Departments face new transparency call over ‘unregulated appointments’

Watchdog Peter Riddell salutes decision to hire Kate Bingham for UK Vaccines Task Force work but says wider phenomenon is a problem
Chumocracy allegations: Baroness Dido Harding PA

By Jim Dunton

30 Apr 2021

Departments should be required to be more transparent about senior leaders who are drafted in to drive key workstreams without going through  normal civil service recruitment processes, public appointments commissioner Peter Riddell has said.

After a year in which ministers have come under intense scrutiny for so-called “unregulated appointments” made in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Riddell said departments ought to be obliged to publish details of all such roles.

The appointment of Conservative peer Baroness Dido Harding to run NHS Test and Trace and Kate Bingham, who is married to financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman, to head up the UK Vaccines Task Force fuelled concern about a jobs-for-friends “chumocracy” at the top of government. 

Riddell said a greater degree of openness was required over the number of people working in departments following unregulated appointments and the process for those appointment being made.

“Departments should publish a list of all their non-regulated appointments – the tsars, reviewers, envoys, taskforce leads – as well as their regulated appointments – in order to build greater transparency about who is doing this important work on behalf of the government, as well as how they are appointed,” he said.

Riddell said he was not opposed to the concept of unregulated appointments and said Bingham’s appointment was “fully justified” in response to the Covid pandemic. But he said the “proliferation of unregulated appointments made by ministers” was a problem.

“There is uncertainty about the number and nature of these unregulated appointments and how they are made,” he said. 

“For instance, there is an unclear balance between direct ministerial appointment to, and competition for, non-executive members of departmental boards whose character has recently changed substantially.”

Last month Riddell’s Whitehall counterpart, first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore, told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee there was potential for “cracks” between the network of regulatory bodies set up to oversee senior appointments.

Last year public-sector leaders union the FDA gave its backing to a High Court challenge to the government’s use of unregulated appointments that specifically focused on Harding, Bingham and former Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe.

The bid, launched by think tank the Runnymede Trust and campaign group the Good Law Project, said the closed recruitment process for the three roles was cronyism that amounted to discrimination under the Equality Act 2000.  A full hearing is due to take place.

In addition to being a Conservative peer, Harding is married to MP John Penrose – currently prime minister Boris Johnson’s anti-corruption champion. Prior to her NHS appointment she had a career history in retail and telecommunications rather than health. Coupe, said to be a close friend of Harding, was last year drafted into government as director of Covid-19.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said at the time that the union was supporting the judicial review bid because it was vital for high-profile government appointments to be “made in an open and fair way”.

Riddell’s comments yesterday came in a speech that was originally designed to mark the end of his five-year term of office. However his term has now been extended to September because of a delay in appointing a successor. 

Earlier this month, PACAC chair William Wragg wrote to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove asking why the recruitment process was taking so long when it launched in November last year and government guidance targets a period “no longer than three months to appointment”.

Wragg also asked for an update on the recruitment process for Watmore’s successor. Watmore’s term in office is due to end in September.

Riddell last week said he considered that the extension of his term in office was “very much an interim measure” and was “emphatically not a reappointment”.

He said it was still his view that the public appointments commissioner – and other regulators – should serve a single five-year term to “protect their independence”.

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