Outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments fires warning shot over growing political bias in appointments

Political bias in public appointments in increasing and has infuriated chairs of the bodies involved, Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, has said.

In a letter to Lord Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life - written last month but published only last week - Mr Riddell said ministers were seeking to place political allies in public roles.

He told Lord Evans that while political activity was not a bar to a public appointment “the key is that [applicants] are not appointed just as a result of patronage but emerge from a rigorous comparison with other candidates on the basis of a fair and open competition”.

There were now signs that “some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies”, Mr Riddell said.

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“For instance, in recent months I have on a number of occasions had to resist, successfully so far, attempts by ministers to appoint people with clear party affiliations as senior independent panel members when that is expressly barred under the [Governance] Code.”

He said there had also been attempts at “packing the composition of interview panels with allies”, notably in the case of the Office for Students where a five-strong panel had no members with recent senior experience of higher education.

Other examples “which are infuriating the chairs of public bodies” included “the wholesale rejection of reappointments”, as good governance required a mix of fresh appointments and reappointments to ensure renewal and continuity.

Mr Riddell also voiced alarm at the growth of unregulated appointments covered neither by his office nor by the Civil Service Commission.

These included the appointment of Baroness Harding to lead NHS Test and Trace and to be interim executive chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection “without any process of regulated appointment”.

Non-executive appointments to Whitehall departments also fell outside both processes and “the original idea of bringing in people with business and similar experience from outside Whitehall has been partly replaced by the appointment of political allies of ministers”.

Diversity of thought and experience in government might be reduced rather than increased by such appointments, he said.

Mr Riddell was also concern that the use of due diligence processes in Whitehall could contravene natural justice.

He said: “That has been underlined by the way due diligence can be applied to search for any tweet or social media comment critical of Government policies.”

Due diligence had to be proportionate and relevant and allegations must be put to candidates, as it was “a denial of natural justice for assertions about a candidate’s views to be made in submissions to ministers without the candidate having a chance to explain them”.

The churn of ministers in recent years had led to delays in public appointments, with a review last year having found more than half were taking longer than the expected three months.

Diversity initiatives were being disrupted by this as frequent changes of ministers led to a loss of momentum in processes to mentor and develop candidates from underrepresented groups.

Mr Riddell said though there was “the danger of creating a new orthodoxy in the name of diversity”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Public appointments must adhere to high standards and are regulated by an external process - the Commissioner has not found breaches of the code in respect of the concerns he raises." 

Mark Smulian

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