Hancock affair prompts call for crackdown on departmental non execs

Labour says health secretary’s romantic links to Gina Coladangelo are proof system is “unfit for purpose”
Out of office: Matt Hancock Credit: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

29 Jun 2021

Matt Hancock’s decision to bring in a longstanding friend and lover as a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care should be the final straw that prompts a review of the whole system of departmental non-executive directors, the Labour Party has said.

Deputy party leader Angela Rayner said the former health secretary’s appointment of Gina Coladangelo last September is the latest example of the Conservative Party turning a system introduced to provide challenge to ministers into one that is unfit for purpose.

“Non-executive directors of Whitehall departments are supposed to hold ministers to account,” she told the Guardian.

“The behaviour of the Conservatives has proved beyond all doubt that the rules and regulations that are supposed to prevent conflicts of interest and close the revolving door between Whitehall and business are unfit for purpose and need a radical overhaul.”

Last week the campaign group Open Democracy said Coladangelo is one of 16 non-executive director appointments with close ties to the Conservative Party, out of some 80 departmental NEDs.

It cited former Conservative vice-chairman Dominic Johnson, who is also a business partner of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was appointed as an NED at the Department for International Trade in December; former Conservative and UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, a DIT non-exec; and Nick Timothy, former joint chief of staff to Theresa May, who was appointed as a non-exec at the Department for Education.

The use of non-executive board members at departments is not new,  but the role was given additional impetus by coalition government-era Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, now Lord Maude.

Last year, public appointments commissioner Peter Riddell said there were “growing concerns” about the lack of regulation of appointments for non-executive members of the boards of government departments.

"The original idea of bringing in people with business and similar experience from outside Whitehall has been partly replaced by the appointment of political allies of ministers, in some cases without competition, and without any form of regulatory oversight,” he wrote in a letter to Lord Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Riddell’s term of office as public appointments commissioner is due to end in September. Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has yet to name his preferred candidate to succeed Riddell.

Last year Cabinet Office permanent secretary and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm was forced to defend the appointment of a swathe of new non execs at his department at an evidence session held by parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

They included Baroness Simone Finn, a one-time adviser to Maude; Henry de Zoete, a former special adviser to Gove; and the former MP Gisela Stuart, now Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston, who was a Vote Leave ally of Gove’s.

PACAC chair William Wragg told the perm sec that as a “collective whole” the new appointments might not necessarily be seen as “completely impartial”.

Chisholm said the new board members were “very independent minded” and had not been shy to challenge Gove.

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