THE HIGH Court has ruled that the Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove broke the law by acting with ‘apparent bias’ in handing a £560,000 public contract to long-time associates of his and Dominic Cummings at communications agency Public First.
Ministers have always claimed there was no favouritism – bias as lawyers call it – in the awarding of vast public contracts during the Covid pandemic. However, the High Court found: ‘the existence of personal connections between the Defendant (Michael Gove), Mr Cummings and the directors of Public First was a relevant circumstance that might be perceived to compromise their impartiality and independence in the context of a public procurement.’ (paragraph 147)
The Judge continued: ‘failure to consider any other research agency … 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’ (paragraph 168).
Gove had tried to argue that only Public First could carry out the contracted work and everyone was acting under pressure.
However, the High Court found that version of events ‘does not stand up to scrutiny’ and ‘the time constraints … did not exonerate the Defendant from conducting the procurement so as to demonstrate a fair and impartial process of selection’. (paragraph 164).
The truth, it said, is the Cabinet Office didn’t even consider whether to give the contract to anyone else.
Emails between civil servants revealed in the course of Good Law Project’s legal action showed that both Gove and No 10 wanted contracts to be awarded to Public First.
This is the second decision in Good Law Project’s slate of crowdfunded procurement judicial reviews – and Good Law Project has succeeded in both.
Two Cabinet Ministers – Michael Gove and Matt Hancock – have now been found to have broken the law.
Jo Maugham, Director of Good Law Project said: ‘This is not government for the public good – it is government for the good of friends of the Conservative Party.
‘We just don’t understand how the Prime Minister can run a Cabinet that acts without proper regard for the law or value for public money.
‘Government has claimed there was no favouritism in the awarding of contracts. But the High Court has held an informed observer would conclude otherwise.’
Good Law Project’s successful legal team was Jason Coppel QC and Patrick Halliday of 11KBW, and Rook Irwin Sweeney who acted as solicitors.
Meanwhile Gove’s Cabinet Office has been ordered to hand over documents relating to a secretive system of obstructing requests to the government for public information.
A tribunal judge said there had been a ‘profound lack of transparency about the operation’ of the department’s ‘Clearing House’ for information requests.
The Cabinet Office lost its legal bid to prevent publication of documents about the secretive body after being accused of ‘blacklisting’ Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from journalists and campaigners.
The Clearing House has been accused of blocking the release of politically sensitive information, and circulates a list of ‘known journalists’ across Whitehall.
Ruling on a legal challenge brought by news site OpenDemocracy, the judge said the lack of transparency ‘might appear … to extend to ministers.’
Tory MP David Davies said the judgement ‘demonstrates what we have known all along.
‘The Cabinet Office has failed to meet its obligation in either the letter or the principle of the Freedom of Information Act and has withheld important information about government activity from the public domain.
‘This has got to change immediately.’
Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said: ‘The Cabinet Office lists one of its own key responsibilities as “making the way government works more transparent”, yet as the court’s damning judgement makes clear, Conservative Ministers are determined to undermine accountability and transparency at every turn.’
Dave Wiltshire, the secretary of the All Trades Unions Alliance, commented: ‘Enough is enough. Gove has been found by the High Court to be a law breaker. He is the second Tory minister to have been judged a law breaker, the first being Hancock.
‘The TUC must now take action to bring this government down and replace it with a workers government.
‘This means that the General Council must meet and must call a general strike, to bring down the Tories.’