DCMS perm sec pledges to learn from other departments after Charity Commission ‘shambles’

Surprise as MPs hear department has policy of not asking prospective public appointment candidates for references
Sarah Healey. Screengrab: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

13 Jan 2022

Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport permanent secretary Sarah Healey has told MPs she will talk to other departments about their public appointments practices after it emerged that DCMS has a policy of not seeking references for shortlisted candidates.

Healey was speaking at a special hearing of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee called after the government’s preferred choice for Charity Commission chair quit the role days after his appointment when details of previous conduct issues emerged.

The perm sec, whose department is responsible for around 400 regulated roles – including the currently-vacant chair of Ofcom and the chair of the BBC and the information commissioner – faced  repeated accusations that her department was failing with major appointments.

Martin Thomas had been due to start work as Charity Commission chair on 27 December but stepped back before formally taking up the post after The Times reported he had faced three formal misconduct complaints during his five years as chair of Women For Women International UK.

One included a 2018 incident when he mistakenly sent a photograph of himself taken in a Victoria’s Secret store to a junior female employee of the charity. He resigned from Women for Women last year following a different investigation.

Culture secretary Nadine Dorries has extended Ian Karet’s term as interim chair of the Charity Commission for a further six months while the appointment process for a permanent chair resumes.

MPs reacted with surprise yesterday when Healey told them it was not DCMS policy to take references for public appointments candidates and had not done so as part of the recruitment process that led to Thomas’s selection.

“Increasingly, references are not seen as a helpful part of recruitment processes in the private sector,  broadly, because they tend to confirm terms of someone’s employment,” she said. However, she acknowledged that the position varied across government.

“Obviously the outcome of the Charity Commission appointment was deeply disappointing for everybody involved,” Healey said.

“Martin Thomas has clearly acknowledged that he made an error of judgment in not disclosing an investigation that had been undertaken at the charity that he was chair of. And as a result of that he resigned.”

Healey told MPs DCMS now recognised it could have checked with the Charity Commission itself to see whether there were records of issues flagged with any charities that shortlisted candidates had involvement with.

She accepted proposals that DCMS should also look at the experiences of those departments who seek references for public appointments they are responsible for.

“We will talk to the public appointments teams in those departments about how they handle this, both in terms of volume but also making sure that they are useful documents and add value,” she said.

However she rejected the suggestion that there should be a cross-government policy on references for public appointments.

“Different departments are appointing for a vast range of organisations,” she said. “One of the strengths of the government and the civil service is that different departments can do things in different ways and learn from each other.”

Commissioner for public appointments praises department

Select committee chair Julian Knight described the appointment and resignation of Thomas as Charity Commission chair as a “shambles” and used the same term to describe DCMS’s wider handling of big appointments.

But he noted that Healey must have been pleased that commissioner for public appointments William Shawcross had absolved DCMS of blame in evidence to the committee earlier in the day.

Shawcross has begun an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Thomas’s appointment but repeatedly declined to answer questions on those circumstances in detail on the grounds that it would be “sub judice”.

He did, however, defend DCMS saying the department had come out of his office’s annual audit “extremely well”.

Knight challenged Shawcross’s appraisal.

“From our viewpoint what we have seen is a complete shambles in terms of the appointments that are in the purview of this committee, not only the Charity Commission chair but also the position of Ofcom chair,” he said.

“This committee is absolutely flabbergasted about the degree of which there have been such failings.”

Shawcross again defended DCMS.

“The work we have done shows that the DCMS is not a shambles, is not catastrophic,” he said.

“Nearly all the appointments they do they have done very, very well in the past year.”

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