A step in the right direction for equality and levelling up
In a landmark moment today, the High Court issued a judgment in favour of the Runnymede Trust, confirming that the government acted illegally in appointing Baroness Dido Harding and Mr Mike Coupe to top jobs in the national emergency response to the pandemic, without competition.
The High Court found that former Health Secretary Matt Hancock broke the law by appointing Baroness Harding as Chair of the National Institute for Health Protection and Mike Coupe as Director of Testing.
Both appointments were found to have breached the Public Sector Equality Duty under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. This legislation exists to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity in the United Kingdom. The High Court accepted the argument put forward by the Runnymede Trust that recruitment processes favouring friends, relatives and associates of senior members of government ignored effects on the country’s ethnic minority and disabled communities.
The Runnymede Trust was moved to join this Judicial Review at the peak of the pandemic when disabled, Black and minority ethnic citizens were dying disportionately from Covid. It seemed logical and indeed imperative that those appointed to help lead the nation out of the pandemic were the best candidates for the job or, at a bare minimum, extensively experienced and fully qualified in the area of public health. Neither Baroness Harding nor Mr Coupe is medically trained. Neither has a lifetime of public administration under their belt. It should not be acceptable to drop our standards during complex health emergencies when countless lives are at stake, in particular the lives of some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens. This is when the rule of law most needs to be upheld. This is why the rule of law exists.
With the correct application of equalities law, our Government has the potential to exercise a positive and transformative effect in its mission to level up society. This judgement sends a strong message to the Government that it needs 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.
Henceforth, handing out vital public sector contracts to friends, relatives and associates - whether employment contracts or commercial - is simply not good enough. Indeed, today’s judgement from the High Court would suggest that should our politicians persist in this practice while disregarding equalities legislation, they would feasibly face accusations of misconduct in public office.
The Runnymede Trust would like to thank each and every one of our friends who has supported us through these challenging times. Over the last year the Trust has worked hard to bring government closer to an understanding of racism and discrimination shared by a broad swathe of the country. It has on occasions been a daunting task, including our participation in these proceedings, which we did not embark on lightly.
While we welcome being challenged in our work, as a charity we feel that we were subjected to behaviours that often felt intimidating and inappropriate, whether or not intended to silence the voice of ethnic minority communities in their stand against racism. Our staff also faced previously unknown pressures to justify their work around equality. To level up society we cannot downplay the severity of structural racism in Britain, or disregard equalities legislation. As Covid painfully pointed out, it is precisely because inequalities are systemic that, when a crisis hits, certain communities are impacted first, the hardest and in multiple ways. We hope that in the future the government will comply with equalities legislation, and that we can work together and continue to support all parties in the fight against racism and inequality - as the Runnymede Trust has done for almost sixty years.
Dr Halima Begum
Sir Clive Jones CBE
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