All change at the UK’s Civil Service Commission

By on 05/10/2021 | Updated on 05/10/2021
Ian Watmore has stepped down as first civil service commissioner following the expiry of his five-year term. A successor is being sought. Photo by Paul Clarke for the Government Digital Service via Flickr

Four new civil service commissioners have been appointed to the independent statutory body that oversees appointments to the UK civil service, and a fifth is being sought to replace outgoing lead commissioner Ian Watmore, whose five-year term has expired.  

Paul Kernaghan is a former chief constable who went on to spend eight years at the Association of Chief Police Officers, where he led on international affairs. He was appointed as the first House of Lords’ Commissioner for Standards in June 2010.

Sarah Pittam is a non-executive director and education sector specialist who has worked with and for the Department for Education, academy trusts, local authorities and independent schools’ groups.

Martin Spencer is a non-executive director at the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the NHS Counter Fraud Authority and the Serious Fraud Office, and a member of Companies House’s Main Board and Audit Committee. He has held roles at numerous consulting firms, and was most recently head of public services at IT services business NTT DATA UK.  

Paul Gray spent 12 years working for the Scottish government, including as director general of governance and communities, director general of health and social care, and chief executive of NHS Scotland. Since retiring from the civil service in 2019, he has become non-executive director at the Care Inspectorate and sits on a number of other boards.

The four new commissioners joined the Commission Board on 1 October, and take the number of commissioners from seven to 11. The Civil Service Commission works to ensure that appointments to the civil service are made on merit on the basis of fair and open competition, and to promote and hear appeals brought under the Civil Service Code.

‘Leaving the Commission in good hands’

Ian Watmore, the recently-departed first civil service commissioner, said: “These new commissioners arrive as I step down after my statutory five-year term. They individually and collectively bring much to the Commission, and they will join an outstanding current group of commissioners, led by Rosie Glazebrook until my successor is appointed. I am confident that I am leaving the Commission in good hands as a result and wish them all the best of luck in what is a great role.”

The chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, Steve Barclay, welcomed the new commissioners and said they bring “a range of valuable experience and expertise” to the Commission, which “plays an important role in ensuring a high performing civil service that is well placed to meet the challenges of the future”.

Riddell raises concerns over cronyism

The new commissioners began work on the board the day after Prospect union published an interview with the outgoing public appointments commissioner Peter Riddell – Watmore’s equivalent overseeing appointments to public bodies – in which he raised concern about the appointment by ministers of “allies and advisers to prominent public positions”.

He also spoke of moves to prevent people with certain political views taking up such positions. There are a small group of people at No 10 who want to “prevent anyone who is seen, for example, as anti-Brexit or who has links to [opposition party] Labour, or any other party – or the [Scottish Nationalists] for that matter – from having a post. So there’s more activism on that than was true before July 2019 [when Boris Johnson came to office],” he said.  

He said he had seen examples of unbalanced appointments panels – one, for example, in which “a majority had clear Tory ties”. In this case, he said he had expressed his views “quite strongly”. And he added that the appointment of Conservative peer Dido Harding to chair of the discredited Test and Trace programme was not “necessarily as transparent” as it should have been.

In a letter sent to the chair of the Committee on Standards and Public Life in October 2020, Riddell wrote that there were signs that the balance between ministerial involvement and appointment on merit were “under threat” and that there was a danger that diversity of thought and experience were being reduced.

In the Prospect interview, Riddell suggested introducing a register of all appointments – whether regulated or not – “which could open the debate up on how these things happen”.

Riddell’s successor is William Shawcross, a controversial figure and a former chair of the Charity Commission. He took up the role on 30 September.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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