Sugar sours procurement professionals

30 November 2011

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30 November 2011 | Adam Leach

Alan Sugar’s speech on public sector procurement in the House of Lords last week has sparked debate among buyers.

Lord Sugar made a number of bold statements, including a call for public sector pay to match that of the private sector. He likened fragmented purchasing done by those without the right skills to “kids running riot in a sweet shop”. Sugar also said the UK government should have fought “tooth and nail” to award a contract for new trains on the Thameslink project to Bombardier, which owns the UK’s last train manufacturing plant in Derby, instead of German company Siemens.

Following the speech, a debate was struck up on CIPS' LinkedIn group online and many contended Sugar didn’t appreciate the constraints of the EU rules buyers operate under when it comes to awarding public sector deals.

Karen Wontner, purchasing manager at Cardiff University, pointed out that it’s easier to propose changes if you don’t have to face the consequences. “It’s not the likes of Lord Sugar or Francis Maude [Cabinet Office minister] who have to work within the EU rules and avoid the risk of potentially costly challenges – both in financial terms and in terms of potentially costly delays. It’s the practitioner’s head on the chopping block.”

Trevor Black, managing director at procurement consultants Blackwolds, questioned whether Sugar had the expertise to comment. “Many of these entrepreneurs such as Lord Sugar would not have coped with the regulations that would have prevented their wheeler-dealing.”

Ken Cole, director of SPS Consultancy Services, agreed with Sugar that more should be done to support indigenous innovation. “He is right that the UK government should be making a far more robust defence of UK firms and UK interests rather than just shrugging its shoulders. The German and French governments do this as a matter of course for their companies.”

Cole also supported Sugar’s assertion that public sector buyers should be paid better salaries. “100K or even 200K are not 'fat cat’ ones. If the person concerned delivers at least 20 times his/her salary in cashable savings then that is a good investment.”

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