HL Deb 19 July 2004 vol 664 cc9-12

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking following the findings of the Commissioner for Public Appointments concerning the rules on appointments to public posts and the practice in certain government departments.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government are aware of the commissioner's concerns about how Ministers are involved in the public appointments process. The current inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life is considering this issue. It is expected to report by the end of the year and we will study its findings very carefully.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he tell the House what has been done to civil servants to make possible these breaches of the Nolan rules, with Ministers adding names to short lists, drawing up their own short lists and taking names off short lists?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not aware that the situation is as the noble Baroness suggests. There are wide-ranging differences between departments in regard to public appointments. I understand the fact and identify that the commissioner has drawn attention to four departments which have varied their practice from what she sees as being the appropriate procedure. But those departments have been entirely transparent; it has always been a part of their process and interventions are properly recorded.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, why have the Government not accepted the recommendations of the Public Administration Select Committee that the commissioner's office should be responsible for the recruitment and training of all independent assessors, and that she, herself, should have power to report to Parliament material non-compliance with the appointments code?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we obviously welcome the advice we are given by the commissioner, but it is not always going to be the case that the Government will accept all of that advice. As it is, the commissioner has her own group of 12 independent assessors who offer advice, and we greatly value that.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, in the light of the commissioner's latest report showing that the percentage of female public body appointees remains the same as last year at 39 per cent, with the number of women chairmen of public bodies almost invisible, can the Minister say whether the 2005 target set by the Cabinet Office for achieving between 45 and 50 per cent of women on public bodies remains realistic? If not, what further measures will be taken?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we are obviously disappointed that the appointment figures to which the noble Baroness refers are as they are, but we do not think that this is a new trend. We hope that our targets are realistic. I think everyone would accept that it is a highly desirable objective. There is some good news in the commissioner's report. I am particularly pleased to see that there has been an increase in the number of appointments for those with disabilities, up to 3.2 per cent from 2.7 per cent in the previous year.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am almost incredulous at the sheer complacency of the Government's answers to this most serious Question. It is the Commissioner for Public Appointments who has made an official complaint on the basis that appointments could be interpreted either as political interference or personal preference. Should not the Government be taking firm action now and drafting clauses for a Civil Service Bill to be presented to Parliament to deal with this terrible problem?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord is conflating two separate issues. There is a disagreement between the commissioner and some departments about the appointments process. Those departments have always had Ministers involved at an early part of the appointments process, and that is accepted by the commissioner, those departments and all other departments. As I am sure the noble Lord will know from his own background and time in government, it is a part of the process that has been commonly accepted.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, if Ministers have traditionally taken a position whereby they make these appointments and make suggestions, what on earth was the point of appointing a commissioner to do the same job?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord should take a very close look at the report and at what has been accepted practice in the past. We are very keen to ensure that there is integrity, openness, probity and transparency in these matters. The commissioner accepts that that is absolutely the case. There is a minor disagreement—some might even call it a misunderstanding—over this issue.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, is the Minister satisfied that the membership of ethnic minorities on such bodies is in proportion to their representation in the community?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I think the noble Lord will accept that this Government have made great progress in ensuring that ethnic minorities have an appropriate level of representation in all public appointments. The figures suggest that we are making great progress. As I understand it, in 2002–03, 8.4 per cent of all appointments were to ethnic minorities, which is fractionally down on the previous year. But that does not disappoint us; it gives us greater encouragement that we are absolutely right to ensure a fair representation. We shall go on pursuing that objective. We do not see this as a long-term trend and, in any event, we intend to ensure that we get the balance absolutely right, fair and proper.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that it does not matter whether they are men, women, transvestites, black, white or yellow; the only criterion that should apply is that they are the best people for the job, approved by the commission and not interfered with by the Government?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is not the commission that makes the appointments; these are public appointments made by the Minister. The noble Baroness is of course right that everyone should be appointed on merit.

Baroness Howells of St Davids

My Lords, I find slightly disturbing the way in which the discussion is going. We have fought for many years to have people from ethnic minorities included. I know that it is not my business to make a statement, but I should like to ask why the inclusion of ethnic minorities is such a problem.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is clearly not a problem for the Government. We celebrate our record in this respect. We have made great progress in opening up the public appointments process so that we have a diversity of appointments which genuinely reflects our society. The Government should be congratulated on their record, not condemned as some are seeking to do in your Lordships' House today.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the Commissioner for Public Appointments expresses the concerns she has expressed, there is bound to be some public concern that matters are not right? May I suggest that the Secretary to the Cabinet should put out a statement, a set of rules, for all Permanent Secretaries to make it perfectly clear where they stand? This would probably help them in their relations with Ministers and, indeed, might help Ministers.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it may be worth reading to your Lordships' House from the commissioner's report, in which she stated: I was concerned to discover in the course of last year that four Departments were routinely showing shortlists privately to Ministers during the appointments process. Ministers are given a choice of candidates at the end of the process and can, if they wish, be involved throughout the process". She said that her particular concern is the unrecorded involvement of a Minister at such a late stage. Three Permanent Secretaries wrote to the Committee on Standards in Public Life as part of their evidence, and they dispute the fact that this is done privately. They state quite categorically that it is an open part of the process and has been a routine part of the process for many years. We are all concerned to ensure that there is transparency, integrity and openness in the process. All government departments believe that they are achieving that.