Exclusive: MPs push for new power to block key public sector appointments

Written by Mark Leftly on 18 November 2016 in News

Mark Leftly reports on growing support among parliament's influential select committees to let MPs "blackball" ministers' choices for key public sector jobs

Select committees have grown in stature and influence since elections for their chairs were introduced in 2010.

In a sign of just how powerful the top jobs are now considered, three of Labour’s biggest beasts battled it out for the Home Affairs role last month: Chuka Umunna and Caroline Flint, the former shadow cabinet members, lost out to Yvette Cooper to run the Home Affairs Committee.

Like other chairs, Cooper’s extra workload is cushioned by a £15,025 top-up to her £74,962 basic MP’s salary. But the power of departmental scrutiny isn’t enough for some of them. Many select committee members look enviously to their equivalents in the US Senate, which have the power to block up to 1,400 presidential appointments, including cabinet secretaries and US attorneys.

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After grilling the nominee, committees can recommend to the senate that the candidate is unfit for the role, which, in most cases, puts paid to hope of a job.

For example, the last cabinet position to have been confirmed by the Senate after he was deemed “unfavourable” by a committee was commerce secretary nominee Henry A. Wallace in 1945.

Britain’s select committees have held pre-appointment hearings for a range of senior public sector roles, ranging from the chair of the BBC Trust to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, since the practice was formalised in 2007.

They quiz the government’s preferred candidate before contracts are signed and produce a report – but their findings are not binding on the relevant minister.

“The only thing we’re asking for is the power to stop someone being appointed. It’s a sensible way forward" – Education Committee chair Neil Carmichael

In 2010, the Liaison Committee, which includes all the committee chairs, recommended that certain posts, including the Information Commissioner and chair of the UK Statistics Authority, should effectively be a joint appointment between the government and the House of Commons.

That was rejected. The only current power of veto is on the chancellor’s choices for the chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility and membership of its Budget Responsibility Committee – although the Culture, Media, and Sport Committee has what it describes as an “effective veto” over the appointment of the Information Commissioner.

Civil Service World can reveal that there is a fresh campaign to allow MPs to “blackball” senior public sector appointments, rather than just offer thoughts on the nominee’s suitability for the post.

Neil Carmichael, the Conservative MP who chairs the Education Select Committee, is behind the move.

He tells CSW: “I’ve mentioned this informally to the Liaison Committee executive. I’m going to flesh up a proposal and get support for it. It’s the start of a lengthy process, but I’ll be canvassing for it soon.”

Carmichael has form in challenging appointments.

Following a hearing this summer, his committee argued that Amanda Spielman, the government's choice to lead Ofsted, had failed to demonstrate the "vision and passion" for the role, while concerns were raised about her lack of teaching experience. The government ignored the advice.

However, Carmichael's proposed reform could add to concerns that the lines of accountability for officials are becoming increasingly – and unnecessarily – blurred.

For example, in April, Oliver Robbins, the Home Office’s then-second permanent secretary, was thrown out of a select committee hearing for providing “unsatisfactory” answers regarding the UK Border Force, and was even threatened with being held in contempt.

"We should put this on a proper footing" – Clive Betts, chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee

The previous Labour government argued in a response to a 2000 Liaison Committee report on getting parliament involved in the appointment process: “Any indication that a ministerial appointment relied upon the approval of a select committee or was open to a select committee veto would break the clear lines of accountability by which ministers are answerable to committees for the actions of the executive.”

But Carmichael says: “The only thing we’re asking for is the power to stop someone being appointed. It’s a sensible way forward. They wouldn't be answerable to us afterwards. We want the ability to blackball before an appointment is actually made.”

Clive Betts, who heads the Communities and Local Government Committee, agrees.

“This change would make pre-appointment hearings a more useful process," he tells CSW. "Select committees are cross-party, so if there is a feeling on a cross-party basis that it is not an appropriate appointment then it shouldn’t be a problem. We should put this on a proper footing.”

“Strengthen the role of parliament” 

It isn’t clear whether this will require a simple tweak of the rules or a more formal change through secondary legislation. But however it comes to pass, the power would largely formalise an influence that committees are already wielding.

For example, Betts’s committee agreed to Denise Fowler becoming the housing ombudsman – which resolves complaints between tenants and landlords – in 2014.

But the committee insisted Fowler give up her role as head of planning law at the communities department to make sure the ombudsman was seen as independent of central government. Fowler and ministers agreed, and she duly quit the departmental role.

On the flipside, four “negative” appraisals of candidates were made between 2007 and the end of last year – but two were still appointed.

One of these was Dr Maggie Atkinson in 2009, when she was director of children’s services at Gateshead Council. Atkinson was the government’s preferred candidate to become the Children’s Commissioner and was quizzed by MPs.

The Children, Schools and Families Select Committee select committee said she did not show sufficient “sign of determination to assert the independence of the role, to challenge the status quo on the children’s behalf and to stretch the remit of the post”.

“Provided it was used sensibly, it would balance the power between the legislature and the executive” – Justice Committee chairman Bob Neill

Ed Balls, the then-education secretary, said the committee had “not put forward new relevant facts” concerning Atkinson’s “suitability for the post”, and openly questioned the cross-party committee’s interpretation of its own hearing,

“On the contrary, the transcript of the hearing leads me to the view that Maggie Atkinson gave robust and intelligent responses to the questions put to her, and in so doing further demonstrated her suitability for the role," he said at the time.

Bob Neill, who chairs the Justice Select Committee, says the right to veto would “strengthen the role of parliament” and offer a system “provided it was used sensibly, that would balance the power between the legislature and the executive”. Under such a system, Balls could not have so easily overridden MPs.

However, Carmichael could face opposition from a handful of committee chairs who think the power is unnecessary. One says they do not "want to get bogged down in appointments”, when every committee has a wealth of issues it can choose to investigate.

A second argues that vetting appointments is “not really our job – we want to scrutinise departments, not civil servants doing their job properly”.

Yet this is a power the majority of committees have long treasured. If Carmichael builds support among enough of his colleagues, senior public sector figures could soon see themselves losing their jobs before they’ve even started work.

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Mark Leftly
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