Just how does public money end up in the pockets of Cummings' friends?

by Good Law Project Limited

Just how does public money end up in the pockets of Cummings' friends?

by Good Law Project Limited
Good Law Project Limited
Case Owner
Good Law Project brings litigation to protect the public interest.
21
days to go
£332,510
pledged of £350,000 stretch target from 13,595 pledges
Pledge now
Good Law Project Limited
Case Owner
Good Law Project brings litigation to protect the public interest.
Pledge now

This case is raising funds for its stretch target. Your pledge will be collected within the next 24-48 hours (and it only takes two minutes to pledge!)

Latest: Sept. 1, 2021

We have permission to bring our appeal

In mid-July, we told you Michael Gove was appealing the Court’s decision that he broke the law in awarding a lucrative public contract to his friends at Public First because of apparent bias. W…

Read more

Public First were not the only allies of Dominic Cummings to be awarded a lucrative Government contract. Hanbury Strategy were handed a huge contract for polling, without it ever going to tender. The political lobbying firm was co-founded by Paul Stephenson, who worked alongside Cummings as the Director of Communications during the 2016 Vote Leave campaign.


We will not sit by while taxpayers money is dished out to Dominic Cummings' mates. We are challenging the Cabinet Office’s decision to award the contract to Hanbury Strategy. Money raised through this crowdfunding page will help fund this judicial review.


Like us, you might have wondered why it is that the biggest contracts to purchase PPE have gone not to manufacturers or professional suppliers but instead to pest controllers, confectioners, and opaque family offices.

You'll also have seen the stories about the placing of contracts with colleagues of Mr Cummings. But, although reporters pick them up, nothing ever happens. There's no mechanism to discover what really happened.

Well, this time it's different.

On 3 March 2020, the Cabinet Office shook hands with Public First, a small privately held polling company. There was no formal contract or prior advertisement or competitive tender process. It just made what procurement lawyers call a 'direct award'. And it formalised it retrospectively on 5 June 2020 and publicised it a week later on 12 June 2020. Having shaken hands the Cabinet Office paid Public First approximately £253,000 for services between March and May 2020 but the total contract value is £840,000. 

The directors and owners of Public First are Ms Rachel Wolf and Mr James Frayne. Ms Wolf and Mr Frayne have close connections with both the Minister for the Cabinet Office (the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP) and his long time colleague and Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister who works in the Cabinet Office (Mr Dominic Cummings). 

Mr Frayne and Mr Cummings were co-founders of the New Frontiers Foundation think-tank. According to Mr Cummings’ blog, he and Mr Frayne, in 2004, “set up the campaign to fight the referendum on the North East Regional Assembly as a training exercise for an EU referendum."  In 2011, Mr Gove (then Secretary of State for Education) appointed Mr Frayne as Director of Communications for the Department for Education. In that position he worked alongside Mr Cummings, who was then Special Adviser to Mr Gove at the Department for Education.

Ms Wolf formerly worked as an advisor to Mr Gove and has also worked for Mr Cummings. She founded the “New Schools Network”, a charity which supported the ‘academisation’ of public schools, under a programme of reform designed by the Mr Gove and Mr Cummings. The New Schools Network drew public criticism for receiving £500,000 of public money without being required to undergo a competitive bidding process. She has been a vocal public supporter of Mr Cummings’ plans for reform of the civil service. And she co-wrote the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election.

According to ‘transparency data’ published on the Government website, the Cabinet Office paid Public First:

  • on 18 March 2020, £58,000 in respect of “GOV COMMS EU EXIT PROG”;
  • on 20 March 2020, £75,000 in respect of “INSIGHT AND EVALUATION”;
  • on 2 April 2020, £42,000 in respect of “EU EXIT COMMS”; and 
  • on 27 May 2020, £78,187.07 in respect of “COVID-19”. 

But it was not until 5 June 2020 that the Cabinet Office told Public First that it “proposes to make an award of a contract to you to provide extremely urgent deliverables as part of the response to unforeseeable consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the terms set out in this letter”. This award was made retrospectively and in the absence of any advertisement or competition. It is not clear why it took three months to put in place any written contract. Or on what basis Public First worked in the meantime. Or why a contract for “Research in to Government Communications” (one relating in part to “EU Exit” communications), was so “extremely urgent” that normal procurement processes should be dispensed with. 

Money for your mates - on a handshake, formalised later, public money, and we believe unlawful.




Good Law Project has instructed Rook Irwin Sweeney and leading procurement lawyers Jason Coppel QC and Patrick Halliday. You can read our formal pre action protocol letter to Mr Gove and Mr Cummings below [1]. Protective proceedings will be issued later today and we will post them in an update.

The basis of the claim is that to ensure value for money, to protect public funds, to guard against cronyism and bungs, one must put public contracts out to tender. And there was no exception here to that rule.


10% of the sums raised will go to the Good Law Project to help it develop and support further litigation in the public interest. It is our policy only to raise sums that we reasonably anticipate could be spent on this litigation. However, if there is a surplus it will go to support and enable other litigation we bring. Our founder, Jo Maugham QC, continues to work unpaid.


[1] https://www.dropbox.com/s/2xbiux64pcddo36/CummingsPAPLetter.docx?dl=0 



Recent contributions

Be a promoter

Your share on Facebook could raise £26 for the case

I'll share on Facebook
Update 16

Good Law Project Limited

Sept. 1, 2021

We have permission to bring our appeal

In mid-July, we told you Michael Gove was appealing the Court’s decision that he broke the law in awarding a lucrative public contract to his friends at Public First because of apparent bias. We also said we would appeal those arguments which the Court had decided against us below: (1) that it was not necessary to ditch a proper procurement process and (2) that, even if it was necessary, it was wrong to grant such a long contract.

We are pleased to tell you that the Court of Appeal has said we can bring our appeal which has a “real prospect of success” and is “of wide importance”.

We believe Michael Gove brought his appeal in an attempt to delay another defeat in the Hanbury case (another case of him awarding a lucrative public contract to friends). We believe his appeal signals a willingness to waste more public money to delay further exposure of Cabinet Office illegality.

What the permission decision of the Court of Appeal means is that we now have the chance to take a wider look at the decision to award tens of billions of pounds of pandemic contracts, often to Tory donors or associates, without any competition. In all of those awards, Government relied on the same ‘necessity’ justification for ditching a proper procurement process.

The case will be heard in the Court of Appeal on the 23rd or 24th of November. 

It is only with your support that we can continue to hold Government to account. Thank you.

Update 15

Good Law Project Limited

July 15, 2021

Government is appealing

The statement issued by Downing Street when Michael Gove lost the Public First case (“We welcome the judgment”) might almost have made you think he had won. He didn’t of course – and the finding he had broken the law by awarding a contract to friends of Dominic Cummings was a powerful vindication of Good Law Project’s analysis of the Government’s attitude to public money as “institutionalised cronyism”.

In any event, Mr Gove has now revealed the truth of who actually won in the High Court by deciding to appeal the decision. You can read the (highly critical) decision of Lord Justice Coulson giving him permission here.

We think his decision to spend more public money on an appeal is likely to be driven by a desire to postpone a further embarrassing loss in a separate challenge we are bringing. We are challenging another lucrative contract awarded to allies of Michael Gove, this time to a company called Hanbury. It was due to be heard later this month but will now be delayed.

However, the appeal gives us a chance to plan to revivify the arguments we ran below that there was time for a proper competitive tender process and/or no need to give such a long and valuable contract without any tender process.

All of that having been said, we have to recognise Government spent an extraordinary £500,000+ on a one day hearing below - approximately twice what we managed to raise to fight and win the case. With that in mind, we have decided to reopen our crowdfunding page. 

Update 14

Good Law Project Limited

June 24, 2021

Update from today's Court hearing

We are pleased to report that the High Court has ordered the Government to pay 75% of our costs in our successful legal challenge against Michael Gove for the unlawful award of a contract to associates of his and Dominic Cummings at Public First. 

Government had planned to ask for permission to appeal the ruling but last night decided this wouldn’t be wise and withdrew, belatedly accepting their conduct over the Public First contract had been unlawful. 

They did however still attempt to argue in Court today at the costs hearing that we hadn’t won on every ground in our challenge, so the Court should make a costs order which reflects the ‘relative success of both parties’. Yet however Government try to spin this ruling in the press, the Judge today was crystal clear as to who won this case:

“In this case, it is clear to the court that the claimant (Good Law Project) was the overall successful party in the case...it sought a ruling that the decision to award the contract to Public First was unlawful, and the Court has made a ruling to that effect. Also, it was successful in defeating the Defendant’s arguments about standing.”

Our work is far from over, but for now, we take a moment to celebrate this win. Thank you, as ever, for all your support.  

Update 13

Good Law Project Limited

June 9, 2021

We won

Michael Gove broke the law by giving a contract to a communications agency run by long time associates of him and Dominic Cummings, the High Court has decided.

The Court found that the decision to award the £560,000 contract to Public First was tainted by “apparent bias” and was unlawful. The Court found that Gove’s:

“failure to consider any other research agency… 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” (paragraph 168).

Michael Gove had claimed that the work was such that only Public First could carry it out. 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”.

Emails released in the case also showed that both Michael Gove and Number 10 were keen that Public First (and Hanbury) should win no-tender polling contracts. Good Law Project’s judicial review of the decision to award a contract to Hanbury will be heard on 26 July.

The decision is the second in our long slate of crowdfunded procurement judicial reviews – and we have succeeded in both. Two Cabinet Ministers – Michael Gove and Matt Hancock – have now been found to have broken the law.

Following the first decision, Good Law Project wrote to Matt Hancock making proposals to improve procurement and get better value for money for taxpayers. We offered, if that invitation was accepted, to drop our further procurement challenges to save public money. Mr Hancock did not respond. Since that letter, huge further sums in public money have been wasted in fruitless defence of unlawful conduct.

Good Law Project repeats its invitation to the Government to learn lessons – and to stop wasting more public money staving off political embarrassment.

Good Law Project is grateful to its legal team of Jason Coppel QC and Patrick Halliday of 11KBW, instructed by Rook Irwin Sweeney. And of course to the tens of thousands of people whose financial contributions make litigation like this possible.

We are the arrow but you draw the bow. If you are in a position to set up a regular donation to Good Law Project so that we can continue to take on litigation that matters, you can do so here

Update 12

Good Law Project Limited

April 19, 2021

Government struck down by the Court

We are pleased to say that the Court has granted a Cost Capping Order in our judicial review of Government’s decision to hand a contract to Cummings' pals at Hanbury without any competition. We will now be able to fight this case to its conclusion.

Crucially, the Judge agreed with us that Government’s estimated costs bill of £450k (almost as much as the contract itself) is ‘disproportionate to a one day hearing’ - and set a cap at £120k for both parties.

Government’s decision not to consent to a cost cap is bizarre and  - many of the same arguments were determined by the Court weeks ago in relation to our PPE challenges. It has now tried and failed twice to argue that these are not public interest proceedings. And it has now twice had to bear from the public purse our costs of seeking a cap. This is a phenomenal - and avoidable - further waste of taxpayers’ money.

Here’s what the Judge had to say on Hanbury:

“I start by considering whether or not there is a matter of genuine public interest raised by these proceedings. I am satisfied that there is. This matter concerns the direct award of a public contact without publicity or competition, and the issue is whether it was unlawful to award a contract in that way.” 

The Judge went on to say she is “satisfied that there is a part for the courts to play in determining the legality of the procedures” and “it is appropriate that there should be a public hearing that the Court will consider the evidence and make a decision on the lawfulness of this particular procurement”. 

We will take this fight all the way. If you are in a position to donate to the legal challenge you can do so here. 

Update 11

Good Law Project Limited

Feb. 16, 2021

Yesterday in court

This agency is the one who are Dom Cummings / Lee Cain’s mates, and hence getting all our work with no contract BUT are also spending much money on doing all our ridiculous groups”.

These are the words of the Head of Insight and Evaluation for the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office, describing a Government contract handed to friends of Dominic Cummings. It’s just one of several explosive emails revealed in yesterday’s hearing of our judicial review of the decision to award the contract without tender. 

Documents disclosed to the court revealed that civil servants queried Public First’s costs and asked whether the contract was going to tender (it wasn’t). In one candid exchange, a civil servant describes the deal as “tory party research agency tests tory party narrative on public purse”.

In Dominic Cummings’ sworn witness statement, he accepts he was the driving force in handing the contract to Public First, and that he was indeed friends with the owners. He chose to justify his actions by disparaging all other market research agencies, claiming “Very few companies in this field are competent, almost none are very competent, honest and reliable”.  

Government has racked up staggering sums of money to defend this judicial review, we believe with the intention of deterring similar challenges in future. Reading the documents disclosed in yesterday’s hearing, it’s not hard to see why they would want to avoid similar challenges. 

We believe it is right that the public see how their money has been dished out to those in Dominic Cummings’ inner circle, and we have published all documents we are able to – sadly we cannot give you the whole bundle, much though we would like to – relating to the case here, along with a summary of the hearing. We now await judgement from the court. In the meantime, I wanted to thank you for your support. Our work is only possible thanks to thousands of people like you. 

Update 10

Good Law Project Limited

Feb. 11, 2021

Spending public money for political advantage

Correspondence from Government shows it plans to claim a staggering £500k-600k in costs for a one day hearing of a judicial review challenge to a contract awarded by Dominic Cummings to his friends at Public First. The higher figure is more than the total value of the Public First contract of £564k.

By way of contrast, our costs will be around £44k if we lose and £127k if we win. As a further contrast, Government’s costs in a legal challenge to Jeremy Hunt’s decision to impose new junior doctors contracts with a number of interim hearings and a two day final hearing requiring an 83 page judgment were under £200k.


The costs in Public First - £500k-£600k - is what Government says we must pay if we lose. There is no denying that figures like this - huge sums inflated beyond all commonsense - pose an existential risk to Good Law Project. Indeed, I think that is their very purpose. They will also deter important public interest challenges to Government cronyism.

We have also been granted permission to proceed with the judicial review of another contract awarded to friends of Dominic Cummings, this time the consultancy firm Hanbury.  Giving permission the Court said: “it is arguable that the challenge raises serious issues of public importance that would otherwise not be scrutinised,” and “the Defendant has admitted that some directors of the Interested Party were known to both the Defendant and the former Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, and had worked previously with and for them and for the Conservative Party. In those circumstances, apparent bias is arguable.”


But although the Courts can see the considerable public importance of these cases Government is desperate that they should not come to light.


The Public First judicial review involves extraordinary revelations. Both Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain have sworn witness statements. We are determined that the truth should see the light of day on Monday.


But bringing cases like this involves profound risk for us. If you are in a position to do so, please donate to the legal challenge.

Update 9

Good Law Project Limited

Dec. 10, 2020

The Boardman review

An independent Government review into the awarding of lucrative contracts to allies of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove has found that in future there must be “a clear process for managing risk regarding conflicts of interest”, that “Cabinet Office should strengthen its model for the management of actual and perceived conflicts of interest in procurements”, and that it is “essential for these senior officials to… create the conditions that enable robust and constructive challenge”. Government has only published the recommendations from that review but it is not easy to see why those recommendations would have been made if they did not reflect pre-existing poor practice.

On Government’s own admission, the independent review was launched as a result of this litigation over the very substantial sums of money awarded to Public First and Hanbury Strategy.

The basis of our both legal challenges is, at its heart, that there was favouritism in the award of these particular contracts. In other words, the Government’s own review suggests that we are very much on to something. 

A Cabinet Office Minister has now said the Government will be taking on all of the recommendations from the independent review in full. In the meantime, our judicial reviews continue. We will see Government in court over the Public First contract in February. 

It is difficult to imagine how we would have reached this point without bringing litigation - or without the thousands of ordinary people who helped fund it. 

Thank you, 

Good Law Project team

Update 8

Good Law Project Limited

Dec. 4, 2020

We've got a court date

We are pleased to announce that our judicial review of the Cabinet Office's decision to award a lucrative contract to Public First, bypassing normal procedures, will be heard on 15 February 2021.

Update 7

Good Law Project Limited

Nov. 25, 2020

The good news keeps coming on our procurement judicial reviews

Following permission being granted in our PPE cases earlier this week, we’ve now heard that we’ve also been granted permission to bring our challenge against the lucrative public affairs contract given to long-time associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings at Public First

In the Government’s summary grounds of defence, they do not even bother to contest that their decision to award the contract without competition was lawful. And their conduct does not seem to have thrilled the Court: 

“The Defendant has provided no substantive response to the Claimant’s challenges, whether by way of pre-action correspondence or his Acknowledgement of Service, other than to state his intention to challenge the Claimant’s standing…The Defendant ought to have been able to indicate the general nature of his grounds of resistance in the Acknowledgment of Service.

“It is arguable that there was, at 3 March 2020, no extreme urgency within Regulation 32(2)(c) in respect of a contract for services of this nature”. 

The hearing will be in February 2021.

We anticipate we are now very likely to be given permission in our challenges to the Abingdon Health and Saiger contracts too. The Government’s arguments are wearing thin. 

Update 6

Good Law Project Limited

Oct. 5, 2020

Another contract handed to Dominic Cummings' mates

A lobbying firm run by allies of Dominic Cummings was handed a contract worth £900,000 to conduct public opinion polling on the coronavirus pandemic. The contract was awarded to Hanbury Strategy without any advertisement or competitive tender process. And it was awarded to Hanbury despite the fact that - as our sworn evidence discloses - Hanbury was ill-suited to do the bulk of the work and would have had to subcontract it to others. That sworn evidence also suggests that the price paid by Government was “absolutely off the chart”.

Two of three active directors of Hanbury Strategy are Mr Paul Stephenson, a former Conservative advisor and Vote Leave alumni, and Mr Ameetpal Singh Gill, a former advisor to David Cameron. The Government has ignored the law which requires them to publish details of the contract. However, media reports state that the contract came to an end after four months, with Hanbury Strategy having run up a bill of more than half a million pounds. Without details of the contract, we have no way of knowing how they arrived at this huge sum of money.

Ignoring proper procurement practices to hand lucrative contracts to your mates is unlawful. We have issued judicial review proceedings to challenge this award. More details of the claim can be found here.

We cannot, and will not, stop in our efforts to hold this Government to account. Thank you for your support.

Update 5

Good Law Project Limited

Aug. 23, 2020

And now we're suing Ofqual, too, over Public First

You’ll remember the action we launched against Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office for passing a hugely lucrative contract to Public First - owned by long time political allies of his and Dominic Cummings - with no tender process at all.

You may have missed that it wasn’t the only one. 

Earlier this week news broke about two further contracts gifted  by the Government to Public First. The Mirror identified that Public First was given £116,000 to identify ways to "lock in the lessons learned" during the Covid-19 crisis. And the Guardian was tipped off that Ofqual had also hired Public First - for an unspecified sum of money - to handle the comms fall-out from cancelling A levels and GCSEs.

The money is flooding in.

Well, it’s not in our nature to just stand by and watch so on Sunday 23 August we sent a further Pre-Action Protocol letter to Ofqual challenging its decision to sidestep procurement law - and alleging apparent bias in the grant of that third contract to Public First.

We don’t know what Government will say. We can’t see any defence at all - and it may well be that Government can’t either. Earlier in the week Government filed its Summary Defence in the Cabinet Office challenge and it said substantially nothing.

If you are in a position to add a little more to the crowdfunder to help with this further challenge we would appreciate it. 

Update 4

Good Law Project Limited

Aug. 2, 2020

Someone must stand up to them

Several weeks back we issued judicial review proceedings against Michael Gove for his decision to award an £840,000 contract to associates of his and Dominic Cummings, without any advertisement or competitive tender process. 


Last week we got back a letter from Gove’s lawyers, refusing to provide any information about the contract how it was awarded (despite being bound by a duty of candour). Instead they refuse to engage at all with the proceedings - and challenge our right to bring them. 


We already knew from his trips to and around Durham that Cummings didn’t think the rules applied to him; does Gove now feel the same?Well, they may consider themselves above the law, but we do not. 


And on Friday 31 July, we filed the fully particularised claim form, with detailed analysis and evidence that firmly underscore the unlawfulness of this award. You can read the documents here.


We believe that the judicial review should succeed for several reasons. First, the Government can’t rely on emergency procurement procedures for services such as focus groups and communications services. Second, it can’t breach procurement safeguards to let a six month contract on the grounds of urgency. And third, there is apparent bias in the grant of this large contract to long-time associates of Gove and Cummings. Importantly, we reserve our position in relation to whether there might be actual bias.


The evidence we have provided show how lucrative the contract was. In the witness statements, we reference conversations with industry specialists, who tell us £840,000 is an “extraordinary”, “crazy” or “insane” price.


Worryingly, these industry experts have also told us that they dare not raise their heads above the parapet to complain publicly, because they fear they will be “punished” by the Government for doing so. 


And therein lies the rub. The Government says that we cannot challenge the contract because we don’t have ‘standing’ - the only people who can challenge, it says, are those they have frightened into silence.


But we must and will stand up to them. Procurement rules exist to ensure value for public money; they aim to mitigate bias and prevent croney-ism. Government must not, under cloak of public emergency, hand out large sums of cash to long-time associates. 


If you'd like to support cases like this dealing with mismanagement of public funds, please become a member of the Good Law Project or join our mailing list here: https://goodlawproject.org/membership/

Update 3

Good Law Project Limited

July 15, 2020

If you'd like to support...

... cases like this dealing with mismanagement of public funds, please become a member of the Good Law Project or join our mailing list here: https://goodlawproject.org/membership/ 

We have closed the crowdfunding because we believe we have sufficient funds to fund this particular case.

We are very grateful for your support.

Jolyon Maugham QC 

Update 2

Good Law Project Limited

July 15, 2020

Why we have lifted the stretch target to £120,000

We believe our expenditure on the Public First judicial review is unlikely to exceed £100,000. However, we have significant unprotected liabilities in respect of our judicial reviews in relation to three other emergency procurement contracts- those entered into with Pestfix, Clandeboye Agencies and Ayanda Capital Limited https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/108million/. Any sums raised above £100,000 will be allocated to those cases which raise very similar questions about whether public monies have been misused.

Jo Maugham QC

 

Update 1

Good Law Project Limited

July 11, 2020

We have issued proceedings

Yesterday, shortly after launching the crowdfunder, we issued proceedings in the High Court. You can read those proceedings, which allege both breaches of procurement law and apparent bias in the grant of the contract to longtime colleagues of Mr Cummings, here.

Jo Maugham 

    There are no public comments on this case page.