THE State consumer watchdog has come under fire after it emerged it shares the same PR firm as supermarket giant Tesco.
The Q4 public relations firm was awarded a €200,000 contract with the National Consumer Agency (NCA) last year after being proposed by Bertie Ahern's former partner Celia Larkin at an NCA board meeting.
But the Irish Independent has learned that Q4 is now also working for the supermarket giant Tesco, raising fears of a direct conflict of interest.
Fine Gael enterprise spoke- sman Leo Varadkar said the NCA had to clarify if it knew about the work that Q4 was doing for Tesco.
"There's definitely a potential conflict of interest where you have Q4 representing the NCA, which is doing price surveys on Tesco products, and at the same time putting out ads telling you how cheap Tesco is," he said.
According to a PR source, other public relations firms are careful not to take up contracts between clients with conflicting interests in case they would be accused of not carrying out their role properly.
Earlier this month, Q4 was involved in preparing press releases for Tesco announcing a range of price cuts in its border stores. And it also worked with the NCA to put out its press release in response to the same announcement. In that release, NCA chief executive Ann Fitzgerald called on Tesco to pass on the price cuts to all shoppers in the Republic.
Q4 has been employed by the NCA since it was set up on an interim basis in 2005, and won a new €200,000 contract after a public tendering process last year.
Last night, NCA director of commercial practices John Shine said that Q4 had started to work with Tesco after first being employed by the NCA, and this had happened with the full knowledge of the agency.
"Q4 do their job professionally and there is no issue there from our perspective. We are quite satisfied there are sufficient safeguards," he said.
Mr Shine said the "Chinese walls" system was employed by the PR agency -- meaning that it had separate staff dealing with the NCA and with Tesco.
Q4 was set up by Martin Mackin, a former general secretary of Fianna Fail, and by Jackie Gallagher, who once worked as an adviser to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
But Labour TD Willie Penrose said the hiring of Q4 by the NCA would be discussed at the next meeting of the Oireachtas Enterprise Committee, which he chairs. He questioned the need for the NCA in the first place, saying that its work could be done by a government department.
"What has been achieved by all of these agencies? You don't have to have somebody else taking a decision you should make by yourself," he said.