In their representation of women and ethnic minority people, government bodies are moving in the wrong direction, reports David Hencke

Proportionally fewer women and black and ethnic minority people were appointed to government bodies from April 2020 to 2021, a new report has revealed.

The annual report of the Commissioner for Public Appointments – which covers all public appointments to quangos and public advisory bodies – has revealed that, in the year up to April 2021, the percentage of women getting and keeping public jobs fell from just over half, 51.4%, to 45.1%. For new appointments, the percentage of women was the lowest for nearly a decade. Similarly, the number of people from ethnic minority backgrounds fell from 14% the previous year to 11.2%.

Altogether, there were 693 new appointments compared to 914 the previous year and 845 re-appointments compared to 651 the previous year. The change in the balance of appointments appears to have been caused partly by the Coronavirus pandemic, whereby more people were automatically re-appointed than usual. Women applicants also fell during this period.

The comparatively poor representation of women is more pronounced among the most senior appointments – such as chairs of public bodies – with 73.4% of these positions going to men. This compares to 66.6% the previous year. 

Wales proved to be an exception to the trend, under the jurisdiction of its devolved Labour Government. There, the proportion of new appointments of females rose from 43.4% the previous year to 55.6% in 2020-21.

The report also signalled the trend – covered extensively by Byline Times – towards a greater number of ‘crony’ appointments.

Some 6.2% of all the individuals appointed were linked to the Conservatives, although this does not include nominally independent candidates with Conservative inclinations. Of all the individuals appointed to these public roles with “significant party political interests”, 47% were Conservatives.

What’s more, it appears as though no progress was made in the Government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ agenda when it came to public appointments. In fact, 35.2% of all new and re-appointed candidates were living in London and the south-east of England – a slight increase on 34.9% the previous year. By contrast, only 23% were living in the north of England.

In response to the findings, the outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments, Peter Riddell, has called for urgent action from Government departments.

“Perhaps the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon women’s participation in the labour market – as considered in other areas of the economy – may have played a role in the fall in women’s entry in public appointments,” he said. “The Commissioner’s 2021 thematic review into financial support for, and time commitments asked of, appointees found some patterns in the applications made by women… This research must be urgently considered by all departments to reverse this unwelcome break in the progress over the last 10 years.”

Latest Government figures for the private sector and local government are lagging behind official figures for Whitehall. But, until 2018, they showed a gradual improvement from a low base. Some26.75% of FTSE 350 company boards were comprised of women in 2018 compared with 24.5% in 2017. The number of women on executive committees had increased and the number of all-male company boards had dropped from 152 to five.

In local government, women continue to be poorly represented. Just 28% of councillors were women in 2017. One Scottish council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, based in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, has no women representatives among its 31 members.


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