Political

More power to Parliament over the appointments to key posts?

In welcome news, more Parliamentary hearings before people are appointed to key posts could be on the way.

As the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy reports:

One of the areas where the Commons committee system has been quietly accumulating extra clout is over the appointments of key quangocrats, industry regulators and similar posts.

These are figures with enormous powers – and the pressure to legitimise them through some kind of parliamentary approval system has been building for quite a while.

Now MPs are trying to formalise their gains and set out an explicit system for approving them – both to probe their attitudes and priorities and to decide whether they are being offered a stooge, a place-person or a genuinely independent-minded figure, capable, if necessary, of saying “no” to ministers.

The Liaison Committee (the committee of select committee chairs) has published a report setting out a long list of posts that it thinks should be subject to one of three levels of hearing, ranging from Parliamentary approval being required to appoint or sack someone, to power of veto over appointment only or, at the lowest level, the ability to “call in” a controversial would-be appointment for questioning.

Personally I think this would be an excellent move, both to strengthen Parliament’s role as a check on the government and also to give greater scope for discussion and debate over what senior appointees will actually set out to do in their jobs.

A good example of this is the Information Commissioner, a post which it is proposed would be subject to the full process. Not only is the Information Commissioner an important post, but the Commissioner’s general attitude towards enforcement gets little attention. Almost unmentioned in the phone hacking scandal is that, yes, the Information Commissioner did unearth many misdeeds several years ago. But he then viewed it as his job to stop such misdeeds in future rather than to push for widespread prosecutions of those who had broken the law. That is not unusual; the Information Commissioner’s consistent approach through several holders of the post has been one of ‘forgive the past, fix the future’. When it is a small business that has strayed inadvertently, there is much to be said for that approach. But as the phone hacking case illustrates, it should be a much more debated approach than it is.

Although I think such confirmation hearings would be a good move, I fear not all Liberal Democrats will, for I remember the writing of policy for the first London Assembly and Mayor contest in 2000. The words I penned about having the London Assembly hold confirmation hearings for key London government posts was rapidly struck out in the face of widespread dislike for such an ‘American’ (as it was seen) approach to politics.

Hopefully events since, such as the successful introduction of such a system for the Office for Budget Responsibility, has changed people’s minds.

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