Chris White's public services bill could make a difference to society

The Conservative MP's private members bill would help charities and their beneficiaries, says columnist Robert Nieri

Robert Nieri
Robert Nieri

Behind the debate about the big society, a modest-looking private member's bill making its way through parliament might revolutionise public commissioning for the common good.

The Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value) Bill doesn't trip off the tongue but could go a long way towards making the big society more than big talk. It's unusual for two reasons. It's short (only four pages and five sections long) and it has cross-party support; so unlike most other private member's bills, it has a good chance of becoming law.

Its main idea is a simple one. The government spends £141bn a year purchasing goods and services. The bill says that before an authority invites bids to provide a service it should be compelled to consider how it might "promote or improve economic, social or environmental wellbeing" by means of any contract. It should consider how to take these matters into account as part of its awarding criteria.

Chris White, the Conservative MP sponsoring the bill, gives the example of an authority wanting to run a local health campaign. A laudable aim in itself, but how much better to buy leaflets and posters from a local business that hires long-term unemployed people to stimulate the local economy and promote social inclusion? Many see the realisation of this idea of community-aware procurement and commissioning as a win-win situation, doing more for less.

The bill is about halfway through the House of Commons: in the coming months it will be scrutinised by a Public Bill Committee before it passes to the report stage and a third reading. It then begins its journey through the House of Lords.

The draft bill will no doubt undergo adaptation and compromise before reaching maturity. After the bill's second reading in November, the civil society minister Nick Hurd indicated that the government would try to drop the section requiring the secretary of state to publish a national social enterprise strategy to encourage engagement in social enterprise.

He said it would also want to excise a requirement for local authorities to include proposals in their sustainable community strategy for promoting engagement with social enterprise in their areas.

There was debate about what constituted a social enterprise, with some MPs wanting the bill to be broad enough to benefit businesses that engage in corporate social responsibility. Even if that comes to pass, wouldn't any requirement for commissioning bodies to promote "social value" - whoever delivers it - be a good thing in itself?

In any case, at a time of spending cuts and fears that the third sector cannot compete with big business for major contracts, there ought to be opportunities here for charities and not-for-profit organisations.

Private companies compete with very similar products, perhaps differentiated only by branding. Charities can bring a lot more to the table, but a major problem has been identifying, quantifying and promoting all the substantial hidden value they often provide.

They could seek more of a say in shaping required social outcomes before authorities go out to tender and try to secure more of the contracts as a result. At the same time, there are challenges, such as how to educate commissioners to be innovative, encouraging them to think about what social value can be achieved and how it can be assessed.

The bill requires authorities to consider only the extent to which it is "proportionate in all the circumstances" to promote economic, social or environmental wellbeing. They must consider only how to take social value into account: they might not identify any such value or decide that it would be too difficult or costly to do so. The trick will be to foster a bold commissioning mindset - and surely the sector has a part to play here.

Once a decision is taken to go out to the market, authorities will still need to draft their tender documentation without falling foul of procurement law, which imposes requirements as to the way in which certain goods, works and services are to be procured by certain public authorities.

Rarely does a private member's bill become law, but some have had a profound impact on our society, from rights of adoption to the abolition of the death penalty. Perhaps this bill can soon join their illustrious company.

Robert Nieri is senior associate at Freeth Cartwright

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