Memo fuels concern at Tory link to public life: Cabinet Office accused of trying to weed out political opponents

  • @c_blackhurst
FRESH ammunition for charges that the Government is intent on politicising public life and putting its own 'placemen' and women into top jobs is provided in a Cabinet Office memorandum obtained by the Independent.

According to the document, people willing to serve on public bodies in future must be prepared to help ministers in the drawing-up and implementation of government policy.

Last month, Anthony Merifield, director of the Public Appointments Unit, which is run from the Cabinet Office and maintains a 5,000-strong central list of 'the great and the good' - candidates for posts on bodies ranging from health authorities to consumer councils to education boards - issued a circular detailing the selection criteria.

First on the list was the question: 'Would you like to assist ministers and departments in formulating and applying their policies, or could you recommend someone else? The Public Appointments Unit is seeking names of individuals who would be willing to be considered for selection for public appointment.'

Disclosure of the circular comes against a background of growing dissatisfaction with political patronage being brought to bear on of traditionally non-political jobs.

At the weekend, a new row erupted with the news that Beata Brookes, chairman of the Welsh Tory party, had been reappointed for a second term as chairman of the Welsh Consumer Council - despite opposition from the National Consumer Council.

Lady Wilcox, the NCC chairman, had suggested that while she had a high regard for Mrs Brookes's ability, there was a case for replacing her with a less obviously political candidate. Rhodri Morgan, Labour MP for Cardiff West, has tabled an Early Day Motion, challenging Mrs Brookes's appointment. In reply, the Department of Trade and Industry, which selected Mrs Brookes, insisted her political persuasion had not been a factor in her reselection.

Attached to the circular are details of the sort of jobs recently filled by the Public Appointments Unit. They include a similar part-time post to that held by Mrs Brookes with the National Consumer Council, paying pounds 4,600 a year; membership of the Police Complaints Authority, full- time, pounds 38,020; Remploy, part- time, expenses; Education Assets Board, part-time, pounds 24,000; Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the Midlands, part-time, expenses.

In his covering letter, Mr Merifield admits that while there are 5,000 names on his database, only '36 per cent of them are women and a small percentage from ethnic minority communities'.

The purpose of the circular, Mr Merifield writes, 'is to seek your help to ensure that the datatbase remains as widely representative as possible of those who might offer their services in public appointments.'

Each year, on average, the Prime Minister makes 200 appointments drawn from the list, which is also used by government departments making other appointments.

Stephen Byers, Labour MP for Wallsend, who disclosed the Cabinet Office circular, said public appointments should be made on a non-party basis. He asserted that first asking potential applicants if they were willing to assist ministers 'will put off anyone not susceptible to the Government's thinking'. The first thing they saw, he said, was the question, 'do you want to help ministers with their work?' 'It is deliberately worded to put off people critical of government policy.' He intends to ask John Major to withdraw it.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman replied: 'That phrase has been used since 1992. Ministers have made it clear, applications are welcomed from all parties.' The political affiliation of 87 per cent of those on the database was not known.