Watchdog sounds alarm over rising political bias in public appointments

Commissioner Peter Riddell also says ministerial churn damaged recruitment processes for top departmental jobs
Peter Riddell CSW

By Jim Dunton

05 Nov 2020

Commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell has voiced fears that the government is presiding over a new wave of political cronyism in the process for selecting board members of public bodies.

Riddell made the observation in a letter ahead of an appearance before the Commission on Standards in Public Life last month. Minutes of that meeting have yet to be made public, but Riddell’s letter – dated 7 October – was published yesterday.

The commissioner said a “parallel concern” to ministers seeking to pack interview panels with allies was the growth of unregulated appointments, such as Conservative peer Baroness Dido Harding’s roles as NHS Test and Trace lead and interim executive chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection.

Riddell, whose five-year term as commissioner is set to end in April, said there had always been an element of “favouring your allies” in appointments that required ministerial sign-off, but that it had been “constrained” in recent years.  

His no-punches-pulled letter to CSPL chair Lord Jonathan Evans warned the prevailing balance was “under threat” and that moves were being made to bend the rules of the Cabinet Office’s governance code on public appointments. 

“In recent months I have on a number of occasions had to resist, successfully so far, attempts by ministers to appoint people with clear party affiliations as senior independent panel members when that is expressly barred under the code,” he said. 

“There have also been attempts to stretch the code by, for example, packing the composition of interview panels with allies, notably in the current case of the panel for the competition of the Office for Students.”

Riddell said that in case of the OfS, the senior independent panel of five did not include anyone with recent senior experience in higher education. 

He said that other concerning examples of recent practice were ministers’ rejection of strong candidates recommended for roles by independent panels after “drawn out” recruitment processes, although such moves are not contrary to the code’s stipulations.

BBC and Ofcom speculation 'deters potential candidates'

Riddell also offered stinging views on recent reports that the government was keen to appoint the recently-ennobled former Daily Telegraph editor and Margaret Thatcher biographer Charles Moore as the next chairman of the BBC. Former No.10 director of communications Robbie Gibb was also floated as a candidate. Elsewhere, ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was briefed as the potential next chair of telecoms regulator Ofcom. 

Riddell said such briefings ultimately damaged the chances of the best people being found for such jobs.

“Advanced speculation that certain candidates are favoured – even informally lined up – which, whether accurate or not, risks discouraging other well qualified candidates from applying,” he said.

Growing concerns about unregulated appointments

Riddell continued: “A parallel concern is the growth of unregulated appointments – those neither covered by my office nor by the Civil Service Commission. That has been highlighted by the appointment of Baroness Harding to lead NHS Test and Trace and to be interim executive chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection without any process of regulated appointment.”

He said non-executive members of the boards of government departments were also not regulated and pointed to “growing concerns” about the omission.

“The original idea of bringing in people with business and similar experience from outside Whitehall has been partly replaced by the appointment of political allies of ministers, in some cases without competition, and without any form of regulatory oversight,” he said.

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm was recently questioned by MPs on parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in relation to the appointment of four new non-executive members to his department’s board.

Baroness Simone Finn, Henry de Zoete and the former MP Gisela Stuart, now Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston, were all seen as allies of Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove. Stuart was a key Vote Leave figure alongside the minister; de Zoete is a former special adviser to Gove; and Finn is a one-time special adviser to former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. The fourth appointment was former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Bernard Hogan-Howe.

Ministerial churn hit high-level recruitment campaigns

Riddell also said the political turmoil that has dominated his time in post had negatively impacted the recruitment process for senior appointments that required ministerial sign-off.

He said the principal impact had been elongated timescales for “competitions” – often stretching the target timescale of three months to six, with the risk that fewer people would apply for roles if they knew the process would be so protracted.

“I have dealt with seven ministers in the Cabinet Office responsible for public appointments, including five since early July 2019,” Ridell said. “And, of course, there has been a big churn in ministers in departments.”

Riddell said the delays in the appointment process came after the interview stage, when panel choices needed to be reviewed by ministers.

“The downside is frustration amongst candidates being left in the dark and the risk of discouraging further applications, while the efficiency of public bodies is also affected,” he said.

Riddell noted that while the coronavirus pandemic had not helped the appointments process, many departments had proved “inventive and resilient” in developing remote workarounds.

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