Former health secretary Matt Hancock broke equality law when appointing Conservative peer Dido Harding to an emergency health job during the Covid crisis, the High Court has ruled.
Judges ruled that then-health secretary Matt Hancock failed to comply with public sector equality duty in the process of appointing Baroness Harding and her ex-Sainsbury colleague Mike Coupe to senior posts in 2020.
It marks a victory for the Runnymede Trust following the think tank’s legal battle over appointments – having argued that the jobs were handed out without fair competition.
Dr Halima Begum, head of the Runnymede Trust, said it showed the importance of equality law 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.”
Two judges ruled that Mr Hancock broke the law by appointing Baroness Harding as chair of the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) and Mr Coupe as director of testing at Test and Trace.
The High court declared that the ex-health secretary “did not comply with the public sector equality duty in relation to the decisions how to appoint” the two senior officials.
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.”
Lawyers representing Runnymede and the campaign group the Good Law Project suggested that people “outside the tight circle” in which senior Conservatives and their friends moved were not being given opportunities.
The legal team argued in court that people “less likely to be known or connected to decision-makers” were at a disadvantage.
However, the judges dismissed a separate claim by the Good Law Project that the government did not adopt an “open” process when making appointments “critical to the pandemic response”.
And they found that “the evidence provides no support” for the claim that Baroness Harding and Mr Coupe won their appointments due to “personal or political connections with the decision-maker”.
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.”
However, the court did accept the argument that the recruitment process adopted by Boris Johnson’s government ignored the need to eliminate discrimination against the country’s disabled and ethnic minority communities, according to the Good Law Project.
Describing the judgement as a “landmark verdict”, Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, said: “Change doesn’t happen, things don’t get better for those who are disadvantaged, unless those in power care.
He added: “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.”
The Independent has contacted Mr Hancock and the Department of Health and Social Care for a response.