Relaxation of usual processes was first announced almost a year ago
Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves has called for the use of emergency procurement rules for coronavirus spending to be halted, following revelations that Dominic Cummings “expected” officials to hire a company run by his friends to provide research.
The government announced near the start of the coronavirus crisis that public-sector agencies could bypass usual buying rules and processes if doing so would support urgent pandemic response work. This could include directly awarding contracts, extending or modifying existing deals, or accelerating a standard procurement procedure.
Since then, many onlookers have raised concerns about a perceived lack of transparency, and questioned whether directly awarded contracts – including for some major technology and data projects – have represented value for money.
The National Audit Office indicated in September that it is examining the issue.
“We’re looking at the procurement process, a lot of public comments and concern about the transparency of some of the procurement contracts around PPE and other areas,” NAO head Gareth Davies told the Guardian. “We’re doing a detailed piece of work.”
Public scrutiny of the issue will no doubt have intensified after it was revealed in the High Court earlier this week that Cummings, former chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, “expected” officials to hire policy and research firm Public First to conduct a study of the public’s understanding of coronavirus and the quality of government messaging.
In a statement to a hearing on Monday that is probing government procurement processes during the early days of the pandemic, Cummings insisted he expected Public First to be picked for the job because of its ability, not because of who runs it.
The exchange was revealed in the campaign group the Good Law Project’s judicial review of the Cabinet Office’s decision to hire Public First, run by Rachel Wolf and James Frayne to conduct work costing £564,393, without a formal tender process.
In his statement, Cummings acknowledged his friendship with Wolf, who co-wrote the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto and founded the New Schools Network charity, and Frayne, who is a former director of communications at the Department for Education. But he said that was not the reason he recommended their firm for the work.
“Obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends. I would never do such a thing,” Cummings said in his statement, according to the Guardian.
“This government’s contracting has been plagued by cronyism and waste and they must take urgent steps to address this now – by urgently winding down emergency procurement”
Rachel Reeves, shadow Cabinet Office minister
He said he had recommended the firm based on extensive experience of its abilities.
“I am a special adviser and as such I am not allowed to direct civil servants. However, as a result of my suggestion I expected people to hire Public First. The nature of my role is that sometimes people take what I say as an instruction and that is a reasonable inference as people assume I am often speaking for the prime minister.
“Civil servants could have disagreed and did disagree with my suggestions all the time, and my response depends on my expertise of the matter in hand and other circumstances,” he said.
Cummings added: “On this occasion, I was an expert.”
‘Troubling and unsurpising’
Following the revelations, Reeves urged government to halt the use of emergency procurement rules that were first introduced to make sure contracts could be awarded quickly in response to Covid-19.
Reeves said the “findings are troubling and unsurprising”, adding: “It is appalling that the government not only dismissed these very credible claims of connections influencing this contract as ‘nonsense’ – but also that it took a judicial review to bring to light what should be publicly available information on how taxpayer money is being spent.”
As well as calling for the use of the emergency procedures to stop, Reeves said she would be writing to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to seek more details on the contract, as well as calling for the government to reveal who won contracts through the Cabinet Office’s “VIP” fast lane for procurement of personal protective equipment during Covid.
“This government’s contracting has been plagued by cronyism and waste and they must take urgent steps to address this now – by urgently winding down emergency procurement, releasing details of the VIP fast lane, and publishing all outstanding contracts by the end of the month. This cronyism must stop.”
The Cabinet Office asserts that past involvement with Public First underscored the quality of the firm’s work.
Even with some of the usual procurement procedures relaxed, regulation 32(2)(c) under the Public Contract Regulations 2015 requires departments to keep proper records of decisions and actions relating to individual contracts to “mitigate against the risk of a successful legal challenge”.
There must also be genuine reasons for the extreme urgency – such as public-health risks or the loss of existing provision at short notice.
Mrs Justice O’Farrell will deliver a ruling on the challenge at a future date.