Michael Gove adopted an extreme version of the departmental non-executive director model during his time at the Cabinet Office, using NEDS similarly to spads and ministers, MPs have been told.
The admission came in a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee session on departments’ use of non-executive directors in government and the benefits they can bring, which took evidence from former government lead non-exec Sir Ian Cheshire and others.
MPs heard that while some secretaries of state – including former foreign secretaries Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab – did not want to engage with their department’s non-executive teams, others went in the opposite direction.
Cheshire, who was government's lead NED from 2015 to 2020, said Gove had embraced the use of non-executive directors from a “completely different end of the spectrum”.
“He almost had people acting as his spads and ministers by the end,” Cheshire said.
In 2020, Gove appointed a tranche of non-execs at the Cabinet Office that included his former Vote Leave ally Baroness Gisela Stuart and Baroness Simone Finn, an ex-special adviser to Francis Maude. The cohort also included Henry de Zoete, who previously served as a spad to Gove when he was education secretary.
At the time of the appointments PACAC members expressed scepticism about the ability of Gove’s choices to offer impartial advice on the Cabinet Office’s performance.
Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm insisted Stuart, Finn and de Zoete were part of an “opinionated, experienced and very diverse” team. “I’m satisfied they’re exercising a proper support and challenge function,” he said.
Cheshire told last week’s PACAC session that he had concerns about working peers also serving as NEDs and had tried to get a ban “written into the process”.
“It did not feel appropriate to have working peers on as non-execs, because you are, essentially, part of the legislature and this is an independent government advisory group,” he said.
But Cheshire accepted that there is “nothing in black and white” that says political appointments cannot be made for non-exec roles and that secretaries of state can hire anyone they want, “unless it is someone completely inappropriate”.
“There is currently a broad enough definition that allows for the more Michael Gove end of the model versus a more independent model,” he said.
Asked whether there had been many NEDs with political backgrounds appointed during his time as government lead non-exec, Cheshire said there had been “very few” and mentioned only Stuart and Finn by name.
“They were from different political parties and there was no overt packing of appointees,” he said. Stuart was a Labour MP until standing down from her seat at the 2017 general election.
Finn is a Conservative peer. Neither served out their full terms as non-execs. Stuart was appointed first civil service commissioner earlier this year.
Miranda Curtis, former lead non-exec at the Foreign Office, said there had been one direct political appointment to the department on her watch. She questioned whether there was a “lack of understanding” among secretaries of state about the degree of challenge that an independent non-exec could bring.
“We have all experienced appointments being made in departments of political allies of ministers or secretaries of state, who come in as super-spads,” she said. “That is clearly a different role from the role of an independent non-exec. Some ministers did not see that distinction.”
She told MPs that her sense and experience was that the role of non-exec teams was to “focus on the ‘how’ of policy and not the ‘what’ of policy”.
“We come into a department where the secretary of state, or the foreign secretary in my case, is the arbiter of policy, and the organisation is there to deliver on that,” she said. “As non-executives, we can help make that process more effective.”
Curtis suggested that there was a risk that political appointments to non-exec roles would result in a “blurring of the lines”.
Former Department for Culture Media and Sport perm sec Dame Sue Street served as a non-executive director at the Ministry of Justice from 2012 to 2015.
She praised Ken Clarke as “a model of an engaged secretary of state” in terms of his ability to run a board.
“He would mix with us informally and ask, ‘How do you think that went? What should I really concentrate on?’ He had a very clear strategic view of what he wanted to achieve in the Ministry of Justice,” she said. “That is what good looks like.”