UK Politics

Ministers trying to 'dismantle' public appointments system

Sir David Normington
Image caption Sir David Normington said it was rare for him to speak out publicly

Ministers are seeking to "dismantle" the existing system for making senior appointments to public bodies, a former top civil servant has claimed.

Sir David Normington said plans to allow ministers to choose people deemed unsuitable by advisers were "worrying".

The former Commissioner for Public Appointments said the role risked being reduced to that of a "bystander".

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said appointments had to be speeded up and ministers fully engaged.

Officials said changes stemming from a review by the businessman Sir Gerry Grimstone would strengthen current procedures and that transparency and accountability would remain "key elements".

'Good intentions'

It comes amid reports of increasing intervention by ministers over appointments to key positions, including on behalf of those with links to the Conservative Party.

Sir David, who retired from the role of Commissioner last week after five years, told MPs that the current system allowed departmental ministers to choose their preferred candidate from a selection of people judged "appointable" by an advisory panel.

However, the former permanent secretary at the Home Office said the government was considering allowing ministers to ignore the panels' recommendations and choose candidates from "below the line".

Ministers would also, he said, be able to appoint without an open competition without first seeking the approval of the Commissioner.

"I am absolutely clear that these are ministerial appointments and ministers must choose," he told the Commons Public Administration Committee. "There is absolutely no question about this."

'Big shift'

But he said he was worried that the "good intentions and principles" espoused by ministers about ensuring appointment on merit and robust safeguards were not being "carried through" in the government's proposals.

"It looks like there is an intention to allow ministers to say 'well I know the committee did not approve that person but actually we think they ought to be appointed'.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ministers say it is their responsibility to be engaged at every stage of the appointment process

"I am not quite sure about the practicalities of that. I don't think I would want to be someone who the panel had said was not suitable and the minister then appointed. That looks a very difficult proposition."

He said the proposed changes, in the round, looked "like a very big shift in the direction of ministers".

"The thing that worries me is that it dismantles the current system. I am very concerned about it. I almost never speak out publicly on these matters but I am very concerned about this."

Sir David is due to be succeeded in the role by Peter Riddell, a former political journalist who has been head of the Institute for Government.

Asked about how the role - which was created in 1995 - may change in future in light of the government's proposed changes, Sir David said. "I am a little fearful about what may happen here. I have tried in my role to head things off before they get out of hand.

"I think what may happen here is the appointment is made and the commissioner has no option to pop up and say the appointment is not acceptable."

Appeal for candidates

Activist websites such as ConservativeHome have been urging Conservative supporters to apply for key public appointments, arguing Whitehall has been dominated for the past two decades by those with a New Labour background and outlook on the role of the state.

The government has said political activity should not be a bar to being considered for public appointments but candidates would be expected to be open about "significant" levels of party involvement or support.

Sir Gerry Grimstone, the chair of Standard Life, told MPs that ministers were sovereign but "appropriate constraints" on their behaviour were written into the rules - which he said were designed to secure the best and most diverse appointments.

"I have given the Commissioner very strong powers of intervention," he said.

Mr Hancock. who has ministerial responsibility for the civil service, said the current system of public appointments was "much too bureaucratic, unclear and too slow", with "good people being put off" as a result.

"We need to improve the system because my ultimate goal is to get the very best people we can," he told MPs

He said the Commissioner's role, as it was originally envisaged, was as a "regulator and auditor of the process not someone actually running the process" and the Grimstone review had clarified this.

The Cabinet Office has said ministers must be free to reject advice from their advisory panels on the merit of candidates.

In such cases, the recruitment process would either by re-run with a new panel or ministers would be able to choose someone themselves as long as they "explain their decision publicly".

The proposed changes will be incorporated in a governance code, setting out the new public appointment principles.