Amendment 11

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 8th October 2020.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 4:00 pm, 8th October 2020

My Lords, there is a short period in the life of a Minister between being thanked by your Lordships for a response and disappointing your Lordships in a response, so I have enjoyed the last 10 minutes or so.

I have also enjoyed the last 40 minutes of this debate, which of course touches on extremely important points. The issue between us is whether the current system is capable of delivering people who are of high calibre, impartial, able and suitable to perform this key public responsibility. The simple contention of the Government is that the present system is suitable for purpose. I do not accept the animadversions of those who say that our public appointments system is in any way corrupt, or indeed corruptible. Also, I have never said anything about this Government other than that they are secured on a strong mandate from the people. That is perfectly legitimate to point out, although it is not relevant to the arguments before us. Those arguments, put so ably and charmingly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, are about not the nature of the mandate but the nature in which any Government carry out, and are enabled to carry out, their mandate.

I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, not only for raising these issues and tabling his amendment but for the meticulous research and work that he has undertaken, which he presented in Grand Committee. I also thank him for the opportunity to discuss, more than once, various ways in which one might address the conundrums that he has put forward. However, my strong contention is that the statutory approach that he suggests is not one that the Government can accept. I must politely resist it and reiterate the appropriateness and robustness of our existing appointments system.

The Government accept the importance of these posts but they argue that the processes are thorough, independent and fair, and that there is not room for inappropriate influence. The Government believe that the processes that we currently have in place for the recruitment of boundary commissioners are more than adequate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, says that he does not think that they are sufficient. Therefore, I must remind your Lordships of some of the systems and safeguards that apply.

Appointments to the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. The commissions are listed in the Public Appointments Order in Council, which provides for a governance code on public appointments and for the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments to regulate the process. The detailed governance code and the commissioner’s oversight ensure that appointments to the Boundary Commissions, and indeed to many hundreds of other bodies carrying out vital public work, are made openly and fairly on merit.

In addition to requirements in the governance code, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has acknowledged, the legislation requires the deputy chair of each Boundary Commission to be a High Court judge. To have achieved such a senior judicial position, the deputy chair will therefore have undergone an intensive recruitment and vetting procedure: their suitability to provide impartial leadership of the highest calibre will have been tested in many walks of life. All deputy chairs are drawn from this pool.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, seeks to provide that the Lord Chief Justice is responsible for these appointments in England and Wales to safeguard, as he puts it, the independence of the deputy chair role. The Government do not consider this to be necessary, as the persons to be appointed are High Court judges, I repeat, and the Lord Chief Justice is consulted over these appointments. I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that what people say looks bad is not necessarily bad. I believe that the system has delivered high-calibre appointees.

The second part of the amendment looks at the selection panel. The governance code has equally robust safeguards to ensure the political impartiality of members appointed to the Boundary Commissions. Members who support the deputy chair are appointed by Ministers, yes, having been assessed by an advisory assessment panel. It is the job of the panel to assess which candidates are appointable, so that Ministers may make an informed and appropriate decision. I am advised that it has never happened that a Minister has appointed someone not found appointable by an advisory assessment panel. In accordance with the governance code, the panel will include a senior departmental official, an independent member and a board-level representative of the body concerned. In the case of the Boundary Commission, that would, in practice, be the deputy chair—I repeat again, a High Court judge.

At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity of various kinds over the previous five years—having made significant donations and so on. Such activity will be taken into account in the panel’s deliberations and, in the case of these particular appointments, such activity would likely be seen as a conflict of interest. We cannot prejudge the work of future advisory assessment panels, but it seems likely that recent, significant political activity would present a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with their finding a candidate appointable.

The Government’s contention is that the public appointments system is fit for purpose. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, argued that this was insufficient, but I put it to noble Lords that, to date, this system has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commissions over decades, and the Government believe it should remain in place. To create a bespoke system, in primary legislation, for Boundary Commission appointments, as the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, sets out to do, could cast doubt, although he said it would not, on an independently regulated system that has ensured, and does ensure, that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to many hundreds of bodies across government carrying out vital public work. Are we to doubt those people appointed in this way today? Are we to doubt those recently appointed under this system to be Boundary Commissioners for Wales?

The noble and learned Lord’s amendment also proposes that there should be a single, non-renewable term of office for deputy chairs and members of the Boundary Commissions as a way of avoiding any potential, as he puts it, for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by a desire for reappointment. We do not think it advisable to make this change, and there are specific difficulties. We consider that if an individual is to serve one term only—a single, non-renewable term—it would need to be, my brief says, for eight years to ensure that they cover a boundary review, since, in future, reviews will be held every eight years. I seem to recall that, a few minutes ago, your Lordships voted for a review every 10 years. That would mean a single, non-renewable term of 10 years to ensure that a member took part in a boundary review. We are not aware of a board appointment of such length, and it is likely that such a stretch of time would be off-putting to at least some worthy candidates. Our contention is that appointments are currently based on a robust system. The system would prevent partial candidates being appointed in the first place—or, indeed, reappointed. We do not consider there to be a risk of appointing candidates who would be partisan.

In conclusion, I pay tribute again to the experience and advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and I say to him that we have reflected on a number of the points he has made in conversations. His advice has been of great benefit to the House today during this debate. It has been helpful to take time to discuss these issues in further detail with him, and he has had the opportunity to discuss them with my officials. While the Government will resist this amendment if he presses it today, I am grateful for the constructive and courteous manner in which he has approached our discussions. I do not demur from the significance of the issues he has raised. Notwithstanding that disappointing conclusion, in many ways, I hope I have been able to give some assurance along the way to your Lordships that the system we have in place is strong and appropriate and deserves to stay in place. I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.