An expert in public procurement rules has claimed that reports of the government handing a contract to a company with links to Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove is a sign of politicians exploiting the Covid-19 crisis.
Public First, a small research firm in London, was awarded an £840,000 contract without an open tender for the work.
It is run by James Frayne – a longtime associate of Cummings who worked with him on Eurosceptic campaigns in the early 2000s – and Rachel Wolf, a former Gove advisor who co-wrote the 2019 Tory election manifesto.
Downing Street defended the absence of a competitive tendering process saying it used legally-sound emergency regulations that permit urgent Covid-related services to be quickly commissioned.
But an investigation by the Guardian and openDemocracy of Cabinet Office records found that a portion of the work was actually related to Brexit and not the virus.
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Professor Liz David-Barrett, Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, explained that it was one rule for government and another for everyone else.
She explained: ‘From what is currently known, it seems possible that the Covid crisis may have been exploited to avoid a competitive process and award a contract to a favoured crony rather than letting companies compete for it. If so, using Covid as a cover for cronyism is clearly beyond the pale.
‘Even in an emergency, the government still has a responsibility to provide value for money to the taxpayer and to avoid cronyism.
‘If true, is very bad practice for the government to be making payments before issuing contracts, and issuing contracts retrospectively for work already carried out.
‘We need full transparency about who commissioned this work and on what instructions, and why they chose this company over the many other providers of such research.
‘At a time when parliamentary and media access and scrutiny are reduced, full transparency over government contracts is essential. It is both a deterrent to corrupt behaviour and increases the chances of detection – all Covid-19 contracts should be opened up to public scrutiny for this reason.
‘If local councillors were operating like this, the Cabinet Office would be expressing concern: it is important for the government to demonstrate there is not one rule for the Cabinet Office and one for everyone else.’