Gisela Stuart's imminent appointment as civil service watchdog 'raises questions', Starmer says

Ex-Vote Leave chair is "closely politically connected to the current government", Labour leader says
Gisela Stuart and Boris Johnson on the 2019 general election campaign trail. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Opposition leader Keir Starmer has written to the Cabinet Office questioning former Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart’s impending appointment as civil service watchdog.

In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, Starmer said there were questions about whether Baroness Stuart could “provide advice and oversight that is independent, impartial and objective” as first civil service commissioner given her career history.

Last week the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee endorsed Stuart for the role, despite some of its members expressing “reservations” about her suitability for the job. MPs were particularly concerned about Stuart’s “perceived impartiality”, they said.

Before heading up the pro-Brexit campaign, Stuart was a Labour MP and health minister.

In his letter seen by HuffPost UK, Starmer said: “She is closely politically connected to the current government and has campaigned with many of them on important political matters that are still relevant to the challenges faced by departments.

“This means that there are questions over whether she is in a position to provide advice and oversight that is independent, impartial and objective," the Labour leader wrote.

“Her appointment as the first civil service commissioner raises similar questions.”

The letter echoed similar concerns that have been circulating since Stuart was announced as ministers’ preferred candidate to succeed Sir Ian Watmore in December – which wold make her the first politician in more than 100 years to take on the role.

PACAC green-lit Stuart’s appointment “on the basis of her answers to the questions put to her” at a pre-appointment hearing earlier this month.

The former politician told the committee she believed it was “becoming clearer” that while the first civil service commissioner should understand the civil service, “it’s increasingly felt they probably shouldn’t be someone who comes from the civil service”.

“Impartiality also has to be underpinned by skills and ability to do the job,” she said.

"And therefore I think the recruitment principles are something where you may want to revisit, in terms of whether it still embraces the principles required from the civil service. But I don’t in any sense undermine the impartiality.”

She also indicated she intends to open up director-level recruitment so all posts at this level are advertised externally, and suggested the civil service should reorient away from being an organisation that prized generalists.

“I think the more we can attract the skills into the civil service and allow them to deliver their best, the more we take away this notion that we always have to turn to the private sector,” she said.

And she said she would “want to take a good look at what is being done and whether more can be done” to ensure people are aware of and observe the civil service code.

“Observance and awareness of the code has to be at every level,” she said.

Responding to Starmer's comments, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "Baroness Stuart applied through open and fair competition. Her application was carefully considered on its merits by the panel, which interviewed her and found that she was appointable.

"The government considers Baroness Stuart to have the breadth of experience, attributes and independence of judgement needed to effectively lead the Civil Service Commission."

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