22 May 2003 | Robin Parker
The government is facing calls to revamp its procurement policy to help small firms to bid for work.
In a joint report, the Better Regulation Task Force (BRTF) and the Small Business Council (SBC) urge the public sector to spell out in procurement strategies the steps they are taking to engage small and medium-sized enterprises.
They want the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to investigate whether the government is ensuring SMEs, which make up 99 per cent of all UK firms, can bid for the public sector's low-value contracts, worth £2.5 billion a year.
The inquiry would mirror current efforts by the European Union, which has commissioned research into improving SMEs' access to public contracts.
An OFT spokesman said it had not yet decided to launch an inquiry, but was weighing the report's 11 recommendations.
The advisory bodies also want the public sector to develop a core pre-qualification process for low-value contracts so that small firms do not have to put different information in various formats to get noticed.
The move follows criticism of a pre-qualification questionnaire for the London Development Agency, which one applicant estimated would take two days to complete.
The report, Government: Supporter and Customer?, says that although the government recognises the importance of SMEs to economic growth, there is a common belief among government purchasers that they pose more of a risk than large firms.
Teresa Graham, chair of the sub-group set up by the BRTF and SBC to produce the report, said: "There is a fear that because a business is small it is less likely to deliver.
"There needs to be a push from the highest level to ensure that the good practice in some local authorities and departments becomes common practice."