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Concerns over Government 'tsars'


Tsars such as James Caan are useful to ministers, but many of them are "invisible" to the public, according to a new report

Tsars such as James Caan are useful to ministers, but many of them are "invisible" to the public, according to a new report

Tsars such as James Caan are useful to ministers, but many of them are "invisible" to the public, according to a new report

Concerns have been raised about "major shortfalls" in the system of Government policy "tsars", as a study revealed that ministers have appointed more than 100 since the Coalition came to office in 2010.

An independent blueprint for a new code of practice for tsars was launched in a bid to secure higher standards in the way the independent policy advisers are appointed and do their work.

Researchers from King's College, London, found that policy tsars are an "increasingly influential" source of advice for ministers but are not subject to the same formal requirements to observe codes of accountability and openness as ministers, civil servants, special advisers or other official appointees.

While tsars are useful to ministers, many of them are "largly invisible" to the public and the system is marked by "major shortfalls... including a lack of transparency and accountability, a vulnerability to ministerial idiosyncrasy and weaknesses in propriety".

The need to regularise the position of tsars has been given added urgency by the Government's proposals for civil service reform, which would give ministers greater power to pick their own senior officials and open up Whitehall to greater collaboration with outside bodies, said Dr Ruth Levitt, visiting senior research fellow in the King's College Department of Political Economy.

While some tsars - like high street shopping guru Mary Portas and social mobility adviser James Caan - have hit the headlines thanks to their celebrity status, the research found that most are little-known to the public and tend to be drawn from a "small pool" of people ministers already know or know of. A "great majority" are male, white and aged over 50, and many of them are titled.

Around half of them receive fees and/or expenses and there is no clear system for deciding on payment, found the researchers. There is no systematic record across government of past appointments and no formal process for evaluating their effectiveness and learning lessons about good practice, they said.

Tsars became a familiar feature of UK political life under Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but the rate of appointments has stepped up since the coalition came to power. Of the 300 appointed since 1997, more than 100 took up their posts under the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.

In a statement, the researchers said: "Currently, tsars are largely invisible, because it suits ministers and potential appointees to make informal arrangements between themselves, often after little more than a private phone call or a chat. The advice can be relatively inexpensive, quick, timely and influential, and it can reflect well on the minister.

"But there are weaknesses in the propriety of these public appointments and inadequacies in the effectiveness of the Government's handling of tsars' work. Currently, tsars are not subject to any existing codes of practice and arrangements are vulnerable to opaque procedures. In choosing to appoint tsars, Ministers are able to avoid any existing codes of practice that govern the recruitment, conduct and outputs of all other sorts of advisers.

"The new code of practice for tsars is designed to safeguard the public interest and the public purse, by encouraging debate about how ministers obtain and use external expertise."

The new code, drawn up by King's in consultation with former tsars, civil servants, academics and journalists, called for the appointment and conduct of independent policy advisers to be subject to the seven principles of public life - selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The proposed code would require each Whitehall department to name a senior civil servant with responsibility for overseeing tsar appointments, drawing up terms of reference to avoid conflicts of interest and consulting with ministers on possible candidates. Appointments should be confirmed in writing and made public and ministers should make a statement when tsars' reports are received and later make a substantive response to their recommendations.

Over time, the trend in a departments' tsar appointments should demonstrate increased diversity in terms of age, gender, ethnic background and occupation.

Dr Levitt said: "Our new, simple code of practice will address many of the shortcomings that we uncovered in the way tsars are appointed. As the Cabinet Office and the Commissioner for Public Appointments are reluctant to address these issues we are asking them to consider using this code.

"It won't add cost or tie anyone up in red tape. Instead, the new code of practice for tsars will clarify the minimal rules that should apply and will help to achieve greater effectiveness, transparency and diversity in these appointments."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "It is entirely appropriate, and in the public interest, for Government to draw on a wide range of advice.

"Successive administrations have chosen to bring in external expertise in various ways to provide an additional resource to ministers in considering difficult and complex issues.

"We think it's important to maintain a degree of flexibility in such appointments, particularly since they may be required to be made at short notice."

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