CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion (Report No. 2)

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Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion

The exclusion of women's voices

Anne Marie Gray
Deirdre Heenan

Since the introduction of direct rule in 1972, there has been much discussion of the 'democratic deficit', which has come to be associated with the lack of a regional assembly. More recently, the notion of social inclusion has come to the fore, adding another dimension to concerns about openness, accountability and representativeness.

In both these contexts, the widespread use of quangos in Northern Ireland raises a key question: who participates in making the decisions?

All quangos in Northern Ireland have formal links with one of the seven government departments or the Northern Ireland Office. As quangos are appointed boards, the electorate has no say over their membership, yet they are responsible for a wide range of functions, including the administration and delivery of health and social services, fair employment and equal opportunities. As of March 1995, there were 142 quangos in Northern Ireland, with 2,258 members; by contrast, there are just 565 locally elected representatives.

Through quangos, government has distanced itself from the democratic process. Health service trusts, for example - responding to an accounting rather than a representative logic - have further eroded political accountability. While quangos have been vested with extensive powers, many people do not understand what they are, how they operate and how they are made up. Concern has recently been expressed about quango appointments-in particular as to their diversity and representativeness, in terms of class, age, religion and geographical location.

Let's look in more detail at the treatment of women, who have been marginalised by the informality of the system of nomination and selection.

Women remain seriously under-represented on boards: 68 per cent of appointees are men. Of the 142 quangos, 21 have no female members. Those associated with the Department of Agriculture have the lowest female representation (17 per cent), those linked to the Department of Trade and Industry the highest (41 per cent).

Earlier statistics were even worse: in 1986, women made up only 18 per cent of quango members. But closer scrutiny shows the subsequent improvement to be less encouraging than it initially seems.

Firstly, women are much less likely than men to be appointed to more senior positions. Those boards chaired by women tend to be associated with 'women's issues', such as the Equal Opportunities Commission the General Consumer Council or the National Board for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting. Secondly, those women appointed to boards tend to represent a narrow section of the community - middle-class professionals. While of course the number of women on boards should be increased, the increase should also be associated with greater diversity.

There are no overall legal requirements on quango composition-the rules vary and depend on the particular body or its parent department. Senior civil servants are usually responsible for appointments, although the secretary of state for Northern Ireland has direct responsibility for a number.

About 1,000 of the 2,258 appointments are nominated by departments but the remainder are filled using names put forward by organisations like the Confederation of British Industry, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Ulster Farmers' Union, the district councils and political parties. The low proportion of women members is largely a result of the channels through which names are sought. Nominations generally come from organisations which have men at the top, in every sphere, and men are thus more likely to be regarded as 'suitable' nominees.

Individuals can nominate themselves to quangos, but few are aware of this option. Positions are not advertised, so the public remains unaware of when they arise. A minister or senior civil servant can invite people to apply, but this usually only happens if they have prior knowledge of their background and experience.

The Central Appointments Unit (CAU), part of the Central Secretariat at Stormont is responsible for maintaining an active list of names for consideration, based on self-nominations. Arising from concern expressed by the CAU that not enough women were being nominated, the number of women on the list has risen significantly But, since the unit is responsible for only a small proportion of appointments, this initiative has had minimal impact.

In October 1995, following the Nolan report in Britain on standards in public life, the Central Secretariat published advice on good practice for those making public appointments.[1] The document usefully provides background information on the system and the range of such appointments, which hitherto has not been readily available. It also represents some commitment to broaden the membership of boards, acknowledging the need for 'new blood' and to increase the proportion of younger people and women. And it suggests that if public bodies are to command widespread confidence they should be as representative as possible.

But it goes on to say that "the prime consideration is an individual's ability or potential to make a positive contribution to the work of the particular body or board". Yet the criteria for assessing 'ability' or 'potential' are not clearly defined. The danger thus remains that the experience of women will continue to be marginalised.

For the most point, these guidelines are not mandatory. While they provide advice and direction, they can simply be disregarded by those responsible for nominations and appointments.

Each department has its own 'players' - people known to them who are regarded as 'a safe pair of hands'. These people are also likely to have served on boards before. There has been departmental and ministerial reluctance to embrace new ideas about suitable candidates.

Those responsible for appointments have traditional ideas about career patterns and experience, prejudicing women who have not followed the standard (male) career path. Although women are extensively involved in community and voluntary work, the system of appointment fails to recognise the important skills and expertise women have gained in these sectors. Unwritten rules appear to dictate that women must be 'appropriate' for the task - what exactly these parameters are remains unclear.

Serious consideration must be given to establishing quotas for women on all boards. To broaden the range of experience, qualifications and necessary attributes should be clearly specified, with proper weight given to experience in voluntary and non-commercial organisations. Advertising, which has rarely been used in the recruitment of members, would make the system more accessible. A limit on years of service would increase the opportunity for injection of new blood, as would a limit to the number of boards on which an individual could simultaneously serve.

The current political climate provides an opportunity to reshape political institutions in ways which will not only command public confidence but also broaden participation. Resort to nominated boards restricts open government and if such a system is to operate it must be made more accessible and accountable.

Although the guidelines on public appointments are welcome, they represent a small advance towards a larger review of the system as a whole.


1Guidance on Public Appointments in Northern Ireland, available from the CAU, Room 25, Stormont Castle, Belfast BT4 3ST

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