Civil servant joins contract firm

'Gravy train' row: Anger as two bureaucrats join companies they dealt with in office
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The Independent Online

A senior civil servant who was in charge of setting up a multi-million pound computer project for the Home Office is to join the private company almost certain to win the contract to carry out the work.

Ken Cole, 37, a grade six civil servant at the Home Office, will start work at the computer company Quality Software Products (QSP) this month on substantially more than his current salary of about pounds 40,000.

QSP said Mr Cole approached it about the possibility of a job in about May or June, shortly after he and his team had completed an assessment of the four software firms short-listed to supply the equipment for the Home Office project, in a contract worth about pounds 2m. QSP, based in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, is the only one of the four software companies left in the running for the contract, their rivals having either pulled out or been rejected. The winner is expected to be officially named in the next few months.

Mr Cole's appointment as QSP's public sector and utilities marketing manager was announced about two weeks ago and has been cleared by the Cabinet Office, which ruled that there was no conflict of interest. The Home Office has emphasised Mr Cole was not, and would not be involved in selecting the successful tender.

Mr Cole, who has worked for the Government for 19 years, has been in charge of the Procurement Management and Information Systems (Promis) project since it began in October 1992. Promis will be an integrated computer system that will enable the Home Office and the Prison Service to control the department's pounds 600m annual spending.

At least one rival computer firm has questioned whether it is right for a senior public servant to move into a private company with which he has been working so closely. Martin Bayliss, sales director of TABS, a software company in Salisbury, Wiltshire, one of the unsuccessful firms bidding for the contract, said: "This seems a bit strange - it's not the sort of thing we would expect a high-ranking civil servant to be doing.

"Mr Cole was head of the project, he drew up the specifications, the valuation criteria, and would have provided information to help the companies put in their bids."

Janet Anderson, a Labour member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has written to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to express concern. "It is vital the actions of civil servants and politicians should be above suspicion," she said. "It is equally important we ensure that people working in the public sector are not compromised by the possibility of future employment in the private sector."

The Government is reviewing the scrutiny of civil servants following recommendations made by the Nolan committee. Among existing rules, civil servants moving into the private-sector should "avoid any suspicion ... the advice and decisions of a serving officer might be influenced by the hope or expectation of future employment with a particular firm..."

Richard Hannam, QSP's corporate communications manager, said a 10- strong Home Office team headed by Mr Cole completed a detailed evaluation of the four short-listed computer software companies in early May. Shortly afterwards Mr Cole approached the company about job opportunities.

A Home Office spokesman said: "There's no conflict of interest and Mr Cole's move to the private sector was approved by the Cabinet Office." Mr Cole declined to comment.