MPs warn reforms will politicise appointments to public bodies

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Proposed changes to the system for appointments to public bodies may lead to further politicisation of senior posts, an influential committee of MPs has said.

The public administration and constitutional affairs committee’s warning followed the disclosure by Sir David Normington, outgoing commissioner for public appointments, that ministerial attempts to place party sympathisers in key positions had accelerated since the general election.

The committee on Thursday offered “qualified” endorsement of Peter Riddell as Sir David’s successor.

Mr Riddell is currently the director of the Institute for Government and the committee described him as “highly respected”. However, Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the committee, said concerns that Mr Riddell lacked experience of making or supervising major appointments were “amplified” by recommendations in a government review of the public appointments system

The review has suggested a number of changes to procedures which, the committee said, “propose a substantial reduction in the direct powers of the commissioner for public appointments”.

Ministers would have more power over the composition of selection panels, as well as the ability to override their recommendations or to appoint a candidate without a selection process, “profoundly [altering] the context of this appointment”, the MPs said.

In a valedictory interview, Sir David told the FT that about once a month ministers sought to intervene on behalf of particular applicants with ties to the Conservative party.

Asked by the committee on Tuesday if this trend was likely to become more marked if the proposed reforms were implemented, Sir David said it was “almost inevitable” that more appointments would be made “without scrutiny and that will enable ministers to make appointments of who they want”.

Both Sir Gerry Grimstone, who led the government review, and Matt Hancock, cabinet office minister, have strongly rejected the suggestion that the proposals will weaken the commissioner.

However, the committee said on Thursday that not all its members were content with the way the government had handled the appointment of the commissioner, after the post was advertised on the Cabinet Office website.

Ronnie Cowan, an SNP MP, said jobs such as the public appointments commissioner should be widely advertised “to encourage a diverse range of applicants”.

Instead, he said, “we have gone down the traditional route which will reaffirm the public’s view of cronyism and engenders disenchantment and apathy”.

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