For the second time in Select Committee history, a Government Minister has ignored the rejection of a Committee of a public appointment candidate and continued to support their appointee. This is the impetus that should allow a veto of public appointments by all Select Committees.
The House of Commons departmental Select Committees have the obligation to scrutinise candidates put forward by Government ministers for public appointments. Through pre-appointment hearings, they ask prospective candidates for very influential positions, such as Chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights as well as many others, question on their eligibility, experience and plans if given the role. All of this seems rather rudimentary work of a Select Committee. After almost all of these pre-appointment hearings, the Committee will endorse the candidate and there will not be any complaints. However, there is a large influence on the word ‘almost’ used in the last sentence.
As of last week, there have only been two occasions when the Select Committees in question have not endorsed the candidate put forward but on both occasions the Minister has continued to support their candidate. The first of these was in October 2009 when the Children, Schools and Families Committee refused to endorse Ed Balls candidate for Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, who stated ‘we would have liked to have seen determination to assert the independence of the role… and to stretch the remit of the post, in particular, by championing children’s rights’. The second of these came more recently when the Business, Innovations and Skills Committee rejected Vince Cable’s submission of Prof. Les Ebdon for the post of Chair of the Office for Fair Access, or the University tsar as some tabloids have referred to it. Despite this rejection, Prof. Ebdon will probably get the job, as Maggie Atkison did in 2009, because the Ministers have the final say on whether they do.
Why is this important? Well, it is not possible for Select Committees to scrutinise candidates effectively if they know that if they reject a candidate, the Minister in question will simply ignore their recommendation. The politically impartial body of Parliament resides in the Select Committees and they are scrutinising politically chosen appointees for politically influential positions. And yet the impartialness of the Select Committees has no guarantee that they will be listened too, because in 100% of occasions when they have rejected candidates in the past, the committee rulings have meant nothing.
In a case study written for the Parliament in the UK module offered by @NottsPolitics, I argued for the power of a veto over candidates should be given to Select Committees in order for them to effectively scrutinise candidates. The veto gives the final say to the Committee rather than the Minister who has an obligation to his party. The power of a veto is not a complete phenomenon. In fact it has already been given to one Select Committee, the Treasury Committee. George Osborne allowed the Committee the power to veto a very limited number of positions in the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. This has never been used, however.
There are many reasons why only one Committee having a veto power is potentially problematic. The main being that giving certain powers to a limited amount of Committees creates a hierarchy between them. The Treasury Committee can be seen a “more” powerful than the others, because it has the power of the veto. Those without it may be seen as less influential and therefore less significant. Ideally, all Select Committees would have that power and be able to use it if and when it is necessary, ending the current hierarchy and ending the possibility for the ruling of Committee to be ignored by Government.
The debate could go on for pages and pages. However, this issue is one that could prove more problematic as more occurrences of this kind happen. If there are more times when a Select Committee does not endorse a recommendation for a public appointment and the Minister appoints the candidate anyway, the argument for the veto power will only get stronger. It may only have happened twice, but there is nothing stopping it from happening many more times. If the Select Committees are supposed to scrutinise, they should be given all the tools necessary in order to scrutinise effectively, without worrying that the Minister in charge will simply ignore their decisions.
Module: Parliament and the UK
Third Year, Politics BA,