A campaign group challenging alleged “cronyism” in key government appointments during the coronavirus crisis has said it is dropping Kate Bingham’s selection to lead the UK Vaccine Taskforce from a High Court bid.
The Good Law Project last year sought a judicial review of the government’s decision to hire Bingham, Baroness Dido Harding and Mike Coupe in closed recruitment procedures and its case has been accepted to proceed to a full hearing. Harding was appointed to lead the NHS Test and Trace programme in May last year, the same month Bingham was appointed Vaccine Taskforce chair. Coupe was hired as director of Covid-19 testing.
Bingham was made a dame in the Queen's Birthday Honours earlier this month, in recognition of her taskforce work.
The Good Law Prjoject's challenge, which has the backing of the FDA union and think tank the Runnymede Trust, alleges that recruitment of the three was cronyism that amounts to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. It also argues that the government has breached its public sector equality duty by hiring unqualified friends into senior public sector roles – sometimes described as a “chumocracy”.
Bingham is married to financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman, who was an Eton contemporary of prime minister Boris Johnson and former PM David Cameron. Conservative peer Harding is married to MP John Penrose – currently Johnson’s anti-corruption champion – and has a career history in retail and telecommunications rather than health. Coupe was chief executive of supermarket Sainsbury’s until last year and is said to be a close friend of Harding.
On Wednesday the Good Law Project announced it was dropping its challenge to Bingham’s appointment after the government provided it with new details on the process used to hire her.
“That process was less poor than government had previously led us to understand and so we will not challenge her appointment,” the project said in a statement.
“We are, however, continuing with the challenges to Dido Harding and Mike Coupe where, we believe, the evidence demonstrates that the processes were unacceptably poor.”
The campaign group said its principal aim was to clarify that the law requires government to appoint based on merit – not on handshakes and private connections.
“Make no mistake, the case is not straightforward. It is also made more difficult by the political climate,” the group said.
“We think the principle at stake – that government must appoint the best candidate, not its best friend – is incredibly important. If we don’t assert the principle we don’t see anyone else who can.”
Backing the original bid last year, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the principle of open and fair selection was “understood across the civil service from the most junior appointments to the most senior”.
Penman said it was “critical” in ensuring the effectiveness of public services and also protected the civil service from corruption and cronyism.
“It ensures that from local job centres to ministerial private offices, civil servants are recruited for what they can do, not who they know or what they believe,” he added.
The Runnymede Trust, which focuses on race and equality, said that the NHS had a marked under-representation of black and minority ethnic staff in senior roles and that when employers did not advertise jobs it could “function as indirect discrimination”.
A date has yet to be fixed for the judicial review hearings into Harding and Coupe’s appointments. The Good Law Project is crowdfunding its challenge.