Amendment 78

Procurement Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 30th November 2022.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe:

Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

78: Clause 49, page 32, line 7, leave out “£2” and insert “£5”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would mean that a contracting authority is only required to set key performance indicators for a public contract if the contract’s value is more than £5 million.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, forgive me; I thought I could move this amendment formally too. I try to find a sensible and reliable pathway through, as your Lordships know. I look forward to debating this group, which discusses the single digital platform and transparency.

Transparency has been central to the development of this Bill, and it should be noted that there is a significant extension to transparency under the regime. The publication of documents and notices that follow the award stage will allow interested parties to see how contracts are being implemented. While we have stated publicly that it was always the Government’s intention to create a central digital platform to host this data, we acknowledge the concerns raised by noble Lords during Committee around the importance of the online platform. Amendment 129 therefore creates a new duty requiring a Minister of the Crown to provide an online system for the purpose of publishing notices, documents and other information under this Act.

In addition, the duty requires that the platform has to be accessible to people with disabilities—a point we were debating on Monday—and provide access to procurement information that is published under the Act, free of charge. This means everyone will have access to public procurement data and can track contracts as they progress through the commercial lifecycle from tender to award and delivery. Citizens will be able to scrutinise contracting authority decisions; suppliers will be able to identify new opportunities to bid and collaborate; and buyers will be able to analyse the market and benchmark their performance against others, for example on their spend with SMEs.

In addition to the principal amendment, Amendment 132 is a technical amendment which removes an existing statutory power as this platform is expected to be delivered through common law powers. Since becoming the Minister responsible for this Bill, I have been keen to ensure that it strikes the right balance between transparency and not imposing undue burdens on contracting authorities. Contracting authorities will continue to be bound by the obligation to publish opportunities for all advertised procurements that are above a threshold of £12,000 for central government authorities or £30,000 for others. This will ensure that there is a high degree of transparency for SMEs, so that they can bid.

However, at the other end of the commercial process, the Bill introduces additional transparency requirements after the award of the contract. I have reflected on these, and Amendments 78, 80 and 104 all seek to raise the original threshold for the publication of contract key performance indicators, public contracts and modifications to a public contract from £2 million to £5 million. This will reduce the administrative requirements for contracting authorities while ensuring transparency of the public sector’s larger contracts. I am pleased to say that these amendments have been welcomed by the Local Government Association in the briefing note it published on 25 November.

I will turn to the other amendments tabled in this group in closing, having heard the points raised by noble Lords. Meanwhile, I beg to move Amendment 78.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital)

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 130 to government Amendment 129. Many of us will be pleased that the Minister has decided to put the new online system for procurement information on the face of the Bill. At the same time, however, we need some assurance that it will be fit for purpose and achieve the objectives set for it, otherwise the Government seem to have carte blanche to construct whatever system they see fit to inflict on the vendor community, without any required standards or reporting duty. Let us face it: even the modest database under the Subsidy Control Act is subject to a form of reporting duty, and this system will be of far greater significance.

The amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Fox is designed to provide assurance but in very simple terms. There would be the requirement for a report, first, on the performance standards expected and, secondly, on the standards achieved in the relevant period, including metrics on satisfaction and the accessibility experience of stakeholders. This is a modest proposal; how can the Minister possibly argue against it?

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, I support the single digital platform which is now covered by government Amendment 129 in this group, but I have one caveat. The benefits of the platform, in terms of efficiency—having all the procurement details in one place—will be undermined if contracting authorities are required also to publish tender information in other ways. That is what lies behind my Amendments 166 and 168 in this group. Like some of the amendments I spoke to on our first day in Committee, these have been suggested by the Local Government Association. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Moylan for adding his name to them.

These amendments propose two additional repeals within Schedule 11, the repeal schedule. Subsections (4)(b) and (5) of Section 89 of the Transport Act 1985 require local authorities to issue notices of tender individually to anyone who has given written notice that they wish to be notified. Amendment 166 would repeal that, because it should no longer be necessary. Amendment 168 would repeal Regulations 4 and 5 of the Service Subsidy Agreements (Tendering) (England) Regulations 2002 so that information on tenders will no longer be required, for example, to be published locally, including in local newspapers.

I hope my noble friend will see these two amendments as supporting the importance of the digital platform. I also hope that she will be able to assure the House that the Government will ensure that later legislation will not be allowed to undermine the platform by adding new and additional requirements, once it is up and running.

Photo of Lord Aberdare Lord Aberdare Crossbench

My Lords, I suggested earlier that the Government might explore the greater use of technology to track payment times. I also very much support the proposals in government Amendment 129 regarding a single digital platform for publishing notices, documents and other information, and I wonder if it might in due course be extended to provide a mechanism for monitoring and tracking payment performance.

While I am on my feet, I thank my new noble friend the Minister for her kind words earlier. I also point out to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that I was not earlier proposing an amendment to the Bill for improving payment practice, but merely speaking in support of the Government’s plans for the procurement review unit and seeking confirmation of those plans on the record. I am sorry that he is unfortunately not in his place here for me to draw that to his attention.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:30 pm, 30th November 2022

My Lords, I have some amendments following on from the government amendments. They are simple probing amendments on the figure that the Government have come up with in their amendments. Amendment 79 seeks to delete from Clause 49 the figure of “£2” and insert “£3”. All I am doing here and in my further two amendments is trying to probe where the figure that the Government put into their amendments came from. I appreciate that in her introduction the Minister said that a lot of this was based on reducing admin requirements and addressing concerns raised by the Local Government Association, for example, but it seems quite a big jump. We are seeking to understand why the threshold has jumped from £2 million to £5 million. If the Minister could give some explanation as to where the figure came from, we would be very grateful.

I welcome government Amendment 129 on setting up the online system. That was raised by a number of noble Lords and discussed at length in Committee, so it is good that the Government have acted and produced this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raised the important point that anything that is introduced has to be seen to be fit for purpose, so again it would be very helpful if the Minister could provide noble Lords with assurance as to how the system will work. If there is no annual report on the operation of the system, what is the overview process? How is it being assessed and monitored to ensure that it is fit for purpose?

I shall comment very briefly on the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. She introduced them clearly and succinctly, as she always does, for which I am very grateful. I am aware that the LGA had concerns about these areas, as it raised them with us, so I thank her for tabling the amendments. They address a very legitimate concern, so I hope the Minister has listened and will revisit this area of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, Amendments 79, 81 and 105 have been tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, to amend to £3 million the financial threshold above which contracting authorities would be required to publish contracts and contract modifications, and set and publish KPIs. The government amendments raise these thresholds to £5 million. The intention of this is to reduce the administrative burden on contracting authorities, while still providing increased transparency on larger contracts. Redacting contracts for publication where they contain commercially sensitive information is particularly burdensome for smaller contracting authorities, requiring detailed and costly checking by legal teams that they may not have or expensive legal advisers.

Where does the figure come from? I do not know exactly; that is the honest answer. I was offered options of £50 million, £10 million and £5 million. I chose £5 million because that is quoted in the Sourcing Playbook, which seemed a reasonable point. I believe that a threshold of £5 million balances the benefits of transparency with the costs and burdens of implementation.

The higher threshold in the government amendment has been welcomed by the Local Government Association. We want the arrangements to work, so we will monitor them carefully. We have powers to change the thresholds if we need to do so—for example, to bring in extra contracts as the system grows and matures—and if analysis of the new data gathered allows us to better understand how to ensure that the obligations are effective and proportionate; or, to go the other way, if we end up with a lot of difficulties. It seems a reasonable approach.

Amendment 130 tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Clement Jones and Lord Fox, seeks to require the Minister of the Crown to report annually on performance standards and feedback on the online system, including stakeholder satisfaction and accessibility. The data on the platform will be available in real time, and interested parties—of which there will be many—will be able to access information by using the tools available on the platform and by downloading the data for external analysis, such as statistics on the publication of notices and the progress of contracts. The platform will be accessible, as I have said, and will comply with the relevant legislation, including the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018, on which I am not, I fear, an expert. The Government are continuously monitoring the existing online platform that supports noticing under the current regulations and will continue to do so under the new regime and make changes as they are needed, so we are not inclined, on this occasion, to write in a review clause.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital)

What mechanism will there be for feedback from vendors and so on?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

We have talked several times about the PRU and the role it will have in looking systematically at things. It seems to me that one of the main sources of information for it will be this online system. It has the merit of largely being an all-singing and all-dancing system. I will come on to my noble friend Lady Noakes’s amendment in a minute. I think, therefore, that this is going to work well, but if the noble Lord discovers in the fullness of time that it is not doing so, I am sure he will come back and ask the Cabinet Office what it is up to.

Amendments 166 and 168 in the names of my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Moylan have been tabled to remove provisions in two pieces of transport legislation, both relating to contracts for subsidised public passenger transport services. The first repeals two subsections from Section 89 of the Transport Act 1985—that is a long time ago—dealing with the obligation to invite tenders for such contracts. This change would remove the requirement to issue invitations to tender individually to anyone who has given a written notice requesting this. The second amendment revokes two regulations from the Service Subsidy Agreements (Tendering) (England) Regulations 2002, dealing with information to be published regarding accepted tenders and where no tenders are accepted. These amendments were raised in Committee and, while both rightly seek to reduce the burden on contracting authorities, there are further considerations for the Department for Transport.

Not all transport is covered by the Bill, and we have carved out certain public passenger transport services under Schedule 2. The Department for Transport is reviewing procurements that fall under this separate regime as part of its review of retained EU law and its legislation more widely. It is important that what we do in our schedules does not impinge on that review. We are therefore unable to accept my noble friend Lady Noakes’s repeals today, but I have asked my officials to work with the Department for Transport to see whether it is possible to sort this out and bring forward a government amendment in the Commons to address her concerns. In the light of those various assurances, I respectfully request that noble Lords do not press their amendments.

Amendment 78 agreed.

Amendment 79 not moved.

Clause 50: Contract details notices and publication of contracts