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Court Finds Matt Hancock Broke Equality Rules During Pandemic By Hiring Dido Harding

3 min read

Two judges have found that Matt Hancock broke public appointment rules when he appointed Dido Harding to a senior role as part of the government’s early pandemic response.

It was ruled that the then-health secretary did not comply with a public sector equality duty when Baroness Harding, a Conservative peer, was made interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection in August 2020.

Justice Singh and Mr Justice Swift granted a declaration to the Runnymede Trust think tank this morning, which also relates to Harding’s former colleague Mike Coupe’s appointment as director of testing for NHS Test and Trace the following month.

The high court judgment on the two senior officials said: “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.”

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”.

“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,” she added. 

But the judges dismissed a separate claim by the Good Law Project, who argued the government did not adopt an “open” process when making appointments “critical to the pandemic response”.

They found “the evidence provides no support” for the claim Harding and Coupe won their appointments due to “personal or political connections with the decision-maker”.

The ruling states: “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.”

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the ruling showed the government “failed in their duties to those from disabled and Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities”, saying it was “always the public who pay the price for Tory sleaze”.

She added: "We need to see the public inquiry into Covid begin right now, with Terms of Reference that will allow them to uncover exactly how this government made decisions in a national emergency."

A spokesperson for Hancock declined to comment on the ruling upheld by the Runnymede Trust, instead focussing on the quashed claim by the Good Law Project, and accused the group of wasting court time. 

They highlighted that the court judgment found no evidence to support the allegation that Harding secured senior positions on the basis of “personal or political connections” within government.

A government spokesperson also focused on the dismissal of the Good Law Project claim, which the judges said "fails in its entirety", but not the ruling that the appointments failed to comply with the public sector equality duty.

They added: “We used the skills and expertise of both the public and private sector to rapidly build a world-leading testing infrastructure, speeding up the delivery of tests and ultimately saving more lives, especially amongst the most vulnerable.”

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