We continue our gaze into the crystal ball as we feature the 2015 UK election and the party leaders’ debate on public sector procurement ....
Paxman – How will you make sure cock-ups like West Coast Rail and (insert latest 2014/15 procurement cock up here..) don’t happen again?
Cable – A lot of the problems come from huge, national contracts. Our view is that we need to take a much more local approach to many of these contracts, break them up so smaller firms can compete and avoid some of these high profile failures. But we also need to rebuild the moral of our civil service which has taken a few blows over the last years. We’ll make sure our staff see that we’re all on the same side here – sometimes the Tories make it sound like their own staff are the enemy!
Cameron – We’ve taken strong action here, , and we’ve introduced training for all commercial managers – the Commissioning Academy for instance. Let’s be clear – we need to recognise good performance but take action when people don’t perform. We will continue to make senior civil servants more accountable, we’ve introduced more stringent performance management, which of course the Labour party has always resisted. Their links with the Unions mean that frankly they can’t be trusted when it comes to making sure we get the right performance from the people whose wages we all pay.
Miliband – Well that’s just a smokescreen I’m afraid because Mr Cameron doesn’t want to admit that his policies – cutting the numbers of staff in key roles – is what has directly led to some of these problems. We all recognise that costs have to be controlled, but the coalition was simply incompetent in how it went about the cuts. That meant that too many skilled people left key jobs, and the problems we’ve seen were a direct result of that. But we’ve got a detailed plan for improving public sector procurement skills – that’s another are where the government claims to have done a lot but when you look closely, there’s been little real activity.
Paxman - What are your plans for procurement outside central government? In particular we’ve seen some major issues around big outsourcing contracts – IBM winning tens of millions in damages from Somerset Council, the Police Outsourcing fiasco and so on. What are your views on that?
Miliband - Let’s be clear, this government has washed its hand of public sector procurement outside of Whitehall. That’s despite the fact that the rest of the public sector spend three times as much as the centre! Regional procurement groups in the heath service have closed down on been privatised with foreign firms buying them up. The organisations that were helping local authorities buy better had their funding stopped. Academy schools don’t have to follow the guidelines for buying healthy food for their children. We will have to undo the years of neglect – we will get local authorities working together to use their buying power. We’ll set up strong regional procurement bodies again. If necessary, we will insist that hospitals buy using the best deals. And we’ll make sure schools do the right thing for their pupils. But let’s be clear, these big outsourcing deals need to be looked at very carefully.
Cable – I think that’s an inaccurate picture of what has happened in terms of regional activity – for instance, I visited the Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation recently and there is more business going through the regional buying groups than ever before. And we can show some excellent work in health – hospitals have saved (insert made-up number here...) by better procurement over the last three years. But I do share Ed’s view on these major outsourcing deals and that’s why we will be setting up the Orr Review to look into this matter and report publically.
Cameron - It’s nonsense to say we haven’t cared about life outside Whitehall. And the proof is in the excellent work that has been done in local authority collaboration, not just through the regional organisations Vince mentioned but also for example councils like Surrey and Sussex combining their procurement functions and saving millions for their residents. But let’s face it, many Labour local authorities seem to prefer wasting their residents money, rather than focusing on better procurement, or using the deals that the Government Procurement Service has put in place- which can be used by councils, hospitals and other organisations.
Paxman - How will you use public procurement and spend to help drive economic growth?
Cameron - We ran the innovation launch pad for firms with innovative ideas and product surgeries. And our support for SMEs that we talked about earlier is obviously a great help for those dynamic small business who are the engines of growth. And we have more plans n the next Government for promoting mutuals and social enterprises, and we’ve just announced that we will be looking at how we can incorporate more of the social value provisions into government contracts..
Miliband - Let’s be honest here David! You’ve done nothing with the £200 billion to promote growth in the last five years – it’s like you’re suddenly discovering that economic growth is a bit of a problem now after five wasted years! It’s a bit late now. Why haven’t you followed the example of Wales and Scotland where they looked at social value in their government procurement for years? Why haven’t you done more to make sure that UK firms get a fair crack of the whip in procurement? What about supporting local firms? You abolished the regional procurement bodies that were promoting best practice in local government. We will implement our plan of action to use the £200 Billion creatively and positively to drive growth.
Cable – We’re with the Labour party on this – I agree with Ed! I regret I couldn’t persuade the Tories in the coalition to do more in this area. And as well as some of the good ideas we think Labour have, we want to break up some of the monolithic national contracts and look for smaller regional or local contracts – and suppliers- to do more for Government. We think that will provide better value and drive economic growth.
Paxman – Gentlemen, that’s all we have time for, thank you very much. And in the second debate next week – how we can use IT better to improve government performance...
A wrap-up from us on this next week....