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Diversity in Public Appointments

Volume 495: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2009

I am delighted to have secured the opportunity to discuss this important issue. Public bodies are important. They carry out a wide range of vital activities that affect the lives of people up and down the country. Some supply funding, benefiting sectors such as the arts, sports and sciences. Others provide health care, safeguard the environment, promote human rights and protect the rights and interests of consumers. Many have a role in shaping policy and decision making at national level. They undertake vital work on behalf of us all.

Public bodies are created by the Government but are at arm’s length from the Government. Around 1,200 public bodies are accountable to the British Government, and some 18,500 appointments are made to the boards of those regional and national organisations.

The important word is “appointments”. People are identified, invited and even enticed into undertaking such work on our behalf, with the time commitment varying from a few days each year to between two and three days a week. The requirement for each board is different because of the wide range of activities engaged in by public bodies. Selection should always be on the basis of merit, with fair, open and transparent recruitment processes. Also essential is the requirement that appointments should broadly reflect the make-up of society. That is because we need not just fairness and equity—although such traits are important—but the best people with the right mix of skills, experience and background, who do not come from just one section of society. We have to accept that the current situation, in which the majority of appointments are white men, is not meeting that objective.

Women represent 51 per cent. of our population, but make up only 33.3 per cent. of public appointees. About 14 per cent. of the working-age population have a disability, but disabled people make up only 5 per cent. of public appointees. Fewer than 6 per cent. of public appointees are from an ethnic minority background, despite the fact that the overall ethnic minority population is nearer 11 per cent.

The Commissioner for Public Appointments said in her 2007-08 report that she was disappointed by the fall in the overall number of female appointees and re-appointees in England and Wales, and also by the numbers of appointees from an ethnic minority and those who have a disability. There was also a significant fall in the number of female chairs of boards, and those with disabilities appointed to health boards compared with previous years.

Over a 10-year period, female appointments have generally remained at around 33 per cent., with only slightly higher levels between 2003 and 2007. Ethnic minority appointments increased from 3.7 per cent. in 1998 to 6.5 per cent. in 2004. However, they then dropped back to 5.7 per cent. in 2007 and 2008. By contrast, appointments of people with disabilities have continued to rise from a very low base of 1.5 per cent. in 2001 to around 5 per cent. in 2008.

As I have already said, public bodies are responsible for both service delivery and policy, so without the widest range of experience, skills and background guiding them, public organisations will reflect only one part of society. A society that is becoming ever more diverse as the world shrinks needs institutions that reflect the reality of today. It is about being not just fair—although that is important—but effective. Obtaining a better reflection of society in the bodies that provide so much for society would help them. That means more recruitment in the areas of gender, age, ethnicity and disability, in which there is under-representation.

Some public bodies are working extremely hard to encourage people from under-represented groups to think about applying. Others make the right noises, but they are slow to change. Let me give one example from my own region. The regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, for which I have a great deal of time and respect, does a lot of important and good work. On its board of 14 directors, only four are female, while two male directors are of ethnic minority origin.

Yorkshire Forward is charged with helping the economy of the region to grow, including promoting opportunities for everyone regardless of their gender, race or disability. How much more effective could it be if the board more accurately reflected the population of our region? Interestingly, at management level, Yorkshire Forward has achieved a representation that is much more reflective of the society it serves. It has a management team of six, of which three are women and one is of ethnic minority origin.

However, there are other issues that we should consider, such as where people live, where they come from and their economic background. Too many public bodies, particularly those with national responsibilities, have boards overwhelmingly comprised of people from London or the home counties and who are largely from middle class backgrounds.

It is good that the Government have agreed a new plan to tackle the matter and that it goes right across all Departments. As public bodies report to a wide range of Departments that is essential. The two Departments that are centrally involved are the Cabinet Office and the Government Equalities Office—whose Minister is here today. I am delighted to welcome him to his post although he has had a few weeks to get his feet under the table.

The stated aim of the plan is that by 2011, 50 per cent. of new appointments will be women, 14 per cent. will be people with disabilities and 11 per cent. will be people from ethnic minority populations. Such targets are clearly meant to transform bodies to reflect society and, therefore, should be welcomed. However, are they sufficient? Assuming that the targets are met, it will take some time before the current situation is significantly changed. The current make-up of boards will change very slowly because appointments are often for three years and some people are, quite rightly, re-appointed because they have the right experience and they continue. That means it could take some time even to hit the targets before we see the make-up of the boards significantly changed.

There is an argument for encouraging bodies that make appointments to exceed the targets and to arrive more quickly at better representation on their boards. However, making improvements will prove challenging if we look at the experience to date. The statistics for gender and ethnicity for the last 10 years show a static position, or a slowly developing position, rather than progress. We must encourage a much wider group of people to consider putting themselves forward for such positions so that we have a larger pool from which to select.

Sometimes people do not come forward because they do not know about the public bodies in the first place. Even when they know about them, the present composition of the leadership may confirm their assumptions that the organisation is just not for them. More emphasis on putting on boards role models from under-represented groups is one way to take things forward.

Developing good practice is essential, and that means better research. Each appointment process should include a strong candidate diversity strategy that is designed to include innovative ways to attract new people. It should use language and images that attract the sort of people needed for that particular appointment. Perception is very important. We should not use acronyms, such as BME and LGTB, that people in the equality world understand but the majority do not.

We need to pay greater attention to the type of people who are recruited. Young people, for example, rarely sit on public boards but bring a perception that those of us who can no longer call ourselves young do not have, and health boards benefit from the participation of service users.

Nurturing and developing candidates is vital. They might need help learning the responsibilities of their role and acquiring new skills to play their part effectively in directing organisations that might be large and have a wide range of responsibilities. Other support might be needed, such as child care provision or transport for people in remote rural areas. People with disabilities might need extra help preparing for and participating in meetings.

I recently visited an organisation in Sheffield called Speaking Up for Advocacy. The organisation supports people with learning difficulties, disabilities and mental health problems in speaking up for themselves, including taking part in committees that make decisions about services for people with disabilities. Advocacy and support help people to take part fully and to be prepared to ask when something happens in a meeting that they do not understand. That is something that many of us find it difficult to admit to, but those people have learned to say, “Please explain what is happening here,” so that they can take part fully and ensure that they are listened to properly and respected. I have no doubt that although advocacy has helped people take part, it has also demanded a change in the behaviour of other board members. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that, too, is part of the strategy.

It is important to recognise that we need to ensure that people are retained once they are recruited. If the behaviour of other board members and, crucially, the chair, is not welcoming and does not support new members, they might not stay. Equally, failure to ensure that appropriate support measures are in place will lead to people leaving. Developing best practice and ensuring that it is disseminated will be important.

In conclusion, although I welcome the new plan, I should be grateful if the Minister covered the following issues in his response. Given the major change required to meet the new targets, what strategies are being put in place? How long does he estimate it will take to achieve fair outcomes if the targets set by the Government are to be met? What arrangements are in place to monitor and review progress of the plan, and how will they be reported? How will my hon. Friend ensure that good practice is disseminated and bad practice tackled early?

Diversity on public boards matters. I sincerely hope that the Government’s good intentions as set out in the plan will achieve the desired outcomes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on securing this debate, which I think is important, despite the number of Members who have come along to take part. She has been at the forefront of equality issues, particularly in public life as the former Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, as well as in much wider roles.

Ensuring that our public bodies are representative of the communities they serve goes to the heart of creating a fairer and more equal society. We need more women, more ethnic minorities and more disabled people involved in all aspects of public life. Whole sections of the population are not adequately represented in our democratic institutions. That is not just unfair for those who deserve better representation; we are all the losers. The problem is that decisions on our public bodies and for our public services can be better made and meet the needs of all parts of our society only if the people making them bring diverse experiences to bear and are representative of the wider community.

That becomes even more apparent when one considers the role and purpose of public bodies, which my hon. Friend clearly identified. From funding the arts, sports and science to providing essential health care, from safeguarding the environment to promoting human rights, and from protecting the rights and interests of consumers to delivering justice, public bodies take decisions that affect the lives of us all.

To ensure that our public bodies fulfil their duties as effectively as possible, we need the brightest and best at the top making decisions. It cannot be that the brightest and best do not include the groups to which my hon. Friend referred. She is right to point out that at the moment, we are missing out on a wealth of talent and experience. Diversity of representation would bring diversity of thought, fresh ideas, new perspectives and a better understanding of the communities that public bodies are supposed to represent. Greater diversity would also bring lasting cultural change. That is important, because it would create more positive role models for those in less well-represented communities, encouraging others to step forward and apply for public appointments.

Despite some progress, talented people are still being left behind and continue to be grossly under-represented on the boards of our public bodies. My hon. Friend gave some numbers that are worth repeating. Women currently hold just over a third of public appointments, despite making up half the population. Disabled people make up just 5 per cent. of appointees, even though they make up 14 per cent. of the working-age population. Ethnic minorities hold fewer than 6 per cent. of posts despite making up nearly 11 per cent. of the population. Despite our Government’s good intentions over the past 12 years, progress in addressing that imbalance has been woefully inadequate. Thankfully, in response to the challenge, we launched a far-reaching plan two weeks ago designed to step up the pace of change.

To ensure recruitment of the brightest and best candidates from across the whole of society, all new public appointments regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments will be subject to challenging targets. Our aim is that by 2011, across Government as a whole, 50 per cent. of new appointees will be women, 14 per cent. will be disabled people and 11 per cent. will be from ethnic minorities. Although we do not have sufficient statistical evidence on the under-representation of other groups to which my hon. Friend referred, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people, faith communities and those of diverse social backgrounds, I should point out that the action plan aims to increase the diversity of those holding public appointments across the board.

However, the Government agree with my hon. Friend that targets are not enough. What matters is how we go about meeting them. We have put together a purposeful package of measures to make the difference. The measures will increase the visibility of the appointments system, ensure transparency and accountability and tackle head-on the barriers that people too often face in putting themselves forward.

What is the master plan? First, it is important that we produce awareness-raising materials, as people need to know what is out there. That might include the use of the internet and new technologies, being where people are, promoting public appointments to a wider range of people—perhaps even at the school gates if necessary—and specifically targeting under-represented groups.

The ideas that my hon. Friend is setting out are interesting, but I am sure he would agree that one of the most difficult problems is getting people from a wider geographical area on the national bodies that are so important to the issues that we deal with. I do not know whether he is will come to it, but I would be grateful if he could discuss in detail how we can get fewer people from the south-east and more people from a wider area.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It could be suggested that national bodies are London-centric, or at least south-east-centric and that other people do not have the same opportunities. Although there have been improvements in regional boards, national boards still seem to have that problem, so an important part of our diversity proposals is that regional targeting will be part of future planning.

It is important that we share best practice and communicate across Government to help drive improved performance, including in the regions. That will be supported by the regional outreach campaign, which must be effective if it is to achieve the results we want. We will monitor the regional outreach programmes.

We need a stronger evidence base. My hon. Friend’s case is correct in terms of absolute numbers. However, we want to know more about issues such as multi-membership of organisations. How many people are really involved and how many are serial appointees? That is an important aspect in determining whether there is true diversity and we will monitor it.

There must be stakeholder engagement. “Stakeholder” is another of those words that we should not use if we can avoid it, as my hon. Friend rightly said. What does it mean? It means the people who represent the groups we want represented on these bodies. We must work with those partners to develop their knowledge and networks so that we can deliver the changes that we want for under-represented groups.

Most important, we will have a new leading-edge mentoring scheme for high-potential applicants and near hits—applicants who are good, but do not have the necessary experience of the process to get the job. That goes to the heart of what my hon. Friend was saying. Through mentoring, we will help such candidates to ensure that they can access training and other support. My hon. Friend said further development is needed to include what is missing. When people go to Jobcentre Plus, they are asked about the barriers to work. The flexibility now exists to allow those with barriers such as child care and transport to find work. We must do the same for public appointments. We should be looking at what are the barriers for otherwise good and well qualified candidates.

My hon. Friend asked how we will know that we are doing what we intend. There will be a timetable of monitoring with targets monitored every six months, rather than just a three-yearly review. Performance will be published so that we can check how well we are doing.

As my hon. Friend said, we have extended the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments by giving her the power to promote diversity in the procedures for making public appointments. Surprisingly, she did not have that power until it was introduced in October. It is now an important tool in her armoury to help her to achieve her aims. Her office is also developing a targeting talent strategy. I like the title “targeting talent”—it has something about it—but it must also be meaningful. It is about looking to see who is out there who can do the job, and encouraging them to apply, rather than being passive and waiting for people to make applications.

I am sure the Minister will accept that when targeting talent, people from under-represented groups such as the people with learning difficulties whom I met in Sheffield may not appear to have talent at the outset. However, once helped and supported in expressing their views, they can be exceptionally good. I hope that targeting talent also means developing that talent, not just looking to those who appear immediately to have the skills and abilities.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course it is important not to look at things simply at face value. If we dig, we will find the talent, and the scheme must do just that. That is another reason why it is important to work with our stakeholder groups. They know how we can achieve that better than the top-down approach or the use of ministerial templates, which may not fit the bill. We want to be sure that we are doing that.

The Department’s action plan complements the aims of the Equality Bill, which is strengthening and streamlining legislation to ensure that there are equal opportunities for all. The Bill will introduce wider positive action provisions that public authorities will be able to use to address under-representation and disadvantage. That means not only that we will have those targets, but that people will not complain—I am sure—if an equally qualified candidate from an under-represented group is appointed. That is the only way to achieve our objectives.

I am confident that with the right support, those measures can deliver the change that we all want to see. However, change does not happen through Government action alone. We must work with the stakeholder groups and with those who identify candidates—sometimes called head-hunters. Just last week, we held meetings with head-hunters to ask them to think differently. It is easy to find people who fit the job description. However, it is not easy to find those who meet the job description, but do not put themselves forward. We need to be searching for such people. Therefore, head-hunting means just that from now on; it means looking for people who can do the job just as well as the rest, but who come from the under-represented groups. We need to work together.

It is especially important in these difficult economic times to create an environment and culture of ambition, aspiration and equality of opportunity that enables everyone to fulfil their potential. We would like our stakeholders to tell potential candidates about the new measures, and encourage them to come forward. We want potential candidates to put themselves forward, although I appreciate that is not always easy. My hon. Friend made the important point that they must be encouraged when they do put themselves forward.

There is an attitude problem. None of us feels comfortable in a foreign environment. That must be the case for groups who are currently under-represented when they sit at a table where everyone else is different. My hon. Friend is right: we must ensure that the chairs and other members of the bodies are given basic training in welcoming groups and individuals who come from different backgrounds.

The Government are keen to consider other initiatives. It might be possible for MPs to keep in their offices lists of individuals who would be suitable candidates. I encourage hon. Members to do that.

We have made some progress, even in Parliament. In 1997, just 9 per cent. of Members were women. The figure is now 20 per cent. In the Thatcher and Major years, the number of women in the Cabinet peaked at two. Seven women now attend Cabinet meetings, although not all are full Cabinet members. There is much more to be done.

My hon. Friend concluded with four questions. I hope that I have set out in sufficient detail the action plan strategy, our commitment to monitor progress through six-monthly reviews, and our intention to disseminate good cross-governmental practice and to discourage bad practice. I hope too that I have made it clear that although we intend to meet our appointment targets by 2011, the new appointment objectives start now. If there is anything to be learned from the history of the equality movement, it is that change does not happen overnight; it takes commitment, tenacity and real action on several levels, from the grass roots to the top. We must join together and push twice or perhaps three times as hard to effect real and lasting change. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating this important debate. I know she wishes us well, as I wish her well.

Sitting suspended.