COMMONS

Liaison Committee publishes report on select committees and public appointments

04 September 2011

The Commons Liaison Committee publishes a report recommending a range of changes to the system for scrutinising public appointments

For three years now select committees have been involved in examining the Government's preferred candidate for major public appointments. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of Chairs of the select committees which scrutinise the work of Government, sees this as a small but significant increase in ministerial accountability to Parliament, but believes the time has come to strengthen the system.

Proposals

The Committee proposes a shorter, but more coherent, list of posts which should be subject to enhanced pre-appointment scrutiny. It recommends:

  • About a dozen appointments should be effectively joint appointments between Parliament and the Executive, confirmed by a vote of the House of Commons and with a parliamentary lock on dismissal. These are posts where holders exercise key constitutional functions, regulate the activities of Ministers, or protect citizens from the Government.
  • For another two dozen or so posts, Parliament should exercise an "effective veto" over appointments: in other words, Ministers would be required to justify any decision to reject a committee's recommendation, and in the case of disputes the decision might be taken to the floor of the House. But committees and Ministers should also be able to negotiate where committees have concerns about the preferred candidate for the job, before they make a report, and select committees should be involved right from the start in designing the jobs, with more information given to them about the recruitment process and field of candidates.
  • For other posts, committees could choose whether or not they scrutinise the appointment.

Liaison Committee Chair, Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith, said:

"Scrutiny of major public appointments is essential if the public are to have confidence that those appointed are fully independent of the Government.

Pre-appointment hearings are now an established - and valued - part of select committees' role, but there is still some uncertainty about exactly what should happen if a committee is not happy about a proposed appointment. For certain key posts we want an undertaking from Government that they would not go ahead with an appointment in the face of an adverse report from a committee."

Background

  1. In 2008 a system of "pre-appointment hearings" by select committees was introduced.
  2. Pre-appointment hearings enable Commons select committees to take evidence from the Government's preferred candidate for certain, key public appointments before an appointment is confirmed.
  3. Hearings are in public and involve the select committee taking evidence from the candidate and publishing a report setting out the committee's views on the candidate's suitability for the post.
  4. Up to July 2011, 34 pre-appointment hearings had been conducted. Most reports have been positive but some have highlighted concerns. For example:
    In 2009 the then Children, Schools and Families Committee made a negative recommendation in the case of the Government’s preferred candidate for the Children's Commissioner. The then Secretary of State chose to proceed with the appointment.
    In May 2011 the Justice Committee was not satisfied that an appropriate range of candidates had been considered for the post of Chief Inspector of Probation, and the Government accepted the committee's view and decided to re-open the application process.
    In June 2011 the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) gave an implicit negative opinion in respect of the Government's preferred candidate for the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority. In light of the committee's concerns about the candidate's independence the candidate stood down.
  5. The Liaison Committee's report considers research commissioned in the last Parliament (jointly with the Cabinet Office) from the Constitution Unit at University College London (UCL) on the operation of the pre-appointment hearings system:
    An Evaluation of Pre-Appointment Scutiny Hearings (external website)  
  6. The committee's report also takes into account research published in March 2011 by the Institute for Government:
    Balancing Act: the right role for parliament in public appointments (external site) 

Further Information

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