A Government decision to award a coronavirus contract to a firm run by friends of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings was unlawful and gave rise to "apparent bias," a High Court judge has ruled.
The Cabinet Office spent more than £500,000 of public money at the height of the pandemic on a contract with the communications firm Public First, who were drafted in to run focus groups on Mr Cummings’ recommendation.
The High Court ruled on Wednesday that the Cabinet Office did not do enough to show that its decision to award the contract was awarded fairly, and that there was a “danger” that an informed observer could think it was biased.
The court said no other research agency was considered for the work and noted that the company’s bosses, James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, are friends of Mr Cummings and Mr Gove, who is the minister in charge of the Cabinet Office.
Within minutes, Mr Cummings hit back at the ruling on Twitter, arguing that it would have been a waste of time to make a "paper trail" to show the decision was unbiased rather than dealing with "the worst crisis since ’45’".
"[The] court is telling SW1: even in a crisis like a once-a-century pandemic, your real focus shd ALWAYS be the paper trail," he wrote.
"This is already a hugely destructive problem and today’s judgment will make it even worse."
The Good Law Project said Mr Cummings wanted focus group and communications support services work to be given to a company whose bosses were his friends
Credit: Alberto Pezzali/AP
Lawyers representing the Good Law Project, a campaign organisation, said Mr Cummings wanted the work to be given to a company whose bosses were his friends.
Mr Cummings, Mr Gove, Ms Wolf and Mr Frayne have worked together in various Westminster roles, including a stint for Ms Wolf in Tory headquarters co-writing the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto. Mr Frayne and Mr Cummings both worked for Mr Gove when he was the education secretary.
On Wednesday 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".
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.
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".
The Telegraph understands there will be no wider consequences for the Cabinet Office, Mr Gove or Mr Cummings as a result of the ruling.
No staff are expected to be sacked, nor will the Government be fined for its unlawful decision.
Whitehall sources also attacked the Good Law Project, who brought the case, pointing out that they also have a pending judicial review against Kate Bingham’s appointment as head of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce.
The source said the reviews are “pointless and expensive” but that the Government will be forced to defend itself in a “a further waste of taxpayers’ money”.
Good Law Project director Jo Maugham said after the ruling: "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 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."
He said "procedural issues" raised in the judgment had already been addressed through the implementation of an independent review of procurement processes.
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."