Questions have been asked after Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove met with a Vote Leave-linked PR form to discuss “the Union and devolution”.
The Cabinet Office is refusing to disclose any documents under the Freedom of Information Act that would explain what was discussed at the official meeting between Gove and PR firm Hanbury Strategy in February.
The Cabinet Office hired Hanbury on 16 March, just before the lockdown, to carry out polling to gauge public opinion during the pandemic. The work ended in July.
Hanbury Strategy was co-founded by Paul Stephenson, who worked alongside Dominic Cummings as the director of communications during the 2016 Vote Leave campaign.
The UK Government decided to award a contract to the firm without a competitive tender, a move which is now the subject of a legal challenge.
The contract only came to light last month through a freedom of information request by the Guardian.
The newspaper reported that the Cabinet Office is refusing to disclose any documents under the Freedom of Information Act that would explain what was discussed at an official meeting between Gove and Hanbury on 6 February.
The Cabinet Office told the newspaper that disclosure of the documents “would weaken ministers’ ability to discuss controversial and sensitive topics free from premature public scrutiny”. The only information that has been made public by the Cabinet Office about the meeting is that it was about “the Union and devolution”.
The Good Law Project is now challenging the Cabinet Office’s decision to give the contract to Hanbury Strategy.
The not-for-profit group who say they aim to use legal methods to expose wrongdoing, is seeking to have the decision to give the contract to Hanbury declared unlawful.
Government lawyers are resisting the lawsuit, arguing that the group has no legal right to take legal action as it is not a rival company that has lost out on the opportunity to win the contract.
“It is merely a campaigning group with no special interest in the communications sector,” they said.