Regulator backs charity on Dido Harding cronyism challenge

Charity Commission says supporting High Court bid to probe government’s “chumocracy” appointments is acceptable behaviour
Dido Harding, who was appointed head of NHS Test and Trace without an open recruitment competition. Photo: PA

By Jim Dunton

02 Sep 2021

Equality think-tank the Runnymede Trust has been vindicated for supporting a High Court challenge into the government’s appointment of Baroness Dido Harding to run NHS Test and Trace last year without an open and fair recruitment process.

The trust, which has a particular focus on race-equality, was the subject of a complaint by Conservative MPs earlier this year who accused it of pursuing a political agenda in response to the government’s handling of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

As part of the investigation, the Charity Commission also looked at Runnymede Trust’s support for the Good Law Project’s so-called “chumocracy” challenge to the appointment of friends of the prime minister and other cabinet members to prominent roles without open competition.

The challenge to Dido Harding’s appointment and that of former Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe to another senior pandemic-related response role also has the backing of the FDA union. The full judicial review hearing has yet to take place.

Revealing the findings of its investigations, the Charity Commission said charities were permitted in law to campaign and undertake political activity, and could take up positions that not everyone agreed with, provided it was done “in furtherance of a charity’s purposes”.

The commission said that engaging with the race commission and taking a position on its report was “within the charity’s purposes” and that working with the Good Law Project on the chumocracy challenge was not a breach of trustees’ legal duties and responsibilities.

Charity Commission director of regulatory services Helen Earner said all concerns about charities were taken seriously and treated with respect,  whether they came from members of the public, parliamentarians, or the media.

“In this case, we have found no breach of our guidance. However, we have told the trustees of the Runnymede Trust that they must ensure the charity’s engagement with political parties and politicians is balanced,” she said.

“It is not for us as regulator to tell trustees how best to further their charity’s purposes. Charities are free to take up positions that are controversial, if the trustees come to a reasoned decision that doing so furthers the charity’s cause.

“But all charities must comply with the rules associated with charitable status. Being a charity comes with privileges, but also with important responsibilities. We expect the trustees and senior leaders of the Runnymede Trust to pay heed to these responsibilities, as we expect all charities to.”

Runnymede Trust chair Sir Clive Jones said the organisation was “reassured” that the Charity Commission had upheld “the substance and independence” its work.

“Today’s feedback from the Charity Commission confirms our belief that the Runnymede Trust has an important and worthy role to play in supporting our country in our shared commitment to achieve racial equity, and to make the UK a truly inclusive and post-racial society,” he said.

When the Runnymede Trust announced its support for the chumocracy challenge, 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”.

The Good Law project’s challenge originally included Kate Bingham’s appointment as chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, however she was dropped from the case in June. Project lawyers said the government had provided evidence that suggested the process used to hire Bingham had been “less poor” than that used for Harding and Coupe.

The campaign originally alleged that the recruitment of Harding, Bingham and Coupe was cronyism that amounted to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. It also argued that the government breached its public sector equality duty by hiring unqualified friends into senior public sector roles.

Conservative peer Harding is married to MP John Penrose – currently prime minister Boris Johnson’s anti-corruption champion – and had a career history in retail and telecommunications. Coupe was chief executive of supermarket Sainsbury’s until last year and is said to be a close friend of Harding.

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. 

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