The High Court in London has ruled that a decision to award a lucrative government contract to a company whose bosses were friends of Dominic Cummings “gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful” with the SNP saying the Conservative government is “stumbling from one cronyism row to the next.”
Campaigners had taken legal action against Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove over the decision to pay more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to market research firm Public First, following the start of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020, and questioned the involvement of Mr Cummings.
Lawyers representing the Good Law Project campaign organisation said Mr Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s then-chief adviser, wanted focus group and communications support services work to be given to a company whose bosses were his friends.
Mr Gove, and Mr Cummings – who left Downing Street late in 2020 – disputed the Good Law Project’s claim.
BREAKING: The High Court has ruled Michael Gove broke the law in handing a public contract to associates of his and Dominic Cummings at Public First.
The Court ruled a reasonable observer would think there was a real risk they won the contract because of favouritism. pic.twitter.com/tJbyjdBoAp
— Good Law Project (@GoodLawProject) June 9, 2021
Mrs Justice O’Farrell made a ruling in favour of the Good Law Project and said there had been a “failure to consider any other research agency”.
The judge, who is based in London, considered rival arguments at a virtual High Court hearing in February and delivered a ruling on Wednesday.
She said a fair-minded and informed observer would have appreciated that there was an urgent need for research through focus groups on effective communications in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
The judge also said a fair-minded and informed observer would have appreciated that Mr Cummings was “uniquely placed”, given his experience and expertise, to form a rapid view on which organisation might best be able to deliver those “urgent requirements”.
She said Mr Cummings’ professional and personal connections with Public First did not preclude him from making an impartial assessment “in this regard”.
But she added: “However, the defendant’s failure to consider any other research agency, by reference to experience, expertise, availability or capacity, 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.”
SNP calls the ruling ‘utterly damning’
The SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster, Kirsten Oswald, says the government’s handling over the contract issue “has been riddled with a catalogue of criticism.”
“The High Court ruling that the Tory government acted unlawfully when awarding lucratice contracts to friends and contacts is utterly damning.”
“This corrupt Tory government is stumbling from one cronyism row to the next, with this ruling just the latest in a long list of examples.”
Earlier this year the High Court ruled that Health Secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully after failing to properly publish details of multi-billion-pound contracts awarded during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Cabinet Office legal team “emphatically denied” there was any bias or apparent bias in awarding the contract to Public First, and said Michael Gove did not have any involvement in the decision or influence it in any way.