Covid: Govt contract for firm run by Cummings' friends was unlawful, High Court rules

9 June 2021, 11:06 | Updated: 9 June 2021, 15:35

The government acted unlawfully over the firm's contract, the judge ruled
The government acted unlawfully over the firm's contract, the judge ruled. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A government decision to award a contract to a firm whose bosses were friends of adviser Dominic Cummings was unlawful, the High Court has ruled.

Campaigners took legal action against the Cabinet Office over the decision to pay more than £500,000 of taxpayers' money to market research firm Public First - following the start of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020 - and questioned the involvement of Mr Cummings.

Lawyers representing the Good Law Project 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.

Ministers and Mr Cummings - who left Downing Street late in 2020 - disputed the Good Law Project's claim.

Mrs Justice O'Farrell, who is based in London, considered rival arguments at a virtual High Court hearing in February and delivered a ruling on Wednesday.

Read more: Government unlawfully failed to publish Covid contracts, High Court rules

She said: "The claimant 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."

After the ruling, Mr Cummings reacted with a string of tweets.

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. The judge made no criticism whatsoever of Public First anywhere in the judgment."

A Cabinet Office spokesman 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.

"Procedural issues raised in this judgment have already been addressed through the implementation of the independent Boardman review of procurement processes."

Angela Rayner, Labour's deputy leader and shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: "We all know that the Government has acted immorally and unethically, and now a judge has confirmed that yet again the Government acted unlawfully in handing out contracts to their mates.

"In the middle of a deadly pandemic not only were those at the heart of Government giving out taxpayers' money to their friends and associates, they have wasted even more trying to cover it up.

"Ministers need to come clean about how they plan to recoup this cash, as well as the billions of pounds dished out to Tory donors and for duff PPE that wasn't safe."