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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Diversity in Public Appointments

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Meg initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on the composition of the boards of public bodies and their failure to reflect society.


Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): 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% of our population, but make up only 33.3% of public appointees. About 14% of the working-age population have a disability, but disabled people make up only 5% of public appointees. Fewer than 6% of public appointees are from an ethnic minority background, despite the fact that the overall ethnic minority population is nearer 11%.


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%, with only slightly higher levels between 2003 and 2007. Ethnic minority appointments increased from 3.7% in 1998 to 6.5% in 2004. However, they then dropped back to 5.7% in 2007 and 2008. By contrast, appointments of people with disabilities have continued to rise from a very low base of 1.5% in 2001 to around 5% 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 they 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% of new appointments will be women, 14% will be people with disabilities and 11% 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 making 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 ‘BAME’ 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 board’s 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 will cover 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.





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