Public First, UK a research company that has been linked with conservative MP, Michael Gove, has been awarded a £840,000 contract without tender.
According to Guardian UK, the medium that broke the news, Public First is run by James Frayne, whose work alongside Cummings – the prime minister’s senior adviser – dates back to a Eurosceptic campaign 20 years ago, and Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Gove who co-wrote the Conservative party’s 2019 election manifesto.
The government justified the absence of a competitive tendering process, which would have enabled other companies to bid, under emergency regulations that allow services to be urgently commissioned in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
However, the Cabinet Office’s public record states that portions of the work, which involved focus group research, related to Brexit rather than Covid-19, a joint investigation by the Guardian and openDemocracy has established.
A Cabinet Office spokesman who spoke to Guardian said this was because of bookkeeping methods, and insisted that, contrary to government records, all the focus group research done by Public First was related to the pandemic.
The Cabinet Office, where Gove is the minister responsible, initially commissioned Public First to carry out focus groups from 3 March, although no contract was put in place until 5 June.
Government work is legally required to be put out for competitive tender to ensure the best qualified company is appointed, unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as an unforeseen emergency.
When a contract was finally produced on 5 June, it was made retrospective to cover the work done since 3 March. The Cabinet Office paid Public First £253,000 for the two projects listed as being Brexit-related and two more pieces of work done before the contract was put in place.
Public First was required to conduct focus groups “covering the general public and key sub-groups”, according to a Cabinet Office letter.
The firm was required to provide the government with “topline reporting” of their findings on the same day, with fuller findings reported the following day. The deal also included “on-site resource to support Number 10 communications” in the form of a Public First partner, Gabriel Milland, being seconded to Downing Street until 26 June.
Milland was the head of communications at the Department for Education when Gove was the minister and Cummings was his political adviser.
The Cabinet Office said in the letter that it had commissioned the work from Public First for a total of £840,000 without any tender “due to unforeseeable consequences of the current Covid-19 pandemic”.
According to further details published by the government under its transparency requirements, Public First was paid £58,000 on 18 March for its first focus group work, classed by the Cabinet Office as being for “Gov Comms EU Exit Prog”, then a further £75,000 on 20 March for work classed as “Insight and Evaluation”.
On 2 April, 10 days into lockdown and with increasing numbers of people dying from Covid-19, the Cabinet Office paid Public First £42,000 for work listed again as “EU Exit Comms”. The first payment for work listed as being coronavirus-related was on 27 May: £78,187.07. A total of £253,187.07, was paid to Public First before the contract was entered into on 5 June.