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Public Appointments: Diversity

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 9 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase diversity in public appointments.

My Lords, the Government are committed to improving diversity in public appointments. We have made good progress. New appointments of women, candidates from BAME backgrounds and those with a declared disability have all increased since 2013-14, but there is more to do. We aim to publish around the end of June a refreshed public appointments diversity action plan alongside a response to my noble friend’s excellent review into opening up public appointments to disabled people.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for everything that is happening in the Cabinet Office. What is happening across Whitehall and in all government departments, which obviously have to play a role in this incredibly important issue?

My noble friend is quite right. Although the Cabinet Office has overall responsibility for this topic, the actual appointments are made by individual government departments. One reason that we have taken a little longer to publish the document to which I have just referred is that we are anxious to get buy-in from all government departments to hit the ambitions that we are about to set out. I know from experience that Ministers in individual departments take public appointments very seriously. They are accountable for them, there is a Commissioner for Public Appointments to make sure the code is observed, and I know that Permanent Secretaries also take seriously the process of sifting applications before they go to Ministers. I will draw my noble friend’s remarks to the attention of relevant Permanent Secretaries and Ministers.

My Lords, unless we get rid of the traditional recruitment methods of CVs and formal, structured interviews, we will never be able to recognise the talent lying on our own doorsteps. HS2 has succeeded in recruiting a workforce which exactly reflects the population. Will the Government look at its methods and consider the option of blind, online applications that reflect the needs of the job, not what is written down on a piece of paper? That would at least be a first step towards an inclusive Civil Service that looks like the people it represents.

When I re-read my noble friend’s document I was struck by the sentence:

“Currently, talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not”.

He is absolutely right. One of his recommendations, concerning CVs, is that we should take non-standard CVs into account. His report states that,

“lived experience ... is a talent”.

Standard CVs and application processes sometimes do not reflect the life history of those who have a disability. I hope that when the noble Baroness sees our response to my noble friend’s document, she will recognise that we have taken on board some of the unconscious discrimination against those with a disability when it comes to public appointments.

My Lords, I am very supportive of the Government’s efforts in this field but I want to raise one point. The Minister just said that talent is everywhere. It is indeed everywhere but, unfortunately, appointments are largely concentrated in the south-east of England. Will the Government make an effort to see how the spread is in other counties throughout the United Kingdom?

The noble Lord is quite right. Discrimination is not just about gender, race or disability; it is also about age, diversity of experience and regional balance. My noble friend’s recommendations, although focused on disability, have wide implications for other underrepresented groups, not just in the public sector but in the private sector as well.

Does my noble friend agree that a consistent, rigorous focus on the action needed to overcome the barriers to employment is more important than another grand strategy? That was our approach during the coalition Government when increasing appointments of women, with very impressive results. Is it not sensible to learn from what worked successfully then?

I pay tribute to the work that my noble friend did alongside my noble friend Lord Maude at the Cabinet Office when we had an ambition that 50% of new appointments should go to women. In the five years that followed, the percentage went up from, I think, 34% to 49%. My noble friend is quite right that some of the lessons that were learned from the Cabinet Office at that time have been taken on board by my noble friend Lord Holmes, and he has built on them and applied them where necessary to adjust for issues connected with disability. That is why I said in my initial response that we will refresh the public appointments diversity action plan, building on the one that I think my noble friend was closely involved with.

My Lords, I am conscious that these Benches may not embody everyone’s image of diversity. None the less, I was pleased to lead the final stages of the process by which these Benches were opened to women as well as men, although none of them is here today. I have also been chairing for the last five years a process within the Church where we are tasked with increasing the proportion of BME people in senior roles in the life of the Church. We have made some modest progress, though there is lots still to do. Nevertheless, we have learned that while legislation and processes are important, as has been indicated, so are culture, attitudes and bias. I wonder whether the Government might welcome some kind of forum within which quasi-public bodies might engage with public bodies so that we can share our learning on these matters.

I welcome the suggestion from the right reverend Prelate. An event was held at Windsor called Faith in Leadership to encourage those with a faith perspective to apply for public appointments. In response to his suggestion, we are anxious to learn any lessons that the Church may have to ensure that the recommendations in the disability review go forward. So the short answer to the right reverend Prelate’s question is yes.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, for people who do not have a conventional CV, the confidence to make an application for a board appointment can itself be a barrier? I believe that some important work has been done in Northern Ireland to give potential candidates, with talent but perhaps suffering from one of those barriers—it might well be class, as much as gender—experience of serving on a board and seeing how one functions to prepare them to be competent and able board members.

That is a very helpful suggestion from the noble Baroness. One of the recommendations in the review was that we should seek out talent, encourage people to apply who might otherwise not have done and then support them through the process. There is also an issue about the visibility of appointments, in that there is a risk of this applying just to a self-selecting group if one does not reach out to underrepresented groups. I am very happy to learn from the experience in Northern Ireland to which the noble Baroness referred.