New Clause 16 - Procurement of support services for victims of violence against women and girls

Procurement Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 21 February 2023.

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“(1) In carrying out a covered procurement for local specialist support services for victims of violence against women and girls, a contracting authority must have regard to social value within the meaning of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012.

(2) For the purpose of this section, “support” means specialist support provided to victims of violence against women and girls or their children by organisations whose organisational purpose is to support victims or children and young people impacted by violence against women and girls.”—

This new clause would ensure authorities give regard to social value when carrying out procurement for services to support victims of violence against women and girls.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 16 would ensure that contracting authorities give mind to social value when considering violence against women and girls services. Throughout the course of the Committee, we have spoken at great length about social value. I remain concerned that the Bill does not give social value the prominence it needs. There are many areas that would benefit from the consideration of social value, but there is a particular case for it to be fully considered in violence against women and girls services.

Tackling violence against women and girls is a major concern and priority. Last year, a nationally representative survey by Women’s Aid last year showed that 14% of the population, and 33% of women, placed tackling violence against women and girls in the top three issues that the UK Government should prioritise over the next 12 months. This Bill is an opportunity to ensure that survivors of domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls get the support they need. As hon. Members will know, support services are generally procured at a local level. As it stands, the Bill does little to reform the damaging approach we see in practice, which favours one-size-fits-all, generic providers that do not support all victims of domestic abuse and violence holistically and, crucially, that survivors of domestic abuse do not want to access support from, due to their lack of expertise.

The statistics on domestic abuse are truly shocking. In 2020-21, more than 62% of initial referrals to refuges were turned away. As of 2022, there is still a 24% average shortfall in refuge spaces across England. In a recent survey, 67% of Women’s Aid members—frontline services—said that, if they do not receive more financial support, that will stop them from being able to support victims and survivors. That figure rose to 85% of services run by and for black and minoritised women. Unfortunately, gaps in the procurement system are hindering attempts to provide a more holistic service that could help to get women the support they need.

Sadly, I have heard from domestic abuse charities that, even where commissioners have a good understanding of the provision of VAWG services , processes are driven by procurement teams, which results in decisions that are driven by competitive procurement processes rather than the concept of social value. Those same charities say that, because the weighting of the procurement criteria and social value are often optional, smaller community domestic abuse services lose out to larger, generic providers when contracts go out for tender. Large providers can afford teams of professionals skilled in tendering and writing proposals, unlike smaller organisations that have the experience of delivering specialist services. The result is that considerable time and resources are spent on process rather than outcomes.

I remind Members of our debate on clause 12. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown gave the example of a small service in Brighton led by women, for women, that was decommissioned by the local authority. He told us that, a year and a half ago, the domestic abuse service, RISE, went up for tender:

“RISE was created by women in the city, with support from the council...The procurement process did not consider RISE’s social value whatsoever…RISE lost the contract. That meant that decades of understanding the needs of women from an organisation…was no longer there.”––[Official Report, Procurement Public Bill Committee, 31 January 2023; c. 42.]

This is happening up and down the country. Excellent smaller providers are losing out to armies of big providers. The small providers know the women inside out and provide a valuable lifeline in many cases, supporting the women, their children and families.

Existing Government guidance makes it clear that large-scale procurement processes can lead to the loss of specialist providers, so why have the Government not done more to prevent this? The guidance explicitly recommends that commissioners safeguard and recognise small specialist service providers’ expertise, including through grant funding. However, in the experience of domestic abuse charities, the guidance is rarely used in practice. The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 is also often ignored or given little weighting in a procurement system that favours commercial value. Both the Act and the commissioning guidance lack teeth. We must go one step further to ensure that specialist domestic abuse and violence against women and girls services are protected, and their value recognised.

In response to the Government’s Green Paper on the Bill, specialist VAWG and domestic abuse organisations, including Women’s Aid, Welsh Women’s Aid, Imkaan and the End Violence Against Women coalition, recommended that

“the Government must ensure that all funding and commissioning processes for VAWG recognise and value specialist support provision, required under the Istanbul Convention. The Government must ensure community-led specialist domestic abuse services are meaningfully involved in the commissioning process. They must guarantee that local funding and commissioning processes adhere fully to the Equality Act, public sector equality duty and the Public Services (Social Value) Act, deliver appropriate legal guidance covering compliance of equalities impact assessments and the public sector equality duty, with monitoring of compliance.”

We cannot continue to have procurement decisions that undercut specialist domestic abuse and VAWG services that have been serving women and children for decades. New clause 16 would give teeth to the existing guidance. More importantly, it would help survivors of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls. They need the right services now. Women’s lives depend on it. I hope the Government will support this new clause.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Order. I will call Lloyd Russell-Moyle next, as he was referenced in the shadow Minister’s speech.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

I rise to support new clause 16 because of what happened in Brighton, which showed that it is important to have overall guidelines rather than discretionary guidance on this issue. In that case, there were multiple contracting parties, including Brighton and Hove City Council. I have no doubt that, had it contracted the service on its own, it would have seen the value of the important work that RISE has done for decades in the city. RISE is led by women, for women. It fights domestic violence, saving and supporting women who have undergone it, and provides refuge as well as counselling support for the women and their children. However, the contract was given jointly by Sussex police, East Sussex County Council and, partly, West Sussex County Council, and the social provisions in Brighton and Hove City Council’s guidelines did not match up with the social provisions in East Sussex’s guidelines. My understanding is that there were no provisions in the Sussex police guidelines.

When the contract went out for joint tender, the sections that were not compatible with each other were removed, because they were voluntary. This new clause would prevent that from happening again. In the case of RISE, it would have enabled the service to be provided. Instead, the contract was given to a housing association. I am sure it is a lovely, well-meaning organisation, but it is a housing association, not a specialist domestic violence organisation or a women-led organisation. It is not an organisation that has any roots in the city.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving such a powerful reminder of why this new clause is so important. He said that the contract was given to a housing association. Does he agree that the women who need this specialist service may not feel comfortable going to a housing association, because part of their issues and problems arise from housing?

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Quite right. This housing association had no footprint at all in Brighton and Hove and a very limited footprint in East Sussex. The women who were in that organisation’s housing might find it more difficult to go to them, because it is not a truly independent service.

Whether that is the case or not, what then happened was that the refuges and some of the counselling services that are provided in the city were sub-contracted out to some of the RISE people. So RISE picked up some bits of work, but not all of it. It could not offer the women wraparound support, just support in some very specific areas, so the service potentially became worse for women. A top-slice of the money has been taken out of the area for management and bid-writing fees and costs, which such organisations all take, and given to an organisation that is based nowhere near Sussex and does not have that specialism.

When women then complained and protested during covid, through covid-compliant protests, they were threatened by the police and told their protest was wrong and that they should not be protesting. Interestingly, the police allowed my hon. Friend Peter Kyle, Caroline Lucas and me to address the covid-compliant demonstration. There was no problem with that; it was only as we left that the police pounced on the women organisers, in front of their children, and tried to fine them. That was particularly egregious. I represented those women and said that I would give statements to support them, and in the end the police dropped the case.

Even when women tried to speak up, they were abused and harassed by the police—they were women who have come through domestic violence and who have been RISE service-users. It was important to commission RISE, but it was also important that women themselves had their voices heard. At all stages—in the commissioning and the outcome—women’s voices were removed and shut down. New clause 16 would give that protection.

Even if the Minister does not support the new clause—I would like him to, but I assume he might not—I hope he will reassure us that he will strengthen the section in the guidelines on women-specific services, such as those who have suffered domestic abuse, and place additional emphasis put on ensuring that local women’s voices are heard, while also allowing some of the competitive tendering to be waived. That is already possible, but we need stronger guidelines, particularly for multi-authority procurement. We will push the new clause to a vote, but I hope the Minister provides those reassurances, as I suspect we all broadly agree on the issue.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

New clause 16 seeks to ensure that authorities have regard to social value when carrying out procurement for services to support victims of violence against women and girls. Before I discuss the specifics, I should say that the Committee has debated over several days the centrality to this legislation of the fact that we are moving from a world of most economically advantageous tender to most advantageous tender—from MEAT to MAT. That gives contracting authorities the opportunity to make decisions that are not based solely on economic advantage. That will cover all areas, not just the specific area outlined in the new clause.

There is already a legal requirement in this area. Contracting authorities are already required to consider how social value might be improved for all types of service contracts under the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. That Act requires the authority to consider when placing a public service contract

“how what is proposed to be procured might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the area where the authority primarily exercises its functions, and how, in conducting the process of procurement, it might act with a view to securing that improvement.”

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I thank the Minister for his remarks, but does he understand the concerns raised by local and national women’s charities? They say that the current guidance does not go far enough and, in their experience, they feel the guidance is ignored in many cases or given very little weighting in the contracts that are then awarded. Does the Minister agree that those organisations have valid concerns?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 10:45, 21 February 2023

I understand what the hon. Lady is saying. Obviously, the 2012 Act will continue to apply to procurement of services to support victims of violence against women and girls. Moreover, the public benefit objective in clause 12(1)(b) requires contracting authorities to consider the extent to which public money spent on their contracts can deliver greater social value than it otherwise would, for example by encouraging local specialist service providers that understand the particular needs of the communities they serve.

With the combination of existing legislation and this new legislation, with its emphasis on MAT rather than MEAT, we feel that the duty in new clause 16 already exists in law. I therefore respectfully ask that the new clause be withdrawn.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 38 Procurement Bill [Lords] — New Clause 16 - Procurement of support services for victims of violence against women and girls

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 7.

Question accordingly negatived.