Government misses gender and ethnic-minority public appointment targets

Stats also show rise in London-based appointments despite levelling up ambitions
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By Tevye Markson

28 Apr 2023

The government has failed to meet its target for 50% public appointees to be female and 14% from ethnic minorities, new figures show.

In 2021-22 – the deadline for the target – 47% of the UK government's public appointees were female and 12% were from ethnic minority backgrounds in 2021-22, according to data published by the Cabinet Office.

The figures show there has been some progress since the 2019 target was set.

In the five years up to 2021-22, the number of women appointed to board roles rose from 43% to 47%, while the proportion of ethnic minorities went up from 10% to 12%. 

However, just 35% of board chairs were female and only 8% were from ethnic minorities.

The data also shows that appointments delegated by ministers to departments were more likely to be female (51%) compared to appointments made directly by ministers (44%), though it shows no difference for ethnic minorities on this basis.

The statistics showed greater diversity among more recent appointees. Half of new appointments made in 2021-22 went to women, compared to 46% for reappointments; while 17% of new appointments went to ethnic-minority candidates, compared to 9% of reappointments.

The targets were set as part of a diversity action plan, published in 2017 and updated in 2019, which outlined out a range of actions to remove barriers and increase the number of appointments made to underrepresented groups.

Public appointments commissioner William Shawcross said "there has been a bounce back in the figures for appointments made to those declaring as female and from minority ethnic backgrounds".

Shawcross published similar figures in his own annual report for 2021-22, which also included Welsh Government statistics.

"After dips last year, the data shows that both HM and Welsh government ambitions to improve the diversity of their appointees are on their way to being achieved," he said. 

"However, this is tempered by the continued stagnation in appointments being made to people declaring disabilities, and younger people."

The Cabinet Office data shows a drop in disabled appointees, with just 6% of public appointees declaring a disability, compared to 8% in 2021 and 10% in 2020.

A review on opening up more public appointments to disabled people in 2018 recommended the government set an 11.3% interim target for disabled appointees by 2022 – mirroring the senior civil service target.

But the government declined to adopt the figure, arguing that there was a mismatch between the disability reporting rate for senior civil servants and applicants for public appointments. The then-junior Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said there was an 82% reporting rate for disability among the SCS but only 65% for public appointments.

As for age, under-55s make up 30% of appointees. 

Shawcross said: "Public appointment roles tend to lend themselves to candidates with career experience, as it brings expertise to a board. It is also possible that attending board meetings is easier for those with portfolio careers or flexibility in work patterns, something less likely for those in the earlier stages of a career.

"It is important, however, to bring a younger perspective to boards where possible, in particular for those public bodies that provide services across generations, as with other forms of diversity that bring different perspectives."

Shawcross also criticised the increase in new appointments and reappointments made to those living in London and the South East.

"Despite ambitions for levelling up and increased remote working, appointments by HM Government made to people living in London and the South East increased this year," he said. "The commissioner urges departments to step up their outreach to underrepresented communities throughout the UK."

The Cabinet Office statistics showed that 26% of public appointees were made to people based in London in 2021-22, up from 18% in 2020-21 and 16% in 2019-20.

Shawcross's predecessor, Peter Riddell, said in 2017: “There is also a need to show that appointments are not just for the London-based and the so-called ‘good and the great’, but that there is a wide social and geographic spread, as there is for many appointments in the NHS, and for bodies involved with prisons and parole.”

And in 2020, then-minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove said the next public appointments diversity action plan would “reflect the government's levelling up agenda, including regional diversity, and diversity of thought”. The Cabinet Office has not revised the plan since 2019.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The latest data shows that more women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds were appointed and reappointed in 2021-22 than last year.

“We're making significant progress, and we know there is more to do and we are committed to bringing in talented people from across the whole of the UK and from all backgrounds."

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