The British government broke the law by handing a coronavirus contract to an associate of ministers and the prime minister’s former chief aide, a judge has ruled.
Sky News reports that in a judgment on Wednesday, the high court deemed the awarding of the £560,000 arrangement to communications agency Public First, which has connections with cabinet minister Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, was “unlawful”.
The case also concluded that there was “an apparent bias” surrounding the agreement.
It was brought forward by The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign organisation, which questioned the decision to pay the large sum of taxpayers’ money to the firm following the start of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020.
It also questioned the role of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser MCummings in the awarding of the agreement.
Sky News quoted a Cabinet Office spokesman as saying: “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.”
Ministers had previously disputed The Good Law Project’s claim, saying that Cummings – who left his Downing Street position in late 2020 – had made a recommendation regarding the agency, not a decision.
In a post on social media following the judgment, Cummings said: “Court is telling SW1: even in a crisis like a once-a-century pandemic, your real focus shd ALWAYS be the paper trail.
“This is already a hugely destructive problem & today’s judgment will make it even worse. If covid doesn’t justify focus on outcome>process, nothing will.”
The judgment states: “The claimant [The Good Law Project] 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.
“Following hand down of this judgment, the hearing will be adjourned to a date to be fixed for the purpose of any consequential matters, including any applications for permission to appeal, and any time limits are extended until such hearing or further order.”
The Good Law Project’s representative, barrister Jason Coppel QC, said: “Public First was awarded this contract because Dominic Cummings wanted Public First to have this contract.”
Coppel also suggested Cabinet Office minister Gove had connections to the owners of Public First, Rachel Wolfe, and James Frayne.
Michael Bowsher QC, part of the Cabinet Office legal team, said Gove had “professional and personal” connections with Wolfe and Frayne but denied the contract awarded to Public First was made on the basis of this.
He added that the Cabinet Office minister did not have any involvement in the decision or influence it in any way.
The government won two out of the three grounds which related to how the contract was awarded and the length of the contract, but lost on “apparent bias”.
A Cabinet Office spokesman told Sky News: “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.”
He added: “Procedural issues raised in this judgment have already been addressed through the implementation of the independent Boardman review of procurement processes.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the judgment showed that the government acted “immorally and unethically”.
“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,” Rayner was quoted by Sky News as saying.
“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.”