Kate Bingham and the rotten state

November 3, 2020 10 Comments
Kate Bingham

If the case of Dido Harding has become a prominent symbol of the degradation of public life in the UK, few until recently were aware that it has a close second, in exactly the same field of Covid policy: the case of Kate Bingham.

Boris Johnson appointed Kate Bingham in May 2020 as the chair of the ‘Vaccine Taskforce’, charged with coordinating the finding of a successful Covid-19 vaccine for the UK.  She kept a low profile until the Sunday Times alleged on 1 November that she had taken part in a ‘premier webinar and networking event’ with women from US private equity companies and revealed to them confidential information about UK vaccine plans.  According the reporters, she showed them a detailed list of all the vaccines the taskforce was monitoring, and told them about plans for more advanced future vaccines – private information from which the companies could derive unfair benefit.

Silence and shamelessness are the usual UK government responses to accusations of public misconduct.  In this case the government issued, later the same day, a written defence of Bingham’s behaviour.  It gives a long list of Bingham’s supposed achievements, and makes two claims: that government officials knew about and approved of the webinar, and that Bingham had ‘focused on publicly available information and said little that expert delegates at the conference could not deduce themselves.’

Rachel Reeves MP

These are carefully chosen words.  They don’t deny that Bingham disclosed confidential information.  They weren’t enough to prevent the Labour opposition from calling for the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the incident.  In her letter Rachel Reeves wanted to know which code of conduct applied to Bingham’s behaviour, and how the government could demonstrate transparency and the absence of conflicts of interest.

Those of us who are used to the normal rules regulating the behaviour of public officers and officials will understand what Rachel Reeves is referring to – the so-called ‘Nolan principles’, drawn up after an earlier period of government sleaze.  These list seven ‘principles of public life’ – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.  Today, alas, these are ideals that seem to come from a distant, long lost age (Lord Nolan died in 2007).  It’s doubtful whether Boris Johnson and his associates would recognise any of them, let alone seek to abide by them.  The Cabinet Secretary will have little trouble in brushing aside Labour’s doubts; Nolan’s rules – officially still extant for less mortals, but widely ignored in the case of others – will no doubt go unmentioned.

At the least Bingham must be guilty of naiveté – a basic lack of understanding of the ethical standards normally expected of those employed in a public role.  But the webinar incident is just a small symptom of a wider disease.  This becomes obvious when you consider how Kate Bingham got to where she now is.  Her story bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Dido Harding, even if it lacks Harding’s history of serial failure.

Like Harding, Bingham – her full name is the Honourable Catherine Elizabeth Bingham – is hardly the product of a meritocratic society.  She was born in 1965, two years earlier than Harding.  Her father was a well-known judge, Tom Bingham, Baron Bingham of Cornhill, and after a private school education she went on to study in Oxford University before collecting an MBA from Harvard University – precisely the same path as Dido Harding.  No doubt they shared influential friends.  Her original field was biochemistry.  Allied to the business qualification this opened the door for her to work for a succession of drug and other health firms.  Companies House lists her as a current board member of no less than ten such companies.  Bingham is described as a ‘venture capitalist’.  Her main interest seems to be in a company called SV Health Investors, a ‘specialist health care fund manager’, where she’s listed as a Managing Partner. She’s not an active biochemist.  She’s never been a virologist, and has no virology experience.  And yet she was appointed in May as the chair of the Vaccine Taskforce when it was set up in May 2020.

Dido Harding

As with Dido Harding, the nature of the appointment was not obvious.  There seems to have been no due process, no Nolan ‘openness’ about it.  The government claimed that she is ‘uniquely qualified for the role’ and possesses ‘exceptional leadership and focused energy’.  This may be true.  But how did they know, if there was no proper selection process?  Does Bingley receive a salary, and if so what is it?  Is she a civil servant?  It’s unclear.  If she’s not, is she exempt from normal rules governing civil service behaviour?  Who is she accountable to? 

What is the Vaccine Taskforce?  The government released a statement of its aims in April 2020:

The taskforce will bring together government, industry, academics, funding agencies, regulators, logistics and finance to make rapid decisions to put the UK in a position to accelerate vaccine development and vaccinate the right proportion of the population as soon as possible after a vaccine is available.

 Here is Kate Bingham’s own, slightly different explanation of it in October:

… a dedicated, nimble private-sector team of experts embedded in the Government to drive forward the development of vaccines for the UK and internationally. The Vaccine Taskforce was set up under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in May 2020, and I was asked to chair the taskforce, reporting directly to the prime minister, and working alongside Deputy Chair Clive Dix.

Further details, though, are obscure.  Who are the members of the Taskforce, apart from Clive Dix?  The original government announcement said, ‘members will include government Life Sciences Champion Sir John Bell, as well as AstraZeneca, and the Wellcome Trust’, but I can see no full list.  How were they appointed?  What safeguards are in place to ensure there’s no self-enrichment or favouritism in investment decisions?  What funds are available to them to invest in vaccine developers?  Who oversees their work?  How do we know that the Taskforce is working effectively and efficiently? 

There are commercial confidentiality considerations, but the near total lack of openness about the Taskforce is striking – and unacceptable, when you consider that huge amounts of money are involved and that the health of a whole country is at stake.

Jesse Norman MP

To return to Kate Bingham.  Despite her lack of virology experience her background in private sector health may be relevant, given the task of the Taskforce.  (Here she has an advantage over Dido Harding, who seems to lack all qualification for her cognate post.)  It may be that she is an exceptional and energetic leader.  But we have to take all that on trust.   Because of the lack of openness in her appointment and the obscurity concerning the details of her post, it’s easy to see why some people could come to the conclusion that Kate Bingham reached such a senior post in government because she ‘knew the right people’.  One of those right people, incidentally, may be her own husband, the Conservative MP and ex-Minister Jesse Norman, who attended Eton College at the same time as Boris Johnson.

Our rulers’ instinctive disdain for public service and their idolising of finance power lead inevitably to the fast erosion, indeed the destruction, of ethical standards in government.  Add to that their determination to restrict positions of power to an élite bound together by exclusive educational and social ties, and faith in the public realm is further diminished.  No wonder more and more people, in Scotland, Wales and even parts of England, want no more to do with the corruption and chaos of Westminster.

Update, 8 November 2020

According to the Sunday Times Kate Bingham has insisted on appointing a team of PR consultants, Admiral Associates, at a public cost of £670,000, to support the Vaccine Taskforce. The eight full-time staff working on the contract are paid at the rate of £165,000 pa. BEIS, the government department that is home to the Taskforce, already has its own communications team of 100 staff. The Admiral Associates contract was not approved by the appropriate minister, Alok Sharma.

Update, 10 November 2020

According the Guardian and the Financial Times Georgina Cameron, the founder of Admiral Associates (motto: ‘cash is king’), happens to be a business associate of Dominic Cumming’s father-in-law, Humphrey Wakefield. Also, there is a suggestion that Kate Bingham may have benefited personally from a contract given by British Patient Capital, a UK government-owned company, to SV Health Investors’ Impact Medicine Fund.

In the light of this multiple cronyism, Kate Bingham faces numerous calls for her to resign. Interestingly, she seems to have removed from her profile on the SV Health Investors website mention of her intention to step down from her role as Chair of the Vaccine Taskforce at the end of this year. Time will tell.

Comments (10)

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  1. Amanda says:

    I really enjoyed reading this-so succinctly put. When will there be a public outcry about this I wonder?
    I keep thinking about the 12 billion pounds and I’m surprised that every single person isn’t completely furious.

  2. brian sanson says:

    This Gravy Train runs on a circular line
    Any bets that any resulting vaccine will be tied to generating profits for the private sector – isn’t that why they want to keep the public sector at arms length – to deny the NHS an opportunity to dilute profits by working for “free”

  3. David Jones says:

    There’s a paradox here. A while ago civil servants were generalists – all one needed was a good degree and/or perhaps a first class mind. With the increasing complexity and technical nature of policy and administration, there is the need (one might think) for expertise. But it seems that the experts need to be overseen by generalists with business experience. The pandemic has revealed a host of scientists of great ability and with a strong variety of scientific specialisations. A friend of mine has a daughter whose engineering academic speciality is airflow in buildings. Perhaps to her surprise she now finds herself on the SAGE Committee.

    Of course local government and public health have become eviscerated by the centralisation and privatisation of government, to the cost of our health and wellbeing.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thanks, David. Dominic Cummings notoriously promised a ‘hard rain’ would fall on civil servants. But the rain’s been falling for years. The views of political ‘special advisers’ have long trumped advice from civil servants, and now anyone, it seems, with the right Tory connection can find themselves doing work that would in the past have been done by civil servants.

  4. Matt Wardman says:

    Reading this now, I’m afraid it comes across as lounge bar conspiracy theories, which are not appropriate at a time of emergency.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thank you, Mark. I don’t agree. Even in stressful times there is no justification for abandoning fair practice in favour of blatant cronyism.

      • John Stone says:

        Nothing necessarily wrong with conspiracy theories. However, it would be nice if you could acknowledge that Kate Bingham did an excellent job that saved lives. The contrast with the EU’s vaccine program led by a trade negotiator is very pronounced; the UK spent much more money than the EU did and assumed more risk, but this got the UK earlier and more vaccine. Bingham’s background as a biochemist and venture capital investor does look to have helped her take the right decisions, to our benefit. And she wasn’t paid for the role, which she has now left.

        • Andrew Green says:

          Thank you, John. You’re right that the vaccine programme has been a success (though I’m not in a position to know how much of the success was due to Bingham). But my point was that her appointment was cronyism at its very worst, and totally unacceptable in any society that values proper process in public life.

  5. Matt Wardman says:

    I do, though, admire your maintenance of a long term varied and interesting blog.

    I did it daily for 4 or 5 years, and recognise the effort.

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