Government goes to court to defend contract handed to company with links to Dominic Cummings

High Court will hear from Mr Cummings and Lee Cain as campaigners say contract was unlawful

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 13 February 2021 19:32 GMT
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Public First is a small private polling company; its directors and owners are Rachel Wolf and James Frayne, two friends of Mr Gove and Mr Cummings (above)
Public First is a small private polling company; its directors and owners are Rachel Wolf and James Frayne, two friends of Mr Gove and Mr Cummings (above) (Getty)

The government will go to court on Monday to defend a legal challenge against a contract awarded without competition to a company with links to Dominic Cummings.

In March last year Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office handed Public First around a quarter of a million pounds for public relations and opinion research during the first lockdown.

The contract, which campaigners allege was awarded “on a handshake” in March and only formalised retrospectively, was given to the company without a formal tendering process or advertisement. 

The Good Law project, a not-for-profit crowdfunded legal campaign, launched a legal challenge to the contract last summer, and fended off attempts by the government to have the judicial review dismissed.

It will now be heard at the High Court on Monday, with witness statements expects from Mr Cummings himself and another ex-No 10 adviser Lee Cain. 

Public First is a small private polling company; its directors and owners are Rachel Wolf and James Frayne, two friends of Mr Gove and Mr Cummings.

The legal campaigners want the contract to be declared unlawful, which it says will “ensure that proper procurement practices are adopted in the future, protecting public funds and guarding against cronyism”.

The government reportedly plans to claim £500,000-£600,000 in costs for the single-day hearing.

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of Good Law Project, said: “Government has in-house solicitors and can employ barristers at low rates but here money has been no object. 

“A specialist public law QC told us in writing: ‘It’s an extraordinary approach; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a similar approach from [the government legal department] in any other case I’ve done for or against a government department.’ 

We are determined the truth should see the light of day on Monday

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project

“Such costs have a deterrent effect, to scare people off challenging them in the courts. We are determined the truth should see the light of day on Monday.”

A damning report by the National Audit Office released in November last year found that politically connected firms had been given priority access to contracts during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government says its procurement regulations allow for services to be awarded in “circumstances of extreme emergency”.

It says Michael Gove had no involvement in the awarding of the contract but that the government is “committed to learning lessons” of recent criticism of contract awards. 

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “In response to an unprecedented global pandemic the government acted quickly to ensure we quickly understood public attitudes and behaviours.

“This valuable work helped to improve vitally important public health messages, better inform the public and reach audiences.”

Asked about the case, James Frayne, the Director of Public First, said: “I’ve had no contact of any description with Dominic Cummings for nearly five years and have met Lee Cain twice in my life, neither time to talk Covid. Rachel Wolf doesn't do opinion research and therefore didn't speak to anyone about Covid research.

“It was natural for the government to turn to us in an emergency. We were already doing work for the Cabinet Office and have very rare expertise in both opinion research and public policy. We helped radically improve government communications in an historic crisis.”

The government legal department declined to comment on the hearing, citing the commencement of legal proceedings. 

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