MPs approve Gisela Stuart for civil service commissioner role despite ‘reservations’

PACAC members raised concerns about her suitability for the role and her “perceived impartiality”
Baroness Gisela Stuart

By Tevye Markson

07 Feb 2022

MPs have approved Gisela Stuart’s appointment as the new civil service watchdog despite raising concerns about her suitability for the role.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published its decision to approve her appointment to the role today.

The committe said it endorsed Baroness Stuart’s appointment “on the basis of her answers to the questions put to her” at PACAC last week and wished her well in the new role.

Members were not unanimous in approving her appointment, however.

“Whilst the majority of the committee members were content to endorse Baroness Stuart’s appointment as first civil service commissioner, reservations were expressed about her suitability for the role and, in particular, her perceived impartiality," the committee said.

Concerns have been raised about her impartiality since her status as the preferred candidate was announced in December.

 At the time, Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas argued Stuart’s status as an “ally or ideological fellow-traveller” of prime minister Boris Johnson called her impartiality into question and made her look like “the wrong appointment”.

Along with giving Stuart’s appointment the go-ahead, MPs also criticised the time it took to recruit a successor to Ian Watmore, who held the role until October.

"As we have come to expect of the Cabinet Office, the appointment process was ongoing at the time the incumbent Ian Watmore’s five-year term which was due to end on 1 October,” the committee said.

“As the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act prohibits reappointment or extensions to the first civil service commissioner’s term, one of the commissioners, Rosie Glazebrook, has been serving as interim first civil service commissioner since then.”

Five candidates were interviewed for the role, two of which were considered appointable by the panel and passed to the prime minister for the final selection.

The report included diversity data for the 18 applications received for the role. Applicants were:

  • 71% male and 29% female
  • 59% white and 42% from an ethnic minority background
  • 76% non-disabled and 24% disabled

Asked about impartiality at the PACAC pre-appointment hearing, Stuart said the civil service tradition was important and last year’s Declaration on Government Reform had seen Johnson and cabinet secretary Simon Case reiterating their support for it.

But she cautioned that impartiality could not be viewed in isolation and was not the only important attribute for civil servants.

“Impartiality also has to be underpinned by skills and ability to do the job,” she said. “And therefore I think the recruitment principles are something where you may want to revisit, in terms of whether it still embraces the principles required from the civil service. But I don’t in any sense undermine the impartiality.”

The former Labour MP and Vote Leave chair– who now sits as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords – said she believed the civil service needs to reorient itself towards the needs of the future and improve its offer to the next generation of leaders.

Stuart will become the first politician in more than 100 years to take on the role. She said it was “becoming clearer” that while the first civil service commissioner should be someone who understood the civil service, “it’s increasingly felt they probably shouldn’t be someone who comes from the civil service”.

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