Civil servants angry at sell-off

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Civil Service unions are to mount a legal challenge against an attempt by ministers to push through the privatisation of the Paymaster General's Office before the general election.

The PGO, which performs a variety of administrative tasks for the Government, including running the pensions system for nearly all 500,000 civil servants and one million other public-sector workers, is due to be sold off in the next few weeks in an extremely tight timetable.

The schedule only allowed four weeks - including the Christmas period - for the checking of the accounts by the three companies which have been shortlisted. Bids were due in last month and the Government is committed to a sale on 1 April.

Graham Corbett, of the Civil and Public Services Association, said: "The timetable for this is extremely tight and there is only one reason why they are in such a hurry; they want to get it away before the general election ... There is going to be no time for consultation once the preferred bidder is chosen and therefore we feel we have a good chance of mounting a successful challenge in the High Court."

The unions fear job losses among the 642 staff, most of whom are based in Crawley, West Sussex.

Shortlisted are Capita, formerly led by Michael Heseltine's adviser, Alan Kemp; EDS, the American computer software giant embroiled in a row over their plans to merge the Inland Revenue and Department of Social Security databases, who are bidding with Hogg Robinson; and a management buy-out team bidding with ITnet.