Cabinet Office sets up public appointments team after PACAC slams 'unacceptable' failings
The government also rejected the committee's call for MPs to vote on controversial appointments
The Cabinet Office has set up a support team to coordinate all of its public appointments to arm’s-length bodies, following fierce criticism by MPs of “serious administrative failings” in its handling of recent appointments.
The department revealed its plans in a response to a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report, but it also rejected the committee’s call for MPs to be given a vote on controversial public appointments by ministers.
In one of two responses to PACAC reports published on Friday, the government said the new arm’s-length body support team will manage the pipeline of public appointments made by Cabinet Office ministers and develop a plan to improve the department’s appointment process.
- PACAC questions Cabinet Office's 'competence in carrying out routine administrative business'
- Former MI5 boss says he has independence to lead public standards watchdog
- PACAC calls for MPs to be given a vote on controversial public appointments
The body will aim to address the criticisms raised by PACAC in its strongly-worded October report following the committee’s questioning of former MI5 chief Lord Jonathan Evans, the government’s chosen candidate to chair the Committee on Standards in Public Life. PACAC said failings in recent appointment processes, including a severe delay in telling MPs about Evans’ nomination, were “unacceptable and [raised] wider concerns about the Cabinet Office’s competence in carrying out routine administrative business”.
In its response, the government acknowledged “shortcomings [that] have generally been procedural in nature”, although it said a “fair and open competition” had been held for each post.
“Nonetheless, the Cabinet Office sets the standard for public appointments and holds departments to account against these standards,” it said.
“It is therefore paramount that we are seen as the ‘gold-standard’ in how we oversee and manage our own public appointments.”
The new support team – which reports to the department’s chief operating officer – will also provide oversight of and appraisals for board members of arm’s-length bodies and undertake tailored reviews of ALBs, it said.
The Cabinet Office has appointed the team's interim members and will open recruitment for permanent members “shortly”, it said.
Responding to concerns raised by PACAC it the same report about the lack of diversity among recent public appointments, the Cabinet Office said its new support team had developed an action plan to improve equality and diversity.
The plan stipulates that roles must be advertised in a way that attracts “a broad pool of potential candidates”, including being highlighted at cross-government events, and introduces greater scrutiny of job specifications to ensure they do not deter some candidates.
‘A disproportionate level of parliamentary involvement’
The government has also published its response to an earlier PACAC report that said ministers should not be allowed to push through public appointments when doubts had been raised about their choice of candidate without a vote in the House of Commons.
The government agreed that ministers should take select committees’ recommendations seriously, but said it was content there were “a number of mechanisms already in place by which ministers are held to account by parliament for their actions”.
“These processes allow for the minister to explain the decision taken to parliament and for questions to be fully addressed. The government therefore does not agree with the recommendation to provide for a new mechanism for instigating debate,” it said.
The response did, however, say the government would consider changes to public appointment processes to ensure there was “appropriate time” for ministers to consider committees’ comments.
PACAC’s recommendations were part of an inquiry it opened in March after the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport installed Baroness Stowell, a former Conservative minister, as chair of the Charity Commission despite a select committee raising “fundamental concerns about her suitability for the post”.
Elsewhere in its response, the government accepted PACAC’s recommendation to ensure the Cabinet Office keeps its list of appointments that are subject to a pre-appointment hearing up to date. It said the department would republish the list annually.
However, the response said it was “concerned” by the committee’s call for departmental and committee guidance to make clear that select committees are “not bound by the list”. PACAC also said departments should share information about major public appointments early on with select committees to enable them to decide if the appointments are worthy of greater scrutiny.
Opening up more positions to pre-appointment hearings “could cause a disproportionate level of parliamentary involvement in posts where this may not be appropriate”, according to the Cabinet Office.
It added, “were departments to have to engage with select committees about all of the circa 1,000 public appointments that are made every year, or even a smaller subset of those that might be considered ‘major’, it could cause an administrative burden on select committee staff and government.”
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