The government broke the law by handing a coronavirus contract to an associate of ministers and the prime minister’s former chief aide, a judge has ruled.
In a judgment on Wednesday, the High Court deemed the awarding of the £560,000 arrangement to communications agency Public First, which has connections with cabinet minister Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, was “unlawful”.
The case also concluded that there was “an apparent bias” surrounding the agreement.
It was brought forward by The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign organisation, who questioned the decision to pay the large sum of taxpayers’ money to the firm following the start of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020.
They also questioned the role of the PM’s former chief adviser Mr Cummings in the awarding of the agreement.
A government source said: “The communications messages ultimately saved lives. They are such an important tool in a pandemic because they influence public behaviour, and this work helped formulate our message.”
Ministers had previous disputed the Good Law Project’s claim, saying that Mr Cummings – who left his Downing Street position in late 2020 – had made a recommendation regarding the agency, not a decision.
They said Mr Cummings recommended a firm he knew could fulfil the brief and called for the case to be dismissed.
The judgment states: “The claimant [The Good Law Project] is entitled to a declaration that the Decision of 5 June 2020 to award the Contract to Public First gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful.
“Following hand down of this judgment, the hearing will be adjourned to a date to be fixed for the purpose of any consequential matters, including any applications for permission to appeal, and any time limits are extended until such hearing or further order.”
The Good Law Project’s representative, Barrister Jason Coppel QC, said: “Public First was awarded this contract because Dominic Cummings wanted Public First to have this contract.”
Mr Coppel also suggested Cabinet Office minister Mr Gove had connections to the owners of Public First, Rachel Wolfe and James Frayne.
Michael Bowsher QC, part of the Cabinet Office legal team, said Mr Gove had “professional and personal” connections with Ms Wolfe and Mr Frayne but denied the contract awarded to Public First was made on the basis of this.
He added that the Cabinet Office minister did not have any involvement in the decision or influence it in any way.
The government won two out of the three grounds which related to how the contract was awarded and the length of the contract, but lost on “apparent bias”.
A spokesman for Public First said: “The judge made no criticism whatsoever of Public First anywhere in the judgment.”
Mr Cummings did not give evidence at the hearing but outlined his position in a written witness statement which was handed to the judge.
He said ministers had to act speedily in the awarding of contracts due to the severity of the pandemic, and due to this, the agreement was “entirely justified”.
Responding to the judgment, Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: “This is not government for the public good – it is Government for the good of friends of the Conservative Party.
“We just don’t understand how the prime minister can run a Cabinet that acts without proper regard for the law or value for public money.
“Government has claimed there was no favouritism in the awarding of contracts. But the High Court has held an informed observer would conclude otherwise.”
A spokesman for Public First said: “We’re deeply proud of the work we did in the early stages of the pandemic, which helped save lives.
“The judge rejected most of the Good Law Project’s claims, not finding actual bias in the awarding of this work, nor any problems with the pace or scale of the award.
“Rather, the judge found that weak internal processes gave rise to the appearance of bias.”
In December 2020, the government published two reports by Nigel Boardman into procurement activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministers have adopted the recommendations Mr Boardman made in the reports.