Boris Johnson and his health secretary, Matt Hancock, acted “illegally” by appointing three key figures, including NHS Test and Trace chief Dido Harding, to positions in the fight against Covid-19, according to a legal challenge filed by activists to the high court.
the Observer has seen details of the case papers, and initial responses from government attorneys, regarding the request for a judicial review of the appointment of Baroness Harding, who is a fellow Conservative, and Kate Bingham for the position of director. from the UK Vaccine Task Force and Mike Coupe as Test Director at NHS Test and Trace.
The case has been jointly brought forward by the Good Law Project, a non-profit organization, headed by Jolyon Maugham QC, and the UK’s leading group of racial equality experts, the Runnymede Trust. If successful, it would represent a more serious blow to the credibility of the government’s handling of the pandemic and support claims that ministers have been running a “chumocracy.”
The plaintiffs say the appointments were made without advertising the positions and without the open competition normally insisted on for top public sector positions. Instead, they suggest that those identified and later designated were installed in part because of their conservative connections. Harding and Bingham are married to Conservative MPs, while Coupe is a former CEO of Sainsbury’s and was Harding’s colleague at the supermarket.
The plaintiffs question the experience and suitability of all three to fill the roles and also claim that because the positions were not advertised and are not paid, the government was guilty of indirectly discriminating against others outside of the highly affluent, predominantly targeted group of people. all three were chosen. They also say that the government violated equality obligations for public sector appointments.
In relation to Harding’s appointment by Hancock in May to lead the test and trace program, the plaintiffs say her experience “was not such that it was obvious without a selection process that she was uniquely qualified for the position.” Hancock and Harding already knew each other, partly through connections to horse racing. Harding was appointed to a second position in September as director of the National Institute for Health Protection, again without open competition or publicity for the position.
The complainants say that Bingham, who has worked in the fields of venture capital and therapeutics, and was in school with the prime minister’s sister, Rachel, “has no experience in public health administration or immunology.” Her husband, Jesse Norman, is a Conservative minister and was a contemporary of the Prime Minister at Eton.
Referring to Coupe’s appointment, the plaintiffs say: “Mr. Coupe’s most significant professional experience is as a former CEO of Sainsbury’s. He has no experience as a public administrator or in the health sector. He is an old colleague and friend of Baroness Harding, who worked with him at Sainsbury’s. “
The plaintiffs are inviting the court to declare that the government acted “illegally” in the way it made the appointments. They do not seek to remove all three of their positions, which they consider detrimental in a time of crisis, but to ensure that in the future governments are obliged to act fairly and legally.
Another 341 people in the UK died of Covid-19 on Saturday and 19,875 new cases were recorded.
News of the legal challenge comes as Johnson prepares to outline to Parliament on Monday details of the restrictions that will apply after the shutdown ends in England on Dec. 2. On Sunday he will hold talks with his cabinet to finalize the details of the additional restrictions that will have to be applied in the worst affected areas and how the rules can be relaxed for a few days during Christmas. The sources said the three-tier system will remain, albeit with additional restrictions imposed where necessary.
Johnson may have to rely on Labor Party support when the new restrictions are voted on. It is understood that 70 Conservative MPs have signed a letter warning that they cannot support a return to a tiered system unless ministers can show that the measures “will save more lives than they cost.”
The group, led by former boss Mark Harper and former Brexit minister Steve Baker, are demanding to see a full cost-benefit analysis of the restrictions being proposed after the current national lockdown ends.
Johnson and Hancock received a prior action letter outlining the details of the Good Law Project case. The government’s legal department responded by defending all appointments, saying the urgency of the pandemic required rapid, ad hoc and temporary appointments.
The legal department said they were not civil service functions, so they did not meet the requirements for full and open competition, and praised the managerial skills and experience of those chosen. It also dismissed the allegations of indirect discrimination as unfounded, and said the plaintiffs had not specified who had been discriminated against. Government lawyers say the case is “unnecessary and will soon be academic.”
Dr. Halima Begum, Director of the Runnymede Trust, said in her presentation: “You should not cut corners to the point where the government discriminates against non-white and / or disabled people. Qualified individuals should have every equal opportunity to compete for these vital jobs, regardless of their background. They should also be able to afford to take these jobs while supporting themselves and their families.
“Doing away with open competition and not paying full-time positions creates the perception that important jobs are being given to an inner circle of wives and friends within Westminster. This is what people increasingly call the ‘chumocracia’ ”.
Dave Penman, Director of the FDA’s Civil Servants Union, said: “Ensuring that public servants are hired on their merits is not just a legal obligation of the government, it is critical to ensuring the effectiveness of public services and protecting the public service. of cronyism “. and corruption. It ensures that, from local jobs to ministerial private offices, public officials are hired for what they can do, not for what they know or believe.
Maugham said: “If our politicians care the least bit about the public’s trust, we have to go back to how things used to be. Public service must be exactly that, not a cloak for the advancement of private interests. “
The Good Law Project is also investigating allegations that Covid-19-related contracts have been awarded to people with close conservative connections. Last week, Julia López, a minister in the Cabinet Office, said that an internal review of the award of private contracts would be carried out during the pandemic, so that ministers could be sure that there was “no basis” for claims. of favoritism toward conservative supporters or donors. The National Audit Office is also conducting its own procurement review.
A spokesperson for No. 10 said: “We do not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”
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