The UK General Election manifestos procurement promises: the Conservatives

As with the Portuguese general election back in March I will be analysing the manifestos of (some) political parties running in the UK’s general election. I shall cover the Conservatives, Labour, LibDems and Green as the only 4 parties currently with MPs and running in (roughly) the whole of the UK. This means I’m leaving out the regional parties currently represented in Westminster and Reform. Out of all regional parties, I might look into one specific proposal from Plaid Cymru but that warrants its own individual post if I find the time for it.

In general, I am far from impressed with the quality of proposals or the level of detail or logical thinking behind them.

Conservative's procurement promises

"We want small businesses to get a bigger share of public contracts and have improved the public sector procurement "

When it comes down to public procurement, the Conservative manifesto is doubling down on its current policy and decisions. For example, for SMEs the manifesto states it wants them to win more public contracts and that they ‘have improved the public sector procurement system to that end.’ Even with indirect spend included (yes, the same fudge the Commission uses for cross-border procurement) only 26% of procurement money is spent with SMEs. Maybe they are referring to the procurement reform? If so all that can be claimed is that it has *changed* as for *improved* the jury is very much out on that one. My take is that the changes are in general net negative and thus far I have seen nothing to conclude they can move the needle in favour of SMEs.

"Work with public sector organisations including local authorities and NHS trusts and companies benefitting from government contracts to ensure that procurement opportunities are focused on SMEs in their local economies where possible and practical"

Still on SMEs, this looks like a 'best effort' type of clause where the party is not committing itself to a result but simply a behaviour, ie simply to 'working' with authorities and prime contractors to achieve a goal. The goal, however, is a new policy and certainly one that departs from how the Procurement Act is drafted since there is no indication (and there should not be) that procurement practice is to be tilted in favour of local suppliers. And let’s just point the obvious constraints of the TCA and GPA at least for covered contracts. Even for contracts where this can be legal it is still far from a smart move and one that will play into the localism agendas of the begging thy neighbour kind.

"We will make sure new investment is spent more effectively than before. By delivering our new Integrated Procurement Model, we will make defence procurement faster, smarter and more joined up, boost private sector investment by confirming that ESG considerations are entirely consistent with investment in our vital defence industry and transform innovation."

On defense, the Conservatives push efficiency and their Integrated Procurement Model and here I have to confess my lack of knowledge of the space to provide a more thorough assessment. Having said that, and as a reasonably well informed procurement bystander, for all the complaints I have about law and practice of procurement in general I think practice in the defense sector has shown what happens when the regulation is too lax and - how shall I put it - flexible. We shall see how the same logic will pan out when deployed at scale in the near future across procurement practice in the UK. There is, however, something interesting to point out on the Conservative plans in this space. It is suggested that to enhance private investment in defense it will be confirmed that said investment will be ESG compliant putting another nail in the coffin of a terrible umbrella term that frankly has been unable to generate any sort of internal cohesion.

"Improve public sector procurement to deliver our goal that at least 50% of food expenditure is spent on food produced locally or to higher environmental production standards."

Food procurement seems to be a hot topic in the manifestos in 2024 and the Conservatives have opted to rid that wave although not as thoroughly as the LibDems. They aim to improve procurement (hadn’t they claimed they had improved it already?) to deliver a goal of 50% of food expenditure being spent on food produced locally or to higher environmental production standards. My views on the local food production cargo cult are well known but this is an opportunity as good as any to mention them once more: this is simply a dog whistle for protectionism and needs to be called out for what it is. For the most part, the myth of local food production being ‘better’ for the environment than that coming from far afield has, frankly, been debunked. All that is left is the fact that buying local means the money stays in the local area not because it is necessarily better, but just because it is close by to the buyer. I will have more to say about this - namely how ‘food security’ has been hijacked by the same protectionist agenda but will leave that for the LibDem entry.

As for the purported ‘higher environmental production standards’ if those were indeed a priority for the Conservatives then perhaps we would not have 75% of the rivers in the UK polluted with nutrient runoff and said standards would be applied across the board instead of being shoved into  procurement. Enforcing existing environmental standards is costly, unpleasant and risks upsetting farmers but if environmental standards are important *for you* then those are the hard yards you need to do.

And that’s it. That’s the extent of the Conservatives ideas for public procurement contained in their manifesto. No mention of corruption nor any lessons learned from the VIP route for covid contracts.

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