Lord True (Con)
My Lords, I thank very much all those who have taken part in the debate. Myriad points have been raised from all sides of the House. I never know what the usual channels are deciding, but it is probably a good thing that, as I understand it, we are not going into Committee for some time because I can feel a compendious letter to your Lordships coming on, which might be as long as the Explanatory Notes.
Your Lordships will forgive me if I do not deal with every detailed point; I will try to address some of the main themes of the debate, which were expressed very well by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, when she opened and the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Wallace, in summing up. We will not agree on all these things. Certainly, in some of the speeches from the other side, there was a yearning to impose policies on the private sector—on people outside government. The high-water mark was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, which I guess was the counterpoint to the low-water mark—I am not sure there was any water in it at all—of the speech of my noble friend Lord Moylan. To impose your political objectives on a nation, you have to win an election and form a Government. What we need to do—there was great support and great consensus across the House on this—is put together a framework that we could all work with to provide clarity, simplicity and, yes, transparency, which I will come on to, for those seeking to provide to public procurers.
An important speech on defence was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the subject was also alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. My noble friend Lady Goldie will respond in writing on the points made but, obviously, when we get into Committee, we will be able to address the points.
Points were raised about control, management and remedies. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, put forward some ideas. We will reflect on those but, basically, the law of the land is the framework; my noble friend was right.
Many noble Lords alluded to Covid-19 procurement. I understand that but we need to look forward. While the debate was going on, I looked this up on my machine and saw that in April 2020 the leader of the Liberal Democrats was calling for all red tape to be swept aside to get PPE. People in other parties were saying the same. Yes, mistakes were made, but when you make mistakes you must learn from them. We are putting together a regime that will deliver more comprehensive transparency requirements, clear requirements on identification, management of conflicts of interest and so on. It is right that we should address those things, but the priority of the Government—indeed, of all of us in all parties—as the pandemic we knew so little about arose, was to save lives. I acknowledge that there are lessons, but I hope that when we look at how the Bill is structured, we will see that we have an improved framework for addressing all aspects of procurement.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and others rightly addressed the issue of human rights. We will discuss this in Committee. I had the pleasure of discussing it with the noble Lord before, as he was kind enough to say. Certainly, modern slavery has no place in government supply chains; I affirm that strongly. I accept that the current rules on excluding suppliers linked to modern slavery are too weak. For example, they require the supplier to have been convicted, or for there to have been a breach of international treaties. These rules are not capable of dealing with some of the issues that we see.
We are making explicit provision in the Bill to disregard bids from suppliers known to use forced labour or to perpetuate modern slavery in their supply chain. Authorities will be able to exclude them where there is sufficient evidence; they do not need to have a conviction. We are seeking to respond in this area and no doubt we will be probed further.
One issue raised right from the start by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was that of principles. A lot of people have said that this was in the Green Paper but is not in this Bill. A Green Paper is a basis for consultation and reflection. A Bill is the proposition that the Government put before Parliament and this is the proposition that we are putting before Parliament. The Bill splits the procurement principles into a group of objectives and rules to help contracting parties understand what they are obliged to do. The rules on equal treatment, now termed “same treatment”, in Clause 11(2) and (3) are obligations that set minimum standards in plain English that contracting authorities must follow on treating suppliers in the same way to create a level playing field. Non-discrimination, in the context of the Bill, means discrimination against treaty state suppliers on the grounds of nationality, which is a concept different from non-discrimination in the UK market. The national rules on non-discrimination in the Bill can be found in Clauses 81 to 83.
There were a number of changes to the principles. For example, the procedural transparency obligations in the Bill are complemented by a new information-sharing objective in Clause 11(1)(c), which will provide clarity to contracting authorities on exactly what they need to publish. There is also no need for an objective to maximise competition in procurement processes under the Bill, as procedural obligations start with the use of open and fair competition, unless there are legitimate grounds to dispense with or narrow competition. The most obvious of those would be special cases for direct award.
I acknowledge that transparency has been a key ask for the House. The House expects that transparency will be improved. We believe that the Bill does this. We are extending the scope of publication requirements to include planning and contract performance, in addition to current requirements to publish contract opportunities and contract awards. By implementing the open contracting data standard we will publish data across the public sector so that it can be analysed at contract and category level, and compared internationally. The new regime will also establish obligations on contracting authorities to capture potential conflicts of interest for individuals working on procurement additionally, or mandate the publication of a transparency notice whenever a decision is made to award a contract using a procedure as a direct award. This will all be supplemented by a comprehensive training programme that will be available to contracting authorities, which I will come back to later.
We remain committed to our aim to embed transparency by default through the commercial life cycle. We recognise and make no apology that this new regime seeks to do that. The new central digital platform will be designed to make complying with the new transparency requirements automated and low cost. We intend to make data analysis tools available to contracting authorities, which will ensure that they can use the data available to drive value for money.
Taxpayers have a right to see how public money is spent. There is abundant evidence of public engagement with contracting information, and it increases as the data improves. Because the data will be more comprehensive it will be more valuable and, we believe, better used. I have no doubt that we will be tested on that, but I assure the noble Baroness opposite that it is something we are extremely determined to achieve.
On social objectives, I was asked by a number of noble Lords how the Bill will help with achieving net zero. I accept that the Bill does not include any specific provisions on the Government’s target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but it will require contracting authorities to have regard to national and local priorities as set out in a national procurement policy statement to be published by the Government, and the Wales procurement policy statement to be published by Welsh Ministers. Many noble Lords have given notice that they will want to return to examination of the national procurement policy statement, how it will operate and how it will go forward, but there are statements in there.
Public sector buyers are able to structure their procurements so as to give more weight to bids that create jobs and opportunities for our communities, where this is relevant to the contract being procured. This is absolutely in line with the concept of value for money. Social value in procurement is not about a large corporate’s environmental, social and governance policies but about how the contract can be delivered in such a way that it delivers additional outcomes, such as upskilling prison leavers, which I think someone referred to.
Delivering value for taxpayers should certainly be the key driver behind any decision to award contracts to companies using public money, but again, public sector buyers will have to have regard to the national policy statement. The Bill will take forward a change from “most economically advantageous” to “most advantageous” to reinforce the message that they should take a comprehensive assessment of value for money, including the wider value of benefits, in the evaluation of tenders.
I know that many of your Lordships want to see and have asked for buying British. Public sector procurers are required to determine the most advantageous offer through fair and open competition. We confirmed in December 2020 that below-threshold contracts can now be reserved for UK suppliers and for small suppliers where it is good value for money. This applies to contracts—in those strange figures in the Bill that arise from international treaty—with a value below £138,760 for goods and services, and £5.336 million for construction in central government.
Above those thresholds, we need to act in line with our international obligations. A blanket “Buy British” policy would conflict with the UK’s international obligations to treat suppliers from other countries on an equal footing. The requirement for fair and open competition is a two-way street because it gives UK firms access to other markets. Within the UK, on average, just over 2% of UK contracts by value were awarded directly to foreign suppliers between—