Reforms could politicise public appointments, warn British MPs

By on 11/07/2016
Bernard Jenkin MP is chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC)

A UK parliamentary committee has urged the government to radically amend proposed reforms to the public appointments system, calling the proposals “very worrying” and warning that the current plan “threatens to undermine the entire basis of independent appointments.”

Launching the report, Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) – which oversees the operation of government and the civil service – argued that the proposed reform package “undermines the role of the Public Appointments Commissioner, extends ministers’ powers too widely and risks a loss of public confidence and trust in the process of appointments to public bodies.”

The current system was established following Lord Nolan’s 1995 report into standards in public life, which concluded – says PACAC – that “appointments were being made to public bodies for political reasons and without due process.” Nolan’s solution was the appointment of a Commissioner for Public Appointments, charged with producing and policing a Code of Practice for the selection of senior public officials outside the core civil service. But in 2015 the government commissioned Sir Gerry Grimstone – a businessman and a non-executive director at the Ministry of Defence – to review the system.

Grimstone’s March 2016 report recommended abolishing many of the Commissioner’s formal powers, relying instead on greater transparency to guard against abuse of the system. In response the outgoing Commissioner – Sir David Normington, a former permanent secretary who’s held the post since 2011 – warned in an Independent article that “Grimstone’s proposals would enable ministers to set their own rules; override those rules whenever they want; appoint their own selection panels; get preferential treatment for favoured candidates; ignore the panel’s advice if they don’t like it; and appoint someone considered by the panel as not up to the job.”

“The main check on these powers is transparency, but transparency has its limits when there is no-one with the power to intervene if the rules are broken,” said Normington, recalling that prior to 1995 “appointments were made from a narrow circle of largely white, male candidates, known to ministers or to the upper echelons of Whitehall, with no independent assessment of candidates’ ability to do the job. There was widespread public scepticism about the fairness of the system. A step back to this world would be a step in the wrong direction.”

Giving evidence to PACAC, incoming Commissioner Peter Riddell – the former director of think tank the Institute for Government – also expressed concerns, particularly about Grimstone’s recommendation that the power to appoint an independent chair for appointment panels be passed from the Commissioner to the responsible department. The risk is of “people who are politically active fulfilling the role of independent panel members”, he said, adding: “I do not believe that the man or woman in the street would consider someone to be properly independent if they had links to the public body concerned, the appointing department or the governing party.”

In its report, published on 7 July, PACAC praises Grimstone’s ideas for increasing diversity in public appointments, but argues that “it is clear that, without extensive amendment, the Grimstone proposals will not and cannot sustain public confidence.” Sir Gerry’s report, it added, “removes all powers of decision making from the Commissioner,” and “effectively demolishes the safeguards built up by Lord Nolan.”

“The Government’s adoption of the Grimstone proposals is very worrying. The Government must make significant changes to the proposals”, PACAC added. And the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the non-departmental public body originally set up to produce the Nolan report, has also expressed serious concerns about Grimstone’s recommendations. Giving evidence to PACAC, the CSPL said: “A system where the regulator has reduced powers and in which Ministers: set the rules by drawing up the Governance Code; decide whether or not to run an appointment process without referral to the [Commissioner]; determine the membership of appointment panels, including the independent member; include on such panels an official acting as the Minister’s representative; and may interview and appoint a name marked ‘below the line’ by the panel, could all add up to a public perception of a system which was being operated under increased political patronage. It could also run counter to the intentions to increase transparency and diversity.”

The Government has not yet responded to PACAC, but in their evidence to the committee both Gerry Grimstone and Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock defended the proposals. “I believe the Commissioner will be stronger under my recommendations than the present process,” said Grimstone. “This may be uncomfortable going forward. It will require a good Commissioner, but I am not advocating a weak Commissioner.”

Responding to PACAC’s report, new Commissioner Peter Riddell said: “I welcome the Committee’s support for an independent public appointment process. In my continuing discussions with the Cabinet Office, I am hopeful that some of the Committee’s main concerns will be addressed in the Government’s forthcoming Governance Code. Much will depend on how it is implemented by ministers. I look forward to further discussions with the Committee, in particular on how to achieve greater diversity in appointments.”

 

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About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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