Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings: parliament’s bark delivers a stronger bite than MPs realise

For the past decade House of Commons select committees have held pre-appointment scrutiny hearings with preferred candidates for some of the most senior public appointments. Many select committee chairs and members consider these to be a waste of time because there is no power of veto. However, research published in a new Constitution Unit report suggests that they have much more influence than committees realise. Robert Hazell outlines these findings.

Although little remarked upon at the time, one of Gordon Brown’s more significant constitutional reforms was the introduction of pre-appointment scrutiny hearings. Following his 2007 White Paper The Governance of Britain, the government agreed that candidates for 50 of the most senior public appointments would be scrutinised by the relevant select committee before the government confirmed their appointment. Some select committee chairs and members consider such hearings a waste of time, because they have no power of veto; but Constitution Unit research has shown that they have more influence than select committees realise.

In the last ten years select committees have conducted just over 90 pre-appointment hearings (for a full list see here). The Constitution Unit has conducted two evaluations of their effectiveness: first in 2009, studying the first 20 hearings; and second in 2016-17, when we looked at the next 71. We found three cases where the candidate withdrew following a critical hearing; and two instances where statements or disclosures at a hearing subsequently triggered a resignation. So pre-appointment scrutiny undoubtedly has an impact, even though committees have no formal power of veto: they are an important check on the integrity and effectiveness of senior public appointments, and a curb against ministers abusing their powers of patronage. And their effectiveness cannot be measured solely by the number of negative reports – the select committee hearings also help to deter ministers from putting forward candidates who would not survive this additional public scrutiny.

The puzzle remains that select committee chairs do not recognise how much influence they wield. There are two reasons for this. First, the baleful example of Washington: when pre-appointment scrutiny was introduced, many MPs anticipated that the hearings would be like confirmation hearings in the US Senate, which does have a power of veto. Second, although pre-appointment scrutiny does provide an important check, it is rare for an individual committee or chair to have experience of thwarting an appointment: there have only been five such cases in the last ten years. So for most committees, most of the time, pre-appointment scrutiny can feel like a bit of a chore.

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The Grimstone proposals to reform the public appointments process are a step in the wrong direction

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Earlier this year the government published Sir Gerry Grimstone’s report on public appointments, proposing a dismantling of the Nolan system of regulation that has been in place since 1995. Sir David Normington, whose term as Commissioner for Public Appointments ended shortly after the publication of the Grimstone report, has been an outspoken critic of the proposals. At a Constitution Unit seminar on 8 December he explained why he believes they represent a step in the wrong direction. This post is adapted from his speech.

Ministers make on average over 2,000 appointments each year to boards of about 300 public bodies and statutory offices. The bodies touch every aspect of our lives. They include regulators like the boards of Ofcom and Ofwat; inspectors, like the Chief Inspectors of Schools, Police, Probation and Prisons; funders like the Arts Council and the Big Lottery Fund; advisory bodies like the Committee on Climate Change; and a multitude of executive bodies, like NHS trusts, national parks, museums and galleries.

It matters who fills these roles. The boards themselves need to comprise well-functioning teams of skilled people from diverse backgrounds who can command public confidence. At the same time these are ministerial appointments and it is essential that those appointed are willing to work within, and not against, the framework of the policy that the government of the day has set down.

There is, however, a balance to be struck between ministers’ right to appoint and independent oversight and regulation. Think of it as a spectrum. At one end ministers have almost complete freedom to make appointments as they think fit. At the other, appointments are handed over to an independent body and ministers forego their powers to appoint altogether. Over nearly 30 years policy and practice has flowed to and fro across this spectrum; and so have the arguments about where to draw the line.

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