Public bodies should pay their board members in a bid to improve diversity, the commissioner on public appointments has said.
Peter Riddell said the change was needed as asking people to sit on unremunerated boards was preventing underrepresented groups from applying for positions.
The commissioner’s comments were made in a blog post accompanying the release of his annual report, which he said showed public bodies had had a “patchy” record on diversity in 2018-19.
The report showed the proportion of people appointed by ministers to public boards last year who said they had a disability fell slightly last year to 6% – down from 7% the year before. Just 3% of people appointed or reappointed to chair positions declared a disability. This marks a significant fall from five years earlier, where the figure was 8%.
“Disappointingly, the gradual progress being made on appointing individuals with disabilities appears to have reversed,” Riddell said.
The number of board members from a Black or Minority Ethnic background being appointed hit a record high of last year, with the combined figure of 11.9% - up from 8.4% the previous year.
However, only two BAME candidates were appointed to chair positions – less than 3% of the total appointed last year.
This showed that “even where there have been improvements in the diversity of board memberships, this has not translated into the appointment of chairs from under-represented groups,” Riddell said.
Just over 48% of new appointments overseen by the commissioner were women last year, “bringing us to within striking distance of the 50% goal by 2022”, Riddell said.
However, there was a “so far unexplained” drop in the number of women being reappointed to existing roles – taking the total proportion of female appointments and reappointments down to 45%, down from 48% two years earlier.
Riddell said the annual report was “generally reassuring about the way that the public appointments system is working”.
He went on: “There has been no great scandals or major complaints to my office and the record on appointing women and those from ethnic minorities is better than the private sector. But it is my view there remains a lot to do.”
Riddell said that last year’s appointments were challenging the “stereotype of who public appointments are ‘for’,” citing the “traditional image of most appointees being male, metropolitan retirees with a portfolio of board memberships of public bodies”.
He said that “contrary to widespread views”, last year nearly three-quarters of appointees and reappointees to Whitehall bodies lived outside the south-east of England; nearly half were under 55; and close to three-quarters of new appointees had no other such appointments.
However, he warned that an inconsistent approach to payment on boards – where some positions are paid, some paid only expenses and some not at all – “isn’t helpful in challenging this stereotype”.
“This is not about rewarding chairs and the like, but about recognising that many younger people, those who do not have full-time salaried jobs, or are from disadvantaged groups are discouraged from applying because of the potential loss of income if they take positions which either pay nothing or very little,” he said.
He added: “The financial disincentives matter much less for those nearing or after retirement age who already have sufficient financial resources. Time after time I have been told by promising, younger and ethnic minority candidates that money does matter.”
Riddell said there was “no rhyme or reason” for the inconsistency.
“Above all, these needed changes require leadership from both ministers and senior civil servants who recognise that their performance on diversity in public appointments will be scrutinised and challenged, and that the boards of public bodies need to reflect modern Britain.”