Tackling Poverty Through Public Procurement

Today (28 April) saw the government’s launch requiring long-term unemployed people to sign on every day. Two bridges along the river from Parliament, today also saw the launch by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) of their report on Tackling Poverty Through Public Procurement. In my view the JRF report may ultimately have a bigger impact on reducing poverty and changing lives. I would say that JRF is upstream of parliament certainly geographically but also in terms of policy.

In a nutshell, Richard Macfarlane explained how the report shows that is perfectly lawful for public bodies to specify a list of local agencies that must be worked with, whichever company wins the contract and wherever they come from in the EU or beyond. Equally the local agencies must re-affirm that will work with anyone who meets the criteria for being disadvantaged within their catchment area, regardless of their EU (or even non-EU) nationality.

A case study from Birmingham then looked at how the council has managed to include local employment clauses into major procurements with a programme of £7.9 billion and a pipeline of £0.9 billion of further work. The deal is that 60 person-weeks of employment or training is procured for every million pounds within any major contract. The council has tracked the impact of their work on the most disadvantaged localities and have seen significant reductions. Impressively, 17 homeless people in Birmingham are now in full-time employment because of better procurement. Lives have been changed.

The JRF launch was chaired by Chris White MP, the author of the Social Value Act 2012 and the vice-chair of the all-party group on poverty. The speakers were the authors of the report (Richard Macfarlane and Mark Cook), from Birmingham City Council (Shilpi Akbar, Assistant Director for Employment) and Carillion (Simon Dingle, Operations Director) with a case study in using procurement for stronger local impact. The JRF lead is with John Low, and the lead started out twelve years ago with Peter Marcus, now at Zenith Chambers. The first report in 2002 was called, Achieving Community Benefits Through Contracting.

So you might well ask, if it is plainly lawful and such an obviously good idea, what is the problem? Well, guess what — the governments of Wales and Scotland, and many English local authorities are on board, but bits of Whitehall remain stuck in the mud. Various suggestions were made at the launch event as to what to do with Whitehall. Perhaps some departments and agencies genuinely struggle to understand the ‘place impact’ of their procurement? They need help. Perhaps ministers are fearful of any new guidance or permission to civil servants looking like a new regulation, given the ‘one in, two out’ mandate to reduce regulation? They need reassurance.

This could well be a topic where local authorities involved in City Deal discussions with Whitehall take a lead, ideally in true partnership, but with muscular and co-ordinated persuasion if necessary. There may also be a role for the Core Cities and the Eurocities networks here.

JRF announced their plan to convene a network of interested organisations to take this agenda forward, to meet with politicians and with civil servants where possible, and to hold regional events. For my money, getting the Treasury Solicitors on board with explanatory guidance to colleagues would be a great impetus.

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