The debate about the UK’s membership of the European Union continues, with Prime Minister David Cameron coming back from his negotiations claiming that he has achieved a better deal for the country. The referendum on Britain’s membership will probably take place in June – the view is that Cameron wants it to happen before we get into another summer of the refugee crisis, which is likely to make British citizens feel less positive about “Europe”.
The general assumption has been that Cameron would gain some concessions, come back with the good news, and given the fear of the unknown, the British electorate would agree grudgingly to stay in the EU. However, the latest polls show the “get us out” campaign moving ahead (despite the chaotic nature of the groups who are campaigning for that). That is largely because what Cameron has been offered is almost hilariously insignificant, certainly compared to some of the rhetoric originally about what might be achieved. Even the limited reduction in in-work benefits for non-British workers would still be at the discretion of the European Parliament, for instance.
Anyway, without getting into the detail, or the positives and negatives of the decision we have to make in Britain, it is clear that this vote might well be a close call. So it is time to start thinking seriously about what it might mean for public procurement if the UK does vote to get out of the EU and become an independent nation.
Over the years, politicians have enjoyed complaining about the terrible bureaucracy of EU procurement regulations, and how it stifles innovation, stops contracting authorities awarding contracts to wonderful local suppliers and generally is a nuisance. But if we do vote to come out, suddenly those same politicians will have to think about what they actually want to do.
So will we see dramatic changes? One factor that might work against major change is the recent 2014 directives and the subsequent national legislation. That offered concessions in terms of flexibility – more scope to negotiate, the opporuttiy to take advantage of tighter timescales, the new Innovation procedure for instance. So maybe there is less for the UK to change if the country does pull out?
Some will no doubt argue for getting rid of all the rules. Let each contracting authority decide how to carry out procurement, just like the public sector does. But how would this go down with the public and with the business community? How will firms react if they realise that they won’t necessarily get the chance to bid for public sector contract opportunities? Not well, we suspect.
We would also hope that politicians would realise the dangers of corruption. There is an argument that says “flexibility” leads to “subjectivity” which leads to bias, favouritism and ultimately corruption. The UK has not had major issues with public procurement corruption unlike so many countries in the world; that does not mean it could not happen here. There have been enough issues in local government particularly to make this a real worry. Take away the safety blanket of a robust regulatory framework, and some organisations at least might quickly sink into procurement anarchy or worse!
But are there some changes that might be both positive and avoid those risks. So it is a good time for those of us interested in public procurement to start thinking seriously about the possibilities. We suspect that the policy folk in Crown Commercial Services must be onto this already; but we would love to hear from any readers with your ideas for making public procurement better if the UK does decide to exit itself from the EU.