Charities give cautious welcome to public procurement proposals

Charity membership bodies have welcomed new plans to overhaul government procurement rules designed to encourage public bodies to support social issues and voluntary sector organisations.

The government’s green paper, called Transforming Public Procurement and published this week, sets out plans designed to cut red tape, reduce bureaucracy and help unleash wider social benefits from public money.

The measures, which have been developed over the past 14 months by a team of specialists in international procurement, also aim to take advantage of new powers as the UK leaves the European Union.

The paper proposes that awarding authorities will be encouraged to consider how public contracts can support social or environmental issues or promote local communities, small businesses and charities. 

The rules will also provide more flexibility to allow contractors to take account of wider government priorities and support work to build back better from the pandemic.

Every year, the government buys about £292bn of services from the private sector.

The proposals say the government will allow the public sector to buy British for contracts not subject to international trade rules, by allowing competitions for government contracts under £4.7m for public works and £122,000 for goods and services to be limited to small businesses, voluntary, community and social enterprises, or to a certain geographical area. 

Clare Mills, head of communications and external affairs at the local infrastructure body Navca, said while charities and social enterprises were often best placed to deliver services for different sections of their communities, they have had to take on contracts with no margin, or at a loss, when tendering focused almost exclusively on price. 

“We’ll be asking our members and their networks for their views and taking a closer look at the green paper in the coming weeks,” said Mills.

Other proposed changes to procurement include the removal of more than 300 complex regulations to create a single uniform rule book, the government said, giving buyers the power to properly take account of a bidder’s past performance, and a single digital platform for registering contracts.

Rebecca Young, policy and influencing lead at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said: “We welcome the clear message to authorities to not overly focus on price over quality and social value in decision-making, as well as measures to tackle payment delays in supply chains. 

“Allowing authorities to consider value from the perspective of other contracting authorities could also be beneficial for charities providing holistic services across a number of areas.”

Young warned that local government still needed sufficient funding to invest in designing and delivering services, and that further consideration must be given to the role grant-making can play in delivering local services.

Rita Chadha, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, said although the changes were welcomed, the new commitments must not be seen as virtue-signalling, with small charities acting as “bid candy” for larger providers and commissioners eager to tick boxes.

“For procurement post-Brexit to be genuinely helpful to small charities, there must be a heart and mind change from the market and commissioners that understand the potential and strengths that small charities can provide in delivering and supporting public services,” she added.

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