Tories want buyers to expose 'waste'

22 January 2004
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22 January 2004 | David Arminas

The Conservative Party is looking for purchasers, especially those with direct knowledge of government procurement, to help it attack Labour's public spending record in the run-up to the next election.

The review will spearhead the Conservatives' "Wasteful Labour" campaign as it tries to reassure voters that a Tory government could maintain public services while reducing taxes.

Last week, Tory leader Michael Howard took the unusual step of placing a full-page advertisement in the Guardian newspaper urging teachers, doctors and other public-sector workers to contact the party with examples of waste.

David James, the former Millennium Dome troubleshooter appointed by Howard to lead the review, told SM: "The procurement process at the moment has the wrong emphasis and needs to be revised.

"The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has done a good job, but its work doesn't go any way near far enough."

He said he will decide this month who to invite into his group: "I hope to have people with direct experience of procurement, particularly in government and the armed forces."

James said he has "firm opinions about procurement" formed during his time as executive chairman of the Dome in 2000, when he sorted out its troubled finances and closed it down.

He said there was a "yard 10" depot at the Dome where £80 million-worth of useless equipment was dumped. It included a £9 million revolving stage, a £750,000 cherry picker too short for the work intended and a £4 million mini-train that was deemed unsafe.

"Purchasers were more interested in filling in the right forms correctly than with making substantial savings," he claimed.

James's review will run in parallel with a major government efficiency study by Sir Peter Gershon, the outgoing chief executive of the OGC, scheduled for publication this summer.

Ken James, chief executive of CIPS, welcomed the Tory review. "The Conservative initiative should help to raise procurement's profile."

But he warned that purchasers should "avoid party politics".

He wanted to see recognition by both reviews that there should be more and better skilled procurement professionals in higher-grade civil service jobs.

Steve Rowsell, procurement director at the Highways Agency, where he is responsible for a 10-year, £22 billion budget, had "slight reservations" that the Tory review would duplicate past OGC reviews and Gershon's project.

"There will always be substantial work to be done for better procurement," he said. "The main issue is the departmental culture and our people skills."

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