Select Committee on Liaison First Report

2  The Government's proposals

The Green Paper

5. On 3 July 2007, in his first statement to the House as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown announced the publication of The Governance of Britain Green Paper. This broad package of proposals for constitutional reform was set out under four themes: limiting the powers of the executive; making the executive more accountable; reinvigorating democracy; and developing the relationship between the citizen and the state. The Green Paper included two proposals that:

… the Government nominee for key positions such as those listed below should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing with the relevant select committee. The hearing would be non-binding, but in the light of the report from the committee, Ministers would decide whether to proceed. The hearings would cover issues such as the candidate's suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in selection… .

For market-sensitive and certain other appointments, including the Governor and the two Deputy Governors of the Bank of England, the Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, and some utility regulators, there is a particular set of issues around confirmation hearings. But the Government does believe that it is important to ensure greater accountability than currently exists. So, for these positions, once an appointment has been approved, the relevant select committee will be invited to convene a hearing with the nominee before he or she takes up post. The relevant department will consult with the select committee as to what such hearings might usefully cover.[9]

6. The Green Paper also announced that the appointment of the chair of the newly created Statistics Board would be subject to a vote in the House of Commons to confirm the Government's nominee.[10] The Treasury Select Committee moved quickly to hold an evidence session with the nominee, Sir Michael Scholar, and published a report to inform the decision of the House.[11] A debate was held on 25 July 2007, and the House agreed the appointment.[12]

7. The Treasury Committee's Report on that appointment included some reflections on the process. The Committee concluded that:

… if select committees are to be enabled to be properly equipped to consider nominations for major public appointments, it is vital for Ministers to provide initial information to a select committee about the proposed timetable for a particular appointment at the earliest possible opportunity, and then to ensure that the committee is provided on a timely basis with subsequent information about the conduct of the appointment process.[13]

8. The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) conducted a short inquiry on the Government's pre-appointment hearings proposals.[14] Their report, Parliament and public appointments: Pre-appointment hearings by select committees, welcomed the Government's proposals and attempted to establish criteria to determine which posts should be subject to the hearings. The Committee suggested the categories of appointments that should be made subject to pre-appointment hearings were: major auditors, ombudsmen, regulators and inspectors; those responsible for the appointments system itself; and appointments normally made on merit but where Ministers had chosen not to follow the usual processes (such as the appointment of former politicians as senior diplomats).

9. We are grateful to PASC for their thorough work on this issue. In particular, we support the proposals in their Report on:

  • notice to a committee of at least three sitting weeks within which to hold a pre-appointment hearing (para 31);
  • guidelines to ensure the proper conduct of the hearing (para 34).

We also share their expectation that "it will be only in very exceptional cases that committees will recommend against the appointment of a candidate; but the test of the Government's commitment to pre-appointment hearings will be how Ministers react in such cases" (para 38).

The Government's list of appointments

10. On 23 January 2008 the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Rt Hon Ed Miliband, wrote to our Chairman with a list of posts that the Government proposed should be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny.[15] The Government said they would focus on posts that exercise statutory or other powers in relation to protecting the public's rights and interests, as well as those that play a key role in the regulation and administration of the appointments process itself.[16] The list consisted of 30 various public service ombudsmen, inspectors and regulators, and is reproduced in Annex A.

Additional appointments proposed by select committees

11. Through their Chairmen, we have consulted individual select committees on Mr Miliband's proposals. Their suggestions for additional posts which should be included in the list subject to pre-appointment scrutiny are set out in the table overleaf.Additional Appointments
Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform ·  Chairman, Office of Fair Trading

·  Chairman, Competition Commission

Children, Schools and Families ·  Qualifications and Examinations Regulator

·  (possibly) Head, new agency on the monitoring and development of curriculum, assessment and qualifications

·  Chair of OFSTED

·  Children's Commissioner

Communities and Local Government ·  Chair of the Audit Commission

·  Chair of the Standards Board

·  Chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights[17]

·  Chair of Oftenant (subject to the passage of the Housing and Regeneration Bill) [18]

·  Chief Executive of the Planning Inspectorate

·  Chair of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (subject to the passage of the Planning Bill)

Culture, Media and Sport ·  Chairman of the BBC Trust
Defence·  Chief of Defence Staff

·  Three Service Chiefs

·  Chief of Defence Materiel

·  Service Complaints Commissioner

Environmental Audit ·  Chair of the Committee on Climate Change (subject to the passage of the relevant Bill)
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ·  Rural Advocate

·  Chair of the Consumer Council for Water

·  Chair of Agricultural Wages Board

·  Chair of Gangmaster Licensing Authority

·  Chief Executive, Environment Agency

·  Chief Executive, Natural England

European Scrutiny·  European Commissioner nominated by the UK prior to confirmation by the European Parliament
Foreign Affairs·  Any major diplomatic or consular appointment of a person from outside the diplomatic service
Innovation, Universities and Skills ·  Chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England

·  Chair of the Office for Fair Access

·  Chair and Chief Executives of Research Councils

·  Chair of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research

·  Government Chief Scientific Adviser

Public Administration ·  Chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments

·  Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission

·  Prime Minister's Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests

Regulatory Reform·  Executive Chair of the Better Regulation Executive
Transport·  London Underground PPP Arbiter

·  Chair of the Civil Aviation Authority

·  Chair of Network Rail

Work and Pensions·  Chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee

·  Chair of the Independent Case Examiner

·  Chief Executives of the agencies of the Department

The full text of letters from individual Chairmen is printed in Annex B.

The process

12. The Government also stated that they expected committee hearings "to focus on issues of professional competence",[19] and that "it is essential that it is conducted in such a way that we both enhance the role of Parliament in scrutinising public appointments and maintain an appointments process which is proportionate and continues to attract high quality candidates".[20] The Minister's letter stated that "the format of pre-appointment hearings will broadly follow the process set out in the Green Paper … We expect committee hearings to focus on issues of professional competence."[21] In our view, this is too restrictive. Personal independence is a key requirement in all public posts and most obviously in those such as a regulator, or the Chairman of the BBC Trust. It should be included explicitly as a focus of any hearings, as recommended by the Public Administration Select Committee and endorsed in a number of letters from Chairmen.

13. We share the Government's aim to create a process that can "both enhance the role of Parliament in scrutinising public appointments and maintain an appointments process which is proportionate and continues to attract high quality candidates." To this end, we have prepared a set of guidelines which we believe should ensure that any hearing is conducted appropriately. These are printed in the box below and our intention is that they would be followed by individual committees.

Pre-appointment hearings: draft guidelines

Preparing for the session

The Committee should aim to give the witness at least a week's notice of the session. Standard briefing should be available to the candidate on what to expect from the session. The candidate should also be informed how long the session is likely to last.

During the session

The Chairman should ensure that Members are aware that their questions must remain relevant to the professional competence and personal independence of the candidate. Questions eliciting background information about the candidate's past career and about the selection process for the post are also normally acceptable.

The candidate will need to be able to withstand parliamentary and public scrutiny should they take up the post, and the purpose of the session is to test this. Questioning may therefore be robust, and it may cover some areas that might not be appropriate at interview, such as party political allegiance. The Chairman should intervene, however, if questions are irrelevant, unduly personal, or discriminatory.

After the session

Immediately after the evidence session, the Committee should meet in private to agree a report to the House containing its views on the suitability of the candidate. This will ensure both that the evidence is fresh in Members' minds and that Members who were not present at the evidence do not influence the content of the report. It will also avoid unnecessarily prolonged speculation about a candidate's fate. The Committee may also wish to instruct the Chairman to write to the relevant Minister with any opinions that it prefers to express privately, to supplement the published report.

The Committee's report should be published as soon as possible after the evidence session. Reports should be subject to a 24 hour embargo to allow the candidate and the Minister to prepare a response to any negative comments. They should be provided under embargo only to the candidate and the Minister.

14. We see it as our role, as the Liaison Committee, to work with Ministers to ensure that their welcome initiative is beneficial. It is for us and individual committees to monitor how the evidence sessions have gone as the process of pre-appointment hearings develops, and discuss this with Ministers and their departments, and not the other way round. This should be a joint process, if the Government means what it says. For this reason, a Government-planned "pilot" does not seem to us appropriate. It is not a process to be "supervised by the Government or which can only proceed if Ministers give their approval".[22] Indeed, as the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights writes in his letter to our Chairman:

Committees are entitled to call any newly-appointed public official to discuss any issues in relation to their qualifications for the post and future plans, regardless of whether the Government considers this appropriate. We welcome the Government's willingness to engage in pre-appointment hearings but we would not wish the work of Committees to be constrained, or appear to be constrained, in any way. It will also be important to make clear that the Government remains solely responsible for appointments to posts where pre-appointment hearings have taken place. Endorsement of the Government's nominee at a pre-appointment hearing must not preclude robust scrutiny of performance in the job.

15. We are confident that committees will want to make a success of the process. They have the necessary expertise and sensitivity, although there are many calls on their limited time. It will be for them to take the initiative to hold an evidence session, once they are notified. The Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee suggests that, from the list of posts identified,

… departmental select committees should be notified of major appointments and that committees should then be able to decide—perhaps within an agreed period of time—whom they see.

The discretion should remain with them. Committees, and through them, the public, are being encouraged to engage with appointees to public office. This important task needs to be carried out, but it should not crowd out the wider scrutiny of Ministers and their departments in evidence and reports by which committees can ensure that they are accountable.

16. The Government's proposals are a welcome response to our belief that select committees can add value to an appointments process. The relationship between Parliament and these public bodies, of communication, scrutiny and, when needed, of support, can only be strengthened as a consequence. Subject to the additions proposed by Chairmen, and the reservations of the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts about pre-appointment hearings for the Comptroller and Auditor General, given the unique method of appointing to that post, which we share, we would endorse the Minister's list of appointments on which committees should have the opportunity to take evidence. As we have made clear earlier, this list, which can be kept under review, should be neither exclusive, nor mandatory where a committee does not wish to add such a session to its current programme of work. Nonetheless, it is our firm view that committees will now wish to work together with Ministers and their departments to carry forward a developing series of evidence sessions that can be helpful to the postholder and the department while providing enhanced accountability to Parliament.

9   Ministry of Justice, The Governance of Britain, Cm 7170, July 2007, paras 76-79 Back

10   Ibid., para 80 Back

11   Treasury Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2006-07, The appointment of the Chair of the Statistics Board, HC 934-I Back

12   HC Deb, 25 July 2007, cols 902-14 Back

13   Treasury Committee, The appointment of the Chair of the Statistics Board, para 32 Back

14   Public Administration Select Committee, Third Report of Session 2007-08, Parliament and public appointments: Pre-appointment hearings by select committees, HC 152 Back

15   See Annex A. Back

16   Letter dated 23 January 2008 from Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP to Rt Hon Alan Williams MP, Chair of the Liaison Committee. See Back

17   Also proposed by the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Back

18   Also proposed by the Chairman of the Standard and Privileges Committee. Back

19   See Back

20   Ibid. Back

21   See Annex A. Back

22   Letter from the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, see Annex B. Back

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