Gordon Brown put reinforcing parliamentary accountability at the heart of his premiership. One major change was to involve parliament in the appointment of senior public officials.
Let’s be clear, this is not the system of congressional approvals that operates in the USA. It differs in two crucial ways. Firstly, it applies only to a relatively small number of posts that are not at what most people would consider to be the heart of government – permanent secretaries and similar mandarins stand above this new accountability to parliament. So the nomination of Maggie Atkinson as the Children’s Commissioner for England falls within the new arrangements, but the appointment of David Bell as permanent secretary at the department for children, schools and families does not.
Second, the powers granted to parliament are not substantial – it is essentially only a right to be consulted after a nomination has been agreed within government but before it is finalised.
So far, the system has worked well – in the sense that many parliamentary hearings with nominated people have been held and parliament has given its benediction.
But the real test was always going to be when a select committee said ‘no, minister’. Would the government react by trying to accommodate the concerns of the committee, maybe even revisit the nomination, or would they simply say ‘thanks for your input, but we’re going ahead anyway’.
I have absolutely no idea whether or not Maggie Atkinson would make a good children’s commissioner or not, or whether the select committee was right to raise its concerns about this appointment. I am not going to comment on her.
What is clear is that if children’s secretary Ed Balls and the government took its own rhetoric about empowering parliament seriously when its nomination was knocked back it would have paused, taken stock, tried to discuss with the committee what their concerns were, etc. Instead, what we get is the Secretary of State concerned immediately responding by saying he will simply go ahead and ignore the committee.
Most of the posts that are included in the parliamentary scrutiny process are ones that are supposed to have some degree of autonomy and independence from Ministers – like that of children’s commissioner – and having parliamentary approval is seen as enhancing the independence and credibility of the appointee.
This makes the decision to over-ride the all-party parliamentary select committee all the more stark. Ministers can’t even manage to accept this weak, attenuated, form of parliamentary accountability when they have promulgated themselves. Instead, Mr Balls grabs his ball and walks off the pitch because the ref has made a decision he doesn’t like. Which speaks volumes about just how far we are from having any genuine parliamentary accountability.