The unit will sit within the Cabinet Office ©  Niall_Majury/Getty Images
The unit will sit within the Cabinet Office © Niall_Majury/Getty Images

New government unit to ‘monitor and intervene’ in public buying

The UK government has proposed a new unit to oversee public procurement as part of wider reforms to “cut red tape, reduce bureaucracy and help unleash wider social benefits from public money”.

The unit, which would sit within the Cabinet Office, would have “powers to review and, if necessary, intervene to improve the commercial capability of contracting authorities”.

The government proposed the unit as part of its green paper on transforming public procurement after the UK exits the EU on 1 January 2021. 

“This unit would aim to improve capability and practices for the benefit of all contracting authorities and suppliers rather than provide remedies for an individual supplier on a specific procurement,” the paper said. 

The unit would have responsibility for monitoring and addressing “systemic gaps in commercial capability and understanding”, as well as intervention through new “powers to issue improvement notices with recommendations to drive up standards in individual contracting authorities”. 

“Where these recommendations were not adopted, the unit could have recourse to further action such as spending controls,” it said. 

The unit would be supported by an independent panel of experts, such as current or former senior representatives from local government, health and other sectors, commercial experts, supplier representatives and members of the legal profession. 

Wider proposals for transforming public buying in the green paper aim to “speed up and simplify procurement processes, place value for money at their heart, and unleash opportunities for small businesses, charities and social enterprises”, the government said. 

Lord Theodore Agnew, Cabinet Office minister, said: “The measures outlined today will transform the current outdated system with new rules, providing flexibility to the public sector and less burden on business.

“These long standing plans have been developed with international procurement specialists and will help unleash innovation across the country and provide a fairer system for small businesses.”

Proposals in the green paper include:

1. Streamlining and simplifying the complex framework of regulations 

The government has proposed rationalising and clarifying parallel rules in the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, the Utilities Contracts Regulations 2016, the Concession Contracts Regulations 2016 and the Defence and Security Public Contracts Regulations 2011, and replacing them all with a single, uniform set of rules for all contract awards.

2. Overhauling inflexible and complex procedures

The government wants to replace them with “three simple modern procedures”. 

This includes a new flexible procedure that gives buyers freedom to negotiate and innovate to get the best from the private, charity and social enterprise sectors, an open procedure that buyers can use for simpler, ‘off the shelf’ competitions, and a limited tendering procedure that buyers can use in certain circumstances, such as in crisis or extreme urgency.

3. Creating a more diverse supply base

The government said it wants to make it easier for new entrants such as small businesses and voluntary, charitable and social enterprises to compete and win public contracts. 

It has proposed establishing a single digital platform for supplier registration that ensures they only have to submit their data once to qualify for any public sector procurement.

4. Transparency in public procurement

The green paper recommends “embedding transparency by default throughout the commercial lifecycle from planning through procurement, contract award, performance and completion”. 

To achieve this, the government has proposed requiring all contracting authorities to implement the Open Contracting Data Standard so data can be shared across the public sector at contract and category level. 

It also proposed including ‘crisis’ as a new ground on which limited tendering can be used “to provide greater certainty for contracting authorities in these circumstances”. 

5. Exclusion rules

Current procurement regulations allow contracting authorities to take into account the past performance of a supplier on “very limited grounds”.

The government has proposed using exclusion rules to “tackle unacceptable behaviour in public procurement such as fraud and exploring the introduction of a centrally managed debarment list”. 

It also proposed giving buyers the tools to properly take account of a bidder’s past performance and exclude them if they clearly do not have the capability to deliver.

A public consultation on the green paper runs until 10 March 2021.

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