The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) held an extensive session this week looking into the Grimstone Review into Public Appointments, which proposes a major change to the watchdog overseeing the way key public jobs are filled.
The Review — led by Standard Life chairman Sir Gerry Grimstone — was set up to look into the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments (CPA). It calls for a “significant shift” in the public appointments process to a “principles-based approach that will allow more flexibility and streamlined regulatory processes”, with “properly-resourced public appointment teams within departments” acting as as the “first line” of defence against impropriety.
But Grimstone's recommendations have already been questioned by former CPA Sir David Normington and the Committee for Standards in Public Life, with concern that the proposals could hand too much power to ministers and reduce the power of the CPA. Peter Riddell, government’s preferred candidate to be the next CPA, also expressed some concerns when he gave evidence to MPs at a pre-appointment hearing in March.
So what are the main areas of concern — and how did the key players respond when questioned by MPs?
Gerry Grimstone: My review of public appointments doesn’t make ministers more powerful
“Standing up for the values of the civil service is not just a slogan – it’s absolutely vital” – lunch with former first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington
Kathryn Bishop appointed as interim First Civil Service Commissioner
Public appointments watchdog will not be in thrall to ministers, says Peter Riddell, after warning from outgoing head Sir David Normington
1) Who sets the governance code?
Under the current model, the CPA is responsible for producing a code against which departments' practice in making public appointments is monitored. Grimstone recommends that the public appointment principles should be set out by a Governance Code agreed by ministers, a move Normington warned against.
Normington told told MPs that he has “had an experience where a Special Adviser handed me a draft code of practice and told me 'that is the code of practice'”.
The former CPA said he had been able to resist this move because he had the power to approve the code, but added: “if you take those powers away then my successor will have to accept what the government hands it.”
Riddell also raised concerns about this point in his first pre-appointment hearing with PACAC, but today told MPs he had had discussions with officials on this matter and is now confident that he “will play a full part in the designing of the governance code over next few months”. Challenged directly by PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin, on this point, Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said “the plan is to develop the code in consultation with the Commissioner.”
2) Will the CPA have a say over the "Senior Independent Assessors"?
Under Grimstone’s proposals, when an appointment is “significant” the panel must contain a “Senior Independent Panel Member who is knowledgeable about senior recruitment and familiar with and supportive of the Public Appointments Principles and the Governance Code”.
This individual would have responsibility “to highlight any material breaches that occur during the process”, including escalating concerns to the CPA if needed.
Normington has indicated that he would like to see the CPA have power to approve or veto this independent member. He told MPs this could be “one of the things that would tip the balance” away from undue ministerial influence by ensuring that independent assessors were truly independent.
Riddell himself believes that the CPA should be consulted on the choice of independent panel members (currently the recommendations say the CPA should be “notified”). This would create an opportunity for him to raise concerns if necessary, he said. Then, if ministers “went ahead ignoring what I said I would notify the [relevant] select committee”.
Jenkin asked Hancock whether the CPA would have a power of veto over senior independent panel members. Hancock replied that he or she “would have the power through transparency to make it clear that they are not content” if they judge an independent assessor to be inappropriate.
3) How much transparency will there be?
Both Grimstone (pictured) and Hancock emphasised the importance of increasing transparency over public appointments. But Normington was sceptical about this. “Powerful executives control what they release and when they release it,” he said, so that “if there is no follow through from a commissioner with some teeth then transparency has its limits.”
However, when asked directly by Jenkin about this issue, Hancock confirmed that the CPA would be able to decide what information should be published about public appointments.
4) The “insider’s approach” vs parliamentary scrutiny
Grimstone and Hancock both argued that the CPA should become more of a regulator rather than part of the executive playing a direct role in appointments.
Under the proposed changes, for example, the CPA would not have to approve ministers’ decisions to bypass normal recruitment processes in exceptional circumstances. But if ministers decide to bypass the process and the CPA does not think this is justified, he or she could report concerns to parliament.
Normington was concerned that changes like this remove the chance for the commissioner to intervene early in the appointments process. “Under the current system it’s possible for commissioner to intervene earlier where he sees problems arising,” Normington said.
“I’m fearful that under Grimstone there will be no choice but to make an issue public, because a number of things that the commissioner now has the power to do he will not have the power to do.”
He added that “governments get fed up if a regulator is constantly reporting to parliament.”
Speaking later in the session, Riddell acknowledged that if appointed as CPA he would take a different tack to Normington’s “insider approach”.
He argued the CPA will still have the power to get involved at various stages with the process, and that “going public and talking to relevant select committee is a pretty powerful action” which will also act as a deterrent against inappropriate behaviour.