Matt Hancock broke the law by appointing Tory peer Dido Harding to lead a new public health body, the high court has ruled.
Two judges have ruled that the former health secretary did not comply with public sector equality duty in appointing Harding and Mike Coupe, her ex-Sainsbury colleague, to senior positions in 2020.
Dr Halima Begum, the head of the Runnymede Trust, said the ruling showed the significance of public sector equality laws in protecting people “from the closed shop of government appointments”.
She added: “Across the country, there are countless talented and well qualified public health specialists and administrators who could have successfully fulfilled the roles handed to Baroness Harding and Mr Coupe.”
Personal and political connections
The court ruled that Hancock broke the law by appointing Harding as chair of the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), and Coupe as director of testing at Test and Trace.
It declared that the disgraced former health secretary “did not comply with the public sector equality duty in relations to the decisions” to appoint the pair.
The judgement added: “There is no evidence from anyone saying exactly what was done to comply with the public sector equality duty when decisions were taken on how each appointment was to be made.”
But the judges dismissed a separate claim by legal campaign group the Good Law Project, which partnered with Runnymede in the case, that the government did not adopt an “open” process when making appointments “critical to the pandemic response”.
They also found that “the evidence provides no support” for the claim that Harding and Coupe were appointed because of “personal or political connections”.
The ruling stated: “Baroness Harding had previous relevant experience of senior positions in large retail businesses and in the NHS. Mr Coupe had vast experience of managing complex public-facing organisations.”
Begum and Maugham respond
Dr Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust, said: “The judgement handed down today by the High Court is incredibly significant to the British people. 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.
“Across the country, there are countless talented and well qualified public health specialists and administrators who could have successfully fulfilled the roles handed to Baroness Harding and Mr Coupe, whether or not on the basis of their interest in horse racing or the fact that their husband attended Eton. This includes members of our disabled and ethnic minority communities.
“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. In the context of levelling up and the government’s expressed commitment to race equity, the Court’s judgement that our Prime Minister and then Health Secretary did not appear to think twice about acting without regard to equalities law should be a matter of grave public concern.”
Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, added: “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.”