The Cabinet Office awarded an £840,000 contract for canvassing public opinion about government policy to a company owned by two long-term associated of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove – without putting it out for tender.
Public First – a small London-based policy and research firm – is run by James Frayne, who worked on Eurosceptic campaigns with Cummings as long as 20 years ago, and Rachel Wolf, an ex-Gove advisor who co-wrote the Tory election manifesto last year.
A joint investigation by openDemocracy and the Guardian revealed that the government rushed the contract through without a competitive tendering process – which would have allowed other companies to bid – under emergency coronavirus regulations.
However records made public by the Cabinet Office state that portions of the work, which involved conducting focus groups, were about Brexit – not Covid-19.
‘EU Exit Comms’
Although the Cabinet Office – where Gove is the minister – initially commissioned Public First to carry out focus groups from early March, no contract was put in place until June.
Governments are legally required to put work out for competitive tender, so that the best qualified company is appointed – except in exceptional circumstances
When a contract was eventually produced, on 5 June, it was made retrospective, to cover the work that had already been done since March.
The Cabinet Office paid Public First £253,000 for the two projects stated to be related to Brexit and two more pieces of work, before the contract was put in place, paying a total of £840,000 for a little over three months work.
According to details published by the government, Public First were paid £58,000 on 18 March for its first focus group work, classed by the Cabinet Office as being for ‘Gov Comms EU Exit Prog.’ then a further £75,000 on 20 March for work this time classed as ‘Insight and Evaluation.’
Then in early April – ten days into lockdown – the Cabinet Office paid Public First a further £42,000, again for ‘EU Exit Comms’.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office told reporters that all the focus groups related to the government’s coronavirus messaging, and that any references to Brexit in the government’s official disclosure were misleading.
They added that Gove and Cummings had no role in selecting companies supplying services to the government.
The Public First contract is being challenged by the Good Law Project, which wrote to Gove on Thursday and said it planned to seek a judicial reward of the contract’s award, citing “apparent bias” due to the company’s “close personal and professional connections” with Gove and Cummings.
Asked by reporters if Public First’s links to Gove and Cummings were a factor in the firm being awarded the contract, the Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This is nonsense. Public First were contracted to undertake this work because of their wealth of experience in the area.
“Public First was awarded a contract to carry out daily focus groups across the country in response to the COVID-19 crisis.They carried out this work to make sure the vitally important public health messages the Government was issuing were the right ones. This work will continue to inform future COVID-19 campaign activity.”
Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “It beggars belief that the government’s desperate defence of handing a contract for daily focus groups on COVD-19 and Brexit to longstanding friends of ministers is coincidence and clerical incompetence.
“They should come clean about the purpose of this project, why this company was chosen without it going to tender and publish the research findings and recommendations for people to see for themselves.”