The controversial re-appointment of Trevor Phillips as Chair of the Equalities Commission raises important questions that go wider than the issue of equality of treatment in Britain. It is certainly significant that resignations from the Commission had already occurred prior to the re-appointment, which might have been expected to act as a clear warning sign of serious discontent within the organisation at the autocratic management style of the Chairman, and in addition junior ministerial concern had also been made public beforehand. Nevertheless, all this unease was brushed aside and Phillips was re-appointed last week. That led to the resignation on Friday of the forceful disabilities rights campaigner, Baroness Campbell, and now two further senior resignations, of another disabilities rights campaigned and a human rights academic. Thus a third of the board of 16 have now resigned rather than accept Phillips as Chair. So why, given this unprecedented public display of no confidence, was he still re-appointed?
The reason widely assumed is that Trevor Phillips has been close to New Labour, and that trumped every other consideration. If that is indeed the reason, is it acceptable, and if not, what is the alternative process for dealing with appointments or re-appointments? It is surely clear that appointments of high public importance should not be monopolised by ministerial patronage. The power will almost certainly sometimes be abused, or at least be perceived to reflect ministerial self-interest rather than the public interest, and substantial damage to the public good would thereby ensue. The alternative process is a shared responsibility between Government and Parliament.
This could have avoided a number of recent appointments which have not commanded wider assent. The Prime Minister’s appointment of the members of the Iraq War inquiry (including Whitehall trusties, a historian close to Brown himself, and a known robust advocate of military intervention) was widely seen to reflect his desire to ensure ‘sound’ uncontroversial conclusions. The choice of Sir David Walker to review bankers’ pay and bonuses, of which he was a major beneficiary as a senior banker himself, was hardly likely to produce the radical, independent examination that was clearly needed. The chair Brown chose to head up the UKFI, the body set up to oversee the multi-billion takeover of bank assets, was Glen Moreno, a very rich US banker with some previous connections with tax avoidance via a Liechtenstein trust – not the man to ensure that the public interest prevailed rather than the bankers’; and now the person touted as his successor is Sir Winifried Bischoff who in his recent report argued that the development of toxic financial derivatives is desirable because they generate profits!
The answer to this roll-call of highly partisan appointments is to require that, while the nominations for all such posts comes from the PM (as proposed to him by the Appointments Unit in No.10), they do not take effect until ratified by the appropriate parliamentary Select Committee. This might follow the model of US Congressional hearings which in front of the TV cameras can be lengthy, comprehensive, penetrating and demanding. As in the US, the Select Committee would have the right to turn down a nomination on grounds revealed in the cross-examination. The process would apply to all top public sector appointments, including Cabinet Ministers, and would go a long way to remove parti pris discrimination or personal bias. It should form one of the main recommendations of the current Wright Committee on Parliamentary democratic reform.