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Vote Leave AI firm wins seven government contracts in 18 months

Tory minister is resisting calls to sell stake in Faculty as it expands its Whitehall reach

Dominic Cummings in Downing Street. Faculty worked with Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign and he hired Ben Warner, whose brother runs Faculty.

An artificial intelligence startup that was hired to work with Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign has been awarded at least seven government contracts worth almost £1m in the space of 18 months.

Faculty, which has links to senior Tory figures in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, is rapidly expanding its reach into various corners of Whitehall and last year was tasked with finding ways to apply artificial intelligence across government.

A Cabinet Office minister, Theodore Agnew, who is responsible for the government department that promotes the use of digital technology within public services, is resisting calls to sell a £90,000 shareholding in the company amid claims of a conflict of interest. On Friday it emerged that Faculty’s chief executive, Marc Warner, attended a meeting of the government’s scientific advisory group on emergencies (Sage).

Faculty’s connections to the upper echelons of the government appear to run deep. The firm’s first high-profile contract was supplying data science services to the Vote Leave campaign, which Cummings ran before becoming Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser.

Cummings has for years maintained a blog documenting among other things his enthusiasm for the disruptive potential of new technologies and artificial intelligence.

Faculty is run by Marc Warner, whose brother Ben Warner, a data scientist, was reportedly recruited to Downing Street last year by Cummings after running the data modelling for the Conservative party’s general election campaign. Ben Warner is a former senior employee at Faculty and is also said to have worked on Vote Leave.

Ben Warner hit the headlines when the Guardian revealed he and Cummings have been attending meetings of Sage, which provides advice to ministers on Covid-19. One Sage attendee told the Guardian that Warner was a regular participant in meetings and “behaved as Cummings’ deputy”.

Faculty is working at the heart of the government’s response to the pandemic. It has been processing large volumes of confidential UK patient information in an “unprecedented” data-mining operation alongside Palantir, a US firm founded by the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel.

Marc Warner disclosed in an article in the Times that he too attended a critical meeting of Sage in March before the lockdown was imposed. He argued that he needed to align Faculty’s work with that of the rest of government, including Sage. Faculty said he attended Sage as an observer.

Faculty’s work on the coronavirus response is only the latest government project it has secured under the Conservative administration. One early contract, for £32,000, funded fellowships in 2018 to place data scientists in city governments to help solve local challenges. Faculty was at that time operating under its original name, Advanced Skills Initiative.

Last year Faculty was awarded a £250,000 contract from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to run a cross-government review on the adoption of artificial intelligence, announced on the same day that the company rebranded as Faculty Science.

Under the contract, Faculty worked with two government departments – the Office for Artificial Intelligence and Government Digital Service (GDS) – “to identify the most significant opportunities to introduce AI across government with the aim of increasing productivity and improving the quality of public services”.

One of Faculty’s shareholders is Lord Agnew, a financier who has been a government minister since 2017. He has owned shares in the firm for the past four years. They are worth around £90,000, according to its most recent filings.

In February this year it was announced that Agnew had become a minister in the Cabinet Office and Treasury and had taken ministerial responsibility for the GDS, which works with official bodies to use digital technology to improve public services.

A government spokesperson said Agnew had had no role in awarding any contracts to Faculty while he had been a minister. However, Spotlight on Corruption, a watchdog group, has called on Agnew to sell his shareholding in Faculty, saying it raised questions over the government’s rules on managing conflicts of interests.

The government spokesperson replied that Agnew had followed the appropriate procedures by declaring his shareholding in House of Lords register of interests and under the ministerial code of conduct. Faculty said that while the GDS approved the overall budget for technology projects, it was not involved in the tendering or approval of specific contracts by individual departments.

Last year Faculty also received two consultancy contracts worth £185,000 from GDS. In March it also secured a £125,000 contract to provide advice on bias mitigation in finance and recruitment to the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), a government-funded board of experts who have been tasked by ministers with making recommendations about the ethical implementation of new technologies. One of the CDEI board members is Faculty’s chief commercial officer, Richard Sargeant. A Faculty spokesperson said Sargeant had recused himself from any discussions concerning the CDEI contract. A government spokesperson said Faculty was the highest-scoring bidder under a competitive tender.

Faculty’s government work with Palantir on Covid-19 is based out of NHSX, the digital technology arm of the health service. This work was awarded to Faculty in March under the government’s fast-track procedures to respond to the pandemic, without any other firms being asked to bid for it.

Instead of an open tender process, the Department of Health decided to extend a contract that had already been awarded to Faculty. The original contract was awarded after a competitive tender. Faculty said the extension of the contract built on its existing work with NHSX to create a new artificial intelligence laboratory.

In addition, Faculty has been awarded a £264,000 contract from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to monitor the impact of the coronavirus on industry.

In February 2018 it was reported that Faculty had a £600,000 contract from the Home Office to track terrorist videos online.

Holly Searle, Faculty’s head of PR and communications, said: “Faculty has strong governance procedures in place to guard against conflicts of interest when competing for new work. All of its contracts with the government are won through the proper processes and in line with procurement rules.”

The Scott Trust, the ultimate owner of the Guardian, is the sole investor in GMG Ventures, which is a minority shareholder in Faculty.

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