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Blair defies watchdog over jobs for the boys

By Francis Elliott, Deputy Political Editor

01 August 2004

Tony Blair has defied two anti-sleaze watchdogs to make it easier for senior civil servants to take up lucrative private sector jobs, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

He has brushed aside official warnings that a growing "traffic" of mandarins into big business is leading to a "heightened risk of impropriety."

Mr Blair also rejected a secret offer by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to update the rulebook it wrote eight years ago.

Instead he used the last day of the parliamentary term to slip out news of an internal review by a former mandarin now working in the City.

Members of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the watchdog designed to vet appointments, are furious at the move, which they say will lead to a relaxation of the rules designed to prevent corruption in Whitehall.

The body has sounded a clear warning over the number of officials - particularly from the Ministry of Defence - moving into well-paid jobs with firms bidding for Whitehall contracts.

It is concerned senior MoD officials could now "enter their final postings with a hope or expectation of post-employment with companies with which they would be dealing with officially".

Eleven of the military's top brass have left for the private sector over the past two years - often joining firms bidding for contracts from their former employers, although there is no suggestion that any have done anything wrong.

An analysis of appointments has found that the anti-sleaze watchdog raised concerns on at least four occasions. One was considered so controversial that a member of the body wanted to block it completely, The Independent on Sunday has learned.

Sir Robert Walmsley, who was chief of defence procurement until April last year, was asked to join the US board of General Dynamics, whose British arm is a prime contractor in a project to replace the MoD's radio system.

"Contracts on that programme, valued at 2bn, were awarded to the company during the last two years of Sir Robert's time as the chief of defence procurement," noted the committee in its annual report placed in the House of Commons library last month. "We were therefore concerned that the appointment could be perceived as a reward."

Although not doubting his "personal integrity", the committee decided that he should wait a year before taking up his post to "allay potential public concern". One member of the seven-person body wanted to stop the move altogether, however, because he "considered the appointment to be inappropriate".

It was revealed last week that Mr Blair personally overturned the committee's decision to delay the appointment of a RAF air chief marshal to BAE Systems by a year in a separate case.

The Prime Minister ruled it was in the "wider national interest" that Sir John Day should take up his position as a military adviser to the firm that is bidding for a number of multimillion-pound MoD contracts.

The focus on the appointments will be particularly unwelcome this week, coming just days after trenchant criticism of the MoD's procurements from MPs.

A report by the House of Commons Defence Committee was scathing about billion-pound cost overruns and years' delays to key projects.

"The performance of the Defence Procurement Agency in 2002-2003 can only be described as woeful," concluded the report.

Nevertheless Mr Blair remains determined to make it easier for officials to move in and out of the private sector.