EU procurement rules are a 'scapegoat' for poor practice

22 January 2013

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22 January 2013 | Paul Snell

EU procurement rules have been used as a “scapegoat for very poor practice” and should not inhibit good performance, a committee of MPs has been told.

Speaking in front of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee this morning, Colin Cram, managing director of consultancy Marc1 and author of a 2012 review into public procurement, said that while there were reforms that could be implemented, the regulations had had a positive impact.

“Overall, this country has benefitted a great deal from the EU procurement directives,” he said, recalling the “truly appalling” state of public procurement 30 years ago with unfair competition and the “same old suppliers”. He said the regulations had bought discipline to the process and encouraged the recruitment of professional buyers.

He added the UK often doesn’t make use of the more innovative approaches included within the rules, for which the directives cannot be blamed. “There can be improvements, but we have to be very careful we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

Jon Hughes, executive chairman of Future Purchasing and co-author of a separate report into public procurement, said of the four choices with regard to EU rules – burn them, evade them, speed them up and change them – only the final two were realistic.

“My evaluation is a lot of people hide behind the EU rules and regulations. There is no reason at all why we cannot simplify a lot, why we cannot speed up a lot and take a lot of bureaucracy out. I think it has a terrible effect on the mindset of people working in procurement. They develop a mindset of compliance,” he said.

Cram agreed with the committee’s chairman, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, when questioned whether the problem was more a result of “quality of execution” than the process itself.

The hearing encompassed a wide range of public sector procurement topics, including structure, leadership, skills and outsourcing, and is the first step in the committee’s broad inquiry into public procurement.

Hughes was critical of the government’s CPO role, arguing for a greater scope of responsibility. “At the moment, we have one person called the CPO for government. I don’t believe that person is the CPO for government; he is the CPO for Whitehall,” he said.

Hughes, who believes there should be a CPO for each of four major areas – Whitehall, local authorities, health and defence – told MPs: “You have someone with the title of chief procurement officer – they definitely wouldn’t meet the job specification I would create for a CPO. That’s a criticism of the way in which the role is currently defined. I think it is far too narrow,” adding there is not currently sufficient focus on capacity and adoption of best practice techniques.

The full committee hearing can be viewed on the Parliament website here

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