Dominic Cummings was instrumental in the method of awarding a authorities contract with out tender to an organization run by his “friends”, in accordance to courtroom paperwork that increase questions on whether or not the Cabinet Office could have misled the general public.
The paperwork reveal the central role the prime minister’s former chief adviser performed in the awarding of the contract to Public First, a analysis firm owned and run by two of his longstanding associates.
Public First was paid £564,393 to analysis the general public’s understanding of the coronavirus and the federal government’s messaging across the pandemic, and one in every of its companions was seconded to work in Downing Street.
The firm is run by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who’re each former colleagues of Cummings and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove. In 2019 Wolf co-wrote the Conservative get together’s normal election manifesto.
When the Guardian and openDemocracy first revealed in July final yr that Public First had been awarded a contract with out tender, the Cabinet Office mentioned in an announcement it was “nonsense” to recommend the house owners’ lengthy associations with Cummings and Gove have been an element in the choice to award it a contract.
However, in a witness assertion submitted to the excessive courtroom on Monday as a part of a judicial assessment of the award, Cummings described himself because the “driving decision-maker” behind the federal government’s choice to conduct extra focus teams and rent Public First, and mentioned his religion in the corporate was based mostly on his intensive expertise working with its employees.
Cummings described Frayne and Wolf as his “friends”, however added: “Obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends. I would never do such a thing.” He mentioned he “requested” civil servants rent the firm as a result of, in his expertise, it was the one firm with the experience to perform the required focus teams urgently.
“The fact that I knew the key Public First people well was a bonus, not a problem,” he mentioned, “as in such a high pressure environment trust is very important, as well as technical competence.”
Cummings mentioned he knew the standard of the corporate’s work and “I knew they would give us honest information unlike many companies in this sector”.
“I am a special adviser and as such I am not allowed to direct civil servants,” he added. “However, as a result of my suggestion I expected people to hire Public First. The nature of my role is that sometimes people take what I say as an instruction and that is a reasonable inference as people assume I am often speaking for the prime minister.”
Cummings mentioned he had not met Frayne since 2016 and had no involvement in the contractual preparations with Public First or the corporate’s remuneration.
The courtroom paperwork included an electronic mail trade between civil servants in the Cabinet Office in March, questioning the impartiality of Public First’s work. One mentioned: “I know they’re not going to go away, but I have genuine concerns about the way in which they MIGHT be spinning stuff coming out of focus groups – way, way too close to No10 to be objective.”
Her colleague agreed, saying she was considering of limiting the corporate’s work to testing opinion on Johnson’s messages, and having one other firm, Jigsaw, do focus teams with older and weak audiences.
, head of perception and analysis on the Cabinet Office and the prime minister’s workplace, described Public First in inner communications as “mates” of Cummings and of Boris Johnson’s then head of communications, Lee Cain, “hence getting all our work with no contract”.
In a witness assertion, the official mentioned the e-mail to colleagues was meant as a joke in an effort to guarantee overdue invoices have been paid to the corporate, and it “was not true” that Public First was given the work with no contract due to relationships with Cain and Cummings.
Jason Coppel QC, representing the Good Law Project, the not-for-profit marketing campaign group that introduced the judicial assessment, referred to one other inner message from the top of perception and analysis on the Cabinet Office. Sent in January, it associated to a earlier appointment of Public First for work unrelated to the pandemic. In that message, the official referred to Public First as “Tory party research agency tests Tory party narrative on public money”.
Coppel mentioned that confirmed senior civil servants had “deep misgivings” concerning the contract. However, in her witness assertion, the official pointed to the remainder of her message, which mentioned “but actually, it will be very interesting and very good”. She mentioned her reference was “meant to be frivolous and lighthearted,” and he or she didn’t regard Public First as a “Tory party research agency”.
In its authorized case, the Good Law Project argues that the Cabinet Office acted with “apparent bias”, provided that the contract was straight awarded with out competitors, and Frayne and Wolf’s work with Gove and Cummings at totally different occasions over a few years.
The Cabinet Office’s authorized case makes a advantage of earlier relationships with Public First, saying Cummings wished Gabriel Milland, a Public First accomplice, to be seconded to Downing Street as a result of he had labored with him beforehand “and had a high regard of his abilities, expertise and experience”.
The authorities argued that Gove’s and Cummings’ relationships with the Public First companions meant they knew the standard of their work, and denied it confirmed “bias” in appointing the corporate. “On the contrary, past professional connection simply enabled a better judgment to be reached about whether Public First were indeed the best/only suitable body to perform the services as needed,” its defence states.
The Public First contract was not put out to competitive tender below emergency rules that waived regular procurement procedures owing to the pandemic.
Frayne has said Public First was “the obvious choice” to run the federal government focus teams, because it was “one of a tiny number of agencies that could meet this demand”, and was chosen due to its experience and talent to work at unusually brief discover. The firm was already doing analysis for the federal government in February earlier than it was requested to conduct greater than 100 focus teams throughout the nation relating to Covid-19, specialising in researching “hard to reach” communities.
There is not any proof to recommend that Gove was concerned in the method to award the contract. The Cabinet Office didn’t reply straight to a query about whether or not its assertion to the Guardian in July misled the general public.
Asked at the moment whether or not the very fact Frayne and Wolf have been “longstanding close associates” of Cummings and Gove had been “a factor” in the choice to award the contact, the Cabinet Office strongly rebuffed the suggestion.
“This is nonsense,” it mentioned in its July assertion. “Public First were contracted to undertake this work because of their wealth of experience in the area. We have a number of suppliers for work on government research, of which Public First is just one.”
The decide, Mrs Justice O’Farrell, will decide the judicial assessment case following the one-day listening to of each side’ arguments.