NEWS10 June 2021

Public First contract ruled ‘unlawful’

Covid-19 Legal News Public Sector UK

UK – Policy and research company Public First was unlawfully awarded a Cabinet Office contract for more than £564,000 work during the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the high court has ruled.

corner of whitehall and downing street

The high court ruling came after a legal challenge was brought by the Good Law Project against the Cabinet Office decision to award a contract to Public First.

The company was set up by Rachel Wolf and James Frayne, former colleagues of then government adviser Dominic Cummings and minister for the cabinet office Michael Gove.

Public First began working on focus groups relating to the government’s Covid-19 policy at the end of February 2020. A formal contract with Public First was not agreed until late April, being formally signed-off on 2nd June 2020.

The contract was for a maximum value of £840,000 and was backdated to run from 3rd March 2020 for a period of six months. 

The contract was not put out for tender. The total sum paid to Public First under the contract was £564,393.67.

In her judgement, Justice O’Farrell said that the decision to award the contract gave rise to “apparent bias” and was therefore unlawful.

“The 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 and that those research services were required immediately,” the judgement said.

“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.”

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. 

“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.”

Public First is a member of the Market Research Society (MRS). Jane Frost, chief executive of MRS, said: “This judgement is about the selection process and not at all about the quality of the research undertaken.

“Public First is an accredited company partner, they are committed to the ethical and professional standards of the MRS code of conduct, a standard openly recognised for government research.”

Public First has been approached for comment.