By Paul Goodman
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Quoting figures from the Public Appointments Commissioner's Annual Report, Tim Montgomerie recently highlighted the worsening under-representation of Conservatives on public bodies. Look at the table above: ten times as large a percentage of appointees are declaring a Labour political background as a Tory one (and the Liberal Democrats are doing even worse). The trend over ten years is clearly worrying from a Conservative point of view. Some signed-up Tories blame Downing Street for not getting a grip; some Ministers blame signed-up Tories for simply not applying. ConservativeHome is doing its bit, running pieces by Roger Evans and our own Harry Phibbs on how to apply for appointments.
As I read them, something began to nag at my memory. A fact?…A figure?…A name? A name! That was it. Les Ebdon!
Readers will recognise him. Professor Ebdon is the Director of the Office of Fair Access (OFFA). That's to say, he was appointed to the post earlier this year by the Government after being rejected for it by the Business Select Committee. (It was "not convinced" by Professor Ebdon's descriptions of the "root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities".) During the committee hearing, he repeated his view of how OFFA's powers should be used. It should set each University a "target" to meet in relation to the number of students from poorer backgrounds. If the target wasn't met, there could be "sanctions" (i.e: less money). Professor Ebdon warned that he might have to press the trigger of this "nuclear button".
His evidence went down as badly with conservative commentators as it did with Conservative MPs. The Greatest Living Englishman complained of "Professor Ebdon’s vast stock of clichés and
buzzwords – “I’m passionate about… social mobility… transform hundreds of
thousands of lives… best practice… evidence-based… open and transparent…” For myself, I find the Professor's evidence – now that I look at it again – not so much dreary as fizzy. For example, he told that committee that there are ways in which Universities can make interviews more welcoming. It may be as simple as, "If you do an interview, make sure you do not do it in a baronial hall; do it in a friendlier atmosphere."
Now, opportunities for poorer people to get into University are far more important than the opportunities for Conservative supporters to sit in quangos, some of which should be abolished anyway. (Though I prefer the ideas championed by The Fair Access Group – take a bow, Rob Wilson, Elizabeth Truss, Graham Stuart and James Clappison – to Professor Ebdon's targets and fines.) None the less, surreptitious parallels tug at one's elbow. Just as some pupils in state schools are given bad advice or think that University is somehow "not for them", so some Conservatives who could, say, chair the Border Agency or be a non-Executive director of DEFRA may not know about such vacancies, or think that these are "not for them".
Come to think of it, there is a whole new meaning to "shy Tories". But there are parallel solutions, too, just as there are parallel problems. Some might prefer these to be along the lines floated by the Fair Access Group – a push to "tackle misconceptions" about opportunities for Tories on public bodies, perhaps, or "outreach iniatives" to let Conservative supporters know that all these quango places are being advertised. Personally, I think Ministers should go further, and take a leaf out of Professor Ebdon's book. Quangos on which Tories are under-represented should be set targets. If they don't meet those targets, there should be sanctions. There should be a "nuclear button".
I am not saying that such a button should be pressed without serious reflection. But, as the Professor told the committee: "if you then say that you will never press the nuclear button, you do not have a nuclear button". Yes: in the last resort, quangos that fail to meet their targets should be fined – or rather, since the taxpayer must be protected, quango members should be personally liable. Obviously, an Office of Fair Access equilavent will be necessary to ensure that all this happens. Let's call it the Office of Unfair Access for Conservatives. OFFA will then be balanced by OFUAC or, for brevity's sake, OFUC. In his evidence to the Select Committee, the Professor said that he was satisfied with OFFA's staff of eleven. OFUC will need more – far more.
The big question, of course, is: to whom should this vital task be entrusted? I take inspiration from Professor Ebdon's own words: "the task of a director is one of leadership".
What's need is someone passionate about transforming scores – no, hundreds of thousands – of lives, but whose actions will at all times be evidence-based, open and transparent, and based on best practice. (For the more old-fashioned sort of Tory quango applicant, for example, interviews could take place in a friendly atmosphere, such as a baronial hall.) All this will need to be done in a very deft way, beneath the radar of the left, so I strongly favour an emollient figure – someone against whom the charge of winding up opponents couldn't credibly be levelled. Harry Phibbs, obviously, would make an excellent candidate. If he's thought too accomodating, I recommend Donal Blaney. Or even Harry Cole. But at any rate, OFUC is an idea whose time has come.