Lamenting Dido*

Lamenting Dido*

Since 2006 there have been, on and off, 7 anti-corruption champions, many of them well-known former Ministers in the twilight of their careers (Straw, Clarke, Pickles). It’s not clear what they have actually done or are meant to do, beyond fine words.

Some clarity has since been provided here. The focus is on supporting the government’s international strategy – teaching others how to be as incorruptible as Britain – and reviewing what departments and agencies are doing here. It is infused with the usual British complacency that this is something that largely happens elsewhere not here. But corruption is not simply rulers and their lackeys looting a country’s resources, stashing the proceeds in property and accounts in places like London or in one of Britain’s many offshore tax havens through shell companies and trusts (as Ukraine’s and Nigeria’s former rulers have done). Nor is it just the payment of bribes or granting of favours to unscrupulous public officials in less developed countries overseas. As Transparency International has pointed out, corruption can also be “politicians misusing public money or granting public jobs or contracts to their sponsors, friends and families”.  Nothing as grubby as money changing hands need happen for corruption to exist. 

There are ways to stop or minimise this happening: declaration of actual or potential conflicts of interests, Ministers recusing themselves from decisions involving friends and family, robust procurement policies so that contracts are awarded on the basis of publicly known criteria and standards, open advertisements for roles, transparent hiring processes, independent decisions, transparency about the terms, scrutiny by Parliament or other independent bodies and the ability to impose penalties for misbehaviour or to claw back monies which have been misspent or misused. These are necessary, no matter now small the sums at stake may be, no matter how urgent the need, because they are essential to maintaining trust between rulers and ruled (especially during emergencies). People have to trust – not just that their money is not misused – but that the process of awarding roles and contracts (and all the advantages that go with them) is fair and genuinely open, that it is not kept to a closed limited circle, that it does not become simply a mutual back-scratching exercise among those already closely connected. 

Above all, there needs to be trust that the most suitable and competent people will be appointed – and for the right reasons. Corruption inevitably leads to incompetence and at all levels. If those at the top are there for the wrong reasons, how can anyone be confident that they will make tough decisions or speak truth to power or have good judgement or have the backs of their underlings? Or, above all, that they will be good at their job?

Matt Hancock should know all this of course, having been one of those anti-corruption champions back in 2014. So why is it that he has appointed Dido Harding (made a Tory Baroness in 2014 by David Cameron, with whom she studied at Oxford) as the new Head of the newly created National Institute for Health Protection without any of these steps having been taken? There has been no advertisement for candidates, no setting out of the job specification or the technical qualities, skills and experience wanted and needed, no interview process or assessment by reference to published criteria. No-one else has had the opportunity to put themselves forward. Everything has been done behind closed doors, quickly, without transparency or accountability or scrutiny. Nor does anyone seem to have wondered whether their financial interests in racing (Harding is on the Board of the Jockey Club, Hancock, Newmarket’s MP, is financed by numerous trainers) might possibly have made it unwise for Hancock to have made the decision to appoint her.

This new agency has been created in order to protect the country against a pandemic, this aim announced with a straight face by the Minister who a year ago agreed to the abolition of the committee set up specifically to prepare the country for a pandemic. Beyond that its precise scope, specifically, whether it will take over all of Public Health England’s previous functions (which went beyond pandemic preparation) is unclear. The government has suggested that it is modelled on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, as if to show that it is sensibly seeking to copy a country which has had a much more effective testing system and, consequently, fewer Covid-19 deaths. It is a superficially plausible – but disingenuous – claim. Germany’s institute is headed by specialists in microbiology and infectious disease epidemiology with considerable experience in their fields and in public health generally. Harding has no such experience or expertise, her only prior NHS experience being the Chair of NHS Improvement since 2017. In that, she was notable for rejecting the advice of the Health Select Committee to sit as a crossbench rather than a Tory peer in order to avoid any conflict between her NHS role and her political leanings. Not much chance, then, of her speaking hard truths to Ministers.

What is there in her career justifying her being given such a critical role? Her experience ranges from McKinsey (the consultants invariably brought in by those CEOs and others too unimaginative to think for themselves, too scared to make their own decisions or just looking for someone else to blame) to various posts at a travel agent and supermarkets finally ending up at Talk Talk. 5 years after she became CEO, it suffered a sustained cyber-attack, for which it was woefully unprepared, resulting in the personal and banking details of 4 million customers being put at risk. Her responses to this were painfully embarrassing; the attack cost Talk Talk £60 million and the loss of 95,000 customers. This failure matters in a role which will necessarily involve the handling of sensitive medical and personal data. It’s not as if her time in charge of the NHS’s Test and Trace system since April has exactly been a success either or suggests that she’s learnt any lessons at all from her previous failure. Still, McKinsey has just charged £560,000 to come up with a “vision, purpose and narrative” for the new body so she’ll have some help. Phew!

So is this really the best person in the whole of the country to run this vital new body? How can anyone know or judge? Transparency and accountability mean little in reality when appointments are made on the basis of knowing who might be interested or happens to be in the building at the time rather than on objective criteria independently assessed against an organisation’s purpose.

What might the anti-corruption champion have to say about any of this? Nothing. John Penrose MP is Dido Harding’s husband. He’s conflicted on any number of levels. Some have noted his membership of the Advisory Board of the think tank “1828” which, long before Covid, recommended abolition of PHE and the NHS’s replacement by an insurance system, and wondered whether this is the agenda behind Harding’s appointment. This might be so or it might be 2 + 2 = 5. In the absence of a transparent recruitment process, it’s hardly surprising that such concerns are raised. 

Not least because, in addition to trousering half a million quid, McKinsey get to use everyone’s personal, family, medical, financial and biometric data for 7 years after their work on this project has ended. This is not just extremely sensitive data. It is also very valuable. Why? For what? And we get a say in this how, exactly? Why would anyone sensible hand over sensitive data to an agency led by someone provenly unable to safeguard it and advised by a company which will use it for its own purposes? This cosy agreement privatising our data risks making the new agency ineffective in its ostensible purpose. No wonder some think there may be another agenda at play.

Dido Harding is another member of the “Failing Upwards” club (joining such luminaries as Williamson and Grayling). Concern at her appointment and the manner of it will probably not trouble the government much, if at all. It appears to think that the more it enrages its enemies, the better a decision is. It’s a childishly superficial approach to government.

More importantly, it is not calculated to result in good governance. It is government by an elite, a chumocracy, a group of like-minded friends and acquaintances, recycling the same small group of people, on the basis of who is known, who is part of the group, who one is comfortable with, a network of people with similar educations, social backgrounds and connections. This is how one chooses companions for a villa holiday not competent experienced people responsible for the health, lives and information of millions. 

And those of us outside this charmed circle? Well, we’re the creatures wanting a change for the better now looking “from pig to man, and from man to pig” and finding it increasingly impossible to see the difference.

*Or why Hancock doesn’t know his Aeneas from his elbow.


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