'Female champion' Hewitt discriminated against man

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Career sexism that stops women "achieving their full potential" is something that the former trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt fought hard against.

But it seems that her fight against sexism also includes discriminating positively towards women. Yesterday, it emerged she was found guilty of overlooking a strong male candidate for a job in favour of a weaker female applicant.

In a ground-breaking High Court case, the current Health Secretary admitted overlooking Malcolm Hanney, a respected international banker and "much the strongest candidate" for the role in favour of a lesser candidate ranked third in line for the job.

Mrs Hewitt and the DTI were found to have breached the Sex Discrimination Act and were ordered to pay £18,000 costs.

Mr Hanney had applied for a £9,000-a-year position on the board of the South West Regional Development Agency (RDA).

With a glowing endorsement from the interview panel, and experience as an executive councillor and chairman of his local primary care trust, the South West Regional Assembly and the South West Local Government Association, he expected to be appointed.

But after the interview at the RDA's headquarters in Exeter, Devon, last year, he was told Christine Channon, a county councillor, was the successful candidate.

Mr Hanney used the Freedom of Information Act to access the interviewers' notes, which included comments such as "Malcolm Hanney, much the strongest candidate" and described him as the "clear favourite". The notes concluded the panel "agreed to appoint Malcolm Hanney".

But the ultimate decision was left to Patricia Hewitt, who was in charge of sex discrimination laws as minister for women and equality. She appointed Christine Channon, who was placed third in line by the RDA.

Mr Hanney filed a complaint to the Commissioner for Public Appointments and launched an £18,000 judicial review to overturn the appointment of Ms Channon.

On 27 September, the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court ruled the Secretary of State should pay the costs of £17,967.17. It said the non-appointment of Mr Hanney was "in breach of the code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies" and "was unlawful sex discrimination". A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said: "The DTI fully accepts the commissioner's findings that we misunderstood certain provisions in the code. The Permanent Secretary has written to apologise to Mr Hanney. The department will pick up costs. Processes have changed to ensure this does not happen again."

Mr Hanney said: "I think if you are the minister for equality, it is important you understand the law. This was clearly a ministerial decision made in the full knowledge of who was the best candidate and cannot be blamed on civil servants."

Despite Mr Hanney's victory, Christine Channon's appointment has not been overturned. It was a matter of principle," he said. "There had been a breach of sex discrimination legislation and the Secretary of State was not admitting that there had been a breach.

"If you are in public life, like me, you have a duty to say when things are wrong."

Mr Hanney only made the ruling public after the money had been paid into his lawyer's account, and said that he hoped lessons were learnt.

Christine Channon yesterday said that the ruling "did not affect her role" on the South West RDA.