MPs challenge UK government on weakening of public appointment principles

By on 20/04/2017
Bernard Jenkin MP, chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (Copyright: Office of Bernard Jenkin)

The UK parliament’s public administration watchdog has accused the British government of deliberately trying to weaken the rules ensuring transparency and probity in public appointments, giving ministers more power to appoint friends and allies as the leaders of supposedly-autonomous ‘non-departmental public bodies’.

MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) spoke out after the Cabinet Office rejected their demands for changes to the Grimstone Review of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments (OCPA). The commissioner scrutinises appointments to non-departmental public bodies including regulators, inspectorates, and the BBC Trust.

In a recent statement, PACAC chairman Bernard Jenkin rapped the government for taking six months to reply to the select committee’s demands – breaching a two-month response guideline.

“We remain concerned that there is an effort by government to weaken the robustness and transparency of public appointments and we hope that the new Commissioner for Public Appointments will do all he can to counteract this,” he said.

The OCPA was set up in 1995, following a review of standards in public life ordered by then Prime Minister John Major after MPs were found to have accepted bribes to ask questions in parliament. The review was led by Lord Nolan, who established seven principles of public life that were accepted by the government as the touchstone for probity.

However, in July 2014 the then-coalition government asked businessman Gerry Grimstone to review the OCPA system, and his report – published in March 2016 – called for a “significant shift” in the public appointments process towards a “much more streamlined principles-based system” that would make government departments, rather than the commissioner, the first line of defence against impropriety.

Grimstone proposed passing some of the commissioner’s powers to ministers, including writing the governance code on public appointments and recruiting independent assessors – or senior lead panel members – to interview panels for key positions.

On 13 July last year, the government issued an Order in Council that passed authority for the governance code to the Minister for the Cabinet Office; Cabinet Office went on to publish a new code based on the Grimstone report, which came into force on 1 January 2017.

The code involves a new set of eight principles of public appointments that omits four of Nolan’s seven principles, retains three and creates five new ones, including ministerial responsibility and diversity. It also permits ministers to appoint candidates without a competition in exceptional cases; a total of five such direct appointments have been approved since 1 January.

Under pressure from Commissioner for Public Appointments Peter Riddell, ministers amended the proposals to include requirements that the OCPA be consulted over the new code, the recruitment of senior lead panel members and exceptional cases.

However, the government did not accede to PACAC’s demands that the commissioner retain a veto over the code, his powers to appoint senior lead panel members be restored, or that the list of public bodies subject to pre-appointment hearings before parliamentary select committees be extended.

The demands were made in a report issued on 7 July 2016 following a PACAC inquiry, which concluded that the Grimstone review “effectively demolishes the safeguards built up by Lord Nolan”. The government’s response to them was published by PACAC on 7 March 2017.

PACAC chair Jenkin said the committee was not satisfied with either the timing or the content of the government’s response. “It is a matter of great concern that the government rather than the commissioner sets the public appointments code, as it fails to assure PACAC that people will not be deliberately excluded on an arbitrary basis that is not transparent.” He said.

He added that it is also concerning that the government has again rejected the recommendation on pre-appointment hearings, which has been made by two select committees, and he urged the government to reconsider its position. “We will be watching all this very carefully,” he added.

Andrew Gwynne MP, Shadow Minister and Labour’s Elections Chair, said: “The new code is a divisive Tory power grab, and a worrying undermining of the role of the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments.

“Despite adopting some of Riddell’s recommendations, these rules still leave the door wide open for Tory Ministers to appoint chums and donors, rather than those best suited for key positions.”

However, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said the new code introduces greater transparency into the system, and reiterated the importance of retaining a strong, independent regulator of the process.

“Ministers and their departments will have an obligation to run appointments processes in line with public appointments principles based on Lord Nolan’s standards in public life,” she said. “The independent Commissioner for Public Appointments will continue to regulate the system.

“Diversity is one of the new public appointments principles, and later this year, we will publish a strategy on how to increase diversity in public appointments.”

Peter Riddell, a former journalist and head of think tank the Institute for Government, has been in the role since April 2016. He has taken a less robust public line in defence of open competitions and the commissioner’s powers than his predecessor Sir David Normington, and some officials have suggested to GGF that Riddell was seen as a compliant figure who’d accept the weakening of OCPA. Riddell began in the job a month after the government published Grimstone’s recommendations.

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See also:

New transparency rules to help tackle corruption

Reforms could politicise public appointments, warn British MPs

UK government’s transparency laws could undergo restrictions

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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