Equality, Charity and the Red Ermine

Three quite different news stories, one all-too-common theme: the absence of 333182_magnifying_glass proper scrutiny in some processes of UK governance. Of course MPs, Lords, journalists, the public, civil servants and campaign groups all subject the Government to the most critical scrutiny, but the problem that unites the three stories is the specific lack of 'pre-decision' scrutiny, built in mechanisms that allow the people oversight - and forces proper deliberation - before decisions are made.

Two of the stories in question illuminate perhaps the most egregious symptom of this problem: the Government's unchecked powers of appointment. Yesterday Baron Sugar of Clapton took his seat in the Lords, anointed by Brown at a time when the PM was doing everything to convince you his Government was just waving, not drowning. No doubt a few advisors were in on the discussions, maybe a couple of choice ministers (Baron Mandelson for sure). But essentially one man decided on his own whether to award a serious and tenured-for-life position to Alan Sugar. Committees exist to provide advice and regulate for impropriety, but the system for appointing Lords is all about patronage, often of the worst kind. Many deserving people have been appointed in the past few years, but for every two of these there is one who doesn't deserve to be there. Sugar is one of these. As the Times leader writer put it: 'The only thing that makes his appointment as Enterprise Champion palatable is that the Government doesn't need an Enterprise Champion at all, so perhaps it doesn't matter hugely if it has inappropriate one.' (For the full story, read here).

It is the reappointment of Dame Suzi Leather to the Chair of the Charity Commission that really reveals the rot though. Charity minister Angela Smith announced proudly today that Dame Suzi will serve a second term on the Commission, an arrangement probably agreed to by the overbearing total of just five people; three would be Government ministers (the PM, Tessa Jowel - Sec of State for the Cabinet Office - and Smith), one Andrew Hind (the chief executive of the Charity Commission) and a relevant civil servant. If this was just procedure for reappointment, it might not be so bad, but this was the system that appointed Dame Suzi in the first place, back in 2006.

It is this system that appoints people to the heads of enormous and important Government organisations, to jobs with hefty salaries and often significant power. Dame Suzi, for instance, is the motor behind the Charity Commission's new 'public benefit' test (seen by some lawyers, it should be noted, as being entirely illegal), which threatens to remove the charitable status of many private schools. (For more comment on this policy, see here). So these board and executive positions are not insignificant by any means. Dame Suzi is officially head of an independent non-ministerial government department, which answers to and is directed by the Cabinet Office. (Anyone who can work out that constitutional conundrum wins a prize.) This is a serious position, to which candidates need proper vetting and scrutiny, both from parliament and the public. 

In the United States at the moment, an informed committee of Senators is giving Barak Obama's candidate for the Supreme Court - Judge Sotomayor - a series of questions, scrutinising her suitability for the position, prior to their constitutionally necessary approval. This process went on (although to a far lesser degree) for all the President's appointments to Cabinet posts and agency heads, and many less senior positions too. The requirement that all applicants to important posts be vetted and scrutinised (often by a partisan and purposefully intransigent) Congress is constitutionally enshrined. It doesn't guarantee the best people, and often descends into a political punching match. It is far from perfect. It is though many worlds better than a system - such as ours - where essentially one person decides, in the dark, who gets what job.

Which brings things to the third 'scrutiny' story in question; news that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC - another mega quango) has been slammed by the Public Accounts Committee for hiring staff who had just been fired by the EHRC (with generous redundancy packages) back as consultants. The NAO has refused to sign off on all of the Commission's accounts because these appointments - which cost over £325,000 - were not approved by the Treasury. As the Guardian reports: "The NAO said the commission – which grew out of the Commission for
Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal
Opportunities Commission – "had no business strategy, no agreed
organisational design, and no clear understanding of what the
commission would do, and was missing important elements of effective
programme management" in the run-up to its creation two years ago."
(To read the full story, click here).

The problems within the EHRC are numerous, as the NAO report describes (read here). But the real problem is not with the EHRC itself, but with a system of scrutiny and Government machinery management that allowed the Government to just disband three quangos (listed above), merge them into one, appoint the senior board members and executives, push them off into the water and then walk off. Plans would have been read by the relevant Committee of MPs, but not really scrutinised. What would be the point? The Government decides when a quango is born, when it dies, and who runs it during its life. A few will debate minor points while legislation is going through parliament, but this is really just spitting into the wind. 

In the end, machinery of government changes (quango creation, reshuffles) and appointment are two powers which must be dealt with in any future constitutional reform bill. Parliament must supplant the Government as the body which appoints people to posts, although the Government should keep the right to put forward its preferred candidate. Departmental changes (BERR to BIS) must be limited in some way (maybe possible only after a general election?) and each new Government body must be approved by Parliament, with a clearly specific bill being put forward for every quango. When such systems are in place, some level of democracy and scrutiny may be introduced to these most critical areas of Government power.

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