Campaign group says more pandemic contract challenges in the offing

A campaign group which has won a High Court fight over a Government decision to award a pandemic contract to a market research firm says it will mount more legal challenges.

The Good Law Project said a judge’s ruling over the award of a contract to a company whose bosses were friends of adviser Dominic Cummings vindicated its characterisation of Government pandemic procurement as “institutionalised cronyism”.

A spokeswoman said the campaign group had a “long slate of crowdfunded procurement judicial reviews” and more challenges were in the offing.

Mrs Justice O’Farrell on Wednesday upheld a challenge by the Good Law Project and ruled that a decision to award a contract to market research firm Public First gave rise to “apparent bias” and was unlawful.

The Good Law Project, which had taken legal action against Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, said the Government should learn lessons and “stop wasting” public money.

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Lawyers representing the Good Law Project had complained about a Cabinet Office decision to pay more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to Public First, following the start of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020, and questioned the involvement of Mr Cummings.

They said Mr Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s then-chief adviser, wanted focus group and communications support services work to be given to a company whose bosses were his friends.

Mr Gove and Mr Cummings – who left Downing Street late in 2020 – disputed the Good Law Project’s claim.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said Mr Gove “had no involvement” in the award of the contract

Mrs Justice O’Farrell made a ruling in favour of the Good Law Project and said there had been a “failure to consider any other research agency”.

The judge, who is based in London, considered rival arguments at a virtual High Court hearing in February and delivered a ruling on Wednesday.

She said a fair-minded and informed observer would have appreciated that there was an urgent need for research through focus groups on effective communications in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

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The judge also said a fair-minded and informed observer would have appreciated that Mr Cummings was “uniquely placed”, given his experience and expertise, to form a rapid view on which organisation might best be able to deliver those “urgent requirements”.

She said Mr Cummings’ professional and personal connections with Public First did not preclude him from making an impartial assessment “in this regard”.

But she added: “However, the defendant’s failure to consider any other research agency, by reference to experience, expertise, availability or capacity, would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision-maker was biased.”

She said the Good Law Project was entitled to a declaration that the decision, taken on June 5, 2020, to award the contract to Public First “gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful”.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

“Michael Gove had claimed that the work was such that only Public First could carry it out,” said a spokeswoman for the Good Law Project.

“However, the High Court rejected that version of events. The simple truth, it held, was that the Cabinet Office didn’t even consider whether anyone else should have the contract.

“The decision vindicates Good Law Project’s long-running characterisation of pandemic procurement as ‘institutionalised cronyism’.”

Mr Gove, who is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as well as minister for the Cabinet Office, had not appeared at the trial in February.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said: “The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had no involvement in the award of the contract.”

He said: “We welcome the court’s ruling that we were entitled to award the contract on grounds of extreme urgency in response to an unprecedented global pandemic.

“The judge recognised the very complex circumstances at the height of the pandemic and that failure to provide effective communications would have put public health at risk.

“The judgment makes clear that there was no suggestion of actual bias and that the decision to award the contract was not due to any personal or professional connections.”

In February, a judge had ruled that Health Secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully when his department did not reveal details of contracts signed during the Covid pandemic, after a Good Law Project challenge.

The Good Law Project spokeswoman added: “This is the second decision in Good Law Project’s long slate of crowdfunded procurement judicial reviews – and Good Law Project has succeeded in both.

“Two Cabinet ministers – Michael Gove and Matt Hancock – have now been found to have broken the law.”

Mr Cummings, who did not give evidence at the hearing but outlined his position in a written witness statement, had said he “obviously” did not ask for Public First to be brought in because they were friends.