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Matt Hancock breached equality law over Dido Harding appointment, court rules

The U.K.’s former health secretary failed to comply with equality duties in appointing Dido Harding, a Conservative party peer, to a senior position during the pandemic, the High Court ruled Tuesday.

Matt Hancock breached public sector equality duty in appointing Harding as interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection and in appointing Mike Coupe as director of testing at NHS Test and Trace.

The judicial review was brought by Runnymede Trust, an independent race equality think tank and the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit legal campaign group.

While the court ruled that the Good Law Project did not have standing to bring the case, it found that Runnymede did on one out of three counts.

The court ruled that the appointment decisions themselves were not amenable to a judicial review and therefore Runnymede had no standing to challenge them, but that Runnymede could challenge the process leading up to the two decisions.

On this count, the court found Hancock breached the public sector equality duty, legislation designed to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity. While the ruling does not foresee any penalties, it amounts to a call for the government to tighten up its hiring policies for senior posts, the Good Law Project said.

The court accepted the arguments made by Runnymede that the recruitment process “ignored the need to eliminate discrimination against the country’s disabled and ethnic minority communities, and to ensure they have equality of opportunity,” the Good Law Project said.

“This judgment sends a strong message to the government that it needs to take its obligations to reduce inequality far more seriously,” wrote Halima Begum, Runnymede chief executive and Clive Jones, chair of Runnymede’s board of trustees, in a statement.

“It also serves as an unequivocal reminder that all future public appointments must give due consideration to equalities legislation.”

Harding, a former chief executive of the telecom group TalkTalk, was head of the NHS Test and Trace until April 2021. She is married to Tory MP John Penrose.

A spokesperson for Hancock said: “Claims of ‘apparent bias’ and ‘indirect discrimination’ have been quashed and thrown out by the High Court,” and added that the judgment noted “the claim brought by Good Law Project fails in its entirety.”

“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,” the spokesperson said. He underlined that the court accepted these “were urgent recruitment processes.”

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