Considering Labour's plan for a Covid corruption commissioner

Labour announced at its conference last week  it was considering creating a watchdog to deal with the allegations of corruption connected with Covid support schemes and contracts. In addition it seems Labour also wants to reform the debarment and exclusion grounds for participation in public procurement. Whereas I am not exactly a fraud expert or able to comment much on it, Labour's plans do touch procurement in two main ways.

The Covid corruption commissioner

From a procurement perspective, right out of the gates Labour wants to go back and look again at the Covid contracts that so many issues raised over the last few years. I am firmly on the camp (and on the record) that all VIP lane contracts were illegal and the vast majority of PPE contracts award directly as well, depending on the exact circumstances of each transaction.

Having said all that, I think it is time to let things go beyond using the tools already available. I do not see how an ad hoc commissioner set up to look backwards will be able to do much in this regard.

I would have preferred instead a more forward looking perspective from Labour here and that it had considered instead either a procurement Ombudsman like Canada has or, if it preferred a heavier hand, something akin to the Portuguese Audit Court which functions as a pre-contractual legal control and compliance review system for a fair number of contracts in the country. Both would be significant departures from current practice in the UK but would show that instead of fighting the last battle Labour was fighting the next one.

Reforming debarment and exclusion

As ever, the devil is on the details. Nonetheless, in my submission to the Green Paper a couple of years ago I stressed the importance of getting debarment and exclusions right and that the way forward was to take them out of the procurement process altogether. Well, from the hands of individual contracting authorities that is. It is simply impossible to design a 'distributed' debarment and exclusions system that will work well as the last 20 years or so have showed us within the EU. Checking for debarment and exclusions grounds is a purely compliance requirement adding no value to the contracting authority only cost, work and uncertainty.

A proper re-imagining of procurement looking to simplify the system would tackle this problem head on, something that appears not to have been the case in the Procurement Bill.

So what should Labour do? In all honesty, put in all the hard work to centralise debarment and exclusion. It needs to be automated away to the extent possible and reducing the menial work involved. This means Government internalising the cost of these requirements since it is the entity interested in this type of compliance. Inevitably it will mean money and probably significant changes to existing IT systems beyond public procurement so it cannot be done in a heartbeat. But if Labour is indeed serious about reforming debarment and exclusion this is the way to go.