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If there are problems not only in how central Government procure but across the wider public sector, I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will make contact with my Department through the helpline that we have set up specifically for the purpose. If they highlight how procurements are being done that entrench the old, inefficient and anti-enterprise way of doing things, we can then intervene proactively, as we have done on a number of occasions, to make improvements.
It is the small businesses that often have the greatest difficulty in accessing Government contracts, and that is because of a regulation from the European Union. Will the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to reform EU regulations to make it easier to secure contracts with Government both at a national and local level?
The first thing that we are doing is trying to ensure that the way in which we implement the European directives is sensible and not overly bureaucratic and legalistic, which it usually is at the moment. The European Commission is introducing proposals to streamline and simplify the procurement directives, which we welcome. I was talking to Commissioner Barnier in Brussels two or three weeks ago, and he was very open to that happening.
Fresh Opportunities is a company in my constituency that supplies water drinkers to jobcentres. Sadly, though, it lost the contract. That was not because it was inefficient or too expensive but because it could not deliver a service on a large enough scale. What can the Minister do to enable SMEs, which cannot operate on a national scale, to be able to deal with Government bodies?
We have two objectives here. We want to buy as efficiently as we can, which, in many cases, means using the scale of Government to aggregate volume and drive down prices. In many areas of procurement of commodities, goods and services, we are able to get the price advantages of aggregation but, none the less, involve SMEs much more in the process. We have a commitment and an aspiration to increase the value of SME business to 25% of the total.
The Minister will be aware that public procurement guidelines in Northern Ireland are set by EU directives and UK regulations. Will the Minister, therefore, give a commitment to work alongside the Northern Ireland Executive and not to turn his back on Europe in negotiations to tackle the issues of over-complexity, cost and red tape, as those are issues that are affecting local business?
As I said, we are actively engaged with the European Commission in supporting the good work that it is undertaking to streamline procurement processes, but we need to ensure—and I hope that the hon. Lady will do this—that the Administration in Northern Ireland do not over implement the directives because we are finding that central Government and the wider public sector in Great Britain tend to do that.
Notwithstanding what the Minister said about the economies of scale, the Federation of Small Businesses has reported an increased tendency for public sector contracts to be aggregated into much larger ones, thereby penalising smaller businesses. What has the Minister got to say to those small businesses?
There is a whole range of procurement opportunities that are particularly suitable for smaller businesses. Even when we aggregate, that does not exclude small businesses. For example, we have just let the contracts for travel for the whole of Government and one of the successful two bidders is a very small business, which, as a result of winning that contract, will become a much bigger one.
Can my right hon. Friend include in that assessment the ability of charities and small organisations, mutuals and so on to bid for public sector contracts as providers of public services? May I commend the report that the Select Committee on Public Administration has published today on the big society, which recommends that the Government extend the eligibility for the VAT refund scheme, which currently applies to public sector bodies, to charities that deliver public services under contract with a public sector organisation?
I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor takes note of my hon. Friend’s suggestion. We want to make it easier for small voluntary organisations and mutuals to bid successfully. One thing that we aim to do is to get contracts chunked up into smaller lots. We have much bigger contracts, generally, than France or Germany would have in equivalent circumstances, which tends to militate and be biased against the interests of smaller businesses and voluntary and charitable organisations.