The FDA trade union has given its backing to a High Court challenge against the way the government made three appointments to high-profile roles reacting to the coronavirus pandemic.
Think tank the Runnymede Trust and the Good Law Project are seeking a judicial review of the appointment of Baroness Dido Harding as head of the NHS test and trace programme; Mike Coupe as director of Covid-19 testing; and Kate Bingham as chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce.
The trust, which focuses on race equality, argues the “closed recruitment process” for the three roles was cronyism that amounts to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. It says the government has breached its public sector equality duty by hiring unqualified friends into senior public sector roles – sometimes described as a “chumocracy”.
Conservative peer Harding is married to MP John Penrose – currently prime minister Boris 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 earlier this year and is said to be a close friend of Harding. Bingham has a career background in venture capitalism and is married to financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman, an Eton contemporary of Johnson and former PM David Cameron.
FDA general secretary Dave Penman, who supplied a witness statement in support of the judicial review, acknowledged that the roles at the heart of the claim had not been designated as civil service posts.
But he said it was vital for high-profile government appointments to be “made in an open and fair way”.
Penman said recruitment on merit was not simply about getting “the best person available to fill a role” but also ensuring the civil service and the public had confidence in the person appointed – which became “all the more critical” for high-visibility roles with significant responsibility.
“The principle of open and fair selection is understood across the civil service from the most junior appointments to the most senior,” he said.
“This simple but effective principle, that candidates are recruited solely on merit, is critical in ensuring the effectiveness of public services and protects the civil service from cronyism and corruption. 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.”
The Good Law Project argues that closed recruitment particularly discriminates against black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and disabled people.
Runnymede director Halima Begum said the NHS had a marked under-representation of black and minority ethnic staff in senior roles. She said that when employers did not advertise jobs, it “can function as indirect discrimination, in particular on the grounds of race and disability”.
Penman agreed. “Open and fair selection is critical to delivering a truly representative and diverse workforce,” he said.
“Recruiting on merit, through open and fair selection which is free from bias or discrimination, is essential to deliver a truly representative workforce.”
The Runnymede Trust and the Good Law Project are currently crowdfunding the next stages of their judicial review.