Procurement Regulations 2024 Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Monday 20th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Grand Committee
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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.