There are "serious questions" over the government's plans to overhaul the way people are recruited to key public posts, the outgoing public appointments watchdog Sir David Normington has said.
The Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments was established in 1995, and was based on Lord Nolan's influential review of Standards in Public Life, carried out following a series of high-profile sleaze scandals involving public figures.
The CPA – whose remit includes oversight of appointments to non-departmental bodies such as the Environment Agency, NHS trusts, and regulators including Ofsted and Ofwat – aims to ensure that ministers only appoint people to public boards on merit.
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The Cabinet Office last year commissioned Sir Gerry Grimstone, chair of insurance firm Standard Life, to carry out a review of the watchdog.
But Grimstone's report, published on Friday, makes a number of recommendations that Normington – who also regulates the appointment of top civil service jobs in his role as First Civil Service Commissioner – believes could weaken the power of the watchdog.
“I welcome the decision to publish the Grimstone report but its proposals, if implemented in full, would be a step in the wrong direction," Normington said in a statement.
"Their cumulative effect would be largely to remove the checks and balances recommended by Lord Nolan 20 years ago.
"I welcome the government’s commitment to consider views on the report and discuss it with my successor. There are serious questions to be asked about whether it gets the balance right between the power of ministers to appoint and the Nolan principle of appointment on merit after fair and open process.”
Normington is understood to have concerns that the overall effect of the Grimstone recommendations would be to shift oversight of appointments away from the watchdog and towards departments.
At the moment, the CPA has the power to appoint independent auditors to check up on whether departments are making appointments in line with the principles of merit, fairness, and openness.
But Grimstone's report calls for a "significant shift" in the public appointments process to a "principles-based approach that will allow more flexibility and streamlined regulatory processes", with "properly-resourced public appointment teams within departments" acting as as the "first line" of defence against impropriety.
Under Grimstone's proposals, senior officials – usually accounting officers – would be responsible for certifying that appointments "in which ministers have had a material involvement" had been made in line with the principles, with that information "kept and open to inspection at any time" by the watchdog.
Accounting officers will then provide an annual update to the CPA on their department's compliance with the principles.
Concerns over ministers' role
Normington – who leaves post at the end of March – is also understood to have reservations about Grimstone's recommendations on the role of ministers in the appointments process.
Under the current system, ministers agree job descriptions and levels of remuneration for posts, and are free to suggest candidates for vetting by departments' public appointment panels.
The Cabinet Office's response to the Grimstone report, however, says that there should be a "presumption" that those candidates should be interviewed – which a CPA spokesperson explained could mark a departure from the current process in which ministers' suggested candidates are treated like all others before the interview stage.
Grimstone also says that ministers "should be kept in touch with the progress of appointments at regular intervals by an official from their department serving on the panel", and says that this "should also be the mechanism that enables them to feed in their comments to the panel".
The Cabinet Office says it "agrees with Sir Gerry that as well as keeping the minister updated on progress at every stage, the panel must be made familiar with the minister’s requirements and views in writing or in person at every stage including after the long and short lists are determined.
The department adds: "The official on the panel will also represent the minister’s views. Before interviews are conducted ministers should feel free to put names forward to the advisory assessment panel for interview. The presumption should be for these candidates to be interviewed."
Grimstone's report does stress, however that appointment panels will have the power to push back against a minister's recommendation.
"If a panel does not think it appropriate to interview such a candidate, the panel chair should inform the minister of the reasons for this before informing the candidate of the rejection," Grimstone says, while adding that ministers should have "no further involvement in the panel’s deliberations" once a final list for interview has been agreed.
He also says that any minister who circumvents the system should "have to justify both publicly and to the regulator, as well as potentially to parliament, why they had chosen to disregard the views of the panel".
CPA role split
As well as endorsing Grimstone's call for a shift in the role of the CPA, the Cabinet Office has also opted to once again separate the post from that of First Civil Service Commissioner.
The posts were merged in 2011, with Normington – a former permanent secretary at the Home Office – asked to take on both jobs.
Grimstone says the CPA should be a "part-time role of one to two days a week" supported by "a small, independent staff".
Competitions for both roles are underway, and Normington's fixed five-year term must come to an end on March 31. Ahead of the new commissioners taking up post, they must be subject to a pre-appointment hearing by MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (Pacac).
That leaves just three over weeks for a successor to Normington to be named and vetted by MPs, and Pacac chair Bernard Jenkin told CSW he was "as surprised about the delay as everyone else".
Despite Normington's public concerns over the shake-up of the roles he is set to vacate, Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has written to the outgoing commissioner to pay tribute to his time in post.
"None of this would be possible without your excellent work as Commissioner for Public Appointments," he said.
"The radical approach you took to the bureaucratic regime you inherited, moving towards a much more principles-based mode of regulation, has left a strong legacy on which to build."