Interview: Chris White

The Tory MP tells David Ainsworth how his private member's bill will help the sector win public service contracts

Chris White
Chris White

Shortly after winning the seat of Warwick and Leamington at the general election in May 2010, the Conservative MP Chris White proposed a private member's bill designed to make it easier for charities and social enterprises to win public sector contracts.

Unlike most private member's bills, the Public Services (Social Value) Bill has survived its third reading in the House of Commons and started its way through the Lords. It is now likely to become law.

The bill's progress is something of a surprise, says White, given that the odds are stacked against you when you're trying to get a private member's bill through parliament. In this case, the expected barriers have not appeared.

"I knew pretty early on I was on to something," he says. "The bill was getting a good reception. It was getting good cross-party support: the Labour MP Hazel Blears was a great supporter, for example."

The bill would require all public bodies, from central government departments to local authorities and quangos, to give consideration to improving "economic, social or environmental wellbeing", whenever they procure a service, and to consider how the procurement process might create those improvements. This is likely to mean that organisations that focus on social value, such as charities and social enterprises, will find it easier to win public sector contracts.

Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, has described the bill as "one of the most important pieces of legislation for our sector in a generation".

White is also hopeful that his bill will have a major impact on the sector. "Contracts for public sector services are worth tens of billions of pounds a year," he says. "What this bill means is that social enterprises will have a better chance of winning every single one of those contracts than they did a year ago."

The inspiration for the bill came during the time he served as a local councillor on Warwick District Council from 2007. "I was well aware of the frustrations felt by the really good local charities and social enterprises. They would be almost frightened off from pitching for public sector business," he says.

"I could see that things should be done differently.

"This is the thin end of the wedge. It's an attempt to redress the balance between private companies and small community organisations."

White's bill has been stripped down considerably since it was first written. In November, a requirement for the government to publish a national social enterprise strategy and all references to social enterprise itself - even in the bill's name - were withdrawn at the request of Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society.

But White says that Hurd's amendments have not harmed his main aim. "Of course you can expand the bill and add definitions and strategies," he says. "But strategies can be things that gather dust on shelves, and that's not what we want. Let's focus on what it's really about: the social value aspect. That remains."

Much remains to be done, he says, to make sure the bill is effective once it becomes law. In particular, his goal is to make sure people know about it.

"This is something where we need to rapidly ramp up awareness," he says. "We need to get the local authorities, the commissioners and the sector to know about this.

"If you're a public sector commissioner working today, your task has been to get costs down. Your new task is to think about total community benefit.

"But we don't want to have directives landing on people's desks saying 'you've always done things that way, now you've got to do them this way.' We want there to be a softening-up process."

Already, he says, the methodology proposed by the bill is viewed as best practice, but he aims to turn it into common practice. "Commissioners want to do the best they can," he says. "This bill will give them the freedom and confidence to do just that. They can use this as their reference."

White says he does not want to make strict rules for commissioners, telling them what they must do to be seen as having given consideration to social value.

"I want to avoid a tick-box and form-filling attitude," he says. "I don't want commissioners to think of this as something they have to check in the same way as health and safety standards. I want them to be thinking about who the stakeholders are, and what the total benefit is."

Nor, he says, does he want to impose sanctions on commissioners who choose not to follow the new rules. Instead, he is more interested in supporting those who do. "I'm more of a carrot man than a stick man," he says. "Let's hope people will choose to adopt this and work with it."

CV - CHRIS WHITE

2010: Elected as MP for Warwick and Leamington

2007: Elected as councillor for Warwick South, Warwick District Council

2005: Business development manager, Century Public Relations

1998: Supplier development engineer, MG Rover.

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