“Unwelcome accretion of Executive power”: my evidence to PACAC on flawed review of public appointments

Sir Gerry Grimstone’s Review of Public Appointments

Written evidence to PACAC by Dr Andrew Purkis

  1. I am grateful for the invitation by the Chair of PACAC to those who wish to submit written evidence to assist the Committee in reaching its conclusions about Sir Gerry Grimstone’s recommendations.
  2. I write as an individual, not representing any organisation. My experience is that I have had a career as a fast stream civil servant, then as Chief Executive of a variety of UK charities, I have been Chair of the Trustees of four UK charities, a special adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury, a Board Member of the Charity Commission for England and Wales and a Member of the Parole Board. I am now an international Board member of ActionAid, am Deputy Chairman of the ombudsman service for Higher Education in England and Wales, am a part time Executive Director of a grant making charitable trust and research and write about the charity sector. One way or another, I have made many appointments, been appointed myself to public bodies, and been on the receiving end of public bodies both good and not so good.
  3. I have serious reservations about Sir Gerry Grimstone’s report, as follows:
  • It fails to deal with some key issues altogether. The Institute of Government and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have argued the case for a category of public bodies that need to be perceived to be above party politics and which in some cases are not responsible to Ministers, including the Charity Commission. So far as I can tell, Sir Gerry did not engage with this issue, but in my view it is of critical importance and must form part of an adequate review of the public appointments system.
  • Sir Gerry’s review embraces transparency as a principle but his review itself is not transparent. One needs to read between the lines, or read Sir David Normington’s reaction afterwards, to realise that he is in fact implying a dismantling of most of the powers of the Independent Commissioner for Public Appointments. This is not discussed openly, and there is no appraisal of the pros and cons, especially the risks. That is completely unsatisfactory. The Government’s response is also un-transparent, virtually eliding Lord Nolan’s principles as a whole with the particular principle that Ministers should be at the heart of the public appointments process. Nolan was clear that this particular principle has to be balanced against the need for public confidence in appointments as being made fairly, openly and on merit.
  • The greatest weaknesses of the review have been highlighted by Sir David Normington. His views command respect, because he spent his whole career in the exercise of power in the service of Ministers and knows the realities of that world inside out. He has also experienced the fretful pressure of Ministers on average once a month over the last few years asking why some political supporter has not been shortlisted or appointed. Unlike his proposed successor, who does not know this world, he understands that transparency without power is not enough to strike a healthy balance and avoid excessive politicisation of appointments. Sir Gerry seems to believe that the appointment by Ministers of people such as himself (he mentions the NEDs of Whitehall Departments as possible candidates more than once – he has been a NED of three such) will be a sufficient guarantee of independence, but such a major shift of power from the independent Commissioner to Ministers will be viewed with dismay by those who see genuine independence as a cornerstone of the checks and balances in the current system.
  • In my view Sir Gerry does not discuss the issue of checks and balances, and the power relationships at play, adequately. He simply asserts a set of principles and a scheme for the future, without arguing exactly what the difference is from the present system and what the risks of changes might be. He asserts that the regulator function of the Commissioner can be effective without actual participation, but does not justify this assertion and does not assess the downside. It is not at all clear exactly what powers the attenuated regulator would have or whether they would be effective. I would trust Sir David’s judgement rather than Mr Riddell’s.
  • Mr Riddell has a touching faith in “openness” but in the world of appointments it is very difficult to challenge when, for example, a Minister asserts that he has confidence that a supporter is independent minded or when someone appointed by a Minister asserts that a process has been conducted in accord with the requisite Code. The truth is, if you are not in the thick of it, you cannot tell unless there is some blatant transgression. Moreover, he seems to think that reporting something to a Select Committee is an awesome sanction, but Select Committees are composed of politicians. PACAC members will recall that the appointment and re-appointment of William Shawcross as Chair of the Charity Commission was approved on both occasions by a Conservative majority on the committee with all non-Conservative members voting against, so this will not be seen by many of us as a reassuring safeguard against the politicisation of such an appointment.
  • There are admirable recommendations relating to diversity and to the desirability of speedier appointments, but the more contentious of Sir Gerry’s recommendations are not obviously connected to these goals, which should be pursued anyway. For the rest, the warmth of the Government’s welcome for the review reinforces the anxieties expressed by Sir David that the recommendations would tilt the balance of control decisively in Ministers’ favour, removing essential checks and balances that are in the public interest.
  1. For these reasons, I ask the Committee to reject Sir Gerry’s review as an adequate basis for reform. There needs to be proper attention to important issues that he appears not to have considered at all. And the pros, cons and risks of proposed changes needs much more rigorous and transparent scrutiny and argumentation, taking fully into account the important criticisms voiced by Sir David Normington. Otherwise, any reform of the system will not carry the necessary public confidence, and will be seen as partisan and an unwelcome accretion of Executive power that has not been properly thought through.

 

 

Andrew Purkis,

15 April 2016

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