Matt Hancock failed to comply with equality duty in making pandemic appointments, High Court

A ruling that former health secretary Matt Hancock did not comply with a public sector equality duty when making appointments during the pandemic is “incredibly significant”, according to a think tank boss.

The Runnymede Trust, an independent race equality think tank, won a High Court fight after complaining about Government appointments made during the pandemic.

Two judges ruled Mr Hancock (pictured) did not comply with a public sector equality duty when appointing Conservative peer Baroness Dido Harding and Mike Coupe, a former colleague of Baroness Harding, to posts in 2020.

Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Swift granted a declaration to the Runnymede Trust on Tuesday after considering arguments at a High Court hearing in December.

Judges concluded Mr Hancock had not complied with “the public sector equality duty” in relation to the decisions to appoint Baroness Harding as interim executive chairwoman of the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) in August 2020, and Mr Coupe as director of testing for NHS Test and Trace (NHSTT) in September 2020.

“The judgment handed down today by the High Court is incredibly significant to the British people,” said Dr Halima Begum, the trust’s chief executive.

“It shows the importance of the public sector equality duty and its role in protecting the people of this nation from the closed shop of Government appointments, not least in a time of national crisis where people from our minority communities were dying from Covid in hugely disproportionate numbers.

“This case should never have required litigation given how self-evident it is that compliance with the law does not allow members of the executive to simply appoint their friends to senior public sector jobs without giving, at a bare minimum, due consideration to the Equality Act.”

Campaign group the Good Law Project took legal action alongside the trust, against Mr Hancock and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the former health secretary said he was delighted to have won on that part of the case.

The Good Law Project complained about other appointments and argued the Government had not adopted an “open” process when making appointments to posts “critical to the pandemic response”, but judges dismissed the claim.

Lawyers representing the two organisations suggested people “outside the tight circle” in which senior Conservative politicians and their friends moved were not being given opportunities.

Ministers disputed the claims against them.

Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Swift said in a written ruling: “It is the process leading up to the two decisions which has been found by this court to be in breach of the public sector equality duty.

“For those reasons we will grant a declaration to the Runnymede Trust that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care did not comply with the public sector equality duty in relation to the decisions how to appoint Baroness Harding as interim executive chair of the NIHP in August 2020 and Mr Coupe as director of testing for NHSTT in September 2020.”

A spokesman for Mr Hancock said: “Claims of ‘apparent bias’ and ‘indirect discrimination’ have been quashed and thrown out by the High Court.

“What the judgment does make clear is that ‘the claim brought by Good Law Project fails in its entirety’, therefore highlighting the fact this group continues to waste the court’s time.

“The court judgment also states that ‘the evidence provides no support… at all’ for the allegation that Dido Harding secured senior positions on the basis of ‘personal or political connections’ in the Government.

“They accept these ‘were urgent recruitment processes which needed to find highly specialised, experienced and available candidates within a short space of time’.

“Let’s not forget, we were dealing with an unprecedented global pandemic, where time was of the essence in order to protect and save lives.”

Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: “Change doesn’t happen, things don’t get better for those who are disadvantaged, unless those in power care.

“That means making sure they ask themselves ‘How do I level society up for the disabled and ethnic minorities?’

“And it means taking the time to find the best people – not the best-connected people – for the job.”

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