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Public Bodies: Appointments

Volume 788: debated on Thursday 25 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether recent appointments to public bodies have adhered to (1) the spirit and rules of the Governance Code on Public Appointments; and (2) relevant legislation, and of whether all such appointments have been made on merit.

My Lords, the Governance Code on Public Appointments was introduced in January 2017. Ministers make appointments in accordance with the code as well as the relevant legislation. In addition, the Commissioner for Public Appointments provides independent assurance that the governance code is followed.

I thank the Minister for that reply. However, despite his comments about the Commissioner for Public Appointments, in recent years there has been a reduction in the number of employee or trade union representatives appointed to public bodies, despite those people having demonstrated appropriate knowledge and experience. An employee representative was not appointed to the Institute for Apprenticeships, despite the history and recognition of the role that trade unions have played in developing the apprenticeships programme with the Government. TUC candidates have been sidelined from the ACAS council, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council and the Social Security Advisory Committee. Do the Government fear the knowledge and experience that union reps will bring to the table? Are the Government not supportive of a partnership approach to developing our public services?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Perhaps I may make a general point and then come to her specific question. If the Government are to make real progress in tackling some of the challenges that confront this country—low productivity, reskilling the workforce, getting underrepresented groups back into the labour market, driving up the quality of apprenticeships and reducing the gender pay gap—we will make faster progress if we have a positive and constructive relationship with those who represent the workforce; that is, the leaders the noble Baroness has just mentioned.

On the specific issue of appointments, until I spoke to the noble Baroness last night I had not appreciated that behind her Question was a concern about the perceived—in her mind—bias against trade union appointees to public bodies. I should like to make some inquiries on this. It is the case that Paul Nowak, deputy general-secretary of the TUC, was reappointed to ACAS last year; Sally Hunt, the current president of the TUC, was reappointed to ACAS in November last year; Michael Hayes, who sits on the Unison national executive, was appointed to the HSE in November; and David Chrimes of the FDA was appointed to the Social Security Advisory Committee in October. However, I should like to do some more work on this and write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, while the Minister is doing that work, could he also look into the political affiliations declared by people for public appointments? It has been said, although I have no idea if it is true, that the number of political affiliations declared in, say, the last 10 years are quite dramatically in favour of the Opposition rather than the government side.

First, the number of appointees with declared political activity has fallen; it has halved since 2010, so there are fewer political appointees. Of those appointed in the last year for which I have statistics, we appointed more candidates who have declared affiliations to the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats than those with affiliations to my party—something that may irritate someone sitting behind me.

My Lords, last October the Prime Minister launched the race disparity audit following critical reports on race issues in the country. Will the Minister arrange the publication of ethnic breakdowns of appointments to public bodies, and do so on an annual basis, so that progress can be measured on equality of access and outcomes in public appointments?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. He may be aware that we published a diversity commitment back in December with a declared target of increasing to 50% the number of public appointees who are women by 2022, and to 14% those from black and minority ethnic communities. At the moment, I think the figures are 43% and 10%, but if one looks at the most recent year for new appointments, 2016-17, the proportion of new appointments for women rose from 34% in 2013 to 49% last year. We will be publishing statistics regularly about the progress we are making to those declared targets for 2022.

My Lords, in view of recent revelations, can the Minister explain to the House what specific account the Government take of historical social media output when considering public appointments?

I welcome the noble Lord to the Back Benches, although it means that Ministers are now exposed to the forensic questions for which he is renowned. I believe he is referring to Toby Young. Perhaps I may make it clear that although Toby Young is the son of a life Peer, he is not the son of this one but of Michael Young, founder of the Consumers’ Association and the Open University: a good and great man, notwithstanding his support for the Labour Party.

On the serious issue that the noble Lord raises, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, whom I mentioned in my reply, is reviewing the Toby Young appointment and has already referred to the need for due diligence about social media. We await his report with interest, and it may be that we need to revise the Governance Code on Public Appointments, which at the moment has a section on standards in public life and handling conflicts and includes something on the lines of potential embarrassments and so-called skeletons in the cupboard, before anything goes to Ministers. We are aware of the growing importance of social media in this respect.

My Lords, will the Cabinet Office expand the pool from which appointments are made to limit the same people moving seamlessly from one quango to another when each quango obviously has different needs?

I think that criticism is more relevant to some of the appointments of non-execs in the City than to public appointments, but I take on board the noble and learned Lord’s point. Each case is looked at on its merits against the background of the criteria, but if he is concerned that the same people are going round and round, I will certainly pass that on to the Cabinet Office to see whether we need to review the procedure.