Appointments watchdog Peter Riddell gives cautious welcome as Cabinet Office sets out new anti-cronyism rules

Written by Jim Dunton on 16 December 2016 in News

Public Appointments Commissioner concedes that not all of his Grimstone Review tweak proposals have been adopted

Controversial changes to the way senior public appointments made by ministers are overseen have now been confirmed by the Cabinet Office.

The Commissioner for Public Appointments – currently Peter Riddell – is tasked with ensuring that ministers do not appoint people to key posts in public bodies, such as regulators, some NHS trusts, inspectorates and art galleries, without due process.

However a Cabinet Office-commissioned review of public appointments written by Sir Gerry Grimstone earlier this year prompted fears from the then-commissioner Sir David Normington that ministers would be handed too much power, potentially reversing anti-cronyism measures introduced by Lord Nolan 20 years ago.

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The Cabinet Office's just-published Governance Code on Public Appointments builds on the recommendations of that review, and makes clear that the post of Commissioner for Public Appointments will shift to a more regulatory role, rather than one that is directly connected to appointment competitions.

While the current system allows the CPA to appoint independent auditors to check whether departments are making appointments in line with the principles of merit, openness and fairness, Grimstone called for a “significant shift” in the process that would make government departments themselves the “first line of defence” against impropriety.

The code as published today underscores that shift – but it allows the CPA to “conduct spot checks or respond to any concerns raised about a public appointments process”, in addition to writing annual reports on the state of public appointments, and thematic reports flagging particular issues.

Under the code, ministers must also consult with the CPA over the appointment of individual “senior independent panel members” to participate in assessment advisory panels for appointments designated as “significant”.

In October Riddell said his concerns about implementing the Grimstone Review centred around maintaining “proper independent assurance of the appointments process” at the same time as maintaining ministerial primacy.

Reacting to the code’s publication, Riddell admitted the Cabinet Office had not implemented all of his suggested alterations, but said it had made some “important changes” for what would be a “new and different” approach to monitoring public appointments.

“They have not accepted every suggestion but they have made a number of important changes, notably to reinsert fairness in the list of guiding principles and the commitment to consult me both about the appointment of senior independent panel members to assessment panels and about cases where exemptions are sought from holding competitions to make appointments,” he said.

“I believe that the real test for the new arrangements will be how they are interpreted by ministers – to preserve the balance between their right to be fully involved in the process and to take the key decisions, while ensuring that appointments are made on the basis of merit with candidates being judged on a fair and equal basis.”

The fairness stipulation referred to by Riddell states: “Selection processes should be fair, impartial and each candidate must be assessed against the same criteria for the role in question.”

Constitution minister Chris Skidmore said the Grimstone Review had placed an emphasis on Lord Nolan’s original 1995 recommendations about the centrality of ministers to the public appointments system.

“The government welcomed Sir Gerry’s review and announced that it would implement its recommendations,” he said.

Skidmore said the new code underscored the CPA’s “vital function” of regulating public appointments, but separated them from direct involvement in competitions.

He added that the process would be “streamlined of bureaucracy with a stronger focus on customer care and transparency” to ensure public confidence.

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Jim Dunton
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