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
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Latest: 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 ris…

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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 

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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 

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