John Whittingdale was appointed culture secretary in last year's cabinet reshuffle

Whittingdale accused of political meddling at NPG

Geraldine Kendall, 27.04.2016
Culture secretary ordered rerun of trustee selection process
The culture secretary John Whittingdale has been accused by a senior civil servant of trying to shoehorn a Tory donor or supporter into a trustee vacancy at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG).

Whittingdale ordered a rerun of the selection process earlier this year after the five candidates that he had endorsed failed to make the shortlist. He made a formal complaint to the commissioner for public appointments, David Normington, claiming the selection had breached the Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments to Public Bodies and called for Sarah Anderson, who works in the cabinet office and chaired the first selection process, to be replaced.

In a January-dated reply leaked to the Sunday Times, Normington, who stepped down from the role of commissioner last month, warned the culture secretary that a number of his suggested candidates had “political affiliations” to the Conservative Party. According to the newspaper, three were Conservative donors and one was a former minister. Normington’s letter warned the culture secretary that candidates’ political activity should not “give them preferential treatment”.

Normington also rebuked the culture secretary for accusing Anderson of failing to alert the selection panel to his preferred candidates. According to Normington’s letter, the five candidates did not make the shortlist because the panel “believed there were stronger candidates in the field”, a unanimous decision that was backed by a majority even after the panel was asked to reconsider.

Normington also dismissed the culture secretary’s complaint about Anderson, which he said appeared to “impugn” her integrity and “was not supported by the facts”.
 
The culture secretary strenuously denied interfering in the appointment process for political reasons. "Any suggestion of political intervention in public appointments is nonsense,” said a spokeswoman from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). “The process is only being rerun in this case because the department believes that the code was breached leaving no choice but to make a formal complaint to the commissioner.

“Appointments are made based on the best person for the job and the code of practice clearly states that a person’s political activity should neither improve nor hinder their chances."

The DCMS spokeswoman pointed to the section of the code of practice that states: “Ministers can convey their views about the expertise, experience and skills of candidates at any stage of a competition.”
 
A spokesman from the NPG said the gallery was not in a position to comment. “The process and codes of practice surrounding the appointment of trustees is governed by the DCMS,” he said.

The recruitment process, which attracted 54 applicants in total, is now being rerun. Whittingdale will choose the new trustee from those who make it through the interview stage.

According to the DCMS, the figures for appointments to public bodies from 2014-15 show that 4.5% of committee members declared political activity, the lowest since records began. Of those, 1.7% were Labour, 1.2% were Conservative, 1.1% were Liberal Democrat and 1.1% other.

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