Hazel Blears: 'If parliament buys socially, it sets the agenda'

The Labour MP supports the drive to make both Houses of Parliament procure goods from socially responsible suppliers. Andy Hillier reports

Hazel Blears
Hazel Blears

Politicians from all of the main parties have in recent years encouraged local authorities and other public bodies to buy goods and services from socially responsible organisations. But in future politicians themselves will be using more goods and services from socially responsible suppliers because of a commitment by both Houses of Parliament to buy more social products.

In November, the House of Commons and the House of Lords both gained Buy Social accreditation from the trade body Social Enterprise UK. The accreditation recognises organisations that have committed to having social enterprises in their supply chains and taking into account social and environmental factors when purchasing or commissioning goods and services.

The drive to encourage parliament to buy more goods socially has been led by Social Enterprise UK and supported by Hazel Blears, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Enterprise. Blears says she approached John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, before a parliamentary reception for social enterprises in November 2013, suggesting it changed the way it purchased goods and services.

"I went to see the Speaker and said that leadership from the top of parliament would make such a difference," she says. "He was absolutely up for it." Blears says that Baroness D'Souza, Speaker of the House of Lords, has been equally supportive.

There are currently six social enterprises in parliament's supply chain: the Jubilee Hall Trust Gym, the nursery provider London Early Years Foundation, the bottled water company Belu Water, the confectionery firm Divine Chocolate, the coffee supplier Peros and Carbon Culture, which advises organisations about how to use energy and resources more efficiently.

In addition, firms that bid for contracts must commit to paying the London Living Wage of £9.15 an hour for staff that work in parliament.

A House of Commons spokeswoman cannot say how much parliament spends on goods and services each year. She says that the figure varies greatly, depending on the construction and maintenance work required, but more than 370 contracts were awarded last year.

But Blears views parliament's commitment as a major boost for the UK's social economy. "There are big plans over the next few years for reconstruction works to take place in parliament that could run into hundreds of millions of pounds," she says. "Making sure that social value is included in those contracts will have a major impact. It means that companies will have to offer apprenticeships, use local labour and develop local supply chains. Parliament embracing this agenda makes it more mainstream."

In September, the Cabinet Office produced a draft version of public procurement regulations; the final version is due to be completed this year. The new rules will allow public bodies such as parliament to incorporate more social value criteria in their tender documents. Blears says it is too early to say how much weighting parliament will give to social value when tendering for contracts, but she says she has been encouraged by the local authorities that have allocated at least 20 per cent of the marks to social value questions.

Some public bodies apply social value criteria only to contracts worth above a certain amount, but the House of Commons spokeswoman says it doesn't plan to introduce a financial threshold for the inclusion of social value criteria. Instead, the application of such criteria will depend on "relevance to the contract in question", she says.

So will the new commitment give not-for-profit organisations an advantage when bidding to supply goods and services to parliament in the future? Blears does not believe this will necessarily be the case. "A large number of big companies I know are putting social value at the heart of their tendering processes," she says. "It will also make those private enterprises that don't do that think about social value when tendering."

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