Charging scheme criticised by small business groups

27 April 2006
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28 April 2006 | Anusha Bradley

A government-sponsored website to help small suppliers access information about public sector contract opportunities is charging up to £750 a year for the service.

The portal, a joint venture between the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), was heralded as a way of helping smaller firms win more public sector work.

There is no charge for suppliers to receive details about contract opportunities in their local area below £100,000 - the level at which OJEU notification is required - but potential suppliers must pay £70-a-year to access information concerning lower value work in their region.

Groups representing smaller firms criticised the payment scheme.

Nick Golding, chief executive of the Forum of Private Business (FPB), which lobbies on behalf of small and medium-sized enterprises, told "Small businesses are having their experience of government service tainted by this, not insignificant, annual cost. If government wants to make its services for small business better it could start by making some of them less expensive."

A spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said it was supportive of the portal because it hoped it would provide a one-stop-shop for smaller businesses to access government contracts, but added: "We are very worried about the cost."

He added: "The government has assumed that all small businesses operate within their local area. Many operate through the internet and sell all over the country."

According to a recent FSB survey, Barriers to Growth 2006, 18 per cent of its 195,000 members sell their goods and services online. The FPB said one third of its members sell online.

"Charging to receive notifications would be prohibitive to the effectiveness of the portal's overall aim," the FSB spokesman added.

Under the scheme, suppliers would pay £145-a-year to access both low value and OJEU notification-level opportunities within their region; £99-a-year for low value work notices within either England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, or £380 for both OJEU-level and low value contracts in any one country. To receive details about low value opportunities from across the whole of the UK and Ireland costs £180-a-year. Access to all government tenders incurs an annual charge of £750.

The Small Business Service, which runs the portal and is part of DTI, was not available to comment. An OGC spokesman said the charging model, which covers running costs, was agreed between Small Business Service and BiP Solutions, the contractor that runs the portal.

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