MICHAEL Gove is facing accusations of misusing public funds after the UK Government commissioned a firm which was contracted for emergency pandemic-related work to carry out research on the Union.

The SNP are demanding an inquiry after it was revealed by the Herald that the Cabinet Office minister instructed officials to commission political research on "attitudes to the UK Union". The work was carried out using an emergency Covid contract given to Public First, a firm run by two of his associates.

Gove has already been found to have acted unlawfully in awarding the £560,000 emergency contract to the market research company. The business is owned by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who both formerly worked for the Tory minister and are also associates of Dominic Cummings.

Earlier this month, the High Court ruled the decision to hand out the publicly funded deal "gave rise to apparent bias and was unlawful".

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It has now emerged that the services provided by Public First under the emergency Covid-19 contract were extended in July 2020, on the "urgent" orders of Michael Gove, to include qualitative research into the Union.

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

"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.”

The National: SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsten OswaldSNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsten Oswald

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Pointing to the recent High Court ruling which found Gove acted unlawfully, she said Boris Johnson’s administration is “engulfed in cronyism”.

Oswald continued: "It absolutely 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 shockingly 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 public 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."

Downing Street’s research on the Union was revealed in court documents submitted for the Good Law Project’s case against Gove.

The Good Law Project said the Public First’s remit "significantly exceeded" the scope of Covid-19 communications.

Court documents reveal that the contract was extended to cover research into Brexit, rebuilding the economy following the Covid-19 crisis and attitudes to the Union.

Some £98,000 was spent in summer last year on 11 sets of focus groups across the UK, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Highlands and related to the Government's post-Covid economic renewal work and matters relating to the Union.

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Catherine Hunt, head of insight and evaluation for the Prime Minister's Office and Cabinet Office communication team, explained how Union researched ended up being included as part of the Covid contract.

She states in written evidence that a study of the Union was prompted by 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. Hunt 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.

She had also been researching the Union for Lee Cain, the Cabinet Office's former director of communications, who had shared the findings details with Gove.

Hunt told the Tory minister’s office on January 28, 2020, 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 dated June 25, 2020, Hunt suggested that Public First could be instructed under the pandemic contract for "policy testing other than Covid-19 related health communications".

In early July, she received an "urgent request" for Union-related research from the office of Gove.

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

A Cabinet Office spokesperson commented: "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."