Who is fit and proper?
The headline grabber inevitably centres around the Prime Ministerâ€™s judgement. There are however other important issues which this has highlighted. These are about the processes for senior â€˜politicalâ€™ appointments which come within the purview of Prime Ministers but which involve people who work at the heart of government. The current system is pretty opaque. Even though some of these appointees may operate as quasi civil servants, can the civil service influence such senior appointments up to and including the power of veto? It appears not. Certainly the Civil Service Commissioners, although they are involved in the appointment of senior public figures, do not have a locus in this area. Positive vetting cannot, of itself, prevent appointments and is more likely to focus on personal behavioural matters such as sex and drugs than, say, someoneâ€™s business background. And does the Cabinet Secretary have a role? At this point the mists descend but the likelihood is that, whatever reservations he might have, ultimately, if a Prime Minister decides to run with an appointment, he gets his way.
Not the first time
Is this sustainable? This is not the first time questions over the behaviour of political appointees have been raised. More recently there has been Damian McBride and there will have been others. It has to be in the interests of all concerned â€“ politicians, the civil service, the appointees and the public at large â€“ that there are processes in place which are fair and which ensure, as far as is possible, the probity of appointments. This should be on the grounds of propriety rather than the exercise of political or personal judgement. This could argue for a clear and defined role for the Civil Service Commissioners, short of a veto, which would provide transparency, consistency and robustness in the appointments process and would fit well with their expertise in managing other senior appointments including a special regime for senior political appointments.
The drive towards full transparency
Ultimately though there has to be a more clearly defined and public role for the Cabinet Secretary. No doubt difficult conversations may be held behind closed doors but recent events have demonstrated that this can no longer be enough. The events of recent weeks have had a dramatic effect on public opinion and the publicâ€™s expectations of politicians as well as the media. The drive towards full transparency is now probably irreversible. What this argues for, therefore, is a process whereby, although the separation of powers might not make a formal veto by the Cabinet Secretary of senior political appointments feasible, if the Cabinet Secretary is sufficiently concerned about the implications of a particular appointment, he will request a public letter of instruction to enable the appointment to proceed. Similar to a Permanent Secretaryâ€™s ability to minute reservations as an accounting officer over expenditure. The likelihood of such letters being needed will almost certainly be very rare. But the fact that the process and the accountabilities it created existed would provide an important level of protection to all parties and help to ensure that the Coulson affair is the last of its kind.