The Constitution Unit


Parliamentary Scrutiny of Senior Public Appointments

September 2009 - January 2010

Sponsors: Cabinet Office, House of Commons Liaison Committee Led by: Peter Waller, Mark Chalmers

It is estimated that in the UK, Ministers make some 3,800 public appointments every year to the boards of executive non departmental public bodies. With the growth in regulation and inspection, some of the bigger regulators and senior public appointments wield significant political power. Up to now, these top appointments have been made without any parliamentary input or scrutiny. That is all now changing.

In July 2007, the Brown government laid out its agenda for constitutional reform. One of its proposals was to introduce the right for parliamentary select committees to hold pre-appointment hearings for certain high-profile public appointments. In its March 2008 white paper "Governance of Britain," the government decided to proceed with its plans for Parliament to hold hearings "on a pilot basis."

The stated rationale for introducing pre-appointment hearings is that they would serve to protect the public's rights and interests by adding transparency to the appointments process. However, Parliament would not be given a veto over appointments; the final decision remains in the hands of the Secretary of State. The government and Liaison Committee agreed that the hearings should focus on the candidates' professional competence and personal independence rather than their private lives.

The broader aim of the study is to establish what value parliamentary pre-appointment scrutiny hearings would add to the public appointments process. In other words, do pre-appointment hearings hold power accountable and do they enhance the rights and responsibilities of the citizen? Therefore, the study will aim to examine whether pre-appointment hearings are a good way of checking the executive's powers in a Westminster system. It also asks whether the select committees have been given sufficient powers to carry out their duties in scrutinising public appointments.

The hopes and fears of the advocates and opponents of pre-appointments can be tested by addressing the following research questions: (1) What value is added to public appointments; (2) What are the risks of pre-appointment scrutiny hearings; (3) What happens when a Select Committee issues an adverse report; (4) What are the lessons from these pilots.

The government and the Liaison Committee agreed to a list of 60 posts which might be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny hearings. As of 31 August 2009, 14 pre-appointment hearings have taken place. The appointment (or reappointment) processes for these 14 posts will form the case studies for this research project. The study uses three main research methods: (1) examination of official literature, including committee reports, transcripts of hearings, the job advertisement and the recruitment pack; (2) interviews with those involved in each recruitment exercise such as the executive search consultant, lead official in the sponsoring department, the clerk and chair of the Select Committee and the successful candidate; (3) media monitoring using Lexis Nexis to see how much publicity the hearings receive and whether the coverage is negative or positive.

The main output from the project will be submitted to the Liaison Committee and the Cabinet Office. Further Reading: