Footage showing Health Secretary Matt Hancock kissing aide Gina Coladangelo in his ministerial office has again raised questions over the appointment of ministerial advisers and officials in Whitehall.
University friend Mrs Coladangelo was initially taken on by Mr Hancock as an unpaid adviser on a six-month contract in early 2020, before being appointed as a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) later in the year.
Dr Catherine Haddon, from the think tank the Institute for Government, said that like the saga of financier Lex Greensill – who was an unpaid adviser to David Cameron – Mrs Coladangelo’s position made it difficult to define what her role actually was.
Ministers are allowed to make direct appointments of unpaid advisers for specific purposes or to undertake urgent or short-term work, but this process has been criticised.
In a post on the Institute for Government’s website, Dr Haddon said for “vaguely appointed” advisers such as Mrs Conadangelo: “We don’t know what access they have to meetings and papers or where they sit in a department’s hierarchy.
“Civil servants don’t know whether or on what terms they should work with them. Parliament cannot easily hold them to account.
“There needs to be more transparency around what they do, on what basis they are appointed and who is accountable for their conduct.”
Concerns were raised about Mrs Coldangelo’s appointment in November when Mr Hancock was accused of secretly handing her the adviser role.
Mrs Coladangelo did not appear on the list of the department’s special advisers – also known as SpAds. These are political appointees who support ministers outside of the impartial Civil Service, and who are governed by a code of conduct with a defined role.
And she was then made a non-executive director (NED) at DHSC in September 2020.
These roles, according to a job advert posted by DHSC for four of the positions, offer pay of £15,000 for 15-20 days of work a year, rising by an extra £5,000 for one NED who chairs a separate committee.
The job is described on the Government website as, in part, “to act in an independent manner bringing expertise, scrutiny and challenge”.
The advert, which was posted on August 21, 2020 with a closing date of September 11, said Mr Hancock would determine their tenure, up to a period of three years.
But Dr Haddon said: “As with her previous role, we don’t know what rationale was given other than it being Hancock’s wish. Like special advisers, NEDs can be incredibly helpful to Government. Like unpaid advisers, it is also a role that is too often unhelpfully murky.”
The roles are not new but since 2010 reforms put more focus on bringing those with outside expertise into non-executive positions.
Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International UK, said: “Appointments to these roles should be based solely on a candidate’s experience and suitability for the job, not the depth of their pockets or which minister they happen to know.
“The process for installing non-executive directors in Whitehall should be regulated to ensure any conflicts of interest are properly managed and to provide public confidence in the probity of these appointments.”
Earlier this month, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended there be more regulation of these roles.
In a report, the committee said reforms were needed and that NEDs in Government departments were “the most concerning category of unregulated appointments”.
The committee said “there is an increasing trend amongst ministers to appoint supporters or political allies as NEDs”, adding that this “undermines” their abilities to scrutinise.
It recommended that Government departments should each publish a list of unregulated appointments.
In her article, Dr Haddon added: “Coladangelo’s appointment shows the NED recruitment process requires a rethink. They are supposed to be appointed following a ‘fair and transparent competition’, but the lack of transparency means we have little idea if it is fair.”
A No 10 spokesman insisted on Friday that the “correct procedure” had been followed in relation to Mrs Coladangelo’s appointment, but refused to go into further detail.