Campaigners take legal action against government over contracts for 'cronies'

Baroness Dido Harding, Executive Chair of NHS Test and Trace, in Westminster, London.

Baroness Dido Harding, Executive Chair of NHS Test and Trace, in Westminster, London. - Credit: PA

Campaigners have launched legal proceedings against the government claiming it handed out top jobs in the coronavirus pandemic to “cronies” without proper competition.

The Good Law Project and race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust said they had filed for judicial review at the High Court claiming that prime minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock had acted “unlawfully”.

The case relates to the recruitment of Tory peer Baroness Dido Harding to both the head of NHS Test and Trace and the new National Institute of Health Protection; Kate Bingham as head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce; and Mike Coupe as director of NHS Test and Trace.

The court papers allege that because the positions were not advertised and are unpaid the government was guilty of indirectly discriminating against others outside the very well-off, predominantly white group from which they were chosen.

They also said the government breached equality obligations for public sector appointments.

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The campaigners said that they have launched the judicial review because they believe the appointments were unlawful.

In a statement on its website, the Good Law Project added: “Thousands of lives depend on these public bodies.

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“Yet this government has handed them over without competition to cronies who’ve channelled billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to private companies and their associates – while the Test and Trace system fails.

“A number of people – who just happen to share the quality of being friends of the Conservative Party – were just given the nod.

“This is not the Britain we should be, and we don’t believe it is lawful.”

Court papers said the appointments were contrary to the Equality Act 2010 against people who were not white and people who are disabled.

This is due to people who are disabled or not white being “less likely to be among the exclusive group considered for the positions” and less able to take up unpaid roles.

It also alleges that Johnson and Hancock paid “no regard to the equalities impact of its approach”.

The papers highlighted that Baroness Harding and Bingham are both married to Conservative MPs, while Coupe is the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s and a former friend and colleague of Baroness Harding.

They said that there was no public advertisement for any of the posts and even if there had been they would have excluded all candidates “save for those who were extremely wealthy and/or held posts for which they would continue to be paid”.

It added: “This claim challenges the government’s policy or practice of making impotent public administrative appointments to posts critical to the government’s response to the pandemic, including the specific appointments set out above, without adopting any (or any sufficient) fair or open competitive processes which are designed to ensure appointment based on merit.

“It further challenges the government’s failure to offer remuneration for these high level full-time roles.”

The Good Law Project said that closed recruitment “discriminates against Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and disabled people”.

It added: “The government’s practice of offering these roles unpaid rules out those without family wealth.

“Those who don’t rub shoulders with high-ranking ministers are often shut out.

“And public confidence is undermined: how can we see, without transparency, whose interests this serves?

“The public’s – or the private interests of friends of the Conservative Party?”

They said that the government has 21 days to respond to its legal challenge.

A No 10 spokesman said: “We do not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”

In a letter contained in the court papers, government lawyers said Baroness Harding was appointed “to urgently help establish the National Institute of Health Protection”, possessed “highly specialist skills and was available at short notice to take up this appointment”.

It said an open recruitment process was ongoing for the formal role of chief executive of the NIHP and Baroness Harding was not applying.

It added that Coupe was appointed on an “urgent, voluntary and unpaid basis” following a search by “executive search firm Russell Reynolds” and that 12 candidates were shortlisted and four interviewed.

In a letter, dated November 11, they said: “The secretary of state was plainly entitled to make these appointments to various roles which were required to be made on an urgent and temporary basis in order to help protect public health during an unprecedented national emergency.”

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, said on social media: “This is our belief, that cronyism – which undermines the public interest, discriminates against those who don’t rub shoulders with Cabinet Ministers, and shuts out those who lack the family fortune to work unpaid – is unlawful.

"And we at @GoodLawProject mean to prove it in court.”

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