Pensions minister Guy Opperman has defended changes to the appointment criteria for the Pensions Ombudsman, after the last recruitment attempt failed to attract a suitable candidate.
Current Pensions Ombudsman Anthony Arter saw his term extended by 12 months in July 2021 after no appropriate candidate emerged to replace him. Arter’s term had been due to end that same month.
The Department for Work and Pensions subsequently amended its hiring criteria for the role, removing the requirement that any candidate applying must be a legally qualified solicitor or barrister. Having removed this as a requirement, the DWP did not see fit to include it in a list of “desirable” qualities for prospective appointees.
Work and Pensions Committee chair Stephen Timms wrote to Opperman in late January asking the minister to lay out the reasons why the requirement was dropped, and to explain how the DWP intends to ensure any appointee would be able to make legally binding determinations without that qualification.
In a letter dated January 28, Opperman explained that the legal qualification was only added to the 2021 recruitment exercise and had not been included in any previous campaign.
“The department routinely reviews job specifications and essential criteria to ensure they remain relevant and to remove any unintended barriers to application. Following the failed recruitment exercise for this post in 2021, a decision was taken to remove this requirement,” he explained.
“This aligns with previous campaigns and should help to secure a wide and diverse group of applicants. In the unsuccessful campaign, there were just four applications.”
Opperman added that the DWP had decided against including legal qualification as a “desirable” characteristic because it feared this would put off prospective applicants, who “might infer that they did not have a reasonable chance of success”.
“The successful applicant will need a proven ability in weighing evidence, setting out reasoned decisions and understanding principles of legislation. In addition, they will need to demonstrate an ability to make decisions requiring the analysis of complex issues with possible significant legal and financial consequences,” he wrote.
He added that the new ombudsman would be supported by a legal team “that has increased in size and material capability” since Arter was appointed, now consisting of a legal director, 13 lawyers and two technical specialists.
As to how the department would ensure that the next ombudsman would be able to make legally binding determinations that can only be appealed with permission of the High Court, Opperman wrote: “The panel will examine each candidate’s suitability for the role through their application letter, CV, a presentation, and responses to relevant questions.
“Prior to the current post holder, the Pensions Ombudsman, who served for approximately eight years, was not legally qualified. With the increased legal capability at the TPO [...], it is not felt that the appointment of an ombudsman who is not legally qualified would increase the probability of determinations being overturned in court.”