The merry men of public procurement – eighties style

5 June 2013
The 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, is often portrayed as a time of strife and austerity. The reality was often different. In 1987, the second annual conference of the Central Unit on Purchasing took place. The CUP, as it was known, was set up in 1985 to act as a catalyst to improve government procurement. It was part of HM Treasury. The Efficiency and Reform Group in the Cabinet Office has ultimately absorbed its responsibilities. The 1987 conference was held at The Old Ship Hotel, a good quality, if rather old-fashioned hotel on Brighton seafront. Above the reception desk was a series of tags in a wooden frame. When I asked what they were for, I was told that they were to be pulled in the event of fire, to activate the fire alarm. As with all good conferences, people socialised in the evening over drinks and by 1am many of them could euphemistically be described as merry. I decided to go to my room, opened the door and found other people’s belongings in it. About to raise something of a storm, I suddenly realised that my old-fashioned key had opened a room two floors below mine. On finally reaching the correct room, the fire alarm went off. After waiting five minutes, I decided I had better go downstairs and passed many anxious looking guests standing outside their bedroom doors in the night attire. As I had suspected when I got to reception, I discovered that one of the ‘merrier’ CUP staff had pulled a tag to see what it would do. The hotel management was livid and wrote a very strong letter of complaint – to the chairman of the Halifax Building Society, which was also holding a conference there. Four weeks later, the complaint eventually reached the Treasury, by which time it had lost its intended impact and was the subject of much hilarity. The first conference in 1986 also had its humorous side, but in these days of political correctness I have decided, to quote Shakespeare, “the better part of valour is discretion”. ☛ Colin Cram is managing director of consultancy Marc1
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