Public appointments watchdog will not be in thrall to ministers, says Peter Riddell, after warning from outgoing head Sir David Normington

Government's preferred candidate to succeed Sir David Normington as Commissioner for Public Appointments says revamped process for filling top public jobs will not result in ministers "just being able to get who they want"

By Matt Foster

22 Mar 2016

Peter Riddell has rejected suggestions that he will take charge of a watered-down Commission for Public Appointments, after the outgoing head of the watchdog, Sir David Normington, warned plans to change its remit could hand too much power to ministers over key public jobs. 

The Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments was set up in 1995, and aims to ensure that ministers only appoint people to key posts in non-departmental public bodies, including regulators and NHS trusts, on merit. 

But Normington has said there are "serious questions" over the future of the watchdog after a government-commissioned report by Sir Gerry Grimstone called for a "significant shift" in its work, with a greater emphasis on departmental self-regulation and more say for ministers over appointments. 

Peter Riddell lined up to succeed David Normington as public appointments watchdog
Sir David Normington: The five reasons I'm concerned about plans to overhaul the public appointments process

In an article shared with CSW this week, Normington said his expected successor, Riddell – a journalist and currently head of the Institute for Government think tank – was "a person of great integrity" who would be willing to "stand up for the principle that public appointments should be made on merit". 

However, Normington said the proposals appeared "to remove most of the commissioner’s powers", saying the model envisaged by the Grimstone review would "transfer this rule-setting power to government" and reduce the role of independent auditors in ensuring ministers were playing by the rules. 

While the current system allows ministers to suggest candidates for top jobs, those suggestions are then vetted by public appointment panels, which are subject to external audit by the watchdog. 

Normington's article makes clear that he has particular concerns about the make-up of selection panels, with the outgoing Public Appointments Commissioner saying the Grimstone proposals would see them "wholly appointed by ministers" and "expected to give automatic interviews to individuals suggested by ministers, irrespective of whether they match the criteria for the role". 

Riddell was pressed on those concerns when he appeared before MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC) select committee – which must give its blessing to his appointment – this week. 

He acknowledged that the Grimstone proposals would "clearly" mean "a change in direction... towards greater ministerial accountability" for public appointments, but argued that this was a welcome shift.

"My own view is that it is good to recognise that, essentially, it's ministers that are accountable for making appointments," he said. "They're elected, they're held to account in this House and elsewhere. And I think that is desirable."

But he denied that the new system would be weaker than the one overseen by Normington. 

"He's raised concerns," Riddell told the committee. "But it's also a different model being proposed. He has very successfully operated one model. A different model's been proposed."

"A long way to go"

Normington had, Riddell said, "raised valid questions" on the oversight of selection panels, and he promised to pursue those concerns in discussions with ministers if approved as the next Commissioner.

However, he distanced himself from Normington's broader worry: "He's concerned that the commissioner's being pushed out. I would see the commissioner having a different role but still one, crucially, to reassure the public." 

And he said he would push to ensure that there was close consultation between departments and the CPA on the independent panel members chosen by departments for the most "significant" public jobs, including chairs of public bodies.

"If I felt any concern they weren't sufficiently independent I would express that an earlier stage because I think there would be a problem in being too far back on that," he said. 

"Merit is absolutely central"

PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin (pictured), however, warned that there could be a perception Riddell was being brought in to do ministers' bidding. 

"People are going to say, aren't they, that you're being put into this role to deliver a system which resolves some of the political frustrations that have long been expressed, particularly by Conservatives, that somehow we don't get our people in and that you're going to be the non-civil service steeped, non-impartial commissioner for public appointments, who is going to implement the Grimstone report which the government itself commissioned in order to dilute the controls that have existed over public appointments. What do you say that that?" 

Pushing back, Riddell said while he could "recognise the point being made", he "wouldn't have accepted the nomination just to do that".

"I would see my role as to reassure the public. And I do see, very strongly, a role of ensuring that it's not a matter for ministers. Ministers do make decisions – but not ministers just being able to get who they want, far from it. The criteria of merit is absolutely central to it. 

"That's why I would see a role in being involved in the selection panels, which is crucial to this, to ensuring that these are not made up of people who can be described as too close to ministers." He added: "If I see something going wrong I will not be silent on it [...] I will raise it with ministers. And if necessary, I will raise it with the House."

The committee will now consider whether to approve Riddell's appointment over the coming weeks. 

The government is currently recruiting separately for Normington's replacement as First Civil Service Commissioner, the role ensuring that top civil service posts are awarded on merit and ensuring adherance to the Civil Service Code.

Normington, whose fixed-term comes to an end on March 31, has held both roles since they were merged in 2011, but the government has opted to split them again as part of its response to the Grimstone report.

A spokesperson for the Commissioner for Public Appointments has stressed that Normington's concerns focus specifically on senior public appointments side of his two roles, and not senior civil service appointments.

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