The government has been told it needs to replace its own corporate governance code after a committee of MPs concluded it was “not fit for purpose”.
The complaint centres on the independence of non-executive directors of government departments: a report concludes that a minority of them are appointed from “within government” or “through personal associations”.
The public administration and constitutional affairs committee, set up to examine the quality and standards of government administration, is “concerned” about the impact the appointments may have on the ability of non-executives to provide “effective challenge” to ministers and departmental boards.
William Wragg, the committee’s chair, says there needs to be a clearer separation between the roles of “political or personal advisers” and “objective non-executive board members”. Recruitment of non-execs should therefore follow a “fair and open” process.
“Non-executive directors often bring valuable outside experience into government,” Wragg says. “However, not enough is known about who they are, what they do, or how they are recruited. This risks damaging public confidence in non-executives and undermining their potential contribution.”
Wragg went on to say that the committee found some non-execs had roles that were “significantly greater in scope than publicly advertised” and these “vary between departments”.
He says the government’s “lead non-executive” should act as a regulator to “bring much needed consistency and accountability to the role across government”.
The committee has now made a series of recommendations to government including, at the top of its list, a rewriting of the government corporate governance code or replacing it.
He adds that ministers should avoid appointing non-executives “with clear political or personal connections” and should also not replace all departmental non-executives at once.
The appointment of non-executives to government departments has been the subject of long-running controversy.
In 2021, health secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) caused headlines after it emerged he was having an affair with Gina Coladangelo, a non-executive at the Department of Health and Social Care. Hancock eventually resigned over a film showing the pair in a clinch and breaking social distancing laws in his office.
There was concern that ministers are not currently required to publish the criteria they use for appointing non-executives. Although government has moved to introduce a greater degree of transparency, many have argued it is not enough.
The new report demands that government publishes the terms of reference for each departmental board with individual responsibilities for each board member, board minutes and registers of interest.
The committee also seeks a “pre-appointment” hearing with any holder of the government lead non-executive role.
The business of government is fraught with political sensitivities. The committee’s recommendation for non-executives appears to be a good place to start resolving governance issues.