JACK McConnell's former adviser has been given a consultancy deal with the Scottish Executive just months after quitting her job.

Jeane Freeman, who resigned as the first minister's most trusted political aide last year, has been hired by Peter Peacock, the education minister, to work on plans for the under-fives.

She will be paid about GBP5000 for 10 days' work, at a rate of about GBP500 a day, over several months.

The job was awarded directly to Ms Freeman's new consultancy firm, Freeman Associates, without a tendering exercise. The threshold for such an exercise is GBP10,000 The executive's rules say such non-competitive deals must be done with "great care" and be "fully defensible".

The executive last night said Mr Peacock had decided Ms Freeman should be approached because her abilities were ideal for the job specification. "There was no suggestion of cronyism, " a spokeswoman said.

However, opposition MSPs said the public could think differently. Bill Aitken, Tory chief whip, said: "It may well be that no rules have been broken, but this is the sort of cosy, incestuous set-up which causes the public concern."

John Swinney, SNP finance spokesman, said: "The executive has to be extremely careful . . . there is no concern that former employees are being treated more favourably than other qualified professionals."

Ms Freeman's working brief may prove as controversial as the nature of her appointment. She has been asked to pass judgment on a forthcoming review of early education and childcare, which will set out plans for professionalising nursery and out-of-hours school care.

The independent review was commissioned by Mr Peacock in the wake of the nursery nurses' strike of 2004.

However, it is understood that the minister is dissatisfied with the result, and has effectively hired Ms Freeman for a second opinion.

Ms Freeman, 52, was Mr McConnell's senior political adviser from 2001 to 2005. Before that, she was a civil servant in the executive's education department.

She resigned last May and started work for Mr Peacock in November.

In a statement, the executive said it was not unusual for ministers to seek outside advice.

Ms Freeman refused to comment on notions of cronyism, adding: "The award of the contract is a matter for the executive."