Boris Johnson’s government has been criticised for handing out more taxpayer money to a friendly PR firm to help clean up its “disastrous” handling of the A-level grades crisis, openDemocracy can reveal today.
In August, the exams regulator (Ofqal) awarded a contract without competition to Public First, a small research agency owned by two close associates of Cabinet Minister Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s controversial chief advisor.
The job was to provide “urgent communications support” in the midst of the summer’s exams results crisis.
Public First is run by James Frayne – who has been a close associate of Cummings for more than 20 years – and Rachel Wolf, a former Gove adviser who co-wrote the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto.
Public First has now won more than £1m of public contracts without tender under emergency COVID-19 provisions. The Ofqal deal involved £46,000 for less than a month’s work.
Shadow Cabinet Office secretary Rachel Reeves has accused the government of giving public money to friendly PR firms to try and clean up problems caused by its faltering COVID response.
"The government’s disastrous handling of the A-level grading fiasco caused a huge amount of stress over the summer and meant many young people missed out on a place at their preferred university,” she told openDemocracy.
Lucrative contracts given to private sector firms have also been criticised by some within government, with Cabinet Office and Treasury minister Lord Agnew writing privately that Whitehall has been “infantilised” by an “unacceptable” reliance on expensive management consultants to do work that could be done by the civil service.
Earlier this year openDemocracy revealed that the Cabinet Office had directly awarded Public First a £840,000 contract to research public opinion about government policies. The firm had done no work for central government before 2020, and the Cabinet Office’s own records stated that portions of the work related to Brexit rather than COVID-19.
Costly COVID contracts have also been handed to other Conservative allies, including political communications outfit Topham Guerin, which worked on the Tories’ controversial digital campaign during the 2019 general election, as well as former Vote Leave AI firm Faculty, and a PR firm run by former Vote Leave director of communications Paul Stephenson.
‘Immediate communications support’
On August 17, Ofqal was in the eye of a political storm. Four days earlier news broke that thousands of students' marks had been downgraded by a controversial algorithm, leading to many students missing out on university places.
As the results crisis that would eventually lead to resignation of Ofqual chief Sally Collier grew, the regulator gave Public First a contract to “provide immediate, short-term strategic communications support”.
Public First already had direct experience of the chaos of the algorithm-led exam results. As the Guardian revealed, in June Ofqual contracted the Tufton Street firm for almost £50,000 to assist with “communicating its A-level and GCSE results plan to help secure public confidence in the strategy”. Again, the contract was awarded without tender.
openDemocracy has also learned that the exams regulator had paid Public First £2,750 to provide a speaker for its ‘Board Strategy day’ in February.
Public First had not had any central government contracts before this year. But it has close ties with senior figures in the Johnson administration. James Frayne and Dominic Cummings worked together on Business for Sterling, the campaign against Britain joining the euro, in 2000.
Three years later, Frayne and Cummings co-founded a right-wing think tank, the New Frontiers Foundation. The following year, the pair set up the campaign to fight the proposed formation of a regional assembly in the North East. After Michael Gove became Education Secretary following the 2010 election, with Cummings as his chief political adviser, Frayne was in 2011 appointed the department’s director of communications.
Public First’s Rachel Wolf, a former special adviser to Gove, ran the New Schools Network in 2010 to promote free schools, which was awarded a £500,000 contract by the Department of Education without a tender. It was justified on the basis that hers was the only organisation able to provide expert support quickly enough.
In January of this year, Frayne had a meeting with Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith at Portcullis House in Westminster. The meeting was listed as a “social” encounter in transparency records but, following a Freedom of Information request from openDemocracy, the Cabinet Office said that the pair had discussed “constitutional issues”, and that no notes or agenda were kept.
Frayne said he didn’t recall details of the meeting with Smith “but I would guess it was to hear my thoughts on where public opinion was on the constitution.”
Frayne told openDemocracy that Smith had suggested the meeting after she had been unable to attend Public First’s Christmas party. “I don’t want to sound like Ron Burgundy but this is quite common,” he said, referring to the fictional news reader in the 2004 Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman.
Asked about the latest contract with Ofqal, Frayne told openDemocracy: “As you’ll appreciate, it’s not really for us to talk about our clients’ business/decisions in this way.”
An Ofqual spokesperson said: “Given that the value of these contracts was below the relevant threshold and also that our requirements were urgent and unforeseeable, we were satisfied that a competitive procurement was not required."
Responding to openDemocracy’s findings, Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said the government should open public procurement up for competition again.
“All public bodies are under an obligation to handle taxpayers' funds with good care in order to be confident of securing value for money they should get back into the habit of open, competitive tendering, other than in the most exceptional cases,” Hames said.