The Cabinet Office is making “reassuring” concessions after signalling a major change in the way public appointments are vetted, according to the new appointments watchdog Peter Riddell.
Riddell started work as Commissioner for Public Appointments earlier this year, taking the helm at the organisation set up to tackle fears of cronyism and ensure that ministers do not appoint people to key posts in public bodies — including regulators, inspectorates and art galleries — without due process.
But a government-backed review of the commission outlined a series of controversial changes to the watchdog, including removing its power to appoint independent assessors to interview panels for key roles, and letting ministers themselves draw up the code governing fair appointments.
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Riddell’s predecessor Sir David Normington warned that the overhaul outlined in the report by Standard Life chairman Sir Gerry Grimstone would increase the power of ministers at the expense of the watchdog, and weaken the role of the commissioner to that of “commentator and bystander”.
A report by MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee meanwhile said the proposals could "undermine the entire basis of independent appointments".
Writing in his first annual report since taking over at the organisation, Riddell acknowledged that the year had been marked by “a period of change, controversy and uncertainty in public appointments”.
But he said he had been involved in “extensive and constructive discussions” with the Cabinet Office on a number of fronts, including ensuring that his commission had a proper say in the make-up of interview panels for key public jobs as well as in drawing up the principles governing public appointments.
“My concern throughout these discussions has been that, within the framework of ministerial primacy in making appointments, proper independent assurance of the appointments process should continue and that designated independent members of panels are properly independent of the appointing department, of ministers and of the governing political party,” he said.
“I have also been arguing for the commissioner to be consulted fully on the appointment of the senior independent panel members; where an exemption from the process of open competition is to be used; and if a minister seeks to select a candidate who was not assessed as appointable by a panel.”
Riddell said he had received “indications” that the government would consult the commission on the appointment of panel members, as well as on any attempts to seek exemptions to the governance code.
“This is reassuring,” he wrote. “My officials have also been working with the Cabinet office to ensure that the transparency arrangements are introduced across Whitehall at the same time as the launch of the new appointments system.”
Despite the government accepting the Grimstone proposals in March, the final form of the governance code for public appointments has yet to be published.
But Riddell said the lengthy wait was “hardly surprising” given the change of government in July, and said the pause before publication “may have the welcome side-effect of allowing more time for preparations ahead of the introduction of the new regime”.
“The year ahead will be one of major transition in public appointments both for departments and my office, since, at the time of writing, there are still uncertainties about the final form of the new Governance Code and the precise timing of its introduction,” he added. “But I am hopeful that the basic principles of openness, fairness and appointment on merit will continue and I intend to speak up if they are not.”
Grimstone’s review of Public Appointments was launched by the former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude before last year’s general election.
The report described the present system of vetting public appointments as overly bureaucratic, and said it could "generate a huge amount of frustration” among the candidates for public roles.
Update 27/10: An earlier version of this story erroneously awarded a knighthood to Peter Riddell, referring to him as Sir Peter. Apologies for the schoolboy error, which was also included in the headline - Matt