Prime minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings “expected” officials to hire a company run by his friends to provide research on the public’s understanding of coronavirus and the quality of government messaging, the High Court has heard.
But a statement from Cummings to yesterday’s hearing – which was probing government procurement processes during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic – insisted he expected Public First to be picked for the job because of its ability, not because of who runs it.
The exchange was revealed in campaign group the Good Law Project’s judicial review of the Cabinet Office’s decision to hire Public First, run by Rachel Wolf and James Frayne to conduct work costing £564,393 without a formal tender process.
Last year the Good Law Project challenged another government with Cummings links – one awarded to the consultancy company Hanbury – at the High Court.
Cummings accepts that Wolfe, who co-wrote the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto and founded the New Schools Network charity, and Frayne, who is a former director of communications at the Department for Education, are friends. But he said in his statement that was not the reason he recommended their firm for the work.
“Obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends. I would never do such a thing,” Cummings said in his statement, according to the Guardian.
He said he had recommended the firm based on extensive experience of its abilities.
Cummings added: “I am a special adviser and as such I am not allowed to direct civil servants. However, as a result of my suggestion I expected people to hire Public First. The nature of my role is that sometimes people take what I say as an instruction and that is a reasonable inference as people assume I am often speaking for the prime minister.”
A BBC report of Cummings’ statement included reference to officials questioning his decisions.
"Civil servants could have disagreed and did disagree with my suggestions all the time, and my response depends on my expertise of the matter in hand and other circumstances,” he said.
Cummings added: "On this occasion, I was an expert.”
The Good Law Project argues that the Cabinet Office acted with “apparent bias” in awarding the research contract to Public First, in light of Wolf and Frayne’s connections with Cummings and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove without a formal tender process.
The Cabinet Office asserts that past involvement with Public First underscored the quality of the firm’s work.
Days before the first coronavirus lockdown began in March last year, the Cabinet Office issued guidance to public sector bodies that reminded them “exceptional circumstances" could be used as justification for directly awarding contracts, extending or modifying contracts during their terms, or accelerating a standard procurement procedure.
However regulation 32(2)(c) under the Public Contract Regulations 2015 require departments to keep proper records of decisions and actions relating to individual contracts to “mitigate against the risk of a successful legal challenge”.
There must also be genuine reasons for the extreme urgency – such as public-health risks or the loss of existing provision at short notice.
Hearing the challenge, Mrs Justice O'Farrell said she would deliver a ruling at a future date.