[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. I recognise that he has not been carrying out his duties for very long. I also know that the issues I am about to raise are possibly cross-cutting, and therefore do not expect him to be an expert on them. There may be some issues on which he will want to come back to me after the event.
I want to raise a specific example of how public procurement of infrastructure in the south-west could, in my opinion, be greatly improved. However, before I get on to that issue, I should say how much I welcome the extra investment the Government are making in our nation’s infrastructure. I often think that Governments do far too much, but one thing the Government can do really well—perhaps only they can do it—is ensure that the country’s infrastructure, whether it be for transport, education, communications or whatever, is in the first-class condition we would expect in a first-class country. I am glad that our disciplined adherence to our long-term economic plan has released the resources to invest in our country in that way.
I should clarify that, for the purposes of the example I am giving, the south-west is the seven counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Bristol, a vast region that stretches from the Isles of Scilly and Land’s End in the south to the Forest of Dean in the north and Stonehenge in the east. It does not quite take in Northern Ireland, Dr McCrea, but it comes quite close.
I welcome the two recent announcements of major infrastructure spending and improvements in our part of the world. The first is the dualling of the A303 all the way from the M3 to the M5, with a tunnel under Stonehenge, which when complete will give the far south-west a second major arterial road to underpin our growing economy. I am also exceedingly grateful to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport for the commitment given to working with the Peninsula Rail Task Force to work up its three-point plan into a deliverable proposal with timings and costings that will give the far south-west a rail service fit for the 21st century, including journey times of two and a quarter hours from Plymouth to Paddington. That is all very welcome.
My specific concern, and the reason for calling the debate today, is the way in which the coalition Government have recently chosen to procure the building of new schools and the refurbishment of existing schools throughout our region. Of course, some think that what school buildings and classrooms are like does not matter for education, as long as the teachers are good, but I do not agree. Modern, well-designed buildings can lift the spirit and help a child to attain his or her potential. The gradual replacement of ancient school buildings, of which we have many in the south-west, is extremely important to the academic prospects of the next generation.
The Education Funding Agency regional framework is a four-year arrangement through which the EFA, academies, local authorities and other educational establishments can arrange contracts for individual school projects, both new build and refurbishment. In July 2014, the Education Funding Agency regional framework appointed seven contractors for lot 4, which is its rather unromantic bureaucratic description of the south-west. Thereby hangs the first problem I wish to raise with the Minister. Not one of the construction companies on our regional framework is local to the south-west—not one. There are some outstanding construction companies in our region, many with an excellent track record on public sector projects, yet not one made it on to the list. I will go further than that and say that some of the companies that are on the list do not have a proven track record in our region at all.
The hon. Gentleman may, in a way, have answered my question, but will he elaborate for me the process of procurement? In Northern Ireland, we have procurement clusters for councils that are close together and so do a lot of procurement together. Does the procurement system operate in the same way in his region?
That is a helpful and interesting question. I will describe the procurement process in a moment. The hon. Gentleman may be able to understand it more clearly than I do. I find it extremely complex. That is one of the things that has gone wrong. The system itself is complex and—dare I say it?—over—bureaucratic.
Not one regional company has made it on to the framework list. I believe—this is the thrust of what I am raising with the Minister today—that essential changes are needed to the framework system so that local businesses have a fair chance of winning prize public procurement contracts and projects. It sounds like the situation in Northern Ireland is similar, and I do not suppose for a moment that the south-west is unique. This is an issue to which civil servants and Ministers need to give a little more thought.
I understand the benefits of multi-user framework agreements for procurement. They give a pre-competed route to market, procuring a vehicle to centralise procurement spend. They also share procurement expertise and resources, and risk and contract management. They reduce the administrative burdens of the time and cost of running a full procurement procedure each time. Infrastructure work is also very attractive to suppliers in such large volumes, but—I use my words carefully—it is an insult to our region to exclude all our companies. It may also be counter-productive, as I hope to explain.
First, how did this come about? I will try to explain the process as I understand it. Prior to issuing the notice in the Official Journal of the European Union in 2013, the EFA was looking to engage with the market to invite ideas as to how best to encourage the markets at a local level to participate in tendering for the framework on offer in a way that would deliver the most economically advantageous commercial agreement for all parties. Although local companies, including many with a tremendous track record of delivering schools over many years, applied in the south-west, that clearly had no effect on the outcome. Of the seven construction companies chosen, not one is local.
The final seven are as follows. The first is a French company called Bouygues, which has its headquarters in Paris, France. The second is BAM, which has its headquarters in Bunnik, in the Netherlands. The third, Skanska, is perhaps better known—its headquarters are in Stockholm, Sweden. The others are UK companies: Interserve, a well-known company, ISG plc, Galliford Try and Kier Group, which, again, is well known. They are all based in the south-east.
I accept that the first three international companies have small UK offices, but they are essentially overseas companies. They have no relationship whatever with the west country and any profits made are unlikely to be spent in the UK. I recognise the nature of the world in which we live—multinational corporations get contracts in every country and work in and contribute to our country—but I firmly believe that regionally based companies are able to deliver schools successfully in a cost-effective manner, and so should not have been excluded from the EFA framework. Local companies are much more likely to understand and wish to contribute to the community in which they are working.
It is also the case that international companies tend to bring with them their own supply chain and specialist sub contractors. The Minister may be thinking of saying in his response—it may already be written in front of him—that, if a contract is won by a major national or international company, that company will sub contract parts of the work to local companies, but I urge him not to say that, because the evidence on the ground is that, more often than not, it simply does not happen, and those companies bring their own supply chains with them.
It might help the House to hear that there were plenty of alternatives to the way in which the Government chose to proceed. For example, Midas Construction, one of the outstanding and successful construction companies in our region, has developed something it calls the Midas model school solution. That concept, which is now in its fifth year, has delivered 13 cost-effective schools.
It began with the requirement to deliver a primary school pursuant to section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. A housing development contractor thought that it could deliver a school directly in a more cost-effective manner and use surplus moneys to fund IT equipment. The school was designed on the standard template, using a framed solution with traditional construction. The concept allowed for future expansion from a one-form to a two-form school as the housing development progressed. The school was delivered successfully and benchmarked about 20% lower than the Department for Education allowance. The project was successful and, consequently, it was rolled out to a number of the contractor’s other sites and local authorities.
The evidence is that the model school is between 15% and 20% cheaper on average than the traditional public procurement route. The model has proved to be adaptable over time, but the most powerful testament is that every head teacher has been happy to accept the learning environment as fit for their school and, after years of use, they remain delighted with the product.
That model and others like it are now excluded from the south-west because of how the new framework agreement has been put together. Some excellent regional firms have also been excluded. I mentioned Exeter-based Midas Construction, but what about Henry Pollard and Sons from Bridgwater in Somerset, Ryearch Ltd, based in my constituency, Rydon Ltd in Bristol, or Devon Contractors, another Exeter-based concern? They are all capable of building and refurbishing local schools, but they are all excluded because of a needlessly bureaucratic approach to procurement.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that that flies in the face of Government policy to try to rejuvenate local economies. Certainly, in my part of the United Kingdom, many companies have fallen foul of EU legislation under which, if contracts are above a certain price, they have to go out for tender, as he has explained. However, if we get indigenous businesses operating again, surely that will benefit local economies and jobs.
I absolutely agree. It does fly in the face of Government policy, but I do not think Ministers are necessarily aware—I would not necessarily expect them to be—of the detail of the very technical framework agreements being put in place. I understand that clever people have brought them about for all the right reasons and with good intentions, but the upshot is that we have a product that local people are not happy with. That is why I am asking the Minister about this. I am optimistic that in a moment he will say that he will revamp the entire process—that would be good.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a strategy for buying locally, so why cannot the Department for Education do the same for its contractors? All public bodies must become far better at doing local procurement. Our south-west economy and regions like it would be transformed if Departments, Government agencies, local authorities, the health service, emergency services and so on all procured locally whenever possible, especially for major projects.
The Minister may be tempted to say in his reply that it is possible for a local authority or academy to contract to build a school with a construction company that is not on the framework agreement, but I urge him not to hide behind that thought, because that will almost certainly never happen. Why would anyone or any committee wishing to build a new school voluntarily take on board that additional risk? Most decision makers when grappling with that will feel the need to play it safe and—this is the tragedy—stick with what will be perceived to be the seven Government-approved contractors. That puts everyone else on a second-class footing, which is simply not right or fair.
My less wordy second point is that the framework agreement actually increases the cost for the taxpayer. This is how I understand it to work. The contractors in the framework appear to have been selected via a contract notice published on Tenders Electronic Daily, the online version of the Supplement to the Official Journal of the European Union, dedicated to European public procurement. The notice asked potential suppliers to bid to be part of the framework—so far, so good. Bidders had to have a minimum financial turnover threshold of £25 million for the region and they are supposed to be evaluated on the basis of essential and specific criteria that together offer the most economically advantageous tender.
However, the bidding system for being part of the framework is based not on which contractor can do the job at the lowest price with the highest quality, but on which seven construction companies are closest to the mean average of the bids offered. The system penalises competitive pricing and rewards higher bids. The winners are those that, by chance, bid closest to the mean of all bids. The pricing criterion contributes to 70% of the overall score, which cannot result in the most economically advantageous tenders. For example, one local construction company outscored four of the seven chosen construction companies in quality, so those four were not the most capable of delivering the product.
The successful framework bidders following selection need to participate in a subsequent, local competition process for each project. At that point, the competition process is scored 70% on quality and 30% on price. At least four of the seven construction companies chosen have little or no experience or track record in the region, so it is highly unlikely that, in the context of the local market, a competitive price will be procured. Unlike some of the excluded local construction companies that I mentioned, those other companies certainly do not have a track record for delivering £3 million to £7 million education projects in these areas, which are typically the projects for which they will be competing.
With such limited competition and only 30% of the award criteria on price, it is close to inevitable that any public sector bodies using the framework will pay non-competitive prices. What kind of mind came up with selection criteria that did not judge on quality and price, but focused on selecting those bids that were closest to the average, rather than the cheapest? Surely if the quality threshold is crossed, the taxpayer should expect to pay the cheapest price, not the price closest to the average. If I have misunderstood the process, I am sure the Minister will correct me when he responds.
I suspect that the selection criteria were put together by intelligent, well intentioned officials in the DFE and Cabinet Office. We are so well served by our civil service in this country and I am in no way criticising them, but I suspect that there was next to zero input from Ministers on such technical decision making. I was a Minister 1,000 years ago when someone called Sir John Major was the Prime Minister. In those days, we were talking about procuring new magistrates courts using something that was quite new in those days: private finance initiative contracts. I therefore know that such technical issues are largely taken forward by civil servants. Perhaps that is right, but there needs to be political, regional input, with an understanding of how people in the region might respond to the end product. We have ended up with a process that excludes local firms and does not choose the cheapest price. That is not a good day’s work.
Finally, on the involvement of foreign contractors, the necessity of the current framework comes from Europe. However, despite of the Europe-wide requirement to treat companies equally regardless of origin, which I support, it is increasingly hard, according to several construction companies I have spoken to, for British companies to work in other European countries. One director told me he was laughed at even for suggesting that a British company might win a contract in France. Can the Minister name any major construction projects undertaken directly by British companies in France for which the French Government are paying? We have an equivalent project on our framework agreement for the west country. The four freedoms guaranteed for the internal market of the European Union are not enforced or strictly kept to in other countries, which creates an unfair system in which British businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises are limited in where they can work, so why do we bend over backwards in this country to gold plate and comply with every jot and tittle of the rules, when our European competitors do not?
I am afraid that I would have to describe the new way of procuring schools in the south-west as a lose-lose situation. It favours multinational and centralised national firms that have no vested interest in the area at the expense of regional firms. It is likely to reduce the opportunities for local contractors rather than increase them, and it has been put together in a way that does not guarantee the selection of the lowest price for the taxpayer. I urge the Minister to look into the matter very carefully, and if possible, to adapt or terminate the current framework agreement, which has another three years-plus to run. If not, the Government can expect the feelings of deep dissatisfaction and deep resentment in the south-west to continue to rumble on.
I am grateful to you for chairing this debate, Dr McCrea, and I particularly want to put on record my gratitude to the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) for securing the debate. Although in recent weeks we have debated in this place and the other place the contracting out of services, he has put firmly on the agenda the contracting out of infrastructure, which is becoming much more important. That is especially true at the moment, because as he rightly says, new funding is being brought forward to replace the funding that was lost under Building Schools for the Future, in the education area in particular.
Listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I could feel his frustration at the way the outcome of this process has shut out some of the outstanding construction companies in his region. I think that that frustration is shared in many other parts of the country, particularly by companies that have a strong track record of providing goods, services and contracts in the public sphere and which feel, understandably, that this sends a very strong message to them that their work has not been valued. Although I would not suggest for a moment that the Government have intended to produce that outcome, he is right to put this very firmly not just on the Minister’s agenda, but on my agenda, as the spokesperson for the Opposition.
That frustration is particularly felt in areas of the country where local authorities have pushed ahead with a local procurement agenda that has sought to build on local and regional expertise to ensure that the benefits of those contracts are felt fully in the areas in which they are granted. However, when they look to national Government to do the same, they find that many of those contracts have been awarded to overseas companies, or companies out of the area.
The hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) made the point that the idea of someone from the United Kingdom getting a contract in France was laughable. That is one of the major problems; other countries practise protectionism. We are not very good at that, and I do not think we should do it, but other countries in the European Union certainly do, and that has a detrimental, knock-on effect on the rest of the United Kingdom.
Yes, and in a moment, I will come on to things that the Government might consider doing to strike the balance better in this country, to ensure that we do not shut out some of our best companies with a really strong track record of delivery.
First, I say to the Minister that when commissioning goods, services and big capital projects of the sort that the hon. Member for South West Devon described, we accept that there is a balance to be struck between trying to guarantee value for money and trying to ensure the maximum social and local good. As the hon. Gentleman illustrated well during his speech, those things are often complementary and are not in contrast to one another. That is particularly the case when we look at what has happened to the economy, and particularly regional and local economies, over recent years. It makes a significant difference when services are procured locally and regionally, because that money remains in the region, as he said. Jobs are created and salaries are boosted. Every pound that goes into the pockets of working people in regions such as the north-west or south-west, where he is based, is then spent again in local shops and local businesses, and that cycle of growth continues.
However, in recent years we have seen the opposite. Although I accept that this Government have no huge plans to invest in our regions in the next few years, they have significant spending power; £187 billion was spent by national Government on public procurement in 2012, and I think there may be some more recent figures. That can have a significant impact if it is spent in local areas.
As the hon. Gentleman said, big national contracts are not always value for money. He made the point that many of the construction companies he was talking about have proven track records in his region. We have seen what happens when big national contracts are handed out without a real understanding of local areas. The Work programme was probably the most stark example, but that applies to infrastructure as well. As he said, one of the critical things that the Government could do is think about the impact that procuring services from outside the region has on supply chains, because often companies that come in from outside local areas bring their own supply chains with them.
The Government also need to recognise strongly that at the moment, in the way in which we contract and procure services and goods, there is a power imbalance between the prime contractor and any subcontractors or those providing services as well. A recent example of that was Capita and the civil service training scheme, which the Minister will be well aware of. That £250 million contract was supposed to be about opening up the best deal to the taxpayer, but subcontractors suffered a great deal because of the way in which the terms of that contract were drawn. Even where we decide that we will award contracts to big multinational firms, often based and operating overseas, we need to think much more clearly about how we balance that power relationship and ensure that those further down the supply chain are protected. One way in which we ought to do that is by getting a grip on how payment is made to providers. Quite often, in the procurement that we carry out, that is simply not thought about at the very beginning.
Another way in which the Government could help to move the agenda forward is by concentrating strongly on the expertise within the Government—of which there is a great deal, but it is patchy across different Departments—and on the staffing levels needed. An example of that was the west coast main line franchise, which was a £50 billion contract that was managed in the original instance by just three civil servants.
We think that the Government could do more to think about the wider impact of commissioning and procurement on the public. One way in which they could do that—we would strongly encourage them to do this—is by introducing a public interest test when they are going through the procurement process. We have committed to ring-fencing some contracts for companies in pursuit of a public service mission—that recently became one of the tools in the Government’s armoury. I would be interested to know whether this Government have thought about doing the same.
We are also committed to a community right to challenge where major projects have been announced that do not seem to be of enormous benefit to local areas or regions. It would be interesting to apply that community right to challenge in this case, because I suspect that the hon. Member for South West Devon speaks for many people in his constituency and across south-west England when he expresses anger about the fact that many organisations or firms that could have delivered the projects have not made it on to the list.
One way in which local providers can be of particular help is through their understanding of the local work force. That is one reason why we have given the committed that any national contract or major infrastructure project that is worth more than £1 million will specify that apprenticeships have to be provided as part of the deal. There is a particular benefit from procuring services locally and regionally, because quite often those firms—the sorts of firms that the hon. Gentleman talked about in his speech—will have knowledge of the local work force. They will already be working with education providers and other local businesses to help to provide opportunities for young people. The Minister recently visited the Youth Zone in Wigan, in my constituency, which has a very good record of working with local employers and local education providers to ensure that those links are made. In the case of High Speed 2, that policy would provide 33,000 apprenticeships. We think that the Government could commit to doing that.
It is also important, when commissioning projects and services, to think about the impact on the staff. In recent years, we have seen appalling examples of companies that have been commissioned from outside a local area to provide services. There was an example during the Olympics of a company in the Wigan borough that was commissioned to steward parts of the Olympics. The treatment of the staff in that company was found, when it was investigated, to be absolutely appalling. It was undercutting the minimum wage. There was no regard whatever for people’s terms and conditions, to the extent that staff were made to sleep under a bridge overnight in order to carry out their duties. That case hit the headlines nationally.
There is a particular impact from taking into account the strong and existing ties that local firms have to their own work force. I am thinking of the need to preserve their integrity and reputation. The hon. Gentleman talked about that. When we think about spending very large sums of public money, we should think about the impact on the people who end up delivering the services.
One of the very welcome things that the Government have done is introduce the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, of which the Minister’s predecessor but one, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), was a very strong supporter. Recently, the Government published the review of the social value Act to see what impact it has had. The review, by Lord Young of Graffham, unfortunately concluded that it has had a fairly limited impact, but ruled out extending the Act to goods and services, which could have made a huge difference to the sort of commissioning approach that we have heard about today. Surely the ethos of the Act should go beyond the limited scope that it has at present.
I would be interested to know what the Minister plans to do to try to extend the spirit of the social value Act to the sorts of projects that the hon. Member for South West Devon talked about. One point that Lord Young made in the review was that very few public sector commissioners know about the Act, so I hope that the Government will tell us today that they will take up his invitation to promote the Act much more heavily and the principles that lie behind it, because although at present it does not apply directly to school infrastructure projects, the spirit and ethos of the Act would have been extremely helpful in this case.
There is an agenda coming, I think, to most regions, regardless of who is in government after the general election. All three major political parties are committed to a greater devolution agenda. We need to think that through and get it right in advance of power being devolved to city and county regions and locally, because as more and more of these spending decisions are taken at local and regional level, getting it right will become very important indeed. It would make nonsense of the devolution agenda if the responsibility for major projects lay with a national Government who did not take account of the strengths and talents in regions such as the south-west, so I would be interested to hear what the Government have planned, as part of the devolution agenda, to ensure that we draw on those skills and help to boost growth and productivity in every region of the UK, not just a small section of it.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) for initiating the debate. He is a great champion of his constituents and of Devon, but also of the wider south-west region. This debate is evidence of that fact. I will start with general comments and then move on to the specific issues that he raised.
Changing and improving the way in which the public sector spends money on goods and services has been a Government priority since 2010. We have brought about unprecedented and comprehensive reform across all areas of procurement and will continue to do so, making Whitehall leaner and more efficient, so that Britain can compete in a global sense. Through our rigorous commercial reform programme, stripping out waste and buying more goods and services centrally, we have made the way in which we do business in central Government quicker, more competitive, more transparent, better value and far simpler than ever before. Those commercial reforms, combined with a baseline of spend in 2009-10, have created savings of £2.9 billion in 2010-11, £3 billion in 2011-12, £3.8 billion in 2012-13, and £5.4 billion in 2013-14.
To be regarded as a global competitor, Britain must ensure that the right investment is made in national infrastructure, with a focused investment in skills, technology and efficiency initiatives that help businesses to operate and expand in a global economy. The construction industry underpins the growth of this sector and facilitates future prosperity. We are reforming public construction enterprises to make them more efficient, collaborative, innovative and competitive, both at home and abroad, ensuring that the money that we spend boosts Britain’s competitiveness and delivers greater social mobility.
We are rebalancing the economy to achieve strong, lasting growth and widely shared prosperity. The Government construction strategy is about cutting waste and reforming our procurement processes, and reinvesting the savings that we make in more progressive ventures that stimulate the economy, ensuring liquidity of all businesses, big and small. It gives us a competitive advantage, underpins economic growth and generates higher-quality jobs.
We are backing the industries of the future and making Britain a great place to do business. The construction pipeline will provide more than £127 billion of strategic investment opportunities for businesses from this year onwards—a significant boost to economic growth in the sector. Government and industry are working together to create strong communities and to support local and national economies, investing in world-class, functional public buildings and spaces and inspiring businesses to grow.
Let me turn to the south-west. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are fully committed to a flourishing and prosperous south-west. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out the Government’s long-term economic plan for the region. In delivering it, we will increase regional productivity, create more jobs and improve road, rail and digital communications infrastructure. My hon. Friend gave a couple of examples of where we are doing that, including the tunnel under Stonehenge and some of the rail improvements that will ensure a better rail service to the south-west in due course. The Government are therefore actively reforming procurement, encouraging construction and promoting regional growth, all of which is good news for companies in the south-west. Nevertheless, we recognise there is still a lot more we can do.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his three comments about the procurement activity undertaken by the EFA as part of its regional framework in the south-west, and I would like to deal briefly with each in turn. The first was about tenderers being selected on the basis of not the cheapest tender, but being closest to the average of the tenders. I understand from EFA officials that tenderers were selected on more complex price grounds than those mentioned by my hon. Friend, and I would be happy to share with him separately details of the methodologies used. I can assure him, however, that the approach adopted was meant to ensure a level playing field for suppliers by preventing larger companies from artificially deflating prices in their initial bid and then squeezing subcontractors in the supply chain. Contracts awarded under the framework follow a mini-competition to ensure that best value for money is achieved.
My hon. Friend asked about the procurement process, so let me briefly outline it for him. Public procurement rules apply to public purchases above defined thresholds and require those purchase opportunities to be advertised across Europe. In October 2013, the EFA advertised a prior information notice in the Official Journal of the European Union. Bidder days were then held to explain the tendering process to interested applicants. Interested firms were required to provide submissions by completing a pre-qualification questionnaire consistent with the Government’s publicly available specification 91 format. Following their submission, the PQQs were evaluated according to the published selection criteria. Shortlisted bidders were then invited to tender. I hope that gives my hon. Friend confidence that the proper process was followed in this case.
The Minister’s last comments were about as clear as mud, but I understand that that is what was on the paper he was given. I do not doubt for one minute the Government’s sincere objectives in this procurement process, but what is happening on the ground is totally different from what he has just said about procedures preventing subcontractors from being squeezed. Subcontractors are being squeezed, and that is why we need to look at what is happening down at the coal face.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. If what he says is the case, we will certainly look at it. The second point my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon raised was that there are no local companies in the framework, despite there being substantial companies in the south-west.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, will he deal with the issue of tenders being judged on whether they are closest to the average price, rather than the lowest price, once they have got over the quality threshold? He said that I may have misunderstood the methodology, which is very complex, and that he is prepared to share it with me. However, for the purposes of the debate, will he tell me whether I am wrong about how the tenders are judged, or whether that is part of the process?
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will come to that. To return to the previous intervention, however, where there is poor practice in the system and companies are being squeezed, we have a mystery shopper system, which will investigate cases thoroughly. [Interruption.] It is indeed called a mystery shopper system, which is probably mystifying everybody. By and large, it has yielded significant results for those who have made complaints.
As a contracting authority for the purposes of the applicable legislation—the Public Contracts Regulations 2006, which were introduced by the previous Labour Government—the EFA is bound by requirements of objectivity and non-discrimination. Those extend to a duty not to extend preferential treatment purely on the grounds of a bidder’s geographic location at the time of submitting a tender. EFA officials have assured me that robust and effective selection criteria were applied in the exercise we are discussing. They have also assured me that, in line with legal requirements, the evaluation criteria to be applied were shared openly with all the bidders.
It is important to remember that the largest part of procurement spend in the construction industry is with subcontractors, the majority of whom will be local suppliers. My hon. Friend tried to block that avenue off for me, but the evidence is that subcontractors are local in most cases. If he is telling me that local subcontractors are not being used in the south-west, I will ask my officials to look at what is happening there, but this does not seem to be the case in other areas. The French company that is one of the seven companies on the EFA’s list bought out Leadbitter, a UK company active in the south-west, although I am not sure of the full details of the purchase.
If the Minister has any figures about subcontractors, it would be helpful to all of us to see them—perhaps at a later date, if he does not have them to hand. However, I would be grateful if he addressed my point about the power imbalance between subcontractors and contractors. Does the Cabinet Office have plans to make sure that, even where local or regional companies are not granted the primary contract, local subcontractors can still take part in the process without detriment?
As I said, where there is an imbalance, and subcontractors providing a service to the main contractor are being, for want of a better word, abused, we have the mystery shopper system, which will thoroughly investigate any abuses. Where it has investigated complaints on behalf of individual organisations and it has found problems, it has taken actions that those organisations have found very useful. Most of these concerns can, therefore, be sorted out on the ground while contracts are being supplied.
The third point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon was that the seven firms include three foreign firms, including the French one I have just mentioned. Public sector procurers are required to seek value for money through fair and open competition. Through our membership of the European Union, and because we are a signatory to international agreements, our contracting authorities are required to place suppliers from Europe and various other countries on an equal footing with UK suppliers. That is a two-way street, as it gives our suppliers access to public procurement markets overseas, maximising value for money for the UK taxpayer, while ensuring that UK companies are able to compete abroad.
The Government want UK companies to be successful in public procurement. The best way to bring that about is for those companies to offer the goods and services we need at quality levels and for whole-life costs representing value for money. To that end, the Government are seeking to ensure that their large-scale purchasing power supports the task of boosting growth and enables us actively to shape the UK market for the long term. To place a value on a bid based on the geographical origin of the bidder would be contrary to the single market.
All the same, the Government understand the importance of a long-term approach to supporting UK business and aligning activity to deliver that. As part of the work, several areas where Government action can have an early impact have been identified. They are sectors, technologies, access to finance, skills and procurement. Strategies for 11 key sectors, including construction, are being developed in partnership with business. I should also point out that use of the Education Funding Agency regional framework is not mandatory. I am aware of two other construction frameworks for the south-west. Construction Framework South West, managed by Devon county council, has 11 suppliers, nine of which are British, including Midas. South West Consultancy Framework, managed by Torbay council, has seven suppliers, of which six are British.
The Government are committed to increasing opportunities for suppliers of all sizes to bid for work successfully through the procurement reforms, which also secure value for money for the British taxpayer.
Before the debate, I had not been given any such list, but during it I have been given some information; I think it has been provided from memory, and we should do some research and send that to my hon. Friend. I understand that a company based in west Cumbria just won a £1 million contract in France. We are not quite clear about whether that was Government-funded. I think the best thing would be for me to write to my hon. Friend.