Left angered by Blair's free flexi-clerk

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR has accepted the free loan of a member of staff from a company which specialises in helping businesses to move workers from permanent to freelance contracts, reducing their employment rights.

The Prime Minister has infuriated Labour left wingers by using an employee of the Freedom Group of Companies to carry out administrative duties for five mornings a week in his Sedgefield constituency office.

The Freedom Group tells businesses how to create a more flexible workforce by converting staff contracts into freelance jobs. It saves money for the business but has wide-ranging implications for employees, who can lose redundancy pay and pension rights.

The Freedom Group, a spin-off from Yorkshire Electricity, boasts that it has "renegotiated" around 300 posts since it was set up in 1996. In some cases the company also then acts as an "agency" which hires out the newly freelance staff in return for a cut of their fee.

Simon Rigby, its chief executive, said his company was "very New Labour". "We are like a management company which bridges the gap between large organisations and individuals," he said.

Mr Blair declares in the latest Register of Members' Interests, which will be published shortly, that he has a member of staff seconded to his constituency office from the Freedom Group.

This is Sue Kemp, who has worked mornings in Mr Blair's office in Trimdon since November, a gift which the company estimates is worth around pounds 3,000 in cash terms. Mr Rigby said the Freedom Group had been asked if they could lend a member of staff by John Burton, the Prime Minister's constituency agent.

Left wingers are furious that Mr Blair has agreed to the arrangement. Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune and a member of Labour's ruling National Executive Committee, said it was at best "unwise" for the Prime Minister to accept. "There must be plenty of appropriate staff in Sedgefield," he said. "This is a very good way for a company to get access to the Prime Minister."

Ministers are finalising details of legislation on workers' rights shortly, which could have relevance to a consultancy like the Freedom Group. Mr Burton said the company, which won an award from the British Franchise Association, operated "with the full agreement of local trade unions".