It is not the job of departmental non-executive directors to rein in "misbehaving" ministers, Michael Gove has said, as he faced his first grilling from MPs as justice secretary.
During the last parliament, the coalition government significantly expanded the role that non-execs – drawn largely from the private sector – play on departmental boards, as part of efforts to broaden the outside experience available to Whitehall and sharpen scrutiny.
Gove, who was appointed to the justice brief following the Conservatives’ election victory, has since overseen a shake-up of his department’s board, with lead non-exec Tim Breedon leaving post along with all remaining non-executive members.
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The justice secretary has appointed Sir Theodore Agnew – previously a non-executive director at the Department for Education (DfE) and a Conservative party donor – as chair of the department’s audit and risk committee as the Ministry of Justice seeks a fresh non-exec team.
The overhaul prompted Labour to complain of the "creeping politicisation of Whitehall", but the justice secretary today defended the right of ministers to choose their own non-execs, and said Agnew had been part of a "a great team" at the DfE.
“I wanted to make sure that I have a team of non executive directors who can help me, ministers and civil servants to achieve a quite ambitious reform programme,” Gove told MPs on the justice committee.
“Theodore Agnew, who worked with me at the Department for Education and then voluntarily stood down, has accepted a position as a non-executive director and I’m looking to appoint more non-executive directors in due course.
"But… I think it’s important to stress – while different people have different views on this – non-executive directors are ministerial appointments. Some people have tried to argue that non-executive directors are there in effect, to sit on the minister's shoulder and tell him or her off when they are misbehaving. That’s not the role of a non-exec. They are there as ministerial appointments to help the ministers, to help the civil servants, to provide leadership and direction to our reform programme.”
According the latest figures, there are now more than 60 non-execs working across 17 central government departments, with 34% drawn from the professional services sector (which includes law, academia and health), 27% from finance, and 19% from the technology, media and creative industries. Six percent are drawn from the government or not-for-profit sector.
Before the election, a number of senior figures in the Labour party questioned whether non-execs were being appointed because of their political allegiances, rather than on merit.
Lord Falconer – now Gove’s opposite number as shadow justice secretary – told Civil Service World in April: “We back the idea of people who can genuinely bring an independent – meaning independent of the department – pair of eyes, with particular expertise that is relevant to the particular department […]
"But there are non-executive directors who haven’t necessarily been appointed on the basis of their ability to do what I’ve just described but because of their relationship with a political party. And that’s not going to bring the independence that we look for."
Non-execs are entitled to an annual fee of £15,000 for their work, with lead non-execs taking home £20,000. The government’s lead non-executive director Sir Ian Cheshire said in his annual report – published earlier this month – that 31% of the non-execs working across Whitehall had opted to waive their fee or donate it to charity.
Elsewhere in Wednesday's committee session, Gove confirmed that civil service chief executive John Manzoni was conducting a review of the way the MoJ had handled contracts for the electronic tagging of offenders, in a bid to "get delivery back on track".
The Ministry of Justice stripped previous suppliers Serco and G4S of their responsibility for tagging criminals in 2013, amid claims the firms had charged for work which had not taken place. G4S agreed to repay £109m to the MoJ, while the department also reached a £70m settlement with Serco. Both firms are the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Serious Fraud Office over the claims.
The MoJ has since awarded tagging contracts to Capita and Steatite, but the justice secretary was asked by Labour's Christina Rees to comment on reports of continued "technical hitches" with electronic tagging.
Gove replied: "It has certainly been the case that we’ve had a number of problems.
"If you can get electronic monitoring right, if you can get tagging right, then there is a huge potential to give the courts an additional weapon in their armoury for dealing with a particular type of offender.
"But part of the problem we’ve had is that – without going into all the commercial detail – we’ve had a deeply unsatisfactory process so far. John Manzoni… is looking at precisely why we’ve got into the situation we have, with some recommendations I hope forthcoming about how we can get delivery back on track. But yes, it’s definitely been a problem, a big problem."