The commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell has criticised the government for “packing” the panel to oversee the appointment of the next chair of the Office for Students (OfS) with political allies of the Conservative party.
By “packing the composition of interview panels with allies”, the government “want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies”, Mr Riddell warned.
He noted that the OfS recruitment panel features “no one with senior, recent experience of higher education or a student”.
The five-strong recruitment panel for the new chair of the OfS was announced in September and will be chaired by Susan Acland-Hood, acting permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE). Incumbent Sir Michael Barber will step down from the role in March 2021.
Joining the DfE’s most senior civil servant on the panel are Dame Patricia Hodgson, former chairman of Ofcom, former Conservative party parliamentary candidate and former chair of right-wing thinktank Bow Group; Eric Ollerenshaw, former Conservative MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood; Laura Wyld, a Conservative peer and non-executive board member at Ofsted; and Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former chief-of-staff.
Dame Patricia stood as a candidate for Islington South and Finsbury in the 1974 general election but told the Evening Standard in 2006 that her links with the Tory party ended in 1981. Aside from her work in the media sector, Dame Patricia was a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) from 2005 to 2011 and served as principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 2006 to 2012.
There have also been attempts to stretch the Code by, for example, packing the composition of interview panels with allies, notably in the current case of the panel for the competition of the Office for Students, which has a panel of five where there is no one with senior recent experience of higher education or a student involved
– Peter Riddell, commissioner for public appointments
Mr Riddell said that the recruitment for the interview panel for the OfS role was one example of where there have “been attempts to stretch the Code by, for example, packing the composition of interview panels with allies.”
The commissioner noted his concerns in a letter (dated 7 October) to Lord Jonathan Evans, the chair of the committee on standards in public life (CSPL). The letter was sent before a hearing of the CSPL last month, at which Mr Riddell gave evidence. The minutes from the hearing are not yet in the public domain. The 72-year-old public servant reflected in his letter to Lord Evans that his appearance at the CSPL would probably be his last – Mr Riddell recently announced his retirement.
The letter provides an account of Mr Riddell’s experiences in the role since the summer of 2019 and his annual report. “The central question” of his soon-to-be-released annual report on public appointments “is the balance between ministerial involvement and appointment on merit”, he reported.
“The system is inherently political in that ministers can at all stages suggest candidates and have the final say, but their choice is constrained by a system of fair and open competition in which all candidates are treated equally. The balance between the two is defined in the Governance Code, since January 2017 the Cabinet Office’s Code, not mine,” he wrote to Lord Evans.
“That balance has depended on restraint and good sense. For instance, ministers have respected the results of competitions and have not sought to use the provisions to appoint a candidate judged ‘unappointable’ by the interview panel. That has usually provided a choice of appointable candidates which has permitted current ministers, like those of previous governments, to choose someone whom they believe will be supportive of their broad goals.”
The appointments process has historically “constrained” the power of patronage in the recruitment process, Mr Riddell continued, but “there has always been an element of favouring your allies” in the way ministers appoint figures to non-governmental bodies. Although “former ministers and ex-MPs have often proved to be effective public appointees”, Mr Riddell said, it was essential appointments “emerge from a rigorous comparison with other candidates on the basis of a fair and open competition”.
He continued: “There are, however, signs that this balance is under threat – 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. 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 Code.
“There have also been attempts to stretch the Code by, for example, packing the composition of interview panels with allies, notably in the current case of the panel for the competition of the Office for Students, which has a panel of five where there is no one with senior recent experience of higher education or a student involved.
“My only role concerning interview panels is to be consulted over the appointment of SIPMs, but not over other members of panels which are the responsibility of ministers and departments. Other examples – which are infuriating the chairs of public bodies – are the wholesale rejection of reappointments.”
A job advert published by the cabinet office on 26 August reveals the new chair will be paid £59,000 a year and will work for two days per week across a four-year term. Applications for the position closed on 22 September with interviews set for later this month. The new chair will be chosen after a pre-appointment hearing with the House of Commons education select committee in January or February 2021.
Mr Riddell also criticised the appointment of Dido Harding to lead NHS Test and Trace and to be interim executive chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHPS) “without any process of regulated appointment”. “The latest controversy over the future chairs of the BBC and Ofcom has involved advanced speculation that certain candidates are favoured – even informally lined up – which, whether accurate or not, risks discouraging other well qualified candidates from applying,” he continued.
The commissioner also criticed the government for searching “for any tweet or social media comment critical of government policies” during recruitment processes. “It is 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,” he explained.