David ConnMon, 15 February 2021, 7:15 pm
In the terrifying, unprecedented onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it did not make headline news that the government had suspended normal tendering processes for its spending of public money.
There were then delays in publishing many of the new multi-million-pound contracts, for test and trace, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other services. But as the contracts were published, the number of questions about which companies were winning work and why quickly grew.
Reporters, including at the Guardian, soon discovered numerous companies with links to Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and other senior Tories that had been granted emergency contracts for government work.
It gave rise to the suspicion – denied by the government and the companies that benefited from its rapid spending – of a “chumocracy” in which contracts bypassing the tendering process went to firms with friends in high places.
Late last year it emerged that the government had created a “high priority lane” for PPE companies referred by an MP, peer or government official. The existence of this route was first revealed by Jolyon Maugham QC, of the Good Law Project (GLP), who was leaked government documents, calling it “the VIP lane”.
Maugham and the GLP, a not-for-profit organisation financed by crowdfunding that describes its mission as achieving progressive change through the law, has been challenging some contracts with judicial reviews, alleging their award was improper.
The GLP’s case claiming “apparent bias” against the Cabinet Office over a £564,000 contract with the research company Public First, whose owners have previously worked with Cummings and Gove over many years, is the first to reach a hearing.
The judge, Mrs Justice O’Farrell, must now decide on the merits of the arguments and the propriety of the contract process. The government says there was nothing inappropriate about awarding a contract to a reputable firm that senior Downing Street officials, including Cummings, knew and trusted.
Public First has always maintained it secured the contract because of its stellar reputation in focus group research, and its ability to help the government at speed.
Whatever the result of the legal battle, one element is clear already: Cummings’ role in the process of awarding Public First a contract has only been revealed as a result of GLP’s legal challenge.
When the Guardian and openDemocracy first reported on the contract in July, we asked the Cabinet Office if the longstanding ties between James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who run Public First, and Cummings and Gove, were a factor in the award. The Cabinet Office replied that this was “nonsense”.
Just last week, the Cabinet Office cited commercial sensitivity and refused a freedom of information request from the Guardian for more documentation, including emails and correspondence, relating to the Public First contract.
The government has responded in a similarly limited way to questions about all its spending: justifying contracts on the basis of the health crisis, saying necessary due diligence was done but releasing little in terms of hard evidence to assuage concerns over conflicts of interest.
It is only due to the GLP’s judicial review challenge that the public can see how the decisions were taken on this one contract, and how centrally Cummings was involved.
Maugham has complained about the government’s legal costs, approaching £600,000, for defending the contract, which the GLP may have to pay if the judge rules against it.
Critics might conclude that the courts are a hugely expensive and unnecessarily adversarial forum for the government to provide public information about how it has spent the public’s money in response to the pandemic.