Procurement Bill [Lords] Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I agree completely and I thank my right hon. Friend for that point. I would not even like that dependency on our allies. Would I like that level of dependency on the United States? No. On Australia? No. But to have that level of dependency on a Communist dictatorship that is investing massively in AI and big data to spy on their own people and increasingly on us as never before, to threaten peace in the Pacific, and to have a stated aim of dominating while freeing itself from dependency on the west, is really an extraordinarily dangerous position for us to find ourselves in.

We know that Chinese Communist party companies such as Huawei actively seek to gain a monopoly position by systematically destroying economic rivals. That is not fair trade; it is trade as a weapon for a Communist party dictatorship. It did it with Huawei, undercutting and deliberately destroying rivals on price through cheap subsidies. It is now doing the same with cellular modules, seeking to dominate and take control of the market. It does that through IP theft, economic espionage, subsidy, access to super-cheap finance, shared technology and other forms of state support.

Companies such as Quectel and Fibocom—the manufacturers of cellular modules—will, like Huawei, claim to be private. They are not. Nothing is private, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, in a Communist state. It was profoundly depressing for me, a couple of years ago, to hear two former senior Conservative Ministers, who should know better, say that Huawei was a private company. That is a rather more serious way of accidentally misleading the House than whether somebody ate cake or not, but that is another matter.

What are the dangers? We know that the Chinese leadership see themselves as being in competition with the west. Why? Because they tell us. A 2013 “Document No. 9” concludes that western constitutional democracy and universal values were a fundamental threat to the PRC. Of course our values are a threat to dictatorships. Our values are always a threat to communists. Earlier this year, a work report delivered to the National People’s Congress set out the belief that

“external attempts to supress and contain China are escalating”,

and the term “self-reliance” appeared multiple times. Again, the idea is to create dependency on China for us, while at the same time freeing China from dependency.

What is the worst-case scenario? Frankly, it has happened in Russia, so we should at least be alive to the idea that the worst-case scenario may be happening in the Pacific.

President Xi has told his army to be ready to re-take Taiwan by 2027. As I said, let us please stop pretending that dictators do not mean what they say, because they have a depressing habit of meaning what they say. I wish they did not; I wish they would overpromise and underdeliver, but they tend to do what they promise.

Either the UK is militarily involved or it is not. Either way, an assault on Taiwan, either by slow strangulation—a sort of Berlin scenario—or direct invasion, would profoundly alter the state of the world. We would have to put on the mother of all sanctions. The minute we do that, we will risk not only a global economic meltdown, but an economic meltdown probably worse than covid. It will strain to breaking point our relationship with the United States, the European Union and Australia—and not just our relationship but the interdependent relationships.

I am not saying that will happen—although, I think we are heading in that direction—or that we should stop trading with China; I am saying that it makes a great deal of common sense, frankly, to know what our levels of dependency are. That is why I would love the Minister to commit to at least developing an understanding of what our trade dependency is.

There is another reason to be concerned about supply chains: what is happening in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, which other Members have rightly mentioned. A 2022 UN report found serious human rights violations in the region. They seem to be about the most significant human rights abuses currently happening in the world, whether we use the “G” word or not—genocide. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps alone produces 8% of the world’s cotton. China overall produces 20% of the world’s supply of cotton. Effectively, this is a new slave trade in cotton, as shocking as that sounds. It is not happening 200 hundred years, in the 19th century, in the southern United States; it is happening now, in the early 21st century, in Chinese-controlled central Asia.

There are many other things coming out of the Xinjiang province that tell the story of using forced labour, as both Opposition and Government Members have eloquently spoken about. There is forensic technology available, which we could be using in this country, that can pinpoint the region of origin for items tainted by modern slavery, such as cotton. When it comes to new clause 60, on eradicating slavery and human trafficking in supply chains, I ask the Government to set an example by saying that we will, at the very least, commit—a good Government word—to bringing in that forensic technology within a period of time. That would enable us to understand whether western companies are using slave cotton—an incredibly horrible phrase to use in this age—in their manufactured goods.

Finally, we have spoken about Chinese surveillance technology, and I speak again in support of new clause 1. We have got to get this stuff out of the country for a start. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green says, with all the dual-use capabilities and new styles of conflict, not just in conventional military but in data domination, it is really difficult nowadays to say where security starts and finishes.

In summation, we need to understand, as a critical matter of national importance, our supply chain dependency on any country, but specifically China. I implore the Government to use the Bill, even at this late stage, to bring in a statement of dependency so that we can begin to understand and to take measures to work out not how to stop trading with China, but how to trade more safely. That way, if we need to take sanctions in future, and for the health of our relationship with that superpower, we can begin to work out how to diversify our supply chains in future and, at the same time, do something about the horrors happening in Xinjiang.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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I rise to speak to my new clause 12 on the protection of subcontractors’ payments under construction contracts. As the explanatory statement describes, the new clause

“ring-fences moneys due to subcontractors in construction supply chains through mandating the use of project bank accounts and ensuring that retention moneys are safeguarded in a separate and independent account.”

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Amendments 64 to 66 seek to add various offences relating to economic crime as mandatory exclusion grounds. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley suggested in his speech that a conviction for bribery was not a ground for mandatory exclusion. I can assure him that it is. A discretionary cause for exclusion is the failure to prevent bribery. There is a distinction between the two.
Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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I just want to make sure that the Minister has not forgotten my new clause 12.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I absolutely have not, and I am very much looking forward to getting to it after I gone through the intervening amendments. I appreciate the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm.

The mandatory grounds for exclusion cover the types of misconduct that raise only the most serious risks for contracting authorities. We have strengthened the mandatory grounds significantly in comparison with the EU regime, but they cannot and should not cover every offence that could raise a risk to contracting authorities. However, I can offer reassurance that the offences in question could justify discretionary exclusion on the ground of professional misconduct. This means that contracting authorities would have the flexibility to consider excluding the supplier, but could also factor in the nature of the contract being tendered and other relevant considerations in exercising their discretion.

Amendment 67 seeks to add a discretionary exclusion ground where there is evidence of financial and economic crime activity but there has not been any conviction of the listed offences. These concerns would already be caught by the ground of professional misconduct, which permits contracting authorities to weigh up the available evidence in the context of their procurement and use their discretion in determining whether an exclusion would be appropriate.

New clause 9, tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), revisits the issues we discussed in Committee on the application of this Bill to certain healthcare services. New Clause 9 would insert a new clause 119 that would amend the Health and Care Act 2022, effectively deleting the power that enables the Department of Health and Social Care to make bespoke procurement regulations for the purposes of certain healthcare services, known as the provider selection regime. Amendment 13 deletes the existing clause 119 that provides a Minister of the Crown with a power to disapply the Bill to enable the provider selection regime regulations to be applied to those healthcare services.

The combined effect of these two amendments would be to stop the Department of Health and Social Care making separate procurement rules for certain healthcare services, and make the Procurement Bill apply to all healthcare services instead. As was discussed in Committee, the idiosyncrasies of healthcare delivery necessitate some special rules. The decision to create a free-standing scheme of healthcare-specific rules was taken in 2021 to give the NHS the tools required to deliver more joined-up patient pathways through the health system and to avoid some of the problems of double regulation of both the existing healthcare rules and the standard procurement rules. Significant effort has been expended and invested in consulting on and developing that free-standing scheme over several years now. All sides of the marketplace, including commissioners and providers in the healthcare industry, are expecting this new scheme to be delivered promptly to meet the policy aspirations that they have been so extensively consulted upon.

The Procurement Bill does not address any special measures tailored to support the healthcare reform made by the Health and Care Act 2022, as these measures have always been intended to be provided for in the new provider selection regime regulations. For example, the provider selection regime would permit direct awards to be made in defined circumstances, such as critical A&E services, that cannot be disrupted or when a certain provider is required to play a pivotal role in an integrated healthcare system. It would be incredibly unhelpful for both schemes at this critical stage, when both these healthcare regulations and the Procurement Bill are on the cusp of delivery, to start attempting to unpick it all now. Doing so would add unacceptable and entirely avoidable costs and delays to both programmes, for no tangible benefit. It would also mean more NHS contracts being subject to the rules of the Procurement Bill without due consideration of the exemptions and specific arrangements required to safeguard sustainable and joined-up delivery of NHS services to patients.

Of course Parliament will have its rightful opportunity to scrutinise the provider selection regime regulations, but it cannot be right to do this through the Procurement Bill for the purpose of killing off a near-ready scheme that supports important healthcare reforms that have already been debated and agreed by Parliament in the Health and Care Act.

Amendment 14, also tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park, would explicitly name the NHS in the definition of a contracting authority, a matter also discussed in Committee. Although I understand and entirely agree with the view that NHS bodies should be contracting authorities within the scope of this legislation, there is no need for any amendment in this respect, as the Bill already applies to NHS bodies in its current form.

New Clause 10, tabled by the hon. Member for Vauxhall, would require the submission of a tax report where a bidder is a multinational supplier. The tax reports of winning bidders would then be published. I understand that the aim of this amendment is to encourage contracting authorities to favour suppliers that can demonstrate responsible tax conduct. However, hon. Members will know that the basis on which contracts must be awarded under the Bill is by reference to award criteria that relate to the contract being tendered, not to other matters such as where a supplier pays tax. This is the right principle to deliver value for money for the taxpayer. Crucially, it is also a feature of the UK’s international obligations under the World Trade Organisation’s Government procurement agreement. Of course, the Government expect businesses to take all necessary steps to comply with their tax obligations. It is for His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to enforce the law on tax, and indeed UK-based multinational enterprises are required to make an annual country-by-country report to HMRC.

Turning to amendment 2, tabled by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), we consider that the Bill already has the balance right in terms of achieving greater transparency on direct award. Indeed, save for the small subset of user-choice contracts, it will now be mandatory to publish a transparency notice declaring an intention to award a contract in every case. This will include confirmation of the contracting authority having undertaken a conflicts assessment prior to signature of the contract.

In addition, the Bill also requires the conflicts position to be kept under review and to be revised at key points in the procurement, which will be confirmed via the contract details notice, after the contract is signed. This further ensures contracting authorities comply with ongoing statutory requirements contained in the Bill. Of course, we are all aware that MPs and peers are already required to register their interests, and civil servants are required to confirm annually that their declarations of interest are up to date. Furthermore, the Bill includes an additional safeguard in clause 83(4) so that where

“a contracting authority is aware of circumstances that…are likely to cause a reasonable person to…believe there to be a conflict”

these must also be addressed. We take these matters very seriously, and there is no need for additional provision to cover this issue. We will continue to work with contracting authorities to show that they know the requirements around conflicts of interest and that they are implemented effectively.

On new clause 12, I welcome the ongoing efforts of the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) to improve liquidity for small businesses, including by advocating for and championing the increased use of project bank accounts. We recognise the energy and enthusiasm she brings to that campaign.

As I said in Committee, project bank accounts are most often an effective way to ensure fair payment and to protect suppliers, and they are already the Government’s preferred vehicle for construction contracts where it is cost-effective and cost-efficient. Government Departments have made a commitment to use PBAs in construction projects unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. However, it is not the Government’s position that PBAs should be mandated across all contracting authorities, as they are not always suitable or cost-effective, particularly where the subcontractor is very small or is paid more frequently than monthly, or where the supply chain is short. Instead, we intend to continue educating contracting authorities, through guidance, on the circumstances in which we believe PBAs are practical and effective.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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I remind the Minister that new clause 12 covers contracts worth over £2 million, so it is not for all contracts.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I accept the hon. Lady’s point, but there are other circumstances to consider, which I have just outlined.

We are already working with industry to discourage the withholding of retentions by supporting zero retention for high-quality work pilot projects and reducing the default rate of retentions within certain types of contract to zero. However, we do not support dictating the operation of construction contracts to the degree proposed.

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Jeremy Quin Portrait The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Jeremy Quin)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I stand here today proud of the progress we have made to deliver an important manifesto commitment. The Procurement Bill constitutes a vital piece of legislation following our exit from the European Union, which allows us to set our own rules that will work best for the UK. I am delighted to say that we will sweep away bureaucratic regulations and broaden opportunity to small businesses right across the country.

One in every £3 of public money, some £300 billion a year, is spent on public procurement. For too long, modern and innovative approaches to public procurement have been bogged down in bureaucracy. We are changing that. The Bill simplifies our public procurement rules, cutting down the 350 different procurement regulations to create a single rulebook. This will create a more efficient, innovative and friendly procurement system, increasing value for money and opening up public contracts to small businesses, in turn supporting the Prime Minister’s commitment to grow the economy.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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Will the Minister give way?

Jeremy Quin Portrait Jeremy Quin
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I keep promising my colleagues that I will be brief, but I will always give way to the hon. Lady.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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The Minister is being very generous with his time. He will not be surprised by my question. I was a little disappointed that my new clause 12, on introducing and mandating project bank accounts, was disregarded. I mentioned the estimate that 6,000 small construction firms will go into insolvency this year. What is the Department’s analysis of how that might be prevented by project bank accounts?

Jeremy Quin Portrait Jeremy Quin
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I am sure I could try to produce a one-hour solution, or I could be more direct with the hon. Lady. I know she has raised this issue on numerous occasions, but she and I have not spoken about it one-on-one. If she wishes to speak to me about it, we could have a meeting, if that would help. I might learn something from it or I might be able to inform the hon. Lady, but if she wishes to do that, I will make certain that we have that opportunity.