Committees seek power over key hiring and firings

One of the areas where the Commons committee system has been quietly accumulating extra clout is over the appointments of key quangocrats, industry regulators and similar posts.

These are figures with enormous powers - and the pressure to legitimise them through some kind of parliamentary approval system has been building for quite a while.

Now MPs are trying to formalise their gains and set out an explicit system for approving them - both to probe their attitudes and priorities and to decide whether they are being offered a stooge, a place-person or a genuinely independent-minded figure, capable, if necessary, of saying "no" to ministers.

Early in the life of this parliament the Treasury Select Committee won the right of veto over the chair of the Office For Budget Responsibility, the body which was set up to vet the Treasury's economic projections and budget figures.

The idea was to have an authoritative figure who would speak out if ministers were cooking the books with over-optimistic assumptions about economic growth, or tax receipts, or whatever.

It was crucial to the credibility of that office that its occupant should not be seen as a stooge - and the committee chair, Andrew Tyrie, seized the opportunity to demand not just a veto on their appointment, but on their dismissal, too. So the chair of the OBR could not be sacked by ministers for being awkward.

A new report published by the Liaison Committee - the super-committee of select committee chairs, best known for its regular interrogations of prime ministers, sets out proposed ground rules for a long list of similarly important public jobs. The list of Category A posts includes:

1. Chair of the UK Statistics Authority

2. Information Commissioner

3. Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission

4. Chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission

5. Chair First Civil Service Commissioner

6. Commissioner for Public Appointments

7. Chair of the Committee in Standards in Public Life

8. Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

9. Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration

If the Liaison Committee gets its way, all these would be joint appointments by the Government and Parliament - and having been involved in the appointment, parliamentary approval would be needed in order to sack them. There would also be 21 Category B Posts where there would be an "enhanced" confirmation process and an effective veto. These include the Chair of the BBC Trust, plus phalanxes of industry regulators, HM Inspectors, ombudsmen and complaints commissioners.

There would also be a Category C, where a committee could decide to call in the candidate for confirmation. The Liaison Committee lists 29 posts, but wisely remarks that more may be added...

They want the Category A appointments to be more than just a pre-appointment hearing. There should be agreement over the terms and conditions of the post including pay, before the post is advertised - with discussions between the relevant select committee chair and ministers.

For lesser appointments the Committees want an "effective veto" and an assurance that ministers will not blithely ignore a thumbs down from a committee, as Ed Balls did when, as Children's Secretary he went ahead with the appointment of Maggie Atkinson as Children's Commissioner despite an attempted veto by his select committee.

They suggest that a legal requirement for parliamentary vetting of all these folk could either be added to the statute book, case by case, as opportunities arise, or an over-arching bill could be passed. So what happens next? Will the Government simply agree and draft suitable legislation? Will ministers offer a watered down version of the proposal? Or will this rather techie issue become a trial of strength between Government ministers and parliamentary scrutineers.