Cummings told officials to bypass procedures on £530k grant to data team, leak reveals

Owl was expecting Dominic Cummings to launch another broadside just before yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions. If it did happen it was another “damp squib”.

Why did Boris Johnson give him so much power?

Felicity Lawrence www.theguardian.com 

Dominic Cummings demanded senior civil servants pay half a million pounds to an external data team, according to leaked emails that show the prime minister’s then chief adviser urging officials to bypass government procedures.

On 22 March 2020, the day before Boris Johnson ordered the UK into full lockdown, Cummings instructed civil servants at NHSX, the government unit responsible for digital transformation in health, to grant the money to Our World in Data, a research project run by a not-for-profit organisation with Oxford academics.

“Someone please ensure that they have the 530k within 24 hours from now and report back to me it’s been sent,” Cummings wrote to the chief executive of NHSX. “No procurement, no lawyers, no meetings, no delay please – just send immediately,” he continued.

The funding request had the backing of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who was copied in on the email chain at this point.

The emails, obtained as part of a joint investigation by the Guardian, BBC’s File on 4 and SourceMaterial, suggest it was Hancock who passed details of the proposed project to Cummings and other senior officials. “This is an NHSX lead. I support,” Hancock wrote.

The instructions from Cummings and Hancock caused disquiet among the civil servants tasked with carrying them out. Senior officials nevertheless felt compelled to act because the instruction had come from Cummings and Hancock, the emails show.

“My team can do this via DHSC and have the money in place by tomorrow, but it will mean your team waiving the normal grant-giving process. I don’t want to do anything untoward,” the NHSX chief, Matthew Gould, wrote to the second permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care, David Williams, asking for help and a “green light” to justify acting on the irregular request.

Cummings did not respond to a request for comment. He told a government committee last month that the national emergency justified circumventing normal procurement rules, arguing that “the procurement system is completely unfit for its purposes in Whitehall”.

After a flurry of communication between top civil servants, money for Our World in Data was approved within days and put on NHSX’s budget, the Guardian understands.

However, the emails suggest the proposed grant was neither urgent nor immediately necessary to save lives. And despite absorbing the attention of senior mandarins, the grant was not even wanted by the not-for-profit in the form being offered.

Following Cummings’ email, one civil servant wrote to Gould: “They are not keen for us to give them money urgently and have made clear they want to understand the implications of taking government money and agree it with their board of trustees.”

Another wrote to Gould: “I need your help please to progress this to a point where there is enough air cover to justify a decision to proceed,” adding that further checks were necessary before disbursing the grant.

“Ordinarily this organisation would not meet due diligence as they do not have a full year’s audited accounts ,” the civil servant wrote. “I’m sorry I couldn’t just ‘make this happen’, but I share your concern about doing anything untoward.”

The grant proposal was brought to Hancock’s attention by William Warr, a special adviser in No 10 who was previously based at Oxford University.

Our World in Data’s director Max Roser said he was contacted by Warr after the adviser saw a tweet about lack of funding posted by Roser on the evening of 19 March. Warr contacted him that day and by 22 March the proposal for the government to award a £530,000 grant was being pushed through by Hancock and Cummings on to NHSX budget.

Roser said he had never heard of Warr before and neither he nor his fellow researchers at Our World in Data had any previous connection with him. The group chose to follow its own due process and later applied formally to DHSC and was awarded a grant.

Jolyon Maugham, whose Good Law Project has successfully sued the government for acting unlawfully with other contracts, accused Cummings of “regarding the public purse as his private piggy bank”. Peter Smith, a former senior civil servant who specialised in government procurement, said: “There are good reasons for having rules and processes, whether it’s procurement or grants.”

He criticised Hancock and Cummings for putting senior civil servants in a position where they were required to break the rules and their code of conduct. “What a waste of time when we were at that position in the pandemic. I think it was unethical, immoral, and an abuse of power,” he said.

DHSC said Our World in Data had helped inform 100 million visitors to its website about Covid-19, and that officials carried out due diligence and followed appropriate processes before the grant was awarded.