‘PM must choose’: Johnson faces further calls to clarify Dido Harding’s role

Dual work as public-health head and Conservative peer ‘blurs the fundamental distinction that officials cannot act in a party political way’, Downing Street is warned
Dido Harding PA

By Richard Johnstone

22 Sep 2020

Boris Johnson is facing increasing calls to provide clarity on the role of Baroness Dido Harding due to her roles as both a senior official in the Department of Health and Social Care and as Conservative peer.

Labour peers have already written to cabinet secretary Simon Case, calling on him to clarify Harding's role. Now trade unions and civil service observers have followed suit, urging Case and prime minister Boris Johnson to clearly chose between Harding’s work heading up the National Institute for Health Protection and as a Conservative peer.

Baroness Angela Smith, shadow leader of the House of Lords, wrote to Case at the weekend “seeking urgent clarification regarding the political impartiality of Baroness Harding of Winscombe in her role as Executive Chair of the National Institute for Health Protection.”

NIHP is a public agency whose officials are part of the civil service, according to Baroness Smith.

In the letter, sent on Saturday, she said that the civil service code requires Baroness Harding not to act in a way “determined by party political considerations.”

However, this “does not square with her continued membership of the Conservative Group in the House of Lords, where she both formally takes the whip and continues to vote.”

The letter adds: “This would appear to be a flagrant breach of the code.”

Following the letter, both the Institute for Government and trade unions also called on Case and Johnson to clarify the role.

Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the IfG, said that “the civil service code is absolutely clear that officials cannot act in a party political way”.

She added: “Having Baroness Harding continue to blur this fundamental distinction undermines both civil service impartiality and accountability to parliament.

“The prime minister must choose: either she is a civil servant and can direct civil servants, or a political appointment and must abide by the code and the legislation that underpins it. If neither suits he can of course make her a minister and she can be held accountable to parliament as such.”

Trade unions also called on Harding’s role to be clarified.

A Public and Commercial Services spokesman said: "The appointment of a backbench Tory peer into a civil service role is a clear violation of impartiality rules.

"This government has sought to politicise the civil service and the hiring of Dido Harding as head of the track and trace system continues this worrying trend.

"PCS has had members forced out of their civil service jobs for standing in an election so it seems there is one rule for the elite and one rule for the rest of us.

"One of Boris Johnson's biggest failures has been contracting out the track and trace system to private companies. The whole system should be immediately bought back in-house by the NHS."

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said that it was unclear what process was used to appoint Baroness Harding and whether the appointment is in breach of the civil service code.

This lack of transparency is in itself a concern, he said. “Open and fair selection is a fundamental principle of the code and ensures that civil servants are appointed on ability rather than patronage. It ensures that successive ministers and governments have confidence in those delivering vital public services, without the need to change key personnel simply because there has been a change of political leadership.

“There is also the concern that those who are appointed directly by ministers may find it harder to deliver difficult messages – giving them the advice they need rather than want – when their appointment has been dependent on that relationship.

“There can of course be exceptions to these rules, but these should be exceptional. If ministers believe a candidate is uniquely qualified for a role, then they should not be afraid of competition to demonstrate that. The reluctance to open an appointment to such competition suggests that ministers are more concerned with getting their person into a role, rather than necessarily the right person.”

Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary, told CSW yesterday: “The civil service code makes it clear that appointments should be made on merit through fair and open competition.”

He added: “Beyond the issue of her appointment, the taking of the government whip appears completely contrary to the intent and spirit of the civil service code and risks the politicisation of the civil service. This undermines public confidence and effective government – civil servants must give objective advice without fear nor favour.”

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