Former Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart lined up as first civil service commissioner

IfG warns appointing ex-Labour MP to top watchdog role is a mistake
Gisela Stuart. Photo: UK Parliament/CC BY 3.0

By Jim Dunton

10 Dec 2021

The Cabinet Office has named former Labour MP and Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart as the government’s preferred candidate to serve as first civil service commissioner, the watchdog for top Whitehall appointments.

Stuart would be the first politician to hold the role for more than 100 years.

The Institute for Government has warned the selection will raise questions about the impartiality of the Civil Service Commission, which is independent of government.

Stuart cannot be appointed before a hearing in front of members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. However, MPs on the panel do not have the power to veto the appointment.

Stuart was one of a handful of new Cabinet Office non-execs cited by PACAC last year in a session where it was suggested that then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had picked allies to hold his department to account. Gove was co-convener of Vote Leave when Stuart was chair. Boris Johnson was arguably the most prominent supporter of the campaign.

Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas said it was vital for the first civil service commissioner to be seen as impartial, but being an “ally or ideological fellow-traveller” of the prime minister was not. “For this reason, Gisela Stuart looks like the wrong appointment,” he said.

In an IfG blog yesterday, Thomas said asking a political figure known to be a close ally of current senior ministers to lead the commission would raise questions about how the impartiality principle in the civil service code – upheld by the Civil Service Commission – was overseen.

He said it would also tend to encourage a “creeping politicisation” of the civil service and make civil servants less likely to speak honestly to ministers.

“This appointment suggests that ministers want to use Stuart and her fellow commissioners as a way to accelerate civil service reform,” he said. “While there is plenty to reform in government, it not the job of the commissioners to deliver it.”

Steve Barclay, Gove’s successor as Cabinet Office minister, said Stuart had “all the attributes, experience and independence of judgement” needed to lead the Civil Service Commission effectively.

Watmore, whose term as first civil service commissioner ended in September, said he had found Stuart to be an “objective, impartial and helpful” member of civil service appointment panels they had both served on.

“She recently consulted me on the nature of her proposed new role, and we shared remarkably similar views on best practice,” he said.

“I came away confident that she would do the role well provided, of course, she remains supported as I was by an outstanding secretariat and a board of experienced, impartial commissioners.”

Civil service commissioner Rosie Glazebrook is currently carrying out the functions of first civil service commissioner, which include sitting on the recruitment panel for permanent secretary roles and overseeing civil service code complaints.

The Cabinet Office said the panel for the recruitment campaign that selected Stuart had included cabinet secretary Simon Case and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport perm sec Sarah Healey.

It added that the 2014’s triennial review of the Civil Service Commission had identified “clear advantages” for the first commissioner to be seen as independent of both the civil service and the government, and to have an employment background that extended beyond Whitehall.

Bavaria-born Stuart started her career in publishing and worked in Germany and the Netherlands before relocating to the UK in the 1970s. She was elected as MP for Birmingham Edgbaston in 1997 but stood down at the snap election in 2017.

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