Challenging nepotism: a necessary step for equality and levelling up

Guest blog by Dr Halima Begum, Chief Executive of The Runnymede Trust

This week, the High Court will hear Judicial Review proceedings brought by the Runnymede Trust and Good Law Project. Our application represents a challenge to the UK Government’s appointment of senior public officials without due process, neither equitable, transparent, nor competitive – a proclivity that 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 or the sole preserve of this Government. We remember “Tony’s Cronies” only too well and, for instance, the various reincarnations of Peter Mandelson. However, in this time of national crisis and after the deaths of almost 150,000 members of the public – more than died in the Battle of the Somme – it is high time that this practice ends and the best qualified people are appointed to the highest functional offices in the land, in the best interests of the British public. 

Our case focuses on Baroness Dido Harding and Mike Coupe. In May 2020, Harding was appointed to chair NHS Test and Trace before being named head of the new Institute for Health Protection, now known as the UK Health Security Agency (HSA). Subsequently, in September 2020, 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 – disturbing shortcomings given their respective roles in a time of global pandemic, not to mention the £37 billion failure that Test and Trace represents. 

Harding was previously the Chief Executive of broadband provider TalkTalk. She quit the role after 156,000 customers had their private data hacked and the Information Commissioner issued a record fine. 

Former PM David Cameron raised his long-time friend to the House of Lords. Constitutional experts continue to argue that Harding’s insistence on retaining the Conservative Party whip is wholly incompatible with her appointment as a senior public servant at Test and Trace and the HSA, and therefore someone presumably subject to the Civil Service Code and its stipulations around political impartiality. 

Mike Coupe was also hired without advertisement or competition. The Government has admitted that Baroness Harding intervened to ensure her former colleague was appointed, despite the fact that he had not been identified as a worthwhile candidate by their recruitment agency. Baroness Harding alone interviewed Mr Coupe. 

Even in optimum circumstances, where transparent and competitive recruitment processes are the norm, research shows that the risk of unconscious bias can result in the appointment of candidates in a recruiter’s own image. Of equal concern to an organisation like the Runnymede Trust, where competition and transparency are fundamentally lacking in a recruitment process and senior public appointments are made on the basis of even the remotest ties between a candidate and a governing elite, there is the risk that such positions will disproportionately be offered to white, non-disabled personnel. Highly qualified but otherwise unconnected candidates, often from an ethnic minority and other under-represented groups including the working class, risk being entirely overlooked by those responsible for the appointments process. It would seem reasonable to conclude that such an outcome is irreconcilable with both equalities legislation and the expressed objective of a government genuinely committed to “levelling up” society.  

In its defence, the Government has argued that, in a time of national emergency, the likes of Harding and Coupe were able to accept their roles immediately and without remuneration. However, as we know from the practice of unpaid internships, the capacity to work without pay excludes those who cannot rely on personal wealth or the bank of Mum and Dad, a situation incompatible with equalities principles. 

Our ethnic minority communities have disproportionately suffered and died from Covid. It would seem reasonable to hope, if not expect, that senior public appointments in response to this national emergency could be made on the basis of capability and experience, and that, as a result, some small quotient of leadership responsibility would be placed in the hands of someone with understanding and lived experience of the needs of those impacted communities. 

Certainly, 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 through the court, we have become increasingly concerned to note the way in which Government’s costs – and therefore our own costs risk – has increased, as well as the fact that the Judicial Review process itself now risks being curtailed by Government. 

If such moves succeed, the few avenues by which scrutiny can be placed on the Executive will become increasingly limited. Again, minorities would feasibly 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 of law we have raised, as an equalities organisation, are serious and merit scrutiny. We hope this challenge will help ensure that public bodies 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. 


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