Matt Hancock broke the law over appointments, High Court rules

Matt Hancock broke the law when he gave Conservative peer Baroness Dido Harding and ex-Sainsbury colleague Mike Coupe senior posts in Covid response, High Court finds

Matt Hancock broke the law by appointing two insiders to senior public health posts without any proper competition, the High Court ruled today. 

Two judges found the former health secretary did not comply with a public sector equality duty when appointing Conservative peer Baroness Dido Harding and her former Sainsbury’s colleague Mike Coupe to top positions in 2020.

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

Campaign group the Good Law Project joined the trust in making complaints – arguing that the Government had not adopted an ‘open’ process when making appointments to posts ‘critical to the pandemic response’ – but their claim was dismissed.

Mr Hancock with his new partner Gina Coladangelo speaking to Steven Bartlett’s The Diary Of A CEO podcast 

Judges concluded that Mr Hancock had not complied with ‘the public sector equality duty’ in relation to the decisions to appoint Baroness Harding as interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection in August 2020 and Mr Coupe as director of testing for NHS Test and Trace in September 2020.

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

They said an unfair policy was being challenged.

Ministers disputed the claims made against them.

Jason Coppel QC, who led the two organisations’ legal teams, told Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Swift that the challenge was based on equality legislation and public law.

He said the Government had a ‘policy or practice’ of ‘making appointments to posts critical to the pandemic response’ without adopting any, or any sufficient, ‘fair or open competitive processes’.

Mr Coppel said people ‘less likely to be known or connected to decision-makers’ were put at a disadvantage.

He also said the Government was failing to offer ‘remuneration for high-level full-time roles’ and ‘excluding all candidates who were not already wealthy’ or held other posts for which they would continue to be paid.

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.’  

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.’ 

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