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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.
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