Ministers accused of watering down public appointments safeguards

Written by Jim Dunton on 10 March 2017 in News

Watchdog’s anger follows government response to committee’s Grimstone Review findings

Image: PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin warned of an "effort by government to weaken the robustness and transparency of public appointments"

MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee have accused the government of a willful attempt to weaken rules on transparency in relation to senior public appointments.

The stinging attack follows the Cabinet Office’s rejection of key recommendations from the committee’s inquiry into Sir Gerry Grimstone’s review of the Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments, published in March last year.

The office was established in 1995 after a series of high-profile sleaze scandals triggered the Nolan Review into standards in public life. It aims to ensure that ministers do not appoint people to key posts in non-departmental public bodies – including regulators, inspectorates and NHS Trusts – for political reasons or without due process.

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Businessman Grimstone was appointed to undertake the review in 2015 by then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. He proposed a "much more streamlined principles-based system" that would remove a number of the office's formal powers, including its power to appoint independent assessors to the interview panels for key roles. 

In their original report on the proposals, PACAC members said they would require “extensive amendment in order to sustain public confidence”. 

But the government’s response – published today – has rejected a list of those amendments, arguing that the new regime strengthens the public appointments process.

MPs said it was “a matter of great concern” that the government, rather than the public appointments commissioner, set the Public Appointments Code, as it failed to provide adequate assurance that people will not be deliberately excluded on an arbitrary basis that was not transparent.

They also voiced concern that ministers had rejected a recommendation to broaden the list of posts subject to pre-appointment hearings and a vote in the House of Commons – which echoed a 2012 call made by the Liaison Select Committee.

The government said it believed that cases in which parliamentary veto should be applied to new appointments ought to be “exceptional”, but PACAC disagreed and called for the decision to be reviewed urgently.

PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin said that while some interim changes had been made to the original Grimstone proposals the system still suffered from a transparency deficit.

“We remain concerned that there seems to be an effort by government to weaken the robustness and transparency of public appointments according to the principles established by the very first Committee on Standards on Public Life, under Lord Nolan,” he said.

“We hope that the new commissioner for public appointments will do all he can to defend the Nolan principles on public appointments.”

He added that the committee would continue to seek updates from commissioner Peter Riddell, who was appointed to the role in April last year, in relation to the way in which the Public Appointments Code and existing practice were developing.

“We ask him to draw to our attention any further developments which he feels we ought to be aware of, or to act on,” Jenkin said.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the new governance code placed ministers at the heart of the appointments process, as Lord Nolan had recommended in his original review.

“As well as updating the Nolan Principles with the introduction of diversity as a new principle, the new code introduces greater transparency into the system and reiterates the role of a strong, independent regulator of the process in the commissioner for public appointments,” she said.

"This government is committed to a process that champions diversity and building a democracy that works for everyone.”

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