The government’s pick to chair the Committee on Standards in Public Life, former MI5 chief Lord Jonathan Evans, has acknowledged he is an “unusual fit” to lead the committee but has insisted he has the integrity and independence to carry out the role.
Evans, who was director general of the security service between 2007 and 2013, is set to replace Lord Paul Bew, who stepped down in August. The former securocrat, who now holds a number of non-executive roles at companies including HSBC, would be a significant departure from his predecessor, a historian and politics professor.
Giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday, Evans, now a crossbench peer, said he was “in some ways a slightly unusual fit” to chair the committee, which advises the prime minister on ethical standards in the public sector across England.
His 23-year career at MI5, which included leading its international counter-terrorism efforts, was set apart from many public appointments because of its unique constitutional position and powers, he said.
“One could go for a candidate who is absolutely beyond reproach, who’s never done anything which could in any way be controversial and that probably wouldn’t be somebody with my career background,” he told the committee.
“Or you can go for someone who may have done or had more involvement in more controversial issues, but certainly from my perspective has always sought to do that giving due balance to issues of standards and ethical integrity… the selection committee clearly decided that that was the way they wished to go.”
Evans said he had decided to apply for the role after being approached by Number 10 adviser Jonathan Helliwell.
Chairing the hearing, Conservative MP David Jones challenged Evans to explain how he would ensure he could maintain independence from government. “You’ve spent most of your career behind the scenes, operating in conditions of extreme privacy. You might possibly be regarded as one of the ultimate members of the establishment,” he said.
Evans responded that his MI5 role had required him to "maintain the right distance from the political process" and that there was nothing the government could offer him that would sway his decisions. “I feel myself to be my own person and if government needs to be criticised I am quite happy to criticise government,” he said.
His experience of leading a service that was separate from, but answerable to, government had provided “some experience of trying to balance independence while taking account of the political reality”, I said. “I am used to operating in potentially quite a complex political environment,” he added, having served under home secretaries from both main political parties.
Evans said he intended to relinquish his place on the parliamentary honours committee to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, as well as "one or two" of his commercial roles to give him more time for his new post.
Speaking about his approach to the role, Evans he wanted to encourage a move away from a system where public sector leaders are expected to unthinkingly follow procedures in order to uphold high standards in public service.
“If you pile bureaucratic process on bureaucratic process then the whole thing becomes a rather deadening compliance exercise,” he added. Instead, he said public servants should be given the authority to assess risks and make informed judgements. “Where you are in uncharted territory or where there is an ambiguity, I feel it is much better if people feel a sense of responsibility to do the right thing."
He said maintaining high standards was a “hearts and minds issue” and public servants should be encouraged to speak up when they observed ways to improve services and standards.
If successfully appointed, Evans said he was keen to boost the committee's public profile. It should not aim to be constantly in the media but should keep up a “fairly regular drumbeat” of public communication on important issues, and should develop a social media footprint, he said.