Michael Gove has dodged 50 minutes of questions about illegally-issued emergency coronavirus contracts.
MPs had sought to challenge Cabinet Office minister Gove over the awarding of £560,000 to Public First, which critics said was used to carry out opinion polling on Scottish independence.
Earlier this month, the High Court ruled use of the money was “unlawful” as it “gave rise to an apparent bias” due to its links with former colleagues of Gove and Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser.
The contract was awarded to gauge people’s opinions on Brexit issues, rebuilding the economy following the pandemic and attitudes towards the union.
During a visit to Aberdeen on Monday, Gove had denied allegations of misusing public funds and said it was “the right decision” to award the money for polling.
However, he chose not to answer MPs’ questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday, instead sending junior Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez.
This provoked the ire of speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who said: “I do feel sorry for the minister being set up [Lopez]. I’m sorry that minister Gove wasn’t here to take questions because most of them are named for him, but this house won’t be taken for granted.
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“When statements are made outside here… that’s why I’m going to continue to grant urgent questions, so let’s gets used to it. The government doesn’t want to come here – I’m going to ensure it is heard here.”
Hoyle has regularly criticised the government for making major announcements outside Parliament.
In Tuesday’s debate, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said he had written to cabinet secretary Simon Case, the UK’s most senior civil servant, to launch an independent investigation into “blatant misuse of public money for political purposes”.
Lopez said: “We do not use public money for political campaign purposes.”
In February, a judge also ruled that then-health secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully when his department did not reveal details of contracts signed during the pandemic.
The awarding of contracts is part of a wider row involving the government's conduct.
On Tuesday, health minister Lord Bethell was facing fresh calls to resign over his use of a personal email account rather than official communication channels. Hancock also faced similar accusations.
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