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Government contravened public sector equality duty, High Court says

17 February 2022

The former Health Secretary Matt Hancock broke the law because he ignored the public sector equality duty when recruiting, according to a ruling by the High Court this week.

The case relates to the appointment of Dido Harding and Mike Coupe by Matt Hancock to their senior roles as part of the Government’s response to the COVID 19 pandemic.

The roles, as Head of the National Institute for Health Protection (which became known as the UK Health Security Agency) and Director of Testing at NHS Test and Trace respectively, should have been recruited with the public sector equality duty in mind, according to the ruling.

The Government used a closed appointment process for the roles and could not demonstrate that it had considered the provisions under the Equality Act designed to ensure that people from protected groups are treated fairly.   This led to a breach of the public sector equality duty, which places additional responsibilities on publicly-funded organisations to promote equality of opportunity for groups such as Disabled people and Black and minority ethnic groups.

The case was brought by the racial equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, and the Good Law Project, which aims to use the law to challenge abuses of power. Speaking to The Independent, Dr Halima Begum from The Runnymede Trust said: “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.”

According to the Good Law Project, the Government failed to follow its own guidance, which requires ministers to consider how discrimination law will be complied with.

Kamran Mallick, Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK added: “The public sector equality duty is a key tool in levelling up the playing field when it comes to creating opportunities for Disabled people, in employment and elsewhere. It is enshrined in legislation – it is not an optional extra. We hope the Government will take their responsibilities under the duty more seriously in the future. To do otherwise leads to unnecessary court battles as well as harming the rights of Disabled people.”