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Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Volume 608: debated on Monday 18 April 2016

Select Committee statement

We come now to two Select Committee statements. In a moment, I shall ask Mr Bernard Jenkin to address the House. He will do so for up to 10 minutes, during which I remind the House that no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on its subject, and I will call Mr Bernard Jenkin to respond to those in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. The Front Bench team may take part in questioning. The same procedure will be followed for the second Select Committee statement.

These are extremely important matters, but I hope that the House will understand if I express the hope that together, the two Select Committee statements do not consume more than 40 minutes of our time, because there are important Backbench Business Committee debates—two of them, to be precise—to which we need to move on, and in which I want to accommodate all interested would-be contributors. With that, I call the Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, Mr Bernard Jenkin.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to make a statement on the report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee entitled “Appointment of the Commissioner for Public Appointments”, which we published last week. The post of Commissioner for Public Appointments was established in 1995 following the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its first report, the Nolan report. The Nolan report recommended the creation of the post as a means of enhancing public confidence in the public appointments process and the quality of appointments made under it. The role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments is set out in the Public Appointments Order in Council 2015.

Since the post and office of the commissioner were established in 1995, there have been four Commissioners for Public Appointments. From 2011 to 2016, the post of CPA was held jointly with the role of First Civil Service Commissioner by Sir David Normington. However, with Sir David’s departure, the two posts of First Civil Service Commissioner and CPA were advertised separately. That was the result of a recommendation made to Ministers by Sir Gerry Grimstone prior to the publication of his review of public appointments. As indicated by the recruitment advertising for this post, the commissioner will be expected to work with the Government in implementing the Grimstone review’s recommendations. The Grimstone review, however, was published only in March this year.

After two hearings with the Government’s preferred candidate, the right hon. Peter Riddell, and after some discussion, we have given Mr Riddell a qualified endorsement as Commissioner for Public Appointments. He is well known to many in this House as a respected political journalist and commentator. He was appointed a Privy Counsellor for his work on the Gibson inquiry into the possible illegal rendition of UK detainees. He has also been chair of the Hansard Society and, most recently and perhaps relevantly, director of the Institute for Government.

PACAC remains concerned, however, that the changes proposed by the Grimstone review, as interpreted by the Government, alongside other changes, such as the introduction of enlarged ministerial offices—whereby Ministers, instead of the civil service, can themselves make appointments to their private offices—may be leading to an increasing politicisation of senior public appointments. We will report on our inquiry into the Grimstone proposals after the code of practice for public appointments and the new Order in Council have been published.

The proposals are controversial. They propose a significant removal of the powers exercised by the office of the CPA over the public appointments process. Ministers, instead of the CPA, would set the rules by drawing up the new governance code. Ministers could decide to run an appointment process without referral to the CPA. Ministers, not the CPA, could determine the membership of appointment panels, including the independent member. Ministers could include on selection panels an official acting as a Ministers’ representative without the consent of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Ministers would have latitude to interview and appoint someone even if the selection panel had marked him or her below the line.

The new Order in Council and the new code of conduct for public appointments have yet to be published even in draft form. Publication of the Grimstone review was originally expected last year, but it was held back. There was a gap of only three days between the publication of the Grimstone review, along with the Government response, and Mr Riddell being named as the preferred candidate. That left us with no opportunity, by the time of Mr Riddell’s appearance before the Committee on 21 March, to consider the Grimstone review.

We concluded that it would have been inappropriate for us to make a report on the Government’s preferred candidate that could have been regarded as an implicit and unqualified endorsement of the Government’s interpretation of the Grimstone proposals. After our initial evidence session with Mr Riddell before Easter, we therefore issued a call for evidence on the Grimstone review. We took evidence from the outgoing CPA, Sir David Normington, from Sir Gerry Grimstone himself and from my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General prior to concluding our pre-appointment scrutiny of Mr Riddell on 12 April. I am very grateful to the Government for delaying Mr Riddell’s appointment while we completed our pre-appointment scrutiny.

We intend to report on the implications of Sir Gerry Grimstone’s review shortly. We will welcome any further written evidence. The present Committee on Standards in Public Life has warned that this could

“all add up to a public perception of a system which was being operated under increased political patronage. It could also run counter to the intentions to increase transparency and diversity.”

The outgoing CPA, Sir David Normington, has expressed his opposition to the proposals as a reversal of the Nolan reforms of 20 years ago. Sir Gerry Grimstone has made it clear that transparency rather than the direct powers currently held by the commissioner would enable the commissioner to remain a powerful regulator. However, the Minister for the Cabinet Office has made it clear that the CPA would be consulted by Ministers, but the CPA would no longer have the power to direct an independent appointment process, as now.

PACAC will therefore closely monitor how Mr Riddell works with Ministers to implement the Grimstone review’s recommendations, and how he responds to the recommendations that PACAC have yet to make on the Grimstone review. PACAC will underwrite Mr Riddell’s authority and independence as the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and we will make use of our ability to carry out follow-up scrutiny, if necessary, to make sure that any concerns we have are heard. We agree with Sir Gerry Grimstone that the role of the CPA should be robust and authoritative, and should not be undermined.

Furthermore, in the light of the Grimstone review’s proposed changes to the public appointments process and in line with other roles, such as those of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and the chairs of the Office for Budget Responsibility and the UK Statistics Authority, PACAC recommends that future appointments of the Commissioner for Public Appointments should be subject to a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. This will be an additional safeguard, and act as a public reassurance that the independence and status of the Commissioner for Public Appointments is not threatened. We also recommend that a similar procedure should apply to the post of First Civil Service Commissioner. I am very pleased to present this report to Parliament.

I commend the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for his report and today’s statement.

Sir David Normington, the outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments, said that the Government’s proposals put at risk 20 years of progress and risk ushering in

“a return to the days of political and personal patronage”.

Indeed, he said that as the commissioner, he would be contacted once a month by the Prime Minister or other Ministers, asking why party donors, office holders or former MPs had not been shortlisted or recommended for posts.

In the light of those concerns, does the hon. Gentleman share our fear that dismantling the powers of the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments will open the door to political cronies being gifted public service jobs either as a reward for donations or to create an army of political enforcers in the public sector? Rather than appointment being made on merit or according to skills or public service ethos, are not the Government putting themselves at risk of accusations of cash for jobs?

I think the danger is not that those things will happen, but that people will say that they may seem to be happening. Curiously, it might make it harder for the Government to put a friend or supporter into a public appointment job if the Minister is more directly involved. The current arrangements were created to protect Ministers.

If Ministers are frustrated that the wrong people are being interviewed, that people are being appointed according to the wrong job specifications or that people with the right skills are not being given an interview, it is up to them to make sure that the job specification for a job is as they think it should be before the recruitment process starts.

I will not defend the public appointments process in total. The Grimstone review has started a much-needed debate about public appointments, but before my Committee and I give a definitive view of Sir Gerry Grimstone’s proposals, we want to consider all the arguments and all the evidence.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his Committee on their excellent publication and the robustness of their recommendations, and I congratulate him on his statement to the House. What was Mr Riddell’s response when the Committee put the points that my hon. Friend has made to him? Does my hon. Friend foresee Mr Riddell being invited back before the Committee before the end of 12 months?

On the latter point, we certainly intend to give Mr Riddell an opportunity to appear before the Committee before too long to see how he is settling into his new role. We would not have agreed to his appointment unless we were convinced that he was determined to be independent, but with so many of his powers being questioned and with Ministers substantively proposing to take back control of the appointments process, how he carries out the role will be crucial. How he maintains the importance of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments will be very interesting to observe.

We would like whatever changes are made to be made on the basis of consensus. We have picked up a certain amount of—how shall I say it?—tension between civil servants and Ministers about these appointments. There may be an opportunity to build a better understanding of both parties, so that these changes are not necessary.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to ensure that the best candidates are aware of these opportunities, the vacancies must be promoted far and wide? That would go some way towards ensuring that applications were received from candidates regardless of their race, creed, colour, religion, gender or even the university or school they happened to go to. It would also open up the process to people from different and varied walks of life who could bring their life experience to a different arena. Advertising a job on a specialist website and then phoning round our pals to encourage them to apply is not an effective or appropriate way to attract the strongest candidates.

At a time when the public are rightly demanding more accountability from their elected representatives, the opportunity to apply for jobs such as the Commissioner for Public Appointments should be widely publicised across a spectrum of United Kingdom society to encourage a diverse range of applicants, rather than going down the traditional route, which will reaffirm the public’s view that there is cronyism and engender disenchantment and apathy.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. I thank him for the very diligent work that he puts in on the Committee. I do not think he will mind me putting on the record that in the discussions to which I referred he was one of those who expressed a strong reservation about this appointment, not least because no one could possibly describe Peter Riddell as an outsider to Westminster. Whether an outsider is appropriate for this particular role is debatable. We do not know who else was interviewed for the role, as that is not the job of a Select Committee. One of the frustrations of pre-appointment hearings is that we are not interviewing the person for the job but merely trying to establish in our own minds whether the proposed appointment is an appropriate one and the person has the necessary skills and experience. That is what we concluded, but with reservations. In his evidence, Mr Riddell confirmed his determination to make sure that a much wider pool of people are attracted to public appointments than currently appears to be the case. Certainly, we do not want to go back to the discreet tap on the shoulder—“Why don’t you apply for this job, old boy?”—that used to exist before the Nolan rules were brought into operation.

Are we not going back to pre-Nolan days, which were rife with personal and political patronage? Is this not a case of the role of the commissioner being emasculated? Sir David Normington said that he managed to see off the monthly attempts by the Prime Minister and other Ministers to appoint Tory donors or former MPs to key roles. We will be back in that position. Will that emasculation not be very similar to what has happened with the Government’s adviser on ministerial conduct, where we have seen cases of the most egregious misconduct by Ministers that were not referred to the adviser? We are going back to the bad old days. We have lost so much trust in the parliamentary system in this country. Our reputation was at rock bottom after the great scandal of Members’ expenses; it is now subterranean or worse. Will the implementation of Grimstone’s changes not take us further down that road? How will the Committee make sure that those abuses of patronage do not return?

I am reminded by the hon. Gentleman’s stentorian warnings of the cries of St John the Baptist from the dungeon until his head was presented on a platter. Such warnings are important, and we have to have a system that we can defend against them. People are always going to be suspicious that there has been something of a fix about a public appointment. That is perfectly legitimate. Ultimately, the authority for such appointments rests with Ministers. We want a balanced and transparent approach, with safeguards. I repeat that if Ministers get a grip on the job specifications at the outset of such appointment processes, and have confidence in the independence of the interview panels, there should be no problem with the people of quality they want getting through the interviews. If that is not the case, we need to address that.

I am grateful for the Select Committee’s support for the appointment of Peter Riddell to the post. He is a heavyweight and distinguished public servant. The Grimstone report, which the Chairman of the Committee mentioned, follows the Nolan principles, adding to them the principle of diversity in public appointments. Although the proportion of appointees to such posts who declare a political allegiance is the lowest on record, down from more than 20% in the early 2000s to less than 5% now, transparency is important in this area. On those grounds, it gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to ask the Chairman of the Select Committee a question, rather than the other way around. As a sturdy defender of the principle of parliamentary democracy, does he accept that voters would expect Ministers to make appointments to these vital public roles?

Yes, of course they do. In the end, no public appointment of the general nature that we are talking about is made without a Minister signing off that decision. The question is twofold. First, are Ministers being presented with a choice of candidates that they consider appropriate? If they are, can we be certain that the process has not been fixed to get friends and cronies through the appointment process? We need a balance that the public will respect and have faith in. On job specifications, if we get the process right at the outset, there should be no need for the Minister to complain. If we take away too many safeguards, it is Ministers who will be criticised for the appointments they make, not civil servants who have been sitting on panels and been ignored.