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Business Innovation and Skills - Minutes of EvidenceHC 342

Back to Report

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee

on Thursday 6 December 2012

Members present:

Mr Adrian Bailey (Chair)

Katy Clark

Rebecca Harris

Ann McKechin

Julie Elliott


Examination of Witness

Witness: Sir David Normington GCB, Civil Service Commissioner and Commissioner for Public Appointments, gave evidence.

Q273Chair: I welcome you to the Committee and thank you for agreeing to give evidence to us. As you will probably be aware, you were to appear with the Director General Justice of the European Commission, but we understand he is stuck at Calais pending a train through the tunnel. We have decided to dispense with his services today and postpone it until next week, but we are none the less grateful that you are prepared to hold the fort and give evidence to us. Before you do so, could I ask you to introduce yourself with your title for voice transcription purposes?

Sir David Normington: I fulfil two roles. I am First Civil Service Commissioner, in which role I regulate selection and recruitment to the civil service. I am also Public Appointments Commissioner, and in that role I do the same kind of regulatory function, mainly for nonexecutive appointments to public bodies.

Q274Chair: One of our previous witnesses told us that the first permanent secretary in the civil service was appointed in 1955, and all these years later still only 20% of permanent secretaries are women. If we assume-we are told it is so-that all senior public appointments are based on fair and open competition, does this low percentage mean that men are just better suited to this position than women? Would you like to comment?

Sir David Normington: I certainly do not agree that they are best suited to the position. There was a brief moment in 2010 when almost half the permanent secretaries of the mainstream Departments were women, and that has fallen back in the last couple of years. In the civil service, the proportion of women in senior grades has been going up steadily. It is encouraging that at the level below permanent secretary, director general, and the level below that, director, 31% of those are women, which provides a better pool than there has ever been from which to select permanent secretaries.

In the last five years, more permanent secretary posts have also been opened to public competition. That can help, but if the ambition is to recruit more permanent secretaries from the private sector it does not help at all in terms of women, because senior women are not greatly in evidence in those executive posts. All I can say is that the position is improving but there is quite a way to go. The proportion of women rising through the civil service has grown at every level. That gives you encouragement that there will be more women permanent secretaries in future. That moment in 2010 seemed like a breakthrough, but unfortunately it has fallen back.

Q275Chair: What you have said is very interesting. If I can summarise the situation arising from what you have just said as I see it-if it is not correct, please say so-in effect the pipeline of female civil service talent is there, and there is a pool to draw on for these positions. However, the fact that there has been a tendency to recruit more permanent secretaries from the private sector, where presumably that same process has not been undergone, means that the numbers have fallen in the last few years.

Sir David Normington: Until about 15 years ago you would never have recruited permanent secretaries from outside the civil service. They would always have been recruited from inside. That began to change about 10 to 15 years ago, but it is only in the last five that there has been a tendency to recruit from outside. I do not think you can put the falling back in the last two years down to the opening up of competitions, because we are talking about only a very small number. All I am saying is that it does not necessarily solve the problem to open up permanent secretary competitions to external competition. Though I think it is a good idea generally, it does not solve it if you then look very hard for senior people from the private sector to come into those roles because they are not there, but they are in other parts of the public sector. In recent times, three or four senior women have left for various reasons and that has pushed down the proportion. Given that we are talking about just over 30 people at permanent secretary rank in the whole of the civil service, three or four is a very significant number in terms of the overall proportion. It is the wrong direction and it sends the wrong signal, and I am very concerned about it. To put it in context, in competitions at the very top levels of the civil service about 25% of applicants are women, so we are still not getting quite enough women applicants to create the competition.

Q276Chair: It would appear from what you have said that in effect a male from outside-we will assume it is the private sector, although there is no reason why he could not be recruited from some other sectors as well-is being given preference over wellqualified females from within the civil service pipeline. Is there any explanation for that?

Sir David Normington: That is not what is happening. I am there to try to ensure that it is a fair and open competition, so we make sure we describe the job properly and judge every candidate fairly against those jobs. In the last two years, the number of people applying for permanent secretary posts, with some exceptions, has been going down, both men and women. I am not quite sure why that is. Maybe they think it is too exposed and it is a difficult role to take on. I do not think there is any evidence that private sector candidates are getting favoured. It is still very unusual for private sector candidates to come into the civil service at permanent secretary level. First, they would have to take too big a salary cut; and, secondly, for people who have spent all their lives in the private sector it is a very big risk, and that is true of men and women.

Q277Chair: If they are not coming in from the private sector but are coming in from outside, where are they coming from?

Sir David Normington: They tend to come more often from local authorities or other parts of the public sector. I do not want to mislead you. In the last two years, at permanent secretary level, they have come mainly from inside the civil service and they have also been mainly men, but we are talking about half a dozen competitions.

Q278Chair: I agree that the fact there are relatively few people means that the percentage can be distorted by just a handful, but, as you say, it sends the wrong message. From your perspective, can you give a simple-to-understand reason why this is so?

Sir David Normington: Most permanent secretaries are recruited from inside the civil service, and the pool of senior women is still not as big as that for men. It is basically 30% women and 70% men. If you open it to external competition as well, that reduces the proportion of women applying because the civil service generally is ahead of most other sectors in terms of women. That introduces another bias against women succeeding. I think it is about the available talent rather than anything else. I do not think there is any bias in the process against women. In fact, there is a wish among politicians and senior civil servants to improve diversity right at the top. It is the thing that has not yet been cracked and until it is you cannot present yourself as a truly diverse organisation.

Q279Chair: I find it quite tricky to get my head round this. One of the reasons we are holding this inquiry is the lack of female representation at senior level in the private sector. But one area where there is a better female representation is the public sector, so you would reasonably expect that not to be a problem.

Sir David Normington: You would, but it is still below the numbers in the senior civil service. At the feeder grade-director general level in the civil service-31% are women. That is not matched in most other parts of the public sector at that level. If you take local authority chief executives, my recollection is that the proportion of women chief executives is just over 20%,1 so you will have to look very hard for another sector that exceeds 30%. That does not stop you going out and searching for good women candidates. One of my messages is that, whether you are appointing executives or nonexecutives, you have to try harder to go out and attract good women candidates. If you just advertise and hope they will come to you, usually that will not be good enough, because by definition in the population that is applying for those jobs there is a smaller proportion of women, and you need to go out and attract them.

Q280Chair: You touched on my next question. What steps are you taking to address it? You hinted at being more proactive in recruiting women, but how are you going to do it?

Sir David Normington: I am talking about the civil service only, not nonexecutive appointments to public boards, which is a different issue but has some similar effects. I am the overseer and regulator of these competitions. Therefore, I look very hard and shine a light on whether the processes that are in place are getting strong and diverse fields of candidates. I am increasingly holding Departments to account if they produce single-gender, or almost single-gender, shortlists. My legal responsibility is to ensure that there is an appointment on merit, but I do not think you can have confidence that you are appointing on merit unless you appoint from as diverse a field as you can get against the specification of the job. I am looking all the time to see what efforts have been made to create that strong and diverse field, particularly at the shortlist stage. Where it is not strong and diverse I want to know why, and what has happened back in the process that means it is not strong and diverse. Sometimes it is because of the way the job is described. It is quite common to say, in non-executive appointments, "Must have senior executive experience". That immediately limits the field, so how the job is described-whether it is described in an attractive and open way- is very important, as is the process and who is on the selection panel. If you have a search consultant, what instructions have they been given, and what have you done if they have turned up with only an all-male group? You have to attend, as I do, to each part of the process. If at the end they have done everything they can and they still appoint a man, that is fine, because that man will be the best person from that process. However, if they appoint a man from a shortlist of three men, you can say he was the most meritorious, but he was the most meritorious in a shortlist of three men. I am increasingly not happy that that is good enough, so as the regulator I am saying, "I don’t just require you to show it was meritorious. It has to be meritorious from a strong and diverse field."

I do that also for non-executive appointments. If I may just make a plug for that, nonexecutive appointments to public bodies are the ultimate flexible working opportunity, and I just do not see why you cannot have women filling those jobs.

Q281Chair: You have said that you shine a light on Departments. Can you give an example where you have done this and possibly there has been a change as a result?

Sir David Normington: It is hard to do this without revealing what happened in a competition.

Q282Chair: I appreciate that you may not wish to say which Department it is and so on, but could you summarise a situation?

Sir David Normington: I sometimes chair these competitions. I have myself paused the competition to send the head-hunter away to look again. The panel has said, "This is not good enough. We’ve got a shortlist which really does not match up to the specification required. We’re going to pause this competition, and you need to go away to look harder." That happens quite a bit. I cannot prove to you, because we are not appointing enough women at the very top levels, that that is yet having its effect, but I and my commissioners who chair the most senior competitions have been asking that question increasingly and insisting that more effort is made to go out and find this field, if it has not come forward. Some jobs sell themselves; other jobs nobody much wants to do and you need to go out and search. There are some good search consultants and some not so good, but they often operate by going to their readymade network. That readymade network then recommends some other people, so it spreads out. If all those initial contacts are, if I may put it like this, the usual suspects, they will recommend another group of people they know, and you will get a kind of in-crowd. That may be just men; it may not be, but you will not get a very diverse group of people from that process. Some search consultants are much better at that, but you have to be constantly alert to that problem if what you are presented with at the key stages is a group of people applying who are not diverse.

Q283Ann McKechin: I noted what you said regarding appointment to public boards2 where you said it was basically a 30%-70% split. Is there any analysis of whether women are in certain types of public boards or there tend to be more in some areas, for example smaller boards? You mentioned that in local authorities there are relatively few at the most senior level. I just wondered whether there was a tendency for women to dominate some areas rather than others.

Sir David Normington: Do you mean non-executive appointments?

Q284Ann McKechin: Yes.

Sir David Normington: As a generalisation, you would find that bodies in health and education are places where you will have a greater proportion of women on boards, for instance NHS trusts. One of the things I raised in my latest annual report is that quite a lot of those bodies are being abolished at the moment. There is a really interesting question. There are all these women who have served on bodies, who have got experience and who have done a good job-most of them. What is happening to them? There are 600 or 700 women who want to do public service and have got experience of doing it. That is a pool of people who need to be reached out to. It seems to me that the private sector could do that as well.

Your other question was about size. I do not have evidence that women tend to feature more on smaller boards. On the other hand, they are more likely to be on more local and regional bodies and less on national ones.

Q285Ann McKechin: You have mentioned that you are trying to ask search consultants to be much more diverse in their selection, but in what way have you tried to change the code of practice to signal to the public sector as a whole that it needs to consider these different points?

Sir David Normington: I have changed the code of practice for appointments to public bodies. When I took over 18 months ago it had 100 pages of regulation, and I have reduced that to eight, because we were getting to the stage where it was possible to tick all of the boxes that you had done things but it was not changing any of the outcomes. I have tried to focus on a smaller number of things. As I said to the Chairman in relation to the civil service, I have been trying to focus very hard on the creation of strong and diverse fields of candidates with qualifications to match the specifications. A lot of the new code has just come into effect, and a lot of the preparation of Government Departments of that new code has been about that issue. My increasing expectation is that they will have gone out to search for strong and diverse fields of candidates.

As I was implying, you also have to go back to how the job and role is being described. Even in the public sector there is a tendency always to assume that you need senior executive experience, and as soon as you say that you narrow the field, so a lot of effort has to be put into how the job is being described. How is it being advertised? Where is it being advertised? Are you linked into networks of women? There are new and old networks of women on boards and networks of that sort where you are trying to make sure they have seen these adverts and you are reaching out to them. You may need to do something special for them.

There is always somebody in the selection process who is more powerful than everybody else. It can be the Minister; it can be the permanent secretary; in a company it can be the chairman. They are often but not always men, and you need to construct the selection panel so you have somebody who is able to challenge that accepted wisdom and is not in the power structure-for example, "I report to him; he reports to me"-and has the confidence to say, "Hang on a minute. We’re just appointing in our own image here. Let’s think again about this." One of the requirements I have put in is that you must have an independent person on the board capable of providing that challenge. These are small things, but they add up to quite significant challenges to the accepted way of doing things.

Q286Ann McKechin: I am sure this is of great interest to the Committee in the way you have analysed the issues. You mentioned that the code has just been introduced. How do you propose to analyse and record whether change actually occurs, and in what sectors it occurs more than in others perhaps, so you can monitor performance.

Sir David Normington: I regulate this in three main ways. First, I and a group of senior people chair the most senior competitions for chairs of public bodies. They are all briefed to do this thing, so they are doing it in real time. Secondly, we audit competitions and Departments, and we have the ability to dip into competitions that are going on. Thirdly, every Department gets a report, but I report publicly and to Parliament once a year on progress. I have promised that this will be one of the things on which I particularly report. As regards chairs, at the moment we are doing a special analysis as the number of competitions grows of what is actually happening in competitions for those roles. How many apply? What happens when that number is reduced? What happens when it gets to the shortlisting stage? What is the outcome? We begin to get the evidence of what is actually happening. If you can provide the evidence to people, you can provide real challenge. They are my former colleagues because I was a permanent secretary-I am not a permanent secretary any more-but I am not afraid, to take an old phrase from education, of naming and shaming if I have to. If there is really bad performance, you have to say publicly, "This really isn’t good enough", and then I need other people-Ministers or Select Committees-to come in behind that and say why it is not good enough.

Q287Ann McKechin: You mentioned the fact that fewer women are putting themselves forward for these roles-only 25% apply-in relation to the actual percentage at senior level, which is 30%. It would suggest that perhaps people are selfrestricting themselves from putting themselves forward for a number of reasons. Do you agree it is important we are transparent in the way we deal with the competition, so that people from other backgrounds, including women, can see that the process is fairer, rather than people thinking, "It just won’t work for me, and that’s why I don’t put myself forward in the first place"?

Sir David Normington: Those figures were for executive appointments, but it would be broadly the same, or perhaps slightly better for nonexecutive appointments. The civil service or Government Departments are in a better place than most because there are more senior women in executive positions and a greater proportion of women in senior positions as non-executives on boards, so there are plenty of people to be role models and salespeople for these jobs, but there is evidence, which is quite well researched, that women generally-I am always very cautious about generalising-self-select for jobs, whereas men, even if they do not quite match up, have a habit of giving it a try. That is sometimes why women do not apply in greater numbers. Interestingly, that 25% for executive appointments converts into 33% on shortlists. I do not think that is because we are favouring women in shortlists; it is because women who are self-selected are a better group applying in the first place. You get a lot of men who apply because they take a chance.

That selfselection is also a problem if women are saying, "I couldn’t see myself doing this; I don’t think I’m suitable," and if that is reinforced by the way the job is described. If you think of public boards, you often need consumer representatives, people who speak to the public and people who have come from particular educational experience. You do not always need people who have had a career as a senior executive. Government Departments are thinking more, and also need to think more, about how they describe those roles and project those roles to people out there.

Q288Rebecca Harris: You spoke earlier about a better pool of women coming through the system. There are about 30% of women in higher positions, and there could be senior appointments in the future. That is still at a low level. The Civil Service Commission’s annual report stated that there was very good representation of women in junior grades in the civil service and then a fall-off. What do you think is happening? Is there a gradual decline? Is there a tipping point? What do you think the reasons are?

Sir David Normington: It used to be like this; it is a bit more like that now. For the most junior levels 58% are women, and it gets to 31% at the level below permanent secretary. At permanent secretary level it is 17% at the moment. The key point is somewhere around the tipping point between middle and first level of senior management, which often coincides with the point at which women go off and have their children. This is beyond my remit, but as a former permanent secretary this was a key concern. That is where you need to create flexible working opportunities to keep those women in touch and give them the opportunities to balance their childcare responsibilities, which they often have, maybe with working parttime on a flexible basis. It is easier to do that at first-tier senior management than at the most senior management level, though it is not impossible at that level. That is where all organisations need to focus their attention. If you lose touch with your excellent women managers at that point, you will probably not get them back and they will go off and do something else. That is very bad for the organisation and also for them. There may be an employer down the road who will be a lot better at it. Word will spread and all the good women will try to work there.

One of the troubles with the way we all view diversity in employment is that there is too much general chatter about it and not enough specific action. One thing you need to focus on is where the tipping points are. In the civil service there are lots of excellent young women rising through the service, but the point they go off to have their children is clearly a key moment, and it is essential that you create flexibility: job shares; good childcare arrangements; flexible working arrangements; and part-time arrangements. It is easier to do that at that level than it is right at the top. If you do that, later on they will not have the gap in their career path that they would if they had been away for five years. They will have done some things and kept in touch, and then they may be able to step back into more full-time work. That is where I would focus attention. That is where you lose your women and where it goes wrong. If you take the top of the middle management grade in the civil service, 41% are women. When you are getting over 41% you are almost winning. At the next level it goes down; it is 2% lower. That is not too bad, but I think it could be so much better. That is where you begin to lose women.

Q289Rebecca Harris: Anecdotally, we have heard that some people feel that if they are doing flexible working psychologically they are not seen as being fully committed to the organisation in the same way.

Sir David Normington: It would be foolish to deny that that happens. I think it happens less in Government Departments than it does in many other walks of life. It is changing in Government Departments quite fast. The attitude you described would have been very prevalent about 10 years ago; it is much less so now, but it is still there. We are talking about a very big employing organisation, even with all the reductions in staff, and it has the capability of creating those flexibilities in a way that small organisations may not. You need to use that opportunity, and that is in the hands of the Government and senior leaders in the civil service. I see that changing quite fast. Men are beginning to want those opportunities too. I just think that is a societal change going on. Certainly, those working in the public sector are demanding more flexible working patterns-you get it from men as well as women-for example, working three long days and then having two off, and also the ability to work from home sometimes. You often get a great amount of productive work from people who are working at home. It is perfectly possible; technology now opens up all kinds of possibilities. This is changing, but it is not there yet.

Q290Chair: As you were responding, something occurred to me in terms of a woman’s career pattern in taking time off for childbirth. I do not know the details, but under civil service pension provisions people are less likely to be retiring early. First, is it reasonable to say that the working life of someone may well be longer within the civil service than it has been historically? Secondly, given that women may have had a career break, is it a reasonable thesis that the opportunities for coming back to build up that career again will be potentially greater as a result of that and could lead to an increased representation?

Sir David Normington: It is possible. There are all sorts of things happening to the civil service. There are lots of jobs going and the pension age is rising. I do not know quite how those work together. I am not an expert on it, but it is interesting that the pension arrangements have changed. Although that has reduced some of the benefits of the pensions in the public sector, it has made them much more flexible. People who benefit are those who have interrupted careers. Traditionally, the pension was constructed on the thought that you came in at 21, even 18, and worked until you were 60, and that was the best way of getting your pension. The career average scheme that has been worked out gives you much more flexibility. I say with some caution that I think that will help women. Anything that creates the possibility of building up pension provision in a more flexible career and not being disadvantaged by gaps will really help. A lot of these things could be done in the private sector, too. In a way, I assume that is why I am here. These lessons read straight across to the private sector, in my view.

Chair: I agree it is probably too early to see exactly what the fallout will be, but I was interested in your observations on them.

Q291Katy Clark: Do you think the public sector equality duty could be used more effectively in the public sector to address inequality?

Sir David Normington: I am not really an expert on this. The objectives of the public sector equality duty are admirable. I just do not know well enough how it is working in practice. If I look at my specific area of interest, which at the moment is selection and recruitment, the emphasis on building diversity and equality into the way you think, operate and analyse your work and workforce is the key to changing the culture of these organisations. In the end, we are talking about the way organisations act and operate, because in the end people who come to work in organisations are very canny, aren’t they? They get to know what the reputation of an employer is. The public sector equality duty could change the way in which organisations think about diversity and equality, but I am not really an expert on it.

Q292Katy Clark: You say you are not an expert. Is there much debate in the civil service about the public sector equality duty and what it means?

Sir David Normington: Why I am not an expert is that I am not a civil servant any more. I am not working in the civil service and I have not been part of those debates. I have been very focused on the front end of this. I am afraid I just do not know. When I was in the civil service there was a lot of focus on equality impact assessments, some of which have gone over into the public sector equality duty. It felt as though people were just doing it for form and it was not really changing the way the organisations thought about diversity and equality. I do not know whether the public sector equality duty has begun to change organisations fundamentally. It is just a question I have in my mind.

Q293Katy Clark: It is quite new.

Sir David Normington: It is new.

Q294Katy Clark: What are your views on the suggestion by the First Division Association in its oral evidence to us that the duty might be weakened by this Government?

Sir David Normington: In my role as a regulator I try not to be a commentator on government policy. It is not a sensible thing to do, so I would quite like to duck that, if I may. I always thought when I was in the civil service that regulators who pontificate about government policy are in danger of losing their impact. If you do not know, you should not comment.

Q295Katy Clark: No doubt we can ask other witnesses about that. How easy do you think it is for senior members of the public sector to work part-time or flexibly?

Sir David Normington: For the very senior ones, I think it is quite hard. It would be foolish of me or anyone to believe that it is easy in senior executive roles to work part-time. It may be possible to work flexibly: short days, long days, maybe four days. We have had examples of permanent secretaries who worked four days and were at home on the fifth. Real part-time working in executive roles in the senior civil service, where perhaps you need to see the Minister on a regular basis, or you are managing a project or staff on a regular basis, is hard, but the public sector is a big organisation and has lots of different kinds of work. Therefore, I say this carefully in relation to senior executive roles. There are other roles where it is possible. When I was permanent secretary at the Home Office I had two senior women doing a job share. It was probably hard for them; it was not a problem for us. They had to be incredibly disciplined in making sure it was seamless between them, but they showed it could be done. That was at director level, which is a very senior level, and they had executive responsibilities. They were in the security area, so it was not desirable for them to be absent. It can be done, but it is hard and it would be wrong to pretend it is not.

Q296Katy Clark: On job sharing, there was a suggestion recently that MPs could job share-we had a ten-minute rule Bill on the subject. I kept being asked about this issue, and I did think about it quite a lot. My experience of job share is that it works very well when you have two individuals who work very well together and get on very well. That was my view on MPs. If you have two individuals who work very well together I can see how that can work. Do you think it is also the case at very senior levels in the civil service that with the right personalities a job share can work very powerfully?

Sir David Normington: I do. Not only does the organisation have to facilitate that but the individuals have to be absolutely confident they can make it work. There is a real problem for the management if one of them is less good than the other. That creates a tremendous imbalance. I have known cases-not the one I mentioned-where people have waited for the other member of the job share to come back on Monday because they think they will get better service from them. The job share does not last long in those circumstances. They have to work very well together; they have to be completely trusting. They do not have to have the same skills, but they must be complementary in their levels of competence and skill; otherwise, it does not work. You can see why it is not the solution to every situation, because there are a lot of barriers to making it work. When it does work it works really well. The thing that impressed me about the two people I am talking about is that they did the beginning of the week and the end of the week and overlapped on Wednesday. The work they put in on Wednesday to make sure the handover was seamless was amazing. It felt completely seamless, but it looked like really hard work for them. It was less hard work for us because it was working.

Chair: I could not help but speculate as to how IPSA would handle jobsharing MPs, but we won’t go there.

Q297Julie Elliott: That could be the other half of the job share’s job. I will not ask you to comment on the Government’s proposals here, but you can comment in general. What are your views on the Government’s proposed reform to flexible parental leave, with parents being able to choose how they share the care of their children?

Sir David Normington: Given what I have just said, I should say the same to you, but it is a really good idea. You always have to worry about the effect of regulation on smaller organisations where it is more difficult, but if we believe that one of the barriers to employing women, particularly in some of the bits of the private sector that are unreformed, is that there are people who say, not very overtly these days, "Well, I won’t employ women if I can help it because they’ll go off and have babies and maternity leave," this addresses that directly, because the answer to that is that if you employ young men they might go off and have the equivalent of maternity leave. I am breaking my rule: I think it is a really good idea, because it addresses a bit of prejudice and hopefully in time it will just remove it. I hope that men and women will use it in equal measure.

Q298Julie Elliott: Of course, men have a much wider window to take parental leave than women.

Sir David Normington: They do.

Q299Julie Elliott: What more needs to be done to ensure proper flexible working practices are adopted by both the public sector and private employers, and should this be done through regulation, or is it up to employees at all levels to make the case for flexibility at work?

Sir David Normington: You should always try to do this if you can through voluntary means. Regulation and the law tend to be a blunt instrument, but there must come a time when you give up on voluntary measures if you are not making any progress. I would always prefer to have the leadership, whether that is political leadership or the management of a civil service organisation or a private company, to be the people who bring about this change. The Lord Davies stuff is really interesting, because for the first time there is a serious attempt to hold FTSE companies’ feet to the fire, and as long as we do not give up on that it looks as though there is progress. It seems there is a willingness to address those issues for the first time from within the private sector. I think it is there in the public sector too. If you have that, you should give them a chance to make it work.

Q300Chair: You have anticipated one of my final questions.

Sir David Normington: I am not an expert on this, but I think trying to create incentives is better than telling people how to do it. Incentives to offer childcare, for instance, is a really good way of doing it. When I was running the Department for Education we provided some onsite nurseries, and they made a big difference. We did not subsidise them; they just provided another example of why we were welcoming to people with children. We did it in Runcorn, and it turned round how we were viewed there to a considerable degree. Can you provide incentives for employers to do those sorts of things? That might be the way of doing it. It is hard to tell people in the law that they have to offer flexible working, because there are so many different situations in employment. In the end, you have to leave employers to organise the work in the way that is most productive. That is why I just draw the line somewhere on regulation. On the other hand, I am a regulator myself so I can see that some form of regulation is desirable. I have the power to go in, look and report and demand action where I do not think it is happening, and that is helpful.

Q301Julie Elliott: Do you think that drawing people’s attention to things that perhaps are not being done in the best way can change behaviour? The inference from what you are saying is that your role is to go in and highlight things that perhaps could be done better.

Sir David Normington: I do. As a permanent secretary I hated it most when there was a league table and I was at the bottom. You would do anything in the world I came from to make sure you addressed that, so the power of public reporting in the public sector-we have seen it with local authorities-is very great. Whether it works in quite that way in the private sector is hard to say. After all, in the public and government sector it is always in the hands of the Government to make the change, whereas in the private sector it is a bit different. I think we can get a long way with public reporting and naming and shaming.

Q302Julie Elliott: One of our witnesses said that the current legislation is too complicated, and recommended instead a voluntary approach of self-regulation: "If you can do it, we expect you to do it." Do you think that voluntary arrangements can work in closing the gender pay gap?

Sir David Normington: I know that in the senior civil service the gender pay gap is only 5% and falling. Now 5% is too much. Nevertheless, it is a lot less than the equivalent in the private sector, which is probably 18%, maybe more. To get the private sector to report on that you will probably have to have something more than voluntaryism. If it does not improve you may need to do something more, but I do not regulate the private sector. I just look at the private sector and think it needs to get better. There comes a point when you do need a legal framework. I just do not know what that point is. It is always better to apply pressure through public reporting. You may wonder-it probably came up in your earlier evidence-why shareholders in companies are not more demanding, but very often those are institutional shareholders, and they are run by men, aren’t they, so it is obvious why they are not.

Q303Chair: We are intending to do an inquiry into the Kay proposals that might address some of those things. You have already mentioned the Davies report. Is there anything you would like to add to what you said about it?

Sir David Normington: The interesting thing about the Davies recommendations is that he is addressing the things that I, as a regulator, address in looking at the public sector. He is looking at how jobs are described, how people are recruited, how search consultants are used and so on. Therefore, it seemed to me to be exactly on the right track. I have the advantage of being a regulator who can then do something about that, but he is on the right track. The proof of the pudding is whether there is then progress. There seems to be a bit of progress. My ambition in non-executive appointments is to get over 40% women. We need to get over 40% and the actual number is about 30%. The private sector has a long way to go; it is a long way behind that.

Q304Chair: He is setting targets. Would you describe your ambition as targets?

Sir David Normington: I do not have the power to set a target, but the Government have an aspiration.

Q305Chair: I have never been clear where an aspiration and a target divide.

Sir David Normington: I do not think it matters whether it is an aspiration or target, as long as you do something about it if it is not being met. The Government’s aspiration is that for new appointments to public boards 50% should be women by 2015. Currently, 34% of new appointments are women. There is a big gap; I do not think it will get to 50%, but that aspiration shows leadership and enables you to measure your progress. It enables me constantly to question why, if that is the aspiration, it is not being reached. Targets have a place. If our EU colleague had been here we would have been worrying about when a target becomes a quota. In the end, I have to stand for making sure it is the best possible appointment. If a target tips over into a quota, there is the danger that you will appoint on gender rather than merit, and that is where I draw the line.

Q306Chair: Again, you have touched on my next question. Of course, we were hoping to have an EU representative here to question him in more detail, and you may well have wanted to respond to that. In the absence of an EU representative in person, would you like to give your opinion of the EU approach to positive action or discrimination and the proposals that have come out of the EU?

Sir David Normington: I would have liked to hear him describe them because I am not quite sure what they now amount to.

Q307Chair: We hope to have him here next week instead, so you can read the transcript.

Sir David Normington: I do not think quotas are a good idea. My impression is that the EU is not on quotas now. Targets are a better idea, but they need to be used, certainly at the moment, for voluntary action, persuasion, challenge and so on. If they are not, you might turn them into quota. There is the proposition-I do not know whether it is still around-that if there are two equal candidates, you should appoint the woman if you are below a certain level.

Q308Chair: I think that is still around.

Sir David Normington: I sit on enough selection panels to know that you could easily get around that by making sure there were not two equal candidates. It is within the control of the selection panel to say, "There weren’t two equal candidates; there was a clear winner." So I do not know that really solves the problem. It feels as though there is a casting around for things to show you are taking action, and frankly I am doubtful about that.

Q309Chair: You are saying in effect that although you can have this as a policy, there are ways that selection panels can get round it by ensuring the shortlist does not have equal candidates.

Sir David Normington: Of course, because in any selection process-this is why I am trying to regulate these-there is always the danger of an informal process going on alongside the formal one. Earlier on, I said there is always somebody in the process who is more powerful than everybody else, who is saying, "We know this person; they’re really reliable. Let’s have them." This is where the limits of the law come. We are trying to change something more fundamental about the way organisations operate, and I am sceptical about that proposition as a way of doing that. It feels as though there is a casting around for something like that.

Q310Chair: This interesting. Effectively, you can always rig a selection panel to rig a shortlist. My experience is that there will be individuals with either a dominant position or personality whose views can prevail. Do you think there is an argument, which the EU has not addressed, to have a person carrying out your particular role within the EU?

Sir David Normington: I am sure that there are many Members of Parliament here who would not want to give that role to somebody at European level. You have to wonder slightly whether that is not too far away. Could you have a regulator for the private sector? You could, but it is quite a big step, isn’t it? It feels fairly intrusive. If you got to the point where you just thought you were making no progress at all you might consider that, but it is a big step. I think I will stick to doing it in the government sector.

Q311Chair: You say it is intrusive, but in a way that is a culture judgment, isn’t it?

Sir David Normington: Yes, it is a culture judgment.

Q312Chair: If you are to change culture sometimes you have to take steps.

Sir David Normington: You do, and there have been big moments in the past when legislation has been very significant in changing the culture. You might say the Sex Discrimination Act in the 1970s was a very big moment; it caught a time. You can probably pick out moments like that, and you have to catch that moment. I would never rule out those things, but you need to be quite clear what you are doing. There is always a balance between how much you want a regulatory approach and whether that is too demanding of business.

Q313Chair: Thank you very much. That is very helpful. I am sorry you did not have an EU representative to bounce your opinions off, and vice versa.

Sir David Normington: It is probably just as well.

Chair: If you feel there is anything you have not said that needs to be said, please submit it in further supplementary evidence to us. It may well be that, as we are having a separate session with the EU representative, you will see things there that you would like to comment on, and your written evidence in that context would be very much appreciated.

[1] Note by witness: It is 23%

[2] Sir David actually quoted the 30/70 split in relation to civil service permanent secretary appointments (see Q278)


Prepared 19th June 2013