The new web-based electronic tendering portal, eSourcing NI, will have benefits for small and medium-sized enterprises; it will provide a one-stop-shop for all the Central Procurement Directorate’s tendering opportunities, which are now available online 24/7. There is a supplier online help service, which is backed up with a phone helpline. Suppliers can register their details online once instead of having to provide the same information for each competition. The other centres of procurement expertise (CoPEs) will introduce the portal over the next year, and it is expected that by the end of 2009 all central Government contracting opportunities will be available on the portal.
Those changes will make it significantly easier for our small and medium-sized enterprises to identify future tendering competitions, and will mean that submitting tender responses to those opportunities will require less time and resources.
I thank the Member for his question. I know that that issue is a source of interest, particularly to the members of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. It is also important to local firms and businesses in the economic downturn, given that £2·2 billion will be spent on procurement this year alone, with some £1·5 billion being spent on capital. I can confirm to the House that all centres of procurement expertise will be using the common portal by early 2010 — that was agreed at the last procurement board, which I chaired.
It is important that there should be a joined-up approach right across Government, and that all central Government contracts should be available in one single portal. That will make it much easier for our small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, to access the information and cut time, money and resources that would otherwise have to be spent doing it individually. It is positive for Northern Ireland business.
I accept what the Minister said. However, for all the increased capital expenditure, the picture from the point of view of SMEs as I see it, does not appear to be as positive as that. SMEs do not feel that they are part of a public procurement system that is working with them and for them. Does the Minister recognise the picture that I am describing, and does he see meaningful ways in which the system can be made to operate better, so that the SMEs can describe the situation differently?
I am grateful for the Member’s recognition of the capital spend that is happening. It is 30% greater this year than the final out-turn position for 2007-08, which is significant. When one considers that 90% of that is going to local companies — and the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s companies are small and medium-sized enterprises per se — that gives an indication of the commitment that I have to our small and medium-sized enterprises.
The Member raised a point that has been raised by a lot by firms, businesses and Members. I am determined that centres of procurement expertise recognise the importance of SMEs — and I believe that they do. They encourage SMEs to join together as consortia to bid for contracts or look for opportunities within supply chains. The Member will be aware that Government clients are required to advertise publicly all construction procurement opportunities estimated to exceed £30,000 for construction work and £5,000 for construction-related services.
I referred to the eSourcingNI portal, which will be an enormous help to Northern Ireland companies. The recently established construction industry forum and procurement task group, which was set up and meets regularly, is considering how further to maximise the opportunities for SMEs in Northern Ireland to bid for, or benefit from, public-sector construction contracts.
In the Minister’s reply to my question for written answer — AWQ 5660/09 — he was unable to give me details of the small and medium-sized firms that he has told the House are now able to access the Government’s tendering process. How was he able to tell the House that they could access tendering processes if his Department was not able to tell me who they were? Surely his Department has computerised databases.
I will look into that matter. My Department tries to be as open and transparent as possible, and that fact has been commented on. It may well be, given the vast amount of procurement contracts — £2·2 billion per annum — that the cost of listing every individual company may be astronomical. However, I hope that the Member will be reassured by the actions that my Department is taking already, with 90% of Government procurement projects going to Northern Ireland firms, compared to some 50% in Wales. Northern Ireland’s performance is much better. However, not only do I want it to be better — although it is significantly better than other devolved areas — I want it to be the best that it can possibly be. It is important for us to do what we can to ensure that local companies have that access.
Given the amount of procurement value out there, I hope that the Member is reassured by the fact that Northern Ireland companies are getting 90% of that procurement and, given the fact that the vast majority of those companies are small and medium-sized enterprises, that that will also go a long way to reassure him on that point. I am grateful for the Member’s nod of acknowledgement.
Last week, I facilitated a meeting with the Central Procurement Directorate and SMEs in Derry. They outlined a string of difficulties that they experienced when they tried to secure contracts. Given what the Minister told us about the website and the portal, does he agree that it is important to monitor whether SMEs find it easier to succeed in the procurement process and to secure contracts? Will the process that the Minister outlined be monitored so that SMEs can be assured that they will be able to secure contracts?
It is not a question of whether that situation will be monitored: it is continuously monitored. The Construction Industry Forum Procurement Task Group meets fortnightly to discuss all those issues with the construction industry and businesses, so it directly engages with Government on those issues. Public-sector procurement procedures are highly regulated according to UK national law and through European Union directives with which we must comply.
The measures that we have taken — backed up by facts — indicate that Northern Ireland firms and companies are already accessing considerable benefits from public procurement. I hope that the measures will reassure people that substantial work is being done; we take nothing for granted, however. We will continue to work to ensure that local companies can access the best-possible procurement opportunities.
There will also be companies in Northern Ireland that will rightly want to access opportunities outside Northern Ireland. A short while ago, we received the very welcome news that two of our leading developers and construction companies in Northern Ireland won work in Scotland. I do not know whether that will provoke questions in the Scottish Parliament about work not going to Scottish construction companies, but there are opportunities for Northern Ireland firms. When the portal is fully up and running, it will provide information on a UK-wide basis. Companies from Northern Ireland will be able to see opportunities arise from the Olympic Games.
I am delighted that Northern Ireland companies are benefiting from public-procurement opportunities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.