Could trustees be political pawns? - Museums Association

Could trustees be political pawns?

Government's removal of non-Tories from public bodies and increasing involvement in national museum boards could jeopardise arm's-length principle. Gareth Harris reports
Museum professionals fear that the row about removing non-Tories from public bodies could spill over into the cultural sector.

Museums Journal understands, for example, that ministers are engaging more fully in appointing trustees to national museum boards. Critics claim that the government’s increasing involvement could put the arm’s-length principle at risk.

In January, the Labour peer Sally Morgan accused prime minister David Cameron of appointing Conservative Party supporters to key positions in public bodies, after it was revealed that she would not be appointed for a second three-year term as chair of the education watchdog Ofsted. Michael Gove, the education secretary, defended the removal of Lady Morgan as “good corporate practice”.

The dismissal of Dame Liz Forgan as chair of Arts Council England, announced in March 2012, sparked a debate about whether the coalition government planned to oust Labour-affiliated figures from key public roles. Forgan was replaced by media tycoon Peter Bazalgette.


The then culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, called Forgan an “outstanding chair”. But Dany Louise, an arts and cultural policy commentator, subsequently wrote in the Guardian: “This move seems motivated by self-interested party politics rather than a carefully considered decision taken with the best interests of the arts in mind.”

The deepening row has potential implications for national museums, with some senior figures in the sector questioning whether museum boards can appoint trustees independently.

A former national museum director, who preferred to remain anonymous, says ministers are taking a more active role in appointing trustee chairs.

“The arm’s-length principle is getting a little shorter, but it must be said that previous administrations, especially New Labour, have been accused of cronyism,” he adds.

Another national museum source says trustee appointments now go through two sets of ministers rather than one. “There are more practical delays and an extra level of bureaucracy. This may be motivated by the perception that museum boards are dominated by Labour supporters.”

Sector professionals agree that the problem exists across different governments. “All political parties like to have supporters in influential posts, whether they are politically on the left or right,” says Louise.

“But for the current government to deny that it is engaged in the process of making political appointments for ideological reasons is ludicrous.”

However, a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) vouched for the independence and rigour of the trustee selection process.

“There has always been a selection panel offering the names of appointable candidates, from among whom ministers choose,” he says. These names are then forwarded to the prime minister for consideration.

Male dominated

“The selection panel included, and continues to include, an individual independent of both the department and the public body to which the appointment is being made.”

The length of term served is usually four years. The DCMS is, meanwhile, supporting a Cabinet Office drive to raise the proportion of women on public boards, aiming for 50% of public appointments to be female by 2015.

Significantly, the chairs of the trustees of the 12 national museums are all male. This has led some to comment that candidates are drawn from a very narrow range of people.

Trustees in numbers

Among national museums, London’s Wallace Collection has the highest proportion of women trustees (seven out of 14) and the Royal Armouries the lowest (zero out of six).

The Natural History Museum and Geffrye Museum, which is funded by the DCMS, are currently seeking new chairs of trustees.

Most trustees are appointed by the prime minister or secretary of state for culture, media and sport. But there are anomalies: at the British Museum, which has a board of up to 25 trustees, one is appointed by the monarch, 15 by the prime minister and five by the trustees themselves.

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