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MPs want greater say in top public appointments

By Richard Johnstone | 5 September 2011

Parliament should be given a greater role in the selection of senior public officials, MPs said this week.

The Commons liaison committee wants select committees to scrutinise appointments more and for the number of posts selected jointly by Parliament and the government to be increased from four to 12.

In a report published yesterday, Select committees and public appointments, the MPs analyse the pre-appointment hearings introduced three years ago. These have covered posts such as the children’s commissioner, those in charge of public service regulators, and the chair of the UK Statistics Authority.

The committee, which is made up of 33 select committee chairs, concludes that this process has led to a ‘small but significant increase in ministerial accountability to Parliament’.

However, the MPs want the role of the hearings, which are not currently binding, to be enhanced. They recommend that about a dozen appointments should effectively be made jointly by Parliament and government, with the terms and conditions of the post, including remuneration, agreed with the relevant select committee over before the post is advertised.

These posts would be confirmed by a vote in the Commons. There would also be ‘parliamentary lock’ on sackings, requiring ministers to consult the select committee on whether to put the dismissal before the House.

This model is already used in the recruitment of the auditor general, the parliamentary commissioner and the chair and independent members of the Office for Budget Responsibility. The MPs want it to be extended to eight other ‘top tier’ posts.

This would cover those where the holders exercise major constitutional functions, regulate the activities of ministers, or protect citizens from the government, including the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, the information commissioner and the commissioner for public appointments, and the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

For another 24 regulatory and inspector posts, Parliament should exercise an ‘effective veto’ over appointments. Ministers would be required to justify any decision to reject a committee's recommendation and any disputes would be debated in the Commons.

The MPs reviewed 34 pre-appointment hearings and found that a minority ‘caused concern’. Chief among these was the 2009 appointment of the children's commissioner. The then children, schools and families select committee made a negative recommendation on the government’s preferred candidate but the secretary of state Ed Balls went ahead with the appointment anyway.

Committee chair Sir Alan Beith said the MPs wanted an undertaking that the government would not go against committee views again.

He said: ‘Scrutiny of major public appointments is essential if the public are to have confidence that those appointed are fully independent of the government.

‘Pre-appointment hearings are now an established – and valued –part of select committees' role, but there is still some uncertainty about exactly what should happen if a committee is not happy about a proposed appointment. For certain key posts we want an undertaking from government that they would not go ahead with an appointment in the face of an adverse report from a committee.’



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