The government must hope that Pfizer’s vaccine announcement will overshadow the continued rumblings about Kate Bingham, Chair of the Vaccine Task Force and her expensive (and, judging by results, useless) PR consultants. She is due to leave in January, as originally planned. If you believe Hancock, that is. He’s fast becoming this government’s Marie-Antoinette. According to his latest interview, people paid £670,000 for 6 months’ work in government should be thanked as they have “given up” six months of their life. Who knew that being highly paid to do the job you’re trained for was such a sacrifice? We can only guess at the likely reaction of low paid essential workers (some in the NHS) and unpaid volunteers. Let alone that of the rest of the public, for whom the last 6 months have not exactly been days of wine and roses.
The press and Opposition MPs have largely focused on the payments to PR consultants. But there are more important aspects of this story which are being missed. It contains many of the elements found in investigations into wrongdoing and other foul-ups.
- A hurried/inadequate appointments process and poor/non-existent due diligence. According to reports, the PM picked her personally. There was no formal public appointment process with the role advertised and applicants considered and interviewed against agreed criteria. Even Ms Bingham herself wondered whether she had the right knowledge for the job, though that does beg the question of what the job actually was. This does not just raise concerns about “who you know” being the only relevant qualification. It does a disservice to good candidates who risk being tainted and their work – particularly if there are difficulties – being undermined by this charge. It almost inevitably leads to no or poor due diligence being done, though not just in such cases. In pretty much every investigation I did, there were clues, sometimes bloody big ones, right at the start of the hiring process, that the person being hired was a wrong’un. Why these are ignored is for another time. But a failure to ask or address hard questions only stores up trouble for later.
- What is the mandate? What was Ms Bingham brought in to do? What did success mean? How was this to be assessed? By whom? Does anyone know? If the mandate is unclear, it allows people to do what they want. Some of that may be worthwhile. Some may be utterly pointless or inadequate. And some may be highly questionable. Or, at worst, criminal.
- Reporting lines. Usually seen as boring HR stuff. Don’t believe this for a minute. Someone needs to be in charge of an appointee, needs to be clear about what their job is, what can and cannot be done, what the limits are, what decisions need the involvement of others etc. Someone needs to be able to read the riot act, if needed. Apparently Ms Bingham reports to the PM. For all practical purposes, this is meaningless. The PM is directly responsible for 22 Cabinet Ministers, the Cabinet Secretary and his special advisors. Even a Stakhanovite micro-manager existing on 4 hours sleep a night would have difficulty managing that lot. The current PM hardly merits such a description. Ms Bingham’s role seems to have a Cheshire Cat quality. No department was responsible for signing off what she did (including talks given to private investors) but nonetheless civil servants felt able (or were ordered – by whom?) to prepare presentations and authorise expenditure for her personal benefit.
- Conflicts of interest. This is the nub of the issue – not the expensive PR. There are any number of actual or potential conflicts of interest here, inevitably given her background and role at SV Health Investors: between her governmental role and her private equity role, between the SP7 Impact Medicine Fund she is Managing Partner of and the fund (British Patient Capital) set up by the government to invest in vaccines, between herself and her husband, a Treasury Minister in a department which controls what how much is spent and where, between herself and her fund and other investors in this sector, between her PR advisors and their other clients. What should be the case is that the interests of the public, as mediated through government, should be put ahead of any other interest, including the political interests of the Conservative party, any Ministers in it, herself, her other employers or other actual or potential clients/investors. Some of these actual or potential conflicts require careful consideration of legal and regulatory requirements if laws are not to be broken or wrongful conduct by others facilitated. The key is to understand what they are and manage them very carefully indeed – not just to avoid any actual misbehaviour – but even the suspicion of it. Full transparency is essential. Like Caesar’s wife, those brought in from the private sector for a limited period – something which can be of benefit to both government and public – need to be above suspicion.
- Some questions:-
- Why are the names of those on the Vaccines Task Force not public?
- What conflicts of interest might they have?
- How are these being addressed? In particular, what “mitigating measures” have been put in place to manage any conflicts of interest?
- What legal/compliance advice on these has been obtained and from whom?
- Who is responsible for monitoring this?
- Did Ms Bingham continue to receive a salary or other payments from SV Health Investors after she took on a government role?
- What controls were placed over the use she could make of confidential information obtained by virtue of her government role? Not just during her time in government but for a period after she returns to the private sector?
- What guidance was given about the laws on the use/misuse of Unpublished Price Sensitive Information, the misuse of which may amount to insider dealing, a serious criminal and regulatory offence? This particularly arises in the context of her reported talk to a private investors’ conference. But also with regard to her comments about limiting a vaccine to certain age groups or its potentially harmful side effects, comments which can impact the share price of pharmaceutical companies. These are not purely theoretical concerns: there have been numerous regulatory actions here and in the US targeted at those in the pharmaceutical sector who whether because of their medical expertise or other inside knowledge (such as knowing what investments a government is likely to make) have valuable information but are careless in how they use it.
- Who authorised (did anyone?) her presentation to an investors’ conference? Have there been others? Or other private meetings with potential investors?
- What was shared and on what terms?
- What about the PR advisors, their conflicts and their use of governmental/confidential information? Why are they needed at all?
- Did she need to get government approval for public statements eg on who would get a vaccine?
There may well be good answers to these questions. But they really should not need asking now when concerns have been raised. These matters should have been properly and transparently deal with and made public right at the start. It would have been wise of Ms Bingham to insist on this rather than PR advisors. But if four decades in the City has taught me anything, it is that there is a sort of stupidity that only the highly educated are capable of.
It is not just a matter of good governance. It is a question of trust. Trust that the right people and advisors are being appointed for the right reasons. Trust that taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely. Trust that government roles and information are not being misused for private gain. Trust that there is proper Ministerial accountability for those brought in to help government work effectively. Trust that laws and rules apply equally to all.
The only way we are going to get past the miseries Covid has inflicted on us is if there is a vaccine, taken up by the majority of the population. What we don’t need at such a time is behaviour which risks undermining trust in vaccines, not when the most minor point or loopy concern is leapt on by those with absurd conspiracy theories about either viruses or vaccines. As for Hancock, he should try engaging brain before opening his mouth or, better still, staying away from interviews until he has learnt some common-sense.