103. Ministers are formally responsible to Parliament
for public appointments, but in practice Parliament plays hardly
any role in making appointments or supervising public patronage.
The most visible attempt to give substance to Parliament's formal
responsibilities has come from the Treasury Select Committee.
In 1997 that committee announced its intention to hold confirmation
hearings to establish whether those nominated to the new Monetary
Policy Committee of the Bank of England fulfilled two criteria:
demonstrable professional competence and personal independence
of the Government. In the event, the Bank of England Act 1998
did not require such hearings, as committee members had hoped,
but the committee has nevertheless held such hearings on a non-statutory
basis in the succeeding years.
104. Is there room for greater and more formal Parliamentary
involvement in the process of public appointments? And what would
be the advantages and disadvantages of the form it might take?
The Rt Hon Tony Benn put to us some very radical proposals for
He argued for the transfer of "all Crown prerogative powers
of appointment and patronage" to Parliament; and for the
appointment of chairs of public authorities by a select committee
after a public hearing as part of an open procedure in which all
candidates would be interviewed. Bill Morris, then General Secretary
of the Transport & General Workers Union, advocated something
He urged that the Committee should consider making nominations,
or recommendations for appointments, to public bodies subject
to Parliamentary scrutiny and approval. This would, Mr Morris
told us, increase the legitimacy of these bodies, allow Parliament
to hold ministers to account on their statutory duties on equality,
and increase public awareness and acceptance of public bodies.
105. The democratic spirit behind such propositions
is admirable, but there are practical and constitutional difficulties.
The sheer numbers of chairs and members involved would overwhelm
select committees and prevent them from tackling other matters,
even if their staffs were vastly expanded. Moreover many of these
bodies are specialist in nature and neither Members nor the general
public would be well equipped to decide or oversee appointments
to them. There is also the issue of whether the scrutiny role
is compromised by an involvement in appointments.
106. Further, the risk that appointments could become
the subject of intense political or media debate, or political
horse-trading, as confirmation hearings sometimes do in the United
States, may well deter possible candidates from allowing their
names to go forward. In recent months, for example, there has
been controversy in the US Senate about the appointment of the
new chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Nominations
of senior judges are also drawn into controversy, and the Washington
Post recently referred (30 April 2003) to "the Senate's increasingly
contentious partisan impasse over judicial appointments".
107. The appointment of the Scottish Information
Commissioner in December 2002 also became politically contentious.
The wide-ranging debate in the Scottish Parliament included the
public revelation of the fact that the new Commissioner had been
appointed on a majority vote and detailed discussion of the merits
of the candidates.
We do not criticise the proceedings of another legislature, but
simply remark that it would be very hard to square the principles
of Nolan with such a discussion.
108. However, notwithstanding this evidence, we believe
that there are solid reasons for Parliament to take a more assertive
approach to public appointments. This is one of the main prerogative
powers enjoyed by ministers, and our thinking on this issue is
influenced by the general inquiry we are currently conducting
into those powers. We were also influenced by our recent visit
to Canada, where Parliamentary committees already have a power
to review appointments after they are made but where the perceived
inadequacy of this arrangement is now prompting moves towards
a more 'confirmatory' role. We see benefits in a more explicit,
though still proportionate, role for select committees in key
appointments. The aim should be to secure more effective scrutiny
of ministers' actions, in a realistic form and without allowing
party political considerations to dominate the process.
109. We are therefore attracted to the idea that
there should be a requirement for ministers to inform the relevant
select committees of the proposed appointee in the case of the
most major public appointments. The list of these appointments
could be agreed between the minister and the committee, and would
confine itself to such 'peak' appointments as the chair of the
BBC, industry regulators, and the major watchdogs. The relevant
committee would have the right to hold a hearing, if it chose
to do so, before the appointment of the candidate was confirmed.
We do not propose that the committee would explicitly confirm
such appointments, but that in those cases where it was the view
of the Committee that a proposed appointee was unsuitable then
it should have the power to enter a Letter of Reservation, leading
to the competition for the post in question to be reopened. We
believe that this approach strikes a sensible balance. We envisage
that the committee's new powers would be used only rarely, but
they could help to readjust the balance between Parliament and
the executive, as well as providing a salutary quality control
check for the public appointments system.
110. We therefore
recommend that ministers should agree a list of key appointments
with relevant select committees and notify them of the names of
proposed appointees for these posts as they arise. Committees
could decide, if they chose to do so, to hold a meeting with proposed
appointees, and would be able to enter a Letter of Reservation
as a result of such a hearing in any case where there was a decision
to do so. In such circumstances the competition for the post would