Outsourced contract is ‘double slap in face’ for comms staff, says union

PCS calls £670k spent on PR for Vaccine Taskforce “outrageous” as departmental comms professionals face uncertain future
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

By Jim Dunton

16 Nov 2020

The civil service’s biggest union has described the decision to spend £670,000 on external public relations consultants to support the government’s coronavirus Vaccine Taskforce as “outrageous” at a time when departmental communications staff are facing redundancy.

It emerged at the weekend that the taskforce, headed by Kate Bingham, had hired PR firm Admiral Associates to perform comms roles said to duplicate services provided by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy's in-house staff.

The PCS union, which includes communications professionals among its members, said ministers needed to explain why public money was being spent on external PR consultants at a time when in-house communications experts across government were facing a service shake-up expected to cost jobs.

General secretary Mark Serwota said news of the contract with Southwark-based Admiral Associates sat poorly with plans to centralise departmental communications teams that were announced over the summer and are still the subject of negotiation. The plans are being spearheaded by Dominic Cummings, who is currently still prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief special adviser.

“For the government to spend valuable public money on a private PR firm to promote the most important vaccine in the last 50 years, instead of utilising skilled in-house staff, is outrageous,” Serwotka said.

“It is a double slap in the face to staff in government communications when we are fighting alongside other unions to save their jobs.

“We must have an explanation from ministers for this spending splurge on the private sector at the expense of our members and an investigation into the procurement process.”

Earlier this week the Financial Times, flagged connections between the father in law of Dominic Cummings, Sir Humphry Wakefield, and the two directors of Admiral, Georgina Collingwood Cameron and Angus Collingwood Cameron.

But it went on to quote No.10 saying: “It is ridiculous to make such an imaginary and tenuous link. Dominic Cummings has never heard of Georgina or Angus Cameron.”

They added: “Specialist communications support was procured by the Vaccine Taskforce in line with proper practice.”

Vaccine Taskforce head Bingham answers directly to the prime minister and is not a civil servant, however the taskforce sits within BEIS.

Civil Service World asked the BEIS communications team for its response to the concerns expressed by PCS. 

Civil Service World asked BEIS for its response to the concerns expressed by PCS.

The department did not directly address them, but it provided a background briefing that said the specialist communications support bought in by the Vaccine Taskforce had been for “for a time-limited period” and had been contracted in line with existing public-sector recruitment practices and frameworks.

BEIS added that details of the Vaccine Taskforce’s commercial arrangements with all firms, and all the contract labour used, would be published in line with the usual government transparency arrangements.

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