The public appointments system is under strain: it needs more clarity and transparency

In September, Peter Riddell will step down as Commissioner for Public Appointments after over five years in the role. In this post, which summarises comments made at a recent Unit seminar, he explains how the public appointments system is under strain, and how it might be improved. In particular, he calls for more clarity and transparency in both regulated and unregulated public appointments.

The public appointments system rests on two, at times, apparently contradictory principles — ministerial responsibility and selection by merit. These were set out both in the original Nolan report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995 and in the government’s Governance Code in late 2016. Their existence side by side — along with selflessness, integrity, openness, diversity, assurance and fairness — can cause confusion. Ministers and their advisers understandably want to appoint those who share their values and views, while critics allege cronyism and an undermining of the merit principle.

In reality, as with so much in public life, the answer lies in a balance between the principles, as envisaged in the 1995 report: ‘responsibility for appointments should remain with ministers advised by committees which include independent members’. The system is inherently political, and always has been, but patronage is constrained. The process of competition acts as a filter to identify candidates assessed as appointable in relation to the published job and person specifications. It is then up to ministers to pick one of these candidates.

The integrity of the system is now under strain. The appointment of political allies has happened before and is consistent with the Governance Code. What is different now is the breadth of the campaign led from the top of the government. This raises questions about the overall pluralism of arms-length bodies. That is a matter for ministers to explain and defend.

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Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings

robert-hazell-350x350In September the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published their report into Pre-Appointment Scrutiny Hearings. Robert Hazell gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry on the subject; here he discusses the report’s conclusions, and describes the events that led to its being undertaken, including two Constitution Unit studies that evaluated the effectiveness of such scrutiny.  

The recently published report of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) was the product of an inquiry undertaken at the request of the Commons Liaison Committee, because of growing concerns amongst Select Committee chairs that pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were a charade, especially when the government ignored committee recommendations.  The Liaison Committee and PACAC both heard evidence from the former Constitution Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell, who explained that pre-appointment hearings were more effective than MPs recognised, and suggested ways in which they could be made more effective still.

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were introduced by Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister in July 2007.  In his Green Paper The Governance of Britain he proposed:

… that the Government nominee for key positions … should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing with the relevant select committee. The hearing would be non-binding, but in the light of the report from the committee, Ministers would decide whether to proceed.  The hearings would cover issues such as the candidate’s suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in the selection.

The Cabinet Office and the Liaison Committee subsequently agreed a list of just over 50 key positions which would be subject to the new procedure. Ten years later, by the end of the 2015-17 Parliament, there had been almost 100 scrutiny hearings, involving almost every single departmental Select Committee. The Constitution Unit conducted an early evaluation of the first 20 hearings in 2009-10, and a second study in 2016-17, looking at a further 70 hearings. Continue reading

Preparing for another hung parliament: 9 key questions answered

robert_hazell (1)Recent polls have suggested that the 2015 general election will result in another hung parliament, with no single party gaining an overall majority. The media and voters may assume that 2015 will then see a replay of 2010, with the swift formation of another coalition government. Not necessarily so, as Robert Hazell, along with Peter Riddell of the Institute for Government, has been explaining in pre-election briefings for the broadcasters. 

1. Will the leader of the largest party become Prime Minister?

Not necessarily. The constitutional rule is that the politician who can command the confidence of the House of Commons becomes PM. This could be the leader of the second largest party, if he can secure sufficient support from third and minor parties.

2. Does the Queen play a formative role?

No. The political parties must establish between themselves who can command confidence in the new House of Commons. The Queen will be kept informed, and will appoint that person as Prime Minister when the result of the negotiations becomes clear.

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What would a minority government be like?

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As the election approaches, Peter Riddell explores the very real prospect of a minority government and considers the challenges which would be likely to arise from such a scenario.

Paul Goodman was right to argue on Conservative Home in November that a minority government may be more likely than a full-blown coalition if there is a hung parliament next May. The bruises from the current coalition and changes in party strengths since 2010 have shifted expectations against a further coalition. And a lot of thought is now under way as to how a minority government would function, and how long it might last.

First, if you thought the ‘five days in May’ of 2010 tested the political and media worlds’ patience, we could be in for an even longer wait in five months’ time. At least in 2010, the first and third parties in terms of numbers of MPs added up to a clear Commons majority.  But some recent polls suggest that the first and third parties may not pass the winning post for an overall majority, even discounting the handful of Sinn Fein MPs who will not take their seats.

That calculation makes much harder not only the formation of a coalition, but also reaching an informal arrangement. A multi-party deal is possible, but in theory only since the fourth, fifth and sixth parties, whether the SNP, DUP or UKIP have nothing to gain by allying with the larger parties.  Of course, the SNP could be ahead of the Lib Dems on some projections, which makes a deal even less likely. And that could takes us back a century to when the Irish Nationalists held the balance of power.

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The Prime Minister must ensure that he gets a chief executive at the centre

peter.riddell-99Peter Riddell argues the idea of appointing a full-time chief executive to lead the Civil Service is correct – provided the responsibilities and authority match the role. There are worrying signs in this month’s announcement that they will not, and we may have the second muddled reorganisation in three years.

There was an inevitability about yesterday’s announcement of Sir Bob Kerslake’s imminent departure as Head of the Civil Service, while remaining as Permanent Secretary at Department for Communities and Local Government until the end of next February. With an activist Civil Service Minister in Francis Maude, the space became too crowded for Sir Bob as the tensions over the pace and scale of reform increased. The political line was about a renewed drive on civil service reform; absolutely right, but it would be wrong to ignore the huge scale of changes since 2010 and the impetus for reform among most senior civil servants themselves.

The real problems in the civil service leadership are structural. It was right in January 2012 to split the functions of Cabinet Secretary and Civil Service Head since no one could perform both roles. However, it was a mistake for Sir Bob to double-hat as Head of the Civil Service and a departmental Permanent Secretary. That created impossible pressures on him, and, in this position, he never had the powers or authority to lead the changes expected of him.

However, yesterday’s announcement confuses as much as it clarifies. Sir Jeremy Heywood will take the title of Head of the Civil Service while maintaining his current responsibilities as Cabinet Secretary. That makes it clear who is in charge and who reports to the Prime Minister, and this we welcome. The problem is that the new chief executive, who will report to the Cabinet Secretary, is not really going to be a CEO of the Civil Service, but, rather, someone who is in charge of civil service transformation, efficiency and reform plus taking over responsibility for running the Cabinet Office. The inclusion of the latter muddles the tasks of running the headquarters operation with oversight of the whole civil service.

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