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Wilton Park

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 15 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what criteria were used to determine the suitability of candidates for the position of chair of Wilton Park.

My Lords, the appointment process for the chair followed the governance code for public appointments. We sought candidates who matched the person specification for the role. In particular, candidates were sought who had experience of board or executive-level leadership, who were committed to advancing the agenda on international issues and who understood how to draw on networks for fundraising.

I thank the Minister for that reply, much as I raised an eyebrow when listening to it. Wilton Park is a global forum for strategic discussion, bringing together leading representatives from the worlds of politics, business, academia, civil society and diplomacy. When appointing the chair of Wilton Park, with its duty to reach out to the rest of the world, did the Minister responsible consider the background of this person, who, most recently in her career, was the chair of the Vote Leave campaign—an organisation with a duty to separate the UK from the rest of Europe and which, to boot, has been fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission for overspending and for failures to properly record and report expenditure?

My Lords, of course the Minister responsible fully considered the position and background of all the candidates who applied for the position. I agree with the noble Baroness that Wilton Park is a highly internationalist organisation that works with government, NGOs and commercial partners across the world. As the Prime Minister’s lead on preventing sexual violence in conflict, it was an able partner at that conference. Ms Stuart was regarded as appointable as chair by the interview panel because of her long parliamentary and foreign policy experience, as well as her vision to connect Wilton Park more closely with parliamentarians from all parties. The chair is just one segment of Wilton Park’s robust governance team.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that by merit of having been an MP for 20 years, having been born in Germany, being a privy counsellor and having demonstrated great courage in politics, Gisela Stuart is an ideal person to fill this post? Is this not a rather mean-minded Question? Can he explain the criteria for membership of the Low Pay Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Women’s National Commission, on all of which the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, has served?

My Lords, first, I am sure that many in this House and beyond regard Ms Stuart as a very able chair. I have dealt with her in her capacity as chair of Wilton Park and have certainly found her attitude and thinking conducive to what Wilton Park seeks to achieve. As I said, her appointment followed the correct code of conduct: an appropriate panel was appointed, it made recommendations and a decision was taken accordingly. I believe that she is a very capable chair. As my noble friend articulated, she has the right experience. For all public appointments, a clear process is set out, and that was followed in this case as well.

My Lords, when Boris Johnson interfered in this appointment process, did he take into account the potential danger to the reputation of this exemplary FCO institution? As we heard, Gisela Stuart chaired the Vote Leave campaign, which was found guilty of breaking the law of the land, is the subject of a police investigation and has now accepted that guilt. What assurance of complete political impartiality has she given? Recently, she appeared on “Any Questions?”—where she was introduced as the chair of Wilton Park—and repeated her extreme Brexit views. She has given interviews to United Kingdom journalists and been quoted in the German media. How can Wilton Park preserve its unique reputation as a dispassionate forum for international, especially Europe-wide, debate in these circumstances?

My Lords, making the presumption that—just because two people may have agreed on their perspective on the Brexit referendum, it does not mean that the former Foreign Secretary—

I have served under the former Foreign Secretary, and while there have been people who have raised challenges against him—[Interruption.] I am answering a very long question, so it is appropriate to put on the record that just because someone shares the same perspective, it would be wrong to suggest the kind of interference proposed by the noble Lord. As I have made clear already, a process was followed according to the rules. If she chooses to speak as the chair of Wilton Park, she will need to reflect her code of conduct, as would anyone holding public office. When not speaking as the Wilton Park chair, the incumbent is within their rights to make public statements—whether on Brexit or any other matter.

My Lords, Wilton Park is a public body that is funded in part by the taxpayer, and it is world renowned for providing a mutual forum for debate on what are sometimes very conflicting issues. Last year, the Tailored review recommended closer connections and engagement between Wilton Park and the strategic and business-related activities of the FCO and other relevant government departments. Does the Minister agree that it is now appropriate for there to be some parliamentary oversight of senior appointments to the board and the advisory committee, possibly through the Foreign Affairs Committee?

My Lords, let me assure the noble Baroness and indeed all noble Lords that anyone who takes part in this process is expected to adhere to a code of conduct. The chair continues to do that and she has the confidence of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office behind her. Any person holding public office is also required to adhere to the Nolan principles for public servants and to remain mindful of the potential for such statements—

I hope that I am not the only one who is troubled by the nature of the series of personal attacks on a former excellent Member of Parliament and excellent Minister. I also hope that we can be given an absolute assurance from the Minister that whichever side anyone took in the referendum campaign, leave or remain, in neither case should it ever be a disqualification from appointment to a government office.