The Conservative Party Manifesto – Public Procurement Not An Issue

The Conservative Party manifesto was published last week, and while unlike the Labour version it doesn’t make many new spending commitments, it does signal a break with recent Tory policy. It is much more about creating a “Great meritocracy” and moves firmly away from the Thatcherite idea that free markets can solve all our problems. Indeed, at times, you have to pinch yourself to check it is not the Labour manifesto you’re reading. “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism …”

In my personal view, it is good to see favourable treatment for pensioners moderated somewhat  and it is amusing (if not somewhat weird) to see it is the Labour Party arguing that millionaire pensioners should get the winter fuel allowance and shouldn’t have to pay for their own social care.

But probably even more so than the Labour document, public procurement does not really get a look in. The word “procurement” is absent, and the paragraph below is the only use of “purchasing”. (The phrase “strong and stable” is used 14 times). Ironically, that one case very much reflects a theme of the Labour manifesto, that public procurement is about social goals and encouraging “good behaviour” from business, rather than getting value for money on behalf of the taxpayer.

“Central government must play a role in supporting SMEs: across all government departments, we will ensure that 33 per cent of central government purchasing will come from SMEs by the end of the parliament. As part of our modern industrial strategy, we will explore how government can do even more to support innovation by small and start-up firms. We also recognise that government can improve the general business environment for SMEs, so we will use our buying power to ensure that big contractors comply with the Prompt Payment Code both on government contracts and in their work with others. If they do not do so, they will lose the right to bid for government contracts”.

Of course, we all know that “33 per cent of central government purchasing will come from SMEs” will only happen if you accept the VERY loose definition of “come from SMEs” to mean money spent with SMEs at the second tier in the supply chain, as guesstimated by the first tier suppliers. At least the prompt payment comment is positive and very similar to Labour’s commitment.

What else is interesting? Well, there are no big new ideas on the NHS, but there is a promise to repeal the disastrous 2012 Health and Social Care Act which introduced more competition but now stands in the way of the new joined-up “STP” strategy.

If the current legislative landscape is either slowing implementation or preventing clear national or local accountability, we will consult and make the necessary legislative changes. This includes the NHS’s own internal market, which can fail to act in the interests of patients and creates costly bureaucracy. So we will review the operation of the internal market and, in time for the start of the 2018 financial year, we will make non-legislative changes to remove barriers to the integration of care.

There is a bit – not as much as Labour – on the growth of new employment models. Contingent Labour and related categories will no doubt continue to be interesting challenges for procurement folk in coming years.

We will make sure that people working in the ‘gig’ economy are properly protected. Last October, the government commissioned Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, to review the changing labour market. We await his final report but a new Conservative government will act to ensure that the interests of employees on traditional contracts, the self-employed and those people working in the ‘gig’ economy are all properly protected.

There is a welcome nod to the Modern Slavery act.

We will review the application of exploitation in the Modern Slavery Act to strengthen our ability to stop criminals putting men, women and children into criminal, dangerous and exploitative working conditions. And the UK will use its power to push the United Nations and other international bodies to make Modern Slavery a thing of the past.

And one of the Francis Maude ideas to still have legs is this:

We know public services are dependent upon the public servants who run them, which is why we will establish in law the freedom for employees to mutualise, where appropriate, within the public sector.

He would also approve of this interesting paragraph on digital and open data.

We will publish operational performance data of all public-facing services for open comparison as a matter of course – helping the public to hold their local services to account, or choose other better services if they prefer. In doing so, central and local government will be required to release information regularly and in an open format, and data will be aggregated and anonymised where it is important to do so. We will incubate more digital services within government and introduce digital transformation fellowships, so that hundreds of leaders from the world of tech can come into government to help deliver better public services. We will continue the drive for open data, maintaining our position as the world leader.

This next point may have some interesting implications for eCommerce and B2B transactions.

We will make doing business online easier for companies and consumers. We will give businesses the right to insist on a digital signature and the right to digital cancellation of contracts. We will oblige all digital companies to provide digital receipts, clearer terms and conditions when selling goods and services online and support new digital proofs of identification. We will give consumers the same protections in online markets as they have on the high street.

The manifesto is well written, even if you don’t agree with all its points. But it is just as guilty as the Labour equivalent of making bold statements and laying down aspirations without giving any clue as to how things might actually be achieved. One example: “We will therefore simplify the tax system.”

Yes of course you will. Everybody says that, nobody does it and there is no detail as to what might make this time different.

So overall, this lays out quite an interventionist government approach, without the big tax rises Labour proposes, but delivering good value from the £200 billion annual procurement spend just does not feature as any sort of priority. That is a shame.

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