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Public Health England Advisory Board Membership

Volume 746: debated on Thursday 4 July 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that women are represented on the Advisory Board of Public Health England.

In April 2013, we appointed four non-executive members to Public Health England’s advisory board. They each bring to this role a great range of experience. We will shortly advertise for further candidates to enhance the expertise available to Public Health England. We aim to ensure that, as far as possible, the advisory board provides an appropriate gender balance and representation from ethnic minority and disability backgrounds.

My Lords, I hope the House knows that in addition to the other two who sit on this board, this an all-white, all-male board. I am delighted that the Minister has admitted this in the sense that they are going to re-advertise. However, can he explain why No. 10 vetoed the highly respected and experienced woman who was recommended by the independent appointments panel? Could it possibly be because she sits on the Labour Benches in your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, absolutely not. The noble Baroness to whom the noble Baroness refers is, in everybody’s eyes, a highly qualified person. It would be inappropriate in any case for me to comment on individual candidates, successful or unsuccessful. However, I can confirm, and I emphasise this strongly, that the recruitment campaign was managed in a way that completely complied with the principles of the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ code of practice. It was open and transparent, and appointments were made on merit against published criteria for the role.

My Lords, will my noble friend explain what action is being taken to grow tomorrow’s female and minority leaders in health?

My Lords, across the field of health it is difficult for me to give a generic answer, but the NHS Leadership Academy, which is now starting its work, will ensure that women with promise for leadership will be encouraged to come forward in a variety of roles, not just clinical but managerial. I hope that we will see the fruits of that work over the coming months.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Public Health England is responsible for campaigns for vaccinations, and that as vaccinations deal mostly with children and young people, mothers are involved, so it is essential to have women on the advisory board?

I do not think that women necessarily have exclusive expertise in the field of vaccination. However, I take the noble Baroness’s point. It is something that we are closely bearing in mind in the context of the forthcoming appointments that I mentioned in my Answer.

My Lords, may I follow up on the question asked by my noble friend on the Front Bench? I have two specific points. First, if the Government have a diversity policy, why was such an appointment not made in the first place? Secondly, when are the adverts that we understand will extend the board going to go out? Are they going to look specifically for more women and more ethnic minority members?

The advertisements will go out, I understand, in September, with a view to making the appointments by the end of the year. As regards the gender balance, the noble Baroness may like to know that within Public Health England itself there are almost twice as many women and men across the workforce, and in senior roles there are more women than men. I hope noble Lords will understand that Public Health England itself has no gender bias. The key thing is that appointments are made in accordance with the published criteria on merit. It is our aspiration to have gender balance, but the criteria must be related to those issues.

My Lords, the Minister is dedicated to equality and understands very well the issues relating to female health, particularly as a result of the World Health Organisation report last month, which indicated that the greatest cause of morbidity in women and girls, in one case in three, is domestic violence. Can he therefore explain why the Government chose to have a board that has no women on it? That board cannot then reflect the reality of the health needs of our nation.

We are very mindful of that, but I come back to the point that these appointments were made on merit in accordance with the published criteria. That is not to say that the unsuccessful candidates lacked merit, but we did not operate a policy of positive discrimination and I do not think that anyone would wish us to do that. Having said that, we are mindful in the department of the need to have gender balance whenever we can in public appointments. Our record is not bad; we are in the region of 44% of appointment rates for women appointed to public positions, which is quite high up in the departmental league table.

My Lords, does the Minister recall a famous speech of Baroness Thatcher’s, when she was Mrs Thatcher, when she said that the experience that women gain in life generally is not to be underestimated? It is all very well to have everyone with all the experience and qualifications in the world, but does he not think it is also important to have some women who could bring basic common sense to the board?

In view of the answer that the Minister gave to my noble friend a few moments ago about not operating a positive discrimination policy, is it possible or even likely that the next round of advertisements will also result in the appointment only of men?

I simply cannot tell because we do not know which candidates have come forward. It may be that no women come forward. I hope that that is not the case. We make a point of advertising our appointments on the website of Women on Boards UK Ltd—the noble Baroness may be aware of it—which is an open UK-wide organisation for women seeking to leverage their professional skills, if I can put it that way, on to leadership roles. We will see what happens, but I assure the noble Baroness that while there will not be positive discrimination, there certainly will not be negative discrimination either.

Does the noble Earl agree that very well qualified women are held back from getting appointments by the lack of affordable childcare and that this is especially crucial in medicine? Does he agree that report after report has recommended that medically qualified women be given more flexible working arrangements, and more time and help, to serve on boards such as this, and that those reports have by and large not been implemented?

I am aware of those concerns and I share them. In the context of Public Health England, these are non-executive roles and will involve only a certain amount of the person’s time. Nevertheless, childcare could well be an issue for any successful woman candidate.