The British constitution grows by the accretion of precedent. Sometimes a precedent can be set with few people noticing. As we report today, an apparently minor appearance at a select committee next month will change the balance of power between the House of Commons and the Government.
The select committee of MPs that scrutinises the Ministry of Defence has insisted that it interviews the candidate to head the Defence Equipment and Support agency before he takes up the post. Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Defence, has chosen Bernard Gray as the first chief executive of the reformed agency, but James Arbuthnot, Conservative committee chair, has called him to a hearing before he starts work in April.
This is hardly Magna Carta or the Glorious Revolution. The select committee does not even have the power to block the appointment. But it is significant. It is to be hoped that the committee gives Mr Gray a hard time. It is not obvious that he is the best possible leader of defence procurement, one of the biggest machines for wasting public money in recent years.
Yet the importance of the precedent is that the job to which Mr Hammond wants to appoint Mr Gray is not on the short list of posts subject to automatic select committee hearings. These include the chair of the Environment Agency and the pensions ombudsman. Select committees have also held pre-appointment hearings with candidates for other public jobs, but the convention has been that these require the minister's permission. Mr Gray's hearing is the first without ministerial approval.
This is a welcome assertion of the right of the people's representatives to hold the executive to account. Important public appointments ought to be scrutinised by MPs, and, to be meaningful, such scrutiny must include the ability to block the appointment.
One of the long trends in the development of the constitution has been the strengthening of select committees since their creation in 1979. Their power has increased notably since the last election. This is partly the achievement of Tony Wright, the former Labour MP for Cannock Chase, who drew up a programme of reforms while Gordon Brown was prime minister. These loosened the grip of party whips, and set up the Backbench Business Committee, which gives more time in the Commons to MPs who are neither ministers nor their shadows. This coincided with a hung parliament, which meant that the Government whips, being from two parties, find it harder to exert control. Meanwhile, many committee chairs, including Andrew Tyrie (Treasury), Margaret Hodge (Public Accounts) and Keith Vaz (Home Affairs), have become adept at using their positions to gain a media profile that gives their committees more leverage.
These are useful gains for democratic accountability, but they should go further. One of the next steps would be to strengthen the power of select committees to vet public appointments. Plainly, we do not want to go as far as in the US, where partisan gridlock in Congress is holding good government hostage. But no one proposes that we have politically appointed judges, which is the main problem in the US.
Televised select committee hearings are an advance in openness, and the more public appointments that are subjected to them, and the more the balance of power is tilted towards Parliament, the better ministerial decisions will be.
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