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Public Bodies: Appointments

Volume 789: debated on Thursday 1 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following publication of the report of the Commissioner for Public Appointments on appointments to the Board of the Office for Students, what steps they are taking to ensure that future appointments made by ministers to the boards of public bodies are in line with the Governance Code 2016.

My Lords, the Governance Code on Public Appointments was introduced in January 2017. Ministers are required to make appointments in accordance with the code as well as the relevant legislation. The Commissioner for Public Appointments provides independent assurance that the governance code is followed. The Government are grateful for the commissioner’s report on the appointments process to the board of the Office for Students. We will consider his recommendations carefully to ensure best practice for future public appointments.

My Lords, in addition to his department’s lamentable performance over the appointment of Mr Toby Young, the commissioner’s report identified a number of problems which relate to many public appointments. They include all-male appointment panels, failure to provide information to the commissioner in good time and risking, as he said, the independence of boards by a too-partisan approach to appointments. The Minister referred to the code. What is the point of the code if Ministers such as Jo Johnson can ignore it with impunity? What action will be taken against Mr Johnson for so grievously breaking the code?

There is no evidence that the Minister broke the ministerial code. In terms of the governance code, there are some failings and the noble Lord will be aware of those. This Government set up the governance code following the independent review by Sir Gerry Grimstone and I am pleased that that is the case. The commissioner himself pointed out that in his experience, this episode is unrepresentative of the hundreds of public appointments that take place each year.

Can my noble friend reflect on the appointments made by the previous Labour Government and perhaps advise the Opposition that people who live in glass-houses should not throw stones?

I appreciate what my noble friend says but I am not going to be drawn into that because the issue at hand is what we are doing about these issues. We are taking action. We recognise the need to learn from this campaign and accept that our due diligence for Toby Young was not extensive enough. We are reviewing our due diligence and the Department for Education has established, as I said earlier, a nominations committee.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will accept that the argument, “Well, you lot were as bad as we are,” is not one of the best defences one could offer. Given that this Government are committed both to greater transparency in government and to restoring parliamentary sovereignty, is it not time to consider that at least the chairs of public bodies appointed by the Government ought to be confirmed by parliamentary committees? To take a clear example, I can recall that successive appointments to the chair of the Charity Commission, under both Labour and Conservative Governments, have been challenged and deeply controversial. There is going to be unavoidable controversy in such an area, and it would be appropriate to lessen the partisanship of the criticism by submitting such appointments to the approval of a parliamentary committee.

I take note of the noble Lord’s views. I think that the Government would be grateful for many views in this respect because many public appointments can be controversial, and that has been the case not just during this Government’s time in office but during successive previous Governments. However, the Cabinet Office is looking at these matters seriously and the Centre for Public Appointments is working with all government departments to provide greater clarity on the principles around due diligence and appointments.

My Lords, that really is not good enough. Peter Riddell’s report says:

“My investigation uncovered a number of areas where important principles in the Governance Code were breached or compromised in the appointments to the board of the Office for Students ... it is important that lessons are learned”.

First, what evidence do we have that these lessons will be learned, and will the Minister comment on that observation from Peter Riddell? Secondly, will the Minister undertake to ensure that the fourth recommendation in the report, which says that “trip wire” social media searches should be undertaken, is implemented and put into the Government’s code as a matter of urgency?

With great respect, the noble Lord may not have been listening to my earlier answers, because we have been taking action on these matters. The commissioner’s report recognises Ministers’ good intentions in seeking to appoint a diverse and balanced board to the Office for Students on the basis of fair and open competition. In terms of the issues at hand, I have mentioned some actions that we have already taken, but, further to that, we have acknowledged that the Department for Education has made mistakes in failing to formally consult the commissioner on the intention to appoint a student-experience member on a temporary basis. We are dealing with that right now in making a permanent appointment, and that is planned to be completed by the end of June this year.

My Lords, the Minister said in response to my noble friend that the Government want to hear a variety of voices, but surely the report points in the opposite direction. I read—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that student representatives or anyone connected with a students’ union was not welcome, and it also seemed that, following screening, anyone who had expressed concerns over the Prevent strategy would certainly not be appointed to this body. How is that looking at a diversity of voices to represent students across this country?

I am afraid that the noble Baroness is not correct about the student representative. A student representative is there on a temporary basis—that is the clarity that we wanted to give. In addition, an NUS student panel is being set up and will be linked to the board. It is very important that we have proper student representation on the OfS because that is the whole reason behind it—it is the Office for Students.