The Northern Ireland procurement policy, which was agreed by the Executive in 2002, commits to the delivery of best value for money. The definition of “best value for money” allows for the integration — individually or collectively, as appropriate — within the procurement process, of social, economic and environmental objectives, which are the three pillars of sustainable development.
The Procurement Board, which I chair, has produced guidance that is aimed at policy-makers and procurement professionals across the public sector on how to integrate equality and sustainable-development considerations more effectively into the procurement process.
The guidance will be launched on 29 May and will be supported by appropriate training.
Go raibh maith agat. Bearing in mind what the Minister has said about procurement roles, and his reference to the three pillars of sustainable development, can the Minister confirm that the procurement guidelines will be mainstreamed across the board, and that a specific methodology will be applied to ensure that social requirements in procurement contracts are utilized when procuring, for example, services, hardware or even office space?
I am aware of the Member’s interest in this subject, and she has questioned me on this issue in the past. Although her question is good, her timing somewhat sucks, because the guidelines will be launched on 29 May. I will ensure that she gets a copy.
Professor Chris McCrudden is a member of the Procurement Board. He is regarded as something of a champion in that area of activity, and he has published on the matter. He is outspoken and capable. I know from chairing a meeting of the Procurement Board that this matter is of great concern to him. Therefore, there is someone at the heart of the process who will push forward those issues. If the Member wants to learn more about him and the issues that he has raised, she can purchase a copy of his book ‘Buying Social Justice: Equality, Government Procurement, and Legal Change’.
The Minister’s answer was interesting. I know that guidelines will be produced on 29 May, but have there been discussions with the social sector in respect of procurement? Is there anything in the guidelines that will assist procurement in that sector?
There has been widespread consultation. The guidelines have been approved by the Executive, and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will launch them. The Northern Ireland Executive spend about £2 billion a year, and it is only right that they get the best value for that money. The Executive and the Assembly have adopted a Programme for Government that sets out a number of cross-cutting themes, including the issues that have been referred to: equality, the economy, and others. If we can advance our agenda through procurement, we should do so. There are many ways in which the Executive can advance their overall objectives by using procurement as a lever.
Is the Minister aware of concern among local small and medium-sized enterprises about the difficulties of accessing local procurement contracts? EU competition rules should be respected, but can a review be carried out to ensure a level playing field for both local businesses and international competition?
I am aware of that problem. Companies that are based in my constituency frequently tell me of products that they believe are as good as, if not superior to, those purchased through the existing system. However, because they are small or medium-sized businesses, they find it hard to compete for the scale of the available contracts.
Those meetings allow potential suppliers to team up with others to make partnership bids in such areas. However, the situation must be examined closely, and we must question whether some of the contracts should be broken down to make the business area more accessible to small businesses.