Editorial: If you are appointed to a public body, you have to follow the rules

The new chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund describes on the previous page how he spent time touring lottery projects in preparation for his new job.

But when he finally took over at the end of January, he could have been forgiven for wanting to head straight back out for a bit more regional research, because his arrival coincided with a row over a highly coloured attack on the Conservatives by his chairman. In an interview with Third Sector, Sir Clive Booth accused the Tories of being hostile to the voluntary sector and offered shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt "a lesson in elementary arithmetic".

Hunt, reputed to be good with figures, did not take kindly to this and made a formal complaint to the Cabinet Secretary under rules that require the political impartiality of members of public bodies. At worst, the affair could have led to Booth's resignation at a time when the Government has enough embarrassment on its plate already.

In the event, after some manoeuvering behind the scenes, Booth has apologised no less than four times - once in a letter to Third Sector and three times in a long explanatory letter, published last week, to one of the mandarins at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The Conservative Party has decided to accept the apology, although one of its MPs commented grimly last week that the affair constituted Booth's "first written warning".

Booth's letter indicates that, at the time he made his controversial remarks, he felt himself to be under some provocation from the Tories. Two weeks earlier, they had issued a press release that began: "Labour cronies at the Big Lottery Fund are spending more than £77m a year on fat-cat salaries and administration costs." The release reminded the world that Booth was paid £37,560 for two days a week and that he and four others on its board of 12 were Labour Party members. And it came at a time when he believed that Tory policy was such that BLF money for the voluntary sector would be reduced. Shortly afterwards, the Conservatives announced a new policy that allayed many of Booth's concerns, but only made his timing seem more unfortunate.

Everyone knows that when appointments are made to various arm's-length public bodies, governments are looking for a safe pair of hands. That means someone who will work cooperatively with those in power without making it too obvious, will avoid being drawn into party political arguments, and will speak and act diplomatically in moments of stress. The more governments come under pressure, as at present, the more sensitive this area tends to become, but the deal remains that public appointments go to the best-qualified person, and the person concerned, even if he or she is parti pris, helps to make the position credible by avoiding behaviour and statements that are evidently partisan.

Booth did not observe the deal as well as he might on this occasion, and is perhaps lucky not to have paid a higher price. On the upside, the Big Lottery Fund can now steer into calmer waters and get on with the vital tasks of coming to terms with the effects of the Government's raid on the BLF to help finance the Olympics, and of working up its new programmes for 2009.

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