Striking the right balance on public appointments

7 March 2011

The Institute's latest report, Balancing Act, proposes a range of reforms to enhance parliament's role in the public appointments process, including a veto over appointment to and dismissal from 25 top posts.

Lord (Chris) Patten will this Thursday be cross-examined by MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee about his suitability for the role of BBC Trust Chairman, following his nomination by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Over 25 such “pre-appointment hearings” with heads of major arm’s length bodies (ALBs) from HM Inspector of Constabulary to the Food Standards Agency and the Judicial Appointments Commission have taken place since the system was established in 2007-08.

The purpose of these hearings – and similar sessions with new members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) – is to enable committees to assess the professional competence and personal independence of the government’s candidates.

Office for Budget Responsibility

Such hearings are not binding. But the Coalition Government has now gone further, granting the Treasury Select Committee (TSC) a veto power over appointments to and dismissals from the board of the new Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), in what has been rightly described as a “major constitutional innovation” by TSC chairman Andrew Tyrie.

From one perspective, it seems strange that the government should tie its hands in this way. Indeed, there are arguments against involving MPs in the public appointment process at all, including the possibility of politicisation or the deterrence of candidates.

But for the Chancellor of the Exchequer this was, in fact, an easy decision, especially after the suggestions of ministerial interference under the OBR’s first, interim chairman.

The OBR will provide a regular commentary on how the Coalition is performing against its deficit reduction targets. And the OBR’s credibility in the eyes of voters, financial markets and the media rests upon its independence from direct ministerial control being unambiguous and explicit.

The powers granted to the cross-party TSC should help ensure both that the OBR is perceived to be genuinely independent and that the Office feels free to publish bad news without fear of ministerial sanction.

Having stated that the OBR veto was a unique case, the government has now added a further precedent, announcing its intention to grant the Justice Committee a veto over future appointmentments to the post of Information Commissioner. The government has sensibly recognised that, just like the OBR, the authority of the Information Commissioner – and the freedom of information and data protection regimes that he polices – rests upon its autonomy from ministerial diktat.

The Institute’s new report

The question inevitably begged by these developments is: are there further posts whose independence from ministers should be guaranteed in this way?

In Balancing Act, published today, we argue the answer is yes. There are 20-30 other posts that, like the OBR and the Information Commissioner, perform vital functions on behalf of the public and whose role is to act as a check on the executive. For this “A List”, we propose that ministerial appointment and dismissal powers should be made subject to an effective parliamentary veto.

This would work as follows. Following a hearing with the government’s proposed candidate the committee would – as at present – publish a report with its verdict. In most cases, we would expect the government to withdraw their candidate in the event of a negative committee assessment.

But should minister and committee remain at loggerheads then the House as a whole should take the final decision, in line with the constitutional principle that select committees report to the House rather than taking decisions on its behalf.

The A List

Our “A List” (see page 37 of our  report) includes the Governor of the Bank of England, the chair of the UK Statistics Board, and the Chief Inspector of Schools. In case Lord Patten is reading, we do also include the Chair of the BBC Trust on our proposed list.

In practice, most appointments will still proceed without controversy. But the past few years have illustrated that a greater parliamentary involvement in the public appointments process can help advance the cause of good government. The government’s recent commitments to enhancing the role of parliament are to be welcomed, but there is further to go.

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