Former public appointments commissioner Sir Peter Riddell has called for the creation of a “Domesday Book” to catalogue ministerial recruitment of non-civil servants – such as the hiring of Dame Kate Bingham to run the UK Vaccine Taskforce two years ago.
Riddell, who was commissioner from April 2016 to September last year, told members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee he believed a lack of transparency was the “real problem” with direct appointments.
“Departments should be under an obligation to publish non-civil service roles appointed by ministers,” he said.
“I don’t say they should all be regulated, far from it. Because that would be an unnecessary burden. But we should know and then we could reach a judgment.”
The appointment of Bingham, Baroness Dido Harding and former Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe to high-profile pandemic-related roles raised questions about lines of accountability, appointment on merit and cronyism. Harding led NHS Test and Trace for a year, while Coupe spent three months as its director of Covid testing before being appointed to the board of NHS England.
A High Court challenge also resulted, although Bingham was dropped from it before the case was heard.
Riddell only referred to Bingham’s appointment at today’s session, and said he believed a Cabinet Office convention on appointments with a duration of less than 12 months would have exempted many pandemic-time appointments from regulation by his former commission.
“I certainly don’t believe that what Kate Bingham was doing on vaccines should have been regulated. It would have resulted in delay; you couldn’t have had a free and open competition for it,” he told MPs.
“But what should have happened is much greater transparency about the terms under which she operated.
“There are a lot of functions and people who I regard as public appointments which we haven’t a clue who they are. I don’t think they should all be regulated, but we should know about them. And I think the most important thing is transparency so we know the terms and conditions and how they are appointed.”
He added: “What I’d like to do is have a Domesday Book of that.”
MPs should be able to hold ministers more closely to account
Riddell also told PACAC that he believed select committees should be able to call on secretaries of state to attend pre-appointment hearings at which their preferred candidate for a controversial high-profile public role is questioned by MPs.
“At present all you get is an anodyne letter saying ‘this is a wonderful candidate’. It’s rather like a headteacher writing to a university about an applicant with ‘he’s absolutely splendid’ and so on… or ‘she’s absolutely splendid’,” Riddell said.
“When there’s a big controversial one, get the secretary of state along. I wouldn’t make it automatic, but I’d make it up to the committee.
“In some cases there would be no need to, but I can think of recent ones where it would have been thoroughly healthy for the secretary of state to justify what they’re doing, as opposed to writing a headteacher’s letter.”
Riddell said two recent examples that were ripe for ministerial questioning were the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s picks for new Ofcom and Charity Commission chairs.
“In those cases, which have been fairly controversial, they would be ones where you get the secretary of state along and say ‘why did you make this decision?’,” he said.
“I can think of others too. You don’t require an enormous amount of imagination to think which ones.
“It would be a good thing for the process for the secretary of state to regard it as part of their duty, not just to let the nominee, the preferred candidate, swing in the wind. Which is what happens now.”
Power of embarrassment
Riddell told MPs that a significant weapon in the public appointments commissioner’s armoury was the power to embarrass secretaries of state if they attempted to push through a preferred candidate for a role against the advice of an appointment panel.
“I had no power to reverse an appointment. It was a reprimand-and-embarrass factor,” he said. “Embarrassment is quite an important point in Whitehall.”
He cited one case of a minister who wanted a candidate who was a local authority leader near their constituency to be interviewed for a particular role, despite the fact that they had been ruled out by the appointment panel. Riddell said the candidate had been rejected again after the interview, at which point the minister proposed changing the criteria for the selection process.
“That was not a wise move on the part of the minister, because that gave me scope to say ‘you can’t do that, you’ve got to keep the roles consistent’," Riddell said.
“And then there was a kind of lively interchange, and in parallel the civil service at the centre, who hadn’t been aware of this issue, became involved. And they agreed with me that it was sensible to have a fresh competition.
“It ended up in a rather grudging acceptance by the minister and a rather ill-tempered letter to me saying ‘OK, I’ll do it’. And someone far better was appointed without any controversy at all.”
Riddell said that if the minister had insisted on exercising their power to appoint their preferred candidate, an exchange of letters would have been published.
“My view on this is that it doesn’t do very much for the credibility of the new appointee,” he said.
“And that’s why, I think, even in some of the really high-profile cases, ministers have decided not to use that power.”
Riddell did not identify the minister involved.
Separately, he said he had a “lively debate” about appointment powers with former health and social care secretary Matt Hancock in 2016, when Hancock was a junior Cabinet Office minister with responsibility for a consultation on the issue.
“His argument was that just as ministers can reject the policy advice given, they should be able to overrule on appointments,” Riddell said. “I don’t quite see the parallel.”