In the United Kingdom there are hundreds of public bodies which have a role in the processes of national Government, but are neither Government departments, nor part of Government departments, which operate to a greater or lesser extent at an arm’s length from Ministers. These non-departmental public bodies (NPDBs) are of varying size and include bodies like art galleries, inspectorates, regulators, advisory committees. During the 1990s, there was widespread public concern that appointments were being made to public bodies for political reasons and without due process. Lord Nolan reviewed the system in 1995 and decided that a Commissioner for Public Appointments should be appointed, to establish a Code of Practice for public appointments and regulate the system according to that Code. The Code has been reformed a number of times, including recently by Sir David Normington in an effort to reduce bureaucracy.
In 2015, the Government established a review of the public appointments process, led by Sir Gerry Grimstone. Sir Gerry’s review reported in the spring of 2016, recommending that a number of changes be made to the system. Sir Gerry recommended that there should be a renewed focus on ethnic, gender and social diversity. Sir Gerry also recommended changes to the role of the Commissioner, removing many of his or her formal powers within the public appointments process (for example removing the power to appoint independent assessors to an interview panel). Sir Gerry recommended that these checks and balances be replaced by the appointments process being made more transparent, with the Commissioner being transformed into a commentator on the Government’s probity in following this process.
We have received evidence of widespread disquiet about Sir Gerry’s proposals. Although the Government has adopted them, it should think again. The Commissioner’s powers should be restored in order to safeguard public trust and confidence in the system. Furthermore the Government should clarify the role of pre-appointment hearings, including implementing the recommendations made by the Liaison Committee in 2011, and considering how scrutiny could be further improved in the future. Effective scrutiny both within the Government (through the Commissioner for Public Appointments) and in Parliament is vital to ensure that public trust and confidence in public appointments remains high and also that appointments are truly being made on merit.
5 July 2016