The Audit Commission has been left red-faced by the recent 'cash- for access' row after it emerged it had hired controversial parliamentary lobbyists Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn to provide a 'public affairs' service.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott memorably questioned why a part of government with a brief to ensure public money is well spent should need to pay a firm to find out what ministers were thinking.

The commission has denied that it hired LLM for its 'inside track' on government planning. But recent bad publicity means the contract with LLM - thought to be around 50,000 - is now under review.

A commission spokesperson said LLM's role was to provide advice on the commission's new strategy, to be unveiled in the autumn, and to consult on new areas of the commission's work. It also supplied a straightforward parliamentary monitoring service.

Adrian Roxan, of Citigate Westminster, which is contracted to supply the commission's public relations, described LLM's brief as a 'backroom advice service'.

Ironically, the commission could have appointed its own press officers to the job rather than LLM. Citigate Westminster pitched unsuccessfully for the contract in April after it was put out to competitive tender.

The NHS Confederation does not employ lobbyists - although its former parliamentary officer was, coincidentally, researcher to public health minister Tessa Jowell before the last election.

The Institute of Health Services Management used to run an informal parliamentary panel - which it would take for dinner twice a year. One of the panel members was a promising young MP called Alan Milburn.

The Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association and Unison all have in-house parliamentary units to put their own spin on topical health issues in briefings to backbench MPs.

The issue of 'access' to ministers never arises, says Sue Marks, head of the BMA parliamentary unit. 'If Sandy Macara wanted to speak to the minister he just picked up the phone.'