Keir Starmer has declared that the £670,000 PR bill of vaccine taskforce head Kate Bingham, revealed over the weekend, “cannot be justified” at a time when people across the country are losing their incomes amid the coronavirus crisis.
The Labour leader’s comments followed a report by The Sunday Times uncovering that vaccine tsar Bingham, married to Conservative minister Jesse Norman, had run up a significant bill on highly-paid relations consultants.
The biochemist appointed by Boris Johnson as chair of the UK vaccine taskforce reportedly “insisted” on hiring a team of eight full-time consultants each being paid the equivalent of £167,000 a year to oversee her media strategy.
Commenting on the news during his LBC phone-in session ‘Call Keir’ this morning, Starmer said: “That can’t be justified… You cannot justify that sort of money being spent.” He remarked that “if only” this was the sole example of such spending by the government.
Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves has asked for a swift investigation, and said over the weekend: “People don’t want to see huge sums of public money needlessly sprayed on spin doctors or management consultants.
“There needs to be a breakdown of this expenditure and proper justification as to how it actually helps the national effort in tackling this pandemic.”
“This really doesn’t do much for public confidence at all that this is yet another close friend of the Conservative Party – there are serious questions to answer about these links and processes around appointments.”
Starmer also addressed questions around Labour antisemitism, the Equality and Human Rights Commission report and the suspension of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, which was been criticised by some figures on the party’s left.
Asked about Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s view of the disciplinary action, Starmer said: “Len McCluskey and I speak, we respect each other, we don’t always agree – and we don’t agree on that [Corbyn’s suspension].
“But I have the advantage with Len McCluskey that I talk to him directly and we have a grown-up relationship where we agree or disagree.” He added: “I like to have a one-to-one relationship where people tell me what they think.”
Asked about the suspension and whether it could be considered ‘political interference’, Starmer said: “It wasn’t a political decision – it was a decision taken by the general secretary. But I’ve not shied away, I completely support that decision.”
Corbyn was suspended from the party after issuing a statement that described “one antisemite” in Labour as “too many” but added that “the scale” of Labour antisemitism was “dramatically overstated for political reasons”.
Local Labour parties have been told by general secretary David Evans that “it is not competent business” for any party units to discuss or pass motions about individual disciplinary cases “in order to protect the integrity of our processes”.
On the Jewish News reporting that Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti is helping to build a case for legal action to challenge Corbyn’s suspension, Starmer told LBC: “I don’t think anybody wants to see yet more legal cases.”
Stressing the need to focus Labour’s time and money on campaigning to win ahead of a bumper set of elections in May 2021, the opposition party leader said: “I will talk to Shami about this when I next speak to her.”
Starmer also said Labour had been “anticipating” the EHRC report, which found the party responsible for unlawful acts, has “done quite a lot of the work already” on its recommendations, and will have the action plan ready on time.
Labour has until December 10th to draft a plan to implement the instructions of the EHRC, including an independent process to handle and determine antisemitism complaints. These are legally enforceable by the court if not fulfilled.