Simon Case has been urged to clarify whether the government’s decision to appoint Conservative peer Dido Harding to head up the National Institute for Health Protection breaches the civil service code.
The Labour party has written to the cabinet secretary to query whether Harding’s appointments to official roles should have been made while she was still an active peer in the House of Lords taking the Conservative whip.
Baroness Angela Smith, shadow leader of the House of Lords, has written to Case “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 added: “This would appear to be a flagrant breach of the code.”
Harding, a former chief executive of telecom giant TalkTalk, was made a life peer by David Cameron in 2014. Last month it was announced that Baroness Harding, who already heads up the NHS Test and Trace scheme, will lead the NIHP – which will replace Public Health England. However, she has not given up the Conservative whip or taken a leave of absence from the House of Lords. This is contrast to the appointment of Lord Andrew Tyrie, who in 2018 said he would not take the Conservative whip while chair of the Competition and Markets Authority.
Smith added that “one way of resolving this issue is for Baroness Harding to be made a minister, and therefore directly accountable to parliament”. She adds: “It would also be helpful to understand why the prime minister has chosen not to do so.”
Labour peer Lord Falconer, a former justice secretary, added: “It is such a corruption of our constitution to make a Tory backbencher in parliament a senior civil servant without any process and without even requiring the most basic rules of political impartiality.”
Responding to the concerns, Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary, told CSW: “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.”
Dave Penman, FDA general secretary, added: "It’s unclear what process was used to appoint Baroness Harding to these roles and whether the appointment is in breach of the civil service code. That lack of transparency is in itself a concern.
“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.”
A Public and Commercial Services spokesman added: "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."
The Cabinet Office has been approached for comment.