Outgoing public appointments commissioner: “I’ve been concerned about the balance on panels”

Peter Riddell has overseen a system under increased scrutiny. He explains what happens when politicians interfere—and how best to retain public confidence

September 30, 2021
"There should be a register of all appointments that are regulated or not regulated," says Riddell. Photo by Mike Massaro
"There should be a register of all appointments that are regulated or not regulated," says Riddell. Photo by Mike Massaro

Appointments to public bodies do not usually make for headline news, but over the past year or two they have been thrown into the political spotlight. Briefings that Paul Dacre, the controversial former editor of the Daily Mail, is the favoured candidate to chair Ofcom caused widespread dismay. Dido Harding’s appointment to head NHS Test and Trace last year was no less controversial. Gina Coladangelo’s position on the Department of Health board provoked public anger when her affair with Matt Hancock came to light—and there are more examples of questionable practice, either within the formal public appointments system itself or, as in the latter two cases, outside the main channels. 

How can we ensure the system is robust enough to withstand abuse? Peter Riddell knows better than most, having been in charge of monitoring public appointments since 2016. An ex-Times journalist and former director of the Institute for Government, his five-and-a-half-year term as commissioner expires on Thursday, when he will hand over to William Shawcross, a former chair of the Charity Commission. What has Riddell made of the controversies during his time in the job? Did they constitute abuse of the system and if so, what can be done to ensure its integrity?

Speaking over the phone on a rainy morning earlier this week, Riddell explained that while the majority of appointments are still conducted in good faith, the atmosphere has changed.

“It's certainly true” that there is a small group of people in No 10 “who want to appoint allies and advisers to prominent public positions,” Riddell said, “or—possibly as significant—to prevent anyone who is seen, for example, as anti-Brexit or who has links to Labour, or any other party—or the Scot Nats for that matter—from having a post. So there's more activism on that than was true before July 2019 [when Boris Johnson came to office].” 

For Riddell, this means “alertness” is essential. The commissioner’s post emerged out of recommendations from the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995. The job involves overseeing the processes and panels governing appointments to public bodies. Ministers are ultimately in charge, but the appointments should be made through open competition, on merit and with an independent element. 

Hundreds of appointments are made to low-profile—though important—positions. Occasionally, however, a candidate makes national headlines. 

Dacre is one such. “I remember the two linked stories, Charles Moore to the BBC and Paul Dacre to Ofcom,” explained Riddell, who believes the biggest problem is the briefing to the media. When there are “stories in the papers, ahead of the competition starting, which say ‘this is No 10’s favourite candidate’… this infuriates me and infuriates those operating the system.”

Such behaviour “deters good candidates from applying. It’s the chilling effect which really concerns me”—particularly in the case of Ofcom. “I think only nine candidates applied, that's extraordinarily low.” 

“Ministers have got a big enough say so in the process as it is, because they can suggest names to be considered and they have the final say,” he added. “But to say—this is their Spads normally—‘this is the preferred candidate’ is really unhelpful, because it does deter people who say ‘well, why do I bother going through all the hassle of applying if it's all sewn up?’” 

Even if the process is unimpeachable—Riddell stressed that it often is, and that the strengths of individual applicants, Dacre included, lie outside his remit—it helps “create the impression that it's not as open as it should be. And I'm very concerned about that. And that is a problem.”

In the event, Dacre was found by the panel to be unappointable. The government has decided to re-run the competition, to the astonishment of commentators. Riddell insisted this is acceptable practice and in line with the relevant governance code. But what about when the appointment panels are less forthright? In certain cases “I've been concerned about the balance of panels,” Riddell said. “Particularly there was the Office for Students appointment last Christmas… where I thought the panel was basically loaded. This is when Williamson was secretary of state for education. And I protested at the time. I expressed my views quite strongly.”

Of the five people on that panel, “a majority had clear Tory ties,” said Riddell, including an ex-MP and a Conservative peer. “Williamson appointed James Wharton [to chair the body], who was a former Tory MP. And that created quite a lot of comment. But that was his decision, that’s for him… my concern was that the process wasn't as independent as I think it should have been for such an important role.”

There is a group in No 10 “who want to appoint allies and advisers to prominent public positions”

There are some appointments made outside the formal public appointments system, raising questions of transparency and oversight. Conservative peer Dido Harding’s appointment to NHS Improvement—conducted through open competition—later blurred into her chairing the discredited Test and Trace programme, without an equivalent process. If this was a matter of time pressure, said Riddell, “there wasn't necessarily a case for regulation, but there was the case for transparency… I don’t think her [appointments] were necessarily as transparent as they should have been.”

What about non-executive directors of departmental boards, also unregulated? “They were originally intended mainly to have private sector business experience, but what’s happened now is that there are many more political allies—peers, ex-Spads, it’s very difficult to regulate that. Clearly the Hancock thing highlighted it enormously… there is a case for shining light on it, being clear what the procedures are.” 

More broadly, “I just want to be clear about which posts are regulated and which aren’t regulated,” he said. “At present, it can be opaque: over the Harding thing and so on... the terms of their appointment, and how long and who by, should be clear. There are an awful lot of appointments sitting around, ‘czars’ and so on—all that should be publicly identified. There should be a register of all appointments that are regulated or not regulated, which could open the debate up on how these things happen.”

Taken as a whole, “the system has proved to be pretty robust. But I do think there is a danger of cynicism about it. However, you've got to look back. Labour governments appointed plenty of sympathisers… There has always been a sense… of allies being appointed to positions. But I think there are dangers. Absolutely there are dangers.”

Shawcross takes up the post at a crucial moment. What advice does his predecessor offer? Diversity is crucial, which means building on the work done to “increase the involvement of under-represented groups such as women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.” Elsewhere, you must “keep an eye on potentially controversial things, because ultimately, you'll be judged if you're being robust on those.” Riddell, for his part, has certainly been robust, and Shawcross has big shoes to fill.

With Riddell’s permission, this interview includes brief comments made over email the following afternoon

Read more: William Shawcross will need a firm hand to fix the public appointments system