Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report


Chapter 4: A public appointments commission

199. We have become convinced in the course of our inquiry that determined action needs to be taken to move toward the twin goals of securing greater integrity and diversity in public appointments. One method would be to introduce a national Public Appointments Commission, building on the model of the recently-established NHS Appointments Commission.

200. The NHS Commission was set up in 2001 in the light of OCPA's inquiry into allegations of political bias in NHS appointments, and a recommendation of this Committee. The NHS Commission and the NHS bodies to which it makes appointments come within OCPA's remit. The Commission is responsible for making the actual appointments to NHS bodies but does so in accordance with criteria set out by the Secretary of State for Health; and while ministers are no longer responsible for individual appointments, they are accountable to Parliament for the totality of the appointment process. Thus the principle of ministerial responsibility is preserved while the new system is perceived as independent, with the great advantage that public confidence in the process is no longer undermined by suspicions of possible cronyism. We believe that, as long as departments retain sole control of their appointments processes, under officials of varying degrees of seniority, experience and competence, the requisite degree of professionalism, experience, consistency and training required will be hard to achieve. It is particularly hard for departments which make few appointments to sustain the high standards required. In addition, direct ministerial involvement in selection is always likely to give rise to accusations (even if wholly unfair) of personal or political bias.

The case for a public appointments commission

201. By contrast, an independent organisation, on the model of the NHS Appointments Commission, running an open and transparent appointments process, has considerable advantages in encouraging public confidence in the process and citizen involvement in public life. The NHS Commission and Dame Rennie Fritchie set out the advantages of the NHS appointments system in separate, but largely overlapping, terms in memoranda to the Committee.[137]

  • it is perceived as independent as it can make appointments based on merit without ministers being involved and without political interference.[138] (It is, however, important to note that the NHS Appointments Commission itself has recently concluded that the political balance of appointments made under its supervision appears not to be different from the balance that emerged from the previous system);
  • its procedures are open and transparent. Because the process of advertisement, short-listing and interview is standard and familiar to people, they have confidence in its inherent fairness;
  • compared to government departments, the commission can specialise in appointments and become increasingly professional, competent, proactive and consistent;
  • it leads to increased efficiency in the appointments process
  • there can be economies of scale in giving a single body responsibility for a large number of appointments.

202. The Commissioner has advanced a major alternative reform proposal that may prove more acceptable to ministers. This proposal is that departments should create their own professional teams specifically to make appointments; and that departments which make few appointments should combine with other departments to create joint teams. This is clearly a more flexible approach, which has the advantage that the teams will be run by the departments that are responsible for running the public bodies and thus are best placed to determine the balance of skills required on their boards. The disadvantage is that ministers and senior civil servants would continue to be involved in the appointments processes which would still therefore not be perceived as being independent.

203. In our view, the first advantage of establishing a single visible body responsible for all public appointments, on the model of the NHS commission, is that its appointments would demonstrably be independent of ministerial and senior civil servant influence. It would also have the advantages of being open and transparent, with standard procedures and becoming increasingly professional over time. We accept that it might well be more difficult for a single Whitehall-wide body to be sufficiently flexible to cope with a wide range of different types of public appointments. However, ministers and officials from departments would be directly involved in drawing up the criteria for membership of the boards of bodies that they sponsor and, where appropriate, officials with knowledge of specialist bodies could be invited to join appointment panels. The Government, having announced its intention of establishing an independent judicial appointments commission, appears to be increasingly well-disposed towards this approach.[139]

Ministerial Responsibility

204. It is important to stress that under our proposed Public Appointments Commission, ministers and departments would not lose control over the purposes and role of the public bodies for which they are responsible, nor over the mix of skills and experience required of the chairs and members of their boards. They would delegate only the actual choice of individuals to the independent body. Further, if our proposal for a parliamentary role in key appointments was accepted, then it may be desirable to confine a Public Appointments Commission to other appointments.

205. Our chairman asked both Dame Rennie Fritchie and Sir William Wells whether we should turn the whole process of making public appointments over to a single body like the NHS Commission. Dame Rennie said that as the first OCPA principle was that of ministerial responsibility, it would be odd for her to say that ministers should no longer be involved; 'however, if others and ministers themselves felt there should be another way to do it, then it would be an interesting and much broader debate'.[140] Sir William replied:

"If government wishes to have appointments made professionally, and which quite self-evidently are made independently, openly and transparently, I cannot see that there is any other way in which they can do it than through an independent organisation which is professionally set up to do it, has the expertise to do it, and has no axe to grind. It will always be perceived that the minister has an axe to grind whether they have or not".[141]

We concur.

206. Therefore we recommend that the Government, in the interest of independent, professional and transparent processes of public appointment, should consult on the establishment of a single Public Appointments Commission to take over public appointments to NDPBs, public corporations and other public bodies from government departments.

207. This recommendation carries with it a host of considerations about which ministers would wish to consult. In particular, complicated issues of accountability, independence and status would arise in the new commission's relationships with the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Government, departments and Parliament.

208. We believe that the new Appointments Commission should be a statutory body. In the first instance, the commission should be accountable to the Commissioner for Public Appointments, as the NHS Commission is, for the actual process of appointment, the independence and integrity of appointments, and progress on achieving diversity targets. It could be argued that, after the establishment of a new independent appointments commission, there will be no need for an office that appears to duplicate its role. But there will continue to be a requirement for an auditor of the process and a guarantor of probity, as well as, and separate from, an executive body to make the appointments. We note that the Commissioner recently issued a strongly critical report on the conduct of an appointment by the NHS Appointments Commission, which clearly demonstrates the continuing importance of the Commissioner's role.[142] On funding, we have already stressed the need for the Commissioner to be made financially and constitutionally independent of the executive. In our view, the new Commission should similarly be funded out of the Consolidated Fund, as are analogous bodies and officers, to secure its financial independence from the executive.

209. We would of course expect Parliament to be involved in the appointment of the chair of the Commission on the same basis as the other appointments discussed earlier. If ministers wish to retain a role in this category of major appointments, then our earlier recommendation for a pre-confirmation review for these appointments by select committees becomes even more imperative. In this case, the proposed Public Appointments Commission could confine itself to the more routine appointments, with the added advantage that this would release ministerial time for other activities.

210. There are a number of models for Parliamentary and public accountability to ensure high standards in this important area. For example, the Commissioners of the Electoral Commission are appointed only after consultations with leaders of all main parties and with the agreement of the Speaker. An Address from the House is also required before any appointments are made. In addition, a Member representing the Commission answers questions in Parliament

211. We recommend that the Government consult widely on the constitutional and administrative arrangements for a Public Appointments Commission, with a view to making the Commission fully accountable to Parliament for its establishment, operation and reporting.

212. We do not believe that our recommendation would lead to substantial extra expenditure. We envisage that the Public Appointments Commission would have a staff which would be modest in number, with the aim of keeping the overall size roughly equivalent to the sum of the staff employed currently in public appointments work in departments. Some extra expense would be incurred by the expansion of the remit of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, but again it should be modest.

Conclusion

213. It is just 150 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report provided the basis for a reformed civil service, clearing away the detritus of patronage and installing the principle of selection on merit. It is now time to perform a similar exercise for the modern appointed state. As we record, progress has already been made, but this report argues that there is much more still to be done.

214. The appointed state is now central to the way we are governed, and likely to remain so. It is essential, therefore, that those appointed are of the highest merit, represent our society in all its diversity, and are untainted by cronyism and patronage. Unless these conditions are met, the appointed state will not be as effective as it needs to be, or inspire the necessary public confidence in its operation. The world of public appointments provides an arena for civic participation and public service, which should be actively nourished and cultivated.

215. Our proposals are framed to this end. We have sought to curb ministerial patronage, while strengthening ministerial accountability to Parliament for major appointments. We have also sought to open up the appointed state in new ways and to a more diverse range of people. Taken together, we believe that this provides the basis for a concerted initiative to enlist all those who have something to contribute to the enterprise of public service.


137   PAP 61 and PAP 66 Back

138   Ev 158 Back

139   Department for Constitutional Affairs, press release, 258/03 19 June 2003 Back

140   Q 52 Back

141   Q 929 Back

142   OCPA Annual Report 2002-03 Back


 
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