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Ad agency fury as Francis Maude’s old firm goes on government list

Claims of impropriety after shortlist includes company where Cabinet Office Minister was non-executive chairman

The Government has been accused of “serious impropriety” over the way it awards £520m of contracts to provide public information advertising on issues like drink driving, stopping smoking and healthy eating.

Advertising agencies are furious at the Cabinet Office’s handling of its Communications Roster, after a company where Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude was non-executive chairman won two prized places on the shortlist.

There is also anger that another place on the roster – a list of agencies approved to receive government work – has gone to a company which recently appointed a former senior official from the Central Office of Information (COI), the body that used to oversee the bidding process. Mr Maude closed the COI in 2011, saying: “This government has slashed unnecessary spending on communications.”

After a bidding process overseen by the Cabinet Office for a new “framework” of public information agencies, places on the roster for digital advertising (worth £120m of the total) and direct marketing (£160m) were won by the Devon-based agency Bray Leino, owned by The Mission Group, where Mr Maude is a former non-executive chairman.

A spokesman for Mr Maude said: “He has had no involvement with Mission Group for three years and had no knowledge that this framework was being set up.”

Another of the direct marketing slots was won by the Lateral Group, which recently employed Marc Michaels, former director of direct marketing at the COI. One rival complained: “It is like the examiner writing the questions and then taking the exam – to get 100 per cent marks.” Lateral Group declined to comment.

Other agencies are angry that the roster seems to have been selected solely on the basis of price, rather than considering the expertise accrued by some advertising groups, such as Leo Burnett, which was left off the shortlist despite a long record of producing road-safety campaigns. One agency head said: “Changing ingrained behaviour, such as over-eating and smoking, is not easy work. You need a quality team and experience because lives are at stake.”

Labour MP Helen Goodman said: “Francis Maude certainly has questions to answer about what has happened since his doctrinaire decision to close down the COI. It looks as if there may be serious improprieties in the [Government] selection of the roster. It’s very important on issues such as road safety and people’s health that campaigns are really effective. This is what will produce the best value for money.”  There is no suggestion that Mr Maude was personally involved in the roster process.

Complaints have been made to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, which is in talks with the Cabinet Office over the roster process. “Public service procurement is a complicated affair and...established practices are not designed with advertising businesses in mind,” it said.

The Cabinet Office said: “The Government Procurement Service operates transparent and fair tendering processes that ensure we are extracting the maximum value from every pound spent.”