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Latest 14 July 2020

Money for Dominic Cummings’ mates

Why do so many public contracts end up with friends of Dominic Cummings? Like us, you might have wondered. But, although reporters pick these stories up, nothing ever happens. 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. The total contract value is £840,000.

The directors and owners of Public First are Ms Rachel Wolf and Mr James Frayne. They 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).

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The owners of Public First have a long history with Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. Frayne and Mr Cummings were co-founders of the New Frontiers Foundation think-tank. Ms Wolf 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 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.

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”
  • 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”. It is not clear why it took three months to put in place any written contract. Or why a contract for “Research into Government Communications” (one relating in part to “EU Exit” communications), was so “extremely urgent” that normal procurement processes should be dispensed with. 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.

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