MPs back Peter Riddell's bid to become public appointments commissioner – with caveats

MPs give qualified backing to Peter Riddell as new watchdog overseeing top public sector appointment – but say they will keep an eye on danger of "politicisation" in the wake of planned shake-up of the role

By Matt Foster

14 Apr 2016

MPs have given their qualified backing to Peter Riddell, the government's preferred candidate to head up the public appointments watchdog, but say they are concerned that the planned shake-up of the commissioner's role could lead to "an increasing politicisation of senior public appointments".

The previous commissioner for public appointments, Sir David Normington, stepped down at the end of March following a five-year term at the body ensuring top public jobs are filled on merit. But he has expressed disquiet over the future of the post in the wake of a government-commissioned review by Standard Life chairman Sir Gerry Grimstone.

Normington told CSW in an interview published this week that he was concerned the proposed changes to the organisation would give ministers "much greater control" over top public appointments, and "weaken the powers of the public appointments commissioner".

"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
Peter Riddell lined up to succeed David Normington as public appointments watchdog
Gerry Grimstone: My review of public appointments doesn’t make ministers more powerful

"As a result I am much less confident that merit will always be the guiding principle in public appointments if the proposed changes go ahead," he said. 

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee has now published its verdict on Normington's proposed successor, Riddell, after two evidence sessions with the former Times journalist and current director of the Institute for Government think tank.

The committee says Riddell, who also writes a regular column for CSW, has had "a long and distinguished career" – but they say he may lack experience "of managing a large organisation or of making appointments".

"Therefore, while PACAC endorses his appointment as the Commissioner for Public Appointments, this endorsement is not unqualified," the MPs add.

"PACAC will be closely monitoring how he works with ministers to implement the Grimstone review’s recommendations and how he responds to the recommendations PACAC will make on the Grimstone review in due course.

"We intend to be a critical friend of Mr Riddell as Commissioner for Public Appointments and will make use of our ability to carry out follow-up scrutiny if necessary to make sure that our concerns are being heard.

"We agree with Sir Gerry Grimstone that the role of Commissioner for Public Appointments should be robust and authoritative and not be undermined."

While the MPs say they will carry out a full inquiry into the Grimstone proposals after the government has set out its plans in detail, they remain "concerned" that the changes "as interpreted by the government, alongside other changes such as the introduction of Enlarged Ministerial Offices, may be leading to an increasing politicisation of senior public appointments".

"Substantial reduction in powers"

The committee is also critical of the timeframe it has been given by the government to vet the appointment, saying that delays to the Grimstone review left it with "no opportunity, by the time of Mr Riddell’s appearance before the Committee on 21 March" to consider the impact of the planned changes.

And they recommend that, in future, the CPA post is subject not just to the approval of a select committee, but to wider scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament, as is already the case with the chair of the UK Statistics Authority and the head of the National Audit Office spending watchdog.

"Such a resolution would underline, and act as a public reassurance of, the independence and status of the Commissioner for Public Appointments," the committee adds.

They say a "similar procedure" should also apply to the post of First Civil Service Commissioner, which was also filled by Normington but which has now been split from the CPA job.

Publishing his committee's verdict on Riddell's appointment, PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin (pictured) said that while there had been "no formal objection" to the outgoing IfG director taking on the job, some of PACAC's members had "expressed their concern that Mr Riddell lacks experience of working in a large organisation, or in a regulated environment, or in making or supervising major appointments".

He added: "This concern was amplified in the context of the recommendations of the Grimstone review into public appointments, which propose a substantial reduction in the direct powers of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. This profoundly alters the context of this appointment."

Committee member Ronnie Cowan – a Scottish National Party MP – meanwhile questioned the way the government had advertised the appointment on the Cabinet Office website, arguing that the post should have been "widely publicised across the spectrum of the United Kingdom’s society to encourage a diverse range of applicants".

He added: "Instead we have gone down the traditional route which will reaffirm the public's view of cronyism and engenders disenchantment and apathy."

The public appointments row explained:
Grimstone Review of Public Appointments: what are the key concerns?
Gerry Grimstone: My review of public appointments doesn’t make ministers more powerful
Sir David Normington: The five reasons I'm concerned about plans to overhaul the public appointments process


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