Procurement Policy

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 24th November 2020.

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Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 3:00 pm, 24th November 2020

7. Mr Chambers asked the Minister of Finance whether he will consider the reform of public procurement policy to allow local and individual public-sector teams to choose the best options for them when it comes to cost-effectiveness and suitability. (AQO 1192/17-22)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Executive's public procurement policy requires public bodies to process procurements under a service-level agreement with Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) or a relevant centre of procurement expertise (COPE) to provide a coordinated and strategic approach to securing best value for money. Recognising that it can be more cost-effective for public bodies to carry out their own procurement of low-value goods and services, the service-level agreement allows for public bodies to do this, if they use established procedures that maintain accountability and transparency in expenditure decisions.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. A school in my constituency had to pay hundreds of pounds and wait weeks for a simple window repair to be carried out because it had to go through the central provider for all schools in Northern Ireland. The principal could have hired a local independent contractor to do it 75% cheaper and had it repaired the next day. This seems to be a problem for many public-sector organisations, not just schools. Will the Minister consider changes for small-scale expenditure in such areas?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As I said in my answer, there is a level at which there can be a degree of discretion. Of course, there has to be accountability for all these arrangements. We need to make sure that work provided by contractors is up to the standard required for a school or any other public building, because it has to serve that building for some time. Of course, standards have to be applied and there must be a level of accountability and transparency in how the money is spent so that it is not going to some favoured contractor or supplier. I am not making any reference to the school that you mentioned, but, in general terms, that should not happen. There has to be a balance in making sure that this is good value for money, that it can be got locally if it is below a certain level and that the person or company that supplies it adheres to a certain standard that is recognised by the procurement people.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I agree with the Member for North Down. As a school governor, I have had to face similar situations.

In the light of the protections that the Minister talked about in value for money for the Northern Ireland taxpayer, does he believe that the Central Procurement Directorate provides value for money for Northern Ireland plc?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

When we were discussing the question, as an elected representative, I anticipated where the question was coming from. The people in procurement, perhaps, were anticipating wider issues. I am sure that all of you are frequently told, "This could have been got much cheaper, if only you had gone to a local supplier". I get all those arguments as a locally elected representative, and I want to ensure that government spend assists local economic growth. Of course procurement, like all other agencies, has to present value for money. We have initiated a series of changes to the Procurement Board. We are bringing in more expertise from outside agencies. The procurement policies that are followed are, obviously, agreed by the Executive, so there is Executive-wide ownership of them. The responsibility of that board will be to bring policies to the Executive for approval. That is where a lot of these issues can be interrogated, but, of course, as with everything in public expenditure, we want to ensure that it represents value for money.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

The Minister will appreciate that some of the very best local procurement is done through social enterprises. What action is your Department taking? You have already promised some social value legislation for Northern Ireland. How quickly can we see that on the statute book, and will it happen within the life of this Assembly?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

In the next meeting that I have with the newly constituted Procurement Board, social value will be one of the main items on the agenda. Like you, I am very much of the view that social enterprises and projects not only provide excellent value for money but have the added value in what they do for people in the community who might otherwise not be employed. They make an added contribution to society, as well as the economy.

I am a keen advocate of social value. It has to measure up to being value for money, but, in my experience, and, I am sure, yours, social value can do that in many ways. We want to see social value be very much part of the procurement make-up, and we have been actively looking at the idea of having legislation. There is a limited time left in the mandate for initiating legislation and taking it through all its legislative stages, but, if there is time, I am willing to look at that.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 3:15 pm, 24th November 2020

We have time for a question from Mr George Robinson and an answer from the Minister, but there is no time for other Members to ask a supplementary question.