The “professionalisation” of public procurement is more important than the legal framework surrounding it, the House of Lords was told.
In a debate on the government’s new Procurement Bill, lords heard that “practices have not always been good”.
Lord Francis Maude (Con), who led an overhaul of government procurement from 2010, said: “I submit that the professionalisation of the procurement function is more important than the precise letter of the law that we are debating today.”
He added: “The law is not the most important part of government procurement. At the end of it, procurement is primarily, although not exclusively, about buying goods and services that are needed to serve our security and citizens in the most effective way. That is about quality and cost and requires good practices; the practices have not always been good.”
Lord William Wallace (Lib Dem) said: “The problems of implementation cannot be dealt with very easily in law. The training of national and local civil servants to manage procurement is clearly very important.”
Lord Nicholas True, a Cabinet Office minister, said training would be provided “in good time” of the bill being implemented. This will include funded training and written guidance and learning aids “covering the range and depth of knowledge requirements for those operating within the new system”.
“Training is important, and the training package will be made available in good time for users to prepare for the new regime being implemented,” he said. “That is why we have committed to six months’ notice before going live, and the training will be rolled out.”
Malcolm Harrison, CIPS group CEO called this drive “heartening”. He said: “The Procurement Bill provides a strong framework and guidance, but procurement is not a narrow, linear, activity. It has been recognised we need more talented and creative professionals to take on the challenges in the years ahead, which include any onshoring decisions. These are professionals who continue to develop their skills and keep up to date through their training.
“Even during these difficult times with disruptions, supply constraints, war and an escalation in costs of doing business, this should not mean ethics taking a back seat compared to the resolution of these immediate and pressing difficulties. We can all do better, and we must grab this chance for reform with both hands,” he added.
There were also calls for more contracts to be reserved for UK businesses.
Baroness Susan Hayman (Lab) said: “We need to do what we can to ensure that far more public contracts are awarded to British businesses – something that will have a positive effect on our economy but also support those who are struggling to get through the current cost of living crisis.”
True said contracts below the thresholds set out in WTO’s Agreement on Government Procurement, to which the UK signed up after Brexit – £138,760 for goods and services and £5.336m for construction for central government – could be reserved for local firms.
“Above those thresholds, we need to act in line with our international obligations,” he said. “A blanket ‘Buy British’ policy would conflict with the UK’s international obligations to treat suppliers from other countries on an equal footing. The requirement for fair and open competition is a two-way street because it gives UK firms access to other markets.”
Wallace said: “There is an awful lot of windy Brexiteer rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ and replacing ‘the current bureaucratic and process-driven EU regime for public procurement’ but here we have an unavoidably bureaucratic and process-driven bill to replace the EU regime.
“The bill does not entirely ‘take back control’ because… the UK will still be governed by various international standards and limited by the commitments given in the various trade agreements we are signing with other countries.”
Lord David Alton, a crossbencher, said the bill should be an opportunity to promote ethics.
“It is a perfectly reasonable public policy objective to try and accelerate and simplify public procurement, but we must use this opportunity to do more than that,” he said.
“Essentially, procurement should strengthen national resilience. It should reduce dependency on states which pose risks to our national security. It should protect British manufacturing from competitors that use slave labour, or grossly exploited labour, and send a signal to the private sector that it is simply unethical to buy cheap goods from states where citizens are being subjected to appalling inhumanity, including genocide.”
Lord Vernon Coaker (Lab) said the bill presented an opportunity to modernise procurement.
“We have approximately £300bn of public expenditure,” he said. “The days of the lowest-cost rules must be over. That is the demand from the citizens of this country. Other factors can be, and should be, taken into account.
“The bill is a huge opportunity and the government have grasped it, but many of us are going to push them further for a change to how procurement works – to rework it and remake it in a way that reflects modern business practice, the modern economy and the modern society that people want. It is an opportunity that we have to take.”
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