Public Procurement and the Civil Society Strategy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:25 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith for initiating and introducing this important and timely debate, and thank all noble Lords who have taken part. It is has been a well-informed, consensual and thoughtful debate on a subject that, as many noble Lords have said, is not often discussed. It has been particularly helpful to the Government, since our policy is, as I shall explain, in the process of development.

To sum up the debate, the view is that what we have done is good, but we need to do more, and do it better and faster; that is the message I shall take away. My noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith produced an ambitious menu of reforms, which we take seriously. If I do not address them all, I shall write to her. I know that this subject has been one of her special interests for some time and I very much welcome her input.

My noble friend Lord Maude should be answering this debate as he knows much more about it than almost anyone else. I would like to say how much I welcomed his input when I was working with him. He secured very real changes, reforms and savings in public procurement when he was in office. He reminded me of how things have changed since I was first a Minister some 40 years ago. I remember the narrowly focused, time-consuming, bureaucratic tendering. What a contrast that is with the changes he has introduced: the more flexible, market-oriented approach, which enables the taking account of social value. As he said, he has put this into the DNA and the genes are doing well as they flow around the system. He identified the barriers to entry: the performance bonds, the tender documents and the three-year requirement to produce accounts that have historically stopped some of the SMEs getting involved. I will say a word about that in a moment.

My noble friend mentioned public service mutuals. I remember him championing these in the health service when he was in office. They have an important role to play in delivering high-quality public services. At the moment there are 115 mutuals operating in diverse sectors from health to libraries, delivering approximately £1.6 billion of public services. In January last year, DCMS launched a package of support worth £1.7 million to help new mutuals to emerge and existing ones to grow and flourish.

My noble friend also asked about the Commissioning Academy, a development programme for senior decision-makers across the public sector. It supports participants to learn from best practice across the country and is a key component in the culture change that many noble Lords have been advocating. We continue to provide leadership through the Commissioning Academy, working with the social enterprise PSTA—the Public Service Transformation Academy. The DDCMS has worked with the PSTA to ensure good commercial practice, promoting early engagement with the market, contract management, and social value.

I was interested in what my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said about local commissioning and a cross-government approach. Again, perhaps I have been in government too long, but I remember the Property Services Agency, which owned the government estate and the Government Car Service. That was able to look at a town such as Horsham, then look at the totality of the government estate—the DHSS and all the other departments—and engage local contractors. After a time, government departments thought this was a remote, bureaucratic and expensive organisation and demanded autonomy, because we charged them quite a lot to change a lightbulb. It was devolved to local departments, which then discovered that they were all having to replicate particular skills and were losing the ability for local commissioning. We now seem to be moving back towards the PSA model, on which I have an enormous wealth of experience.

My noble friend and one or two other noble Lords mentioned the liquidation of Carillion. That has been used by some, although not in this debate, as a case for stopping the outsourcing of the delivery of public services to the private sector. The Government’s view, and that of previous Governments, is that the private sector has a vital role to play in delivering public services in this country, bringing a range of specialist skills, world-class expertise and deeper knowledge to bear. As we have heard, the public sector is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the UK, spending over £250 billion on procurement. Central government alone accounts for £49 billion of that figure.

As we have heard, there is so much more that the Government could do to create and nurture a vibrant, healthy, innovative, competitive and diverse marketplace of public service suppliers, with values at its heart, where wider social benefits matter and are recognised. This is reflected in the Civil Society Strategy, mentioned by my noble friend, which was published last year. It commits the Government to use their huge buying power to drive social change by championing social value through their commercial activities and levelling the playing field for all types of businesses, including small businesses, voluntary and community-sector organisations and social enterprises—a theme mentioned by many noble Lords in this debate. In turn, that would encourage employment opportunities, develop skills and improve environmental sustainability.

The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 already places a requirement on relevant contracting authorities to consider in respect of procurement for services: first, how the economic, environmental and social well-being of the relevant area may be improved by what is being procured; and secondly, how, in conducting the procurement, they might act with a view to securing that improvement. Contracting authorities must also consider whether to consult the market on these issues before the procurement process starts. There have been a number of suggestions during our debate about how that Act might be amended.

I confess to noble Lords something that may already be apparent: that this is a subject with which I was less than familiar before my noble friend tabled the Motion and it fell to me to reply to it. I am a lot wiser after this debate. To get my mind around what was going on, I asked officials for an example of how incorporating social value in the tendering process would lead to a different outcome. They came up with a Ministry of Defence contract with Future Biogas and the energy company EDF to develop an electricity supply for RAF Marham in Norfolk. The MoD could have taken the conventional lowest-price approach, without considering the social, economic and environmental benefits that could flow to the local area, but did not. Instead, it engaged up front with the supply market and developed an ambitious social value plan.

The airbase will now get 95% of its electricity from biogas generated by fermenting crops grown by local farmers, an option which did not exist before the engagement. This will directly save £300,000 a year on electricity costs, but there is more to it than that, which is what struck me. The fuel is a green and sustainable solution, helping to tackle climate change. Locally grown crops will power the plant, supporting the local rural economy and ensuring continued business and employment in the area. Building, running and maintaining the anaerobic digestion plant supports skilled, long-term employment opportunities in Norfolk. Future Biogas employs five highly skilled engineers on site and an apprentice who started a four-year apprenticeship at the end of 2018, and an agricultural contracting business supporting the plant has increased its full-time employees by five and seasonal staff by a further 10. As part of an improved crop-rotation regime, soil quality is boosted and the weed and pest burden lessened, and the digestate output from the plant is a sought-after organic fertiliser, improving yields of food crops and locking up carbon in the soil.

I found that a very helpful illustration of the case for social value and it is that sort of lateral thinking that we want to promote. Other cases were included in the helpful briefings sent to noble Lords for this debate. My noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith mentioned Crossrail, as did my noble friend Lord Pickles. The important thing about RAF Marham is that it is in the Chief Secretary’s constituency. There have been one or two comments about the potential inflexibility of the Treasury in taking social value on board. Perhaps she has now been persuaded by that local example.

In June last year, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster announced the Government’s intention to extend the application of the 2012 social value Act in central government. While the Act currently requires commissioners to only “consider” social value while awarding contracts, the new proposals will strengthen this further by making it an explicit requirement in central government contracts with the private and third sectors. This work to extend the application of the Act across all central government procurement represents one of the most significant changes in public procurement in recent years. It will ensure that contracts are awarded on the basis of more than just price, looking, as all noble Lords have suggested, at a contract’s social impact too, and giving firms much-deserved recognition for their positive actions in society.

The objective for the Government’s commercial activities will always remain achieving good commercial outcomes for the taxpayer. However, it is right that commissioning and procurement should support social outcomes as well, providing that these outcomes are relevant and proportionate to what is being procured.

A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith and the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Stevenson, wanted the Government to increase the minimum weighting for social value in central government procurement awards from 10% to 20%—or up to 50%, in her case. As mentioned, we launched a consultation paper in March. One of the areas on which we are seeking feedback is whether a minimum 10% weighting is appropriate. The 10% weighting was developed with input from supplier representatives; we are genuinely consulting on this and have an open mind. It is important that we change at a rate that suits each sector. In particular, we want to prevent barriers to entry for SMEs.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith were worried that public procurement favours large companies. I will say a word about that in a moment. The expanded use of the social value Act is widely recognised as a measure that will encourage greater diversity in public sector supply chains.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, warned me that he would raise BSI 95009. The standard is aimed at public and private sector buyers, and proposes a framework for those in procurement to demonstrate or assess trustworthiness, transparency and ethical practice. The Cabinet Office is in discussions with the BSI. We have not yet endorsed the standard, but will consider it most important to ensure that we do not burden suppliers unnecessarily—a point I made earlier—and create barriers to entry for SMEs.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked if we would show leadership on social value by committing to producing an annual social value budget, showing how much social value has been created by central government procurement each year. On 25 January last year, the Chancellor of the Duchy announced the Government’s intention to extend the application of the social value Act in central government departments. This included a requirement to report on social value.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked if we would expand the social value Act to cover goods and works as well as services, so that the value of every penny of public money is maximised. As part of the joint Cabinet Office and DCMS programme of work, central government departments should apply the terms of the social value Act to goods and works, as well as services. There will be markets common to both central government and the wider public sector so it will have a broader impact.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked whether the social value criteria were compulsory and whether the Government will be using them. The new social value framework will be mandatory for central government departments, their executive agencies and non-departmental bodies for procurements subject to Part 2 of the Public Contracts Regulations.