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Public Bodies (Ministerial Appointments)
3:34 pm

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Trish Godman (Labour)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7212, in the name of Gil Paterson, on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee report on the draft revised code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies in Scotland.

4:05 pm
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Gil Paterson (Scottish National Party)

I am pleased to open this debate on the draft revised code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies in Scotland on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

On 10 June, the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Scotland laid before the Parliament a consultation document on a proposed revision to the code of practice for ministerial appointments. The consultation is on the first revision to the code of practice that has been proposed since 2005.

Public bodies play an important role in delivering services to a wide range of communities and parts of Scottish life. The boards of such bodies are required to ensure that those services are provided efficiently and effectively. The code of practice plays a key role in ensuring that there is transparency and fairness in the way in which ministers make appointments to the boards of public bodies and ensures that those individuals who are appointed have the necessary skills and experience to maintain and develop the services that are provided by public bodies. The revised code that we are debating today is intended to support that process by setting out clearly what should be expected at each stage of the appointments process for applicants, members of public bodies, Scottish Government ministers and officials, as well as the commissioner and her team.

In considering the code of practice, the committee heard evidence from the commissioner on the various aspects of the code. I put on record the committee's thanks for that evidence and for the commissioner's engagement with the committee in developing the revised code. The committee also notes that issues that were raised by the commissioner in previous reports to the Parliament, such as the requirement that ministers should always have a choice of candidates from which to make an appointment, have been addressed in the proposed revision. The committee welcomes that.

The committee report makes specific comments on four areas of the revised code: ministers being provided with a choice of candidates from which to make an appointment; the use of alternative application methods; the requirement for ministers to keep a written record of appointment decisions; and the fit-and-proper-person test that will be introduced in the revised code.

Ministerial choice in appointment decisions was considered by the committee in 2009. The draft revised code moves away from requiring that ministers be given a choice of candidates in relation to every appointment. That reflects the nature of some appointments for which potential appointees are required to meet certain specific criteria, such as holding a professional qualification or having held a particular office. However, the committee noted that in circumstances where a choice of candidates cannot be provided, it is important to ensure that any individuals who are recommended to ministers have been assessed to confirm that they have the necessary skills and experience for the role.

The committee noted the potential benefits of using a range of alternative application methods to encourage and enable a wider range of applicants to become involved in the public appointments process. Although it recognises that potential benefit, the committee believes that some form of written application, adapted to suit the particular position, continues to provide a reliable way of assessing a candidate's suitability.

I turn to the requirements for ministers to keep a written record of appointments decisions. The committee had some concerns about the potential for the appointments process to become subject to politicisation.

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Gil Paterson (Scottish National Party)

Okay.

An element of subjectivity in appointments decisions would be necessary where a minister was presented with a choice of equally qualified candidates from whom to make an appointment.

Having said all that—and given that you are looking at me, Presiding Officer—I will conclude. Subject to my comments, the committee is content to endorse the draft revised code of practice.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee's 6th Report, 2010 (Session 3): Draft Revised Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments to Public Bodies in Scotland (SP Paper 491), together with the Official Report of the Parliament's debate on the report, should form the Parliament's response to the consultation by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Scotland.

4:10 pm
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Paul Martin (Labour)

I commend the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its diligence in preparing the draft revised code of practice, which is before us today. The current consultation is on the first revision to the code of practice since 2005 and it is intended to reflect the experience of the code since we last revised it. It also follows the introduction of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner's equalities strategy, "Diversity Delivers", in 2008.

I am sure that a number of my colleagues are away preparing their amendments for the item of business after this one, but I can say on behalf of the Labour Party that the approach that has been taken in revising the code is to be welcomed. It is a step forward to move away from the detailed chronological approach of the current code to a format that sets out the requirements that should be met at each stage.

In the short time that is available to me, I will refer to one particular area: the alternative application methods. I recognise that the current code anticipates that every applicant will complete an application form, the content of which will determine whether they are selected for interview. I agree with the commissioner, who has observed that that process appears to favour applicants who carefully orchestrate and complete application forms. She recognises that that is a barrier to people from underrepresented groups. That view was reinforced by a number of stakeholders, including chairs of public bodies. I welcome the revision in that regard. The proposed code will allow a selection panel to choose any fair, open and transparent method of selection for interview that it considers appropriate, given the position to be filled and the people to attract.

I will highlight some exchanges between the commissioner and members of the committee. Robert Brown referred to the "magic circle" of applicants who become serial applicants to public bodies. That is a well-chosen phrase and I concur with his view. I have noted over the years those who have become well-kent faces on the quango boards. Many people serve our quango boards well, but I have to say that many of them have been recycled from other elements of public life. We should recognise that those who play a crucial role in community organisations in our constituencies, such as housing associations, community councils—dare I say it?—and tenants and residents associations seem to be underrepresented on quango boards.

The approach that has been taken is to be welcomed and the draft revised code of practice is to be welcomed, but more important is that we look forward to ensuring that it is taken forward in practice.

4:14 pm
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Nanette Milne (Conservative)

I am happy to make a very brief contribution to this short debate and to support the committee's endorsement of the draft revised code of practice, subject to the comments that the committee's convener has made.

It is clear that people who are appointed to public bodies should have the appropriate skills and knowledge to allow them to make a useful contribution to the work of the bodies on which they serve. In seeking the right people for the positions in question, it should be open to anyone with those skills and knowledge to apply and to be considered for appointment by ministers.

The appointing board must have the necessary levels of skills and knowledge to be able to select the right people to recommend for appointment by ministers, because it is crucial to get the right people in position for each public body.

One of my concerns, on which I questioned the commissioner when the committee took evidence from her, is about the competence of panel members who are tasked with assessing applicants for public appointments. That issue was flagged up in consultation on the revised code by stakeholders who include—importantly—the chairs of public bodies.

The current code requires selection panel members to be familiar with its content, but it does not say that panel members must be competent to assess applicants by the assessment methods that are chosen, nor does it require them to be knowledgeable about equality and diversity issues and about how such matters might affect the outcome of appointment rounds. I share the commissioner's belief that a requirement for competence and knowledge of those matters should have an impact on the people who apply for roles on selection panels and—ultimately—on the make-up of the boards that they select. I therefore agree with her that those attributes should be a requirement in the revised code of practice. The committee made no comment on that in our report, so we agree, too.

Some selection panel members might well have all the necessary skills and knowledge at the outset, but I am reassured by plans to support new members and to help them to develop in their roles. It is important that selection panellists are effective and can select the right people to put before ministers for appointment.

When I asked the commissioner whether she envisaged a general induction for new panel members, she said that

"quite a good briefing happens at the panel pre-meeting"—[Official Report, Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, 14 September 2010; c 399.]

and that she plans to run familiarisation workshops on the new code. She intends to use the five months between the code's publication on 1 April and its implementation on 1 September for training. If the Government says that it, too, would like some initial training of panellists, that could be done in the months from April to September.

In this short debate, not all speakers can go into detail on all aspects of the revised code, but the committee's convener did so ably at the start. I will close merely by reiterating that I am happy to support the motion that is in his name.

4:16 pm
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Robert Brown (Liberal Democrat)

As Paul Martin said, the debate has a link with the broader debate on the Cadder situation, which we are dealing with during the rest of the afternoon. The link relates to high standards in public life—the need for a code of ethics, human rights standards and all that sort of thing to apply to everything that we do, particularly in relation to public issues and public appointments.

Paul Martin was right to touch on the fact that the pool of people who apply for public appointments is perhaps too small. Behind the formality of reports such as the committee's, the key issue is that we widen ordinary people's knowledge of the availability and potential of posts and give them confidence to become part of a wider pool of candidates from which to choose. It is undoubtedly an issue that some people are recycled around the public appointments scene. To an extent, the appointments process lends itself to that, because it requires a certain skill—which all students who go through schools, colleges and universities today have developed to perfection—in how to write a curriculum vitae. That is an element that lies behind the situation.

It is important to remember that, as the code says, the overriding principle is that selection should be based on merit. The people who are appointed should best match the skills, knowledge and personal qualities that are needed for the appointment. It is reasonably clear that many people should have the qualities to match the job specifications for public appointments that are on offer, but we do not always manage to reach such people to get them to apply.

I will make two comments on the report. Paul Martin touched on alternative application methods. As the convener of the cross-party group on visual impairment, among other things, I think that it is important that people who require to make applications in alternative formats should be able to do so. However, even that is subject to the overriding principle of appointment on merit and of people matching the job's requirements. That is important.

My final point is that, having been a minister, I am aware that it is important that ministers should have a choice in appointments. However, we should not allow the system to be bogged down by formalities, if difficulties arise in particular situations. The committee's comments about that achieve the right balance.

On the whole, we are moving forward well on public appointments. The improvements that the commissioner has suggested and the committee's comments in the report form a good basis for going forward. With those comments, I support the motion.

4:19 pm
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Bruce Crawford (Scottish National Party)

Scottish ministers welcome the opportunity that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has given the Parliament to debate the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Scotland code consultation document.

All public bodies, including those that are regulated by the commissioners, play a vital role in Scottish civic life. They serve Scotland's diverse population. Indeed, it is precisely that diversity of background, experience and skills that we are committed to seeing reflected on the boards of the bodies. We therefore welcome the intention behind the revised code for greater simplicity, reduced bureaucracy and a proportionate and risk-based approach to public appointments. If those intentions flow through to the way in which the code is implemented, we believe that it will encourage a wider and more diverse range of applicants. Scottish ministers are very clear that they want to see people who have never before applied for a public appointment applying for such appointments.

The commissioner indicated that she will publish guidance to support the new code. It is essential that the Government be fully involved in developing that guidance. At that stage, it will be much easier to iron out any scope for misunderstanding or differences of interpretation than will be the case at a later stage. The last thing that anyone wants to see is appointments being held up by debates on process. Working together will ensure a common understanding and the most appropriate approach to delivering successful outcomes for such ministerial appointments. Our aim is to reduce the length of time that the appointments take. We cannot afford to elongate the process; under the current code, appointments can take up to six months.

I turn to the new code, a key change in which is the welcome reduction in the number of principles. We believe that clarity of outcomes must be the first consideration. Once that is agreed, it will help us to focus on the skills and expertise that we seek in potential applicants for a role. We welcome the focus on encouraging people to apply. In addition, we are committed to ensuring that the experience of applicants who go through the public appointments process is a positive one. Clearly, not everyone can be successful in gaining an appointment, so it is essential that they are treated with dignity, professionalism and respect throughout the process. Constructive feedback is therefore a very important part of the process. The feedback must be based on gathered evidence and should be offered in a way that helps the applicant to learn from the experience and allows them to give feedback on how the process was for them.

The proposed code includes a responsibility on ministers to ensure that the person to be appointed is a fit and proper person for the role. Clearly, we always want to ensure that anyone who is offered a public appointment is a fit and proper person. It is very important that the Government understands what the commissioner means in making such a statement. Being a fit and proper person appears to us to be a normal part of any appointments process. Such a statement is therefore not strictly necessary in the code.

We welcome the intentions that lie behind the revised code for greater simplicity, reduced bureaucracy and the proportionate and risk-based approach to public appointments. That said, we want to engage with the commissioner to understand more clearly the intentions that lie behind some of the detail and to ensure that the move from intention to implementation is as smooth and effective as possible for all parties—applicants, public bodies, commissioners and ministers.

4:24 pm
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Marilyn Livingstone (Labour)

I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I thank members who contributed to the debate and committee members for their work in considering the draft code of practice. I also thank the commissioner in that regard. In addition, I thank the clerking team for the work that they undertook in support of the committee.

The code of practice is the core document in relation to the operation of the Scottish public appointments process. It sets out the requirements and expectations that apply at each stage of the process. As such, it is important for the code to be maintained and revised in the light of experience, if we are to ensure that ministers continue to make appropriate appointment decisions. Together with the commissioner's equality strategy, the code has an important role to play in engaging a broad range of people from across Scotland in public appointments. This afternoon's short debate has reflected that.

Paul Martin spoke about the alternative application method and barriers to underrepresented groups. Importantly, he spoke about people who play vital roles in our communities. As all of us know, those people are underrepresented. Nanette Milne spoke about the skills that are required by panel members; the committee discussed that issue. Robert Brown spoke about the higher standards that are required in public life and the fact that the pool of people who go forward is too small. The minister spoke about the need for diversity to be reflected. The committee debated those issues.

The main themes of the committee's consideration of the revised code were ensuring that candidates for appointment are assessed fully, ensuring that the work of public bodies is supported effectively, and ensuring that the appointment process is—and is recognised as being—open and fair. In the light of those themes, there are two areas in which the committee recommended that the commissioner might wish to consider changes: the requirement to keep a written record of appointment decisions and the operation of the fit-and-proper-person test at specific stages of the appointment process.

Notwithstanding its specific recommendations, the committee is content that the revised code of practice, along with the supporting guidance that the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Scotland intends to issue, will provide an effective framework to support the operation of the public appointments process and contribute to the effective operation of Scottish public bodies. I support the motion in the convener's name.