An independent think tank has won a High Court fight over Government appointments made during the pandemic.
Two judges have ruled that then health secretary Matt Hancock 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.
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.
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 (NIHP) in August 2020 and Mr Coupe as director of testing for NHS Test and Trace (NHSTT) in September 2020.
Lawyers representing the two organizations 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.
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.”
Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, an independent race equality think tank, said after the ruling: “The judgment 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.”
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.”