NEWS
02/11/2020 14:40 GMT | Updated 03/11/2020 16:40 GMT

Boris Johnson And Matt Hancock Are Being Sued For Appointing Dido Harding To Run Test And Trace

PM and health secretary have been given notice of legal proceedings by Runnymede Trust and the Good Law Project for alleged cronyism over "jobs for pals" row.

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Baroness Dido Harding during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus

The prime minister and health secretary are being sued for giving top-ranking Tories key public sector roles without any open competition or proper process, it has emerged.

The Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust have launched legal proceedings against the government’s repeated appointment of individuals who are connected with senior members of the Conservative Party – without advertising these roles.

The organisations argue that Westminister appears to have breached its public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2010 by filling senior public sector roles with their mates.

Recruitment without open competition may be indirect discrimination on grounds of, in particular, race and disability, contrary to the landmark equality legislation. A notice of intended action was handed to Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock on Thursday. 

Dr Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “When a recruitment process is not open and fair, it discriminates against those who are not already connected to the decision-makers.

“This has a serious detrimental impact on equality and on the diversity of the people at the top of organisations who get to call the shots. This is always important, but even more so now so many lives depend on it, and particularly as we know Black and Asian people continue to be disproportionately affected by coronavirus.

“We are calling on the government to ensure proper process is followed and for NHS bodies to be truly representative of the people they protect.”

Begum added: “The sad reality is that now, as we enter a second national lockdown, responsibility for much of the UK’s emergency response to the Covid catastrophe essentially appears to rest in the hands of a former telephone saleswoman and a supermarket manager. The chumocracy has plummeted [to] new lows.”

Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images

It comes after Baroness Dido Harding – whose husband is a Conservative MP close to the PM – was made interim head of the National Institute for Health Protection. Harding is also a firm friend of former PM David Cameron.

That followed her appointment to head of the so-called NHS Test and Trace service just three months before. Last week the PM rejected calls to sack Harding following a series of Test and Trace errors and missed targets.

The Conservative life peer is a former CEO of TalkTalk and abruptly stepped down in 2017 after the company was hit by a cyber-attack affecting tens of thousands of customers. Both her new roles are unpaid, but she has been paid £65,000 a year to chair NHS Improvement for just two days’ work per week since 2018.

Both Hancock and prime minister Boris Johnson have previously praised Harding for her “brilliant” work on the pandemic. 

Amid mounting criticism of the peer in August, a Department of Health and Social Care source leapt to her defence.

“If you were trying to make money off the taxpayer you wouldn’t take a high-profile job like Test and Trace and work the hours she does for free. If that’s cronyism, we aren’t very good at it,” the source told HuffPost UK.

“There are plenty of people in other parties who have been appointed to public sector boards and just turned up and did the bare minimum. She’s shown she is not doing this for the money. Her enthusiasm and inability to be tired is rivalled only by the secretary of state [for health and social care, Matt Hancock].”

Mike Coupe, Gareth Williams, Ben Stimson and Paul de Laat have also been given senior positions at NHS Test and Trace as director of testing, chief people officer, chief customer officer and chief data officer respectively.

Coupe, the former CEO of Sainsbury’s and a one-time colleague and associate of Harding, has no known experience as a public administrator or in the health sector.

There are no job specifications or application processes in the public domain, say the Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust – yet these jobs are all key responsibilities in the national fight against the Covid-19 outbreak.

It is also unclear who identified the candidates as being suitable for the job and what the qualification criteria were.

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS via Getty Images

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, said: “The practice of allowing politicians to appoint their pals into prestigious public posts has gone on for far too long. The best way to secure the talented people we need to handle this national crisis is open competition. Instead appointments seem to be about who you know rather than what you know.

“We leave to others to judge whether making political appointments to Test and Trace has been good for the country. Our complaint is that it is unfair: unfair to those born without a silver spoon in their mouth. Unfair to those who don’t rub shoulders with high-ranking ministers. And unfair to groups who the data shows are shut out of public life. Were this any other country we’d call it what it is: cronyism.

“Virtually every week another job or public sector contract is handed to a friend of the Conservative Party behind closed doors. It’s unfair – and it shuts out much of the talent we need properly to handle the crisis.”

There appears to be a considerable amount of public support for this legal action against the government. A crowd fundraising effort towards litigation fees titled It’s Time For An End To Cronyism has achieved its £30,000 goal in just 24 hours.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “To build the biggest testing system per head of population of all the major countries in Europe as rapidly as we have, the skills and expertise of both public and private sector partners are required.

“The number of people directly employed by the Civil Service working on NHS Test and Trace is increasing and it’s thanks to the work of many partners that we now have more than 500 testing sites across the UK and rising, and an expanding network of major laboratories processing hundreds of thousands of tests every single day.”