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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Brexit and departmental restructuring: an unnecessary distraction?

peter-waller

Theresa May’s new cabinet brought the first significant restructuring of Whitehall departments since 2008. In this post Peter Waller considers the pros and cons of these changes. He concludes that the downsides outweigh the advantages, suggesting that there were alternative options that would have allowed dedicated Brexit and International Trade ministers to join the cabinet without the difficulties involved in establishing new departments.

In announcing her new cabinet, Theresa May indulged in a certain amount of Whitehall restructuring. Two new departments were created – the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade.  To balance the books (at least in part) she abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change, transferring its functions to the Business department. The Business department (now formally the rather turgidly titled Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) in turn lost responsibility for higher education and science policy, which returned to the education department from where it had come almost a decade earlier.

The new Prime Minister thus made the first significant changes to the Whitehall infrastructure since 2008, when Gordon Brown created DECC. David Cameron, whether by design or lack of interest, had maintained the departmental structure he inherited. So the 2016 changes found Whitehall needing to set up new departments, something it had not done for half a generation.

So are these changes likely to prove worthwhile? What are the pros and cons of marking a national turning point – which Brexit undoubtedly was – with new departments with a new focus?  Writing as someone who spent a high proportion of my Whitehall career in departments whose boundaries were constantly changing, I rather sadly conclude that in this area decisive action by Theresa May is likely to be rather more troublesome than the benign neglect of her predecessor.

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Civil Service reform: is tinkering worth it?

19th June 2013

Posted on behalf of Peter Waller

The Constitution Unit this week held a seminar on the IPPR’s new report on Civil Service reform. Guy Lodge from the IPPR outlined the report and former Permanent Secretary Sir Leigh Lewis made various observations, all pertinent. Numerous good points were made in the question and answer session that followed.  Everyone agreed – sincerely and indeed correctly – that the report was not only excellent but also very important.

But I wonder. Not about the excellence but about the importance. Whitehall watchers, myself included, find fascinating the detail of how Permanent Secretaries are appointed and how many people should serve in a Minister’s private office.  But it is hard to argue that those issues matter a row of beans in considering how to avoid episodes like the West Coast mainline saga or whether or not it is sensible to reduce the number of specialist heart units in hospitals.  And it is those issues which are far more likely to matter to the ordinary citizen than whether the Prime Minister or the head of the civil service should appoint the next Sir Humphrey.

There is certainly no doubt that there are big issues about the civil service which are worth serious study.  What is the right balance between Ministers deciding policy and public officials who are tasked to deliver that policy?  Should the civil service have direct links to Parliamentarians in the way that local Government officials have direct contacts to Councillors, regardless of their political party?  Should we have much more wholesale turnover of the civil service with a change of Government, following the US model.  And should we perhaps more openly recognise that not all Ministers are actually competent to run large Departments when they have no prior relevant experience.

The IPPR could have been asked to look at those issues but they weren’t. Indeed, even within the broad frame of what they were asked to look at, it was all a bit selective. For example the IPPR were asked to look at how Permanent Secretaries were appointed but not being asked to look at how they were dismissed  – even though it is an open Whitehall secret that quite a few recent Permanent Secretary departures were not entirely voluntary.

So we are back into the old game of tinkering with the system. Who knows how much emphasis the Government will now put on this but no doubt we will have some a long debate followed by some modest reforms, probably with Francis Maude forecasting Nirvana and some former Permanent Secretaries forecasting Armageddon.

There are times, of course, when tinkering is the only way of making progress.  The differences of view on how the House of Lords should be reformed, for example, should not be allowed to prevent sensible interim reforms such as the Lord Steel proposals.  But it would be nice to  see a slightly more ambitious attempt to look at the issues with a little more seriousness. We are not perhaps fiddling while Rome burns as London isn’t burning in quite the same way. But surely we could do better.

A split over the Permanent Secretary?

Posted on behalf of Peter Waller

The press has reported today that No 10 has rejected the potential appointment of David Kennedy, currently CEO of the Climate Change committee as Permanent Secretary at DECC. Yet again this is seen as a sign of a coalition split and of meddling by No 10 in civil service appointments.

There is no reason to doubt the underlying accuracy of the story, though we can rest assured that nothing will be disclosed on the record. But does that mean either the coalition is yet again in crisis or that No 10 is throwing its weight around? Possibly but probably not.

From the outside, a strong case could be made for two types of appointment to DECC at present.

First there is the case for someone with business credibility in the energy industry given the need, as Ed Davey said in Parliament yesterday, for £110 billion private sector investment in our energy infrastructure by 2020.   This is a huge challenge – and the Department will need to be strongly business facing in the next few years.  Moreover, Ministers always start by trying to attract suitable individuals with a business background, though are seldom successful.

Second, usually as fallback, there is a case for a Whitehall insider, someone who knows how to manage a Whitehall Department at a time of significant downsizing and structural reform. And who will know how to keep the show on the road.

But David Kennedy did not really tick either box. Kennedy is hugely respected for his knowledge of climate change and if the Department had been recruiting a head of policy development, then he would have been an outstanding candidate. But his background is neither a business one, nor a Whitehall insider. And the role of Permanent Secretary is no longer, if it ever was, about being the principal policy adviser to Ministers. It is primarily a managerial role, making sure the Department delivers what Ministers want.

All this is, of course, speculation on my part. But I do recall one appointment in my civil service career where my Department was on the verge of appointing a totally “outside the box” candidate to a senior role – but we were saved from doing so by  a wise soul in No 10 telling us to think again.  Six months later we were all grateful to No 10 for their response. This case is not remotely like that one and Kennedy might well have been successful in the role. But a No 10  veto can always be exercised wisely as well as wilfully.

Not all splits are coalition splits

Posted on behalf of Peter Waller

The political commentariat love nothing more than predicting the end of the coalition, driven by splits and crises. And we have seen a rash of such stories this week over both energy policy and Leveson.

But the truth is a bit more complicated – and more interesting  –  than that.

Energy first. Until the middle of this year, DECC had been a beacon of coalition harmony in that both a Lib Dem Secretary of State and a full team of Tory Ministers were happily pursuing  a common policy with no obvious internal rows. There were admittedly some well reported disagreements with both George Osborne and Vince Cable –  but no one in Whitehall would regard those as anything other than conventional Departmental tensions not coalition ones.

But then Cameron sacked the mild mannered and coalition friendly Charles Hendry and replaced him with the much more populist and known climate change sceptic John Hayes. The only way to interpret this change was that the Tories were aware of growing unrest on their own backbenches – mainly on windfarms but also on energy costs  – and decided to throw them a little red meat.

And Hayes immediately decided that his new role entitled him not only to be a flagship for those restive backbenchers but to use his new role to attack his own Department’s policy in public. He hasn’t exactly been successful in that in that Ed Davey has first rebutted him and then proceeded to issue an Energy Bill which is far closer to existing policy than anything Hayes would support. DECC hasn’t got everything it wanted in the Bill – but what is missing can be put down to  the traditional funding concerns of the Treasury.

So is this a coalition split? No, for the very good reason is that it is actually a clear case of our old friend, the Tory split. Certainly the other leading Tory in DECC, Greg Barker, seems to have not the slightest problem with the policy he had been pursuing first with Huhne and now Davey.

Similar considerations apply to Leveson – though it is early to predict exactly how that will pan out when people have actually read it.  The interesting thing here is that over 50 Tory backbenchers have already come out in favour of statutory back-up to the press regulatory system. So again, it seems that the Tories are split rather more than the coalition is split.

But there are interesting lessons to be learnt from both energy and Leveson. We at the Constitution Unit have long believed that there will be no coalition split because it is highly unlikely to benefit either partner from ending it before 2015.  But what we are now seeing is the impact of the coalition on the way that politics is conducted in the UK.  That means a junior minister can attack his own Departmental policy and not be sacked. Government backbenchers don’t wait until their Prime Minister has announced his response to  a report before announcing how they will vote. And the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister can argue their different cases at the dispatch box on the same day.

To my mind that is nothing but healthy. As a former Whitehall civil servant, I know there are numerous issues on which there is genuine disagreements behind closed doors. If coalition means we see a few more of those disagreements out in the open, then three cheers!