Shawcross pledges to be ‘champion of diversity’ as appointments commissioner

Controversial author and reviewer of the Prevent programme is quizzed by MPs on approach to regulator role
William Shawcross Credit: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

16 Sep 2021

The government’s preferred candidate to be the next public appointments commissioner has pledged to MPs that he will be a “champion of diversity” if he is confirmed in the role.

William Shawcross also told members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee today that he would stand up against ministerial attempts to rig appointment panels. Additionally, the author and former Charity Commission chair said he would take a firm stand on so-called “unregulated appointments”, such as that of Baroness Dido Harding to NHS Test and Trace, where the role in question was a prominent and important one.

Shawcross, who has made controversial comments about Islam and the Labour Party in the past, acknowledged to MPs that it would not be appropriate for him to write polemical articles following his appointment as successor to Peter Riddell, who is due to step down next month.

Shawcross is currently concluding a review of the government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme, which was commissioned by home secretary Priti Patel last year.

“I wrote a lot of things over the last 50 years that people would disagree with, and I don’t pretend that I’ve been someone who hasn’t had strong opinions and strong views and other people disagree with them,” Shawcross said to MPs.

“But that is not my role now and it was not my role at the Charity Commission. I wrote no such things in the six years I was at the Charity Commission and I wouldn’t do so now. If I did want to write anything now, I would obviously feel obliged to consult with the Cabinet Office and everything I do from now on, if you are good enough to appoint me, I would do in accordance with the Nolan Principles.”

Shawcross told MPs he was keen to become public appointments commissioner – regulator of the appointments to the boards of national and regional public bodies – because he had found chairing the Charity Commission “really rewarding” and wanted to stay in public service.

He said that he viewed improving the diversity of departmental and agency boards as a “crucial area” and probably the most important area of work for the next commissioner.

Shawcross praised the “remarkable” effort of outgoing commissioner Riddell in relation to diversity and said he would continue much of Riddell’s work in collaboration with PACAC.

“The commissioner really has to work through persuasion,” he said. “I would visit the departments that have the least good record on diversity and persuade them that they need to up their game. I would go out of London as much as possible.

“If there were any departments that were not doing their best, I would read the riot act to them privately first of all and if necessary I would come to you. Any problems that I cannot resolve on my own, I would want to come to  you and seek your advice.”

Decentralisation could aid diversity drive

Shawcross added that he viewed diversity in public appointments as not limited to gender, race and disability but also to socio-economic background. He said the government’s Places for Growth agenda to move civil servants and departments out of the capital over the coming decade could assist with driving diversity on the boards of public bodies.

“The description of diversity needs to be widened somewhat to encourage less-privileged people to apply for appointments,” he said.

“We need diversity of views; we need diversity of geography. The government is now decentralising to a certain extent and I would hope that those decentralised offices could be pools for more people from different areas of the country. I don’t want to see appointments London-dominated.”

He added: “I would see myself as a champion of diversity in its broadest sense.”

Loaded panels, unregulated appointments and leaks

Current commissioner Peter Riddell has publicly raised concerns about government ministers seeking to pack appointment panels for roles on boards with friendly political figures and questioned “unregulated appointments” made by ministers. He has also criticised “leaks” of so-called preferred candidates for prominent public roles – such as the suggestion that former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was in line to be appointed as Ofcom chair.

Shawcross said he shared Riddell’s view on political interference with appointment and pledged to push back against the practice too. “I would do exactly the same as Peter, and say ‘no, no, no’,” he said.

Shawcross said he believed some unregulated appointments were justified, particularly in relation to local  NHS trust boards, but agreed that ministerial appointments to permanent roles that circumvented normal recruitment rules were a problem.

“If ministers seem to be appointing someone in an unregulated manner for a permanent job, for example, in a prominent and important job then of course that would be a matter of concern,” he said.

He described the practice of leaking details of preferred candidates for high-profile roles as “improper” and to be discouraged.

“The names of preferred candidates should not be leaked in advance. It destabilises the competition, it probably discourages other people from applying if they think it’s a foregone conclusion,” he said.

“No-one should think that public appointment panels are rigged and going to foregone conclusions. It’s quite wrong.”

Shawcross was also asked about any influence his daughter, Eleanor Shawcross, might have on his work as public appointments commissioner. She is currently a non-executive director at the Department for Work and Pensions and was chief of staff to George Osborne when he was chancellor. She is also married to Conservative peer Lord Simon Wolfson.

“I’m extremely proud of my daughter,” he said. “I will not be doing deals around the dinner table.”

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