The UK government acted unlawfully and breached equality rules in appointing Baroness Dido Harding and businessman Mike Coupe to top jobs in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the High Court ruled on Tuesday.
Two judges found that the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, did not comply with public sector equality duties in the government’s decisions to appoint Harding as interim chair of the National Institute for Health Protection in August 2020, and Coupe as director of testing for NHS Track and Trace in September 2020.
The court ruling followed a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project, a campaign group, and the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think-tank, who had raised concerns that individuals with political links to the government were appointed to key positions during the pandemic.
The groups claimed that the recruitment process was not “fair and open” and ignored the government’s public sector equality duty, which requires it to eliminate discrimination and ensure fair access to opportunities.
Harding, the former chief executive of TalkTalk, is a Conservative peer who is married to Tory MP John Penrose and worked with Coupe when they were both at J Sainsbury, the supermarket.
The High Court ruled that the government breached its public sector equality duty because the secretary of state did not properly consider the equality obligations when deciding what method of appointment should be adopted in the appointments of Harding and Coupe.
However, the judges only upheld part of the complaint made by the Runnymede Trust and dismissed other claims of indirect discrimination from the Good Law Project.
The High Court said the government needed to provide evidence about what it had done to discharge its equality obligations when deciding the process by which each appointment was made.
“We have considered with care the evidence filed on behalf of the defendants and cannot find any such evidence,” Mr Justice Jonathan Swift and Lord Justice Rabinder Singh said in their decision.
The court ruled that part of the lawsuit relating to the appointment of Harding as head of Track and Trace in May 2020 had been brought too late in the legal process and so did not succeed.
They noted there was also a lack of evidence about the government’s appointment process. “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,” the ruling says.
The Runnymede Trust said the ruling sent a “strong message” to the government that it needed to take its obligations to reduce inequality “far more seriously”.
“It also serves as an unequivocal reminder that all future public appointments must give due consideration to equalities legislation,” the trust said.
A spokesperson for Hancock said: “The court judgment also states that ‘the evidence provides no support . . . at all’ for the allegation that Dido Harding secured senior positions on the basis of ‘personal or political connections’ in the government.”
“They [judges] accept these ‘were urgent recruitment processes which needed to find highly specialised, experienced and available candidates within a short space of time.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.