Sir Gerry Grimstone, author of a recent review into the watchdog overseeing the public appointments process, has hit back against claims that his recommendations would give ministers too much power when filling top jobs.
Grimstone’s report was published last month, and has been publicly criticised by the Committee on Standards for Public Life, and former Commissioner for Public Appointments David Normington, who said the recommendations could remove the checks and balances on ministers’ power which have been in place since the 1995 Nolan review of Standards in Public Life.
Speaking to MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), Grimstone insisted his proposals were true to Nolan’s principles, and said increasing transparency around public appointments would be a more effective way to scrutinise ministers’ actions.
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“I want this to be much more open,” he told MPs, “and I think Nolan would approve of that.”
He added: “I don’t want to hand [ministers] more power; I want to make them more transparent.”
Under Grimstone’s recommendations, departments’ websites would display more information about the ongoing public appointment processes, and the Commissioner for Public Appointments (CPA) would publish concerns about recruitments and appointments immediately.
Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock also gave evidence, and echoed Grimstone’s views on transparency, saying it would then be for select committees to challenge government based on information published by the CPA.
“Contemporaneous transparency” under the new system “will be much more effective” than simply publishing a round-up of events in an annual report, Hancock said, adding: “Parliament holding people to account based on that transparent information is the best way to keep the system real.”
Although Normington has expressed concern that the CPA will have less power to ensure recruitment is carried out according to the Nolan principles, both Hancock and Grimstone argued that the commissioner should not play an active role in appointments, instead taking on the role of a regulator.
Hancock argued that this in fact reflected Nolan’s original intention.
“The central problem is about whether the CPA is part of the executive sitting on panels, or is a regulator and an auditor,” he said. “It’s very clear in Nolan that the role envisaged for the commissioner is as a regulator.”
Jenkin: concerns "addressed, if not allayed"
Bernard Jenkin, chair of PACAC, said the committee’s concerns had been “at least addressed, if not allayed” by the minister’s evidence, but he pressed Hancock on a number of specific concerns, including whether the CPA would be able to design the audit process for scrutinising how departments make appointments. And he later indicated that the committee may seek to strengthen parliament’s role in scrutinising government’s candidates for two public appointment watchdog roles.
The commmittee also took further evidence from Peter Riddell (pictured), the government’s preferred candidate to become the next Commissioner for Public Appointments (CPA).
During the pre-appointment hearing, Jenkin asked Riddell whether he would agree that “to bolster” the role, both the CPA post and the separate office of First Civil Service Commissioner should be subject to a resolution to both Houses of Parliament, rather than the posts being simply scrutinised by one select committee.
Riddell said he would personally be “strongly supportive of that” but added that it was a decision for ministers.
Normington - who shared his concerns over the future of the CPA in an in-depth interview with Civil Service World - meanwhile voiced support for Grimstone’s proposal that all public appointments should come under the CPA’s scrutiny, and backed the government’s move to split the roles of First Civil Service Commissioner and Commissioner for Public Appointments.
The government has yet to name a preferred candidate for the role of First Civil Service Commissioner, with the post currently being filled on an interim basis by Kathryn Bishop.
Jenkin asked Hancock the reason for this delay, with the minister responding: “In that case it is a matter of getting cross-government agreement.”