THE Tory government broke the law by appointing Dido Harding to the head of a healthcare body, the High Court has ruled.

Two judges ruled that then health secretary Matt Hancock did not comply with a public sector equality duty when appointing Conservative peer Dido Harding and Mike Coupe, a former colleague of Harding, to posts in 2020.

The High Court also made it clear that the Prime Minister broke the law by appointing Dido Harding as Chair of Test and Trace.

Lord Justice Singh and Justice Swift granted a declaration to the Runnymede Trust on Tuesday after considering arguments at a High Court hearing in December.

Judges concluded that Hancock (below) had not complied with “the public sector equality duty” in relation to the decisions to appoint Harding as interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection in August 2020 and Coupe as director of testing for NHS Test and Trace in September 2020.

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The Runnymede Trust’s lawyers suggested that people “outside the tight circle” in which senior Conservative politicians and their friends moved were not being given opportunities. They said an unfair policy was being challenged.

Campaign group the Good Law Project joined the trust in making complaints – arguing that the Government had not adopted an “open” process when making appointments to posts “critical to the pandemic response” – but their claim was dismissed.

Ministers disputed the claims made against them.

Jason Coppel QC, who led the two organisations’ legal teams, said that the challenge was based on equality legislation and public law.

He said the Government had a “policy or practice” of “making appointments to posts critical to the pandemic response” without adopting any, or any sufficient, “fair or open competitive processes”.

Coppel said people “less likely to be known or connected to decision-makers” were put at a disadvantage.

He also said the Government was failing to offer “remuneration for high-level full-time roles” and “excluding all candidates who were not already wealthy” or held other posts for which they would continue to be paid.

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Dr Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust, said the judgment was “incredibly significant” as it showed the problem with the “closed shop of government appointment”.

Begum went on: “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, whether or not on the basis of their interest in horse racing or the fact that their husband attended Eton. This includes members of our disabled and ethnic minority communities.

“This case should never have required litigation given how self-evident it is that compliance with the law does not allow members of the executive to simply appoint their friends to senior public sector jobs without giving, at a bare minimum, due consideration to the Equality Act.

“In the context of levelling up and the Government’s expressed commitment to race equity, the Court’s judgment that our Prime Minister and then Health Secretary did not appear to think twice about acting without regard to equalities law should be a matter of grave public concern.”

Dido Harding, a former chief executive of the TalkTalk group, is married to Tory MP and former minister John Penrose. She was made a peer by David Cameron in 2014.

Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, said: “Change doesn’t happen, things don’t get better for those who are disadvantaged, unless those in power care.

“That means making sure they ask themselves: ‘how do I level society up for the disabled and ethnic minorities?’ And it means taking the time to find the best people - not the best connected people - for the job.”