A fifth of Whitehall’s non-executive directors appointed to oversee the work of government departments have “significant political experience or party alignment”, according to new evidence that ministers are using the posts to bolster their own support.
It comes as demands grow for a complete overhaul of the appointment of Whitehall’s army of non-executive directors (Neds), who have come in for greater scrutiny since Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, was found to have appointed his aide and lover, Gina Coladangelo, to the role at the Department of Health and Social Care last year.
Coladangelo has since left the post following the public exposure of their affair. However, Hancock’s decision to appoint her highlighted the fact that ministers across Whitehall have appointed figures known to be close to them personally or to the Tory party. Neds are meant to scrutinise both ministers and their department as part of the role, but there are concerns that they are increasingly being used to bolster ministers and effectively act as special advisers.
About 20% of the 94 non-executive directors currently in post have political experience or allegiances, according to a new analysis by the Institute for Government (IfG) thinktank. It called for a complete overhaul of how they are appointed. Under current rules, their appointments are not regulated in the same way as other senior Whitehall posts, “making it impossible to know whether candidates are genuinely being appointed on merit, or if advantage is being given on grounds of political affiliation”.
Of the 19 Neds identified as having significant political experience or ties, the analysis found 15 exclusively supported the Conservatives, while two – Tory donor Ben Goldsmith and former Conservative and Ukip MP Douglas Carswell – have campaigned for the Conservatives alongside other parties, and one, Gisela Stuart, worked with Conservative politicians on the Leave campaign. Only one appointee with a political background does not have obvious links to the Tory party – the former Lib Dem MEP, Ross Finnie.
It also emerged that Neds had gone on to be hired as ministerial advisers. “Routinely appointing former Neds to political roles could give the impression that Neds might be being rewarded for being acquiescent,” the report warned. A previous analysis of Neds pointed to other political Ned appointments, including the former Conservative vice-chairman Dominic Johnson, who was appointed to the Department for International Trade in December, and Lord Nash, a Conservative peer who has donated thousands of pounds to the party.
One recent advertisement for a Ned offered a salary of £20,000 for just 15 days’ work.
The IfG says that Neds should be scrutinised by parliament before their appointment, while any conflicts of interest should be published, while their recruitment should be overseen by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It comes after the committee on standards in public life identified “an increasing trend amongministers to appoint supporters or political allies as Neds” of government departments which “undermines their ability to scrutinise the work of their departments”.
“Departmental Neds exist to provide independent scrutiny and challenge, so they must be seen as sufficiently robust and impartial to do so,” said Matthew Gill, senior fellow at the IfG and the report’s co-author. “There should be more consistent expectations of their roles, and the existing process to regulate public appointments should also apply to them.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “As has been the case under successive governments, non-executive board members bring important expertise and experience from all sectors to provide advice, scrutiny and challenge to government departments. There are robust policies in place for the governance of departmental boards, as set out in the code of governance and code of conduct for non-executive directors.”