Ministers urged to ditch "retrograde" shake-up of anti-sleaze appointments watchdog

The Grimstone overhaul of the Commissioner for Public Appointments "risks a loss of public confidence and trust" in the way key quango jobs are filled, warn MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Cabinet Office, Whitehall, London. Image: Anthony Devlin/PA

By Matt Foster

07 Jul 2016

The Cabinet Office has been urged to rethink its plan to change the watchdog set up to ensure top public sector jobs are filled on merit, after MPs warned the proposals could "undermine the entire basis of independent appointments".

The Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments was established in 1995 after a series of high-profile sleaze scandals triggered the Nolan Review into standards in public life. It aims to ensure that ministers do not appoint people to key posts in non-departmental public bodies – including regulators, inspectorates and art galleries – for political reasons or without due process.

But a review into the role was commissioned by the Cabinet Office last year, with businessman Sir Gerry Grimstone calling for a "much more streamlined principles-based system" that would remove a number of the office's formal powers, including its power to appoint independent assessors to the interview panels for key roles. Grimstone's report described the present system as overly bureaucratic, and said it could "generate a huge amount of frustration among candidates" for public roles.

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A new report by MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) says that there is "widespread disquiet" about the Grimstone plans – which have already been criticised by the former Commissioner for Public Appointments Sir David Normington.

While the committee says it does not disagree with the need for a review of the public appointments process, it says such an exercise should have "aimed to reinforce the changes made by Sir David Normington" during his time as commissioner, and which departments are only just putting into force.

"Instead, the Grimstone review threatens to undermine the entire basis of independent appointments," the committee says.

"Given the criticisms that have been made, it is clear that, without extensive amendment, the Grimstone proposals will not and cannot sustain public confidence" – Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

"Rather than build on Sir David’s work, it effectively demolishes the safeguards built up by Lord Nolan. The government’s adoption of the Grimstone proposals is very worrying. The government must make significant changes to the proposals in order to robustly deliver a public appointments process in which the public can have confidence."

During PACAC's inquiry, Sir David told MPs that he had particular concern about the plan to scrap the existing system of independent assessors, who are appointed by the commissioner and sit on interview panels for key jobs to ensure adherance to the rules. The Grimstone report instead wants interviews to be chaired by figures appointed by departments themselves, a move Sir David said would strengthen ministers at the expense of the watchdog – and reduce the role of the commissioner to a “sort of commentator and bystander”.

The committee sides with that argument, saying: "Many distinguished observers of the appointments system have expressed considerable concern about Grimstone’s proposals – these must not be dismissed.

"The system of public appointments must be seen to ensure that appointments are being made on merit. Given the criticisms that have been made, it is clear that, without extensive amendment, the Grimstone proposals will not and cannot sustain public confidence."

It adds: "In particular, the Grimstone proposals significantly weaken the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

"Sir Gerry has denied this but it is clear that his report removes all powers of decision making from the Commissioner. Under Sir Gerry’s proposals, the Commissioner’s role is to expose and publicise flaws in the process for any particular appointments."

The MPs say the proposal for departments themselves to appoint independent interview assessors is "a retrograde step", putting at risk the "increased consistency" in public appointments since 1995 with a move that would "grant individual departments more power".

"The government should reconsider their stance on this issue, taking into account the representations that we have received from the former commissioner and other commentators," the report adds.

Riddell urges transparency push

The report also highlights concerns expressed by the new commissioner, Sir Peter Riddell (pictured), who told the committee in a letter that while "considerable progress" had been made on drawing up a new governance code for public appointments, he still had reservations about the political independence of panel members.

"I fully accept the Grimstone view that political activity should not be a bar either to appointment to a public body or serving on an advisory assessment panel," Riddell writes.

"Far from it, there are clear advantages in suitably qualified people with party affiliations serving on panels and they can make an important contribution.

"But I do not believe that the man or woman in the street would consider someone to be properly independent if they had links to the public body concerned, the appointing department, or the governing party, whose ministers are making the appointment."

Riddell also says he is "keen to ensure there is no slippage around Whitehall" on the Grimstone report's promise to increase transparency by making each department's ongoing appointments publicly available via their GOV.UK website.

"I believe it is essential that the new transparency and appointments systems are launched at the same time" – Commissioner for Public Appointments Peter Riddell

"I believe it is essential that the new transparency and appointments systems are launched at the same time," the commissioner writes. "This would give a clear public signal about the new approach rather than if transparency comes in in a piecemeal way."

Launching his committee's report, PACAC chairman Bernard Jenkin said that the Grimstone proposals in their current form threatened "to undermine the Nolan principles that have been the heart of the public appointments system since 1995".

"We need to have a fair system of public appointments that produces a diverse and talented group of people to run major institutions in the public sector," he added.

"The Grimstone report does include a commitment to diversity and we welcome that, however it also undermines the role of the Public Appointments Commissioner, extends ministers' powers too widely and risks a loss of public confidence and trust in the process of appointments to public bodies.

"Ministers should bear in mind that the current arrangements were put in place to protect them and they should therefore reverse their endorsement of the Grimstone report."

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