High Court Rules Michael Gove Broke The Law Over Covid Contract Award For Friends Of Dominic Cummings
The High Court ruled Michael Gove had broken the law by awarding the contract (PA)
The High Court has ruled that Michael Gove broke the law over Covid contracts by acting with "apparent bias" after a £560,000 public contract was awarded to a communications firm with links to Dominic Cummings.
Campaigners had taken legal action over the contract awarded by the Cabinet Office to market research firm, Public First.
The High Court said the decision to award the firm was unlawful because of connections between Gove and former Downing Street aide, Dominic Cummings, who has close links with the company's owners.
Public First had been directly awarded contracts worth more than £560,000 in the early months of the pandemic without the tender going out for competition.
The Cabinet Secretary had argued that the firm had been given the direct award because there was no other company able to carry out the work.
But in the ruling on Wednesday, Mrs Justice O'Farrell, said the "existence of personal connections between [Gove], Mr Cummings and the directors of Public First was a relevant circumstance that might be perceived to compromise their impartiality and independence."
She added that "failure to consider any other research agency... would lead a fair minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision maker was biased".
Lawyers representing campaign group, the Good Law Project, had argued that Cummings had called for the company to be offered work conducting focus groups and offering communications support to the government.Cummings had denied the claims, saying he "obviously" did not ask for the firm to be used because of his relationship with them, adding he would "never do such a thing".
In a series of tweets after the ruling, Cummings said he had told officials to "focus on imminent threats to lives/destruction, not process/lawyers" and said the focus on a "paper trail" was a "hugely destructive problem & today's judgement will make it even worse".
Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: "This is not Government for the public good – it is Government for the good of friends of the Conservative Party.
"We just don't understand how the Prime Minister can run a Cabinet that acts without proper regard for the law or value for public money."
He added: "Government has claimed there was no favouritism in the awarding of contracts. But the High Court has held an informed observer would conclude otherwise."
A spokesperson for Public First, said: "We're deeply proud of the work we did in the early stages of the pandemic, which helped save lives.
"The Judge rejected most of the Good Law Project's claims, not finding actual bias in the awarding of this work, nor any problems with the pace or scale of the award.
"Rather, the Judge found that weak internal processes gave rise to the appearance of bias. The judge made no criticism whatsoever of Public First anywhere in the judgement."
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "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."
They added: "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.
"Procedural issues raised in this judgment have already been addressed through the implementation of the independent Boardman review of procurement processes."
The decision comes just months after a High Court ruling found that Health Secretary Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully by breaching his department's own transparency rules related to the publishing of contracts related to the coronavirus pandemic.