UK ministers used a pandemic research contract deemed "unlawful" by the High Court while at the centre of a government "institutionalised cronyism" row to carry out work on attitudes to the Union in Scotland, it has emerged.

Court documents seen by the Herald show an urgent request to test attitudes to the Union was made by the office of Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove - under the cover of the Covid-19 contract given to Public First, which was meant to inform "vital" advice to shape the UK government's pandemic response.

It has emerged that in July, last year, services provided by Public First under a £560,000 Covid pandemic contract were extended to cover what was described as "qualitative research into EU exit topics and themes, re-building the economy following the Covid-19 crisis and attitudes to the UK Union".

The SNP has now called for an inquiry into what it called "misuse of public funds" by Tory ministers on conducting "political research" through the Covid contract.

The UK government said it maintains that it is allowed to undertake polling work on government policy issues.

 Dominic Cummings last week defended the decision to appoint Public First he had links to insisting he was acting in the midst of a “once in a century” health crisis.

The Prime Minister’s former aide said the decision to appoint firms such as Public First during the pandemic without a proper procurement process was done to focus on the “imminent threat” of Covid rather than creating a “Potemkin paper trail”.

According to the judgement, the award of the contract was made by a letter from Mr Gove dated June 5.

High Court judge Mrs Justice O’Farrell ruled that the June 5 decision to award the contract to Public First - run by close allies of Mr Gove and Mr Cummings - "gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful".

The judge said a failure to consider other firms could be seen as suggesting a "real danger" of bias.

The Herald can reveal that UK ministers used the pandemic research by Public First, who specialise in research and targeted communications campaigns, to carry out work on attitudes to the Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

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Public First is run by husband and wife policy specialists James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, both of whom previously worked with Mr Cummings and Mr Gove.

And the Good Law Project, which brought the legal challenge against Mr Gove says the services commissioned in the contract "significantly exceeded" the scope of Covid-19 communications.

Papers reveal that the contract was extended to cover research into EU exit topics, re-building the economy following the Covid-19 crisis and attitudes to the UK Union.

One spend of £98,000 in August last year covering one of 11 sets of focus groups in July across the UK, covered Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Highlands and related to the Government's post-Covid economic renewal work and matters relating to the UK Union.

SNP Westminster depute leader Kirsten Oswald MP said: "It is a scandal that in the midst of a deadly pandemic, Tory ministers were misusing emergency COVID-19 contracts for constitutional campaigning.

"This is a gross misuse of public money and emergency COVID contracts, which existed to tackle the pandemic. There must be an inquiry and those responsible must be held to account. This Tory government is engulfed in cronyism."

Catherine Hunt, head of insight and evaluation for the Prime Minister's Office and Cabinet Office communication team has detailed how Mr Gove's office had requested Union-related research which they did contract for separately - and included it within the Covid-19 research.

She states in written evidence that testing the strength of the Union initially came out of an urgent new government narrative research and testing brief which began in January 2020.

It came after a briefing with Alex Aiken, executive director for government communications who was responsible for strategy.

She said the narrative would be "very important in setting out its main polcies and over-arching vision" for the longer-term informing its overall communication strategy.

At the same time she had been conducting research for Lee Cain, the cabinet office's director of communications on the Union and sharing details with Mr Gove.

The Herald: Dominic Cummings

She says she told Mr Gove's office on January 28, last year that they were working with Public First to do "narrative testing".

In one instant message exchange the same month she said to a colleague: "I'm in the middle of a separate email to Alex now about the Public First research.

"Tory Party research agency tests Tory Party narrative on public money. But actually, it will be very interesting and very good."

She has said in court papers that it was "meant to be frivolous and light-hearted."

In an email in March, she raise further concerns saying: "… this agency is the one who are Dom Cummings / Lee Cain's mates, and hence getting all our work with no contract BUT are also spending much money on doing all our ridiculous groups, so keen that they're paid and don't start whining about us when it's not our fault. I know it's not you!! …"

She acknowledged that there was no senior person within the Government Communication Service (GCS) with overall responsibility for overseeing contract and payment process and there was a "lack of clarity" about who was expected to make a decision on how Public First would be paid, including contractual arrangements.

"In my view and experience, the lack of clarity around finance and budgeting processes was symptomatic of wider administrative issues within GCS at this point," she said. "Processes and responsiblities for budgeting, procurement, contracts, team management and hiring and commercial and human resources issues were - from my perspective - generally opaque, confusion or not in place. This caused me a huge amount of frustration at the time leading to delays and confusion..."

In an email dated June 25, 2020, she indicated that Public First could be instructed under the pandemic contract for "policy testing other than Covid-19 related health communications".

And she has said that at the start of July she said she received an "urgent request" for Union-related research from the office of Mr Gove.

"In response, I asked Public First to conduct some testing of people's attitudes on this issue.

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"There was an element of Covid-19 to this testing which at the time we considered was sufficent to enable use to use the existing contract.

"I knew that we would need to restart the qualitative agency procurement that we had postponed at the start of the crisis as soon as our workload permitted.

"However, this particular piece of Union research was urgent and had some links to Covid-19 and given that the contract with Public First was in place and it was well within their capabilities, we as a team thought we could use them to start the work..."

Just three months earlier the government had been advised that research into the exit from the EU could not be carried out as part of the Covid-19 contract.

According to Helen Stratton, who had been head of insight within GCS the expanded research had covered skills and employment and views on the economy.

She had entered into discussions to review the scope of work and fee proposals from Public First and set up a purchase order for the work.

Her recollection was: "I do not think that there was really any consideration of running a competition, even on an accelerated basis."

The Good Law Project argued that the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would have concluded that there was a real possibility of bias.

One of the reasons given was that the contract was not restricted to immediately required work.

"The use of Public First to perform the work on the 'Union' between Scotland and the rest of the UK was a personal choice of the defendant (Mr Gove) who also has close personal, and previous working, relationships with the owners and directors of Public First," said the project QC, Jason Coppel.

Mrs Justice O’Farrell, who gave the ruling on the Cabinet Office contract with Public First, said: “The decision of 5 June 2020 to award the contract to Public First gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful.”

She ruled that the Cabinet Office’s failure to identify or consider any other research agency to carry out the work gave the appearance of “a real danger” that the contract award was biased.

Ms Oswald added: "It stinks that so much public money has been handed to Tory friends and donors through emergency Covid contracts but now we know that some of this money was being spent on Tory constitutional campaigning.

"The UK government has already been officially criticised for not publishing publicly-funded research on attitudes to the Union but we now find they were using money meant to tackle the pandemic for this work. There must be full transparency on what taxpayers' money has been spent on and how on earth this was allowed to happen."

Campaigners took legal action against Mr Gove over the Cabinet Office's decision to use the company following the start of the pandemic last year.

They also questioned the involvement of Mr Cummings, who worked in Downing Street until he quit as the prime minister's chief adviser last autumn.

The Good Law Project is now seeking a shake up on how contracts are awarded "to help restore public confidence in how taxpayers' money is being spent and ensure the public purse is getting value for money".

The have told the government that in the light of the judgement they should commit to recovering public money from all the companies who failed to meet their contractual obligations - and agree an independent process to identify those failures.

"Now is the time for a real commitment to scrutiny, to accountability and to ensure the money spent can best meet the needs of our country at a time of crisis," said project director Jolyon Maugham QC.

The firms said the judge’s ruling over the award of the contract vindicated its characterisation of Government pandemic procurement as “institutionalised cronyism”.

The Cabinet Office has rejected calls for an investigation after the judgement arguing that Mr Gove “was not involved in the decision to award this contract”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "Any suggestion that the Government carries out party-political research or polling is entirely false.  

"Strengthening the Union and levelling up in every part of the UK are government priorities, and we regularly undertake research to support policy development. "

The spokesman added: “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.

“Procedural issues raised in this judgment have already been addressed through the implementation of the independent Boardman review of procurement processes.”

The High Court rejected two other claims made against the government by the Good Law Project.

The first was that the "direct" award of the contract to Public First was "unnecessary" because there were other firms who could potentially have done the work.

The second was that giving it a six-month contract was "disproportionate" for the government's "immediate" needs - and that a shorter arrangement could have been followed by a "competitive process" for a longer contract.

A Public First spokesman said the company was "deeply proud of the work we did in the early stages of the pandemic, which helped save lives".

He added: "The judge rejected most of the Good Law Project's claims, not finding actual bias in the awarding of this work, nor any problems with the pace or scale of the award."