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Departmental Contracts

Volume 554: debated on Monday 26 November 2012

6. What steps he is taking to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for procurement contracts with his Department. (129603)

As set out in the White Paper published earlier this year, increasing opportunities for SMEs in defence procurement is an important strand in our open procurement policy. We have set up an SME forum, which I chair, precisely to identify barriers to participation. Specific measures include standardising and simplifying procurement systems, promoting opportunities for SMEs through e-procurement mechanisms and marketplace events, and working with our prime contractors to boost opportunities for smaller businesses in the supply chain.

I welcome that statement. I was a senior contracts officer with GEC Marconi Avionics, so I would like to think I know something about the complexity of the MOD procurement process. Large companies such as BAE Systems have access to teams of expert contracts officers who can plough through the bid documents. Sadly, SMEs often do not have that luxury, which puts them at a disadvantage. Will my hon. Friend consider how the bid process can be made less complicated and more user-friendly for SMEs?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for demonstrating his expertise and bringing it to bear on our complicated procurement processes. We recognise that smaller companies, unlike the larger ones, do not have the resources to focus on putting bid proposals together, which is why we are introducing a number of measures to make that easier for them. They include publishing on web portals all tenders over £10,000, streamlining contract processes and speeding up invoice and bill payment systems, which will make it more convenient for SMEs to receive timely payments. We are also considering requests for interim payments on procurement.

According to the MOD’s own statistics, only 2% of SME contracts are given to Scottish companies. Meanwhile, the new Defence Business Services organisation is set to have 1,672 members of staff, only 13 of whom will be in Scotland. Is the Minister not embarrassed by that track record?

The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that I will be in Scotland on Wednesday evening to meet defence contractors precisely to encourage them to participate more in the procurement that is on offer.

The Minister has explained to the House how much has been done to make it easier for smaller businesses to do business with the MOD. One outstanding action item is publication of the audited equipment programme. A month ago, the Secretary of State told me that it would be published “shortly”. How shortly is “shortly”?

I pay tribute to my predecessor for his work in championing the role of SMEs in defence procurement. As far as his direct question is concerned, as he knows the equipment plan is with the National Audit Office, and as soon as it has finished its deliberations the Department will publish it, alongside the NAO’s review.

SMEs will be affected by any decision by BAE Systems to shut any of its three yards in Portsmouth, Scotstoun or Govan. Will the Minister update the House on behalf of the businesses and workers in Glasgow who want to know whether, if they were in an independent Scotland, they could compete for work on Royal Navy warships? Will he also update the House to address the concerns of SMEs and workers in Portsmouth who will want to know about any future order of two offshore patrol boats that could fill any production gap?

The shadow Secretary of State is well aware that under EU procurement rules any nation can direct warlike stores, such as large warships, to be built within its national boundaries. That would mean that in the very unlikely event of a Scottish independence vote leading to an independent Scotland, a new Scottish Government could place orders for Scottish warships to be built in Scottish yards, whereas the residual UK Government could direct warships to be built in their own yards, if they decided to take advantage of the EU exemption. As far as Portsmouth is concerned, the terms of business agreement entered into by the previous Government left the decisions about how the company should rationalise the ship building programme for another day. Having placed large orders that would run beyond the general election, they were not prepared to take tough decisions on what should happen to consolidate the industry.