The UK government will press ahead with the creation of new unit to oversee public procurement despite fears it will be “overly bureaucratic and open to abuse”.
The Procurement Review Unit (PRU) will sit within the Cabinet Office with a focus on “addressing systemic or institutional breaches of the procurement regulations”.
The PRU was first mooted in the government’s green paper on Transforming Public Procurement and a consultation on the proposals found 52% of respondents backed the concept of the unit, though the majority of supporters wanted more information.
“The greatest support for the proposal came from VCSEs [voluntary, community and social enterprises] and suppliers to the public sector. Local government and utilities raised concerns about centralised control,” said a report on the government’s response to the consultation.
“Reservations over the role of a central oversight body included how it would operate across the public sector and whether it would have the necessary resources and capacity to operate effectively.
“A number of responses, especially from local government, raised concerns around the potential use of spending controls and the balance of increased monitoring with local decision-making.
“There were also concerns that the unit would be overly bureaucratic and open to abuse. Some respondents were concerned that intervention would delay delivery of the contract by intervening in individual cases of poor practice.”
The report said the PRU would be made up of a small team of civil servants, delivering the same service as the current Public Procurement Review Service.
“However, the PRU’s main focus will be on addressing systemic or institutional breaches of the procurement regulations (i.e. breaches common across contracting authorities or regularly being made by a particular contracting authority),” the report said.
The report said legislation would be needed “for the unit to improve compliance with the new procurement regime on a wider basis”, by providing “limited powers and duties to investigate the procurement functions of contracting authorities” and to “provide a mechanism to ensure future compliance”.
“Following an investigation, the unit may make recommendations to the contracting authority(ies) for the purposes of improving compliance with procurement functions under the new regime. These recommendations will not target specific procurement decisions (for example, the unit could not recommend a specific contract should be awarded to a particular supplier, or that particular award criteria for a specific procurement be amended).”
Also as part of its response to the consultation, the government announced new powers to exclude suppliers from tenders if they have a poor track record of delivery, have undertaken unethical practices, or where there are security or environmental concerns. Currently companies can only be banned if there has been a significant breach of contract.
The government said it was not able to say when the new regime – possible because the UK is no longer subject to EU regulations – would come into force but it would give six months’ notice and it was “unlikely to come into force until 2023 at the earliest”.
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