Nearly £11bn of public money is spent each year in Scotland buying goods and services. That’s a lot of purchasing power. Government and public bodies should be using this power as an opportunity to help create a fairer Scotland.
Today, I am at the SNP conference and our fringe meeting is on procurement. As the First Minister put it; “The Procurement Reform Bill has the potential to make a difference to many lives. It will provide new powers to tackle companies that do not comply with their legal obligations, including blacklisting and employment law.”
That’s fine as far as it goes, but procurement can do much more than ensure legal obligations are complied with – that should be taken as read. UNISON has joined a broad coalition of civil society organisations (STUC, SCCS, SCVO and others) who have identified ten priorities for the Bill.
Let’s take the procurement of social care as just one example. Over £400m is spent by councils alone on home care in Scotland, mostly in the private and voluntary sector. Increasing demand for services and declining local authority budgets means these services are being squeezed. The consequences are little short of a national disgrace. Home care workers, often paid little above the National Minimum Wage, employed on zero or nominal hour contracts are literally running around our communities trying to look after some of the most vulnerable members of society.
Much has been written about the 15 minute care visit. However, as one care worker said to me recently, “15minutes - that’s a luxury!” They describe a typical day as constantly trying to catch up from too many visits with inadequate travelling time, that some are not even paid for. The only way to finish the day is to cut corners in what are already inadequate care packages. The days when staff could spend some quality time with clients, looking beyond basic care needs, have long gone. Added to this is the growth of personalisation. While fine in principle, in practice it is leading to the loss of socialisation, with day centre closures leaving people isolated in their own homes.
This is no way to treat elderly people. We should specify, through procurement, decent employment standards, including the Scottish Living Wage, with no zero-hours contracts and proper training programmes. The aim should be to develop a workforce that delivers continuity of care, not workers who are desperate to find another job. Person centered procurement recognises that procuring pens, pencils and paper should be an entirely different process to buying people services such as social care. The race to the cheapest is rarely the best approach and especially when we are procuring services for the most vulnerable in our communities.
Better employment standards not only drive up the quality of service, but are also good for the economy. Paying the Scottish Living Wage means the taxpayer is not subsidising bad employers through the benefit system. Workers with decent wages and secure contracts will have the confidence to buy goods and services that create sustainable economic growth. Studies show that firms that pay the living wage have lower absenteeism, greater commitment and continuity of the workforce. This is how to really, ‘make work pay’.
Procurement should be used as part of stronger efforts to tackle tax dodging and tax avoidance, both at home and in developing countries. This could bring in much-needed billions of pounds for the public purse. It is entirely wrong that companies seeking to avoid paying their fair share of tax should be awarded public contracts.
The same applies to fair trade. Ethical and responsible trading policies have the potential to transform lives around the world. The opportunity to sell products for a fair price and to work in safe and decent conditions could help millions work their way out of poverty. The Procurement Bill should help Scotland cement its status as a Fair Trade Nation and to lead the way in ethical procurement.
Scotland has some of the most challenging climate change targets in the world and the legislation includes a duty upon all public bodies to contribute to meeting these emissions targets. Those companies supplying the public sector should be able to show that they are contributing to a more sustainable Scotland. They can do this by publishing an annual assessment of their carbon emissions and providing information on the carbon emissions attributable to the whole life of goods and services supplied.
Public procurement, particularly at a time of financial constraints, has the potential to do much more than just deliver goods and services. If we place sustainable and ethical considerations at the heart of the procurement process, it could promote positive social outcomes for us all.