COMMONS

Select Committees and Public Appointments

06 September 2012

The House of Commons Liaison Committee — which brings together the Chairs of all the select committees which scrutinise the work of Government — today publishes a short report which is strongly critical of the Government’s approach to scrutiny of public appointments. Chair Sir Alan Beith described it as "a poor response."

Report

Select Committees have undertaken pre-appointment hearings since 2007.  These have a fourfold purpose:

  • Scrutiny of the quality of ministerial decision making;
  • Providing public reassurance that those appointed to key public offices are selected on merit;
  • Enhancing the appointee’s legitimacy in undertaking their function;
  • Providing public evidence of the candidate’s independence of mind.

A report by the Liaison Committee a year ago (Select Committees and Public Appointments, HC 1230, Sept 2011 (PDF 1.1MB)) reviewed the process and, drawing on research by the UCL Constitution Unit and the Institute for Government, made several recommendations to strengthen the accountability of ministerial appointments. These include:

  • About a dozen should effectively be joint appointments between Parliament and the Executive, confirmed by a vote of the House and with a parliamentary lock on dismissal. These would be posts where the postholders exercised key constitutional functions, regulated the activities of Ministers, or protected citizens from the Government.
  • For a further two dozen posts, Parliament should have an "effective veto" over appointments: Ministers would have to justify any decision to reject a committee’s recommendation, with any disagreements taken to the floor of the House. But committees and Ministers should also be able to negotiate where committees had concerns about the preferred candidate for the job before they made a report, and select committees should be involved right from the start with more discussion about the job spec, the recruitment process, the type of candidates being sought and the range and quality of the short listed candidates.
  • For a range of other posts for which parliamentary scrutiny was potentially appropriate, committees could choose whether or not they scrutinised the appointment.

The Government has rejected this proposed approach, stating only that it "has considered [it]... with interest.." It also fails to take up the Committee’s recommendation that political appointments such as the UK’s EU Commissioner, or Ambassadors or High Commissioners appointed from outside the career diplomatic service should be subject to pre appointment scrutiny. The June 2012 Cabinet Office guidance has been issued without any further reference to the committee and its recommendations, and the Committee’s own draft guidance is more or less ignored.

Liaison Committee Chair Sir Alan Beith said:

"This is a surprisingly poor response by the Government to some straightforward proposals to improve the existing process. The Government says it’s committed to increasing accountability in the public appointments process, but this dismissive and disengaged response makes this hard to believe.

Select Committees of the House of Commons will continue to develop pre- appointment hearings. They’re now a well established part of parliamentary scrutiny: the Government is missing an opportunity to agree the ground rules, and to extend the process to other appointments for which it is needed."

Background

  1. In 2007 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 2012, 66 pre-appointment hearings had been conducted, and there are two more this week (Chair, Audit Commission 03.09.12; Chair, Charity Commission, 05.09.12). Nearly all 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 of September 2011 (PDF 1.1MB).
  6. The report drew on 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.
  7. It also took into account research published in March 2011 by the Institute for Government: Balancing Act: the right role for parliament in public appointments (PDF 414KB) (external site).

Further Information

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