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Quangos need female touch

Kate Foster

MEN still dominate Scotland's quangos, with women in the chair of just seven per cent of public bodies. At a conference to shatter the glass ceiling into professional appointments yesterday, a minister was told quangos must drastically reduce their numbers of middle-class, middle- aged men to allow women entry into the highest levels. The day before the executive launched its long-awaited review of quangos, Angus Mackay, the minister for finance and local government, was pressed to modernise the appointment system.

Just seven per cent of the appointed chairs and 38 per cent of board members of Scotland's 183 public bodies are women.  Quangos, which cover almost every aspect of public life, account for almost 6.5 billion in public spending per year, almost 40 per cent of the Scottish executive's total expenditure.  Margaret Tait, business and public affairs officer of the British Federation of Women Graduates, which organised the conference in Edinburgh, said: "No-one knows if women and ethnic minorities are not being appointed as chairs or board members because insufficient numbers are applying, or if it is because they are deliberately not being chosen by board interview panels, because it is a private selection process. But women who have all the right qualifications are not getting through.

"These boards are mostly made up of middle-class, middle-aged, white men and these are the people who are interviewing candidates.  "We have to raise women's confidence levels so that more feel they can apply for public appointments and if they are rejected they must keep asking the boards why, and how they can improve their skills.

"The perception of public bodies is one of sleaze and cronyism, manned by the great and the good. The public needs to know what these bodies actually do and how important they are so that more women and ethnic minorities are motivated to join them at decision-making levels." Dame Rennie Fritchie, the independent commissioner for public appointments in Britain outlined further ways in which the glass ceiling could be shattered.

She said "The current situation is no good and it has to change, without dumbing down public bodies. "It's nonsense to think that there are no women who can fill these important roles but despite an equal opportunities selection procedure, they are not getting past the final selection onto boards.  "People need to be made more aware when there is a position available. That will mean better advertising of positions and more information so that people understand what the job involves.

"There should also be the opportunity to shadow board members to see what the job is like, and board members should be prepared to be shadowed in their roles.

"In order to attract younger people to boards employers need to be encouraged to release people from their jobs in order that they can carry out a public appointment.

"It should be seen as a type of management training or career development, because serving on a public body can be a good training ground for a career," she added. "At the moment it's not working properly and it has to change but that does require quite a lot of time."

Mr MacKay said the executive was committed to making quangos more accountable and representative.


Quangos an easy hit, but they have a role


ANDREW Raven is a quangocrat and not ashamed of it. A landowner and chartered surveyor, he chairs the Deer Commission for Scotland, working two and a half days a week for a salary of 21,291 a year.  The post was advertised and Mr Raven had to compete for the job. He is directly accountable to the rural affairs minister, Ross Finnie, and his details are available on the Scottish executive website. The Deer Commission is just one of the candidates for a cull of quangos to be announced in parliament today by the finance minister, Angus MacKay. Yet Mr MacKay is not the first person to ask if it should be scrapped, swallowed by the Scottish executive, or merged with another body. Civil servants already require the commission to demonstrate, every five years, why it should continue to exist.

Mr Raven is neither a sinister fat cat nor an affront to democracy.  He is doing a job that needs to be done on behalf of the taxpayer. "In certain specialist areas of public policy, independence and expertise do add value," he says. "I gave up a secure, permanent full-time job in favour of a part-time three-year contract because I believe in public service."

Hostility to quangocrats illustrates a paradox in public life. We want things to be democratically run, but we don't like politicians.  People who say the House of Lords should be elected also want to see it free of party hacks. We want wisdom and experience on tap, but we don't like the idea of elites. Henry McLeish's assault on quangos is an easy hit. It pleases elected politicians, who often harbour deep resentment against their local health trust or water authority for being obstructive or not answering letters. It pleases the SNP, which has long advocated scrapping the non-executive boards of quangos such as Scottish Enterprise. And it pleases the voters, who believe - egged on by the press - that ministers' golfing partners are collecting dollops of public money for doing very little.

But quangos weren't invented as a way of finding jobs for the boys. They were invented to distance government from issues that were too technical, too local or too sensitive to be carried out by politicians. As Susan Deacon keeps telling MSPs who complain about their local hospital, the health minister cannot and should not be interfering in every NHS trust. As Donald Dewar used to say when the anti-quango cry went up during the Scottish parliament election campaign, he did not want to be responsible for grants to the Citizens' Theatre or 7:84. He knew that politicians were not the best people to uphold artistic freedom when it comes to blasphemy, nudity, bestiality or bad language - especially when polling day was in sight.

So quangos have their place. There are too many of them, which is why Mr McLeish is right to start a cull. We can all have fun with the National Goose Forum or the Scottish Standing Committee for the Calculation of Residual Values of Fertiliser and Feeding Stuffs.  But the animus directed at quangos is vague and confused. Dormant since the election, it has revived largely because of the exam results disaster presided over by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Yet who is to say that the exam results would have been on time and right - as opposed to late and wrong - if they had been directly administered by the executive? Who is to say that the panic in government, with ministers terrified of electoral retribution, might not have been as great as the panic in the SQA?

Quangos are seen as secretive, elitist and packed with cronies or retired politicians. There is a glaring shortage of women in top jobs and ethnic minorities in any jobs. But the work of the Nolan Committee - now the Neill Committee - means that public appointments are now widely advertised, rigorously vetted and carefully monitored, with candidates asked to declare any political activity in the past five years.

On the Scottish executive's website, there is a new public appointments page where you can see who sits on everything from the West of Scotland Water Authority to the National Galleries for Scotland. You can register general interest in quangos or apply for a particular job, be it a place on the board of Scottish Screen or the chairmanship of the Scottish Tourist Board. Transparency is on its way.

Impartiality might take a bit longer. The UK Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie, has highlighted the disproportionate number of Labour sympathisers on health authorities and trusts in England and Wales. Does Scotland need its own commissioner? Ministers asked that question in a consultation paper published a year ago, but let the issue slide - just as they dropped the question of a role for MSPs in holding quangos to account.

Controversy over quangos has been reincarnated in the debate over Lords reform. Progress towards a new upper house has stalled because of disagreements over how many members should be elected, rather than appointed.

In the current issue of the journal Representation, Professor Anthony King describes the experience of serving as a member of the Royal Commission on Lords reform, chaired by Lord Wakeham. Travelling to public meetings around the country, he was struck by how often people said they wanted the new upper house to be taken "out of politics", yet thought it should be directly elected. He adds: "The idea dies hard that there can be conjured into existence a body of earnest Solomons capable in their corporate wisdom of accurately and dispassionately discerning that which is in the public interest." That precisely encapsulates the paradox. Distrust of politics generates a desire to bring "outsiders", people with experience and knowledge, into public life. Yet such people rarely have the time or the inclination to stand in an election. They will only enter parliament, or join a quango, if they are invited to do a job - in other words, if they are appointed. The trick is not to spurn the idea of appointments, but to construct a truly independent appointments system.

You would not know it from listening to them, but politicians need quangocrats. Some issues are so specialised and sensitive that the average MP or MSP would not touch them with a barge-pole - and the public would mistrust the involvement of politicians. That is why fertility treatment and embryo research is regulated by the 21 members of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. That is why a group of academics have proposed that a panel of moral philosophers and theologians should advise the Scottish parliament on the ethics of banning tobacco advertising or repealing Section 28. There is a legitimate role for non-politicians in public life, and it is self-defeating to treat people who volunteer for public service as automatically suspect.

In his search for easy enemies, Mr McLeish should beware of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Or the deer with the commission.

Quango Vacancies              Quango Web Site         Opening Up Appointments 2000 - 2003

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