Dido Harding appointment may expose regulatory gaps says First Civil Service Commissioner

Ian Watmore tells MPs there is a case for reviewing whether NHS Test and Trace role handed to Conservative peer demonstrates “cracks” in the system
Ian Watmore appears before PACAC on 16 March

By Jim Dunton

17 Mar 2021

First Civil Service Commissioner Ian Watmore has told a panel of MPs that there is a case for reviewing the robustness of the regime for regulating public appointments after Conservative peer Dido Harding was handed two high-profile health jobs.

He was asked about concerns expressed by Commissioner for Public Appointments Sir Peter Riddell over the growth in “unregulated appointments” at a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee yesterday. Riddell  directly referred to Harding’s non-competitive appointment to lead NHS Test and Trace, and her subsequent appointment as interim executive chair of the National Institute for Public Health in a standards warning last year.

Watmore, whose role is focused on ensuring fairness in civil service recruitment and that civil service impartiality is maintained, told PACAC members that further work on unregulated appointments was required.

“Peter’s probably got a point,” he told yesterday’s session. “There is a category of appointment there that’s not governed by either of us - and if it’s not governed by him it’s definitely not ours.”

Watmore said that he and Riddell should take up the issue with Commissioner for Standards in Public Life Lord Jonathan Evans “to see if there are cracks”.

“We have got a patchwork quilt of regulatory bodies like us and it must be theoretically possible for there to be a crack between them,” Watmore said.

“The post that Dido Harding fills has not been categorised as a civil service post by the civil service. I assumed it was an NHS post, to be honest, which is outside the civil service. 

“The boundary between the civil service and the public service is a little bit arbitrary over history. Why is a prison officer a civil servant and a police officer not? It’s mostly history and tradition.” 

Watmore added: “What I do know is that the civil servants who do work in that area all ultimately report up through David Williams and Chris Wormald at permanent secretary level in the Department of Health. So they might be taking their leadership from Dido’s post, but the actual civil service structure reports up through the two permanent secretaries in health.”

Briefing against civil servants must stop

Watmore, whose term as First Civil Service Commissioner is due to end later this year, also told MPs that briefings against civil servants – whether on the part of ministers or other politicians – were damaging Whitehall’s efficiency.  

“I absolutely, absolutely hate it,” he said of the practice. “I think it shouldn’t happen and I think the political class as a whole should agree to stop it. Because at the end of the day the civil service cannot answer back; does not answer back.”

Watmore said that it was unreasonable to expect the civil service to accept that being a political punchbag was an occupational hazard that came with working in Whitehall.

“It’s there to serve the government of the day to the best of its ability,” he said of the civil service. “To brief against it undermines that bond of trust and the ability for people to do the best job. So it’s not just a ‘thick skin and tin hat’ thing, its actually what’s good government.” 

Perm sec churn ‘not an issue’

Watmore also told PACAC members he did not think the number of perm secs who left their roles in 2020 was a cause for concern. However, he accepted that the resignations of Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam and Government Legal Department  perm sec Sir Jonathan Jones were exceptions.

Watmore pointed to several perm-sec departures that happened because officials were at – or close to –  the end of their five-year term of appointment and the appointments were not being renewed. He included former Department for Education perm sec Jonathan Slater in that category, however Slater was removed from his post by prime minister Boris Johnson following last summer’s exams fiasco at a time when education secretary Gavin Williamson was facing multiple calls to resign.

Watmore said “the numbers” were not in support of the argument that the had been a high degree of perm-sec churn in recent months when the end of five-year terms were taken into account.

He added: “High degree of churn is unhelpful, but having 10 and 15 year perm secs is unhelpful as well. I think you have to get that balance right.”

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