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Public appointments process needs major shake-up

24122101_sAmid all the hysteria over the referendum a few other events are worth noting below the radar, though obviously on a much lesser scale. Two appointments and one non-dismissal have been notable in this last week alone, though these are only the latest examples of a long decline in proper accountability in this country.

After a string of well-known public figures had all turned down the post of the government’s choice to chair the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead agreed to accept it. It is a position requiring a lot of sensitive handling after the Savile abuse saga, controversies over executive payoffs of £369m, and a failed digital media venture. Yet Fairhead declared that whilst she would ‘prioritise’ her job as the BBC’s chief regulator (so that’s all right then), she would also cling on to her non-executive roles at HSBC and the US multinational Pepsi – quite likely the terms she exacted from the government to take up the job at all.

This is clearly unacceptable. We urgently need a Code of Conduct for all top posts in the public sector which requires them to concentrate exclusively on their very important role in the public interest – or else they shouldn’t be eligible for such a crucial full-time post.

Then there was the appointment by the home secretary of Fiona Woolf to chair the inquiry into child sex abuse in Rotherham and elsewhere. Again this was a second choice after the first choice, Lady Butler-Sloss, was forced to resign after public uproar at her closeness to some of those involved. This time round Woolf not only seems to have no knowledge whatever of the issues she’s supposed to be investigating, but (can you believe it?) has close links with Lord Brittan, the former home secretary accused of a cover-up of a huge child abuse scandal. Who chooses these people with such unerring aplomb?

The answer is it’s nearly always civil servants who keep very close tabs on all top public sector appointments. By the choice of personalities they want to keep control of events as far as they can outside Whitehall to fit how they control things inside Whitehall, and ministers usually go along with the names put up to them. To provide a real check, all top public appointments, including chairs of major public inquiries, should stringently vetted by the appropriate Commons select committee, and the government’s nomination should only be ratified if approved by that committee.

Then there is the outrage that the police commissioner in S. Yorkshire, Shaun Wright, cannot be sacked by the home secretary despite his manifest culpability over supervision of Rotherham child care services when the child sex abuse was so rampant. In such cases Parliament should assert itself by calling him before the relevant select committee (home affairs) and if after a detailed examination he is found in a vote of the committee to be clearly liable, a report of the proceedings should be sent forthwith to the relevant minister which in the absece of exceptional circumstance should lead to his dismissal.

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