Thursday 3 July 2014
[Mr David Amess in the Chair]
North and West Africa (UK Response)
[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, The UK’s Response to Extremism and Instability in North and West Africa, HC 86, and the Government response, Cm 8861.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Evennett.)
It is a pleasure to have this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Amess.
Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister warned against the threats posed by extremists fighting in Iraq and Syria. He said:
“The most important intervention of all is to ensure that those Governments are fully representative of the people who live in their countries, that they close down the ungoverned space and that they remove the support for the extremists. We must do that not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria and Mali, because these problems will come back and hit us at home if we do not.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 1108.]
Those words remind me of the Prime Minister’s statement in January 2013, just after the al-Qaeda-linked attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria in which 39 foreign workers, including six Britons, lost their lives. The terrorists hit Algeria a couple of days after France intervened in Mali in order to push back Islamists. At that time, the Prime Minister said:
“Those who believe that there is a terrorist, extremist al-Qaeda problem in parts of north Africa, but that it is a problem for those places and we can somehow back off and ignore it, are profoundly wrong. This is a problem for those places and for us.”—[Official Report, 18 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 1167.]
He warned that those terrorists posed an existential threat.
That threat, and the spread of jihadist extremism in Africa’s western Sahel-Sahara region, was considered by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which I have the privilege of chairing, and we published a report entitled “The UK’s response to extremism and instability in north and west Africa”. We considered three case studies: the French intervention in Mali, the In Amenas gas facility attack and the emergence of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Crises in Mali, Algeria, the Central African Republic or even Libya do not ring a bell with much of UK public opinion. The abduction of more than 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram is an exception, but only due to the global social media campaign and international press coverage. Sadly, the girls have not yet been rescued, and, worse, the kidnappings continue.
The situation in north and west Africa is serious. The region has become a new front line in the contest with Islamist extremism and terrorism, and those threats must be addressed, not only by regional powers but by the west. African problems will not be fixed only with African solutions—not yet, anyway. The African Union and its affiliated regional bodies do not yet seem able effectively to impose peace on a troubled area. Latent or open clashes can suddenly turn into far-reaching conflicts that can result in general instability, kidnappings, sexual violence, the imposition of sharia law, humanitarian crises and even mass killings.
As we look back over the events of the past 12 to 18 months, what is striking is the speed with which things change and how new groups appear. According to the United Nations, terrorist acts in the Sahel and the Maghreb increased by 60% in 2013 compared with 2012, reaching the region’s highest annual total for the past 12 years. This is not a criticism but an observation: the UK and other western countries seem to have been caught out by the eruption of successive conflicts in Africa’s western Sahel-Sahara region. The region has always been subject to local ethnic rivalries and power plays between states, and now it has become a powder keg. Jihadists and drug smugglers have taken advantage of its marginalised areas and porous borders and have capitalised on economic misery, chronic unemployment, weak state security and popular anger with corrupt governing elites.
The downfall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has only worsened the situation. The western military intervention was a success in that it stopped Gaddafi bombing his own people and thus averted a humanitarian disaster in Libya, but international powers, including the United Kingdom, failed to foresee and mitigate the regional fallout. The former regime’s arms have spread all over the region, old mercenaries have made alliances with jihadists and extremists have settled in southern Libya. Libya has also become the busiest transit route for illegal immigration from Africa to Europe.
On the UK’s role in the situation, the UK Government pledged in January last year to increase their political security and economic engagement in north and west Africa, but in all honesty, since then, their actions have not matched their ambitions. The evidence points to a mismatch between the Government’s rhetoric and the UK’s scant diplomatic resources in the region. If the Government want to engage more effectively in the region, they must accumulate deeper specialist expertise and knowledge about the western Sahel-Sahara, and they must expand their diplomatic network in the francophone part of the region. Here the UK’s soft and hard power could be of great help, but the UK cannot do it on its own; it must co-operate closely with other western powers.
We as a Committee advocate that the UK should press for an international accord aimed at bringing security and stability to the region. The prime responsibility for implementing that agreement should rest with the tripartite leadership of France, the UK and the United States, assisted by the European External Action Service. This is a golden opportunity for the EEAS to get its teeth into something and come up with a solution. The three powers have already worked together, when France sent its troops to Mali; both the UK and the US supported Paris with logistics and technical assistance. Although Operation Serval has routed the jihadists from their northern stronghold, the fight is not yet over. Recent events in the city of Kidal, where the Malian army was humiliated by Tuareg separatists, have forced France to prolong its military mission in the country.
Obviously, the UK must co-operate with regional powers on foreign security and military policies. Algeria and Morocco, two stable countries in the region, are key to delivering stability there. They are natural partners for the UK and other western countries. However, the issue of western Sahara still divides them, and its resolution should always be on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office agenda. The same goes for Nigeria: the UK should assist Nigeria in its battle against Boko Haram, and it is rightly doing so. However, we should never forget that country’s poor record on human rights, its lack of leadership and widespread corruption and the brutality of its security forces.
A new opportunity for military co-operation will open by the end of the year, following the final withdrawal of UK troops from Afghanistan. I think I am right in saying that it will be the first time for many decades that we have not had an overseas deployment. We thought that the suggestion made by the previous Chief of the Defence Staff—that we should seriously consider the possibility of sending some of those well-skilled soldiers to training missions in Africa—was a good one, and I am pleased that the Minister, in his evidence to us, confirmed that the CDS was not just flying a kite. The UK is already providing military training to Kenya, Mali and Somalia, and it would assist the security and stability of fragile states, which could lead to assistance with good governance. Once stability was achieved, we could move on to economic aid packages. I think that that would contribute a lot to providing stability and security in the region.
Aid development is an issue that needs to be reviewed. All the evidence points to the fact that in some places, international aid development programmes may have become part of the problem instead of the solution. That is not to decry the good intentions of the aid providers, but in Mali the Committee was concerned to note that western help may have inadvertently inhibited the development of responsive and responsible government and entrenched corruption in the country’s political culture. We also believe—this is an old chestnut, but it is highly relevant—that development assistance should be redefined. At present, the OECD describes development assistance as
“promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries”.
We believe that in a rapidly changing world, security assistance should be included in that definition. Such an enhanced definition would guarantee financing for the security of inland borders, as well as funding for training and non-lethal equipment.
Illegal immigration facing southern Europe is another pressing issue. Despite the family planning programmes that the UK is now funding, there are unsustainable levels of population growth right across the Sahel. Millions of young men and women are being born into an economic desert, with little or no economic prospects, which is leading to increased political instability, organised crime and the spread of radical views. It also pushes people to risk their lives to find a safer place to live. Unfortunately, that often turns into human exploitation and sometimes death. Only last week, the Italian navy rescued more than 5,000 migrants who were trying to cross from north Africa. On one boat carrying 600 people, the navy discovered 30 bodies. That has echoes of the incident off Lampedusa last winter, when hundreds of dead people were found in a boat of migrants.
Illegal immigration and human trafficking from north Africa into Europe is a growing problem facing more and more EU countries. What really bothers us is the fact that the European Union does not seem to have a clear strategy for dealing with it. My question to the Minister—it was posed in our report, but I am afraid that the Foreign Office did not really take it up in its response—is this. If a boatload of refugees is found in the middle of the Mediterranean, is the policy to shepherd them to safety or to encourage them to turn back to the port they have come from? That is a fairly straightforward question.
We need quick action. Islamic extremism is a dynamic phenomenon. All eyes are now on advances in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, but we should not forget the spread of extremism in north and west Africa. Concerted and quick action is a must, so I urge the Government to outline soon their strategy for dealing with the regional insecurity and crawling terrorism that are blighting a continent with which Britain has had so many connections over the centuries.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report is important, and unfortunately it did not get the coverage that it deserved when it was published. I wonder whether that would still be the case today, given everything that has happened in the region, especially in Nigeria.
The spread of jihadist groups in the region is becoming more and more apparent, and it represents a new front line in violent extremism, which is spreading and becoming increasingly assertive and networked. We are concerned by the seeming failure of the states concerned and the international community to anticipate events and respond quickly, despite the statement in the Government’s response to our report that the UK and its partners had identified Mali, the Central African Republic and the wider Sahel region as being at risk of conflicts several years earlier due to the factors the Committee identified in our report. Those factors included weak governance, failure to address historic disputes, ungoverned spaces and organised crime, as well as the presence of terrorist groups. That prompts the question, why was more timely action not taken? What lessons can be learned and what is to be done now to stem the escalation of those problems?
Among the report’s recommendations, we make the point that the UK Government should match the rhetoric of their ambitions to increase their political, security and economic engagement with the region with substantive diplomatic input and resources. Even within the current financial restraints, they should make it a priority to support humanitarian efforts where people, especially women and girls, are being displaced and subjected to the most heinous atrocities. The prioritisation of such action is entirely consistent with the Government’s initiative on tackling violence against women and girls in conflict, and I know that the Department for International Development is doing a lot of work in northern Nigeria. Such action is also a priority if we are to protect the UK’s long-term interests and play a leading role with France and the US in developing an international security and stability policy for that region.
Although I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I joined the Committee mid-way through the inquiry, so I participated mainly in the aspects of the report that relate to Nigeria. The Committee’s visit to Nigeria was one of the most shocking experiences I have had during my time as a member of the Defence Committee and, now, the Foreign Affairs Committee. There is no doubt that violent extremism has taken root because of the inadequacy or absence of state institutions and the abandonment of huge sections of the population in remote and marginalised—mainly Muslim—areas, where the need to address socio-economic disadvantage has been met by complacency, even though Nigeria is the richest country in Africa. The country has been unable to provide security for its people.
Government officials in Nigeria informed us during our visit that measures will be taken to tackle unemployment and poverty, and they said that they recognised the link between deprivation and extremism, but more action is needed, rather than words. The fact that the Government have undertaken to work with international and regional bodies to build resilience and capacity to prevent state structures from being overwhelmed is welcome, but those structures have already been overwhelmed. In Borno state, it has been reported that Boko Haram has free rein in the area. It is doing what it likes, when it likes. Far from defeating those forces, the state of emergency declared more than a year ago in north-east Nigeria has failed to curb the Islamist insurgency and attacks have increased. In the past couple of months, Boko Haram has attacked several military bases. It is extending its reach beyond its remote north-eastern heartlands, and on two occasions has bombed a bus terminal in the capital, Abuja. Only last week, it bombed an upmarket shopping district in the capital, killing 21 people. As we all know, in April it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, an event that shocked the world.
The military have no public credibility because of their record of human rights abuses, and they lack modern equipment, training and motivation. They also lack air cover, and they requested help in that area from the US and the UK while we were in the country. Compared with the size of the population, the military are small in number and do not have the capacity to prosecute large-scale counter-insurgency operations. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), has said, there are constraints on the military support that the UK can provide because of human rights concerns, which have been highlighted by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The sale of lethal weapons is prohibited by UK law because of those concerns. That is a Catch-22 situation, because without training, the Nigerian military cannot get equipment or dramatically improve their capacity. Without those, they will remain weak in the face of the most ruthless and determined attacks from Boko Haram.
The UK has a large Nigerian diaspora and trading links with Nigeria, so UK bilateral input to that part of the region is particularly relevant. I therefore support the Committee’s recommendation that the UK Government should provide as much security and intelligence as is consistent with their human rights values. However, years of intensive commitment will surely be required for that to have any real effect. I wonder how much the international community and the regional groupings, including the African Union, are committed to that.
Inadequate military capacity is only one of the impediments to addressing the insurgency. Political will, accountability and credibility are also key to regaining stability and preventing the continuation of radicalisation. At the moment, the political leadership of the three states in the north-east is aligned with the opposition All Progressives Congress. On 14 May, the BBC reported that Mr Ledum Mitee, a former activist from the same region as President Goodluck Jonathan, had been quoted as saying:
“People around the President, his closest allies, all tell him this Boko Haram is manufactured by the northerners to play politics… This leads him to distance himself from the whole affair.”
He also said that the military commanders have to play politics because if
“they give the impression it is a very bad situation, they risk being branded incompetent, so they give a less bad picture to their bosses.”
He went on to say that when the crisis erupts, no one is able to deal with it effectively because it is so confused. That is just one person’s analysis, and he is probably no friend of the president, but if that was the situation previously, recent developments have surely proved that Boko Haram is only too real.
At the meeting last night, chaired by the Speaker and attended by Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, I was pleased to hear that the president has been meeting with people across the political spectrum and across civil society to bring the people of Nigeria together at this time of crisis. She also said that the search is being stepped up with a greater and better equipped Nigerian army presence to take on Boko Haram in the northern states.
The recent relentless violence—including a bomb in a vehicle carrying charcoal that exploded in a busy market in north-east Nigeria, killing at least 20 people—has led to widespread concern, including in the capital, Abuja, and that is showing itself in public demonstrations. International pressure over the kidnapping of the girls from Chibok has forced the Nigerian Government to take notice and allow advisers from China, France, Israel, the UK and the US to assist its forces, but their presence is likely to be limited to assisting the search for the kidnapped girls, and will not include a general role in improving the Nigerian military’s capacity, over and above what is already being done.
I was pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) that President Goodluck Jonathan has announced a plan to co-ordinate international anti-terrorist capability in the fight against Boko Haram and al-Qaeda-linked groups. That is precisely what our Committee has asked for—not just in Nigeria, but in the whole north-west Africa region. I add my support to my right hon. Friend’s request that the UK Government support the initiative.
I want to highlight a wider aspect of this issue: the ongoing conflict within Islam, which is taking place not only in north and west Africa; it is a global struggle. It is not helpful to refer to moderates and extremists, because there are complex historical religious disputes and power struggles in which individuals are using religion to try to gain political or economic power.
There was a justified intervention in Libya in 2011, to save the people of Benghazi from being killed, as Gaddafi intended, house by house, like rats. One unfortunate consequence of that intervention was that the country, which was in many senses an artificial creation—as are many countries in the middle east, too, lines having been drawn on maps in the colonial period—has ceased to function in any way as what we would regard to be a state. Because of the weaponry stockpiled by Gaddafi’s regime, and the way he used mercenaries and citizens of other states as part of his elite forces, an unintended consequence of that intervention has been that masses of weaponry have come out of Libya, much of it going to other parts of north and west Africa, but some is going to Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim Arab world.
We have already heard mention of the instability in Mali as the Tuaregs swept across the desert and reinforced the incipient disaffected insurgency in the north of the country. I went with the Select Committee to visit both Mali and Nigeria, and we also visited Algeria. It is very revealing to visit a country and get the sense that the lines on the map have created an absolute nightmare. In terms of its borders, Mali must be the strangest country of almost any. There is a round part at the bottom and a triangle going out at the top. There is a completely ungovernable desert area, called Azawad, and the River Niger bending round. All the population lives alongside the river, and there are huge areas of desert and ungovernable space. In any state where the mass of the population is in the capital in the south, I do not know how any Government would be able to govern areas hundreds or thousands of miles away, with virtually no people—except small communities living in areas with access to water, and nomadic populations—and lots of poverty. How any Government, even the most advanced, with massive economic resources, would be able to govern that space effectively is beyond me.
The Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), quite rightly referred to the attack on the BP facility in In Amenas in Algeria. People swept across from desert areas and launched a terrorist attack; workers were taken hostage and killed, and there was the terrible long-term consequence of instability in the region.
We now have a nexus of robbers, bandits and criminal bands who would normally be smuggling tobacco or other products across the desert, or smuggling people to the coast to try to board the very same vessels heading across the Mediterranean that were referred to earlier, and that nexus is linked to Islamist ideology and the weaponry that has come out of the Libyan conflict. The Governments in the region face enormous, insurmountable problems.
My hon. Friend said “linked”; what is the link between criminal gangs that are smuggling, arms dealing and dealing in drugs from south America, and those who claim that their movement is about faith, ideology and the Islamic religion? What is the connection between the two? I cannot see one, so how does my hon. Friend make that link, and, for that matter, how do they make links with each other?
Unfortunately, there are a number of examples of groups in different parts of the world that have used illegal activities to finance their organisations. The pattern is not just prevalent among Islamist groups; the IRA used to rob banks, so such criminal activities are not confined to Muslims. I believe that some people use the ideology and label as a way of getting external support. When we were in Nigeria, we were told that Boko Haram had originally started as a localised conflict group, but managed to get itself endorsed as an al-Qaeda franchise. Presumably that means that people in parts of Saudi Arabia may be indirectly financing those groups; that is something that we have to confront.
The essence of the point I am trying to make, which the former Prime Minister Tony Blair correctly made, is that there is an ideological aspect. One of the problems that we face, as we touched on in our report, is that we are not only dealing with what is happening in the region; there are diaspora communities, as has been said, but there are also people who have been radicalised by the internet. There are also people who have come back from conflicts to which they went as foreign fighters, and of course there are people who have converted. The terrible murder of Lee Rigby was carried out by people who were born into Christian families from Nigeria but who, at a later stage, converted to become part of the same radicalised, Islamist terrorist network. The roots of the problems are therefore complex, and they are with us not just this year, next year or even next decade; they are probably with us for decades. Those of us who believe in societies in which men and women are equal, in which we do not discriminate and in which minority religions are protected have a difficult dilemma. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) referred to that dilemma when she talked about the human rights problems in Nigeria.
The same argument applies—I referred to this in our debate on Africa a few weeks ago—to the attitude that the British Government should take to the situation in Egypt. The best can be the enemy of the good. We can insist on stepping back because things are difficult, or because we do not want to be associated with a Government with whom we do not agree on all matters, but such Governments are infinitely better than societies that are either ungoverned or taken over by Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organisations, or worse. That is a recipe for disaster.
People who think that all the world’s problems were caused by the 2003 intervention in Iraq will not agree with what I am about to say, but we are dealing with fundamental issues that are related to a conflict within Islam that goes back decades or centuries. We cannot solve that conflict from outside, but we can at least try to help people whose view is closer to that of western European and north American society. Given that Islam is a religion within our country, we cannot sit on the side and ignore it. The radicalisation and de-radicalisation of young men, and some young women, in our European and British society is part of the domestic debate in this country, too.
What goes on in north and west Africa also affects us. The Prime Minister is right that we have to engage on those issues as internationalists, and as people who believe in human values and defending women’s rights, the right of girls to go to school and all the other things to which we agreed when we signed the universal declaration of human rights, which was written by Eleanor Roosevelt and a few other people in 1948. Those values are under attack from activities not only in north and west Africa but in other parts of the world. Countries such as Egypt, Nigeria and others therefore need our support and solidarity as they engage with such difficult issues.
Finally, non-intervention also has consequences. We will see spill-over consequences in neighbouring states if we sit back and say that it is too difficult: “Some 170,000 people have died in Syria—well, it’s too difficult. Nine million people have been internally displaced or made refugees—it’s too difficult.” The same issue could arise if extremist Salafists destabilise the Sinai peninsula. What if, as a result, a more extreme situation arises in Gaza? I am still in Africa when I talk about Sinai, but I do not think I am when I talk about Gaza, although it is a complex issue. We are able to understand those issues, but nevertheless, for perhaps understandable reasons, there is great reluctance to address them. People ask why we should get involved. The reason why we should get involved, and why we should support people who are working for equality of men and women, for girls to go to school and for human rights, is because these things affect us, too.
I recognise that our report did not get the publicity it deserved, but the people who look at these issues in detail will understand that the report makes a valuable contribution to the debate and raises questions for the Government, particularly on our co-operation with other partners. We were right to support Operation Serval, the French intervention in Mali, and we are right to be involved in the European Union training mission, but much more needs to be done, not just in Mali but in other countries in the region. One country that has not been mentioned is the Central African Republic, where there has been terrible Christian-Muslim violence. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a member of NATO, the European Union and the UN Human Rights Council, we have an important international responsibility to ensure that the world does not forget and assists countries in north and west Africa.
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), rightly highlighted the three case studies in the report: Mali, Algeria and Nigeria. We wanted to establish the principal causes of the extremism that we saw in those countries and what we, in Britain, could do about it. We found a heady mix. As I am sure is of no surprise to many people in the Chamber, the combination of poverty, inequality, corruption and misgovernance contributed to the situation we found in Africa. Those things are not unique to Africa, and they occur in the middle east, Asia and many other parts of the world where terrorism is beginning to flourish. They are a recipe for instability.
If we look back to 19th and 20th century Europe, we see that, from the beginning of the industrial revolution through to the nuclear age, there was affluence and wealth but a huge difference between rich and poor. That mix spawned the revolutions and instability of those centuries. We are seeing the same in the 21st century, but it is much worse and on a global scale. We particularly see that in Africa, where there is newfound wealth from oil, gas, valuable materials, diamonds and gold. Africa has become a battleground extraordinaire between rich and poor because it is a continent where, in many ways, economic development seems to be going backwards while there is huge wealth and potential prosperity from which very few people benefit.
Different things happened in our three case studies. There was French intervention in Mali. In Algeria we particularly looked at the In Amenas incident, and I still get inquiries to this day from people who work for oil companies attached not only to Algeria but to other parts of north Africa. I can draw on what members of the Committee learned from travelling to Algeria. The third country that we looked at, Nigeria, has hit the headlines at the moment. Visiting Nigeria had a big impact on me, as it did on my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne). To see the rampant and explicit nature of the terrorism in northern Nigeria was indeed a shock, and of course since our return it has become much worse; I will refer to that development later.
One of the conclusions of the report is that north and west Africa has become a new front line. We all knew about the existing front line. In the east, it started around Chechnya, in what was a southern part of the Soviet Union; it reached through to the middle east and north Africa; and it covered Somalia in eastern Africa. Now it has extended across to north and west Africa, the region that we are considering today. It is an arc reaching from north-eastern Europe through the middle east and across the whole of Africa, and it is encircling Europe. The UK is obviously a bit further afield because of our geographical location, and I will discuss the UK later. Nevertheless, the effect is being felt not only in mainland Europe but in the UK, as we are already beginning to see; my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) mentioned that earlier.
The report outlines many of our findings, but let me go through some of the events that have taken place in Africa this year alone. I believe that there is no end in sight to the current instability in the region of north and west Africa, particularly in the three countries we looked at but further afield as well. In Libya, we have seen continued instability, with political assassinations and attempted coups, and there is now fighting in the capital between the rebels and the army. On 11 January, the deputy Industry Minister, Hassan al-Droui, was shot dead during a visit to his home town of Sirte, which is east of Tripoli. The identity of the shooters is still unknown. On 20 February, Libyans went to the polls to elect a panel to draft a new constitution. Just 1.1 million of the 3.4 million eligible voters went to register, compared with the more than 2.7 million people who participated in Libya’s first free election in July 2012.
When Labour was in Government and Mr Blair went to embrace Colonel Gaddafi, Libya quite openly and willingly discarded its nuclear weapons. We thought that would possibly be a new beginning in Libya. Since then, however, we and the French have intervened in what was the beginning of a civil war. Afterwards, when we thought we had what we would call a result in Libya, the situation became even worse, and currently there is great instability.
Two coup d’état attempts have been made in 2014 by forces loyal to Major General Haftar, the commander of the Libyan ground forces. First Haftar took control of Libya’s main institutions, before announcing on TV that he had suspended the General National Congress and the Government and made a constitutional declaration. On 18 May, it was reported that the Parliament building had been stormed by troops loyal to him.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South said, there are consequences of intervention, even if it is very difficult to say what they are. Then again, we know the consequences of non-intervention, because the people of Benghazi would have been slaughtered by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces if the west had not intervened in the way that it did and he had remained in power.
We have seen the ousting of the sitting Prime Minister, and on 11 March the rebels sold oil to North Korea; the Morning Glory tanker reportedly took at least 234,000 barrels of crude oil there. It was the first vessel to have loaded oil from a rebel-held port since the revolt against the Tripoli authorities erupted last July. Such unchecked activities are going on in the background, and a rogue state such as North Korea can receive support from a country such as Libya. There has been further fighting by rebels in Libya, too. We could not have predicted what is going on today, and that is the problem with intervention.
The French intervened in Mali. In May, the ceasefire was broken with clashes between the two sides in the northern city of Kidal, which killed at least 36 people. Mali’s army launched an operation to seize Kidal but was defeated by the rebels, who then seized two more towns. Also in May, the fragile truce with the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad separatists broke down in the north of the country, and the separatists seized control of Kidal and the towns of Menaka, Aguellok, Anefis and Tessalit.
In Nigeria, things are also getting worse. On Tuesday, the military said that it had broken up a Boko Haram cell that had masterminded the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April, but hours before that a bomb blast struck a busy market in Maiduguri, the capital of the Islamist insurgents’ home state of Borno. At least 2,000 people have been killed this year, compared with an estimated 3,600 in the four years since the insurgency began. This year alone, there have been 20 attacks by Boko Haram that have been officially reported, in which at least 1,158 people have been killed, and an estimated 12,000 people have died so far in the five-year insurgency.
As I said at the beginning of my contribution, the link between economic inequality and extremism is well known and well developed. Nigeria has the resources to beat Boko Haram if it was determined to do so, but most of its staggering oil wealth—up to $70 billion annually—is held by a small, politically connected elite, who remain insulated from Boko Haram’s terror tactics and seem almost indifferent to the war. As far as many people in Lagos are concerned, Boko Haram is Muslims killing Muslims. Those people in Lagos are Christians, so do they care? No, they do not. That attitude permeates the political realm in Nigeria.
When we were in Nigeria and spoke to people there, we learned that Nigerian MPs are paid a salary 10 times that of a Member of this House, and if they are not corrupt people think that there is something wrong with them as a politician. It is the sort of society where corruption is endemic and self-serving politicians are rife, so what is going on in the north of the country is of little or no consequence to people in Lagos.
Nigeria has nearly 16,000 millionaires, a number that has jumped by 44% in the past six years. As I have said, much of the wealth is concentrated in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, where the northern rebellion by Boko Haram feels like a distant rumour. The divide between the Christian south and the Muslim north is huge, and the extent of relative poverty and inequality in the north has led several analysts and organisations to argue that socio-economic deprivation is the main factor behind Boko Haram’s campaign of violence there.
The communities of northern Nigeria are being wrecked by poverty, deteriorating social services and infrastructure, educational backwardness, rising numbers of unemployed graduates, massive numbers of unemployed youths, dwindling fortunes in agriculture and the weak and dwindling production base of the northern economy.
As for Mali, after Gaddafi’s fall in Libya the Tuareg people who had fought for him went home to Mali. Poor and with no livelihoods, within months they had tipped northern Mali into full-scale armed rebellion and there was a takeover of the region by Islamist fighters. The Tuareg have traditionally been a nomadic people with little personal wealth.
As I have said, Libya is reliant on oil and much of the current fighting is about the oil revenues going to the capital and not to other parts of the country. There is a strong argument in many places for greater autonomy. What the Tuareg separatists in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Islamist rebels in Libya all have in common is a desire for their own state, as we have seen in Syria and Iraq with ISIS. Extremist as they may be, they feel that they are not getting a fair deal from the existing establishment. A lot of that stems from the growth inequalities that I have spoken about. Ultimately, they desire to govern their own affairs.
In Mali, the separatist movements demand greater autonomy for the north, which they term Azawad, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South mentioned. Yet Governments in the region continue to be mistrustful of Islamists in politics, as they would put it. The Prime Minister of Mali, Moussa Mara, said:
“Say we give the Kidal region more resources and a lot more decentralized power, and they elect a jihadist to lead Kidal. That means we would have given our territory to jihadists, and democratically. This is what we want to avoid”.
A similar sentiment is offered by many Governments throughout the region and the throughout the west.
We know that boundaries in many of these countries do not reflect historical tribal land occupations, religious differences that exist between groups and locations of resources. In the aftermath of colonialisation, the development of cities and the exploitation of resources do not take account of population needs. That is the reason for the current conflict.
What can we do? Diplomatic effort by the UK in Africa may have a little effect, but many African countries remember the colonisation of Africa by the United Kingdom. As much as Britain has good intentions, given that history, it is not always trusted in Africa.
We have tried intervention in Libya and Iraq. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South said, we have also tried inaction sometimes, and non-intervention, for example in Syria, although that is not a response. It seems contradictory and inconsistent to have invaded Iraq, as we in the west did with the Americans, where there were no weapons of mass destruction and no chemical weapons, but not to have invaded Syria when we had the option to do so, albeit from the air or by helping separatists, when there were chemical weapons.
Maliki is blaming Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is blaming Maliki. In America, the Republicans are blaming Obama and the liberals are blaming Bush. Everybody is blaming each other when looking at the separatists, whether ISIS or terrorist operations in Africa. Everybody in every country has to take some responsibility.
Aid is helpful if it is targeted, but there are governance problems and corruption. In Africa and elsewhere around the world, post-colonialism, there was a move towards nationalism, whether in Africa or in the Arab middle east—Assad in Syria, Gaddafi in Libya, Mugabe in Zimbabwe. However, many nationalist leaders have, as a result of impoverishment and inequalities, now been swept away by religious movements. People are now saying, “Perhaps we should have supported Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Assad, because what we are seeing now is much worse.” We will never know the answer. However, we are now sure that pure military intervention is no solution.
A long-term solution may be to shape events, win hearts and minds and try to secure economic development where it is needed, but that cannot be done by Britain alone. Many of us think that because of our colonial past—hon. Members can see that I am a product of our colonial past—Britain has all the answers. However, we do not and neither does the United States. Although we have good intentions, the future of this country’s wider international influence is in helping people shape events for the greater good, rather than just attacking or intervening because we do not like people or standing back because we are too scared about public opinion. We have to be brave about this. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and it has been a pleasure to listen to the debate.
I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), and Committee members for undertaking this inquiry and producing an incredibly valuable report, which I found helpful, dealing with profound issues affecting this region. As we have heard, it is difficult to limit discussion of the region to this geographical area alone. As hon. Members have indicated, many themes and big issues confront us within this region and beyond it; these are common and reach across into north-east Africa and the middle east. These are some of the major issues of our time, which we must confront. The Committee Chair’s introduction was valuable.
I should like to make a point that I do not think has been emphasised enough in this debate. This area of the world has a great deal of potential. When visiting Algeria, I was struck, on meeting a huge number of young people at the university of Algiers, by the fact that they were intensely ambitious and knowledgeable about the world, including the United Kingdom. They were keen to develop close links with the UK in particular, especially through the medium of the English language. This has been recognised by our ambassador to Algeria, for example, who is working hard to try to develop better connections. There is also a good, developing relationship between Morocco and the UK in terms of trade and education, which is a force for good, and a way that we can try to begin to address some long-term issues.
The Committee Chair made an important point, which I, too, would emphasise, about Algeria and Morocco being natural partners. These two countries in the region are stable, albeit that they have different histories, and we know that they are rivals. During my visit to Algeria and Morocco, I had constructive discussions with politicians in both countries, until I mentioned either Morocco or Algeria. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) mentioned the European historical context; their relationship reminds me of the French-German relationship. For example, the Western Sahara situation has parallels with Alsace-Lorraine.
It would be a major step forward if those of us developing good relations with both Algeria and Morocco could emphasise the importance of trying to find a way forward on the Western Sahara issue. The border between Algeria and Morocco is still closed. We cannot conceive of a good trading relationship and real economic development in that region while that situation pertains.
Some 30 years ago, when I was a student in Liverpool, many students on my electrical engineering course were from Algeria. I think that Algeria is relatively stable now because many of those students who came to the UK and elsewhere in Europe to study engineering went back with degrees, although they had little opportunity to exploit and use them. The experience of the tremendous upheavals in Algeria 20 years ago has made it much more stable and more resistant to terrorism than many other countries in the north of Africa.
There was indeed a dreadful civil war in Algeria that predated the Arab uprisings, and stability there is a product of recent history. There is an opportunity in Algeria, which is on the cusp of change, in my view, having had various discussions about it. There have to be better relationships within the region—that is important—and we must try to find, within the region, improved mechanisms for dealing with issues, because the people who are most profoundly and immediately affected by all the instability that the report outlines are those who live in the region.
Another country that has not been mentioned is Tunisia. It is an important country that has struggled hard since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, which started there. It has managed to accommodate different viewpoints and, through hard work in difficult times, it has created a constitution that will hopefully lead to elections in the near future. I would like to see Tunisia work together with other countries, along with those of us who wish for this part of the world to stabilise, to make progress. I know—there have been references to this—that there is profound unease in Tunisia and Algeria about the instability in Libya, and that unease extends to Egypt, as the Chair of the Select Committee knows. The instability in Libya is a real worry, and it is affecting many countries in the region.
The debate has highlighted the different pressures and the seriousness of the situation, but there is an opportunity, through the more stable countries in the region, to build an approach that confronts many of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) raised. They are profound issues for us all, and he is right to emphasise that they are not distant from us. Anyone who has been to the strait of Gibraltar knows how close Europe is to Africa. In the days of the Roman empire, the quickest routes to Africa were across the sea from Italy to places such as Libya. Such places as Leptis Magna show the common culture that existed in that part of the world. Instability in north Africa will inevitably affect all of Europe—not just southern Europe. The important issues highlighted by my hon. Friend are part of why we need to engage so strongly with young people in places such as Algiers, Morocco and Egypt, in order to encourage them and understand why some people—not just in north Africa; it has happened in the United Kingdom—are radicalised and commit heinous crimes.
It is important that we deal with the economic disparities in the region. On Nigeria, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) focused on because she joined the Committee when the inquiry was looking at that country, it is intensely frustrating that a country that has so many millionaires, and so much wealth and potential, seems incapable of administering the area that it governs. That must play a part in why some people feel that they have no stake in that country and see extreme ideologies as offering something that is not being offered by the Government.
The issues are long term, but the questions of economic stability and economic opportunities for young people are urgent. In these days of the internet and global connectivity, a common theme among young people is ambition, and a common theme across north Africa is the number of highly educated young people who have great capabilities and talents that are not supported sufficiently by the number of jobs created in the local economy. They and their families are not being offered the real opportunities to progress that they need. Those big questions—I am sorry that they are such big questions, because big questions have complex and protracted solutions—mean that we have to be in this for the long term. There are not a million miles between the Minister and me on these issues. It is important that the United Kingdom stays in this for the long term and devises the best approach, so that we can play a positive role. I have met with members of the ambassadorial teams, who have an ambitious role, but the report is right to highlight that the reality does not match the rhetoric.
Another point that the report picks up on is the ministerial organisation within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I am shadow Minister with responsibility for Africa and the middle east. The Minister’s remit is the middle east and north Africa, and there is a separate Minister with the remit of Africa. The FCO splits the remit of Africa between two different teams because of the Sahara. The report states:
“A common thread in UK policy appears to be a weakness of analysis in relation to crises straddling North Africa and West Africa: the Sahara may form a departmental barrier within the Foreign Office, but it is not one for terrorists.”
That is a sharp observation. I find it helpful that I have to cover the whole of Africa, because so many of the issues relating to Africa extend from north Africa down to Nigeria and the band right across the continent from Somalia in the east to Mauritania and Morocco in the west. In the Foreign Office, thought should at least be given to that, and whether the current organisation of areas reflects the massive challenges. I have thought about that point, and it was picked up on by the Committee.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock about the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) has been doing. I attended the meetings and the Adjournment debate last night on the young women abducted in Nigeria. That horrific series of incidents has troubled us all in the House, and my right hon. Friend should be commended on his superb work. He put it interestingly when he referred to this being a civil rights issue for girls. I was struck by that terminology. This is not only an issue in Nigeria; there are threats to girls’ future right across the region. Many of the people I have met in Algiers and during my visits across north Africa have been women—highly educated women with massive potential, who can offer much to their countries. The idea that they should be prevented from contributing to their future, and the future of their family and country, simply because they are women is so abhorrent that we should see it as a civil rights issue. It should motivate us, right across the political spectrum and the world, to confront this.
We need to look for long-term solutions, and to learn from the report, which I commend again, how to develop a better analysis. Our connection with the region is perhaps lesser, historically, than our connections with many other parts of Africa. There is more of a French connection, historically. I have been struck by Morocco and Algeria wishing to have closer relations with the United Kingdom, and we need to build on that. Our education system provides the key to the door. We need to be passionate in our advocacy of women as part of the future of the region. Tunisia is a potential beacon of open democracy in the region, so can we please ensure that is has support? It was able to create a constitution and can work with partners across north Africa to secure a more stable situation in the years ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I start by thanking the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for its report and hon. Members for their contributions, and by apologising for not being the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds)—the Minister with responsibility for Africa—who has been responding to the debate in the Chamber. I will try my best to answer the questions that have been put to me, but if I cannot, I hope that hon. Members will accept a response in writing after the debate.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), the Opposition spokesman, said that there was not a million miles—was it a million or 100 million?—between us. The honest truth is that there is not even 1 mile between us on this matter. The danger, as pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is that we tend to examine threats and then the focus moves on. Since the Committee produced its report, the focus moved to Syria and is now on Iraq. The spotlight moves on and we tend to follow it. As many hon. Members said, the underlying problems are long term and systemic, and only by committing ourselves to the region multilaterally will they be addressed.
Before addressing the points raised in the debate, I was asked to put on the record the apologies of the Prime Minister’s representative for the Sahel, my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien), for not being here. He is in Niger, where, I am glad to say, he is overseeing the first contract signed by that country with a UK company, so there is progress of a sort.
The best way for me to respond might be to go through the various contributions to pick up the questions asked—[Interruption.] I have just been told that that is probably not the way to do it, but there we go. Let me start with the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, the Chairman of the Committee. He and others are right that Morocco and Algeria are natural allies of ours. They are two countries for which I am responsible and I have visited both this year. In the past, we might have suffered from the misapprehension that, being Francophone countries, they look to Paris, but they are keen to broaden their approach and to do more business with this part of the world, and, as the hon. Member for Wrexham said, the English language is key to that. Younger people in both countries are keen to learn English—the language of the internet. The idea that the quid pro quo for that should be a much more proactive involvement in the international affairs of north and west Africa is absolutely something that they understand and agree with.
Western Sahara is the sticky issue that prevents that, however. Relations between the two countries are not good. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that both recognise that relations are not good and that that is a barrier to further progress. I hope that a slight change in how this country deals with Morocco—to set parameters regarding Western Sahara and then to encourage it to meet them, which is a more proactive involvement, spearheaded by our excellent ambassador in Rabat—is starting to make a difference.
I agree with my right hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Committee, that the definition of development assistance must be enhanced and he is right that security and other areas can play a role; it cannot simply be the traditional definition. The same is true for the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There was a time, some 20 years ago perhaps, when the Foreign Office saw its role in terms of pure diplomacy. These days, our relationships with countries are also about defence, security, health and education and, in some places, even culture and sport. We must learn to engage across a much wider waterfront.
Mentioning a wider waterfront brings me on to the question about the boat. The best answer is that I will write to my right hon. Friend, but I will have a go. Task Force Mediterranean is focused on prevention rather than stopping people leaving in the first place. I suspect that the answer to his question is that once a boat of migrants is intercepted, they would be returned to the nearest safe port or their home country, whichever is closer. That is the common-sense answer, but I will check and write to him.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) talked mainly about Nigeria, which I have not visited, but I was struck by the impression that it had made on her. She is right to say that the UK Government should give as much support as possible. I presume that she is aware of the package of support announced by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on 12 June, following the London ministerial meeting, which includes direct tactical training and advice for Nigerian forces about the fight against terrorism. We are also involved in a regional intelligence-sharing partnership with France, the US, Nigeria and its neighbours. The Department for International Development and the United States Agency for International Development partnership will hopefully draw a million more children into education by 2020, which is in addition to the million that this country committed to in May under the UN safe schools initiative, and DFID will commit to 60% of its spend in northern Nigeria over coming years. Before coming here, I asked about last night’s debate introduced by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and was delighted to hear that it went well. Indeed, I believe that he welcomed the UK’s support for Nigeria.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), the former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, made a thought-provoking speech, and I absolutely agree with him. He will be amused to know that when I first met the Foreign Minister of the Kurdish autonomous region, as we were walking out at the end of a half-hour meeting, he said, “I forgot to do the thing that I should have done, which is to thank you for saving us all in 1991.” He then laughed and said, “And blame you for causing the problem in the first place.” The lines that we—Sykes and Picot in that case—drew across maps have caused many repercussions, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point to their illogicality.
The hon. Gentleman is also right that engagement with a country—this has really struck me during my 10 months in the Foreign Office—is always much more powerful than standing off and criticising. It is all too easy to think that because we are uncomfortable with some things that a country does it is better to disengage and criticise. It is almost always right to get involved and then make comments from the position of critical friend. There is a balance, but he is correct to say that non-intervention also has consequences. When we do not intervene, the problem often arrives in due course anyway.
The hon. Gentleman asked in particular about arms and ammunition in Libya. The Government have committed £20 million to address that problem. I am not sure whether this came out in the inquiry, but it was suggested to me that more than 400 arms dumps were left across Libya when Gaddafi fell, and that more arms and ammunition were floating around than when the eastern bloc fell in the late 1980s, which is a worrying statistic.
In another excellent speech, the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) made some good points about Mali, Nigeria, Libya and others. On Libya, the Prime Minister has just appointed Jonathan Powell, who used to work for Tony Blair, as special envoy. He will work closely with his US counterpart to try to support and bring together reconciliation efforts in the country. Every country must take its share of responsibility. Looking across the whole area, the key to solving the issues and to long-term, sustained engagement will be a multilateral approach, involving us, the French, the United Nations, African forces and the rest coming together to achieve a common agenda. It is fair to say that that has not been the case up to now, and we are in the early stages of doing it, but that is clearly the way forward.
The hon. Member for Wrexham also made that point—the multilateral approach using stable countries will be the key to progress in the region—and he is absolutely right to talk about the phenomenal potential of countries such as Algeria and Morocco. We have both visited Algeria, a country that is changing extraordinarily quickly. The Algerians said to me, “The west has only just woken up to what we went through in the 1990s,” and, having come out of that, slowly but surely, they are keen not only to forge closer links with us in the west, and probably to shake off that Paris focus in policy, but to see what they can do in the region. When I was last in Algeria, on my second visit, the Algerians were in the process of hosting peace talks for the Malian Government. That was the first time, I think, that the Algerian Government had reached out beyond their own borders. We applaud such encouraging signs there.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about the key role of the English language. In a sense, the British Council can never do enough in such areas, although we have been helped enormously by the fact that English has become the language of the internet and the preferred language for many young people. It gives us a real opportunity, which we should not miss.
We have spoken about reconciliation between Morocco and Algeria, but the hon. Gentleman also made a good point about Tunisia, the home of the Arab spring and in many ways its most successful graduate. There has been progress, although things seem to get there just before the critical moment. As he said, however, it is good to see that elections are scheduled for the autumn. It is vital that this country continues to support the Tunisians.
I will deal with the easy points made by the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right about civil rights and Nigeria—he is on the money there. On the question of ministerial responsibilities, the situation predates me, and I took over from someone with the same brief as mine. On the question of how things are divided up, the danger of grouping the middle east and all of Africa is that together they are a large part of the cake, which raises the issue of whether someone could give the region all the attention it deserves. I suspect we follow the Arab League arrangements, which take in the countries of north Africa, but not much further beyond.
When I arrived in the Foreign Office, however, the Foreign Secretary said that he was always open to moving responsibilities around as situations changed. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and that is something we should definitely keep under review. If there is a more sensible way to arrange responsibilities, there is no political reason for not doing so.
I finish where I started, and thank the Select Committee and its Chairman for a thoughtful piece of work, which we in the Foreign Office have read carefully. Many of the points made are good ones, which we agree with, and the report has given us a firm platform for progress in the years ahead.
Local Government Procurement
[Relevant documents: Sixth Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2013-14, HC 712, and the Government response, Cm 8888.]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and to introduce the debate on the sixth report of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government in the 2013-14 Session.
The main theme of what I have to say is that there is an awful lot of agreement on local government procurement, which is probably unusual, given some of the subjects that we discuss in debates on communities and local government. Many of our recommendations—a little unusually for our reports—are aimed at local authorities and at the Local Government Association, rather than at central Government. That is consistent with the Committee’s intention to take a localist approach to such matters. Indeed, if I may tease the Minister, the extent to which the Government agree with the Committee’s recommendations is partly because most of the recommendations are not aimed at them, but at local government. That might be a little unkind, because generally we are on the same page.
Talking of the LGA and its supportive response to our report, I am pleased to be going to the LGA conference next week, and to the launch of its national procurement strategy, which is an important part of delivering the Committee’s recommendations. I look forward to giving a presentation, and to hearing what the LGA has to say.
Local government procurement might not be the most exciting of subjects, but it is an important one, because local authorities spend £45 billion a year, which is not an inconsiderable sum of public money. Indeed, 25% of local authority expenditure is involved in procuring goods and services from outside local government. In our inquiry, we found some really good examples of councils moving ahead and developing good or excellent practice, which in some instances central Government might learn from.
We clearly identified that many councils are doing the right thing and getting better all the time at procurement, although some councils have not moved forward at all. Patchy performance was highlighted by our inquiry, and the obvious requirement is for those councils that have not addressed the issue seriously, or are not performing well, to get up to the standard of the authorities where there is first-class procurement. In that way, an awful lot could be achieved, an awful lot of money saved and better value delivered.
Returning to the localist theme, we were strongly of the view that the problem would not be solved by the imposition of centralised purchasing, or by the Department for Communities and Local Government coming up with new regulations to compel local authorities to behave in a certain way. This is about encouraging the local authority sector, with the LGA in a key role, to look at best performance and to replicate it in many more circumstances.
Three overarching messages come out of the report. First, we welcome the LGA and local government in general taking a lead on procurement. It is for local government to sort out, but of course in partnership with central Government. The Cabinet Office, the DCLG, the LGA and local government can work together on this, as well as with business, listening to what it has to say about procurement and the ease with which it can engage with the process. There is also the third sector; we must not forget that a good percentage of local authority services are delivered not only by private businesses, but by the third sector.
The second overarching message is that procurement is not only a job for specialists. There is the idea that some expert procurement officer in a local authority can be given a problem, if there is one, to sort out. First, however, we have to ensure that what we are procuring will result in the service that we want to see delivered. Procurement is simply another way of delivering a service to the residents of an area. Getting what we want delivered, how we want it delivered, right from the start is important. In councils, that involves councillors who are responsible for service delivery, as well as experts in procurement.
Procurement is not just about cost. Cost is vital, particularly at the moment, but other issues must be looked at as well: the effect on local businesses, environmental issues, the possibility of getting training for apprentices as part of any procurement arrangements —they are all important, and need to be thought about by councils when procuring. There is no point complaining afterwards that no local businesses got any tenders, if the response is that perhaps the way that councils designed the contracts excluded those businesses. The delivery of services must be monitored. Procurement is not only about getting tenders in and selecting the lowest price, the one with the best quality or a mixture of the two, but about seeing whether what is promised is delivered. That is crucial and involves not only procurement officers, but other council officials, councillors and members of the public.
The third overarching message is political leadership. We welcome the fact that some authorities have appointed a cabinet member to be responsible for procurement, and that some involved front-line councillors in monitoring what happens when a contract is let. A simple proposal that we made—I do not think it has been made elsewhere—which the LGA endorsed, is that every year the whole council should provide an annual report on its procurement strategy, setting out what it is trying to achieve, rather than thinking of things after contracts have been let.
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
Turning to the specific proposals, we argued strongly that a centralised approach should not be imposed, but we estimated that willing and voluntary collaboration by councils could deliver about £1.8 billion. I do not want to be held to every £100,000 of that, but it is a reasonable ballpark estimate of what might be achieved. We recognise that collaboration will sometimes not be appropriate, and that councils sometimes have specific local issues and intentions when making purchases. Sometimes, forcing collaboration could lead to extra bureaucracy and delay, but with a simple purchase of a fairly standardised product, such as energy, councils can gain a lot by collaborating and ensuring that they have market power and influence. Provided it is done in a considered way, collaboration can certainly produce benefits.
Cost is important, but there are other issues to be considered, such as the impact on local companies, whether small and medium-sized enterprises really have access to the tenders, and whether tenders can be split up to allow more access by smaller companies. That is important for small businesses and for apprentices. It is not simply the council that should employ apprentices; the private sector can also do that, and it could be encouraged or be required to do so as part of a tender. The Government’s aspiration is to have 25% of their contracts with SMEs. Local government already has 47% of its contracts with SMEs. Central Government will probably never get anywhere near that, so full marks to local government, which is ahead of the game again. We should congratulate it on that.
On the cost of procurement, there were quite a lot of complaints about EU rules and regulations, and suggestions that we sometimes over-apply them. We thought it was desirable to have a proportionate approach to the application of EU rules. We would like a clearer definition from the Minister of what the Government believe a proportionate approach might be. If he cannot give that today, it would be helpful if he would write to the Committee.
We received a lot of evidence about pre-qualification questionnaires, and we heard that for every tender, different authorities, or parts of the public sector, seem to devise different questionnaires. Businesses, particularly small businesses, are upset about that and about the cost. The Committee’s view was slightly different from that of the Government, and the LGA sided with us on this. We still think that pre-qualification questionnaires are useful in virtually every respect, because without them, even for fairly small contracts, it is open to anyone to put in a bid, and far too many firms end up wasting time and effort trying to bid for a contract. There may be dozens of firms tendering. If there is a questionnaire, at least the number can be thinned out and a reasonable number of tenders made, giving firms a reasonable chance. In addition, the local authority does not have to do quite as much work analysing lots of tenders that will not be successful. We welcome the LGA’s response, and thought the Government were perhaps not quite up to the game on that and should think about it again.
There was a lot of agreement on the requirement to pay subcontractors on time. There has been a lot of pressure on local authorities to pay their contracts on time, and the evidence shows that they are generally pretty good at that. The problem is further down the chain. Small companies are probably most affected by cash-flow issues, and may be put out of business if a contractor does not pay them. We welcome the Government’s proposals to legislate in this area, which are positive; the Committee may return to scrutinise the legislation when we see it. There is general agreement on that.
The Committee made it clear that outsourcing—changing the organisation that delivers a service—does not absolve the council of responsibility for delivering that service. As far as the public are concerned, it is a council service being provided by a different organisation, and they expect their councillors, whom they elect, to be accountable and responsible. Sometimes, it is not always clear in the contract and when the service is delivered how that accountability goes back to the council. That calls into question the front-line councillors who represent their constituents. If something goes wrong, how is that dealt with? Does the council simply say, “Well, that’s the contractor’s responsibility; it’s nothing to do with us any more”? That is not so, and contracts should recognise that as far as the public are concerned, the service is a council one delivered in a different way. There must be a clear line of accountability when things go wrong, and the public must be clear about whom they complain to when that happens, and how their complaints will be dealt with.
The same applies to employment. When services are outsourced, the council does not directly employ the workers, but it nevertheless has a responsibility. It puts the contract out and decides which contractor does the job. TUPE arrangements are in place when staff are transferred as part of the outsourcing, but we felt in general terms that there is a responsibility on councils. We did not come to the view that they had to do one thing or another, but they should at least consider issues such as the operation of zero-hours contracts. The Government have promised proposals, and we welcome that and look forward to seeing what they suggest.
We discussed the living wage. Some councils insist not merely on paying the living wage, but that their contractors do so. When the Committee went to Sheffield, we saw some excellent procurement practices. The council was very honest with us, and said that it writes into contracts for construction and many other council services a requirement for contractors to pay the living wage. The one area where they are unable to do that is social care. There is concern that social care contracts are outsourced not to improve the quality of service, but because the cost of paying the workers will be reduced.
There are real issues about the future cost of social care. The Committee did not go into that, but raised it as an issue of concern. It is a challenge across the party spectrum to look into the future, when more people will require care, the population will get older, and we will encourage and help people to remain in their homes, instead of spending nights in hospital when they need not be there. There are challenges in how that social care is delivered, in paying the people who provide that care, in training and in other costs.
We did not find much evidence of fraud in local government. We asked for information and evidence. Clearly, there are examples, but nothing like those the Government have been grappling with in the Ministry of Justice recently involving contracts for monitoring prisoners and so on. We found very little fraud, but that does not mean that the Government should be complacent. We believe that there should be a proactive approach, particularly on transparency. Making information available to the public and councils is one of the best ways of ensuring that fraud does not happen.
We welcome the fact that the LGA will produce guidance to councils, so that when they write contracts, they ensure that they have a right to data created under those contracts. It is a bit of a worry that private companies sometimes hide behind commercial confidentiality, saying, “We can’t let you know what’s going on because this is our information, not yours.” If they are being paid public money for delivering a service or providing goods, there is a public interest. Some councils are looking at extending the freedom of information provisions to contracts that they let. We concluded that that was for councils to decide on, but transparency is important.
If there is corruption, it is likely that it will not be revealed by highly paid auditors searching through books. They will sometimes find evidence of fraud, but it is more likely to be found as a result of whistleblowing by people who see at first hand what is going on, and who say, “This is not right. I’m going to tell.” It is therefore important to have methods of enabling anonymous reporting.
We said that councils should insist on a requirement in contracts that where whistleblowing is identified and information is made available to the contractor, the contractor must pass that information on to the council. In that way, the information will be available to the council, not just the contractor, who may cover it up because something is going wrong in their organisation. We await the Government’s proposals on strengthening the whistleblowing framework, but we welcome their approach; again, we are moving in the same direction.
To summarise, Mr Amess—sorry, Mr Bayley; welcome to you—there is general agreement on the way forward. I have highlighted one or two areas where we have a slight difference of emphasis from the Government, and where we need a bit more clarification, as on the policy on EU directives. Essentially, procurement is a matter for a localist approach; it is about identifying best practice in local government and getting all local authorities to implement it, following the example of others.
I very much look forward to going to the LGA conference next week and hearing from its members at the national procurement strategy launch, where I will be speaking. I also look forward to working with the LGA on developing many of the ideas the Committee recommended in its report.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Bayley?
I find myself here again on a Thursday afternoon congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and his Select Committee on an excellent report. I want to take a few moments to explain why it is an excellent report, before going on to look at some of the issues it raised. As we can see from looking around the Chamber, few of our parliamentary colleagues think local government procurement is a really exciting issue or one they want to spend their Thursday debating, so I might be one of the few who are interested in it.
Given the cuts facing local councils, particularly those serving poor areas, and given the jobs that will be lost as a result, I decided, as the shadow Minister with responsibility for the issue, to see whether councils were using procurement to support local employment where possible. I sent out two rounds of freedom of information requests to 400 councils and got 367 responses, which is pretty good. The responses highlighted a number of the issues raised in the Committee’s report.
The responses to my first request demonstrated that a significant number of councils want to take on a more proactive role in deciding who to award contracts to. Everything else being equal, they want, where possible, to prioritise local service delivery, but many felt unable to do so because of EU legislation, and the issue was raised again and again. Some 67% of the responding councils said they did not prioritise local goods and services and that the main reason for that was the perceived restrictions in European legislation. I should say that that was before we saw the new directive on procurement.
Armed with that information, I did a second round of freedom of information requests, seeking more detail on what councils were doing locally, and it showed that there were differences, depending on the councils’ political make-up. On average, a Labour council will procure about 40% of its goods and services from the local authority area, while the average Conservative council procures about 31%, although that might have improved. What was striking, however, was the range of local procurement. The highest proportion of goods procured locally was 80%, while the lowest was 2.5%, so there is great variation in practice.
The second set of questions also asked about the use of social value clauses in contracts, and I discovered that about 56% of councils used them in their procurement strategy. Indeed, most councils—about 90%—had a written procurement strategy, which was also pretty good. I also asked councils whether they took into account whether suppliers gave employees non-statutory benefits such as the living wage, and about 40% said they did.
That was all very interesting, and as we have a few moments, I thought I would outline some of the good practice I discovered, because it reflects some of the issues in the report.
Newcastle city council supports a living wage and promotes it not only in the direct delivery of council services, but in its supply chain. The council also said that 53% of its spend was with local—north-east—suppliers, compared with a national average of 35.8%. In addition, the corporate procurement team seeks to obtain at least one north-east quote for all contracts not requiring a formal tender process.
The council also ensures that the lots within larger contracts are a proper size to encourage bids and competition, and it works with north-east procurement organisations to streamline procurement documentation, making procurement processes consistent across the region and easier to understand.
The council has participated in a regional supplier development pilot to educate, and improve competitiveness of, the region’s small and medium-sized enterprises. It has also ensured that SMEs have received training on procurement. The council’s “Quick Quotes” initiative was launched to streamline and speed up the process for small bids. The council is also committed to e-procurement and to making communication on all aspects of procurement much easier to understand.
Finally, through its targeted recruitment and training programme, the council focuses on job creation by including clauses on it in the procurement process, bringing new jobs to the area. Through their procurement strategies, a number of other councils have also tried to deliver jobs where possible.
There were equally good examples at Sheffield city council, which has adopted the national procurement concordat for SMEs to encourage trade between SMEs and the council. It looks at how to get more local businesses, particularly small businesses, competing for council contracts. It also monitors closely the proportion of the council spend that goes to local businesses, which is about 72%. There were similar processes in Birmingham, although there was much stronger focus there on delivering local jobs and local training opportunities.
That is all by way of preamble. Like my hon. Friend and his Committee, I thought there was really good practice out there in opening up procurement processes and ensuring, where possible, that SMEs got a chance to bid for contracts and that procurement could deliver for the local community. There were issues, but it was comforting—this is why I wanted to go through the preamble—to know that the Committee and I had discovered similar issues and concerns. Indeed, I was reflecting this morning on the fact that I could probably have sat back and let my hon. Friend’s Committee do the work I did through my freedom of information requests.
We need to ask a fundamental question: why are we here discussing procurement? The public sector spends about £220 billion a year on procurement, of which about £50 billion a year is for local government procurement. That is a huge amount of money, and we are asking whether it is being spent wisely. About 47% of what local government spends on procurement goes to small and medium-sized enterprises. The Federation of Small Businesses has shown that for every £1 spent in the local economy 83p goes back into it. Obviously, it makes a lot of sense for local governments that want to build their local economies to try to get as much local procurement as possible.
The way local authorities choose to spend their money can have significant impact on businesses and jobs, and on wider social value. What they do could include using more SMEs; ensuring that suppliers give staff non-statutory benefits, such as the living wage or extra training; and asking suppliers to provide apprenticeships or jobs for those who struggle to find work and to use local businesses if possible. There is growing evidence to suggest that SMEs provide better quality and more flexible services, and that they are more responsive when the procurer’s demands change, or there is a need to change a contract.
I was therefore interested in the excellent report that has been produced, and in the evidence that the Select Committee took on the need for local authorities to get better at procurement. Interestingly, the report reached the same conclusion as the shadow team. It is always tempting for people involved in central Government to think that centralising everything will get things done better, because of economies of scale and because there can be, for example, one pre-application questionnaire, simplifying the whole process, but I wonder about that. Many councils told us they could not do certain things because of EU legislation, which we were not sure was really the case. Some local authorities seemed to manage to do what others could not. However, I agree with my hon. Friend’s conclusion that it would be wrong to centralise the procurement system for local government, because that could mean services being unresponsive or inappropriate, which would be a major disbenefit. It could, indeed, lead ultimately to higher service delivery costs in the long term, particularly if contracts broke down and had to be retendered.
We thought that there was much good practice in local government. We saw that local authorities would come together voluntarily in an area that made sense to them, to deal with procurement. Often they would procure back office functions between several authorities, or they would look at working more effectively to improve value for money. Large contracts were another reason for them to come together. We hope that the Government will support local authorities in working together voluntarily, and perhaps in setting up, at regional, sub-regional or combined authority level, ways to make procurement easier, more consistent and easier to understand.
I also agree with the Select Committee’s conclusion that the difficult balancing act for local authorities is to get best value while supporting local businesses. In many cases, simply going by cost may not necessarily mean the best service, or the one that local people want, and it can mean employees from another area providing the service: local authorities thus cannot use procurement to benefit the people they represent. That is a difficult balancing act, but the people who are best able to chart a course through the difficulty are the local authorities, either alone or in co-operation.
I was pleased that the report showed that smart procurement can bring other benefits, such as a living wage, training and upskilling opportunities, and apprenticeships. It is right to suggest that the Local Government Association could and should do more to promote sharing good practice of that kind. We came across good examples, and felt that all local authorities need to understand how to use procurement more effectively.
In the responses we received, European rules that were never really outlined in detail were often used to justify a lack of imagination in the way councils procure services. Things were often very bureaucratic, and the reason we were given was, “We have to do this because of Europe.” However, some councils managed to avoid that. I was therefore pleased that the Select Committee paid attention to the issue, informing us that procurement takes longer and is more expensive in the UK than in other EU countries. I hope that that worries the Minister; it worries me. I thought that it showed that the Select Committee report is timely, and that its recommendations should be acted on.
The report states:
“Some 75% of all contracts tendered in the UK have a value below the thresholds at which the full EU requirements apply, but witnesses contended that councils applied the full rules to many of these lower value contracts”.
We came across that, and clearly it must cease. It is imperative that the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association act on the relevant recommendation, at paragraph 59 of the report. Local authorities need to become more competent in applying EU rules. The first step is surely for the Government and sector leaders, including the LGA, to spell out what constitutes a sensible approach that complies with the regulations proportionately. The LGA should produce guidance on that aspect of the new EU directive on public procurement, and work with local authorities to disseminate best practice.
The report is right to highlight the need for a consistent, measured approach to the management of the procurement process. We, like the Select Committee, found huge variation in practice for pre-qualification questionnaires. We interviewed small businesses, and for some of them—with some councils—the PQQ experience was truly frightening. Often there is a lack of consistency between councils in dealing with PQQs, but sometimes the lack of consistency is between departments within a council. Our plea would be that if there is to be support to enable councils to get more streamlined systems, attention should be paid to PQQs. Indeed, there should be assistance from central Government or the LGA in developing a better system.
There was much good practice. We found, as did the Select Committee, good examples of streamlining to make the procurement and tendering process more straightforward, but there is a big role for the LGA to play in ensuring that all local authorities follow best practice. That is what the Select Committee report says, I think.
I was pleased that the Select Committee considered the quality of employment that is provided, through outsourcing in particular, and that it pressed the Government to monitor the quality of employment. As my hon. Friend said, that is particularly an issue for the care sector. I note that his Committee was not able to pay a huge amount of attention to that, but I hope that it will examine it in more detail later, because, again, we found real issues there.
The Minister can tell us later whether he is in favour of zero-hours contracts. We are not against them, but we want to see them only where they are appropriate and welcomed by staff. I feel strongly that they should not be imposed on people, as they often are, but there is a wider issue of outsourcing that can happen as a result of the local authority procurement process. We also want to reflect on the issues of accountability that the report produced by my hon. Friend’s Committee went into in some detail. It is all too easy for councils, once they have outsourced a particular service, to think that they no longer have any responsibility for the quality or delivery of that service, which would be quite wrong.
Elsewhere, the report talks about the need for councils to demonstrate probity, have good monitoring and complaints systems in place, and, critically, have a whistleblowing system, so that if there is fraud or bad practice, it is easy for people to highlight that, bring it into the open and make it transparent. We thought that there was some very good practice, which the report highlighted, but again, this is about the LGA and the Department encouraging the sharing of good practice.
The report was excellent, so I looked forward to reading the Government’s response, which I thought started well. It is good that, over the coming year, the Government will take a range of further actions to promote the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, and that they will review progress throughout the year and consider what actions to take as a result of that review. There is also a commitment to continue reviewing the impact of the community right to challenge. Will the Minister tell us when those reviews are likely to be completed and how they will be published and put into the public domain?
That is wonderful. I am interested and pleased to hear that, and look forward to seeing the report.
I am not exactly sure what action the Government will take to enable local authorities to understand better the new EU procurement framework, which is a result of the new directive published on 28 March. I would like to hear what the Minister’s Department is doing to communicate that to councils. If the Minister and the Department intend that the LGA should take that role on board, he should make that clear today and assure us that the LGA has the resources to undertake the task, because it is critical in improving procurement. Local authorities have to get away from the belief that the EU directive stops them doing all sorts of interesting things locally. I also look forward to seeing the Government’s response to the consultation on zero-hours contracts and the implications for the care sector in particular.
I was perhaps a bit disappointed that the Government’s response did not seem to show any real determination, or vigour, to assist local government in transforming procurement, so that it would not only deliver value for money, but take on all the social value issues and deliver jobs and improvements for their local communities, although perhaps I am being unduly unfair to the Minister, and perhaps he will convince me that he finds this a really interesting area, and that the Government need to put their weight behind it to get real changes in local government procurement. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bayley. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and congratulate him on securing the debate. He is quite right: we absolutely welcome the Select Committee’s report and endorse its view on the need for councils to improve the way in which they procure goods and services. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) made a good point about the number of Members who have joined us for this debate this afternoon. I appreciate that there is also an important debate in the Chamber, but this is an important matter, and it is good to have the chance to air some issues, discuss good practice, which I will touch on, and highlight how important procurement is and what local government should be doing to focus on it.
I will resist the urge to go too far down the road that the hon. Lady tempted me down at the end of her speech, when she mentioned social values and jobs. As meritorious as those issues are, and as important as it is that councils are aware of them, going in that direction would tempt us towards having some sort of central governance over what those values should be, which is the very opposite of the localism that I believe in. It has to be for local authorities to decide what the right values are for them.
We agree with the Communities and Local Government Committee that councils, with the support of the Local Government Association, should absolutely take the lead and have the responsibility for delivering on the procurement agenda. Councils are uniquely placed—geographically as well as structurally—to understand the needs of their residents and communities and to be locally accountable to them for their actions and decisions.
The hon. Lady gave some figures, and just to put things in context, this is a hugely important area, not least because last year the local government sector spent £57 billion on procuring goods and services. As she said, that accounts for roughly a quarter of all public sector procurement. Councils are often one of the largest spenders and one of the largest employers in their local economy. By being more astute and imaginative in how they use that spending power, they can do much more to ensure that they achieve greater value for money and help their local economies to grow. When we talk about savings, most sensible business people, hearing that local government spending is £57 billion, would come to the conclusion straight away that just a little improvement in procurement could bring a small percentage saving, which would be a very large amount of money.
I accept that the Government have an important role to play, at least in incentivising service transformation and encouraging innovation. As set out in our evidence and response, we have already introduced a range of key public sector procurement reforms that will open up procurement opportunities to both small and medium-sized enterprises. As the hon. Member for Sheffield South East said, the FSB has targeted those opportunities. Sometime last year, I was on a platform with the LGA and the FSB talking about the added local benefit that can be brought particularly by small businesses but also, as he rightly says, by voluntary and community organisations—the third sector as a whole.
The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill was introduced into the House on 25 June. It will help to deliver our commitment to build a stronger economy by supporting small businesses. The Bill contains a number of measures intended to improve public sector procurement, which will, subject to consultation, ensure that procurers run an efficient process, accept electronic invoices, do not charge for bid information and do proper pre-market engagement.
The Bill will also make it easier for small businesses to raise concerns about public procurement practices and cut down on red tape by ensuring that regulations affecting businesses are reviewed frequently and remain effective. It will deter employers from breaking the national minimum wage legislation by creating a power to allow the penalty for underpayment to be imposed on employers on a per-worker basis, and it will stop the abuse of zero-hours contracts—the hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned them, and I shall come back to this point in a moment—by preventing the inclusion of exclusivity clauses, which are used to prevent individuals from working for other employers, even if the current employer is offering no work.
Other key reforms, which will be introduced later this year, include the abolition of the pre-qualification questionnaires for contracts below the EU threshold—I note the comment by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, and I will come back to that in a moment—and the requirement for public bodies, including local authorities, to use Contracts Finder, which is a national procurement portal.
We are developing a standard pre-qualification questionnaire—for contracts that are above the EU threshold, I stress—and councils will be encouraged to use that. The aim is to ensure that businesses no longer have to complete the countless different versions that currently exist. That will make it easier for small businesses and voluntary organisations to bid for contracts and increase collaboration across authorities.
I noted the hon. Gentleman’s comments and the Select Committee’s points on pre-qualification questionnaires. I can understand why local authorities like them, but if we want to get more small businesses involved, I think the risk of having more tendering is a good risk and one that could actually be to the benefit of local authorities. If they want to reduce that risk, they can do that by getting their tender documentation right in the first place.
Clearly, this is one of the few areas of specific disagreement. We picked up from small businesses that if suddenly they found that they were putting a tender in along with 20 other organisations, 19 of them would be wasting their time. As long as it is a standardised and simple pre-qualification questionnaire to thin out the number that will tender, it could be greatly to the advantage of small businesses in particular and reduce their costs overall.
Of course, if councils are giving an up-front line on their procurement process, that gives companies more time to plan and, particularly for small businesses, allows them to decide whether it is right for them to tender and whether they want to do so. However, most small businesses also tender for business in the private sector, where they will be used to being involved in competitive tendering for work that they want and going up against anything from one to a countless number of competitors. That is how the market works. From my experience of working in and talking to businesses—small, medium and large, but small businesses in particular—I know that another piece of paper from an authority that they have to fill in before they even start to tender is just another layer of bureaucracy, red tape and paper that they do not want.
We have been providing support for councils by encouraging them to use Contracts Finder now rather than waiting for its use to become mandatory. We have pointed out the benefits that it can bring for both procurers and suppliers, because it opens up procurement opportunities and makes them transparent. We have been encouraging councils to start using the current simplified pre-qualification questionnaire for contracts that are, I stress again, over the EU threshold. The hon. Member for City of Durham made a good point about the myths that exist about what can be done in a whole range of areas that local authorities deal with. I will come back to that.
We have been encouraging the improvement of commissioning skills among local authority employees—a very important issue—by offering access to the commissioning academy. We have been sharing expertise by offering access to courses and learning tools provided by the Crown Commercial Service. We are providing £16.5 million of funding over two years to change behaviour and perception in respect of tackling fraud in local authorities, including in local government procurement, regardless of how small it may be. We should bear in mind the fact that overall fraud and error in local government costs more than £2 billion, but that does not necessarily involve procurement. However, it is still an important matter, and we need to ensure that we are on top of it. We are providing guidance on social value considerations and the pre-procurement market engagement process.
Following the success of last year’s transformation challenge award, which was hugely oversubscribed, we have launched another one for 2014 to 2016, and £320 million will be available over that period. The aim of the award is to encourage and reward local authorities that are able significantly to improve their services so that they better meet the needs of local residents. That can include making improvements to and transforming how services are commissioned and procured through greater sharing and efficiency, such as integrated commissioning in shared financial planning, testing new tools and pooling budgets. There can also be joint procurement of things such as ICT, and services can be extended to nearby local authorities. In addition, we have been working with the Local Government Association on its draft national procurement strategy and supporting the Chief Fire Officers Association’s national procurement group in developing a national procurement strategy.
However, the central Government cannot deliver better local procurement ourselves, nor should we try to. That can only lead to more red tape, bureaucracy and top-down control, which no one in local government or the small business sector wants. What we can do and should aim to do is to create the right conditions for it by eliminating unnecessary red tape and removing barriers to local innovation. As the Select Committee recognised, it is then for local authorities themselves to take the initiative.
We do see examples of good practice throughout the country. We have time, so I will place on record some good examples that we know exist. Halton borough council has abolished pre-qualification questionnaires for all its contracts below the EU threshold. In Norfolk, my home county, the county council no longer uses them for contracts under £100,000, and a number of other local councils do not use them for low-value contracts. Oxford city council had the idea of running a programme of workshops specifically targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises. That is about helping them on how to tender for business. Herefordshire council has a programme of opportunities and events for current and potential suppliers, which it developed as a way of informing, and maintaining strong relationships with the local supply market.
A number of local authorities have developed local procurement hubs, such as Supply Hertfordshire, Procurement Lincolnshire and the East Sussex procurement hub. Those hubs cover large areas. There are also hubs that cover even larger areas, such as The Chest, which covers much of the north-west. Across the country, there are also a number of multi-authority purchasing and public buying organisations, such as the Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation, which has already helped North Yorkshire county council make savings of about a third of a million pounds by buying social care equipment to help people with daily living. That was done through the organisation’s assistive technology contract. The Central Buying Consortium can also help councils deliver savings. For example, the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames, which I visited today, achieved 26% total cost savings on a £32 million project to expand its primary schools by using a public buying organisation. That was a substantial saving for that community.
However, despite the examples of good practice, too many local authorities still have a long way to go. They need to go further in saving money and doing more for less through better procurement. Councils need to adopt a strategic approach to their procurement and use their collective buying power to best effect. They need to ensure that their procurement officers have the necessary skills and that they take advantage of the learning opportunities and tools that are available to them. They also need to find ways of sharing best practice around local government. That is a role not just for councils, working with their partners, but for the Local Government Association.
All too often small firms are locked out of local government contracts, or at least perceive and believe that they are, by councils adopting over-complicated procurement processes. Councils need to be sure that they are doing everything they can to remove those barriers. I always say to councillors, and I will say it again on the record today, that if officers are quoting to them regulations, guidance or EU bureaucracy that is getting in the way, they need to ensure that that is correct. Let us bust those myths. Let us ensure that councillors are challenging the officers and getting to see what is in the way to make sure that it is real rather than perceived. That will mean that we can start to open things up even more.
There are many simple things that councils can do to improve their procurement practices. For example, in addition to abolishing unnecessary requirements to complete a pre-qualification questionnaire for contracts below the EU threshold and publishing all their tenders and contracts online, they should build up a supplier network and engage with suppliers.
That is related to one of the myths that I would like to bust and be clear about. EU procurement rules apply only once a council has made a decision to procure goods and services. Early engagement with suppliers can mean that innovation and co-design are built in from the outset, leading to better services. Creating and publishing a future pipeline of commercial activity so that suppliers can plan ahead is another positive step that councils can take. They can publish details of contracts that have been awarded so that contractors can not only see what has happened before, in order to get an idea of what will be expected of them in the future, but view subcontracting opportunities.
Councils can ensure that they have robust procedures in place to tackle fraud. We need to ensure that we keep fraud low and aim to drive it to zero. An important point, which relates to one that the hon. Member for City of Durham made, is that they can stop gold-plating on equalities. Equalities impact assessments are not, and never have been, a legal requirement. Officers can use their judgment to pay due regard to equality without resorting to time-consuming, often bureaucratic tick-box exercises at the end of a decision-making process—the very thing that can put people off. Councils can break contracts up into smaller lots to open up procurement by bringing in more competition on price and attracting some of the smaller firms that prefer to go for smaller contracts.
Better procurement, the sharing of senior management teams, service transformation, asset rationalisation and the driving of local economic growth all contribute to the overall improvement in local government productivity. Some councils—I have given just a few examples, but there are many more—have already made considerable progress in improving their procurement processes, making it much easier for businesses to bid effectively for contracts. However, I am not yet convinced that all local authorities have made the necessary changes, although I am confident, based on its approach to the Select Committee report, that the Local Government Association and its national procurement strategy can play an important part in helping driving forward the changes. Nationally, we need to keep talking about it in order to motivate and encourage local authorities, but it is vital to remember that it is for local authorities to deliver.
I will take a couple of minutes to summarise this constructive, well-informed debate, in which agreement has generally been found across the parties and between the Select Committee and both Front Benches. That should be welcomed. I think that we have all ultimately agreed that this is a matter for local councils, and that it is for local government in general, and the Local Government Association in particular, to help councils that are not up to the same level of procurement practice as their counterparts that are delivering a first-class service to learn from that best practice and emulate it. I am sure the Select Committee will want to return to the issue in future to monitor and assess whether the improvements that we think can be made have been made.
I have one slight worry about a disagreement that I had not expected. On behalf of the Select Committee, I identified £45 billion in local government procurement. To show that I was paying close attention to what the two Front-Bench spokespeople said, I think my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) put the figure at £50 billion, while the Minister set it at £57 billion. If we had had more speakers, we might have seen an exponential growth in local authority procurement. Clearly, there is a difference in how we evaluate it. We may want to clear that up at some point in future.
Finally, I am sure that it is appropriate for me, on behalf of the whole Committee, to thank Sarah Coe, our second Clerk, who was the lead officer in helping us produce this report. We very much appreciated her excellent support, which was instrumental in helping us get to the end result. I also thank Colin Cram, our specialist adviser, who was extremely helpful as well.