It's time for an end to cronyism

by Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust

It's time for an end to cronyism

by Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust
Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust
Case Owner
Good Law Project use strategic litigation for a better world. Runnymede Trust is the UK’s leading independent think tank on race equality and race relations.
Funded
on 02nd November 2020
£388,635
pledged of £400,000 stretch target from 14,250 pledges
Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust
Case Owner
Good Law Project use strategic litigation for a better world. Runnymede Trust is the UK’s leading independent think tank on race equality and race relations.

Latest: Dec. 16, 2021

The chumocracy gets its day in court

Our Judicial Review with the UK’s leading race equality charity Runnymede Trust over the Government’s practice of handing out important roles to their friends, without fair or o…

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In August, the Conservative Peer Dido Harding was appointed as Head of the National Institute for Health Protection. The wife of a Conservative MP and friend of former Prime Minister David Cameron, Dido Harding didn’t pip other candidates to the post at the interview. There weren’t any other candidates. She was just handed the job. 

She’s not the only one to land a top job this way. Each week it seems another individual secures a role of vital public importance without any advertisement or fair process - and very often that individual has personal and political connections to Government. 

Our public bodies perform vital functions. Effective Test and Trace is absolutely key to tackling the pandemic. And we need to have those bodies run by people who are the best placed to do the job at hand, who were recruited through open competition and appointed because of what they know, not who they know. 

This Government's approach discriminates against those born without a silver spoon in their mouth. It’s unfair to those who don’t rub shoulders with high-ranking Ministers. And it’s unfair to groups who the data shows are shut out of public life.

Appointing your mates to top jobs isn’t new or the preserve of the Conservative Party: we all remember “Tony’s Cronies” too. But it’s high time we put a stop to it. Runnymede Trust and Good Law Project are challenging the appointment of Dido Harding, as well as a string of other appointments which were made with seemingly no advertisement or fair recruitment process. 

The judicial review raises two legal arguments:

  • Recruitment without open competition is indirect discrimination on grounds of, in particular, race and disability, contrary to the Equality Act 2010; and

  • Government appears to have breached its public sector equality duty in s. 149 of the Equality Act 2010 in filling senior public sector roles without paying due regard to the impact of its recruitment approach on those with protected characteristics.

You can find our Pre Action Protocol letter here.

The details: 

Good Law Project has instructed Jason Coppel and Hannah Slarks of 11KBW Chambers and Rook Irwin Sweeney. They will work considerably below market rates. 10% of the funds raised will be a contribution to the general running costs of Good Law Project. We will use any surplus to develop other litigation.

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Update 6

Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust

Dec. 16, 2021

The chumocracy gets its day in court

Our Judicial Review with the UK’s leading race equality charity Runnymede Trust over the Government’s practice of handing out important roles to their friends, without fair or open competition, reached the High Court this week. 

Our case focused on Dido Harding’s appointment, first as Chair of the disastrous Test and Trace programme, and then Head of the Health Security Agency, and her intervention to recruit her old colleague Mike Coupe to be Director of Testing. What they lacked in public health administration experience, they made up for in connections, with each being appointed directly after a closed recruitment process, or, in the case of Dido Harding’s second appointment, no recruitment process at all.  

But having the right contacts shouldn’t matter more than having the right credentials, particularly for critically important public jobs at the heart of the Government’s pandemic response.

Our barristers argued that if the Government routinely allows closed recruitment processes, if they only consider their personal, political or professional contacts, or those who can afford to work without pay, then they shut out many of the best available candidates, in particular those from ethnic minority backgrounds and those with disabilities. We believe their behaviour breached their duties under the Equality Act, and discriminates against people outside the ruling elite who lack networks to lean on. 

You only have to look at the Government’s own figures to see the impact: as the number of closed appointments has sharply increased over the last 18 months, the diversity of the ethnic minority candidates has fallen: from 15.3% before the pandemic to 9.6% in 2020-21. 

The Government’s barristers tried to argue that their actions were led by a need to have people in these posts as quickly as possible, but even their own civil servants described the recruitment process as “ludicrous”. An internal Government email reads: “I am worried that all of these appointments are being made on the fly without a proper audit trail around them.”

Our hearing revealed that Dido Harding inserted Mike Coupe on to a shortlist compiled by a recruitment agency, after they hadn’t recommended him for the role. He was the only candidate that Dido Harding then actually interviewed in person; and she kept no notes or records of her interviews or decision. Our view is that her conduct presented an obvious, and unlawful, appearance of bias. 

One of the most important benefits of open recruitment is the perception it creates that people can expect equality of opportunity and a fair chance of being considered for senior Government roles. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. If hiring friends and acquaintances, simply because it’s easier, is seen as accepted practice, this further entrenches inequality and has a chilling effect on the diversity of candidates who will apply for future public appointments. 

This has been a difficult case to fight. Rather than work to improve their processes, or commit to transparency in public appointments in the future, the Government has fought us every step of the way. They seemed determined to obscure the true facts of the case. 

We should receive a ruling from the Court in the coming months. We will keep you updated. 

Update 5

Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust

Dec. 13, 2021

We’re in Court tomorrow

Tomorrow the High Court will hear Judicial Review proceedings brought by the Runnymede Trust and Good Law Project. We are challenging the Government’s appointment of senior public officials without any formal process – which has meant top jobs repeatedly going to friends and associates of the governing elite.

Appointing your pals to top roles certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. We remember only too well “Tony’s Cronies”. However, in this time of national crisis and after the deaths of almost 150,000 members of the public, it is high time that the best qualified people are appointed to run vital public bodies. 

Our case focuses on Conservative peer Dido Harding and Mike Coupe. In May 2020, Harding was appointed to chair Test and Trace. She was later named Head of the new UK Health Security Agency. In September 2020, her ex-colleague Coupe was appointed Director of Testing at Test and Trace. Neither Harding nor Coupe is medically trained. Neither has built a career in public administration – problematic shortcomings given their roles in a time of global pandemic. Not to mention the £37 billion failure that Test and Trace represents. 

Both were hired without advertisement or competition. 

Even in transparent and competitive recruitment processes, research shows that the risk of unconscious bias can result in the appointment of candidates in a recruiter’s own image, for example if applicants have Anglo-Saxon names. So without proper process there is a real risk that positions will disproportionately be offered to white, non-disabled personnel. Highly qualified but otherwise unconnected candidates, often from ethnic minority and working class backgrounds, risk being entirely overlooked. It’s hard to see how this is reconcilable with both equality principles and the expressed objective of the Government to “level up” society.  

Our ethnic minority communities have disproportionately suffered and died from Covid. It is reasonable to hope that senior public appointments, in response to this national emergency, could be led on the basis of capability and experience, and include someone with understanding and lived experience of those communities most impacted. 

We entered this Judicial Review at a time when health outcomes for minority ethnic groups were incredibly fragile as a result of Covid, and mechanisms for our communities to raise their concerns already felt limited. As these proceedings have progressed, we have become increasingly concerned to note the way in which Government’s costs have increased - and therefore raised our own costs risk.

The few avenues by which scrutiny can be placed on the Executive feel increasingly limited. Again, minorities suffer a disproportionate impact - the principle of holding the Government to account in the public interest in Britain must not be defined solely by the ability to pay.

The fact that the High Court has agreed to hear this case confirms that the points we have raised, as an equalities organisation, are serious and merit scrutiny. We hope our challenge will help uphold the word and spirit of equalities legislation around future public appointments. And that, in future, public bodies recruit appropriately, especially in a time of national emergency.

Thank you so much for your support.

Dr Halima Begum, Chief Executive of The Runnymede Trust

Update 4

Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust

Nov. 30, 2021

Government is ramping up its costs

Government has hit us with a shock legal bill in our challenge with Runnymede over their appointment of Conservative Peer Dido Harding and her ex-colleague Mike Coupe to run the disastrous Test and Trace programme – without open competition. 

Legal action is expensive, so we don’t take it lightly. That’s why, back in March, we asked for Government’s costs estimate for defending this case. We said plainly and clearly that we were asking so we knew whether to apply for a costs cap (a Court order that would have ‘capped’ how much we’d have to pay Government if we don’t win). Government replied with reassurance that their costs ‘would be in the region of £35,000 to £50,000’ and, in reliance on that, we did not seek a costs cap. 

A couple of months later, they wrote to say their expected costs would actually be closer to £150,000. While this was an alarming three times more than their initial estimate, it felt just about manageable so we pressed on.

But now, out of nowhere and with only weeks until our High Court hearing, they have increased their estimated costs again – to a whopping £360,000 – with a barely credible explanation. By way of comparison, our lawyers’ bill is estimated at £70,000 if we lose, and £175,000 if we win. Government’s approach feels very much like a ‘bait and switch’.

It’s now too late for us to apply for a costs cap, and we’re facing an enormous potential bill if we do not win in Court – seven times higher than Government’s original estimate. This means we’re still more than £200,000 off the sum needed to cover our adverse costs risk in this case. But we aren’t prepared to down tools. 

This Government’s approach to public appointments discriminates against those who aren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths. The principle at stake – that Government must appoint the best candidate, not its best friend – is incredibly important. If we don’t defend this, we don’t see who else can. 

The hearing is due to take place in the High Court on 14 and 15 December. 

Thank you for your support.

Update 3

Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust

June 23, 2021

We will keep going - the stakes are too high not to

It’s been a while since you heard from us in our ‘Jobs for the Boys’ case so we wanted to give you an update. As you’ll remember the case focused on the appointments of Dido Harding - wife of a Conservative MP and friend of David Cameron - first as Head of Test and Trace and then later as Head of the National Institute for Health Protection without any adequate process. Later in the process we asked about Kate Bingham and Mike Coupe.

We continue to await a hearing date from the High Court - but we have had an explanation from Government of the process that was followed for Kate Bingham to be appointed. That process was less poor than Government had previously led us to understand and so we will not challenge her appointment. 

We are, however, continuing with the challenges to Dido Harding and Mike Coupe where, we believe, the evidence demonstrates that the processes were unacceptably poor. You may also think the outcomes were not much better - and you would expect poor processes to deliver poor outcomes. 

Make no mistake, the case is not straightforward. It is also made more difficult by the political climate.

Very few civil society organisations have the freedom our grassroots funding model gives us. Fewer still can afford to be indifferent to the attacks of a Government that is increasingly intolerant of challenge. Understandably many cannot afford to put their heads above the parapet in support of this litigation for fear of Government, or its increasingly partisan regulators, shooting them off. 

But we have arranged ourselves, as an organisation, so we have that freedom. And we think the principle at stake - that Government must appoint the best candidate, not its best friend - is incredibly important. If we don’t assert the principle we don’t see anyone else who can. 

So we propose to proceed with our attempt to clarify that the law requires Government to appoint based on merit - not on handshakes and private connections. 

Update 2

Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust

March 28, 2021

Permission granted – we’re going to Court

We are pleased to announce that our judicial review with Runnymede over the Government’s practice of handing public sector jobs to its mates without open recruitment has been granted permission. We will have our day in Court.

The story we tell ourselves is that these things don’t happen here. That the handing out of important roles to friends, without competition, is something for abroad. But the pandemic has exposed that as a fairytale. In the real world, we are now a “chumocracy” where having the right friends matters as much or more than having the right skills.

Since the start of the pandemic, Government has created a number of new bodies whose leaders fall outside the usual public appointment regime. Many of the roles have gone to those personally connected to the Conservative Party. 

The most high profile was the appointment of Dido Harding as Chair of NHS Test and Trace. A sitting Conservative Peer, wife of a Conservative MP and friend of former Prime Minister David Cameron, Harding didn’t pip other candidates to the post at the interview. There were no other candidates. The Test and Trace programme – with a budget of a staggering £37bn – has consistently failed to meet its targets and is widely and rightly perceived as a disaster.

Harding is far from the only friend of the Conservative Party to land a top public sector job. Kate Bingham, wife of Tory MP and Treasury Minister, Jesse Norman and cousin by marriage of Rachel Johnson, was appointed Chair of the Vaccine Taskforce. The vaccine programme is a success but that no more vindicates the chumocracy than Harding’s failure damns it. 

The principle – that we should be appointing on the basis of talent rather than relationships – remains the same. Our public bodies perform vital functions. They must always be run by the people who are best placed to do the job. In response to our lawyers’ correspondence asking Ministers to reveal how and why certain individuals, including Harding, were chosen to lead vital public health bodies, Government has admitted the roles were not openly advertised. 

It’s hard to put it better than the Commissioner for Public Appointments: … some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies…

This is not the Britain we should be.

We will publish the date for our High Court hearing as soon as it is available.

Update 1

Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust

Dec. 2, 2020

Cronyism - the live discussion

On Thursday 10th December, Good Law Project is hosting a live panel discussion on our challenge over Dido Harding’s appointment as Head of Test & Trace and Government’s practice of parachuting mates into top public sector roles without any open or fair process.

Thousands of lives depend on these public bodies. Yet this Government has handed them over without competition to cronies who’ve channelled billions of taxpayers’ money to private companies and their associates, while Test and Trace fails. It discriminates against those who don’t rub shoulders with Conservative ministers - and we don’t believe it is lawful.

If you would like to find more about the case and the extraordinary material we have unearthed so far, watch our live panel discussion with speakers including: Jolyon Maugham, Director of Good Law Project, Clive Lewis MP for Norwich South, and Dr Halima Begum, Director of The Runnymede Trust, the co-claimants in the case.

Here are the details of the event:

When:  6PM - 7PM, Thursday 10th December

Where: Facebook and Twitter

RSVP: on Eventbrite now for your free ticket

You don’t need to download anything to watch the event - just log on to our Facebook or Twitter at 6pm. If you have questions for our panellists you can send them in advance.

For a flavour of what’s in store listen to Jolyon on the Stories of Our Times podcast, on how we are paying the price as Ministers cast transparency rules aside.

Thank you for your support. We hope to see you on the 10th.

Good Law Project Team

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