IM this article to a friend!

October 24, 2002

PM to stand firm in 'cronyism' row over minister's partner

From: Financial Times (subscription), UK
Oct, 24, 2002

By Nicholas Timmins, Public Policy Editor

Tony Blair and John Prescott have decided to face down charges of cronyism over the appointment of James Strachan to be the next chairman of the Audit Commission, the body which inspects and audits local government and large parts of the NHS.

Mr Strachan, currently chief executive of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, is the partner of Baroness Blackstone, the arts minister.

David Davis, the shadow deputy prime minister, has 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."

Yesterday, Conservatives on the Local Government Association, which has to be consulted over the appointment, said they would object. Gordon Kaemer, the group leader, was out of the country, but Lord Hanningfield, the Conservative deputy chairman of the LGA, said he was sure the group would object.

"He's a very able guy," Lord Hanningfield said. "But the Audit Commission is meant to be independent and we can't have a chairman who is the partner of a government minister. This is very unfortunate."

The Audit Commission chairmanship is currently vacant because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on the LGA formally objected in March to the appointment of Lord Warner, a Labour peer and former adviser to Jack Straw when he was the home secretary, on the grounds that he appeared too close to the government - even though, like Mr Strachan, he had been selected from an open competition.

That LGA's objection led Stephen Byers, the minister then responsible for local government, to veto Lord Warner's appointment.

But while the LGA has to be consulted on the new chairman it has no power of veto, and Mr Blair is understood to believe that Mr Byers erred in giving way to the LGA's objection last time.

The prime minister is understood to have apologised to Lord Warner, and his decision yesterday to put Mr Strachan's name forward suggests he and Mr Prescott have no intention of giving way on this occasion.

Number 10 yesterday refused to discuss the appointment until it was finally made.

The prime minister's view, however, was that it should go "to the best person for the job" after the proper independent selection process.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, the Labour chair of the LGA, described Conservative objections as "ridiculous".

He said that Roger Brooke, the last Audit Commission chairman but one, "was a very active Conservative. I don't know what Mr Strachan's politics are, but he should not be disbarred because of a personal relationship."

Tony Travers, a local government specialist at the London School of Economics, said it would be wrong if "the audited are allowed to veto the auditor again."

© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2002.