The Government intends to implement a review of the public appointments system that, in the view of the outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments, Sir David Normington, threatens “a return to the days of political and personal patronage”. He claims that “Twenty years of progress is at risk” since the current system was set up after the Nolan Committee in 1995. There are welcome aspects of the review, such as enhanced emphasis on diversity, and on cutting excessive delays. But Sir David’s core concern is that the proposed changes will enhance Ministerial control over appointments at the expense of the checks and balances designed to give the public confidence that appointments are made openly, fairly and on merit.
The Parliamentary Committee on Administrative and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC) has not yet published its views on the review and welcomes more written evidence, but has already indicated concern that this “may be leading to the increased politicisation of senior public appointments.” Here is an opportunity for charities to express their views.
For this matters to charities. If I mention the words “William Shawcross” or “Gwythian Prins”, do I need to labour the point? Sir Stuart Etherington has just written to the Minister for Civil Society requesting a review of the Charity Commission’s governance, highlighting as a key issue the method of appointments and the sector’s interest in the Commission’s independence and neutrality. But of course this affects not only the Charity Commission, but the subject-based public bodies that are so important to many charities, and the source of information on which so many rely including the BBC itself and the regulators of the media. In many dimensions, it matters to our organisations and our users and beneficiaries that the people appointed to run public bodies are the best for the job on merit.
Why did the Government launch its review? No doubt partly because of weaknesses of the current system such as the excessive delays in appointments, but it looks as if the main driver was what Sarah Neville of the Financial Times reports as being stepped up attempts by the Government to ensure Conservative sympathisers should be appointed to public bodies since the General Election. The Prime Minister is said to have become frustrated that the system “served up New Labour people” (FT, 11 April 2016). Sir David reports that about once a month the Prime Minister or another Minister had intervened to ask him why a Conservative supporter had not been shortlisted or recommended for key posts. So Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock MP (yes, the enthusiast for the IEA sock puppets report and author of the anti-advocacy clause for all Government grants) asked the Deputy Chairman of Barclays and Chairman of Standard Life, Sir Gerry Grimstone, to review the system. Sir Gerry was previously a Treasury official before heading off into the merchant banking sector in 1986, and he has also been Non Executive Director on the Boards of the Foreign Office, HM Treasury and now the Ministry of Defence. It is Sir Gerry’s report, published in March 2016, that has provoked Sir David Normington’s wrath and anxiety.
Although Sir Gerry is a strong advocate of transparency as the key to public confidence, his report (“Better Public Appointments – A Review of the Public Appointments Process”, March 2016), and the Government’s response, do not seem to me at all transparent about the extent to which it deliberately dismantles many of the powers of the independent Commissioner of Public Appointments. You are left to infer this between the lines. And these serious changes are not properly explained and justified: the new system is simply described and stated as the way of best reflecting general principles, without mentioning the risks. As one would expect, best practice in the Corporate Sector is prayed in aid more than once, despite the debateable track record of NEDs in the financial services sector in protecting public confidence and trust in that sector over recent years.
What are some of the contentious proposals? Most of the Commissioner’s powers are removed, with a consequent risk to public confidence. Now, the chair of a panel to select the best candidates for chair of a public body is appointed by the Commissioner; under Sir Gerry’s proposals, it will be someone appointed by the Minister – a big change. The rule-setting for appointments will, says Sir David, be transferred to Government and monitored by Departments. Panels will be expected to interview anyone suggested by a Minister (even if that person might not meet the criteria) and there will be enhanced powers for Ministers to disregard the outcome of a panel’s recommendations or dispense with a competition altogether. The Commissioner becomes a regulator with uncertain powers and stripped of the current actual participation in the system. It is not clear from Sir Gerry’s report why such measures are a response to the problems he identifies such as excessive delays in appointments.
Sir David’s designated successor, endorsed by PACAC subject to significant qualifications, is former journalist Peter Riddell. He takes a less dim view of Grimstone’s report than Sir David, but still has worries over the definition and understanding of what is proposed. He thinks he can achieve a lot by being more public in his interventions, even with reduced powers. He has a touching faith in reporting concerns to Select Committees, but in the charity sector we remember that PACAC was well aware of the partisan reputation and statements of William Shawcross, splitting on party lines twice in endorsing his appointment and its renewal: not much of a safeguard against politicisation!Sir David’s view, by contrast, is that mere transparency without retaining significant independent powers for the Commissioner will not do the job as envisaged by Nolan, and the balance will be tilted very firmly in the direction of Ministerial control. And Sir David knows a thing or two about how power works in Whitehall, because unlike Peter Riddell he worked for Ministers for his whole career ending up as a Permanent Secretary and has seen the fretful aspirations of Ministers at close quarters for the last five years as Commissioner.
The Government has made clear it intends to implement Sir Gerry’s recommendations: they would, wouldn’t they? There is a partial stay of execution while Peter Riddell awaits confirmation of his appointment and gives his views on implementation. If you are a charity that minds about the appointment of the next Chairman of the Charity Commission, or another public body that affects your work, or the BBC: please consider what representations you might want to make, eg to PACAC on this matter. This is an apparently technical subject, but the further politicisation of public appointments is not a small matter. The role of merit and fairness, many may consider, is weak enough already. Do you want to see it – if Sir David is right – become decidedly weaker still? Let us use our voices.