Monday 20th May 2024

(3 weeks, 3 days ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
17:14
Moved by
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Procurement Regulations 2024.

Relevant document: 21st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con)
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My Lords, this statutory instrument represents a significant legislative step in implementing the Procurement Act 2023, which seizes the opportunity following Brexit to develop and implement a new public procurement regime for more than £300 billion-worth of public contracts. The new regime helps deliver the Prime Minister’s promise to grow the economy by creating a simpler and more transparent system that will deliver better value for money, reduce costs for business, especially small business, and improve the public sector. I thank colleagues across the Committee for the work that we did together on the Procurement Act.

These regulations bring to life and set out the practical detail necessary for the functioning of many of that Act’s provisions. Many of the measures set out the detail required by the Act to enable contracting authorities to conduct their public procurement in an open, transparent and informative manner. These include the content of various notices that will be used to communicate opportunities and details about forthcoming, in-train and completed procurements. Such contents would typically include the contact details for the contracting authority, the contract subject matter, key timings for the procurement process and other basic information about a particular procurement that interested suppliers would need to know. The provisions also cover the digital measures that authorities must follow when publishing notices, such as putting them on a central digital platform and what to do in the event that the platform is unavailable.

The transparency measures will help to open up opportunities with the public sector to a greater range of businesses, helping drive down price and increase innovation. They will provide contracting authorities with the data they need to collaborate better, drive value for money and identify cost savings in their procurements, and they will give Ministers, legislators and auditors detailed information to monitor for signs of waste and inefficiency.

Other provisions to supplement the Act include various lists in the Schedules so that procurers can identify which obligations apply in a particular case. These include a list of light-touch services that qualify for simplified rules and a list of central government authorities and works which are subject to different thresholds. The regulations disapply the Procurement Act in relation to healthcare services procurements in scope of the NHS provider selection regime introduced in January this year. These enable the procurement of NHS patient treatment services, such as NHS paramedical services or cancer treatments, to be governed by the free-standing regulatory scheme that was specifically designed for those services.

The regulations also set out how devolved Scottish contracting authorities are to be regulated by the Act if they choose to use a commercial tool established under the Act or to procure jointly with a buyer regulated by the Act. They also amend the Act to provide that reserved Northern Irish private utilities are not required to publish preliminary market engagement notices. This is because the Government do not wish to regulate the procurement of private utilities any more than is necessary. The regulations apply to reserved procurement in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and to procurement by a transferred, that is to say devolved, contracting authority in Northern Ireland. The Welsh Government have laid similar secondary legislation which will apply in respect of devolved procurement in Wales and elsewhere if the devolved body carrying out that procurement operates mainly in Wales.

The Government have consulted fully with stakeholders throughout the reform process and we published our response to the formal public consultation on these regulations on 22 March 2024. The consultation evoked a good response from the various representative sectors and confirmed that the proposed regulations generally worked as intended. Many stakeholders urged that certain matters be clarified and explained in guidance and training, which is a key part of the implementation programme that we are rolling out across the UK. We have listened to feedback and our response confirms a number of areas where the consultation led to technical and drafting improvements.

Contracting authorities and suppliers have made it clear that they will need time once this instrument has been laid to adapt their systems and processes before we go live, so the Government have provided six months’ advance notice of the new regime before the regulations come into force on 28 October 2024. Noble Lords should also be aware that the instrument has been corrected to remove drafting references and a couple of typographical errors which crept in during the publishing processes. I beg to move.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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From the attendance, we have established that more people are interested in hedgerows than procurement. I have participated in all of what I would call the post-Brexit plumbing legislation. Although this was not the most controversial part of that legislation, it has certainly taken a long time for us to get here. The Second Reading in your Lordships’ House was just five days short of two years ago, and we have to wait another six months for these rules to be implemented, so it will take two and a half years.

Hopefully, we have improved it. As some noble Lords will remember, the Minister was at that time a Back-Bencher, before she was propelled meteorically to her current role. I thought this correction was an homage to the original Bill when it was published. It arrived very quickly, with hundreds and hundreds of government amendments, which is part of the reason why it took so long for us to get here. But we have got here. One important thing that the Minister touched on, which was stressed very early in the process, was the central importance of the central digital platform. It would be helpful if she could confirm that that platform is 100% ready to go—I think we would all hope so.

In Regulation 11, the list of the “connected person information” is huge. Although the Minister said that this makes it simple for smaller companies, it will require a great deal of effort initially. Can she confirm that this is a one-off effort that those companies have to make? Will this central digital platform be able to replicate that information—copy and paste—or will people have to enter the same information, as they do now on a variety of digital platforms, often handfuls and sometimes dozens of times? Can the Minister confirm that that is how the new system will work and that it will work that way on day one?

Contracting authorities are clearly vital and their understanding of this big set of rules will be central to the functioning of this. Can the Minister tell us in some detail how they are being brought up to speed with what is required of them to make this work? In particular, how will they bring SMEs into the picture, where they have not been before? How will the contracting authorities engage SMEs? How will SMEs know that they are now in with a shout and have an opportunity? What information will go out to our SMEs so that they can properly participate in public procurement? The Minister did a lot of work, as both a Back-Bencher and a Minister, to put these rules in place, and it is important that her work is now properly propagated out to the market.

I should remember the answer to this, because I am sure we went into it, but utilities are treated substantially differently and there are different processes here. The Explanatory Notes say that we will create a “utilities dynamic market”. I do not have the faintest idea what that is, so can the Minister please say what it is and why we should celebrate it?

At the end of her speech, the Minister talked about the position of the NHS. She would be surprised if I did not bring that up. Perhaps she tried to pre-emptively head it off at the pass. There was a lot of debate and my noble friend Lady Brinton very much led on that. We were not happy, in a sense, with the way that health services were disapplied.

Regulation 43 talks about the disapplication of “regulated health procurement”. That is not the phrase that the Minister just used, so can she again define “regulated health procurement” for the record? She listed the fact that there is a custom-made process for those services in the NHS, but we should not be too complacent, because the first test of the new NHS rules on competition and procurement found against the NHS. The rules that were being vaunted just now are not being used properly within the NHS. The first review panel set up to oversee commissioning decisions found against the commissioner and advised it to abandon its procurement of ADHD services; it was the Cumbria integrated care board that failed to do this properly.

I know that the NHS falls under a different department, but the Cabinet Office is uniquely interested in procurement right across government. There should be no complacency about the system that is now being used with the NHS. The experts on procurement exist within the Cabinet Office and I would like the Minister to say now that the Cabinet Office will engage those experts to advise health boards on how to use their own rules properly—otherwise, we will waste a ton of money on appeals and rulings against health boards. It is quite clear that they do not have the capability to apply their own rules and that they need help. They will not get that from their own people, because it is not there; the expertise for procurement is within the Cabinet Office. So I want the Minister to say that it will step in and make sure that health boards know how to apply their own rules. With that, as it has been a long time coming, let us get this going.

Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab)
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My Lords, we supported the introduction of the Procurement Act and we recognise that, following our departure from the EU, the opportunity arose to reshape the way that procurement is regulated in the UK. There are some steps that we particularly welcome, such as the transparency measures in the central digital platform, and steps to make procurement more straightforward for smaller businesses and social enterprises.

However, as my friend Nia Griffith MP, the shadow Minister in the Commons, said when this was discussed there last week, we maintain the view that this Act was something of a missed opportunity. Can the Minister outline for us what, in this new flagship procurement legislation, would prevent scandals such as the PPE VIP lane from happening again in the future?

I listened carefully to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, about NHS procurement and the need to share the expertise of the Cabinet Office with the Department of Health and Social Care. I would be interested in the Minister’s response to that, as it speaks to issues with working across government and between departments, which we understand can be tricky. However, in this instance, there seems to be a special role for the Cabinet Office to assist in preventing problems from arising in the future. We never want to see a repeat of the situation in which friends and party donors are given the first bite of the cherry, while decent, skilled local businesses are denied the same opportunity. It is difficult to see anything in the regulations that would specifically prevent these problems, so it would be useful to hear from the Minister. I assume, because I expect she was asked this repeatedly during passage of the Bill, that she can outline her Government’s position on this point.

Although we are disappointed on that specific issue, we hope that the Act serves what is probably a shared aim across all parties: to simplify and encourage more involvement from businesses that are the backbone of our economy, especially in the regions and nations of the UK where access to government contracts has been more challenging. We want to see wealth shared more fairly across the country, with businesses that employ local people and spend in their local economies given the same chance as other large businesses.

17:30
How successful these new regulations are at encouraging SMEs to participate will depend to a great extent on how straightforward the central digital platform is to deal with. Can information be found easily, can necessary documents be uploaded easily and, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked, can that be done once rather than someone having to input the same information again and again? With that in mind, can the Minister say anything about what expertise in user experience has been applied to this project?
No one can accuse the Government of rushing into this, but a steady pace, shall we say, does not necessarily guarantee that businesses will know about the new regulations. Can the Minister give us some information about what is being done to explain and promote the changes? Can she let us know who, and which agencies, we should look to in order to see how this is being done so that we can judge its effectiveness?
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords who spoke in this debate. I well remember moving from poacher to gamekeeper and working across the House to try to improve what was a very important Bill, not least because of the scale of procurement that it reached. Indeed, the Act embodies our ambition to open public procurement up to a more diverse supply base, making it easier for new entrants such as small businesses—the noble Lord, Lord Fox, rightly mentioned them; indeed, all speakers mentioned them—and social enterprises. Remember that we added social enterprises during the passage of the Act, as well as measures to improve prompt payment for small businesses—those help small businesses—and the transparency of opportunities on a single platform. The Act also enables basic supplier details to be submitted only once, which picks up on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Fox.

In response to expert discussion in the House, I introduced additional measures during the passage of the Act. These included a new duty on contracting authorities to have regard to the particular barriers facing SMEs and to consider what can be done to overcome them, as well as 30-day payment terms on defence and utility contracts and through the supply chain. We removed unnecessary obstacles relating to audited accounts and insurance as conditions of participation—the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, put down amendments on those issues, I think—which can prevent SMEs winning public contracts.

The Act introduces a new centralised debarment regime, including a public debarment list, and allows the Government to investigate supplier misconduct, including taking action to protect the public supply chain. Of course, the procurement review unit will manage the new debarment regime, including investigating suppliers, while the new national security unit for procurement will manage the investigation of national security-related debarment cases. Importantly, the PRU will also oversee compliance with the new regime and will have the power to investigate non-compliance. These reforms will shape the future of public procurement in this country for many years to come, ensuring a modern and flexible procurement regime that will deliver better outcomes for taxpayers, service users and business.

I turn to the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Fox. In respect of the information that suppliers have to provide for connected persons, I am happy to advise that, as long as the information remains consistent, suppliers will have to supply this information only once when they register on the online system, which they can do at any time. When bidding for a procurement, they will need merely to confirm that the information they previously provided in respect of connected persons is still current, in the spirit of One Login.

A key objective of the Act and regulations made under it is to reduce the burden on suppliers by enabling them to store core supplier information in one place; that is called the supplier information service. The core information will then be provided to contracting authorities by each supplier who wishes to participate or bid. This reduces the time taken by suppliers to bid for public procurement opportunities by ensuring that common data can be submitted efficiently and effectively, without having to duplicate core information. This is of real benefit to business, particularly SMEs.

A utilities dynamic market is a pre-approved list of suppliers from which utilities can call off. Unlike a regular dynamic market, contracts are advertised only to members of the market. The online system will be operational and ready for use when the new regime comes into force on 28 October. We are working with e-procurement system providers to ensure their readiness. New notices will be phased, with the timings set out in the commencement regulations, which will be made shortly and will set out when relevant obligations will take effect. This reflects consultation. The phasing of the notices has been designed so that notices used in the planning, tender and award phases of a procurement will all be available from the outset. There will be a natural lag until later notices are required, so those will be brought in in phases.

I also mention the work that the Cabinet Office, which obviously co-ordinates all this, will do to support the new regime. It took me through it this morning. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Fox, was interested in the detail. There are four key elements. First, there are knowledge drops, which are a range of on-demand presentations providing an overview of all the changes in the legislation.

Secondly, there are e-learning modules, which consist of 10 one-hour modules and conclude with a skilled practitioner certificate. This core training product is open to all staff from contracting authorities and named individuals who regularly undertake procurement activity on their behalf. I will take away the point that was made about health experts and see whether it is possible for them to access some of this training material, as that seemed a good point to me.

Thirdly, there will be an advanced course of deep dives—a three-day intensive course for a smaller group who have completed the e-learning modules. They are the advanced commercial practitioners who will need to become experts. Fourthly, we are supporting communities of practice, building on good online practice, where practitioners can support each other by sharing, discussing and reflecting on best practice and the challenges and opportunities within the regime.

Noble Lords will know of my passion for helping small businesses. Clearly, we will keep an eye on the training, which starts with the contractors, to make sure that we get feedback from small businesses so that we know that the regime is working well.

The concept of dynamic markets is a good one. It means that suppliers can know in advance that they will be eligible to bid. You will get several suppliers who can all bid, and it makes the system quicker and more efficient, without undermining the safeguards that we need.

The Procurement Act has improved and strengthened safeguards, with, for example, the ability in Section 42 for the Government to set out in regulation specific public contracts that can be awarded directly for a limited time for the protection that might be needed. There are new transparency notices in Section 44, as detailed in Regulation 26, and more detailed conflict of interest provisions, including the preparation of a conflict assessment under Section 83. We discussed this at great length because we had the backdrop of PPE, and I remember well how we learned from that experience. That is one of the reasons why there are lots of different transparency measures and controls in these regulations. Even if we had to move to direct awards because of some national crisis, the controls would be applied in an appropriate way. We have tried very hard to work at that.

On healthcare, where I very much understand the noble Lord’s point, I should offer to write because he raised a point about a Cumbrian example that I am not familiar with. I made it clear at the beginning that I very much understood that in some areas, the NHS will be doing its own thing, but in other areas such as the construction of hospitals, it will be subject to the broad procurement rules. I have also said that I will take a look at ensuring that the health side takes advantage of the excellent training and online briefing that the Cabinet Office team has worked so hard on.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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I thank the Minister for her point on the NHS and the health service and I look forward to receiving that letter.

There are just two things. I asked a specific question about the readiness of the central digital platform. I listened very hard indeed. I turned my hearing aid up, and I did not hear the Minister say that it is ready. In fact, I heard I heard her say that the department is working with contractors, and then she started talking about phases. That worries me, because of the centrality of this system in order for the Procurement Act to work. Can the Minister give some more detail on that? When will it be 100% ready?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I was trying to be open and honest, as I always am, by emphasising what will be clearly ready and where we are bringing other things in in phases. The first stages will obviously be ready, and that is why we are bringing the arrangements in at the end of October, which fits into our deadlines, and then there will be other material coming through. However, with luck, the system we have set up for online briefing will ensure that people know where they are, and I think it will be like other policies I have been involved in. You get a sort of bell curve. To begin with, the new and innovative people use the system; and then gradually, as more material comes on and it gets around that actually, it is really good, you will get more people coming in and more SMEs. I am very keen to work with them to make sure that the share of the cake that SMEs have in procurement, which has gone up in the past couple of years, will continue to rise, and rise very substantially.

I repeat that the online system will be operational from 28 October. The notices will be phased, and timing will be set out in commencement regulations. Obviously, the notices required from 28 October will be available and ready to use. That confirms what I have said, but it gives the extra information that there will be commencement regulations. We will make sure that noble Lords who are interested are aware of them when they are finalised.

I repeat my thanks to all involved in the work. Actually, there is a succession of Ministers whom I have to thank. There are noble Lords right across the House who have been hugely helpful by challenging us and supporting us when we are right. I also thank the officials because it has been a very, very long slog. The new procurement regime starts on 28 October, and after that they will obviously have even more to do. Thank you very much. Please join me in supporting the regulations.

Motion agreed.