Members of the public believe the key criterion for serving on a public body is belonging 'to the right golf club', according to research for the commissioner for public appointments.

A MORI poll discussed in Dame Rennie Fritchie's annual report, issued yesterday, found that just 7 per cent of those questioned claimed to know 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount' about how ministerial appointments are made.

Of those who claimed some knowledge, 63 per cent thought appointments were 'politically influenced' and 10 per cent thought the system was 'corrupt'.

Dame Rennie concludes that because few people understand the system, they 'see it as part of the way in which British institutions are managed and associate it with the negative publicity attached to political scandals of recent years'.

The research found there was overwhelming support for appointments to be made on 'merit' and that this should take 'precedence over the 'representativeness'' of boards in terms of race or gender.

Dame Rennie says the principle of merit has been 'under pressure' from attempts to meet equal opportunities targets, and she has commissioned research to try and balance the two.

She also says 'seeking to increase public confidence'will now be a 'priority'.

But her office, established in 1995, does not emerge well from the research.

Just 8 per cent of those questioned had heard of it, less than claimed to have heard to two fictitious organisations.

The MORI research does not relate specifically to NHS appointments. But a whole section of the report is dedicated to Dame Rennie's investigation into the 'politicisation' of NHS appointments, published in March.

Dame Rennie's says she was pleased to receive the government's response earlier this month, 'not least because [it] will allow her to respond in a constructive way to the enquiries and expressions of sceptcism she has received recently in relation to the seriousness with which her report was being considered'.

Public appointments: the facts

The annual report says that of the 177 NHS chairs appointed or re-appointed last year, 48 per cent declared political activity. Of them, 35 per cent were politically active for Labour.

Of the 918 other NHS appointments made, 212 appointees declared political acitivity.

Of them, 140 were active for Labour.

Of the 177 NHS chairs appointed or re-appointed, 71 were women, while 12 had an ethnic minority background. The report also says that three NHS chairs were paid more than£20,000 last year, but only one was aged under 35.