The government has justified the absence of a competitive tendering process, which would have allowed other companies to bid, under emergency regulations that allow the urgent introduction of response services to the COVID-19 crisis.
However, the Cabinet Office public record indicates that parts of the work, which involved holding focus groups, involved Brexit rather than COVID-19, a joint investigation by OpenDemocracy and the Guardian was established.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said that this was due to accounting methods, stressing that all of the focus group research done by Public First was in fact linked to the coronavirus crisis.
The Cabinet Office, of which Gove is the minister responsible, initially instructed Public First to conduct discussion groups from March 3, but no contract was put in place before June 5.
Government works must legally be subject to a call for tenders, so that a company best qualified to carry them out is appointed, except in exceptional circumstances such as an unforeseen emergency.
When a contract was finally produced on June 5, it was made retrospective to cover the work already done since March 3. The Cabinet Office paid Public First £ 253,000 for the two projects declared linked to Brexit and two other works, before the contract was put in place.
According to a letter from the Cabinet Office, Public First was to organize focus groups “covering the general public and key subgroups”.
The firm was required to provide the government with a “comprehensive report” of their findings the same day, and more complete findings were released the next day. The agreement also included “an on-site resource to support number 10 communications”, the secondment to Gabriel Milland, Downing Street partner of Public First, whose term ended on June 26.
Milland was previously head of communications at the Department of Education when Gove was a minister and Cummings was his political adviser.
The Cabinet Office said in the letter that it had commissioned Public First’s work for a total of £ 840,000 without tendering “due to the unforeseeable consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic”. Focus group conduct, which would have focused on public responses to the government’s own communications, has been classified as “extremely urgent deliverables” in the context of the pandemic.
According to other details released by the government as part of its transparency requirements, Public First received £ 58,000 on March 18 for its first focus group work, classified by the Cabinet Office as being for “Gov Comms EU Exit Prog ”, then an additional £ 75,000 on March 20 for a job this time classified as“ Insight and Evaluation ”.
On April 2, 10 days after the lockdown ordered the previous month, and with an increasing number of deaths due to COVID-19, the Cabinet Office paid Public First an additional £ 42,000, again listed as “EU Exit Comms”. The first payment declared for work listed as linked to the virus was on May 27: £ 78,187.07. A total of £ 253,187.07 was paid to Public First prior to the conclusion of the contract on June 5.
The Cabinet Office spokesperson said that all of the focus group work was related to the government’s COVID-19 messaging and that references to Brexit in official government disclosures were misleading.
He said the Cabinet Office accounts department did not immediately open a “cost code” classification for crisis-related expenses, so payments were initially assigned to an existing cost code, which included communications on Brexit.
The Cabinet Office spokesperson said that Gove, as minister, and Cummings, who is the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, as political adviser, had no role in the selection of companies providing services to the government. .
Frayne and Cummings’ political partnerships date back to at least 2000, when they worked together on Business for Sterling, the campaign against Britain’s joining the euro. In 2003, they co-founded a right-wing think tank, the New Frontiers Foundation, then launched the following year the campaign to combat the plan to form a regional assembly in the Northeast.
Cummings described this successful campaign, which was based on depicting politicians as a drain on ordinary people, as “a training exercise for an EU referendum”.
After Gove became secretary of education after the 2010 election, with Cummings as chief political adviser, Frayne was appointed in 2011 the department’s communications director.
Wolf, a former special advisor to Gove, headed the New Schools Network in 2010 to promote free schools, which won a £ 500,000 contract from the department in 2010 without a tender. He was justified by the fact that his was the only organization able to provide expert support fairly quickly.
The Cabinet Office contract with Public First is disputed by the Good Law Project, which wrote to Gove Thursday arguing that the absence of a tender was illegal and not justified by the emergency provisions of COVID-19.
In a letter warning Gove that he plans to seek judicial review of the contract award, project attorneys Rook Irwin Sweeney say there is “apparent bias” in the contract going to Public First, due of their “close personal and professional ties”. ”With Gove and Cummings.
The British government has recently been criticized for awarding public contracts to companies with long-standing relationships with government officials. After OpenDemocracy threatened legal action, the government released contracts for NHS data signed with a number of tech companies, including Faculty, which was involved in the voting holiday campaign led by Cummings.
When asked whether Public First’s ties to Gove and Cummings, who is the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, were a factor in awarding the contract to the company, the Cabinet Office spokesperson responded : “It’s absurd. Public First was hired to undertake this work because of its vast experience in the field.
“Public First has been awarded a contract to organize daily focus groups across the country in response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said the spokesperson. “They did this work to ensure that the vitally important public health messages the government delivered were the right ones.” This work will continue to inform the future activity of the COVID-19 campaign. ”
Shadow Cabinet Minister Rachel Reeves said: “This makes us believe that the government’s desperate defense of awarding a contract for daily COVD-19 and Brexit focus groups to longtime friends of ministers is a coincidence and an administrative incompetence. They should clarify the purpose of this project, why this company was chosen without having to bid and publish the research results and recommendations that people will be able to see for themselves. ”
Ian Makgill, founder of the Open Opps public procurement transparency initiative, said: “Transparent and open procurement without competition is a violation of public procurement regulations and has a deterrent effect on public procurement. If suppliers are not controlled and markets are not awarded merit, new businesses will be deterred from bidding, stifling innovation and increasing costs. ”
Steve Goodrich, research manager at Transparency International, said: “The government should be clear about when its use of the emergency procurement rules begins and ends.
“When a politically connected company is awarded uncompetitive public contracts, it smells a little bad, but when it happens over and over, it smacks of cronyism. The government should guarantee the best possible value for money, even in times of crisis. Ministers should even avoid the perception that they are doing favors to their friends. ”
Public First declined to comment.