The Mystery of the Welsh Laptops… (part 1)

We were tipped off back in the Spring about a purchase of laptop computers by a Welsh local authority that was getting some comment locally.  In November 2010, Torfaen council asked a number of suppliers who were on a Value Wales framework to bid to supply laptops, with an estimated order volume of 400 machines for the rest of the financial year.  A firm called XMA won the competition. Then, in the last two weeks of March (and that timing is significant), Torfaen placed an order for (wait for it...) 8,600 laptops from XMA!

According to the council executive, this was "arising from a successful bid to the Welsh Assembly Government to take forward a project developed by officers from Torfaen and Monmouthshire".

Other suppliers complained that if only they’d known this volume was available they would have bid lower. And my source suggested this looked – how shall we put it – a little dodgy. I asked a Freedom of Information request about the mini-competition process, and got a prompt reply. Based on a very quick look, it didn’t appear anything out of the ordinary.

My interpretation was that, obviously, this was really not very good practice. Clearly, if you go to the market or to the suppliers on a framework, with a requirement for 8,600 laptops, you’re going to get a better price than if you ask about what wasn’t even a firm requirement for 400. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that it was actually a technical breach of EU procurement regulations – it certainly breaks the spirit of openness and transparency but maybe not the letter of the law?

And, looking at the timing, and the fact that the machines were for some special educational project, I put it down to the good old public sector end of budget year effect. You know the issue – if you don’t spend your budget this year, you will lose it for next. So my guess was that the Council had to spend that grant money in the financial year, or lose it altogether.

So bad practice, and budget policy leading to a bad decision, but maybe not more than that. And at the time I was looking at this, we were deeply into our MOD Alix Partners investigation, and to be honest, I don't see Spend Matters as primarily a campaigning publication or one that exists to have a go at procurement and other managers in the public sector, who in my experience generally try their best to do the right thing.  So we didn’t feature the story.

That was that, we thought.

Then two further bits of news have broken over the last few weeks.  Now we’re thinking – maybe we should have dug into this a bit harder....  Stay tuned for part 2 of this exciting story tomorrow!

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