Last week parliament debated stage one of the Procurement Reform Bill. Procurement is not a word that we are likely to hear in everyday conversation and yet, over the years that I have been involved in politics and green campaigning, issues around how and what the public sector buys have come up time and again.
If asked, most people would express a desire for a commonsense approach to purchasing—“Let’s use public money to support local businesses and buy local goods where possible, and let’s not hand taxpayers’ money to companies that don’t comply with the taxation system.”
At around £9 billion a year, the amount spent on public purchasing in Scotland is more than three times the entire gross domestic product of Malawi, so it can potentially transform what goes on at home and overseas.
Read on to see what I went on to say in the debate.
SNP members will know that, as Sarah Boyack mentioned, the bill started life as a commitment to a sustainable procurement bill in the SNP manifesto. Three years on, and the sustainability aspect has been reduced to a fairly timid duty. I am concerned that the sustainability duty in section 9 conflicts with the general duty in section 8, which says that all bids must be treated “equally and without discrimination”.
The aim of the bill must be to shift the procurement culture in Scotland so that, rather than talking in negative terms about discrimination, we proactively use public procurement to implement public policy aims. We need to send an unambiguous message to procurement officers that gives them the certainty to make sustainable choices. However, the balance and weighting between the duties in sections 8 and 9 is confusing and unhelpful so I am pleased that the committee has called for that to be addressed.
The sustainability duty calls for consideration of impacts on the contracting authority’s area. That area is defined geographically, specifically
“disregarding any areas outside Scotland.”
I do not think that I need to explain to members why it makes no sense to have such a narrow definition in the context of national and global sustainability. That should be amended at stage 2. I also think that a further point should be added in section 9 to include a reference to duties under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.
I know that all MSPs will be very proud of the many groups and institutions in their areas that have collectively helped Scotland to achieve Fairtrade nation status. However, getting fair trade to scale through public procurement has always been the holy grail for fair-trade campaigners and it would bring huge benefits to producers in developing countries. With Fairtrade fortnight starting on Monday, would it not send a powerful message about this country if we became probably the first country in the world to put the words “fair trade” into a national procurement law? I hope that the cabinet secretary will recognise this opportunity to take the next step on our Fairtrade nation journey.
The principle that is introduced by section 31, which adds new powers to the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, is one of the most interesting parts of the bill. I welcome the power that it creates to allow regulations that will specify proportions of recycled materials, but I question why that power should not be even more ambitious and applicable across a range of sectors to stimulate the development of sustainable industries and jobs in Scotland. I strongly support the submission from Nourish Scotland calling for such an approach, with a proportion of organic food to support moves towards a lower-carbon food system. Similarly, Transform Scotland has suggested that publicly bought vehicle fleets should be required to meet emissions standards. It is very clear that the design of guidelines, enforcement and reporting in relation to the new sustainability duty has to be right if we want to make an impact. It makes sense to give a greater role to Audit Scotland to oversee procurement reporting.
The regulations in section 23, which allow a company to be excluded from a procurement process on certain grounds, is welcome. I am very pleased to see that failure to pay tax is clearly included, but I strongly support the call from Unison and others for the wording in the bill to be strengthened to include aggressive tax avoidance. I hope that we can see a wider range of criteria so that companies with records of human rights abuses or poor safety standards can be excluded wherever in the world those abuses have occurred. I am sure that we all remember the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh last summer.
We hear every week from ministers about their support for small businesses, yet the briefing that has been provided by the FSB states that almost 60 per cent of spend goes to businesses with more than 250 employees. I support the committee’s call to go further in procurement reporting to separate out micro and small businesses from medium and large ones so that we know whether we are really supporting diversity and innovation in our economy.
The Greens, like other parties, want the living wage to be paid as widely as possible—not just to the immediate contractors but to any employees who are taken on via subcontracts. I recognise the legal difficulties with that but urge the cabinet secretary to be as creative and bold as possible.
I very much want the bill to live up to its potential and am pleased that the Government has tried to address many of the issues that I have mentioned. However, the bill can do more to address many of the issues that have been raised, such as community benefit, zero hours, supported businesses and blacklisting. Let us work hard to change and improve it and make it one of the most transformative bills that we will pass this session.