Sensible suggestions, but will the EC listen?

8 August 2011
Much of the UK government’s response to the EC’s consultation on changing public procurement rules is inoffensive and unlikely to cause much of a fuss. Methods put forward to make the rules less complicated, helping SMEs win contracts and increasing the way public buying supports sustainability and innovation are all broadly in line with what the Commission also wants to achieve. And while most of the document is framed in diplomatic, civil-service-speak, there are a few pointed remarks, most notably that the EC’s previous attempt to modernise and simplify the rules actually made them more unclear and complex. But a number of the Cabinet Office’s suggestions might not be so welcome and I can almost hear procurement-rule chief Michel Barnier choking on his croissant and café au lait in the Berlaymont as he reads the response. The first is that public sector bodies should be able to award contracts to employee-led organisations for up to three years, without a tender. The idea is that it would give these mutuals the chance to build up some experience on a project, making them more competitive when the contract finally does go out to tender. I can’t see the EC going for it, frankly. They will be loath to offer any kind of tendering holiday in case it’s abused. The government seems to have anticipated this concern, telling the EC “there should not be an assumption that public bodies will behave dubiously and avoid fair and open competition, unless constrained by detailed rules”. It’s nice to see someone sticking up for buyers for a change. Overall, UK purchasers should be pleased with the sensible and measured response the government has produced. Particularly where it highlights to the Commission in bold text: “There is a significant danger that in attempting to address so many issues that complexity will be added to the rules, which would be the opposite of the overall aim of simplification.” If Monsieur Barnier only remembers one thing, I hope it’s that.
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