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Another fox in charge of the chicken coop

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The Government appointed Anthony Browne as the new chair of the Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) yesterday. This is a bigger deal than it might at first sound, and I think his appointment to this sensitive role is something we should all be worried about.
Fox and chicken

I doubt whether many of you will have heard of the RPC. It is one of a whole number of committees that have been set up in the past 10 years to look at regulation. Some of these, like the Better Regulation Task Force, have now thankfully been consigned to the dustbin but the government obsession with “better regulation” (usually deregulation) has not gone away.

So where does the RPC fit in? Well it is an independent body that is meant to scrutinise all regulatory and de-regulatory provisions at the time that they are ready to be submitted to the Cabinet for approval.  Last year they considered over 300 submissions. They look at the impact assessment that is submitted to them and validate the estimates. Sometimes, as with the Trade Union Bill, they have been pretty scathing.

The work of the RPC is mainly technical stuff and I have always been critical of the process in the past because the impact assessments are aimed at looking primarily at the costs and benefits to business and the government, not the individuals affected and, with consumer law, employment law and health and safety law, that is a huge problem.

However, it looked as though the RPC themselves were coming round to the same view. In  their annual report, published in July of this year, the chair said “Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, it is important more than ever, that the risks to and impacts on society should be rigorously scrutinised on an equal footing with business costs and benefits, as we have previously recommended. The RPC believes it should be able to “Red rate inadequate appraisals of both sets of impacts,”

At the time we welcomed the proposal. Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC said: “we welcome this report, once again the RPC is showing that the issue is not about what we regulate or deregulate, it’s about how we can make the system work for all of society.”

Since then the Government doesn’t seem to have done anything to implement this recommendation, and it looks like, if anything, they want to make sure the RCP if just an extension of business. How else can you interpret the decision not to reappoint the previous chair, Michael Gibbons, and instead appoint, as the head of the body overseeing regulation, the man who has just stood down from being the Chief Executive of the British Bankers’ Association – Anthony Browne.

Before that Mr Browne was the director of the right-wing think tank the Policy Exchange, which was set up by Michael Gove and a couple of other Conservative MPs. He has worked as an adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London and helped set up the website Conservative Home. So not really very independent.

He was also a former journalist whose views on immigration have been heavily criticised in the past.  

This appointment is worrying for two reasons. Firstly it gives a very clear sign of what direction the government wants regulation to go. Banking after all has been one of the loudest voices against any form of effective regulation, and his close links to a number of current cabinet ministers shows that there is no way he can be seen as independent from Government. This is particularly concerning given that the RPC should have a major role in reviewing all regulations in the run-up to Brexit when we need some kind of independent overview of all the impact assessments that will have to be produced over the coming months and years.

Secondly it is yet another example of how the Government is using the public appointments process to install their cronies into important positions.

This started in earnest in 2012 when David Cameron decided to take a much more “hands-on” approach to public appointments. He appointed an adviser on public appointments who had a Conservative background and encouraged Secretaries of State to be much more involved at every stage of competitions, including scrutinising shortlists. The Cabinet Office also started scrutinising these appointments.

According to the former Commissioner for Public AppointmentsOver the following three years there was an upsurge in ministerial activism: objecting to the composition of panels; putting pressure on civil servants on panels to support the minister’s candidates; insisting that Conservative supporters should sit on panels, even sometimes as the independent member; demanding that panels put their favoured candidates on shortlists or even on the final list of appointable candidates; and refusing to appoint for weeks, even months, when the panel had not recommended their favoured candidate.

This has led to some bizarre appointments, such as an employer being appointed to represent workers on the HSE board.

But they then went even further. At the end of last year, in a further change that was almost unnoticed, they made further changes which made it even easier for Ministers to choose who they wanted to appoint by allowing them greater control over who is on the appointments panels and also ensuring that they have a choice of candidates recommended so that they can decide which to pick. They can even decide to ignore the decision altogether.

The whole process stinks. It is basically a power grab that allows the Government to claim that appointments are independent when in actual fact ministers are just hand-picking people that they know will be unlikely to challenge their policies or rock the boat. We have already seen it with a number of chairs of public bodies not being reappointed or people like bankers being appointed (such as the BBC board) and candidates even being openly rejected.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at this, but this is more than just jobs for the (usually) boys – it is an affront to everything that these public bodies should stand for, which is integrity and independence.

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