The Conservative Party Manifesto and Implications for Public Procurement

We discussed the Labour Party election manifesto here yesterday in terms of its relevance to public procurement, and today we will look at the Conservative party document. If Labour was pretty thin in terms of procurement, their three mentions trumps the Tories who use the p-word just twice. The first mention is significant though.

"We will raise the target for SMEs’ share of central government procurement to one-third, strengthen the Prompt Payment Code and ensure that all major government suppliers sign up."

So the good news first; strengthening the Prompt Payment Code seems sensible, and why not ensure all suppliers sign up to it? Whether it is then monitored and policed properly is another matter, but it's a start. Too many large firms are getting away with too much bad practice.

But the SME target fills me with despair. For a start, hang on a minute; it isn't a “target” - I thought it was an “aspiration," as Minister Francis Maude regularly pointed out. And we know that the 25% aspiration was only reached through wholesale manipulation of the figures to include "spend through the supply chain" - also known as bullying major first-tier suppliers to government into saying that they spent lots of money with SMEs, then adding those numbers to the meagre 10% or so that is really spent directly with SMEs.

So now that fiddling will have to go further to try and hit 33% in the next term. And with MOD now accounting for something not far short of half of central government's total third party spend, and the impossibility of SMEs building planes and ships, then the manipulation will have to get more creative. What's the betting that SMEs at the third level in the supply chain are being counted by 2020?

And anyway, where is the analysis to show that this policy has paid off? We wrote an article here about the need for more evidence based policy in the public procurement space, but I have seen nothing objective to suggest that SMEs actually do a better job. They may do, and I'm not anti-SMEs, but this is just a subjective "feeling" (or an attempt to get a few more SME owners to vote Tory).

The second "procurement" mention is this.

"We will continue to seek value for money in defence procurement, recognising the important contribution that the UK defence industry makes to our prosperity."

Just like Labour's statement on the same topic, this is so obvious as to be meaningless. Who could possibly think that any government would not "seek value for money"?

There is also some talk of past glories (not totally undeserved, although Cabinet Office has refused to answer many of our FOI requests, so boasting of transparency has a hollow ring for me), with a “more of the same” feel as we look into the future.

“We have reduced the cost of government, by selling empty buildings, managing big projects better, shrinking the Civil Service, reforming pensions, moving more services online, and improving contracting. We plan a further £10 billion annual savings by 2017-18 and £15- 20 billion in 2019-20.

And this.

“We have supported the growth of public service mutuals – organisations that are owned by their staff and deliver public services. We want more of them, so we will guarantee a ‘right to mutualise’ within the public sector. This will free up the entrepreneurial spirit of public servants and yield better value for money for taxpayers. Transparency has also been at the heart of our approach to government. Over the last five years, we have been open about government spending, provided access to taxpayer-funded research, pursued open data and helped establish the Open Government Partnership. We will continue to be the most transparent government in the world.”

And again, just like Labour, there is talk of greater devolution, including some concrete measures such as transport links to build a “Northern Powerhouse.” But there is no mention of what this might mean for public procurement, or how changes in public procurement might support devolution. Indeed, there is nothing radical at all in procurement terms in the document, with very much this feeling of a continuation – which really is in line with the overall theme of the Tory pitch to the electorate: “we’ve done a decent job for five years, don’t let Labour (and the SNP) ruin it.”

We will come back to the NHS in a separate post, but there is also the elephant in the room in both of the major party manifestos really. In 2014/15, the UK still borrowed some £90 Billion. Over this government, the total has been around £600 billion; that is £10,000 borrowed for every person in this country. The balance of payments situation for the UK is also dreadful, suggesting that the UK’s “jobs miracle” has not translated into long-term economic security in a global sense.

And to hit targets for the next few years, we are looking at huge cuts to welfare and other spending departments. But to read these two documents, you would think we are living in a land of milk and honey, as promises are splashed around without any real sense we can afford them. Whoever wins this election is going to disappoint the population, I fear, as reality hits home post-election.

Shall I make my personal prediction?  I feel that the likelihood of the SNP basically running English affairs is going to hit home with many undecided and floating voters as we get nearer to May 7th. It fills me with horror, I know that. It might even bring some UKIP folk back to reality. So I predict the Tories will do better than expected, might even get a small overall majority, or more likely will form another coalition with a smaller but still significant Lib Dem group.

But  I could be wrong - I've avoided putting money on the result anyway!


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Voices (2)

  1. Paul Wright:

    Peter, the SME “target” is a joke. Sure to follow the same pattern as last time whichever party is in power: target to aim to ambition to aspiration to irrelevance.
    On the election, it is your blog and you can put it in it what you want but beware it doesn’t become a political battleground. It would create more heat than light. Which is why I will make no comment on your last comments.

    1. Peter Smith:

      Good points Paul and I promise that will be my last “political” comment – and I would stress that it was a “prediction” rather than a “hope”!

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