The government acted illegally when it awarded a no-bid contract last March to a survey company owned by friends of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s then-senior adviser, a judge ruled.
Judge O’Farrell, who ruled on the Cabinet Office contract with Public First, said: “The June 5, 2020 decision to award the contract to Public First resulted in apparent bias and was illegal”.
The ruling is the first in a series of legal appeals for judicial review filed by the Good Law Project (GLP) against Covid-19 government contracts awarded without competitive bids under emergency regulations.
The government has defended the cases with determination, initially trying but not getting it dismissed, then refusing to limit its costs. That has put GLP, a nonprofit organization that raises money through crowdfunding to support its mission declared to “use the law to protect the interests of the public,” at serious financial risk if you lose and have to pay government costs.
In February, the Government Legal Department notified GLP that its costs to defend the challenge to Public First’s award could reach £ 600,000, more than the value of the contract.
Public First is led by husband and wife policy specialists James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who previously worked with Cummings and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove. He was initially awarded a contract with the Cabinet Office last January, having been recommended to public officials by Cummings and three other senior Johnson officials.
He held focus groups with mostly new Tory voters in northern cities on what the promise of “leveling up” government meant to them. When the pandemic struck, Cummings urged public officials to hire Public First to conduct focus groups on the government’s Covid-19 health messages.
The first contract, for £ 90,000, was below the threshold at which an open public tender is legally required. Internal emails released for the legal action revealed that a Cabinet Office official had described that work as “the conservative party’s investigative agency tests the conservative party’s narrative on public money.” The official said in a witness statement that she did not mean it.
The second Covid-19 contract was for a maximum of £ 840,000, but was awarded under regulations exempting the requirements for a tender due to the coronavirus emergency. Public First was eventually paid £ 564,393 for that job. The contract also included the secondment of a Public First partner, Gabriel Milland, to work on the Downing Street Covid-19 communications operation.
When The Guardian and OpenDemocracy first revealed the contract last July, the Cabinet Office said it was “foolish” to suggest that Frayne and Wolf’s long association with Cummings was a factor in the decision. However, when the case reached a hearing in February, Cummings confirmed in an eyewitness statement that Frayne and Wolf were his longtime friends, and that he had been instrumental in getting Public First the Covid-19 work.
Cummings said she hadn’t asked to be brought in because they were her friends, but because she believed, due to her knowledge of the company, that she was the only one capable of getting the job done right in such a short time. “Very few companies in this field are competent,” said Cummings, “almost none are very competent, honest and trustworthy.”
GLP argued to O’Farrell that the Cabinet Office acted illegally, with “apparent bias”, in awarding the contract. The government denied that, saying that the “past professional connection” between Cummings and the owners of Public First “simply allowed for a better judgment as to whether Public First was really the best / only appropriate body to perform services as needed.”
Frayne has also said that Public First had particular expertise to get the job done. However, Jan Gooding, president of the Market Research Society, said in an eyewitness statement that she was “extremely concerned” by Cummings’ comments about companies in the field, adding that there were many award-winning companies that were well rated. to meet this requirement. contract.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism