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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Making public procurement work for all

If you want to chase the public pound in Scotland, you need to adopt our values. That means paying your taxes, respecting our environment and treating your workforce fairly.

Today, I was speaking at a meeting on procurement at UNISON's annual conference in Brighton. Many outside and even inside Scotland see us as a public service monolith - if only! True, we do have a slightly larger public sector workforce and certainly limited marketisation of public services. However, nearly a third Scottish Budget (£10bn) is spent in the private or voluntary sector. So procurement and how we manage it, is important to UNISON members and the wider community. Ensuring that we don't just buy things, but that we extract maximum community benefit from the public pound.

Procurement law is devolved to Scotland, but we are still in EU (for now!) whose Directives govern much of the process around procurement. The Scottish Government decided to legislate on this issue through the Procurement Reform Bill. This was intended as a largely business friendly technical Bill, reforming the procurement process. In fact, it was largely cosmetic, as many of the reforms could have been implemented through existing secondary legislation powers.

UNISON and others saw an opportunity with this Bill to promote a different agenda. We built a huge civil society coalition (with a combined membership of over three million members) around 10 asks on the Bill. Through our campaigns and lobbying we achieved significant improvements, but not all we would have wanted, to the Bill. These include:

  • Blacklisting. Stopping companies involved in the persecution of union activists from getting public contracts unless they make restitution to those affected.
  • Tax dodging. Introducing an anti-avoidance rule, stronger than in UK legislation.
  • People centred procurement. Using new EU exemptions and thresholds to exempt health and care and allow evaluation of employment standards. Tackling issues like zero hours contracts.
  • Scottish Living Wage. This is already applied in the public sector and through procurement we can spread the benefits to our members in the community sector and the wider economy. We would have liked a mandatory requirement, but at least we now have legal procedure to allow public bodies to contract on that basis. No more dodgy legal excuses. Public bodies can now include the living wage in their procurement policy, evaluate bids against that policy and confirm in the contract. This will then become an enforceable performance clause.
  • Greater emphasis on cutting carbon emissions, environmental standards and promoting fair trade.

There is more work to be done on statutory guidance to firm up on the outline in this primary legislation. In addition, we have to implement the new EU directive in Scottish legislation.

EU procurement rules are all too often used as a straightjacket or excuse for inaction. As a lawyer who has worked inside government, I am always telling ministers and councillors that they ask the wrong legal questions. Don't ask what is the legal position, but rather how can I achieve my policy objective with the least risk.

The importance of the new legal framework for procurement in Scotland is the message it sends to bidders. If you want the public pound in Scotland you have to pay your taxes, respect our environment and treat your workers fairly.

Law and frameworks are important, but it only creates an opportunity to do better. We have to organise to make the most of that opportunity. That means developing the procurement expertise of staff and activists, lobby locally, support branches and challenge poor practice at every stage of process.

If we do that, we can use procurement to deliver important benefits for our members and the wider community.


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