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October 22, 2002

New Labour link to audit post

From: Financial Times, UK
Oct. 22, 2002

By Nicholas Timmins, Public Policy Editor

The partner of Baroness Blackstone, the prominent New Labour minister, is being recommended as the new chairman of the Audit Commission.

James Strachan, 48, is stepping down as chief executive of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf next month to become chairman of its trustees after a career that has spanned the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Baroness Blackstone, the minister of culture, has been in government since 1997 and is recognised as a leading Labour moderniser, having helped to found the Institute of Public Policy Research, the influential think-tank.

The Audit Commission post is vacant because the Local Government Association vetoed the appointment of Lord Norman Warner in March out of fear that his previous position as a special adviser to Jack Straw, foreign secretary, would be seen as making him too close to New Labour and one of "Tony's cronies".

As a result, the post has been open for almost a year since the government decided not to renew the contract of Dame Helena Shovelton.

The commission audits and reviews the performance of local government and the NHS in England and Wales and carries out value-for-money reviews in a wide range of areas, including health and the criminal justice system.

It is about to carry out the politically sensitive task of subjecting the whole of local government to a comprehensive performance assessment that will see councils graded from excellent to failing. Those classified as excellent will be given new financial and other freedoms, while failing councils will face intervention.

Assuming Tony Blair, the prime minister, approves the appointment it will go out for consultation to the Confederation of British Industry, the LGA and others.

David Davis, the deputy Conservative leader, said: "It would be singularly inappropriate for the partner of a government minister to be in charge of an organisation whose be-all and end-all is impartiality. Of all the bodies that should have someone who is not parti pris, the Audit Commission is near the top."

However, Tony Travers, a leading local government specialist at the London School of Economics, said: "It would be wrong if people who are talented in their own right cannot get public appointments because of their close personal relationships."

Mr Strachan's name is the preferred one of two put forward to ministers by the independent selection process conducted under the Nolan rules.

He joined RNID five years ago after spending 14 years in the City as a banker. He started at Chase Manhattan and ended as managing director of Merrill Lynch in London and a member of its international board.

He was a founding Disability Rights commissioner and is a member of the board and audit committee of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, the energy regulator. He has also worked as a photographer, travel guide and feature writer.

The LGA, where the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives effectively combined to veto Lord Warner's appointment last March, said it had not received any names to comment on.

© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2002