift in that direction, and certainly the feedback I have had from committee members, to a limited extent from external stakeholders, and certainly from the Department is that everybody feels the quality of that relationship is improving. I go back to the issue of the scrutiny of the latest batch of welfare reform regulations. I interpret the willingness of the Department now to bring to the committee much more stuff than it is statutorily obliged to do as an indication that we are getting into an increasingly effective positioning and role for the committee.

Q26 Karen Bradley: That is interesting, because it implies there is some sort of scope creep: the Department is using the committee more than it absolutely needs to. Do you think that the current functions are the right ones and its status as a nondepartmental public body (NDPB) is the right model for the committee?

Paul Gray: Yes, I think it is. That is clearly something that the Triennial Review has looked at. Obviously, although I had the chance to input on that, that was a process run by the Department. The evidence in that seems to come very strongly to the view that the socalled three tests are fully met. Given that the committee does have at its heart a statutory role laid down in primary legislation, and an extremely unusual one-the Triennial Review in fact could not really find any other body quite like this-it does seem to me that an NDPB is the appropriate structure. If there was not that underlying statutory requirement for us to be involved, maybe one could think about other models that were not as formalised within the structure of governmental bodies, but given where we are it is a good model.

Q27 Debbie Abrahams: This fits in very nicely, Mr Gray, with Karen’s former questions. I just wanted to ask you about the tensions that might exist in relation to the accountability. You were describing before the quality of the committee’s relationship with DWP and that there were some difficulties there. Can you imagine circumstances where you provided some advice to DWP that was underpinned by incredibly strong evidence but was ignored? How would you handle that?

Paul Gray: While that process was going on-of the Government considering the views that the Committee had put to Ministers or the Department-I would be looking to actively engage in a dialogue. As you were hypothesising, I might not be successful in persuading the Government to take on those views. I would, frankly, have to consider it on a casebycase basis. Over the recent past, if one looks at the proportion of the Committee’s observations and recommendations that have been accepted by the Government, it has not actually been that high. I would judge this over time. If I felt that there was a whole series of very wellfounded and evidenced propositions that we had put to the Government of the day that were consistently being disagreed with or ignored, I would be looking to escalate the issue in terms of conversations with Ministers. I would sincerely hope this is not a place we would get to, and I would put most of my efforts into seeking to prevent that.

If the quality of the committee’s work is such that it is persuading everybody who is in receipt of it-and that obviously includes you as a Committee and Parliament generally and external stakeholders-and one were to have a Government that was consistently ignoring good work, I am not quite sure where that would lead to. If I felt personally I was knocking my head against a brick wall, I might have to think, "Am I enjoying this as much as I was previously?" but I would seriously hope we did not get to that point.

Debbie Abrahams: That is a very honest answer.

Paul Gray: As I say, early months suggest we are moving this in the right direction.

Q28 Debbie Abrahams: I wanted to move on a bit in terms of your leadership and the style of leadership you will have on the committee. I wonder if you could describe how you will manage the Committee in relation to that.

Paul Gray: I would describe my leadership style, as it has been in all my roles, as essentially an engaging and facilitative one. I am not a particularly strongly dictatorial leader; I never have been, nor wish to be. I think I am pretty good at engaging and bringing out the contributions that everybody has got to bring. What I have found particularly interesting in this period is, having chaired a number of bodies in recent years that share the characteristic of having a diverse group of people on them and essentially rely on a degree of consensus and persuasion of others, that those skills are particularly useful here. In other roles I either have or have had recently, such as chairing a school governing body, although the issues might be on a slightly smaller scale, nonetheless you have similar issues of bringing very diverse people along. Chairing a formal partnership in business is sometimes an interesting challenge in terms of having a group of equals round a table and having as chair to try to make sure everybody’s contribution is brought out but equally then to move towards consensus. So that is essentially the style I seek to adopt and I think is my natural leadership style, which hopefully I have honed over many years in different contexts.

Q29 Debbie Abrahams: Again, you are going to have a new set of members in the Committee, and so on. How will you go about developing a team within that and making sure that they work effectively together and you get the best out of the team? You are going to have some strong characters in that, I am sure.

Paul Gray: I hope so. If I spot any issues of tension, which is always a possibility with diverse groups, I aim to be very alert to those emerging and will seek to deal with those very directly. I am not remotely averse to sitting two people down in a room and getting something thrashed out and brought to the surface. One of the things that has worked pretty well with the Committee over recent months is making sure we do get to know each other as a group of people outside the formal Committee context. Last week, for example, we all went out for dinner one evening between the two days of our meeting to make sure we know each other as people as well as, hopefully, experts from various different dimensions, and generally seeking to encourage a collaborative style. I like to think the great majority of the time that approach works automatically, but if there are issues, face up to them, deal with them and sort them out.

Q30 Debbie Abrahams: I think we have covered to a large extent how you are going to ensure that you have the right membership expertise, both in the selection but also supplementing that with ad hoc advisers and members and so on. Is there anything you want to add about how you will make sure you have the right skill mix for the Committee?

Paul Gray: I don’t think so. I am sorry if I have stolen the thunder of your question, but I think I have said all I would want to say about that.

Debbie Abrahams: That is fine. Thank you very much.

Q31 Chair: Finally, obviously this Committee has a role in examining Government proposals, just as your committee does. Do you see any particular ways in which we can work effectively together?

Paul Gray: Yes, I do. My sense is that your Committee has traditionally valued the detailed expertise that SSAC can bring. I hope we will be in a position where-particularly in this next phase, with an awful lot of regulations going through-we are a useful provider of material and input to you. I would very much welcome the opportunity, if it appeals to you as a Committee, to have regular dialogue, both formal and informal. Just after I took up the role, Dame Anne was kind enough to invite me to come over for an informal chat, which I did, which was a very useful opportunity to exchange views. I gather that hot on the heels of this appearance you are exploring whether you would like me to come back in 10 days’ time to talk about the Universal Credit regulations, which I assume will be a slightly more formal encounter, but an appropriate mix of the formal and the informal, given that hopefully we are operating in very complementary spheres, and hopefully our skills and expertise are complementing each other.

Chair: Thank you very much for that. Perhaps I should mention that we would aim to issue our Report on Friday. Thank you so much for coming.

Paul Gray: Thank you. That is very helpful. Thank you for your time.

Prepared 13th July 2012