UK Central Government Says: You’ll Do Procurement OUR Way, Sunshine, Understand?

This has not had a whole lot of comment in the media, but slipped into the UK's Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which became law last month, were provisions that could change the whole face of public sector procurement. Basically, it gives the Cabinet Office Minister power to dictate whatever procurement “rules" he or she feels like, however idiotic, to all contracting authorities across the UK public sector world (excepting the devolved administrations).

The majority of the Act does not affect procurement, but two clauses do:

  1. The Cabinet Office may now require local authorities to comply with their requirements and decisions on procurement. “The Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State may by regulations impose on a contracting authority duties in respect of the exercise of its functions relating to procurement.”

 

  1. The Cabinet Office may investigate local authority procurements, and authorities will be required to submit any documents they see fit. “A Minister may investigate the exercise by a contracting authority of relevant functions relating to procurement.”

 

This is a massive change to past practice, whereby central government issued ‘guidance,’ but ultimately contracting authorities made their own decisions on procurement best practice. However, it is to some extent an extension of what was in the Public Contract Regulations, which came into force in February. Whilst that was mainly about putting the new EU Directives into UK law, it included the requirement for public bodies not to use PQQs for low value contracts, to include prompt payment provisions in contracts, and to advertise tenders on Contracts Finder.

Now the Cabinet Office has not yet created any new requirements, so there will be no immediate impact, but the point is that it can in the future. The ‘illustrative regulations’ that they may create under the first clause have demonstrated their intentions, as this talks about a requirement for authorities to comply with lean procurement, 120 day tender processes etc.

So all in all, this is one of the most autocratic provisions we’ve seen from Westminster in a long time, and one problem is that it allows politicians to impose any old procurement process that they subjectivity judge to be desirable. So maybe “lean procurement” is a good thing, but if a future Minister decides “slow procurement” is the next big idea, they can then make it legally obligatory for everyone to follow their mad scheme.

Central government could, theoretically, tell everyone to weight cost at 99% in every tender, or wear a red carnation when evaluating tenders, to advertise contract opportunities in “Labour Weekly,” or to only buy from British firms (OK, we would have to leave Europe first on that one as European procurement law still holds sway currently, but that’s far from impossible). We were going to call this move “fascistic” but actually, any communist regime would also be proud of it.

As we say, European law is still in place here, but this seems to be a dangerous centralising tendency from Whitehall and Westminster. The opposition Labour Party has not opposed this move, but then they have not pushed back on government initiatives or indeed presented new ideas in the procurement space over the last few years. Or maybe they see the benefits if they were to win power. It could rebound on the Tories if Labour win the election and start dictating all sorts of interesting stuff about Trade Union recognition in every firm that wins public contracts, limits on profit margins, etc.

But anyone who believes in “localism,” or indeed thinks that maybe we should experiment with some different approaches to procurement rather than slavishly follow whatever Cabinet Office thinks is good practice, should feel deeply unhappy about this regulation.

Voices (3)

  1. Peter Sammons:

    I agree this is not good. It perhaps follows the practice so far seen of incorporating various clauses into public sector contracts so as to “favour” certain “victim” groups as the then government so-defines them. It is the beginning of the politicisation of procurement as Government now recognises public expenditure thru procurement as being a new agent to effect social change.

  2. Trevor Black:

    It’s funny that when ever I’m delivering a workshop on effective procurement I can provide a list of examples of how not to do it. All examples from Whitehall. This arrogance is breathtaking and they could do well to learn from many local authorities who now seem to be light years ahead of the commercial incompetence that still lies at the heart of Whitehall.

  3. Sam Unkim:

    Foundation work for mandatory E-processes and price transparancy ?
    ……….. fine with that

    But if this is “CCS über alles” then they can expect major push back

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