An independent watchdog has hit out at how four Covid-19 “tsars” were appointed, with increasing scrutiny on how 19 Tory-linked figures ended up with government jobs over the past 12 months.
“Greater clarity” about the terms on which people like Baroness Harding were appointed “might have helped”, said the head of the public appointments watchdog, who recently expressed concern about Downing Street cronyism.
Peter Riddell, an apolitical figure, made the comments as Labour challenged the UK’s most senior civil servant to provide assurances that proper procedures were being followed in appointments. Nineteen jobs have been singled out – including the controversy surrounding the appointment of Tory peer James Wharton as chair of the Office for Students.
In a letter sent to the Cabinet Office secretary on Friday, Labour said the public are being “left to draw their own conclusions about what appears to be a growing network of senior positions appointed because of links to the Conservative party”.
Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, urged the government to “put concerns to bed” after Riddell’s intervention raised concerns about political patronage at the heart of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street operation.
Speaking to the Guardian, Riddell said: “There has certainly been more social media discussion about alleged ‘cronyism’ – usually from the affected sectors – as well as media queries, and I’m in no way complacent about the risks.”
While acknowledging the need to respond quickly to the Covid-19 pandemic in appointing “tsars” to tackle issues like PPE procurement and vaccines, he added: “What might have helped is greater clarity about the terms on which people were being appointed.”
He said that he had raised concerns over figures selected by the government to sit on panels that appoint people to public roles.
“This normally involves an informal discussion between a department and my office, and this presented hardly any problems until last summer when we had a number of cases where names were suggested which were in breach of the code. In each case, I pointed out the clash and an alternative acceptable name was put forward.”
Despite the success of the likes of Kate Bingham in overseeing the UK’s vaccine Taskforce, Riddell said he had been reassured that “efforts are being made within Whitehall to ensure that such problems do not happen again”.
The issue has surfaced once more ahead of the looming appointment of Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail editor, as chair of Ofcom – a move interpreted as many as presaging a ramping of the Conservative party’s culture wars.
Another Tory donor, Richard Sharp, was recently named chair of the BBC – while the director-generalship went to Tim Davie, an ex-deputy chair of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative party.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said:“Public appointments are made in accordance with the governance code for public appointments and are regulated by the commissioner for public appointments.
“Political affiliation is not a bar to holding a public appointment so long as the individual acts in the national interest – of the 9% appointed which declare significant political activity in recent years, 36% stated this was on behalf of the Conservative party and 46% on behalf of the Labour party.
“Other appointments are made in accordance with established procedures.”