Dido Harding appointment ‘corrupting our constitution’ – Lord Falconer

Tory peer’s twin civil service roles are incompatible with taking the Conservative whip, says former justice secretary

Boris Johnson has been accused by a former Labour lord chancellor of corrupting the constitution by appointing Tory peer Dido Harding to powerful twin civil service roles in the fight against Covid-19.

Lord Falconer, who is also a former justice secretary, spoke out as his party’s leader in the House of Lords Baroness Angela Smith wrote to the newcabinet secretary, Simon Case, asking for urgent clarification of what appeared to be a clear breach of the civil service code.

Harding, a former chief executive of telecom group TalkTalk, is currently head of the much criticised NHS test and trace, and was recently also appointed to lead the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP).

In both roles Labour says she works as a public servant and is therefore covered by the civil service code, which states that civil servants should not “act in a way determined by political considerations”.

But Harding sits as a backbench Tory peer and takes the Conservative whip, operating there in a political capacity. As recently as last week, she voted in line with her party on the agriculture bill in the upper house.

Lord Falconer said he had never known of anyone being allowed to mix public service and political roles in such a way, in the Commons or Lords, and demanded that she either sit as a non-aligned cross-bench peer, or be appointed by the prime minster as a government minister. She could then, as a result, be held accountable and answer questions in the upper house.

Falconer told the Observer: “It is such a corruption of our constitution to make a Tory backbencher in parliament a senior civil servant without any process and without even requiring the most basic rules of political impartiality.

“It is hardly surprising that our track and trace system is going so wrong if your talent pool is restricted to Tory backbenchers in parliament.”

Government sources said that Harding had shown herself to be accountable and had appeared last week before the science and technology select committee to answer questions about the Covid-19 testing system she runs.

Last month, health secretary Matt Hancock defended her appointment as head of NIHP, after the controversial decision to scrap Public Health England (PHE).

The appointment raised eyebrows, however, because of the poor performance of NHS test and trace, which she has led since May, and because Harding was an active Conservative in the Lords.

The scrapping of PHE also prompted a chorus of criticism that Boris Johnson’s administration was trying to shift the blame for its own failings during the pandemic.

Lady Harding, 52, has been a Conservative member of the House of Lords since she was given a life peerage in 2014 by her friend David Cameron, the then prime minister.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the leader of the British Medical Association, warned at the time her appointment was announced in August that the public health body should be free of any political influence that might hinder its work. “The BMA strongly believes that the nation’s public health medicine service should be truly public, [and] completely independent of political influence,” he said.

“It must be able to operate with full transparency in order to advise the government, inform the public and do its work, which is so vital to the health of the nation.”


Toby Helm

The GuardianTramp

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