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Over a barrel

Scott Wilson is to be congratulated for its bravery in going public over its problems with the European Commission (see News). Detailed complaints are always more effective than vague whingeing and public pressure is often the best way to get a body as bureaucratic, yet politically sensitive, as the Commission to act. If payment delays on European aid projects are sorted out, other UK consultants will owe SW a vote of thanks.

Yet even SW acknowledges that consultants have very little bargaining power, beyond enlisting the support of press and politicians, with the Commission.

Interest can be claimed by those whose invoices are not paid on time. But many consultants will view SW's decision to do so as adding injury to insult. Those firms who have to wait six months or more for payment have the contractual right to walk off the job - but no consultant would countenance that because of the damage it would do to client relations.

Truth be told, consultants fall over themselves to get Commission-funded work. They might have to wait for payment, but they know it will definitely arrive - and more importantly so do their banks. The work is often challenging, reasonably well paid and provides a relatively low risk way of exploring new markets.

Commission officials know this and although they try not to exploit this desire for work, it is hardly likely to encourage a quick response to consultants problems given the other demands on their time.

And of course these demands are made worse by the growing sense of paranoia in Brussels that unless every invoice is analysed in minute detail, some luckless official will attract the attention of those who have charged themselves with ridding the EC of any taint of corruption.

The result is a powerful client who is relatively powerless to act in the best interests of those it depends on to deliver its work.

What can be done to remedy this situation, beyond covert and overt lobbying of Commission officials? Well, a concerted approach by consultants from all EU countries would help. But the word on the rue is that UK firms have unfairly dominated the TACIS initiative and are getting what they deserved. Sort out this piece of internal warfare and progress could be that much quicker.

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