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October 29, 2002

Auditing cronyism

From: Guardian, UK
Oct. 29, 2002

Let merit be the test in public service

Tuesday October 29, 2002
The Guardian

Two important and admirable appointments to public bodies are in danger of being blocked by the inability of Tory leaders to distinguish between the new rigorous appointment procedures and the old jobs-for-the-boys approach that so plagued their last administration. Under the new rules, drawn up by the Nolan committee that led the crusade against sleaze, the old procedures no longer apply.

Take the first appointment under threat: the chairmanship of the audit commission, the public service watchdog. Currently there have been two executive searches, widespread advertising and a rigorous selection process conducted by two senior civil servants and an independent assessor as recommended by Nolan. Two candidates emerged, yet one with outstanding qualifications is under threat. James Strachan has wide experience in the private, public and voluntary sector. At 32 he was the youngest managing director of Merrill Lynch, the investment bank; he transformed the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, winning it the campaign charity of the year award; he helped slash the price of the new revolutionary digital hearing aids for the health service; and he has served on a regulatory body, Ofgem, the energy regulator. He is completely deaf, but a brilliant lip reader. It is not this disability, however, that is blocking his advance, but the fact that his partner, Lady Blackstone, is Labour's arts minister. It is as important to get rid of this guilt-by-association approach, as it was to eliminate the old patronage. Ministers should ignore Tory taunts.

A second post under scrutiny is head of the commission for racial equality. This too is subject to Nolan scrutiny, but a row has broken out with news that the excellent Trevor Phillips, TV executive and chair of the London assembly, could apply. He is "guilty" of having close Labour links, but now a merit system is in place, let him apply. With merit as the criterion, public ethics will be protected.

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