Procurement of Medals – Zut Alors, What a Ridiculous Controversy!

Will the EU procurement regulations become an issue within the UK's EU referendum campaign? Well, the first signs of that were seen last week when we had a "shock horror" type story in several newspapers. It was all about a contract to make medals awarded by the government for various purposes, including military valour. If you read purely the Daily Mail, you got the story that a French company Arthus-Bertrand had won the contract and will be making the medals.

But if you got to the Times, matters became a little clearer. Even though that newspaper did still say things like the firm “is now set to make insignia for the Order of the Bath” it did at least explain that “nine suppliers were selected, dominated by long-established British concerns including the Royal Mint, Worcestershire Medal Service, Toye, Kenning and Spencer and Thomas Fattorini. Arthus Bertrand was the only non-British supplier to make the list of successful suppliers”.

So this French company was just one awarded a place on what we assume is a typical public procurement framework, which means there is no guarantee at all that they will win a penny or a Euro's worth of business.

However, that did not stop hundreds of people from commenting on those articles, with the vast majority taking the line that this was madness, an "insult to our brave soldiers" and all that sort of nonsense. A few did point out that procurement rules are there to protect the taxpayer, but they were in the minority.

There was one interesting point made, which is whether other countries such as France and Germany have ever advertised a contract for medals manufacturing? Where the critics maybe have a point is that the UK is very open generally on public procurement, which is not necessarily true everywhere. But of course some of the comments were very much around the idea that if the UK leaves the EU, then we can buy everything from British firms.

The other aspect of this that interested us as procurement professionals was the fact that nine suppliers were chosen for the framework, which has a total value of £1.3 million. That seemed a lot of firms; now maybe there are specialist needs within this category, but it would be interesting to understand the logic behind so many suppliers being included.

But things have taken another turn since the initial report – a Cabinet Office spokesperson said that no work has been awarded and “that “local impact” would be taken into account when awarding actual medals work”.

Well, I don’t think you can suddenly introduce that as a selection criterion at the call--off stage of a framework contract, if it wasn’t mentioned as a factor in the initial award process? (Which it may have been, of course). But if it wasn’t, a challenge from Arthus-Bertrand may well succeed if they found they were losing out in the competitions for actual work.

It also just goes to show how limited our politicians' real desire for “open markets” is when it comes to the crunch. And between now and the referendum in June, we will keep you up to date with this story and indeed other examples and reports (sensible or stupid) of public procurement featuring as a referendum issue!

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