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Public Sector Contracts

Volume 564: debated on Wednesday 19 June 2013

It is Government policy to dismantle the barriers facing small companies, charities and voluntary organisations to ensure they can compete for contracts on a level playing field. We have taken a number of significant steps specifically to support charities and social enterprises to bid for and win public sector contracts, such as the implementation of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, a community right to challenge, and reforms of procurement processes that make them more open and fair to charities.

The Foundation for Social Improvement today reports:

“Looking to the future of the commissioning process, it is clear that the current situation is not sustainable. Only around one quarter of respondents indicated that they felt they could carry on bidding for—and carrying out—local authority contracts over the next 5 years.”

Is it true that the Government’s plan to break open public services is merely benefiting a handful of large companies that use charities as “bid candy”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) said, and as the report concludes?

As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) made clear in an earlier answer, many charitable organisations are already taking part and there are opportunities for more. What I take from the hon. Gentleman’s question is his willingness to work with me and others who care about making procurement better throughout the whole public sector, and encouraging local authorities to do their bit alongside the reforms we have achieved in central Government.

I applaud the Government’s steps to encourage charities to win public sector contracts, but does my hon. Friend believe there is a threshold to the proportion of income that charities receive from the public sector, above which they stop becoming charities because they are merely agencies of the state?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and it may be just as much the responsibility of trustees of an organisation to look at such issues within that organisation. The Government welcome the diversity of the sector and the opening up of Government procurement to those who can do the job well for value for money.

The Justice Secretary is a man who appears to be in something of a hurry. The Minister may be aware of growing concern among small voluntary organisations that provide services to ex-offenders that under the Justice Secretary’s plans their work will be undermined as large contracts are given to a small number of private providers. What reassurance can be given to those important small charities?

The right hon. Gentleman may wish to direct that question to the Justice Secretary himself, but the Parliamentary Secretary has had many discussions with Members across Government about opportunities for the voluntary sector, and we are passionate about getting that right.

In strongly applauding my hon. Friend’s work in this area, may I suggest that it needs to go beyond the procurement process itself? The other danger is public sector bodies—both locally and centrally—taking on employees to do work that could be done more effectively by voluntary sector organisations.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the value for money that the state would seek to achieve at all levels. Alongside that, our reforms include measures to build the capability of the third sector, which I am sure we would all want to see strongly succeed.

Is it clear that not only have the Government failed to deliver more public sector contracts to charities, but after three years in office the big society project has now become a shrivelled society, except in one area—charitable activity and supporting people whom the hon. Lady’s Government have driven into poverty? More than 13 million people are now in poverty, two thirds of whom are in work.

I thought the hon. Gentleman would welcome the notion that more charities are getting involved and more people are volunteering. Surely that is a good thing.

It is a sad thing. In the past year, the number of people dependent on food banks tripled to almost 350,000, of whom—listen to this figure—126,889 are children. There is no doubt that the Minister is a decent human being, but did she really come into politics to increase the scale of the third sector on the back of a disgraceful rise in the number of children in poverty? Is she ashamed of that record?

What I am ashamed of is the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to turn an important issue into a political football. Like many others in the House, I have stood alongside excellent volunteers at food banks in my constituency. I applaud their efforts, their goodheartedness and their contribution, but I do not applaud his blindness to the notion that the use of food banks in fact soared under the previous Labour Government.