Ministers should not be allowed to override concerns raised about senior public appointments by select committees without a vote in the House of Commons, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has said.
Around 50 public sector posts require government's favoured candidates to be questioned by a select committee before they are confirmed in the appointment, to ensure their suitability and bolster public confidence in the process. Committees make recommendations based on these pre-appointment hearings, but they do not have the power to veto a candidate.
MPs should be given the opportunity to debate and vote on controversial appointments in an effort to “encourage a pause for reflection and meaningful engagement between ministers and committees, rather than confrontation”, the committee said in a report published this week.
The need to shore up pre-appointment hearings is especially pressing in light of reforms to public appointments in 2017, the committee said. The reforms brought into effect the recommendations of the Grimstone review, carried out by Standard Life chairman Sir Gerry Grimstone in 2015, and gave ministers greater powers over public appointments, reducing the oversight of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
“Given the weakening of the assurance provided by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the role of pre-appointment hearings in reassuring the public and improving diversity is now even more important,” the committee said.
MPs said they were not convinced ministers always take negative reports by select committees seriously as the majority to date have been rejected, “sometimes apparently out of hand”. “When there is a disagreement between a committee and a minister on a candidate, recent experience shows there is a need to ensure that ministers seriously consider the committee’s concerns,” the report said.
The PACAC opened its inquiry in March following a disagreement between the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the department it scrutinises over a Charity Commission appointment. The government installed Baroness Stowell, a former Conservative minister, as chair of the charity watchdog despite the committee saying it had “fundamental concerns about her suitability for the post”.
As well as examining individual appointments, the report recommended that committees also look closely at ministers’ and officials’ handling of recruitment processes. They should look at whether the government is meeting its stated aim of increasing the diversity of senior appointments, it said, both with regards to protected characteristics such as race and gender, and experience.
The report also called on the Cabinet Office to come up with a set of principles setting out when pre-appointment hearings are needed, and to use this to update the list it maintains of public posts that are subject to hearings. The chief executives of the Pensions Regulator and the funding body UK Research and Innovation, as well as the chairs of NHS Digital and the National Infrastructure Commission, are among 18 positions it recommended adding to the list.
The Cabinet Office should also produce a guide informing government departments which roles they can expect to be subject to pre-appointment hearings, the PACAC said.