Labour's chair of the Education Committee, Barry Sheerman, has started the political equivalent of a playground spat. "Ed Balls is a bit of a bully," Sheerman has declared, with a flourish that suggests he is not especially cowed by the apparently intimidating swagger of the Schools Secretary. The spat is over the appointment of Maggie Atkinson as the next Children's Commissioner. Balls recommended her appointment to the Education Committee. Sheerman and his Committee gave the appointment the thumbs down. Balls responded by insisting he was going ahead anyway. At which point Sheerman went into battle, evoking the image of a mighty Cabinet minister brushing aside the views of Parliament and sticking with his chosen sidekick who will do as she is told.
Forget about Sheerman's evocation. The actual sequence of events is far more complicated than he suggests, raising important questions about how we govern, who governs, and the role of other bodies including Parliament and quangos in holding governments to account.
The sequence begins long ago in 2004 with the legislation that created the post of Children's Commissioner for England. The job sounded grand, but the remit was vague. The Commissioner would "promote awareness of the views and interests of children," a classic example of New Labour's radical caution. The Government was bold enough to recognise that children required a champion, a big voice in national life, but would not dare to give the post much power or precise definition. Ministers had hit upon another third way, a major new Commissioner without much tangible power.
In July 2007, shortly after he became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown unveiled his plans for constitutional reform. They included an expanded role for the select committees. Brown announced that committees would be consulted about major appointments. He too was being boldly cautious, navigating his own third way. He wanted to make the committees a bit more relevant, but not by giving them specific new powers which might prove troublesome.
In relation to the appointment of key figures the limits of the committee's influence were precisely spelt out. A Secretary of State needed to consider any new material a committee had gathered as a result of its pre-appointment interview with the favoured candidate and the performance of the candidate in front of the committee. In respect of this particular issue that was the extent of Brown's overhyped constitutional revolution. Contrary to the impression that might have been formed by the accusations of bullying, Balls did not choose Atkinson for the post. She was selected by an independent panel after an intensive interviewing process, the intensity at odds with the significance of the post. Balls accepted the panel's recommendation. For Atkinson the final hurdle was an interview with the Education Committee exercising its new but limited role in the appointment process. The exchanges were bizarre. Sheerman led the way by pointing out that Atkinson's predecessor, Al Aynsley-Green, was disillusioned about the Commissioner's lack of powers.
Sheerman had a valid point but one that is irrelevant to Atkinson's appointment. She was not responsible for drawing up the remit. She cannot be blamed for the limits of the post and has no power to expand them. Obviously in response she put a case for the post as it is currently defined. She would have been perverse not to do so as she had applied for the job. Next, Sheerman questioned her public relations skills, adding that "some people were perhaps hoping to get Esther Rantzen or Joanna Lumley in the role". He did not make it clear whether he was one of those people, but it is difficult to see how either of the two celebrities would add weight to the post. Even if they were to do so it is not the fault of the chosen candidate that she was not Joanna Lumley. What Atkinson did do persistently was to assert her independence and to insist that the Commissioner had to be one of the people in the system who says "It's not good enough," "It won't do", "Are you aware it isn't legal?"
In his subsequent letter to Balls, Sheerman wrote that Atkinson should have displayed more willingness to "stretch the remit of the role". He would have been better placed discussing remits with ministers who have the power to define them. His case for rejecting Atkinson was puny, but provided him with a platform on the Today programme yesterday to accuse Balls of bullying. Balls would have been more of a bully if he had accepted the Committee's verdict and claimed credit for being a champion of Parliament, a move that would have involved a series of cowardly contortions, the mark of a political thug. Subsequently a range of independent children's charities have expressed dismay at the Committee's verdict.
So what can we learn from the sequence? Perhaps Sheerman makes his move as part of the more febrile bigger picture. Sheerman was one of the most prominent Labour MPs who called for Brown to go last summer and might stand to be chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, an election that takes place next month. Balls is Brown's close ally. Maybe this is the first sign of a renewed assault on Brown's leadership at a point when many Labour MPs are restive over the latest twists in the expenses' saga.
But the more interesting lessons relate to the substance of the mini drama. Half-hearted reforms cause more trouble in the end than more radical change. Sheerman is right to question the limited remit of England's Children Commissioner, a role that is less significant than the equivalent in other parts of the United Kingdom. As Atkinson acknowledged in her meeting with the select committee, the Commissioner has "influence", but few powers.
There seems little point in setting up a body with the sound of trumpets blaring if its powers are non existent or imprecise. In 2004 the Government should have been less cautious. Similarly Brown has created a minor mess with these new pre-appointment hearings. He should have either given the Committees a more explicit right of veto on the basis of uncovering substantial new evidence, or not given them the chance at all to play games without any ultimate responsibility, which is what has happened in the case of the Education Committee over the last few days.