Committee (5th Day)
Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 15: Preliminary market engagement
86: Clause 15, page 11, line 16, after “suppliers” insert “, especially among small and medium-sized enterprises,”
Amendment 86 not moved.
Amendments 87 and 88 not moved.
89: Clause 15, page 11, line 30, leave out from “must” to end of line 31 and insert “in relation to the award—
(a) treat the supplier as an excluded supplier for the purpose of—(i) assessing tenders under section 18 (competitive award), or(ii) awarding a contract under section 40 or 42 (direct award), and(b) exclude the supplier from participating in, or progressing as part of, any competitive tendering procedure.”
My Lords, this group seeks to deal with amendments relating to the process for excluding suppliers and with the debarment list. I recognise that there is considerable interest in this topic. Amendments relating to the grounds for the exclusion of suppliers will be dealt with separately in a later group. I look forward with interest to submissions from noble Lords, but there are a number of government amendments in this group.
Amendment 89 ensures that suppliers which gained an unavoidable unfair advantage through involvement in preliminary market engagement are excluded from the procurement in question.
Amendment 148 is consequential on Amendment 93, which was debated last week. Amendment 93 clarifies that the authority’s requirements and award criteria are two separate concepts.
Amendment 154 broadens the concept of an entity associated with the supplier for the purpose of the exclusion grounds. This concept covers entities which are being relied on to meet the conditions of participation and is expanded by this amendment to also cover entities which may not be involved in the delivery of the contract. An example would be a consortium member providing financial backing to the supplier in order to meet conditions of participation relating to financial capacity. This aligns the concept of associated entities with the existing concept in Clause 21. An exception is made in respect of exclusions for guarantors such as banks, where it would be inappropriate to consider the exclusion grounds.
Amendment 150 is the lead of 21 amendments which all serve to change the term “associated supplier” to “associated person” for the purposes of the exclusions regime. This is consequential on Amendment 154 because the entities being relied upon to meet the conditions of participation may not be involved in the actual delivery of the contract. It is therefore accurate to refer to them as “persons” rather than “suppliers”.
Amendments 151, 159 and 166 require contracting authorities to notify suppliers when they are considered to be excluded or excludable by virtue of an exclusion ground applying to an associated person or subcontractor. These amendments are linked to Amendments 168 and 171, which require ministerial consideration before a supplier is notified and given the opportunity to replace an associated supplier or subcontractor when they are considered by the contracting authority to be a threat to national security.
Amendment 162 requires contracting authorities to ask for details of intended subcontractors and to check whether any intended subcontractors are on the debarment list, as part of determining whether the supplier is excluded or excludable. Amendments 163, 164, 165 and 398 are consequential.
Amendment 169 corrects a drafting error which incorrectly described suppliers subject to the exclusion ground on national security as being “excluded” when they are in fact “excludable”. Amendment 170 is also a technical amendment.
Amendments 175, 182, and 414 clarify what it means to treat a supplier as an excluded supplier in relation to the award of a public contract. They make it clear that contracting authorities are required to disregard tenders from such suppliers and prevent such suppliers from participating in, or progressing as part of, any competitive tendering procedure.
Amendments 176 and 178 provide for the list of improper behaviour at subsection (4) of Clause 30 to be an exhaustive list. It is important to be clear on the circumstances in which a supplier has acted improperly, given that the consequences are exclusion. Amendment 339 removes financial and other resources of suppliers from the list of the matters that contracting authorities may have regard to in setting proportionate requirements for suppliers to provide particular evidence or information as to whether exclusion grounds apply and whether the circumstances giving rise to any application are likely to occur again. Proportionality is sufficiently and more appropriately achieved by having regard to the nature and complexity of the matters being assessed, which is also listed. This amendment aligns with the matters that contracting authorities must have regard to in considering whether a condition of participation is proportionate, as specified in Clause 21.
Amendment 349 is made at the request of Northern Ireland and provides that transferred Northern Ireland authorities should make notification of exclusion to a department in the Northern Ireland Executive that the authority considers most appropriate, rather than a Minister of the Crown. This is necessary to provide information to the relevant department, for example to consider a potential investigation of suppliers under Clause 57. Amendment 352 requires that a Minister of the Crown must consult with the Northern Ireland department that the Minister considers most appropriate —rather than any Northern Ireland department—before entering a supplier’s name on the debarment list or removing an entry from the debarment list following an application for removal under Clause 60.
Amendment 399 extends the circumstances in which there is an implied right for a contracting authority to terminate a contract where a subcontractor—which the supplier did not rely on to meet the conditions of participation—is an excluded or excludable supplier. The amendment includes circumstances where the authority checked the debarment list or asked for information about the subcontractor but did not know that the subcontractor was excluded or excludable prior to award.
Finally, Amendment 402 requires contracting authorities to seek the approval of a Minister of the Crown before terminating a contract on the basis of the discretionary exclusion ground of national security. This is necessary to align with the other circumstances in which ministerial approval must be sought before relying on this particular ground. I beg to move.
In keeping with the obvious mood of the Committee, I actually do not want to say very much either on this particular group. The interest I had was in the amendment from the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Fox, in this group, on how excluded suppliers demonstrate their reliability following the application of an exclusion order, and the process of self-cleansing. I was particularly interested in what this process of self-cleansing means. I am presuming—from the Minister’s helpful introduction—that the company is excluded for X reason, and is told that in the notice that goes to an excludable supplier, and then it goes back to the Government and says, “We’ve undertaken the process of self-cleansing and therefore the problems that you highlighted with us are no longer applicable”. So, I wondered whether the Minister could say a little bit more about the process of self-cleansing, which was the element that I found a little bit vague, if I am honest, and goes with many of the problems we have: the Minister talks about a “proportionate response” from the Government, and those sorts of phrases, and again we get into the problem of definition.
The other point I will make concerns what the Minister rightly pointed out: Schedules 6 and 7 outline the grounds rather than the process. There are the mandatory grounds in Schedule 6 and the discretionary grounds in Schedule 7, both of which a contracting authority might think applies to it. On the grounds in these schedules, can the Minister give us an example of what the process or timescale will be and an example of how it would work? Presumably the Minister sends this to the contracting authority and says, for example, “We think you should be excluded because of this in Schedule 6”, and if the company says, “No, this isn’t the case”, a discussion takes place. It would be helpful for the Committee to understand this process.
Finally, can the Minister confirm that, as I read it, there is also an appeals process? If the Government decided that a firm or supplier should be excluded, am I right in saying that this decision could be appealed? If it is appealed, who is it appealed to—presumably not the same person who made the decision to exclude them in the first place? I am querying the independence of that appeal process and the amount of time that this would take. A little more detail would be useful on the matter of an “excluded supplier” and an “excludable supplier”.
I do not want to keep the Committee any longer on this group of amendments, because the Minister’s helpful outline clarified some of the points I would have made about why “person” changes to “supplier”. I look forward to the Minister’s response to my questions.
My Lords, I think that in a test match that is called putting the spinner on early when the batsman is better at fending off fast bowling.
The noble Lord asked a number of questions, which I am not in a position to answer at this juncture. We believe that self-cleansing is an important process because exclusion is a risk-based measure as perceived; it is not a punishment. As such, suppliers should be encouraged to clean up their act and given the right to make the case that they addressed the risk of misconduct, or the other issues, occurring again. It is for contracting authorities to decide whether the evidence they have seen is sufficient to reassure themselves that the issues in question are unlikely to occur again. The noble Lord asked a further question about what happens should there be a difference of judgment. The formal position is that it is for the contracting authorities to decide whether self-cleansing has occurred.
It is not our intention to make the exclusion of suppliers more difficult for contracting authorities, because many noble Lords, on a number of subjects, have asked for the opportunity to exclude suppliers. The Bill seeks to ensure that all the relevant issues can be considered. We believe that suppliers will thereby be encouraged to take as much comprehensive action as possible to avoid recurrence if they seem to fall foul of these risks. I repeat: the decision must be made by the contracting authority, and the burden to present remedial evidence to avoid exclusion is on the supplier. The lack of remedial evidence—or if the remedial evidence is inadequate—may give the contracting authorities sufficient reason to conclude that the issues in question are likely to occur again. However, I will look very carefully at this flighted ball that the noble Lord has sent. We accept the need for guidance on self-cleansing to accompany the legislation, and can assure the noble Lord opposite that this will be published as part of the implementation package for the Bill.
I cannot ask the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, not to move his amendments, as he is not here, but I hope that is something of an answer to the noble Lord, who has amendments in this group.
That is quite helpful. Further to that and to make sure I have understood, would an excluded or excludable supplier be put on a debarment list? I refer to Clause 61, which is titled “Debarment decisions: appeals”. Am I reading this right or have I got it wrong?
We will come on to the details of debarment on a later group—on Clause 61, I believe. A supplier may certainly appeal against the decision of a Minister, who ultimately places the debarment list. On the process of self-cleansing, which we were talking about, the contracting authority, not the Government, undertakes exclusion. It will notify the supplier that a ground for exclusion applies; the supplier may then make representations and submit self-cleansing evidence, as I previously discussed. The contracting authority then weighs it up and decides on exclusion.
This is the further wrinkle that I had not answered in saying rather more words than the succinct selection I have been given, but it confirms what I was saying: the supplier may challenge, but through the courts under the remedies regime, if it disputes the contracting authority’s judgment on self-cleansing.
We will come on to debarment decisions and permanent exclusion on amendments after Clause 61, but certainly a supplier may appeal against a ministerial decision.
In moving government Amendment 89 in my name, I request that the other amendments are not moved.
Amendment 89 agreed.
Clause 15, as amended, agreed.
Clause 16: Preliminary market engagement notices
90: Clause 16, page 11, line 33, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) If a contracting authority carries out preliminary market engagement, the authority must—(a) publish a preliminary market engagement notice before publishing a tender notice, or(b) provide reasons for not doing so in the tender notice.”
My Lords, here I pay the penalty for the discussion we had before the Committee started: there are more government amendments that I must move in this group. I will beg to move a range of amendments today.
Government Amendments 90 and 91 make improvements to preliminary market engagement notices. Together they ensure that, where a contracting authority chooses not to publish a preliminary market engagement notice, a justification must be set out in any subsequent tender notice. I know this will be welcomed, particularly by small businesses, which often rely on early market engagement.
Government Amendment 277 makes provision for contract details notices. It removes a superfluous reference to contracts awarded under this part, which is unnecessary as the definition of a public contract in Clause 2 covers that which needs to be covered.
Government Amendments 278 to 281 correct a timing error in relation to the publication of a contract details notice for a light-touch contract. This will ensure that the contract details notice is published first, within 120 days of entering into the contract. The publication of the contract is required within 180 days of entering into it, allowing time for the contracting authority to make any necessary redactions before publication.
Government Amendments 282 to 286 are at the request of Northern Ireland and exclude transferred Northern Ireland authorities from the obligation to publish contracts above £2 million.
Government Amendment 287 is a minor drafting change, which better reflects the operation of the provisions.
Amendments 355, 356, 357 and 359 make changes to the requirements in Clauses 64 and 65 for contracting authorities to publish information about, respectively, compliance with the prompt payment obligation in Clause 63 and payments made under public contracts. Northern Ireland has chosen to derogate from both those requirements, so these amendments reflect that policy.
Government Amendment 358 makes it clear that the exemption for utilities in Clause 65(4)(a) applies to private utilities only. Government Amendment 403 clarifies that user-choice contracts which are directly awarded are not subject to the requirement to publish a contract termination notice.
Government Amendments 429 and 430 are technical amendments to Clause 79 to reflect consistent drafting practice and the fact that Northern Ireland has chosen to derogate from the below-threshold rules in Part 6 and so does not require the threshold-altering power in subsection (7).
Government Amendments 446 and 447 to Clause 84 also relate to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has chosen to derogate from the requirement for its contracting authorities to publish pipeline notices.
Government Amendment 457 inserts a new clause entitled “Data protection” after Clause 88. This is a now standard legislative provision that reiterates the need for those processing personal data under this Bill to comply with existing data protection legislation. As we discussed on an earlier group, I look forward to engagement with noble Lords opposite on issues of particular concern relating to processing and holding data. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have Amendment 445 in this group. This amendment is concerned with the challenge facing charities seeking to obtain contracts from public authorities. The Bill is ambitious in its aim to simplify procurement rules, which is very welcome, but it is important that it is done in a way which does not make it more difficult for small businesses and particularly charities successfully to bid for contracts.
We know from past experience with current contracting rules and law that charities experience some barriers here. I hope that in our discussions on the Procurement Bill it will be recognised that a large proportion of the voluntary sector is pretty fundamental to the delivery of public services—indeed, in some cases the voluntary sector is the leading provider of such services. For example, according to research commissioned by DCMS, voluntary and charitable organisations and social enterprises won 69% of the total value of contracts awarded for homeless services between April 2016 and March 2020, and 66% of the total value of contracts to support victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
We know that the voluntary sector can produce outstanding results; we know about its ability to build trusting and long-term relationships with communities that are often excluded, its focus on prevention, its versatility and its agility. So I welcome the requirement for contracting authorities to publish pipeline notices—the Minister referred to this in relation to one of his amendments today—but, given the utility of such notices for smaller providers and the market diversity and improved services that could be cultivated by giving smaller providers a chance to prepare the bid, we want transparency to be prioritised in the requirements to publish pipeline notices; hence my amendment.
My Amendment 449 is slightly different but it none the less raises issues in relation to the way in which public authorities engage with the private sector—or the independent sector, depending on how you look at it. This amendment arises from concerns that public bodies are failing to act within the spirit if not the letter of the freedom of information legislation in relation to procurement contracts.
I just want to refer the Minister to an openDemocracy report, published last year, which looked at the operation of the Freedom of Information Act in 2020. It found that
“2020 was the worst year on record for Freedom of Information Act transparency … Official statistics published by the Cabinet Office show that just 41% of FOI requests to central government departments and agencies were granted in full in 2020—the lowest proportion since records began in 2005 … The Cabinet Office is blocking requests from MPs about its use of public money to conduct political research … Stonewalling, a brutally effective tactic for evading FOI, is increasingly prevalent … Government departments are cynically exploiting a legal loophole to deny timely access to information in the name of the ‘public interest’ … Government departments are failing to comply with a legal requirement to work constructively with requesters”.
The FoI Act was meant to be a safety net for members of the public so that there would be as much openness as possible. However, there are two obstacles to that happening. The first is the operational aspect of policing the Act through the Information Commissioner. The commissioner has been seriously affected by huge cost-cutting. Last November, Elizabeth Denham, the former commissioner, told the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that the ICO’s resources were “40% less” than in 2010 while, at the same time, the number of requests had increased by one-third. In its most recent annual report, published in July 2021, the ICO noted that there had been a build-up of the caseload over the financial year.
The other obstacle to the public being able to find out what is going on is the subject of my amendment. One exemption in FoI legislation relates to commercial interests in Section 43(2). This is a qualified exemption subject to the public interest test. Its application ought to be straightforward but, unfortunately, it is used regularly to refuse information in often the most absurd situations. The outgoing commissioner said:
“The reality of the delivery of Government services involves so much of the private sector now. The scope of the Act does not … cover private sector businesses that are delivering public services. I think that is a huge challenge. I have seen statistics that say up to 30% of public services are delivered under private sector contracts, but those bodies are not subject to”
I am afraid that the NHS is a frequent offender when it comes to this. We know that, over the years, the Government and the NHS have looked to expand private sector involvement. There is a long-established trend of trying to outsource some NHS functions to private contractors and a recent trend to set up what I can only describe as tax-dodging subcos, as they are called, to avoid VAT payments and reduce staff’s terms and conditions. This is where public health bodies set up their own subsidiary companies and transfer staff over. Basically, they do it to get around VAT payments, but we have also seen them use it to reduce the terms and conditions of the staff who are so employed.
What is so objectionable is that trusts frequently refuse to disclose information about what they are doing. Decisions are made in secret. In one example, an FoI request went in for the business case. In the decision-making record, the request was turned down on the basis of commercial confidentiality. This happens up and down the country. Section 42(2) is also used to refuse to disclose information long after any commercial considerations have gone.
This is a serious issue. As members of the public, we have a right to know when the NHS outsources services. The FoI legislation was never envisaged as getting in the way of transparency in those cases. When you combine it with the enforcement problem that we have, in essence we are seeing the FoI legislation not being effective. I am not sure how hopeful I am, but I am ever hopeful that the Government will see the error of their ways in relation to FoI. It was set up with the best of intentions and its principles still stand today in terms of transparency, but the more we see the public sector using the private sector, the more FoI considerations ought to come into play.
My Lords, I added my name to Amendment 445, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and I shall make a couple of points in addition to what he has said.
Clause 84 requires pipeline notices to be published where the contracting authority expects to pay more than £100 million under relevant contracts in the coming financial year. However, this will be required only for contracts with an estimated value of more than £2 million. This threshold will do very little to improve transparency or, indeed, preparedness and competitiveness for SMEs and charities. According to research by the Federation of Small Businesses, over the past three years almost half—48%—of public sector contracts applied for by SMEs were worth below £25,000 and nine in 10, or 89%, were worth below £100,000.
My second point is that the amendment merely requires contracting authorities to consider publishing a pipeline notice where this would be likely to enable a wider range of providers to participate, thus improving the quality and value for money of services tendered. This would surely be a useful, if relatively mild, way of promoting greater awareness of the importance of engaging more small businesses, charities and social enterprise in public contracts. It deserves support.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 445, which I was also pleased to sign. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made a very good case for why it would be so useful for charities and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, extended that. I wish to extend it further to reinforce the point that the importance of the pipeline notice is that it provides guidance for the authorities to take a risk that, in a sense, goes slightly beyond the principle that no one got fired for choosing IBM. If we are trying to get the best service, we must look for the right opportunities and the right people, not just in the context of charities, or even small businesses. Those especially penalised are microbusinesses, freelancers or even start-ups in the commercial sector, not-for-profits and social enterprises. All are massively disadvantaged by tendering for any contract. Many have more than enough skill to be able to do it, and many of the people who provide the backbone for those areas are people who accomplished it very comfortably in larger companies. The effective use of pipeline notices is a strong signal that the Government expect all contracting authorities to make a judgment that will help all those sorts of businesses and those people who can provide excellent and outstanding service. They deserve the opportunity to do so.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 449A tabled in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. I support the two amendments to which my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath has just spoken. Amendment 449A covers much the same ground as his Amendment 449, but it probably goes a bit further in arguing for the need for transparency. It relates to public service contractors and where information about them should be available under FoI.
The Bill’s disclosure provisions are very limited in comparison with what would be available under FoI. Authorities responsible for contracts worth over £200 million would be required to set and publish key performance indicators, but they do not give the same information, there is a delay of probably up to one year in them and they do not help members of the public and others who might be interested in getting the information.
The amendment sets out that the FoI Act should be extended to cover information held by public sector contractors about these contracts. At present, it allows access to such information only if it is held on behalf of the commissioning authority, which normally applies only where the contract specifically entitles the authority to obtain particular information from the contractor. Where it does not, the information held by the contractor is outside the scope of FoI provisions.
There are many examples of this. Some of those cited by my noble friend probably also apply here but I shall mention one or two others. The first is a report on potential fire safety defects at Hereford County Hospital, constructed and managed under a PFI scheme by Mercia Healthcare Ltd under an agreement with the NHS trust. The report was commissioned by Mercia Healthcare from the now-defunct contractor Carillion, which was still operating at the time. The request to the trust for information about this was refused on the grounds that the report was not held by or on behalf of the trust. There are many such examples. I could explain at length some of the contracts that HS2 has got into; I shall not, but the same comments apply. There is a complete lack of transparency about information on that.
The extension to cover information held by contractors about contracts with public authorities has been supported by the Information Commissioner, the Public Accounts Committee, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Justice Committee, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, set up by the Government to review the FoI Act in 2015, and the Institute for Government. There are many other examples from around the world where transparency is thought necessary and desirable. I believe the UK FoI provisions should be extended to allow access to such information via a request to the public authority responsible for the contract.
While I am on my feet and while we are talking about transparency, I should like to ask the Minister about a Written Statement giving guidance to Ministers participating in government commercial activity. It comes from the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency and says that the Bill we are discussing
“creates a simpler and more flexible commercial system that better meets our country’s needs while remaining compliant with our international obligations. Ministers have the opportunity to participate fully in this system with certain safeguards to protect them from the risk of legal challenge.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/7/22; col. 17WS.]
I could add that it does not protect the taxpayer and does not seem to protect anybody from the Minister making lots of money out of NHS contracts, as we have heard. It is odd that this Statement has come out in the middle of our deliberations on this Bill. Could the Minister explain when we can see the guidance—I have asked the Library and it does not have it yet—and how it fits in with the Bill we are discussing?
My Lords, I support Amendment 449 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and Amendment 449A from the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Clement-Jones, which deal with transparency. The Minister will not be surprised that I will use this opportunity to raise the blocking of information about the purchase of Hikvision cameras, which are used all over the United Kingdom; he was good enough to meet me twice to discuss this and I am very grateful to him for the time he gave. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raised this in a Motion to Regret debate in February. I raised it at Second Reading, quoting the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, who said he was
“encouraged to see reports … that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has now prohibited any further procurement of Hikvision surveillance technology by his department”.
I asked the Minister at the time whether he would be willing to share his own department’s response to that letter to the Cabinet Secretary from Professor Sampson, and to explain why, if it was the right thing to do in the case of the Department of Health—and I believe it was the right thing to do—to give information to Members of Parliament in parliamentary Questions, which it was, because the Minister answered Questions from me specifically on this on 25 and 26 May, it was not possible on security grounds to give the same answers it was possible to give in connection with the Department of Health.
Even more relevant, in conjunction with these amendments, is the fact that only last week the information requested in a freedom of information request about Hikvision in connection with HS2—which I will come back to—was denied. That raises quite a lot of serious problems, I think, in the minds of any member of the public, let alone parliamentarians anxious to discover the truth about why particular things are being ordered, how much they cost, whether they pose security risks and what the dangers are to the United Kingdom.
I think we have a serious problem in our procurement supply chain when it comes to the problem of Chinese technology companies—blacklisted, I might add, by a Five Eyes ally, the United States, as a threat to national security and yet allowed in the United Kingdom —who are known for their complicity in human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang against Uighurs, and I declare a non-pecuniary interest as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uighurs. When I met the noble Lord to discuss the legislation before us, he noted that there are over 1 million Hikvision and Dahua Technology cameras in the United Kingdom —I repeat, over 1 million. The noble Lord outlined that the Government do indeed have concerns regarding the security of these cameras and their links to the concentration camps in Xinjiang.
Now as many will be aware, a number of civil society organisations, including Free Tibet and Big Brother Watch—through freedom of information requests —have found that a number of government departments, local authorities, NHS trusts, schools, police forces, job centres and prisons use cameras manufactured by Dahua Technology and by Hikvision. What is not clear is the extent of the issue across the public procurement supply chain, and that is why these amendments are so important.
I have asked the Cabinet Office how many departments have cameras manufactured by Dahua Technology and Hikvision and, as I have explained, Ministers—with the exception of the Department of Health—have refused to reply. I welcome the decision made by the former Secretary of State at the Department of Health to commit to removing Hikvision cameras from his department, but when will we have a timetable for other departments to follow suit? How can we justify doing one thing on national security grounds in one department and not elsewhere?
I have asked Ministers how many of these cameras are at UK ports, airports and train stations and, again, I have been rebuffed on the grounds that the Government will not speculate on the security provisions on our transport network. When you apply through freedom of information requests for that information, it is declined. So, sadly, the debate around the use of Hikvision and Dahua in our public procurement supply chain is shrouded in secrecy. I hope Ministers unwilling to be transparent about the issues that we have faced hitherto will see that they are wrong to have been so and will remedy that.
Nowhere is this issue more evident than when I was recently approached by a concerned party who had reported to me that Hikvision may have received a contract from HS2 to install its cameras along the entire length of this new high-speed rail network. Following this information, I submitted a freedom of information request to HS2 asking for information on whether Hikvision has any contracts with HS2, and I was informed that HS2 does not centrally hold information regarding contracts with its suppliers. This is clearly an unacceptable state of affairs. Phase 1 of HS2 is to cost taxpayers—and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I am sure will correct me if I am underestimating this—some £44.6 billion, and that includes substantial procurement contracts. It is well within the public interest to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not going to Chinese technology companies that have been accused of complicity in gross human rights violations and the use of forced labour—slave labour.
With that in mind, I believe the Government should consider provisions to this Bill that will ensure transparency and that public procurement contracts do not go to companies such as Hikvision and Dahua, which have these known links to slave labour. That is why I think Amendments 449 and 449A are so admirable.
I recognise that the Government are beginning to wrestle with the substantial task of removing Hikvision and Dahua technology cameras from the public sector supply chain. One person about whom I have no doubts is the noble Lord, Lord True, who, as I have already indicated, has already been extremely helpful on this matter. But this will become possible only with a timetable and a developed plan, which requires transparency about the extent of the problem. I hope the Minister will consider what more the Government can do to fully outline the extent of Hikvision’s and Dahua’s presence in the UK—they already have 1 million cameras in this country—so that we can finally discuss a reasonable timetable for their removal, as is happening in other Five Eyes countries such as the United States.
I speak on behalf of my noble friend Lady Worthington, who cannot be here, to support our Amendment 452, which makes transparency provisions, in particular on issues of climate change. I welcome the Minister’s commitment at Second Reading that the Government
“want to deliver the highest possible standards of transparency in public procurement”.—[Official Report, 25/5/22; col. 856.]
While the Bill does not include a general duty of transparency compared with previous procurement rules, which required that contracting authorities act in a transparent manner, the Government have said:
“Transparency will be fundamental to the new regime. Extended transparency requirements and a single digital platform on which procurement data will be published will mean that decisions and processes can be monitored by anybody that wishes to do so.”
The Bill widens the authorities’ duties to publish notices and information on their procurement activities, and the provisions under Clauses 86 and 88 should improve transparency by making such notices available through a specified online system. This is welcome, but there is no substantive information on what exactly is going to be published. Instead, Clause 86 provides for appropriate authorities, through secondary legislation, to make regulations that will set out how notices and information will be published.
The amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Worthington is intended to clarify what the regulations for the publication of notices, documents and information must contain as a minimum, by ensuring that any regulations include provisions around the availability of notices or information and that these are easily accessible.
Open and accessible procurement data will be crucial in the years ahead to enable modelling of the impacts of public contracts on carbon emissions, particularly when it comes to renewal. Spend Network has started to collect procurement data on every public tender and contract in the world and to map some of this impact on a freely available basis, but it has been hampered by a lack of good-quality inputs. Nevertheless, the data available has confirmed that a 20% reduction of emissions at each contract renewal would
“see the UK government’s contracting still emitting 686,000 tonnes of carbon per month by 2030”,
“poor quality data meant that we were only able to evaluate 40% of the data”.
The recent Written Question to the Minister from my noble friend Lady Worthington highlighted the lack of easily accessible data being kept by departments on both contracts and emissions from those contracts. Will the Minister agree to this simple amendment, which would ensure that there is clarity in the legislation about transparency and accessibility, especially in relation to carbon?
While I am on my feet and we are discussing transparency in contracts, I would like to ask the Minister something that I was asked at the weekend, about the £360 million Palantir contract to manage NHS data. I was contacted by a very worried local NHS manager, who says that a list of 300 redundancies has already been drawn up in the NHS digital department and that this contract with Palantir—a second person has now left the NHS to work for Palantir—is a “done and dusted deal”. I would be incredibly happy if the Minister could give me a small reassurance that I could pass on to my friend, because obviously everyone in his department is really anxious.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for introducing all the government amendments in this group. Again, it is very helpful, as there are quite a few of them, so we appreciate that.
I will speak to my four amendments and offer my support for the others in this group, so ably introduced by noble Lords. My first three are Amendments 455, 458 and 459A, which are on digital registers and digital information. I will speak to those first. Amendment 455 would require the establishment of a digital register of all public procurement for all notices; Amendment 458 would allow the creation of a digital registration system for suppliers; and Amendment 459A would require a contracting authority to publish required procurement documents on a single digital platform. The intended purpose is to allow public spending priorities and the performance of the procurement system to be understood by stakeholders, and therefore allow authorities to plan and deliver procurement in a strategic manner.
The Green Paper Transforming Public Procurement said that a
“lack of standardisation, transparency and interoperability is preventing the UK from harnessing the opportunities that open, common and shared data could bring”,
“a clear digital procurement strategy focused on transparency results in greater participation and increased value for money driven by competition.”
The Cabinet Office Declaration on Government Reform policy paper, published in June last year, also supports this when it says:
“We must do better at making our data available to all so that we can be more effectively held to account.”
It also includes an action to:
“Ensure all data is as open as possible to public and third parties.”
I am sure we would all support that.
We were therefore very pleased to see this ambition reiterated by the Minister at Second Reading when he said:
“I acknowledge that transparency has been a key ask for the House. The House expects that transparency will be improved. We believe that the Bill does this.”—[Official Report, 25/5/22; col. 926.]
We have learned from today’s debate that real transparency is incredibly important to noble Lords, as this Bill progresses. We therefore believe that it is essential to put the Green Paper ambitions into the Bill, both to deliver on this promise effectively and to make sure that it cannot be rolled back or diluted, which is one of our concerns. An unambiguous statement of this commitment would help secure adequate resources, and I am sure the Minister would agree with me on the importance of this.
Looking at Clause 88, on information relating to a procurement, in Part 8 of the Bill—there are number of subsections, so I will not read it all out—I just want to check that I am reading its implications correctly. If I understand it, it creates powers to have a single supplier portal right across government. If this is correct, it is extremely positive, but I would like clarification from the Minister that that is exactly the intention of this clause. If that is the case, it would save a huge amount of time across government and across business, allowing companies to register and update their credentials once to do business with UK government. It would also allow them to establish unique IDs for contracting authorities and, we hope, then move forward in a much more practical and efficient way, which is what we would all like to see. The purpose of my Amendment 455 is to allow the Bill and the Government to articulate this objective much more clearly. I would be grateful if the Minister can clarify this.
The other vital part of the Government’s data ambitions—to bring together all the notices and data around procurement into a single source—should also have the same elevation in the Bill. It is really important that the information can then be fed back into a variety of user-friendly ways to local authorities, major procurement companies and others, so that we can generate data-driven insights and properly track the performance of different companies. Because there is spend, there is live, ongoing and updated data, which will be extremely helpful. There seems to be the ambition behind the UK’s adoption and approval of the open contracting data standard, about which it would again be helpful to get clarification. The purpose of my three amendments on data is to gain clearer provisions in this regard in the Bill, which will be easier to understand for anyone working in the procurement industry or wanting to gain a contract.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, also has a number of amendments on data, and I thank him for his support for one of my amendments. I know he will speak to his amendments, but I think we are in the same place on all this. I am extremely grateful for his amendments and will listen carefully to what he has to say when he introduces them.
I turn to my other amendment, Amendment 459, and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for her support for it. Its purpose is to require each ministerial department to calculate the estimated carbon emissions from public contracts entered into and to lay an annual report on this before Parliament. The amendment seeks to look at the impact of the procurement regime from an emissions perspective. Given the weather at the moment, climate change is on everyone’s mind, so I hope the Minister and the Government will think carefully about the areas where we are looking to improve the impact of the Procurement Bill—on climate change, emissions, net zero and so forth.
There is a National Audit Office report on public sector emissions, which is extremely worth looking at. I urge the Minister to have a close look at it to see whether there is any way that its recommendations can also be part of what we are trying to achieve through the Procurement Bill. The main issue is around reporting: although many companies will do it voluntarily, many others do not report at all, so there is no balance in the information that we have. For example, there are no mandatory emissions measurements or reporting requirements for the public sector as a whole. The wider public sector includes local authorities, schools and hospitals, all of which may well have high carbon emissions. Peers for the Planet published a very good report on local authorities and net zero, in which it noted that there was little consistency in local government reporting of emissions. I understand that a lot of this concerns BEIS, but the Procurement Bill provides us with an opportunity to look at whether this is something that would have a positive impact on driving down emissions.
This concludes the introduction of my amendments and I will turn now to those of other noble Lords. Many noble Lords spoke in support of the different amendments on the publication of notices and the concerns around freedom of information. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in particular, made an extremely important speech about his two amendments. He said again that it is a welcome ambition to simplify what we are trying to achieve here with procurement. As I have said, any noble Lord who worked on OJEU will be very grateful for simplification. As was debated last week, it is terribly important that we do not make things more difficult for SMEs, charities, voluntary organisations and, as my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn said, for freelancers, who were often forgotten when we debated this Bill previously. Transparency is clearly very important when looking at those kinds of contracts.
The noble Lord also spoke to his Amendment 449 around the importance of transparency around FoIs. This is incredibly important. We had a few examples of this. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is not in his place, but he, too, had an amendment on FoI. My noble friend Lord Berkeley spoke to his amendments on this and made an important contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, gave a particularly powerful example of the problems he had trying to get information through an FoI about Hikvision. If we are going to have freedom of information, it should be freedom of information unless there is a very good reason why the information should not be available. It is concerning that that is not becoming the norm and that we are moving away from that. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response, but I hope that the Government will take particular note of that.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, talked about the need for clarification on what the regulations will be for the publication of notices, documents and information. There is a welcome ambition on transparency in the Bill. We support the Government in what they are trying to achieve on that, but we must make sure that it happens in a way that is effective and makes a difference.
My Lords, I rise to speak to a number of amendments in this group on behalf of my noble friend Lord Wallace and myself. I must first apologise that there was no presence on the Liberal Democrats Benches at the beginning. I am afraid my colleagues have been in the wars. My noble friend Lord Wallace is at the dentist, my noble friend Lord Fox is suffering from Covid and my noble friend Lord Scriven was delayed for four hours on a train—so it has all been a tale of disaster.
I shall speak first to my noble friend Lord Wallace’s Amendments 450 and 451, which are intended to probe the nature of the exemptions from publishing or disclosing information. It is welcome that centralised investigations by a Minister of the Crown into whether suppliers should be excluded are explicitly allowed under the Bill and that reports from these investigations must be published. However, under the current Bill the grounds for not publishing such reports include national security and the release of sensitive commercial information. Sensitive commercial information is defined under Clause 85 as any information which
“would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person if it were published”.
Given that a debarment investigation, by its very nature, is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of a person in that it will have a significant reputational impact on a company or individual that will affect their commercial relations, this test is too broad and is likely to lead to many debarment investigation reports not being published or to decisions to do so being contested by the company.
Clause 85(2)(b) is likely to lead to more redaction of information than is necessary or in the public interest by putting the onus on the contracting authority to prove there is no chance it will cause any harm to the commercial interests of any person—a standard which is very vague and difficult to enforce. We therefore argue that information in public contracts regarding how public funds are spent should be public by design and redacted only by exception when doing so is in the overriding public interest. Doing so reduces the risk for contracting authorities and will avoid overreaction.
My noble friend’s Amendment 448 has the same intent as Amendment 449A. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, spoke to that amendment extremely cogently and I have signed it. As he said, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 applies to information about a contract held by a public authority but not normally to information held by the contractor. Public access to information about public sector contracts varies from contract to contract, depending on their precise terms and on the willingness of the parties to adopt measures permitting greater access.
Much of the information the public may seek will relate to problems not anticipated at the contract stage or to information which the authority did not consider it needed to monitor in relation to performance under the contract. The Bill provides for only limited disclosure to the public about the performance of a contract. An annual assessment of performance against KPIs will be required for contracts valued at over £2 million, but an authority will not be required to publish more than three KPIs and may not be required to publish any at all if it considers that they would not allow the appropriate assessment of the contract’s performance. The actual information to be published about compliance with KPIs will be left to regulations.
In any event, a 12-month wait for an annual publication is unlikely to satisfy the needs of those concerned about an existing problem, and this amendment, as the noble Lord described, provides that all information relating to a contract with a public authority held by the contractor or a subcontractor will be subject to the FoIA or to the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. As he described, this follows the approach of many countries’ FoI laws: for example, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand—I could go on.
Amendment 449 would in effect make this position under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act and the EIR. It would ensure that any information held by a contractor in connection with a public authority contract would be deemed to be held on behalf of the authority and thus be subject to the FoIA and EIR. The public’s right to such information would no longer depend on the precise terms of the contract. We strongly support that amendment.
We also support Amendments 455 and 459A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I have also tabled Amendment 456, which is complementary to Amendment 459A. As the noble Baroness described, Amendment 459A is designed explicitly to frame a duty around transparency in UK procurement beyond publishing the notices themselves as required in the Bill. As she described, this is drawn from the OECD’s recommendation on public procurement and seems to have some purchase with the Cabinet Office. The amendment would help establish how and where the notices should be published. It also says why or what the objective behind publishing the notices is. It is important that the completeness and comprehensiveness of the notices are not changed without accountability.
Amendment 456 goes a bit further and adds specific requirements about the platform’s implementation and would ensure that the information on the digital platform was regularly reviewed for accuracy, timeliness and completeness. A crucial aspect is the need for the contract award notices to be published in a timely fashion. Current legislation requires contract award notices to be published within 30 days, yet research by the Spend Network shows that the mean time to publish contract award notices is over 40 days. Many ministerial departments spending billions of pounds take more than three months to publish notices. The Cabinet Office takes an average of 2.7 months. Vital information is missing from nearly three-quarters of contract award notices, and this is wrong because it denies the public, businesses of all sizes and the media the ability to understand what financial commitments the Government are making and with whom—as with that egregious fast-track PPE contract situation.
We need to ensure that this long-standing problem does not get worse and that the appropriate authority ensures that public sector organisations publish complete, accurate and accessible data under an open licence and that the 30-day threshold set out in Clause 51 is respected in practice. That is what Amendment—
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting him. I am afraid that there is a Division in the Chamber. The Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I am tempted to say to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that he need not sit down since I am about to call him.
Thank you. My Lords, if noble Lords thought that my previous speech took a long time, they will not be happy with the second half of it, which concerns the technical parts. These relate to Amendments 452A, 452B, 519A and 519B, which are technical amendments from the Local Government Association designed to ensure that all notices come within the new digital platform.
Amendments 452A and 452B relate to Clause 86(1) of the Bill, which sets out that appropriate authorities may by regulations make provision about
“the form and content of notices, documents or other information to be published or provided under this Act”
“how such notices or documents are, or information is, to be published, provided or revised.”
The amendments would help ensure that future regulations do not contravene the purpose of the single digital platform wherever possible and support the move to progressively streamline the many different publication requirements for procurement information and contract-spend data placed on local government and the public sector as a whole through different pieces of legislation.
Amendment 519A would omit Section 89(4)(b) and 89(5) of the Transport Act 1985. This would remove the requirement for local authorities to issue notices of tender individually to all persons who have given to that authority a written notice indicating that they wish to receive invitations to tender for the provision of local services for that authority’s area. This would bring the requirements to advertise tenders for transport services into line with those set out in the Bill and facilitate the ambition to create a single digital platform where all public tenders are advertised in one place.
Finally, Amendment 519B would amend the Service Subsidy Agreements (Tendering) (England) Regulations 2002 by removing Regulations 4 and 5. Regulation 4 requires local authorities to publish information relating to tender invitations in accordance with Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the same regulations. Regulation 5 requires local authorities to publish tender information to the general public at times, in places and in a form which are convenient to the public, and to publish notices of tenders in local newspapers. Removing the two regulations would ensure that information about contract pipelines and contract awards for service subsidies will in future be published in the same place and format as information about any other public contract, to improve consistency and accessibility. A service subsidy in this context is where councils subsidise companies operating public passenger transport services to run services on routes which may not otherwise be economically viable, for example bus services in rural areas. I hope that has explained these rather technical amendments and very much hope that the Minister understands the motive behind them.
My Lords, I apologise for not rising sooner; I never know how many spokesmen are going to rise from the various Benches. This has been another interesting and informative debate. It has also been extremely wide-ranging, as has become our custom in this Committee. I will try to answer as many points as possible, but there are things coming from various areas that we will look at carefully. This is your Lordships’ Committee and therefore it is perfectly reasonable for points to be made. My aspiration is to answer, but I may not be able to answer them all.
Before I get on to the main amendments, I will address various things I was asked about. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, asked about the Palantir contract. I am advised that this is a DHSC NHS contract. I am not informed in my department of the details she asked for, but I will ask my officials to follow up and respond to her later.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked about a Written Ministerial Statement made last week. The timing of the publication of the participation in government commercial activity guidelines for Ministers referred to in that Statement is not connected to this Bill. The guidance sets out how Ministers can be appropriately involved in commercial activity, including procurements, under the current procurement rules.
I was anticipating in a later group—indeed, there are some relevant amendments—a debate about Hikvision. I am grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, as well as for the opportunity to speak to him about this matter, which, as he said, has some security considerations. So far as the actuality of what might or could happen is concerned—that is a potential rather than a loaded spin on it—it is ultimately up to contracting authorities to apply the grounds for exclusion under this Bill on a contract-by-contract basis. The national security ground is discretionary, meaning that authorities can take into account a range of factors, including the nature of the contract being tendered. However, the debarment regime will allow for the central consideration of suppliers on the grounds of national security. As the noble Lord knows, the Government’s security group is working with the National Technical Authority and the Government Commercial Function on the government security aspects of this issue.
I appreciate the noble Lord’s impatience, given the sensitivities of the issue. Policy options are being worked out for how to mitigate the security risks posed by this type of equipment; they range from primary legislation to ban certain companies from the government supply chain to issuing more advice and guidance for contracting authorities. The Cabinet Office has also published guidance setting out the steps that all government departments must take to identify and mitigate modern slavery and labour abuse risks throughout the commercial lifecycle, focusing on the areas of highest risk. We may well return to this issue in debate on a later group, but I can assure the noble Lord that the matters he raised are ones that the Government are not minimising but currently considering.
I am grateful to the Minister. Without pre-empting our debate later in the Committee’s proceedings, is he in a position now to respond to the letter to the Cabinet Secretary from Professor Sampson, which I referred to in my remarks earlier? If not, could that correspondence be made available to your Lordships between now and Report?
Also, has the Minister had a chance to look at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s report, which called for a total prohibition of Hikvision, and the decision not just of the United States Administration but of the European Parliament to ban Hikvision from their public procurement policies? Given the national security implications, as he said—earlier, I referred specifically to the suggestion that HS2 might procure and use Hikvision cameras on the whole of its new network—does the noble Lord not agree that this is something on which we should shine more light rather more urgently?
Perish the thought that I might comment on the shelf life of HS2, but I do take what the noble Lord says very seriously. The fact is that some of the factors he mentions are taken into consideration. This issue is live. I accept his chiding. I will look carefully at his words and at what he has asked to be published or not published, but I hope that we may get a resolution of this matter, because I understand the demand, the request and the desire for a clear and public solution to the points put forward by the noble Lord. We will see what we can do, if not before the next group then certainly before we come back to this issue on Report.
Returning to the main amendments in the group, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made a very interesting intervention, which raised important issues. He asked about business cases, for example. There is nothing to prevent contracting authorities publishing their business cases and it could happen as a part of the tender document pack. We have said, as we have discussed, that we do not believe there is any express benefit to sharing information in every situation. Although the work would appear minimal, contracting authorities would have to seek to protect their own legitimate commercial interests and apply the transparency exemptions to the case, along with a public interest test. This is likely to involve input from the legal team and additional sign-off from senior staff. Once the burden of publication is balanced against the benefits of the transparency of the data, we submit there is no advantage to publication as a duty, given the other data that we are required to publish under the Bill. However, we will reflect on the points the noble Lord has made.
Amendment 445, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, with the support of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, amends Clause 84. I agree, again, with what he said about the importance of pipelines and their availability. I understand their importance, particularly in relation to small businesses in the voluntary sector, social enterprises and the various uses we have discussed in other groups. Certainly, this is something I have undertaken that we will reflect on, not only inside government but in engagement between now and the next stage. Pipelines are important and I brought in a request from the Northern Ireland Executive in terms of limiting pipelines, but that had to do with their particular desire to adjudicate. That is not, however, an indication that the Government are not interested: we think this is important. We view the amendment as unnecessary because we believe that contracting authorities may already go further—if they wish to—than the statutory minimum of £2 million the noble Lord referred to, as set out in this regime, and voluntarily publish procurement pipelines. Again, let us look at what he and others said. I listened carefully also to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare.
Amendment 448, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Fox, was the amendment on which Hikvision was mentioned. I am advised that in relation to the specific letter to the Cabinet Secretary, we cannot publish it at this stage but, repeating what I have said, we cannot comment on security arrangements on the government estate. As I said, these are matters under consideration.
My Lords, before the noble Lord continues, I hope he will go back to the original statement to reflect further on whether this information could be published. This was an open letter from Professor Sampson that was published—it appeared in the national newspapers that the letter had been sent to the Cabinet Secretary—and I would have thought that most of the issues raised in that letter are things to which Members of your Lordships’ House should certainly be privy.
My Lords, I have given further information. The noble Lord referred to a whole range of factors which he asked to be considered and asked me to respond to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report and so on. I said I would reflect on all he has said and come back, but I gather there has been some reflection on this aspect of his menu. We will no doubt maintain this dialogue.
The amendments we were talking about—Amendments 448, 449 and 449A—all relate to freedom of information and seek to bring external suppliers into the scope of the Act. In practice, the Government do not believe that the amendment would add much and could impose burdens on businesses that would make public contracts unattractive. The public authority will already hold all the details of the tendering process and the resulting contracts, and that information can already be requested under the FoI Act. The desire has been expressed in some quarters to reform the FoI Act, but we are looking at the proposals before us.
Furthermore, information held by a supplier or subcontractor on behalf of a contracting authority is already within scope of the Act. The amendments also introduce unhelpful limitations on the ability of contracting authorities to withhold commercially confidential information. This is a point of debate, but the FoI Act sets out the duties on public bodies when they receive requests for information under the Act. Restating the operation of that legislation is not necessary in this Bill. The Bill sets out in detail what information is required to be published and the triggers for publication, as well as requiring contracting authorities to explain why they are withholding any data.
Amendment 449A also seeks to extend the enforcement powers of the Information Commissioner to suppliers and subcontractors and open them up to criminal prosecution. The Information Commissioner already has enforcement powers in relation to public authorities and therefore in relation to the information held by others on their behalf. We believe that transparency is a sanction for authorities that fail to fulfil their obligations to publish as the failure will be obvious to the public. Failure to publish information required by the Act could be subject to judicial review, and there is also potential for a civil claim for breach of statutory duty pursuant to Clause 89 if the supplier can demonstrate that it suffered loss or damage arising from a breach of a publication obligation. Additionally, an appropriate authority has a power under Clauses 96 to 98 to investigate a contracting authority’s compliance with the Act, make recommendations and, if appropriate, provide statutory guidance to share lessons learned as a result of the investigation. Recommendations issued under Clause 97 come with a duty on the contracting authority to have regard to those recommendations when considering how to comply with the Act, and failure to do so would also leave the contracting authority open to judicial review.
Where a contracting authority is required to publish something that includes sensitive commercial information, it may withhold or redact that information only if there is an “overriding public interest” in doing so. Where the commercial confidentiality exemption is used to withhold or redact information, this must be publicly recorded. As such, there will be full transparency about what has been withheld and why, and interested parties can always challenge such decisions by requesting the withheld information under FoI law. This process is subject to the oversight of the Information Commissioner. Interested parties can also complain to the procurement review unit, which we discussed the other day.
Amendments 450 and 451 are from the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Fox. They are absent, and I send them best wishes for their respective aliments. Expertus dico: I have just had an aliment as noble Lords saw in the last Session, and I very much feel for all noble Lords. These amendments would make it harder for contracting authorities to withhold information in instances where there is sensitive commercial content. The overall result could be the inappropriate disclosure of sensitive information or fear of such disclosure, both of which are likely to have a chilling effect on suppliers bidding if they cannot be confident that their commercial secrets will be respected by contracting authorities. This could lead to a reduction in choice, quality and value.
Amendment 452, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Worthington and Lady Boycott, and Amendment 455, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock—which I think is intended to address the central digital platform, not the data on the supplier registration system—propose to introduce various requirements about the accessibility of published information and how it is licensed. The Government have already committed to a publicly available digital platform which will allow citizens to understand authorities’ procurement decisions. This data will be freely available. It will remain subject to data protection law and redaction under the exemptions set out in Clause 85.
However, not all information should be published on the central digital platform. For example, some associated tender documents produced under Clause 20 in certain procurement exercises may need to be circulated to only a limited group of suppliers, for instance, where that information is sensitive. As set out in the Green Paper, we will apply the open contracting data standard, and specify this in more detail in secondary legislation. Published data will be covered by open government licence where possible; personal data contained on the platform will be available without any licence.
Amendments 452A and 452B, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, would amend Clause 86 to ensure that regulations require publication on a single digital platform. These amendments are unnecessary as the Government have already committed to providing this platform.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has tabled Amendment 456, which imposes obligations on an appropriate authority in relation to standards and quality of data on the platform. Clause 86(1)(a) already makes specific provision for regulations to set out both the form and the content of information to be published under the various notices required by the Bill. This power is there to ensure that regulations can establish the very standards and formats that I believe the noble Lord is seeking.
On the noble Lord’s proposed new paragraph (b), a notice is usually a snapshot of a moment in time. Most notices should not be updated after the initial publication and it is the legal responsibility of the contracting authority publishing the information to ensure that it is timely, accurate and complete. The appropriate authority—a Minister of the Crown, a Welsh Minister or a Northern Ireland department—will not be in a position to verify all that information, which is why it is the responsibility of the contracting authority.
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting, but can the Minister therefore explain why these time limits are so regularly and hugely overridden? The research shows, as I mentioned, that the Cabinet Office itself has a delay of 2.7 months compared with its legal obligation of 30 days. How does the Minister explain that, and why is no further action needed in terms of compliance?
My Lords, if the Cabinet Office is sinning, I will take the matter away and look into it. I heard what the noble Lord said about time limits, but I do not have a specific response in this area at the moment, and nor can I either confirm or deny the figure he gave. We have undertaken to engage on these issues, and we will find the answers and will look very carefully at what the noble Lord said in his speech—or rather, his two speeches.
Amendment 458, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, relates to the creation of a digital registration system for suppliers. The register of suppliers described in the Green Paper remains a priority, and provision for this register is set out in Clause 88.
Amendment 459, tabled by the noble Baroness, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and others seeks to introduce a requirement for government departments to produce reports on carbon emissions relating to procured goods, services and works. I made the Government’s position clear previously that such matters should not be included in the Bill and that remains our position.
I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Clement-Jones, for their Amendment 459A. However, the Government are opposed to this amendment as well. It would create an obligation to have the central digital platform operational within six months of passing the Act. Just to be clear, Clause 86 creates the powers that the Government will use to require publication on the single digital platform. Clause 88 is the basis of the supplier registration system, which is the “tell us once” system through which suppliers will communicate information about themselves to contracting authorities.
I understand from his helpful explanatory statement that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, was referring to the former—the single digital platform. We do not wish to commit to such a timetable now, as it might not be necessary or possible to deliver the whole functionality of that platform to that timetable. As the noble Lord knows, there is already a six-month period of pre-implementation built in, but I hear what he says and I think there is broad agreement in the Committee that this development is desirable. I welcome the positive response from the Liberal Democrats and Her Majesty’s Opposition, having had discussions about it, and I will take away what they say.
Right. Unfortunately, the noble Lord will be disappointed by my response to the second part of the amendment, because I have already explained that contracting authorities will not be required to publish all information to the central platform.
I turn finally to Amendments 519A and 519B from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. The Bill exempts contracts for public passenger transport services under paragraph 17 of Schedule 2, as their award is regulated by Department for Transport legislation. We believe that it is more appropriate that the transparency provisions governing these arrangements are kept within their existing legal regime, and local authorities are therefore not placed under an unnecessary burden of trying to comply with two separate regimes simultaneously when placing such contracts. I have, however, asked my officials to engage with the Department for Transport to better understand how we can ensure that both regimes are aligned—I think that was one of the points behind the noble Lord’s remarks.
I thank the noble Lord for his generous remarks. Having been a bit flinty on a number of the others, I will none the less, as ever, study carefully Hansard and your Lordships’ very well-informed submissions. Against that background, I commend the government amendments in my name and respectfully request that other amendments in the group not be pressed.
Amendment 90 agreed.
91: Clause 16, page 11, line 36, after “conduct” insert “, or has conducted,”
Amendment 91 agreed.
Clause 16, as amended, agreed.
Clause 17 agreed.
Amendment 92 not moved.
Clause 18: Award of public contracts following a competitive procedure
Amendments 93 to 95
93: Clause 18, page 12, line 17, after “considers” insert—
“(a) satisfies the contracting authority’s requirements, and(b) ”
94: Clause 18, page 12, line 19, at beginning insert “if there is more than one criterion,”
95: Clause 18, page 12, line 20, leave out from “assessing” to “a” and insert “tenders for the purposes of this section”
Amendments 93 to 95 agreed.
96: Clause 18, page 12, line 22, leave out “must” and insert “may”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment probes why suppliers which do not satisfy conditions of participation must be excluded from a contract award under clause 18 though such suppliers are not required to be excluded from the tendering process under clause 21(6).
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 107 in this group. The large part of this group is government amendments, but my two small probing amendments have found their way into my noble friend’s rather large group.
Amendment 96 is another “may/must” amendment, which we always enjoy in this Committee. It probes the effect of not satisfying participation conditions on a tender. Clause 21 allows a contracting authority to set conditions of participation in specific areas. Subsection (6) permits but does not require the contracting authority to exclude a supplier which does not satisfy a participation condition from then participating in all or part of the tendering process.
If a contracting authority does not exclude a supplier from the tender process, one might think that such a tender could result in the award of a contract. If that were not the case, I can see no reasonable case for allowing such a tender into the process at all. However, subsection (3)(a) of Clause 18, which deals with contract award, states that
“a contracting authority … must disregard any tender from a supplier that does not satisfy the conditions of participation”.
Hence, we seem to have an Alice in Wonderland world where a supplier which has fallen foul of participation provisions can take part in the tender process, but only on the strict understanding that it cannot win the contract. That does not make any sense to me. My amendment would make the terms of Clause 18 permissive, so that a contract could be awarded. Another solution would be to make exclusion mandatory from the tender as well as from the contract award.
My second amendment in this group, Amendment 107, is a simple probing amendment to ascertain what is meant by Clause 19(3), which deals with competitive tendering procedures. Subsection (3) requires the procedure to be proportionate,
“having regard to the nature, complexity and cost of the contract”,
which seems at first sight entirely sensible and should stop contracting authorities using unnecessarily burdensome procedures. What subsection (3) does not say, however, is how this is to be assessed.
In a rare case of going beyond what is in the Bill, the Explanatory Notes say:
“Subsection (3) requires contracting authorities to ensure that the procedure is not designed in a manner that is unnecessarily complex or burdensome for suppliers”.
This is, in fact, from paragraph 141 of the Explanatory Notes, not paragraph 142 as I set out in my explanatory statement. The Explanatory Notes therefore firmly place the consideration of proportionality in the context of suppliers, but that has not found its way into the text of Clause 19, and that is what my Amendment 107 seeks to change.
In addition, even if subsection (3) could be read as being a supplier-centred proportionality requirement, it does not give any help as to whether the contracting authority has to consider suppliers generally, in an objective way, or whether they should take account of the particular characteristics of likely suppliers. I have in mind in particular that what proportionality might look like to a multi-million-pound contracting business is light years away from its impact on a small or medium-sized enterprise.
I hope my noble friend will agree to make the Bill clearer in this regard, or at least make a clear statement from the Dispatch Box as to how Clause 19(3) is intended to be interpreted. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 105 in the names of my noble friends Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Fox. I will come on to some of the points the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, made, but before I start, I apologise for not being here at the start of the Committee. As my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones said, I was on a train for four hours. Actually, you can hear my croakiness: I am the healthiest one on our Front Bench today, so I am here—
Well, the healthiest on the Procurement Bill and constitutional affairs Front-Bench team. I thank the Minister, I think, for passing on his cold of last week to me.
My noble friends’ Amendment 105 is also a probing amendment. Clause 19 uses the word “appropriate”, and this amendment is to see
“under what circumstances it may be considered ‘appropriate’ not to undergo an open tendering procedure.”
There are no criteria or guidelines about what may be appropriate. This is just a probing amendment to see if the Minister can explain why such a wide-ranging word as “appropriate” is in the clause. Who will decide whether it is appropriate, and what guidelines or criteria would the Government expect the authority to seek in determining whether the open tendering procedure should not go ahead?
With Amendment 96, yet again, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, raises some important points in Committee by changing just one word. I particularly point to what she described as the “Alice in Wonderland world”, in which you can be debarred from one part of tendering but not have been given a contract—or the other way round. The noble Baroness’s suggestion to include exclusion from the tendering process in the Bill makes eminent sense or we will be in the position in which people could, by law, tender but would be debarred from getting the contract, even if theirs was potentially the best tender around.
With those comments, I feel that, particularly on Amendment 105 in the name of my noble friends, some clear guidance from the Dispatch Box would be welcome.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for introducing her two amendments. As ever during Committee on this Bill, she has spotted where the nonsense lies and where problems could quite easily be resolved, if her wise words are listened and adhered to.
On her Amendment 96, I know my dear and noble friend Lord Coaker is very disappointed not to be having the must/may discussion with her today and that it has fallen to me, but it is an important point. Different terminology in different parts of the Bill impacts on what is expected. What does that mean? As the noble Baroness clearly demonstrated, if you follow that logically—all the way down the rabbit hole, to carry on the metaphor—it does not make sense any more. I think she has picked up something that could be sorted out straightforwardly and I would be interested to see whether the Minister agrees.
The noble Baroness’s second amendment, Amendment 107, on the lack of assessment and what is in the Explanatory Notes not being sufficient for what we need to know to feel secure about this clause, is again a simple amendment that makes a lot of sense. To me, it strengthens and provides clarity to the Bill. The noble Baroness made the critical point that these kinds of things have a different impact on multinationals from small businesses and, as we have said previously, charities and voluntary organisations. This is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, ably introduced the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. I hope the Liberal Democrat Front Bench manages to recover before we come back in September, but I thank the noble Lord for that. They are about terminology —what the words mean and what the impact of that terminology is on the Bill. As the noble Lord pointed out, there are no guidelines and criteria, and nothing specified about what “appropriate” means, nor on whose shoulders it falls to interpret what it means and whether that could be open to challenge. Again, they are small but important amendments and we support them.
There are a number of government amendments in this group. I have read through them and they seem straightforward, but I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s introduction.
My Lords, I seek to deal with amendments related to competitive procedures. I will start with the government amendments. Amendment 98 ensures that contracting authorities can choose not to assess tenders that do not comply with the procedure. This is different from improper behaviour in a procurement resulting in exclusion, which is addressed in Clause 30. As such, this amendment gives contracting authorities the discretion to exclude for procedural breaches that do not meet the higher threshold for improper behaviour and to ignore an insignificant breach, depending on the context. Government Amendments 99 and 103 are consequential to Amendment 98.
Turning to the Clause 19 amendments, Amendment 106 would replace
“a competitive tendering procedure other than an open procedure”
with “a competitive flexible procedure”, making it much easier to understand the two types of competitive tendering procedure. There are many consequential amendments to update this terminology, including Amendments 108, 109, 115, 132, 133, 155, 156, 157, 161, 188, 189, 192, 195, 199, 202, 213, 221 and 289.
Amendment 110 would delete an unnecessary phrase—
“the exclusion of suppliers by reference to”—
as it is already dealt with in a cross-reference. Amendment 122 would make the change from “competitive procedure” to “competitive tendering procedure”, as per Clause 18’s heading. Amendments 146, 190 and 261 reflect this.
I now turn to Clause 32. Amendments 193 and 194 would work together to clarify that, where a supplier does not qualify for the reserved contract, the contracting authority can exclude that supplier at any point in the procurement process. Amendments 196 and 197 are made simply to improve the drafting.
Similarly, in Clause 33, Amendments 200 and 201 would clarify that, where a supplier does not qualify for the reserved contract, the contracting authority can exclude that supplier at any point in the procurement process.
I apologise for interrupting, but I just want to ask a question in relation to Clause 32. It is about supported employment provision, which has been raised with me by Aspire Community Works, an award-winning community enterprise working to promote social mobility.
Its concern is that the current drafting of the Bill represents a significant reduction in the ability of commissioning authorities to reserve contracts for supported employment, first by restricting them only to competitive flexible procedures—rather than open procedures, as is currently the case—and, secondly, by limiting their use only to supported employment providers rather than enabling other bodies to carry out such work within a supported employment setting—again, as is the case at present.
At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord True, indicated that the Bill
“continues the existing ability to reserve certain contracts for public service mutuals and for supported employment providers.”—[Official Report, 25/5/22; col. 858.]
This seems inconsistent with the Bill’s inclusion of the two restrictions I have mentioned. Can the Minister tell us, probably not now but subsequently, whether this is an intentional limitation on the use of reserved contracts or simply an oversight in drafting which I hope she will want to correct in view of the Government’s desire to enhance the role of social enterprises and SMEs in the procurement process? I have probably chosen the wrong time to raise this, but the Minister had just mentioned the relevant clause.
It is certainly not the Government’s intention to exclude those groups of providers. In fact, we want to encourage them and make things easier and more transparent for them. I will take a look at Hansard and discuss the issues in Clause 32 with the team. We will make sure that, perhaps in those groupings throughout the summer period, we discuss these issues further; I will make a note to do that. It is absolutely our intention not to make this more difficult for those groups but to make it easier, so we will look at how we can do that if this clause makes things more difficult.
In Clause 33, Amendments 200 and 201 would clarify that, where a supplier does not qualify for the reserved contract, the contracting authority can exclude that supplier at any point in the procurement process. Amendments 203 and 204 to Clause 33 are simply to improve the drafting, as I said.
Amendment 206 would make it clear that suppliers will fail to be eligible for reserved contracts only where they have signed a “comparable contract”, as defined in subsection (7), within the previous three years, not just because such a contract was awarded to them. It ensures that there is no risk of a supplier being penalised where a contracting authority had decided to award a contract to a supplier but, for whatever reason, the contract did not progress.
I turn next to Clause 34. Amendment 209 clarifies that competitive flexible procedures can allow for the exclusion of a supplier from both participating and progressing in the procedure where the supplier is neither a member of a dynamic market, nor a part of a dynamic market—for example, a category of goods or services. The current provision refers only to “the exclusion of suppliers”, and this change clarifies that this means participation and progression in the procurement by, for example, progressing to the next stage of a multi-stage procurement. Amendments 214 and 215 are consequential to this amendment.
Amendment 262 in Clause 48 changes “virtue of” to “reference to” for ease of reading.
Amendment 341 removes the more general reference to “procurement” in Clause 56, to clarify that notification of exclusion is required in all competitive tendering procedures.
Finally, Amendments 427 and 428 are technical amendments to Clause 78: the first to ensure drafting consistency across the Bill and the second to reflect the fact that Northern Ireland and Wales have derogated from this provision and so do not require the threshold-altering powers in subsection (4).
I turn now to Amendment 96, tabled by my noble friend Lady Noakes, which questions why a supplier “must” satisfy the conditions of participation in Clause 18(3)(a) to be awarded the contract, while in Clause 21(6) contracting authorities only “may” exclude the supplier from participating or progressing in the competition. I reassure noble Lords that the two clauses work together: suppliers must satisfy the conditions of participation in order to be awarded the ensuing public contract, and that is what is addressed in Clauses 18(3)(a) and 21(2). Clause 21(6) gives the contracting authority the flexibility to decide when to assess the conditions of participation, and at what point to exclude suppliers that have not met them. Having “may” in Clause 21(6) allows the condition to be assessed during the procedure. For example, when it comes to insurance requirements, a company may not have the full cover initially, but it may have the chance to obtain it before that contract is awarded. I hope that this makes it slightly clearer; if not, I am sure that we can discuss it further throughout the summer months.
I now turn to non-government amendments. Amendment 105 to Clause 19 from the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Fox—both of whom I hope will be better very soon—proposes to remove the competitive flexible procedure. The practical reality of procurement is that the open procedure is simply not appropriate in all circumstances. The government procurement agreement contains three procedures: open, selective and limited or direct-award tendering. The open procedure is popular where the requirement is well-defined and straightforward; price is likely to be the key feature. There is no pre-qualification of suppliers, any interested party can submit a tender and they must all be assessed.
We want contracting authorities to use the new competitive flexible procedure, which we could not have had when we were in the EU, to design fit-for-purpose procurements that deliver the best outcomes. This may mean including phases such as a prototype development when seeking innovative solutions. Contracting authorities will use it to limit the field by applying conditions of participation to take forward only those suppliers with the financial and technical capability to deliver the contract. Clause 21(1) requires these to be proportionate so as not to disadvantage smaller suppliers.
The competitive flexible procedure also allows for negotiation and discussion of the requirements, which is particularly important to ensure not only that the best value is obtained but that requirements are clearly understood. The ability to negotiate is severely limited under the current EU-derived rules.
Clause 19(3) requires the contracting authority to ensure that any competitive tendering procedure is proportionate, having regard to the nature, cost and complexity of the contract. Amendment 107 from my noble friend Lady Noakes proposes to make these considerations from the perspective of the supplier. We believe that these assessments are better considered by contracting authorities in the round following pre-market engagement. Otherwise it would be possible for prospective suppliers to challenge and assert that a procedure is not appropriate.
To counterbalance the flexibility given to contracting authorities to design a competitive tendering procedure, we wanted to ensure that procedures do not become overly convoluted or burdensome for suppliers. We believe that Clause 19(3) achieves this, as it will force the contracting authority to consider what is proportionate, without suppliers dictating the specifics of the procedure. I understand that my noble friend Lady Noakes requires more clarity, and I am sure we can do that if that explanation did not provide it.
I want to come back to the Minister’s explanation about the word “appropriate” and it being wide. I understand that there may be reasons why a fully open procurement would not be wanted. Amendment 105 deals with what is appropriate. The Minister raised an issue relating to prototypes. Clause 18(3)(a) states:
“In assessing which tender best satisfies the award criteria, a contracting authority … must disregard any tender from a supplier that soes not satisfy the conditions of participation.”
If it cannot do the prototype, it would be debarred. I think further clarification is required about the Government’s view about an appropriate situation in which a fully open tendering procedure would not be required.
It is obvious that the noble Lord, and probably all noble Lords, need more clarity about this. I do not have any further clarity at the moment, but we will make sure we provide that because it is obviously an issue of concern.
I have just been handed a note to avoid a Hansard correction. To correct something I said about the consistency of Clause 21, I need to refer to Clauses 18(3)(a) and 21(2), which both make clear that conditions of participation must be satisfied. I believe I said Clause 22(2) rather than Clause 21(2). I clarify that we were talking about Clause 21(2), not Clause 22(2).
The competitive flexible procedure also allows for negotiation and discussion of the requirements, which is particularly important not only to ensure that the best value is obtained but that the requirements are clearly understood. The ability to negotiate is severely limited under the current rules—I think I have got past that, but we will keep going.
Clause 19(3) requires the contracting authority to ensure that any competitive tendering procedure is proportionate, having regard to the nature, cost and complexity of the contract. Amendment 107 from my noble friend Lady Noakes proposes to make these considerations from the perspective of the supplier—we have been through all this, and we have agreed that clarity is what my noble friend Lady Noakes requires. Sorry, I went back in my speech. I was looking back because the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, had asked me to go back. I will now go forward.
The tender notice will detail the procedure to be followed. If suppliers do not want to engage, the market response will be clear and contracting authorities will know that they need to revisit the procedure.
I respectfully request that these amendments be withdrawn, and I beg to move the government amendments. I apologise; I think I am still on beach head and not on Grand Committee head.
My Lords, I do not think my noble friend the Minister can move her amendments yet; she will move them when they are reached in their proper place on the Marshalled List. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and particularly for the support for my amendments in this group, for which I am grateful.
So far as Amendment 96 is concerned, I was grateful for my noble friend’s explanation, which seemed to make sense. I am content with that. I have no idea what the clarification she was reading into Hansard was about, but I do not suppose it really matters.
Where Amendment 107 is concerned, I am rather less satisfied. I think I agree with my noble friend that clarity is required. My amendment was tabled because the Explanatory Notes went further than the Bill and said that it should be from the suppliers’ perspective. But I think I heard my noble friend say that we do not want contractors challenging the procedures; well, actually, yes, we do, if they are burdensome. If we are trying to set out that the aim is, as correctly stated in the Explanatory Notes, to make sure that these are not burdensome for suppliers, we should facilitate challenge of contracting authorities and not just assume that contracting authorities have a monopoly on wisdom on what is proportionate in this regard. I am not happy with that response today, but we are agreed on clarity, so perhaps we can achieve a route to clarity between now and Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 96 withdrawn.
Amendment 97 not moved.
Amendments 98 and 99
98: Clause 18, page 12, line 29, leave out “must” and insert “may”
99: Clause 18, page 12, line 29, leave out “materially”
Amendments 98 and 99 agreed.
Amendment 100 not moved.
101: Clause 18, page 12, line 31, at end insert—
“(3A) In the case of a defence and security contract, unless it would leave no tenders that satisfy all other award criteria, a contracting authority must disregard any tender from a supplier that—(a) is not a United Kingdom supplier or treaty state supplier, or(b) intends to sub-contract the performance of all or part of the contract to a supplier that is not a United Kingdom supplier or treaty state supplier.”
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, to her place and I thank her for carrying on the tradition in this Committee of briefing me on some of the points that I may raise in the way that other Ministers in this Committee have done.
For the benefit of the Committee, I start by saying that nothing I am going to say—which in some respects will be quite critical of the Government’s equipment programme—in any way suggests that any Member of this Committee, or anybody making these decisions, is not absolutely concerned with the proper defence of our country. I just wanted to make that clear. I think it is really important to state that we may have a difference of opinion and we may disagree about some of the equipment programmes and some of the decisions that have been made, but I would never question the commitment of any Member of this Committee or any Minister of this Government to defend our country and do their best for the security of our nation—particularly in the current circumstances. I think it is important to start with that, and I am sure that will be met with agreement by all Members of the Committee.
I wish to move my own Amendment 101—I am grateful for my noble friend Lord Hunt’s support for that—and Amendment 485, where, again, I am grateful for the support of my noble friend but also for that of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I will deal quickly with Amendment 101, which I think can be summed up by saying that it is just trying to encourage the Government to look at how we might use more of our defence procurement spending to support British industry and British suppliers. That is the extent of it.
I am sure the Minister will say that the Ministry of Defence does everything it can, that it works according to various international agreements, that it is not always possible to source certain contracts within the UK, et cetera, but many of us looking at contracts wonder why it appears so difficult for us to support British industry, when many countries do not seem to face the same difficulties. Given the freedoms we are now supposed to have, one would perhaps expect that to be easier than it was before.
I will give just one example to make this point. In 2018, the Government announced a £1.5 billion programme for fleet support ships to be built. They said they were going to build them in British yards but, as far as I am aware, not a single screw or bolt has been fastened. It is that sort of thing. When is that going to happen? When are the fleet support ships going to be built in British yards, as they were supposed to be? The Government said they were looking at a high proportion of this being done in the UK, but what does that mean? Some clarity would be helpful for the Committee and for those who read these deliberations on whether it is the Government’s intention to increase the amount of procurement that takes place in UK industry, so we can use our procurement to support that.
Before I move on to Amendment 485, this goes to the heart of what I am saying. Before us is a procurement Bill. It is an important government Bill that seeks to make a difference and use the hundreds of billions of pounds that are spent to deliver certain objectives for the Government. Why will this Bill, as it is drafted, make a difference to the defence equipment budget and programme? We could sit down now. How will this make a practical difference? What is in here? Some of this needs to be put on the record, so I am going to quote the Public Accounts Committee of the other place. It was not clear from the Government’s letter in response to that committee’s report, which said that the Procurement Bill was going to make a great difference, how it is going to do that. That is what I think is really important.
Noble Lords will recognise that Amendment 485 is a proposed new clause to be inserted after Clause 98, so it does not relate specifically to the defence clauses, as such. It relates to Clauses 96, 97 and 98. In other words, the Bill itself allows for procurement investigations, and the recommendations and guidance that follow them. My Amendment 485, supported by my noble friend Lord Hunt and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, goes after that clause because it seeks to insert an audit of the equipment plans, and therefore investigate them and make recommendations. That is the whole point of doing the annual audit.
Why is this so important? I am not going to read all sorts of things, but I will use one or two examples, because this is really serious. The Public Accounts Committee of the other place, in October 2021, produced the report Improving the Performance of Major Defence Equipment Contracts. It said:
“There have been numerous reviews of defence procurement”—
this is why I am saying we all have an interest in this—
“over the past 35 years”.
I am making a defence-equipment point, not a party-political point. The reviews have
“provided the Department with opportunities to take stock and learn from experience. We are therefore extremely disappointed and frustrated by the continued poor track record of the Department and its suppliers—including significant net delays of 21 years across the programmes most recently examined by the National Audit Office—and by wastage of taxpayers’ money running into the billions.”
If you go through this report, you see that it logs detail after detail of problems that the committee believes the Government need to urgently address. The Government’s response is that they are dealing with this, but I think the Committee would want to know how. What are they doing on all of those points?
Using the work of the Defence Select Committee again, it talks about problems in aviation and an inquiry it has just launched. We read in the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend about procurement problems with the type of aircraft purchased for aircraft carriers and whether the F-35B will actually be suitable. It will be suitable in terms of being launched off the aircraft carrier, but will all that have to be changed and will there be another procurement difficulty with that?
The report on the Army’s armoured vehicle capability published a few months ago says:
“This report reveals a woeful story of bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude, which have … bedevilled attempts to properly re-equip the British Army”.
I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was at a committee meeting in your Lordships’ House last week where this was discussed in the context of the Ajax contract. The Public Accounts Committee published a report on 3 June 2022 which pointed to a £5.5 billion contract with General Dynamics, with an initial order for 589 Ajax armoured fighting vehicles that were supposed to be in service in 2017. But by December 2021, at a cost of £3.2 billion, the department had received 26 vehicles, none of which can be used. Maybe now the Government will have to scrap that and move to a Warrior replacement.
So, all these different things are going on, and, again, the Government say that they have sorted these issues. However, I had a quick look and found The Treatment of Contracted Staff for the MoD’s Ancillary Services, another recent report by the Defence Committee from May of this year, which said:
“Outsourcing ancillary services has become commonplace in the Ministry of Defence … If an activity is not a core part of the MoD it is liable to be outsourced. For example, catering, vehicle maintenance and firefighting are liable to be outsourced. However, despite the billions of pounds spent on outsourcing, this is a relatively unscrutinised area. The MoD’s outsourcing practice is not exemplary. Outsourcing appears to be the default position, with little consideration given to providing services in-house. Contractors drop standards and squeeze employees to raise their profit margin, but the MoD is not always willing to step in and enforce the expected standards. It is an absurd state of affairs that the MoD is not allowed to look at a contractor’s previous performance when assessing their bid—a state of affairs that needs to be rectified immediately.”
Yet when we have asked Ministers about excluded contracts, excluded suppliers and what is going to be looked at, we have been reassured that the Procurement Bill will mean that a contractor’s previous performance will be looked at, and that if its bid is not up to scratch or not what you would expect, that supplier can be excluded. However, we read in a May 2022 report from the Defence Select Committee that the MoD is not allowed to look at a contractor’s previous performance when assessing its bid. So, is the Defence Select Committee wrong, or is the Bill wrong? It would be useful for us to hear from the Minister whether the MoD is allowed to look at a contractor’s previous performance, and whether it has or has not.
I have been speaking for a few minutes and I do not want to speak for any longer than that. I have tried to use contracts run by the Ministry of Defence to give some examples of appalling contract management. I have seen the response that the Government sent back to the committee, which says, “We’re dealing with all of these. We don’t agree with the committee; essentially, it is wrong on some aspects of this, but we agree with it on others. We are doing all sorts to tackle this”.
The fundamental point is that we all want defence equipment programmes to be successful. We all want our country defended properly. I know that that is what the Government want—this is not a deliberate attempt not to do so—but why is it that continued reviews and resets still reach a position where this is happening? The fundamental point goes back to where I started: why will this Procurement Bill, which includes Clause 6, headed “Defence and security contracts”, and Clause 105, headed “Single source defence contracts” and goes to Schedule 10—it reforms various aspects of this procurement programme—work this time? Why will it be different this time? Why will this Procurement Bill mean that, in five, 10 or 15 years’ time, instead of a report that goes on about improving the performance of major defence equipment contracts, we have a report that asks how the MoD did it and reformed its contracts to ensure not only that there was value for money but that we got the equipment we needed to defend our country?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has made a telling and persuasive case. I hope it will convince the Committee to support the tenor of Amendment 485 in particular; I added my name to it on Friday last. I strongly agree with what the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, are arguing for in that amendment, specifically on the role of the National Audit Office; it is long overdue.
I want to develop the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, a little further for the Committee. Here are some headline points: £4.8 billion has been wasted on cancelled contracts since 2010. Some £5.6 billion has been overspent on MoD projects since 2010, and £71 million spent on unplanned life extensions. Some £2.6 billion has been wasted on write-offs: there are 20 cases of wastage by write-off in the report that was referred to, contributing to some £2.6 billion—or 20% of total wastage—since 2010. Some £64 million has been wasted on admin errors, including £32.6 million in HM Treasury fines almost uniquely imposed on the Ministry of Defence for poor accountancy practices.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred to the ongoing International Relations and Defence Select Committee inquiry into future defence policies, not least on procurement; indeed, I mentioned at Second Reading on this Bill. Last week, we heard from Professor John Louth, who was the director of RUSI’s defence, industries and society research programme from 2011 to 2019. Today, he is a private sector consultant. He shared several important insights into the peculiarities and particularities of defence procurement, not least the need to work with significant uncertainty, because of the speed with which technology moves, and how to strike a reasonable balance between insisting on value for money and having appropriate flexibility. The committee also explored associated issues, such as whether there is an optimal balance between indigenous development and off-the-shelf purchases in defence procurement; what considerations would have to be made; how the Government would intervene to prioritise them; how much of our defence capability needs to be supplied by the state itself, and what can and should be sourced from private suppliers; and who the legitimate partners are in the UK’s defence enterprise—manifestly not companies owned or controlled by countries such as Russia or China.
It was clear that there were other factors which distort procurement in the case of defence contracts. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, enjoys the sympathy and understanding of this Committee that it is not an easy world in which to operate. Professor Louth suggested to our Select Committee last week that there had been some successes, mainly around innovation. However, when asked about this Bill, specifically the measures before us now, he said:
“I tried to read as much into the Bill as possible. But it proved hard to identify the end state which the Government was looking for”—
the very point the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, just made. Professor Louth continued:
“Seeing the approach as an attempt to streamline is sensible but we need an Act that identifies the sharing of risk. There are lines and lines of rhetoric; lines and lines of legal reform—some of it incomprehensible even for those of us who are academics.”
He saw the Bill and its provisions as a missed opportunity, saying that
“quite often the private sector does things best and mixing it directly with what the state does would help enormously.”
He pointed to a high degree of private wealth that is funding our defence research and emerging capabilities but said we would get more value for money if a combined commitment was identifiable.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred to Ajax. During last week’s Select Committee proceedings, I asked Professor Louth about this, to which he replied,
“Ajax has been a disaster.”
As we heard from the noble Lord, in June the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee warned about the delays to Ajax, a programme which has already been running for 12 years, a point picked up in this admirable amendment about projects that overrun and the costs to the public purse. It said, and I am sure we all agree, that this risks national security and compromises the position of our defences.
Ajax was intended to produce a state-of-the-art reconnaissance vehicle for the Army. It has cost a staggering £3.2 billion to date and yet it has failed so far to deliver a single deployable vehicle—not one. The vehicles were supposed to enter service in 2017, but Ajax has been subject to what the Commons committee describes as “a litany of failures.” The failures included noise and vibration problems that injured soldiers who were testing the vehicles. As the MoD has been unable to say, even now, when Ajax will enter service, perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us whether she has any further information on that, whether the safety issues have been resolved and if it is likely that they will ever be resolved.
Last week, I reminded our Select Committee that the Public Accounts Committee says the programme has been “flawed from the outset”, but also said it was illustrative of a deeper failing, commenting that the MoD had
“once again made fundamental mistakes”
in the planning and management of a major defence programme. Pulling no punches, it accused the Ministry of Defence of “failing to deliver” vehicles which the Armed Forces need to
“better protect the nation and meet … NATO commitments.”
In the current situation, with one eye eastwards on Ukraine, this is a very serious statement by a senior committee of this Parliament.
Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, spelled it out in these terms:
“Enough is enough—the MoD must fix or fail this programme, before more risk to our national security and more billions of taxpayers’ money wasted. These repeated failures … are putting strain on older capabilities which are overdue for replacement and are directly threatening the safety of our service people and their ability to protect the nation and meet NATO commitments.”
Some 324 hulls for Ajax-family vehicles have been built, along with 74 turrets, and 26 vehicles have been handed over to the Army for training purposes. The PAC report points to “operational compromises” which the Army has been forced to make, which include the prolonging of the use of ageing Warrior armoured vehicles which came into service back in 1987 and are expensive to maintain.
In total, the contract with General Dynamics is worth £5.5 billion, and the PAC says that it doubts whether the programme can be delivered within existing arrangements. We have a duty to make a forensic examination of what Professor Louth told us in the International Relations and Defence Committee last week has been a “disaster” and what lessons might be applied via this Bill, especially lessons about poor project management and inadequate contract performance, soaring costs and lengthy delays even before contacts were signed.
As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the same issues have been raised again and again in various attempts to reform procurement. This has all been at great cost to the public purse and, as I have argued, at a risk to our national security. This Bill should be much clearer about how it intends to put flesh on the bones of a strategic relationship with industry, focusing on delivery within the budget and on time. What a pity it is that this Bill is not in draft before both Houses, being examined by parliamentarians during pre-legislative scrutiny, rather than being placed in the context of the many other diverse issues that we have been considering.
In conclusion, Ajax was a heroic figure from Homer’s Iliad. Apart from Agamemnon, he was the only principal character who received no substantial assistance from any of the gods—perhaps they will come to the aid of the Minister today. She can at least be heartened that Poseidon struck Ajax with his staff, renewed his strength and joined in Ajax’s prayer to Zeus to remove the fog of battle to see more clearly the light of day. I have no doubt that the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, will do precisely that. I hope we will lift the fog and support these amendments.
My Lords, I support Amendment 485. I will also speak to Amendment 101, which was not signed by noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, although there is clearly some interest in the issue of whether we use British suppliers for defence. There were some reservations from the trade team, the international team and the business team about whether we should be focusing solely on looking at British suppliers for defence contracts.
One particular question I would like the Minister to consider, which may be something on which the Labour Front Bench also has view, links to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about whether it is more appropriate to have bespoke defence contracts or whether sometimes it is better to have off-the-shelf procurement. In that context, I would very much like to hear the Minister’s response to Amendment 101.
The reason for not signing this amendment was not that we do not support British industry; clearly there are a huge number of opportunities in particular where we might be looking for small and medium-sized enterprises to be very closely involved in the delivery of defence contracts. Most of the high-level contracts we have talking about—the catastrophe of Ajax, the major extensions, the cost and time overruns and the failures of defence procurement—are about the high-level programmes, but there will be many subcontracts within them. Trying to support our small and medium-sized enterprises is clearly desirable. If there is a way of doing that, alongside ensuring best value for money, there could be some interest in this amendment. However, it needs a lot more exploration and perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, it would have been better having pre-legislative scrutiny to explore how we look at procurement.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, stole many of my lines, including many of the notes I made during, and the points I raised at, Second Reading, to which the Minister did not have the opportunity to reply, because her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord True, was responding instead. In line with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I am very much looking forward to hearing a series of answers from the Minister which will enable us to understand in what way this Bill is intended to help defence procurement. In many ways, the idea of having a single Bill that deals with all types of procurement is superficially very attractive, yet, as the Grand Committee has already heard, it is not clear in any way, shape or form how this Bill is going to improve defence procurement.
As we have heard, over the past 35 years—in other words, the whole of my adult life—these defence procurement problems have been going on. That is not adequate. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to improve defence procurement in a way that is accountable? One area in which we are lacking is accountability. One of the conclusions of the Public Accounts Committee’s report of October last year was:
“We are deeply concerned about departmental witnesses’ inability or unwillingness to answer basic questions and give a frank assessment of the state of its major programmes.”
Like other Members of your Lordships’ House, I have great respect for the Minister. I hope that it will not put her in an invidious position if I ask her whether she is able to give some frank responses to the questions that have been raised by the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Coaker, because they are crucial. We need defence procurement that is fit for purpose. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, we are united in our commitment to the Armed Forces and the importance of defence procurement, but it is absolutely wrong for the country, for the taxpayer and for the security of our nation if those defence procurement contracts are not running on time and delivering what we need.
Amendment 485 appears to raise many of the questions that your Lordships’ House and the other place have raised time and again. It seeks to ensure that the travesties which we have seen in defence procurement over decades can be rectified. I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept the amendment. I hope too that she will be able to respond to some of the concerns.
Finally, on the outsourcing of ancillary services, I think this is one area which is hugely important for the morale of our service personnel. If we outsource delivery of catering, if we outsource accommodation and particularly its maintenance, they are exactly the sorts of things that affect the lives of service personnel on a day-to-day basis. Beyond that, it is not the service man or woman; it is their families. Very often, somebody —a spouse, very often a wife—is waiting in for the maintenance that has been outsourced. It is not adequate. It needs to be dealt with. Can the Minister give us some hope that this Bill will deal with the problems? If not, we will require other mechanisms to do so.
I am endeavouring, my Lords, not to tip my water down the back of my noble friend’s neck, although he might welcome that refreshment.
First, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I am in no doubt about the genuine interest which your Lordships have in defence. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, articulately expressed that, and I respect that. I thank him for the way in which he expressed his sentiments. I know that he speaks for the other contributors to the debate.
I shall try to address the principal points which have come up, so I want in the first instance to address Amendments 101 and 485 and then proceed to speak to the government amendments in the group, Amendments 520 to 526 inclusive. As I have said, I shall endeavour to address the issues which have been raised.
I turn to Amendments 101 and 485, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and, in relation to Amendment 485, also by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham. They relate specifically to defence and security contracts and Ministry of Defence procurement.
Amendment 101 would require a contracting authority to disregard any tender from a supplier which is not a supplier from the United Kingdom or a treaty state or which intends to subcontract the performance of all or part of a contract to such a supplier unless there is no other tender that satisfies all the award criteria. I understand the sentiment behind the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, which is laudable, but I will explain why I think this amendment is neither necessary nor indeed desirable.
The Bill already provides a discretion for the contracting authority to exclude from procurements suppliers that are not treaty state suppliers and extends this to the subcontracting of all or part of the performance of the contract to such suppliers. This includes defence and security procurements. It is important to note that, for the majority of defence and security procurement, market access is guaranteed only to suppliers from the United Kingdom, Crown dependencies and British Overseas Territories. For those procurements, a supplier established in another country would not be a “treaty state supplier”.
However, due to the nature of defence procurement and the defence market, a discretion to go outside of UK suppliers or treaty state suppliers is required where doing so would best meet the requirement that the contract is to serve—there may be an immediacy about that—and would offer best value for money. Further, to exclude non-treaty state subcontractors would probably make some defence and security procurement much less effective and, in some cases inoperable, as it would exclude, for example, suppliers from the United States, Australia, France, Sweden or Canada from the supply chain.
I assure noble Lords that industrial consequences and commercial strategies will be given case-by-case consideration—that is already how we conduct business—taking into account various factors, including the markets concerned, the technology we are seeking, our national security requirements and the opportunities to work with international partners, before we decide the correct approach to through-life acquisition of any given capability. Where, for national security reasons, we need industrial capability to be provided onshore or where we need to exclude a particular supplier on national security grounds, we will not hesitate to make that a requirement.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, raised the specific matter of fleet solid support ships. He will be aware that in the refreshed National Shipbuilding Strategy there is specific reference to the fleet solid support ships. The procurement is in train; the first ship is scheduled to enter into service in 2028 and the last in 2032. I hope that reassures the noble Lord that the matter is under active consideration.
I turn now to Amendment 485. In a sense, this amendment was preceded by a general observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. In essence it was: what difference does this make? That is a fair question and one that deserves an answer. I would say that the Bill provides greater flexibility to the MoD and includes the use of a single system to encourage participation by small and medium-sized enterprises. That is an area not just of significance to the economy but of particular significance to such smaller entrepreneurial organisations. They have sometimes felt out in the cold when major contracts were being awarded by the MoD, principally because, traditionally, the structure was to have a very large primary contractor, with the primary contractor subcontracting various aspects. This is designed to encourage greater participation by small and medium-sized enterprises, which I think is to be applauded.
MoD derogations, and the Bill itself, provide more flexibility to deliver the defence industrial strategy—I will not rehearse that; your Lordships are familiar with it, but I think it is a very positive strategy and one which I think received support from across the Chamber. That strategy replaces the previous defence procurement policy of defaulting to international competition. I know that was of concern to many of your Lordships and, as I say, the strategy has altered that, and I think that is important reassurance on where we are in defence and the greater flexibility we now have. That is why I said earlier that industrial consequences and commercial strategies will be given much more case-by-case consideration, taking into account the various factors which I previously mentioned.
Amendment 485 would require the Ministry of Defence to commission a report from the National Audit Office setting out instances of procurement overspend, withdrawal or scrapping of assets, termination of pre-paid services, cancellation or extensions of contracts, or administrative errors with negative financial impacts. I would suggest the amendment is unnecessary, as what it seeks to achieve is already being delivered through existing processes or initiatives; let me explain what these are.
The National Audit Office already conducts regular audits across defence, which we know to our discomfort because the National Audit Office is an independent entity in that it does not spare its comments when it comes to the MoD, and that is right—that is exactly what it is there to do. In these audits, it regularly includes recommendations for improvement to which we pay very close attention. These include value-for-money studies, such as the yearly audit on the defence equipment plan, regular audits on defence programmes such as Ajax—which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned—and carrier strike, as well as financial audits. As I say, MoD pays close attention to what the NAO says.
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority also publishes an annual report. That tracks progress of projects currently in the Government Major Projects Portfolio and it provides an analysis of how they are performing. The MoD has successfully introduced several initiatives following on from such recommendations to improve capability and deliver and obtain better value for money, including the defence and security industrial strategy, the defence and security 2025 strategy and the introduction of the Single Source Contracts Regulations 2014.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness. On the question of the National Audit Office, I was wondering whether the Minister could tell us whether there had been any formal discussions between her department and the NAO about whether something more formalised—as anticipated in the amendment before your Lordships—would be beneficial. If not, might she consider having such a discussion before we return to this issue on Report?
What I think is important is that we accord the National Audit Office the absolutely critical character of independence, which is necessary for it to do the job it does. I think that part of that independence is that it is quite separate from government departments, and, with the greatest respect, I think that is what the MoD should not be doing. The National Audit Office should be saying, “If we think you’ve got dirt lying under the carpet, we’re going to rip the carpet up and have a look at the dirt”, and I think that is the freedom we expect the National Audit Office to have and that is the freedom it has got. As I say, everyone, I think, will understand that the Ministry of Defence knows well the feeling of being on the receiving end of a National Audit Office report which makes uncomfortable reading.
My Lords, the Minister has spoken about the legislation giving the MoD greater flexibility, but following up from her response to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to what extent does it enhance accountability, which is at the crux of what we have all been asking about?
As the noble Baroness will be aware, the National Audit Office reports not to the MoD; it reports to Parliament. It is a very powerful line of accountability that introduces the legitimacy in any democratic society for elected parliamentarians—or Members of this House—to ask on the basis of a report what the department has been doing. It has never inhibited Members of the other place or Members of this House from doing just that, as your Lordships are very well aware.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Coaker, raised particularly the very legitimate question of what we are doing within the MoD to try to improve our procurement performance. I think your Lordships will understand that, probably more than any other department, the Ministry of Defence carries out massive procurement contracts. Then again, that is a very justifiable reason for asking us to demonstrate that we are doing that effectively and efficiently, being fair to the taxpayer and to our industry partners.
We recognise the challenges facing defence acquisition and are working hard to address them. We are setting new projects and programmes up for success by promoting a one-team approach that brings the right experts and stakeholders together at the start of a programme. We are also supporting our senior responsible owners. The senior responsible owner in any contract is a vital presence. One of the identified weaknesses that I think came to light in relation to the Ajax contract was that the senior responsible owner was constantly changing and there was therefore a lack of continuity of knowledge, experience and awareness. That has been recognised as a weakness and therefore very close attention is now being paid to ensure that these senior responsible owners are there for the long term and that they have project professionals with new tools to better understand and manage risk and complexity, and to enable early consideration of strategic factors.
If your Lordships think that is just a lot of comforting rhetoric, I say that I have seen at first hand how this technology is working. The effect is quite spectacular. It means that, at any time, the critical senior managers of a contract in the MoD can ascertain in detail where it has got to and whether there are any areas of concern. That has been a major improvement. I will not deny that the Ajax contract has been a very difficult experience for the MoD, but we have learned a lot from it and are certainly applying those lessons. We are streamlining our processes and focusing expertise on areas of high risk and complexity—as the Committee will understand, this is a regular and recurring characteristic of defence contracts—so that we support robust, evidence-based investment decisions.
Noble Lords asked whether we were satisfied that relevant and appropriate checks are already in place. I have tried at some length to explain the procedures. We are satisfied. We are certainly anxious that placing a legal obligation for such an extensive and wide range of audits would have a detrimental effect on defence in the protection of our national security and might result in a reduction in risk-taking, which is key to driving forward innovation. We are anxious that this arrangement could cause an additional burden on defence resources.
Specifically on Ajax, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, covered, we acknowledge the challenges, as I have already indicated, and are taking steps to put it back on a sound footing. The noble Lord will be aware that the MoD health and safety directorate carried out a very extensive investigation under the director-general of that department, David King. He produced a very useful and instructive report which has informed MoD thinking in relation not just to the Ajax contract but to how we address other contracts. It was a very analytical, forensic report. We are taking all necessary steps to secure our contractual and commercial rights under the Ajax contract with General Dynamics to deliver a value for money outcome. I am unable to say much more than that, but the recommendations contained in the report to which I referred have been given close attention. I can certainly make an inquiry and write to the noble Lord with a more up to date position.
I suggest that, with what I have been describing as already happening within the department, these initiatives are designed to create more realistically costed, affordable and agile acquisition plans, improving strategic relationships within the defence and security industries and improving tools and processes. The single-source contracts regulations, with which your Lordships are familiar, are there to help ensure value for money in non-competitive contracts.
As I said earlier in relation to this amendment, the NAO is set up under statute to be independent of the Executive, having complete discretion to decide which examinations to perform and how they are conducted, and the NAO is already able to report directly to Parliament. While I understand the intention behind the amendment, it conflicts with these principles on how and what to investigate, and I humbly submit that that should be left to the NAO to determine under its existing statutory powers. I hope that I have provided reassurance to noble Lords that steps have been and are being taken to address issues in defence procurement and I respectfully suggest that the amendment is withdrawn.
Will the Minister address the point about the treatment of contracted staff for the MoD’s ancillary services? I will just remind her that the Defence Select Committee report published recently says in its summary:
“It is an absurd state of affairs that the MoD is not allowed to look at a contractor’s previous performance when assessing their bid—a state of affairs that needs to be rectified immediately.”
Will the Procurement Bill rectify what the Defence Select Committee says is an appalling state of affairs that the supplier’s previous performance cannot be looked at?
My understanding is that the Government’s response has been framed to that report and is currently under review. I have no more up to date information, but I will write to the noble Lord. The department is under an obligation to respond to that proposal.
The Government cannot answer the point about whether the Procurement Bill will allow the MoD to look at a contractor’s previous performance when assessing its bid—a state of affairs that needs to be rectified immediately. Every time we have talked about what is an excluded supplier or an excludable supplier, we have been told that previous performance is one of the criteria that can be looked at, yet from what the Defence Select Committee said, and the Minister just said, is that it is not clear whether the MoD can do that.
Well, yes, within the law the MoD can, and this Bill provides more flexibility for past performance to be taken into account. However, there are legal constraints which govern how any party entering into a contract can responsibly consider previous conduct. The Bill allows the MoD to exclude a supplier, and there are various grounds in the Bill to clarify when the MoD can make such a decision. Our view is that there is the necessary flexibility within the Bill. The Government will be looking at the observations of the Committee.
It would be really helpful if the Minister, as she suggested, wrote to me and copied it to noble Lords in the Committee, because she said it was not allowed and then she said it was allowed, but the Defence Select Committee report, which was published just a few weeks ago, said the MoD was not allowed to look at a contractor’s previous performance when assessing its bid. So either the Defence Select Committee is wrong, or the MoD has changed the regulations or the Bill changes the regulations. All I am trying to seek is what the situation actually is.
What I said to the noble Lord was that, as happens with any committee report, the department is preparing a response to the committee, and that is currently being done. I do not want to pre-empt that, but, when the response has been submitted to the committee, it will for the committee to determine whether it wants to make that response public.
On the issue that is perplexing the noble Lord and causing him anxiety, we believe that the Bill as drafted gives the MoD the power to exclude suppliers if we have reservations.
My Lords, when the noble Baroness is writing to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, could she undertake to clarify which point of this Bill deals with the issue, so that Members can look and assess whether we believe it is adequate, or whether a further set of amendments might need to be brought forward on Report?
There is a part of the Bill that allows the Secretary of State to exclude a supplier; that is a specific provision in the Bill. Where defence and security contracts are concerned, I think these are powerful provisions. I am very happy to take the advice of my officials and see if I can clarify the position further for your Lordships’ Committee.
Moving on, government Amendments 520 to 526, to which I referred earlier, are what I would describe roughly as Schedule 10 amendments. Schedule 10 amends the Defence Reform Act 2014 principally to enable reforms to the Single Source Contract Regulations 2014. The regulations are working well to deliver their objectives of ensuring value for money for the taxpayer and a fair price for industry. That is the balance against which we always have to work. Delivering the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy and building on experience since 2014 means that some reforms are needed. This will ensure that the regulations continue to deliver in traditional defence contracts and can be applied across the breadth of single-source defence work in the future, providing value for money for the taxpayer while ensuring that the UK defence sector remains an attractive place in which to invest.
We are making two government amendments to Schedule 10 which will clarify the wording and deliver the full policy intent. The first relates to paragraphs 3(2) and 3(8) of Schedule 10, where we are increasing the flexibility of the regime by taking a power to enable contracts to be considered in distinct components—this is an important development—allowing different profit rates to be applied to different parts of a contract where that makes sense. Secondly, we are simplifying the contract negotiation process by an amendment to paragraph 8(3)(a) of Schedule 10, which ensures that the contract better reflects the financial risks involved, and in paragraph 8(3)(c) of Schedule 10, taking a power that will clarify how the incentive adjustments should be applied. We are clarifying the wording currently in paragraph 8(3)(c), which will become paragraph 8(3)(ea)—I am sorry that is a little complicated; it is just to achieve accuracy of reference—by government amendment in Committee to ensure that the schedule fully delivers the policy intent.
In short, these government amendments provide improved clarity and greater flexibility in the defence procurement process, and I hope your Lordships will be minded to support them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that informative reply, and I look forward to the letter to clarify the point that we had some discussion on. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Alton; I knew that he had signed the amendment and forgot to mention it. It is in my notes: “Don’t forget Lord Alton”—and I did. I apologise for that but thank him for his support.
For reasons of allowing us to move on to the next group, which I know a number of noble Lords are waiting to discuss, I would just say that Amendment 101 is almost like an encouraging amendment; it is trying to encourage the Government to do more. I accept what the noble Baroness said with respect to contracts and some of the difficulties that there are—to be fair, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised that as well. The amendment is just an attempt to ask whether we can do a bit more to support our own industry and small and medium-sized enterprises. I know that the noble Baroness agrees with that and will take it on board.
As far as Amendment 485 is concerned, we need to look at what the noble Baroness has said, look again at the Bill and reflect on it. The important part of Amendment 485, as usual, is tucked away. Proposed new subsection (4) says:
“The Secretary of State must commission the National Audit Office to conduct a similar review annually.”
It is that continual microscope that is needed. I accept the point that the National Audit Office can conduct the reports and that it is independent. I accept all those sorts of things; the noble Baroness is right about that. I just think that all of us want to get this right. Therefore, that point about an annual review is particularly important. With that, I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 101 withdrawn.
Amendment 101A not moved.
Amendments 102 and 103
102: Clause 18, page 12, line 34, at end insert—
“(4A) In this Act, a reference to a contracting authority’s requirements is a reference to requirements described in the tender notice or associated tender documents (see section 20(5) and (6)).”
103: Clause 18, page 12, line 35, leave out subsection (5)
Amendments 102 and 103 agreed.
Amendment 104 not moved.
Clause 18, as amended, agreed.
Clause 19: Competitive tendering procedures
Amendment 105 not moved.
106: Clause 19, page 13, line 14, at end insert “(a “competitive flexible procedure”)”
Amendment 106 agreed.
Amendment 107 not moved.
Amendments 108 to 114
108: Clause 19, page 13, line 18, leave out “tendering procedure other than an open” and insert “flexible”
109: Clause 19, page 13, line 26, leave out “tendering procedure other than an open” and insert “flexible”
110: Clause 19, page 13, line 34, leave out from first “to” to end of line
111: Clause 19, page 13, line 35, leave out from “to” to “which” on line 36 and insert “an assessment of”
112: Clause 19, page 13, line 36, after “tenders” insert—
“(a) satisfy the contracting authority’s requirements, and(b) ”
113: Clause 19, page 13, line 39, at beginning insert “if there is more than one criterion,”
114: Clause 19, page 13, line 39, at end insert—
“in each case, at the point of assessment.”
Amendments 108 to 114 agreed.
Clause 19, as amended, agreed.
Clause 20: Tender notices and associated tender documents
115: Clause 20, page 14, line 8, leave out “procedure other than an open” and insert “flexible”
Amendment 115 agreed.
Amendment 116 not moved.
117: Clause 20, page 14, line 21, at end insert—
“(5) A tender notice or associated tender document must detail the goods, services or works required by the contracting authority.(6) In detailing its requirements, a contracting authority must be satisfied that they—(a) are sufficiently clear and specific, and(b) do not break the rules on technical specifications in section 24.”
Amendment 117 agreed.
Amendment 118 not moved.
Clause 20, as amended, agreed.
Clause 21: Conditions of participation
Amendments 119 to 121 not moved.
Clause 21 agreed.
Clause 22: Award criteria
122: Clause 22, page 15, line 15, after “competitive” insert “tendering”
Amendment 122 agreed.
Amendments 122A to 124 not moved.
124A: Clause 22, page 15, line 18, at end insert—
“(ba) take account of the environmental impact of the award,”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires a contracting authority to be satisfied that the award criteria take account of environmental impact.
Amendment 124A not moved.
Amendment 125 not moved.
126: Clause 22, page 15, line 26, at beginning insert “if there is more than one criterion,”
Amendment 126 agreed.
Amendments 127 to 131 not moved.
Clause 22, as amended, agreed.
Clause 23: Refining award criteria
Amendments 132 and 133
132: Clause 23, page 16, line 14, leave out “tendering procedure other than an open” and insert “flexible”
133: Clause 23, page 16, line 18, after “competitive” insert “tendering”
Amendments 132 and 133 agreed.
Clause 23, as amended, agreed.
Clause 24: Technical specifications
Amendments 134 to 140
134: Clause 24, page 16, line 29, at end insert—
“(A1) This section applies in relation to—(a) a competitive tendering procedure;(b) an award of a public contract in accordance with a framework;(c) a process to become a member of a dynamic market.”
135: Clause 24, page 16, line 30, leave out “terms of a procurement” and insert “procurement documents”
136: Clause 24, page 16, line 33, leave out “terms of a procurement” and insert “procurement documents”
137: Clause 24, page 16, line 36, after “tenders” insert “, proposals or applications”
138: Clause 24, page 16, line 40, leave out “terms of a procurement” and insert “procurement documents”
139: Clause 24, page 17, line 1, leave out “terms of the procurement” and insert “procurement documents”
140: Clause 24, page 17, line 2, after “tenders” insert “, proposals or applications”
Amendments 134 to 140 agreed.
Amendment 141 not moved.
Amendments 142 to 145A
142: Clause 24, page 17, line 5, leave out “terms of a procurement” and insert “procurement documents”
143: Clause 24, page 17, line 5, leave out “anything set out in”
144: Clause 24, page 17, line 6, after “any” insert “requirements of a”
145: Clause 24, page 17, line 7, at end insert—
“(b) documents inviting suppliers to participate in a competitive selection process under a framework, including details of the process, any conditions of participation or criteria for the award of the contract;(c) documents inviting suppliers to apply for membership of a dynamic market, including any conditions of membership;”
145A: Clause 24, transpose Clause 24 to after Clause 53
Amendments 142 to 145A agreed.
Clause 24, as amended, agreed.
Clause 25: Sub-contracting specifications
146: Clause 25, page 17, line 19, after “competitive” insert “tendering”
Amendment 146 agreed.
Clause 25, as amended, agreed.
Amendment 147 not moved.
Clause 26: Excluding suppliers from a competitive award
148: Clause 26, page 17, line 24, leave out from “assessing” to end of line and insert “tenders under”
Amendment 148 agreed.
Amendment 149 not moved.
Amendments 150 to 154
150: Clause 26, page 17, line 32, leave out first “supplier” and insert “person”
151: Clause 26, page 17, line 33, after “tender” insert—
“(a) notify the supplier of its intention to disregard, and(b) ”
152: Clause 26, page 17, line 34, leave out “supplier” and insert “person”
153: Clause 26, page 17, line 35, leave out “supplier” means a supplier” and insert “person” means a person”
154: Clause 26, page 17, line 36, at end insert “(see section 21(7)), but not a person who is to act as guarantor as described in section 21(8).”
Amendments 150 to 154 agreed.
Clause 26, as amended, agreed.
Clause 27: Excluding suppliers from a competitive tendering procedure
Amendments 155 to 161
155: Clause 27, page 17, line 38, leave out “tendering procedure other than an open” and insert “flexible”
156: Clause 27, page 18, line 2, leave out “tendering” and insert “flexible”
157: Clause 27, page 18, line 5, leave out “tendering” and insert “flexible”
158: Clause 27, page 18, line 8, leave out “supplier” and insert “person”
159: Clause 27, page 18, line 8, after “must” insert—
“(a) notify the supplier of its intention, and(b) ”
160: Clause 27, page 18, line 9, leave out second “supplier” and insert “person”
161: Clause 27, page 18, line 10, leave out “tendering” and insert “flexible”
Amendments 155 to 161 agreed.
Clause 27, as amended, agreed.
Clause 28: Excluding suppliers by reference to sub-contractors
Amendments 162 to 167
162: Clause 28, page 18, line 13, at end insert—
“(A1) A contracting authority must as part of a competitive tendering procedure—(a) request information about whether a supplier intends to sub-contract the performance of all or part of the public contract, and(b) seek to determine whether any intended sub-contractor is on the debarment list.”
163: Clause 28, page 18, line 16, leave out paragraph (a)
164: Clause 28, page 18, line 20, after “subsection” insert “(A1) or”
165: Clause 28, page 18, line 27, after “subsection” insert “(A1) or”
166: Clause 28, page 18, line 35, after “must” insert—
“(a) notify the supplier of its intention, and(b) ”
167: Clause 28, page 18, line 41, leave out “supplier” and insert “person”
Amendments 162 to 167 agreed.
Clause 28, as amended, agreed.
Clause 29: Excluding a supplier that is a threat to national security
Amendments 168 to 171
168: Clause 29, page 19, line 3, leave out “or exclude the supplier” and insert “, exclude the supplier or notify the supplier of its intention”
169: Clause 29, page 19, line 7, leave out “excluded” and insert “excludable”
170: Clause 29, page 19, line 8, leave out “virtue of” and insert “reference to”
171: Clause 29, page 19, line 9, at end insert—
“(3) The reference in subsection (2) to a contracting authority notifying a supplier of its intention is a reference to notification in accordance with section 26(3), 27(4) or 28(4).”
Amendments 168 to 171 agreed.
Clause 29, as amended, agreed.
Clause 30: Excluding suppliers for improper behaviour
Amendments 172 and 173 not moved.
174: Clause 30, page 19, line 16, at end insert—
“(d) a supplier is not a signatory of good standing on the Prompt Payment Code.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would strengthen requirements of good practice and simplify checking processes for all contracts either under this Act or in the open market.
My Lords, I think the phrase in a situation like that is “follow that”; that was an impressive performance by the chair.
In moving Amendment 174, I will speak to Amendment 317 in this rather interesting little group. The amendments I propose relate to the Prompt Payment Code. Amendment 174 aims to ensure that suppliers are signatories to the code and of good standing; and to ensure their exclusion in government procurement if they are not of good standing, not signatories to the code or have been subject to an investigation and not done the right thing having been found wanting.
I suggest these amendments for three reasons. First, the Prompt Payment Code offers a public and obvious ease of reference for any public authority or anyone involved in public procurement, even just checking the process. The real value of what the Government have done in increasing its resourcing and housing it with the Small Business Commissioner is that it makes it much easier to use it as a reference point. Making sure that you have something clear, public, available and transparent is of great use.
Secondly, it is worth acknowledging that the Government have taken steps to try to encourage a more effective Prompt Payment Code by creating a series of initiatives that came into force this year to encourage much stronger compliance with good payment terms. We do not talk just about late payments, of course, because there has been a greater imposition of long payment terms; the Prompt Payment Code has reduced those. Also, it starts to help clarify the problems that are now being felt by many where either an agreed contract is delayed or payments are reduced post hoc, with only one side making that conclusion using the asymmetries of power.
Those initiatives on the Prompt Payment Code have been welcome. In September 2019, the Government made an announcement about the importance of how people pay for government contracts, including how they must pay within the right payment terms and on the right timescale. It is useful that all these initiatives are brought together quite nicely—as I say, they are publicly available—through the code so that we have one reference point.
However, it is important to start introducing these measures together because all of them constantly need strengthening. The Government’s attempt to use their new code to make sure that suppliers cascade the money to all the people who are due has faced difficulties because master contracts are now used so that the main supplier to the Government can say that it discharged its duty easily while all the other payments are held up by people who pay the next layer. Those dates have then been massively extended, as we have seen.
Indeed, it is not as if the Prompt Payment Code is immune to certain problems. For that reason, it is important that the Government show their full commitment to it and use it most effectively to encourage those are not doing the right thing on payment terms. The members of the Prompt Payment Code pay better but the difference between them and those who are not members is widening, although the code has a huge advantage. It is also clear that what was hoped—that the code would be some sort of cultural change or even encourage people to do more of the right thing—is not happening. We are starting to see that the Prompt Payment Code is something that companies find easy to evade. The idea of naming and shaming does not seem to have much significance.
I say this because we have seen a series of substantial, prodigious suppliers to government walk out on the Prompt Payment Code. They include some of Britain’s biggest companies. Tesco left because the code’s definition of a small business did not correspond to how it viewed a small supplier. Recently, in only the past few months, two of the top five Britain-based listed companies—that is, two of our largest companies by market capitalisation—have left the code: Unilever and Diageo. The culture of compliance is not there. We must reinforce the mechanisms that we use to ensure that, across the chain, prompt payment and good payment terms are properly enforced.
We now know the costs of this. We have always talked about the costs and consequences, about the number of businesses that are at stress, but we also now know the benefits. The recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research—Cebr—said that, if invoices were paid as they were presented, small businesses would increase their turnover by £40 billion to £60 billion. That shows, as always, the importance of the velocity of cash.
If the Government can play an enhanced role in making sure that payment terms are done properly across any procurement in the public sector, and can encourage the private sector in all of its transactions to do the right thing, this will be extremely useful. Bringing the Prompt Payment Code into the canon of law for public procurement will be a very important and useful step in that regard.
My Lords, I have added my name to both of the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn. Until he performed his remarkable imitation of a human ping-pong ball, I was all ready to introduce the amendment on his behalf. I am very relieved that he made it back from the Schools Bill just in time and has relieved me of the necessity of saying almost anything at all, other than to give full support to his amendments.
These two amendments would ensure consistency and complementarity between the provisions of this Bill and those of the code, while also having the positive effect of encouraging more potential suppliers of government contracts to sign up to the code and, indeed, to abide by its requirements. I very much support the noble Lord in everything he has said and in saving me the trouble of saying it.
My Lords, I rise to introduce Amendment 353, tabled in my name and in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, demonstrating cross-party support for this amendment. I also want to underline my gratitude to the Government for seriously engaging with this amendment to the Bill; I know that we share a desire to mitigate the two key risk areas in public procurement which this amendment covers, and I am grateful for their engagement.
Amendment 353 seeks to give the Government two things: first, it seeks to provide the tools to monitor and control the UK’s dependency on authoritarian states; and, secondly, it seeks to ensure a consistent approach to modern slavery across all government procurement. So let us look at how it seeks to monitor and control the UK’s dependency on authoritarian states first. Clause 1 places a burden on the Secretary of State to create regulations that reduce the dependency of public bodies on authoritarian states. There is no agreed definition of what constitutes an authoritarian state in UK law or regulation, therefore Clause 2 adopts the categorisations contained within the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, allowing for the legislation to adapt to contemporary geopolitical developments in line with the latest iteration of the review. The countries this amendment would currently apply to as threats are Iran, Russia, North Korea, and, as a systemic competitor, China.
It should be noted that Clause 1 applies to all goods and services which originate in whole or in part in one of the named countries. The amendment is constructed to apply not solely to entire products but also to their constituent parts. So, for example, where a solar panel has been constructed in the UK but relies on polysilicon from another region of the world categorised as a threat or a systemic competitor, that solar panel would, therefore, be within scope of these regulations.
Clause 3 sets out what must be included in the regulations. So, proposed subsection (3)(a) provides for an annual review of dependency to be published by the Government, while proposed subsection (3)(b) requires the Government to define “dependency” and to establish acceptable levels of dependency across industries. Proposed subsection (3)(b) also seeks to appreciate that the risks associated with dependency vary across products and industries. For example, reliance on one region for semiconductors presents very different challenges for resilience from reliance on another region for PPE. So proposed subsection (3)(b) allows the Government the flexibility to take these nuances into account.
Yet the risks of economic dependency are not the only relevant matter here. The second part of this amendment, proposed new subsections (4) and (5), addresses a separate issue: the question of modern slavery in the supply chains of publicly procured goods. The presence of modern slavery in supply chains is clearly unacceptable. This has rightly been acknowledged by the Department of Health and Social Care, which has already taken steps in the Health and Care Act to eradicate from its supply chains goods which have been “tainted”—its word—by slavery. Proposed new subsection (4) adopts substantially the same language as Section 81 of the Health and Care Act, passed earlier this year. The requirement to bring regulations to, in the Department of Health and Social Care’s words, “eradicate” from public contracts goods and services “tainted” by slavery now stands as part of that Act.
When the Health and Care Act regulations are drawn up and passed, those procuring health equipment will have to apply different human rights standards from those procuring goods and services on behalf of other departments, as things currently stand. The main intention of this amendment is to ensure that the UK Government speak with one voice and apply these standards across government. It seems odd for us to be unwilling to procure goods from Xinjiang for the NHS but comfortable doing so for Defra. This is about correcting a loophole in the law and seems to be a matter of simple common sense.
In addition, paragraphs (d), (e) and (f) of proposed new subsection (5) provide improvements on the current modern slavery framework. I particularly commend to the Minister (5)(d), which will improve standards of disclosure and transparency by requiring firms to provide evidence and trace their full supply chain if necessary. Requiring public disclosure of supply chains will considerably improve compliance when compared with the current audit measurements. This is because it is difficult to conduct a credible audit in an authoritarian state. In this context, it is better to know where companies are sourcing from, rather than have an auditor who has no ability to get accurate information.
In conclusion, the two risk areas of economic dependency and modern-day slavery cut to the heart of our character as a nation. We want to stand as a beacon for liberal, democratic values around the world. To do this, we need to ensure we retain the autonomy to act in line with our values by reducing dependency on authoritarian states. We need to ensure that we are living consistently within our values by ensuring there is no modern slavery in our supply chains. The Department of Health and Social Care has shown the way; this amendment enables the rest of government to come into line.
My Lords, I commend the speech from the noble Baroness. It was compelling and I hope the Minister will find it so too. I wish to speak to Amendments 184 and 187 in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Hendy, Lady Wheatcroft and Lord Kerslake, to whom I am most grateful. These amendments grant Ministers the power to bar companies which have acted unlawfully or unethically from tendering for public contracts. It is hard to understand why that will not be acceptable to the Government.
The two amendments have the same objective but use different means. Amendment 184 requires a statutory instrument for Ministers to act to bar companies in that way, whereas Amendment 187 enables a quicker route but one that is capable of being challenged if any party considered that the Government had acted unjustifiably. As I say, it is hard to see why the noble Lord, Lord True, would not accept both amendments with acclamation.
It will come as no surprise to either him or many of your Lordships that the particular target I have in mind and which I am angry Ministers have been so shamefully slow and negligent about—despite the generous remarks about me from the noble Lord, Lord True, in the Chamber following a Question I asked, for which I am grateful and thank him—is Bain & Company. I first raised this scandal in your Lordships’ House nearly six months ago and have tried to get the Government to act on it by barring Bain from accessing public contracts.
It is a global brand and presents itself as reputable global consultancy operating right across the world. Bain has its second-largest office here in London, which has been awarded multimillion recent UK government contracts and has influence across our economy, so this company is particular to us. We should take account of the fact that in South Africa Bain purposefully assisted former President Jacob Zuma to organise his decade of barefaced looting and corruption, the company earning fees estimated at £l00 million or 2 billion rand from state institutions.
South Africa’s state capture commission, a judicial inquiry headed by Chief Justice Zondo, which recently concluded its work, and to which I gave written and oral evidence in November 2019, condemned Bain’s deliberate immobilising of the South African Revenue Service—SARS—as “unlawful”. So concerned is the commission with Bain’s illegal behaviour in the South African public sector that it has recommended that law enforcement authorities examine every public sector contract Bain has had, not just the SARS one, with a view to prosecution.
The Zondo report was devastating about Bain’s behaviour. The evidence,
“bears out the pattern of procurement corruption which has dominated the evidence heard by this Commission. These include … the collusion in the award of the contract between Bain and Mr Moyane”—
he was President Zuma’s crony put in to head SARS and effectively dismember it—
“the irregular use of confinement and condonation to avoid open competition, transparency and scrutiny … and the use of consultants to justify changes that were necessary to advance the capture of SARS.”
As expected there has been an upswell of civil society opposition to Bain’s continued presence in that country. Such public pressure recently forced Bain to withdraw from South Africa’s largest business association in disgrace.
These findings and events are devastating indictments of a company which operates at and influences the highest level of civil service and business around the world, including profitably from our own Government’s contracts for many years, and relies on the trust of its clients to deliver social and economic value.
Yet in South Africa, Bain used its expertise not to enhance the functioning of a world-renowned tax authority, as SARS was acknowledged to be, but to disable its ability to collect taxes and pursue tax evaders, some of them former President Zuma’s mates, all in the service of its corrupt paymasters. The very company which possessed the expertise to bolster South Africa’s defences against the ravages of state capture in fact weakened these defences and profited from it, yet this is the very company that works across our government and economy in the UK, influencing our public institutions and impacting millions of British lives.
Bain would have us believe that what happened in South Africa was the work of one rotten apple, but its South African office’s work was endorsed by leaders in London at the time and in its US headquarters in Boston, and many senior people currently working for Bain in London were in the South African business during the corrupt President Zuma era. Some of the very people who broke public procurement rules, colluded with Zuma and committed a “premeditated offensive” against SARS, as an earlier judicial commission described Bain’s actions, are now working in Bain’s London office through which it consults to our public institutions and businesses, including government departments.
We are not only dealing with the matter of to whom we pay taxpayers’ money, although that is a major issue; what should make us shudder is that we allow these people into the inner workings of our public institutions, including government departments. A company has demonstrated a propensity to act selfishly in its own commercial interest at the expense of public good. This is what Bain South Africa did, and it led to the devastation that followed. This is a warning to us all.
Given the scandalous collusion of Bain UK and Bain USA, I am asking that the UK Government and the US Government immediately suspend all public sector contracts with Bain and bar it from entering any new contracts. I wrote to the Prime Minister in February of this year requesting this, which resulted in Cabinet Office officials meeting with Bain. Subsequent to this meeting, the right honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote to me in March this year and was clearly swayed by Bain’s superficial internal changes and repayment of only a tiny fraction of the fees that it had earned from South African public sector contracts in the corrupt Zuma era. Using weasel words, he assured me:
“The Cabinet Office continues to monitor the situation and will engage with Bain & Co again … to determine the most appropriate set of actions.”
To date, I have not heard anything about what has resulted from this monitoring or what set of actions has been determined. It sounds to me like Ministers are shelving any action, which is disgraceful if true, although I am encouraged that Mr Rees-Mogg has now invited me to meet him this Wednesday to discuss these matters.
However, Bain’s shockingly shady behaviour in South Africa is just the tip of the iceberg. The prodigious decade of looting, corruption and money laundering under former President Zuma would not have been possible without the complicity of additional global companies such as KPMG, McKinsey, SAP, the law firm Hogan Lovells and the banks HSBC, Standard Chartered and Bank of Baroda. These fee-clutching, global corporates and turn-a-blind-eye Governments—from London and Washington to Dubai, Delhi and Beijing—helped rob South African taxpayers, contributing to a catastrophic loss of around a fifth of its GDP. Economists estimate the full cost of the Zuma state capture to be a monumental £750 million, or 1.5 trillion rand. The Government’s total annual expenditure is just 2 trillion rand, and 1.5 trillion rand was the cost of that looting and corruption.
These global corporates, like Bain, all obtained sweetheart state contracts, which helped Zuma’s business associates, the Gupta brothers—who have belatedly been arrested in Dubai and now await extradition to South Africa; we will see whether that happens—to loot the state. I also welcome the fact that UK Ministers have imposed sanctions against them, which I have been requesting since I first exposed their activities to your Lordships nearly five years ago in November 2017. Global banks such as HSBC, Standard Chartered and Baroda transferred this looted money through their digital pipelines to less regulated jurisdictions such as Dubai and Hong Kong, or British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean, to then clean the money by mingling it with other funds, disguising its origins and enabling it to be more easily spent.
Lawyers and accountants assisted the Guptas to set up complex shell, or front, companies, hiding their true owners—the Guptas or their associates—and enabling money to be moved to a country where there is low transparency. Dishonest audits left suspicious transactions hidden. Estate agents received and processed laundered money during the Gupta property purchases in Dubai and India, as well as other places. Global brand names, from KPMG to McKinsey, from HSBC to Standard Chartered—and Bain of course—all profited while the Guptas hid and spent stolen funds that could otherwise have been destined for essential South African public services, job creation or infrastructure, leaving the country’s public finances near bankrupted and its growth completely stalled.
Unless the United Kingdom, US, Chinese, Indian and UAE Governments co-operate with each other, state capture will happen again, either in South Africa or other countries. The truth is that international criminals continue to loot and launder money with impunity through centres such as London, New York, Hong Kong, Delhi and Dubai. I am afraid that UK Ministers talk the talk on corruption, but refuse to take the necessary tough action against guilty big corporations to stop it. That also goes for other Governments I have mentioned.
I draw my remarks to a close by saying that, meanwhile, financial crime is estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to be worth around 5% of global GDP, or $2 trillion, each and every year. We have an opportunity to stop this onslaught, at least as it relates to Bain and any other corporate complicit, and to make an example of the company. Bain continues to refuse to make full disclosure in South Africa and refuses to make amends for the terrible harms it has done. It similarly refuses to make amends to its former senior partner in South Africa, Mr Athol Williams, who acted with integrity to offer it guidance in taking right action and then, owing to its refusal, was forced to blow the whistle at great personal and financial cost. Mr Williams testified before the Zondo commission and was praised by the commission in its report, but he bears the burden of Bain’s defamation and has now had to flee to the UK for his safety. I hope that he will be able to meet Mr Rees-Mogg on Wednesday, as I have asked.
I therefore find it completely unacceptable that Bain is licensed to operate commercially in the UK, the USA or anywhere else in the world, at least until it has repaid all of its £100-million fees earned from the South African state during the Zuma/Gupta years, made full amends and answered charges in the courts here.
These two amendments are designed to encourage UK Ministers to clean up public sector contracts by ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent on companies with high standards, not ones with grubby standards, such as Bain. I ask that the Minister accepts them and pursues this matter with his colleagues in the Cabinet Office. I will happily discuss privately with him any drafting changes that might be required to satisfy the Government’s requirements in this Bill, but I think it necessary that Ministers provide leadership on this, particularly by making an example of Bain, or else everybody else will think that they can do the same thing.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 353, introduced by my noble friend Lady Stroud.
As many of your Lordships know, the United Kingdom is a signatory to the Council of Europe’s anti-trafficking convention, an international treaty that affects Europe and beyond, with Israel having acceded a short while ago as the second non-member state of the Council of Europe. Last week, on 13 July, its Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings—GRETA —published its annual report for 2021. In December last year, a number of recommendations were adopted, based on the evaluation report produced for the United Kingdom, among other states. Certainly our Modern Slavery Act 2015 has enabled the United Kingdom to take a lead internationally.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on his excellent recent Council of Europe report, Concerted Action Against Human Trafficking and the Smuggling of Migrants. The prospect of concerted action has been assisted, not least by our 2015 Act along with other steps taken by the UK Government to prevent and eradicate human trafficking from businesses and supply chains, including in the public sector.
Migrants and refugees are clearly a particularly vulnerable group of people who fall prey to human traffickers far too often. The Russian war on Ukraine has displaced more than 10 million people, and 5.5 million Ukrainians have been recorded across Europe since 24 February. They constitute a vast group of potential victims, having fled shelling, bombardment and occupation by the Russian army; hence all the more so is there a compelling case for linking human trafficking and modern slavery with making provisions for reducing the dependency of public bodies on goods and services that originate in a country considered by the United Kingdom as either a systemic competitor or a threat.
In that context, with this legislation, Amendment 353 in the names of my noble friend Lady Stroud and others is much to be welcomed. I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I am introducing Amendments 310, 318 and 322. I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone.
My amendments follow on a lot from things that have already been mentioned. They are designed to remedy what appears to be a significant inequity in the treatment of environmental offences relative to other offences listed in Schedules 6 and 7, which relate to mandatory and discretionary exclusion grounds. In Schedule 6, there is no mention of mandatory exclusions for environmental offences. Apparently, no environmental offence, however serious or wide-reaching in its impact on people’s health or finances or the wider environment, currently merits mandatory exclusion. In contrast, almost any offence in relation to employment agency law, common law or tax, however minor, triggers mandatory exclusion.
In Schedule 7 there are grounds for discretionary exclusion on environmental misconduct, but let us work through the terms of that exclusion. First, the authority is required to ignore any event predating the coming into force of the schedule. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has tabled an amendment to query that proposal, and I will be interested in the Minister’s response to her. I also note that the reference to an event rather than an offence seems to leave the contracting authority in doubt about whether they must exclude convictions for environmental offences after the date of coming into force where the conduct took place.
Secondly, the contracting authority has to decide whether the conduct caused or had the potential to cause significant harm to the environment. I would be very interested to hear about the breaches which are serious enough to result in convictions for offences—not, as I understand it, simple enforcement notices or civil penalties but actual offences—but do not even have the potential to cause significant harm to the environment. Still, the legislation erects an additional hurdle for contracting authorities with absolutely no clarity about what an insignificant offence looks like or why it is an offence if it is insignificant.
Thirdly, the contracting authority must consider whether the circumstances giving rise to the application of the exclusion are likely to recur. I do not believe that this is the Government’s intention, but if we wanted a regime which gave a surface-level semblance of treating environmental offences seriously in public procurement while making contracting authorities extremely reluctant in practice ever to exclude any supplier on environmental grounds, we have done it really well. However, I believe that that is not the Government’s intention, so I have tabled this amendment to achieve what I believe is needed and meant.
Amendment 310 makes an offence under any provision of environmental law subject to mandatory rather than discretionary exclusion. There is no judgment to be made about the potential for causing significant harm where there has been an environmental offence. An additional effect of this drafting is that the contracting authority would be required to disregard only offences that took place longer ago than the default position—set out in paragraph 42 of Schedule 6—of five years.
Amendment 318 provides a definition of environmental law, which is currently missing from the Bill. It is taken from last year’s Environment Act, Amendment 322 removes the existing discretionary exclusions in Schedule 7, as previously described. This is a modest proposal. It would mean that contracting authorities would receive clarity that convictions for offences against a defined range of environmental law in the past five years would always be grounds for mandatory exclusion. However, contractors would not necessarily be excluded out of hand. Contracting authorities would still have to give consideration to the likelihood of the circumstances occurring again or, if the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Fox, are accepted, the contractor would need to demonstrate this to everyone’s satisfaction.
Neither do the amendments I am speaking to create new burdens on contracting authorities; they merely replace an unclear discretionary exclusion with a clearer one. Authorities which intended never to give a moment’s consideration to contractors’ environmental records—which is what happens now—or to the possibility of excluding firms in any circumstances would now need to do a small amount of work in identifying whether convictions had taken place. I assume that the noble Lord, Lord True, would welcome that increased diligence and consideration. However, contracting authorities which did take their responsibilities seriously would now not need to worry about venturing out on an unguided journey into deciding whether a breach was significant. This seems far closer to the vision of procurement set out in the procurement Green Paper, which referred to the environment as one of the Government’s strategic policy priorities and specifically referenced a supplier’s plans for achieving environmental targets across its operations as an example that the switch to considering bids on the basis of most advantageous tender would deliver. It is also closer to the Bill’s Explanatory Notes, which refer to simplifying the procurement process and making it more transparent. Finally, it is closer to the vision that the noble Lord, Lord True, set out at Second Reading, which was quicker and simpler and better meets the needs of the UK.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Boycott and to associate myself with the remarks she has just made, and also with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who made an important contribution to the proceedings of the Committee this afternoon. We will all be interested to hear how his meeting with the right honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg goes on Wednesday.
I shall speak to Amendments 331 and 353. Amendment 331 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lords, Lord Coaker, Lord Bethell and Lord Fox, deals with serious human rights abuses. When the Minister responds I hope he will bear in mind the very helpful conversations he and I had when he agreed to meet me to discuss modern-day slavery and genocide. I should mention that I am a trustee of the anti-modern-day-slavery charity the Arise Foundation and a patron of Coalition for Genocide Response.
It concerns me that the word “genocide” has been put in a list that simply states that
“‘serious human rights abuses’ includes, but is not limited to”,
and then sets out a list from (a) to (f). It is not that any of these things are minor questions. Winston Churchill said that the horrors committed during the Nazi regime constituted a crime that had no name. It took Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish Polish lawyer, to create the name “genocide” to describe what had been done. Indeed, the 1948 convention on the crime of genocide came from that. Your Lordships will recall that the amendments to earlier legislation I moved specifically on the procurement of technology via Huawei and later on the Health and Care Bill, which the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, referred to, were careful to set aside the word “genocide” from other questions.
I have one specific and, I hope, helpful remark to make to the noble Baroness and others, which is that if this amendment is to be pursued later, perhaps these questions can be separated, because there are many people who would be willing to vote on genocide not only in your Lordships’ House but in another place but who would not be willing to support something that was simply a list of serious human rights violations. I think that some further thought should be given to that.
On Amendment 353 on supply chain resilience against economic coercion and slavery, I shall try to be brief because I set out some of the arguments about this in our earlier debate about Hikvision and the role that companies such as that have played throughout procurement processes. They are surely what the Bill is dealing with, yet they operate with impunity from their base inside the People’s Republic of China and have been directly associated with the enormities that have been committed in Xinjiang, where it is estimated that more than 1 million Uighurs are held in concentration camps. All of us have read appalling accounts of their treatment, and anything we can do at any stage, we should try to do. I know that the noble Lord, Lord True, is sympathetic to this argument.
Therefore, let me briefly set out some of the arguments that have perhaps been put to him by officials or others who would oppose the excellent amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, which is supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and me. First, will this not have a chilling effect on government procurement? Yes, there will be a chilling effect on government procurement of slave-made goods—and so there should be. Businesses that do not rely on slavery for sourcing have absolutely nothing to fear. The amendment sets the bar low but establishes certain minimum standards. It is noteworthy that the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act goes much further than this proposal—I drew it to the attention of the noble Lord, Lord True, during our discussions—and there has been no “chilling effect” documented in the USA. I will add that that legislation enjoyed significant bipartisan and bicameral support in the United States.
Secondly, will this not discourage competition and therefore crush markets? No. On the contrary, the amendment will incentivise business to raise its human rights game and encourage competition among entities which meet basic human rights standards. We should be using our purchasing power, this phenomenal amount of money, more than £300 billion, to nudge the business world. This amendment helps us to achieve that. It removes disadvantage for lawful performers, and that is something we should all welcome.
Thirdly, is this not just another anti-China amendment? No. The amendment does not even mention China. Forced labour is a global issue, whether it is exploitation in Brazilian mines or Malaysian tech factories or indeed Uighur slave labour. It is morally imperative that taxpayers’ money does not fund slavery, wherever it is and wherever it is practised.
Fourthly, does this not turn civil servants into police for business supply chains? Civil servants already assess those bidding for government contracts against certain criteria, and that is exactly how it should be. All the amendment seeks to do is to make the criteria more robust. Civil servants generally do not have the resources to inspect supply chains. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, probably knows better than any other noble Lord in this Committee, assessing what is going on in a supply chain is an extraordinarily complex, time-consuming and resource-ridden process. The amendment recognises that, and seeks instead to provide civil servants with more tools to ensure better anti-slavery standards around disclosure and transparency of sourcing inputs.
I wonder whether the noble Lord has had it put to him that we are presuming the guilt of businesses by blacklisting entire countries or areas. No, the amendment does not presume that a business operating in a particular area is de facto guilty of perpetrating slavery, although this is the assumption of the United States legislation, which imposes a rebuttable presumption. I admit that that is something that I personally favour, but it is not what is in the amendment. In the United States, that targets goods produced in the Uighur region because it is assumed that they are tainted.
I was struck that the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, referred to that word when discussing earlier legislation the House passed, the Health and Care Act, which includes the word “tainted”. I think the Minister will forgive me for saying that that legislation was strengthened by civil servants from his department, who gave advice to the Department of Health. It would be absurd to have legislation that applies purely to the National Health Service, despite the fact that we spent £10 billion on PPE, but does not apply to other departments. You cannot have legislation, especially a procurement Bill, which is weaker than legislation already on the statute book. The amendment merely requires that the origins of goods and their constituent parts are disclosed.
What difference will this really make? Do we need more regulation? The Health and Care Bill was amended precisely because there was acceptance—the Government knew—that the existing regulation was not strong enough. It is to the credit of Sajid Javid that he recognised that and did something about it. The Government are widely suspected of procuring goods and services that may be tainted with slavery. In 2020, the Daily Telegraph reported that, for one contract alone, £150 million of PPE originated in factories in the Uighur region with a documented slavery problem. If stronger standards are good enough for the Department of Health and Social Care, they are surely strong enough for the whole of government, and this Bill gives us the opportunity to do something about it.
Finally, it is often said, “Not this Bill, not this time. There is a modern slavery Bill coming; why can we not just wait for that?” The amendment before your Lordships addresses government procurement and this is the Procurement Bill. It is entirely appropriate that an amendment seeking to improve certain standards regarding government procurement should be debated during the passage of this Bill. Moreover, we do not know what is likely to be in the modern slavery Bill; we were told a lot about it during the course of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which pre-empted its provisions then, but we still do not know what will be in it—and, after all, we are in the midst of a change of Government.
Engagement with the Government and this Secretary of State has been good and, as I finish, I pay tribute again to the noble Lord, Lord True, for his patience in putting up with representations constantly being made to him on this subject. But there is no guarantee that will continue. While Ministers smile on these efforts, we are keen to make the progress we can now, while Ministers such as the noble Lord are in place.
My Lords, I have two small amendments in this group, Amendments 330 and 332. I must say that this group contains far too many issues to be debated effectively. My own are minor, so I did not degroup them, but I hope that in future other noble Lords will exercise their right to degroup so that we have sensible groupings to enable a proper Committee debate. I will probably get into trouble with my Chief Whip for encouraging noble Lords in this direction, because I think there is a view that large groupings are more efficient. However, I do not believe that; I believe in effective scrutiny in your Lordships’ House.
Amendment 330 probes the relationship between the mandatory exclusion of suppliers for improper behaviour in Clause 30 and the discretionary exclusion found in paragraph 14 of Schedule 7. I do not understand why the Bill has to have improper behaviour as an exclusion ground dealt with in two places. The definition of “improper behaviour” is virtually identical in each case, and they certainly seem to be aimed at the same behaviour. The processes are very similar, with rights given to suppliers in both cases, and they are both aimed at exclusion decisions. There are wording differences between the two parts of the Bill, but I cannot see anything of substance involved. It just looks as if two parliamentary draftsmen have been involved in different bits of the Bill and they have not known what was going on in the other bit.
Schedule 7 requires only that the decision-maker—which is usually the contracting authority, as in Clause 30—“considers” that there is improper behaviour, while Clause 30 requires a determination. However, in this context, I cannot believe that that is a distinction with any real difference attached to it. The main difference of substance is that Clause 30 results in mandatory exclusion, while paragraph 14 of Schedule 7 does not necessarily lead to exclusion. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can explain the subtleties of why improper behaviour has been dealt with in this way. My own view is that it would be easier to understand if Clause 30 were placed in the Schedules 6 and 7 structure of the Bill, since it deals with exclusion, and could have options of mandatory or discretionary exclusion. I certainly look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister has to say on that.
Amendment 332 is slightly different; it concerns paragraph 16 of Schedule 7, which itself sets out exclusions from the discretionary exclusions in Schedule 7. Under paragraph 16(4), there are four exclusions from some of the Schedule 7 things which have happened before the schedule came into force. It is my understanding that the existing procurement rules already contain three of the grounds for exclusion. So it does not seem logical that, when we shift to this new Procurement Bill, we disregard things that happened in the past that were exclusion grounds because they happened before the Act came into force—it seems to be an unnecessary discontinuity.
I believe that the new ground is “national security”, under paragraph 16(4)(d). For that, it is probably reasonable to disregard behaviour that occurred prior to the Act coming into force. I invite my noble friend the Minister to explain the logic behind paragraph 16(4).
I will speak to Amendment 353, to which I am a co-signatory, and in passing to Amendment 331. Perhaps surprisingly, my first comment will be to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. As we were listening to the various interventions and the introduction of various amendments, my sense was that we were trying to debate too many things in one group. In particular, when I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, I thought that hers were very interesting amendments but that they were not really related to some of the issues associated with modern slavery, genocide and human rights that we were thinking about. I would also like to the irritate the Whips by suggesting that a little more degrouping might be beneficial in future.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, introduced Amendment 353 in considerable detail, and my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, then elaborated on it further. At this point, I do not want to go into further detail but to press the Minister on whether the Government would not see that it is appropriate to extend what the Department of Health and Social Care has done with the Health and Social Care Act to ensure that there is transparency in supply chains and that we do everything possible to ensure that genocide and modern slavery are excluded. Other noble Lords have provided the reasons why that is so important. I would hope to give the Minister plenty of time in which to respond.
My Lords, I have listened to the debate and rise to address the Question that Schedules 6 and 7 be agreed. I am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lord Moylan, although he cannot be here today.
As the Committee knows, I speak from the perspective of someone who has worked in business and as a company secretary and a chair of the compliance committee in a British multinational business employing half a million people in several regions of the world, as well as in smaller for-profit and not-for-profit operations. I have also worked in government as a civil servant and a Minister. I worry intensely about the perverse effects of these provisions. My fear is that they will exclude good, dynamic and honest operators from contracts and serving the public good through procurement. Some firms and social enterprises could be put out of business. Many others, especially SMEs, will be persuaded to have nothing to do with procurement; and of course this Bill is immensely wide-ranging and covers at least £300 billion-worth of UK value added, including most utilities, which I have argued against.
The lists in Schedules 6 and 7 are very wide. Some exclusions are entirely new compared to the EU law they replace. Others have been promoted from the discretionary category to become mandatory. The new mandatory exclusions include corporate manslaughter, theft and fraud, and failure to co-operate. Schedule 6 also brings into the Bill offences in areas including money laundering and competition law, which are dealt with perfectly well in existing and separate regulations. There have also been several extensions to the grounds for discretionary exclusions; for example, a breach of contract, poor performance and “acting improperly in procurement”—goodness knows what that means.
I ask the Minister to think again about every new item and consider whether this gold-plating is justified, as I think it may be in the case, for example, of national security, assuming that is not covered in other regulations. Each and every firm and social enterprise will be involved in more red tape in having to verify compliance with every item across their organisation.
Clause 54, defining excluded suppliers, is key, so I want to play devil’s advocate. First, it gives contracting authorities a lot of discretion, so they can be difficult if they want to favour a particular bidder. Secondly, a mandatory exclusion applies to a supplier or an associated supplier, so compliance checks have to be spread into the nooks and crannies of their supply chains, over which prime suppliers have no direct control—that will help the French, by the way, who have more integrated supply chains. Finally, if there is a contravention such as a tragic manslaughter on a major building project, a theft or a fraud, a single conviction for modern slavery, or a tax or cartel offence a firm is pushed into settling by the regulators, that firm will then have to operate a tick-box system across all its operations to demonstrate in the words of Clause 54 that the circumstances giving rise to the application of the exclusion are not “likely to occur again”. How will they be able to do that?
Of course, I am against most of the evils listed in the schedules, but they do not need to be in this statute. In trying to do the job of the policemen, we risk seriously undermining the procurement sector and choking it with red tape. If we want to nationalise procurement, we should be more honest about it.
For large companies in many climes, compliance with these two schedules will be a nightmare, so they could decide not to bid and stick to non-public sector activities. Firms focused on procurement alone will be in constant fear of a contravention which will write off the value of their company, as they would be excluded from bidding in future, although officials reassured me that they would be allowed in again after five years.
This is not the public sector; a company cannot hang around for five years without any new business. I know from my own experience that small firms may be put off completely. We will see the loss of small suppliers to prisons, local authorities, transport systems and even defence, as we have already seen in the City and in housing because of complex regulation in financial services and delays in planning. Small firms do not have the risk capital needed to operate in such high-risk environments. This negative behavioural change is not costed in the impact assessment, although there is a brief non-monetised discussion on page 36. My concerns about Schedules 6 and 7 are not discussed at all; more unscrutinised guidance is suggested as the answer.
I feel that this is cross-compliance of the worst sort. It is inconsistent with a productive economy, and the people who will flourish will be lawyers and their counterparts in the public sector trying to apply these complex, wide-ranging regulations. I think that the schedules will have chilling effect. I ask my noble friend the Minister to look at both schedules again in the light of my comments on practicality, and devise arrangements that will avoid the perverse effects I have outlined.
As regards the other amendments, as I think I am speaking last, we had a good debate on small business last week, for which the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, was sadly absent. I think we all agreed that it is an area that needs to be looked at again. However, for the reasons I have stated, I am a little nervous about a further exclusion to achieve the noble Lord’s objective, as proposed in Amendment 174, but we must come back to this issue.
As to further extending exclusions by SI, as proposed in Amendment 184, this is far too wide-ranging and vague, and could be abused. It could also cast yet a further chill on procurement by honest and good organisations and lead to retaliation against our own UK exporters. The more political we make procurement, the less vibrant the sector will be, hitting our growth and productivity, which already sadly lags behind that of many other countries. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, can find another way forward at his prospective meeting with the Minister of State.
My questions about compliance and resources also apply to Amendment 353, however well intentioned. I worry a bit that we are over-influenced by our experience on PPE, which was poor. However, we are now looking forward, of course, not backward. I am sorry to be critical.
In conclusion, there are many problems with this Bill. The easiest and best thing would be for it to be withdrawn, to look at the various points that have been made in recent days, and for the new Government to think again. In the meantime, I stand by the points that I have made as a practitioner.
I just want to respond to my noble friend’s comments about Amendment 353 and underline a comment that my noble friend Lord Alton made. Actually, this is something that has already been done in the United States of America; there is already an Act that has been passed there. There has no chilling effect at all on government procurement. In fact, their Act is significantly stronger than anything we are proposing here. I ask my noble friend to be mindful of that. Companies are appreciating more and more being able to be confident and to tell their customers that they are in fact free of slavery in their supply chains.
The point is well made. I would be interested to know how long that Act has been in operation in the United States. One of the concerns I have had, looking at these various provisions in all their complexity, is that we are actually continuing relatively new EU requirements; they came into our law between 2014 and 2016 with a directive and a number of regulations. I am not clear to what extent they have been reviewed to be effective. You need them to be fair and effective, and you need to consider the people who are excluded as well as those who happily champion them—as one does if one works for a big multinational; I have worked for one. My comments are intended to encourage the Committee to look at the detail to ensure that perverse effects are minimised and excluded where they can be.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating discussion on a number of amendments that are grouped around what I would call value-based procurement. The values should allow £300 billion of taxpayers’ money to be used to create good business and a solid foundation. We wish to see public money spent in a way that is based on the values we hold as a nation, not just in the UK but elsewhere.
It was interesting listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, who just said very distinctly that a value-based approach could have the effect of destroying competitiveness and productivity for certain companies and exclude them. All the businesses I have worked with—big ones, small ones, social enterprises, small and medium-sized enterprises—want a nudge from government at times to be able to do the right things. When the Government nudge in their procurement, they send a signal to the market that enables business to make decisions based on things other than the bottom line. I tend to find that that is a useful thing for them, rather than a negative thing. Therefore, I think that value-based procurement is really important.
I start by speaking to Amendment 331, signed by my noble friend Lord Fox—as you can see, I am struggling so I will not go on at great length, like the Minister did last week. Clause 59 creates a centralised debarment list that allows Ministers to prohibit suppliers from contracting with public bodies if they fall under the certain exclusionary grounds in Schedules 6 and 7. However, a supplier’s involvement with serious human rights abuses is not listed even as a discretionary ground for exclusion. I am sure that that is an omission by the Government and not a deliberate exclusion. Human rights abuses should be on the face of the Bill as a reason for debarment. You can argue whether it should be mandatory or discretionary—personally, I would like it to be mandatory—but it has to be at least discretionary. The purpose of this amendment is to allow Ministers to debar companies that have proven involvement with serious human rights abuses. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said about listing genocide there.
I have a particular interest in Gulf states, particularly human rights abuses in Bahrain. I could keep the Committee for hours on the significant human rights abuses in that country. A number of companies in the UK, both large and small, trade with some of the organisations that are directly linked to human rights abuses in Bahrain. However, under this Bill on public sector procurement, there would be no way of debarring them, even though these companies are sponsoring or are directly involved in working with organisations that are implicated in death, torture and the deprivation of liberty—for at least 20 years, in some cases. So I ask the Minister: why is this exclusion there? Has there been an oversight in not having human rights abuses on the face of the Bill?
I come to a couple of the other amendments that noble Lords have addressed. Amendments 174 and 179 on payment are really interesting and quite important, because cash flow is king, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises. Within the Bill are assumptions about 30-day payments to public sector organisations. There is an implied assumption in the Bill that the same subcontracting arrangements will take place between the major contractor and the subcontractor, but there is no mechanism for sanctions if that does not happen. That is why I think Amendments 174 and 179 are an interesting way of saying that there will be sanctions, in debarring people from getting public sector contracts.
I also speak to the amendment that makes an environmental offence grounds for mandatory exclusion. Again, “mandatory” and “discretionary” are interesting, but when one of the major issues, if not the major issue, facing us is environmental, there needs to be something in the Bill about environmental damage. I am not sure whether the exclusion should be for any environmental breach, because some are minor—although I would not want to undermine their importance—but there are issues with companies that continually do not take regard of the environment and the effects of climate change. That is something on which the Government need to reflect before Report, in looking at a potential debarment for businesses that continually take no regard of their effect on the environment and on climate change.
These are value-based issues. I can see what the Government will say on some of them when the Minister speaks from the Dispatch Box, but others are significant exclusions on which the Government need to reflect before Report.
My Lords, I will try to be reasonably brief in summing up some of the points made. I start by welcoming my noble friend’s Amendment 174 about late payment. It is a point he has made continually and this important amendment should not get lost in these great debates about serious international issues. His point about trying to support small and medium-sized businesses through dealing with late payments deals with the point that my noble friend Lady Hayman and I are also trying to deal with in Amendment 179. I would not want that to get lost.
In speaking to Amendment 329, in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hayman, and Amendment 331, in my name and those of my noble friend Lady Hayman, and the noble Lords, Lord Bethell and Lord Fox, I want to wrestle with whether the group is too big or not. At its heart it has the discussion and debate we have had through the Committee—and no doubt will have again on Report, when there will be votes on it—which is on what the Government are trying to achieve through their procurement policy. We are saying that, as well as being efficient, effective, value for money and all those things, there are certain social, economic and other objectives that the Government should also pursue. When we look at this group of amendments, which is about exclusion grounds, a whole range of different issues can be raised to say that, if a firm or supplier does this, it should be excluded from consideration when the contracting authority comes to make its procurement decisions.
Maybe the Government will say that these amendments are not necessary and that they do not want to add them to the Bill. A question then arises for the Minister—I do not believe he believes in accepting serious human rights abuses. If that is not going to be put in the Procurement Bill, how will the Government pursue their objective of trying to do something about serious human rights abuses through the Bill or will they not? Will they just leave it to the market to do?
That is the point of Amendment 331, which my noble friend Lady Hayman, the noble Lords, Lord Bethell and Lord Fox, and I have put down. We have listed just some of the grounds, and we think that, if a supplier is guilty of those human rights abuses as listed in the amendment, and others, the contracting authority should not procure from them. If that is not the right way of going about it, how will the Government ensure that contracting authorities do not purchase from those who have been guilty of serious human rights abuses such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, forced sterilisation and so on? I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that perhaps genocide needs taking from that; that may be helpful and is obviously something that can be looked at.
It is not just us in this Committee; the Foreign Affairs Committee has also said that the Government and the contracting authority need to take these things into account when it comes to purchasing. The Government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, published in November, says:
“The forthcoming Public Procurement Bill will further strengthen the ability of public sector bodies to disqualify suppliers from bidding for contracts where they have a history of misconduct, including forced labour or modern slavery.”
There is a lot of pressure from lots of different bodies to do something about this.
I thought my noble friend Lord Hain made a brilliant speech on his Amendments 184 and 187. He talked about Bain with respect to South Africa. If his amendments are not the right way of going about things, what will the Government do about it? These are the Committee’s questions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, made a very important point about environmental considerations in Amendment 310 and so on. The Government will say, “We are very concerned about the environment; we agree with the thrust of the amendment.” If that is true, and the amendment is not going to be accepted and go into the Bill, how will that aim be achieved? That is certainly the frustration that I feel, and I want the Minister to answer on how it will be achieved if this is not in the Bill.
I come to Amendment 353 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and me. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, also came in on that. I thank him for his kind remarks about my report at the Council of Europe; I appreciated that. That amendment is, again, about supply chains and how we ensure that contracting authorities do not contract with those who have modern slavery, exploitation and all those things that we would object to within their supply chains. If the Government do not agree with Amendment 353 and think it is unnecessary, how are they going to achieve what that amendment seeks to achieve? That is an important question for the Government to answer.
In other words, why are all the amendments in this group unnecessary? Why do they not matter? Why are they irrelevant? Why do we not need them in the Bill? How will the Government achieve all these objectives if they are going to say that all these amendments are not acceptable?
On the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, made—she also picked up one or two of the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, made—Schedules 6 and 7 are massive. To be frank about it, whatever the rights and wrongs of those schedules, they have huge implications. All I want to ask the Minister is: how have the lists in Schedules 6 and 7 both been arrived at?
You could pick up a number of examples. Why, for example, does Schedule 7(15) set out a discretionary ground for exclusion for threats to national security? I find that quite difficult to understand. No doubt there is a good reason for it but you would have thought that a national security threat would be a mandatory ground for exclusion. The reason is probably in there somewhere but I could not find it. If you look at Schedule 7, there is a whole list of slavery and trafficking offences that are discretionary. It might be that they should be so but you would have to do a lot to convince the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and me—let alone the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud—that they should be discretionary.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, noted, whatever the rights and wrongs of these schedules and whether they should be there or not, how have the lists been arrived at? The purpose of Committee is to try to understand what the Government are doing so that, on Report, we can make our minds up on whether amendments that can be voted on should be taken forward.
I thank the noble Lord for taking up the point about the extent of the schedules and the shared detail that people who are procuring—they are sometimes quite small organisations —will have to comply with. We have also heard that there will be guidance, so not only do you have the nightmare of a complicated Bill with rules that are different from the EU ones that, with great difficulty, people have become used to; you also have extra guidance that I do not suppose will be scrutinised by Parliament. That creates further difficulties for the people on the receiving end who are trying to do a good job. I emphasise that I am as keen as anybody to have companies doing the right thing but we have to find a way of getting this through, in not too complex a fashion, so that this can go forward smoothly.
That is a point well made. Indeed, the whole issue of the increase in the use of regulations by the Government is something that various Select Committees and other committees have commented on. It is a real difficulty because you do not know what the regulations will be. The legislation just gives the power to the Secretary of State to make regulations; you then wonder what they will be.
If I understood her amendment right, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, asked why some provisions in the schedules, perhaps really important ones, do not apply if a supplier contravenes them before the Bill becomes an Act. It strikes me that the self-cleansing we talked about earlier would have to be pretty dramatic if, on 26 February 2023, a firm was found guilty of breaking some of the mandatory conditions laid out in Schedule 6 then, on 3 March, it said it had dealt with those but you could not take into account the five days before when it had broken a lot of the conditions because it was before the Bill become an Act. Is that really what the Government intend? I am not sure because, when I read it, I could not quite make this out. I think that the point of the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is to try to understand exactly what the Government are getting at. What does “before” mean? There are a range of things in that.
The central point I want to make in speaking to our various amendments is that, if all these things are unnecessary around all these things that are really important, how are the Government going to achieve these objectives, many of which are part of their own policies? Many of us wish to see the Procurement Bill used as the vehicle to achieve that but the Government are resisting, and will resist, that. How will they be achieved if not through this Bill?
My Lords, there is a wide gamut of public policy that enables a Government to achieve the objectives on which they stood for office; that is a broader philosophical argument. I am not certain whether the noble Lord opposite wishes to have more in Schedules 6 and 7—he has certainly mentioned one aspect—or whether he makes a plea that something should be taken out. If the Labour Party wants to make a submission to change things and excise individual aspects of Schedules 6 and 7, no doubt we will look at that as our discussion advances in Committee.
I have been asked before about how we achieved the list. The noble Lord must understand that, although I accept the responsibility to answer for the Government and seek to do so, this pudding was mixed before I became responsible for this Bill; I was not there when it was decided which raisin and which sultana should be put into the pudding. None the less, a rational, serious and thoughtful process went into this. The Green Paper featured seven questions on exclusions. Together, they attracted a total of 2,603 responses. In addition, a series of workshops was held with internal and external stakeholders, including SMEs and strategic suppliers, to test the details of the proposals. So it is not that something just came out of the air.
Where the noble Lord is absolutely right, as other noble Lords have said, is that the grounds for the exclusion of suppliers are some of the most important elements of the Bill. I am not surprised that there has been such a high level of interest in them; I have listened carefully and will examine carefully the wide range of points put forward. It is because the grounds are significant that it is important that we have the process of review and challenge, which the noble Lord spoke about in our debate on a previous group.
Exclusion and debarment are different processes, obviously: exclusions are applied by individual contracting authorities in each procurement that they undertake whereas debarment, which is quite draconian, is where the Minister decides that a supplier must or may be excluded by all contracting authorities. Both are assessed against the same range of circumstances, as set out in Schedules 6 and 7, but the debarment list is intended for only the most serious cases whereas exclusion must be considered for all suppliers on all procurements.
I referred to the review process in our debate on an earlier group in relation to the exclusion process. So far as debarment is concerned, when a Minister decides to investigate a supplier—I have been asked in this Committee whether the Minister will and should investigate suppliers—the supplier will be notified and invited to submit the self-cleaning evidence and other representations. The Minister then considers whether the exclusion ground applies and whether self-cleaning has been sufficient such that the circumstances are unlikely to occur again. They then decide whether to add the supplier to the debarment list. A report is published, with a summary of the case and reasons for the decision. The supplier is added to the debarment list and may then appeal to the courts, as I explained earlier on the exclusions regime. The supplier can also ask for a review if its circumstances have changed, for example if it has undertaken new self-cleaning activities.
Before I come on to the main points made in the debate, I ought briefly to address the government amendments in this group. Amendment 302 would ensure that any reference to the debarment list in the entire Bill, rather than just this section, is to mean the list kept under Clause 59.
Amendment 303 would remove from the exclusion grounds offences relating to notification in Section 54 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. This is to ensure that only substantive terrorism offences are captured.
Amendments 304 and 305 would ensure that the equivalent offences in Northern Ireland and Scotland to those specified in Schedule 6 are covered by the mandatory exclusion grounds.
Amendment 309 would replace the tax evasion offences specified in Schedule 6 with a broader concept that covers these but also any other offences involving tax evasion. This will ensure that all tax evasion offences are caught by the mandatory grounds for exclusion, including any tax evasion offences that might be created in future.
Amendments 311 to 314 are technical amendments to ensure that the mandatory exclusion grounds on misconduct in relation to tax align with the relevant finance legislation.
Amendment 316 would ensure that the exemptions to the competition-related mandatory exclusion grounds apply only where appropriate. The provision exempts from exclusion individuals in receipt of a “no action” letter from the Competition and Markets Authority. These individuals do not need the exemption since the mandatory exclusion ground to which it relates can apply only to undertakings. Only undertakings that were themselves an immunity recipient should benefit from an exemption.
Amendments 324 and 325 are technical amendments which are necessary to ensure the clause reads appropriately. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, towards the end of the debate, put in a sort of counterpoint to some of the other requests that were put in by other noble Lords who spoke. Indeed, I think the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and I are on the same page in understanding there is a difference here in terms of the philosophical approach to the Bill and whether the Bill should be encrusted with an even wider range of provisions.
My noble friend set out her concerns about adding to the existing exclusion grounds transposed from the EU directive. The exclusion grounds in Schedules 6 and 7 are the product of extensive consultation, as I said at the outset, and the consensus was clear that the scope of the exclusion grounds needed to be clearer and more consistent. We believe that we have achieved both of these objectives. Where we have introduced new exclusion grounds or widened the scope of certain grounds, it is in order to address more consistently the risks faced by contracting authorities. Clause 55 provides that remedial evidence demanded from suppliers must be proportionate to the issues in question.
However, I point out to my noble friend that we have also narrowed the scope of certain grounds where appropriate. For instance, the current discretionary ground for violations of applicable obligations in the fields of environmental, social and labour law is so broad that suppliers face exclusion for relatively trivial breaches. We have boiled this down to target the most serious cases of labour and environmental misconduct. That may not please all, but the Government are seeking to find a balance. Overall, Schedules 6 and 7, in our submission, represent a significant refresh of the grounds in the EU directive, and we contend it was a much needed one. However, I say to my noble friend that we are obviously ready to engage on the details in the schedule between now and Report.
As it is still Committee, can I just ask a question about tax and competition offences? I am not clear whether those are forward-looking or backward-looking, so if you are a company that, for example, has had a competition or a cartel offence—a minor offence in a subsidiary—are you saying that those groups will be on a debarment list and can no longer be engaged? Similarly, if somebody has had a tax argument, which people have had in the past, and that has been settled—I think there have been some big brands in the past, not that I have been involved, that have had such settlements—are we somehow now saying that those are pariahs, and they are not allowed to engage in procurement for the future? I would just like to be clear about this because my worry is about the perverse effects of this debarment list you are going to have.
My noble friend makes an important point. There are elements in here which are looking back and there are elements which are about the present. Legal issues are raised here, and it is important that I come to my noble friend and the Committee with a very specific definition and response to her question in relation to tax and finances.
Amendments 174 and 317 proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and Amendment 179 from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, seek to bring matters related to prompt payment performance into scope of the supplier exclusion regime. Prompt payment is important; it is lifeblood, in many cases, to small enterprises. The Government are committed to ensuring prompt payment of suppliers, and there are a number of ways in which the Bill does this. For example, 30-day payment terms will apply throughout the public sector supply chain, regardless of whether they are expressly written into the contract. In addition, payment performance can be assessed as part of the award criteria, providing it is proportionate and relevant to the contract.
The Government encourage suppliers to sign up to the Prompt Payment Code. However, we submit that requiring every potential bidder to become a signatory to the Prompt Payment Code is too onerous on some suppliers and would discourage them from bidding, undermining the ability of contracting authorities to achieve value for money.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, with support from others, proposed Amendments 184 and 187, which seek powers for Ministers to exclude suppliers which have acted in any way unlawfully or unethically. The noble Lord was abundantly clear about what he had in mind when he spoke to his amendments, although he did not stop there; he made broader points about multinational behaviour which I also listened to and took in. We believe that, in the way the proposal is drafted, the threshold is too low for such a serious measure of acting in any way unlawfully or unethically. Exclusion should be reserved for suppliers which pose a serious risk to contracting authorities or the public. We believe that it is also appropriate that the decision to exclude suppliers falls in general to the contracting authority running a procurement.
However, the exclusion grounds cover unethical conduct. Any serious breach of ethical or professional standards applicable to a supplier is deemed to be professional misconduct, whether or not those standards are mandatory. The noble Lord will be pleased to know that professional misconduct is a ground where a debarment case could be made, as drafted in Schedule 7, paragraph 12(1), although I make it clear that I am not commenting on any individual case. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, told the Committee, I understand that he is meeting my right honourable friend the Minister to discuss this issue. The review led by Cabinet Office officials into the case that he asked for—and indeed the Prime Minister instructed to be done—is now complete and is currently being considered by the Minister. Unfortunately, I cannot say any more at this stage.
I am grateful to the Minister. I will not detain the Committee, except to say that I find it hard to understand that a company that has clearly acted unlawfully, let alone unethically, in another country simply lines up with the rest for government tenders. I do not understand how that is consistent with honest business practice, let alone honest government practice.
My Lords, the noble Lord made a strong case on this before. He has repeated it in a shorter version. I have told the Committee that the review has been conducted, as he—and the Prime Minister—asked. That is now complete, so let us see what happens. I cannot give any more detail because I simply do not know it as I stand here. The new debarment list will allow Ministers to debar suppliers in the most serious cases and therefore there is no need to make the additional provision.
Amendments 310, 318 and 322 tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Young, seek to add conviction of any environmental offence as a ground for mandatory exclusion. The mandatory grounds for exclusion are by nature a blunt instrument. They require the supplier to face exclusion from every public contract for five years, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe pointed out, unless and until the risk of the issues reoccurring has been addressed. For this reason, they are reserved for the most serious forms of misconduct.
The inclusion of environmental offences in the discretionary ground reflects the fact that, for offences where a range of misconduct may be involved, it may be appropriate to take into account factors such as the nature of the contract being tendered or the level of environmental harm caused, before deciding to exclude a supplier. There is guidance from the Environment Agency on what constitutes environmental harm.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, proposed Amendment 329, which seeks to introduce a discretionary exclusion ground where a supplier’s tender violates applicable obligations in the fields of environmental, social and labour law. I have already explained why we elected to narrow the exclusion ground relating to breaches of such law.
Amendment 330 tabled by my noble friend Lady Noakes—a narrow amendment and a welcome one in that respect—probes why there is a discretionary ground for exclusion on acting improperly in procurement when a similar provision appears to be made in Clause 30. These two provisions are different: the discretionary ground for exclusion at paragraph 14 of Schedule 7 applies to behaviour which occurred in a past procurement; the provision at Clause 30 applies only where the behaviour occurred in the procurement in question. It is important that both situations are provided for, but different considerations apply in respect of self-cleaning and unfair advantage, and this is why the provisions appear separately.
Amendment 331, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, introduces a new discretionary exclusion ground in relation to human rights abuses. I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally—of which this Government are no less jealous than their predecessors. However, the protection of rights in this country is also underpinned by due process of law. The exclusions regime is not a substitute for a judicial process, despite the remedies system I described earlier. It cannot function like a court in delivering a full and fair trial.
The ground for “professional misconduct” is clear that this can include
“a serious breach of ethical or professional standards applicable to the supplier.”
This ground may well be met where a supplier has committed many of the acts referred to by noble Lords, but many contracting authorities will not be prepared or equipped to consider human rights violations more broadly, and we should not force them to do so. We must avoid imposing unreasonable burdens on contracting authorities which already struggle to apply exclusion grounds. This is why most of the exclusion grounds require a criminal conviction or regulatory decision, and why they focus on the risks which are most relevant to a procurement context.
Amendment 332, tabled by my noble friend Lady Noakes, addresses the time periods that apply when considering the discretionary exclusion grounds. This is a transitional regime; it allows for consideration of past events only in respect of grounds which exist under the current regime, but not for new or substantially changed grounds. This maximises the immediate impact of the new regime while avoiding unfair outcomes for suppliers. My noble friend questions why labour market misconduct, environmental misconduct and poor performance which occurred prior to the Bill coming into force are not considered. These grounds are, in certain respects, broader in scope than the existing regime. It would be unfair to impose exclusion on suppliers for events which occurred before this was set in law.
Amendment 340 requires publication of statutory guidance on the application of the exclusion grounds. As I said in response to an earlier group, I accept the need for more detailed guidance on self-cleaning; I addressed the matter in the previous debate on the exclusions process.
Finally, I turn to the very important Amendment 353 on supply chain resilience against economic coercion and modern slavery put forward by my noble friend Lady Stroud. I listened most carefully to the impassioned and heartfelt speeches made by many noble Lords on all sides. I appreciate my noble friend’s dedication and commitment to these issues. On both issues in question, the Bill already provides for much of what she seeks to achieve. On resilience, the Bill requires contracts to be awarded to the most advantageous tender. This allows for a holistic assessment of value for money which could, if relevant, take into account long-term supply chain resilience against geopolitical instability. Of course, there is no place for modern slavery in any supply chains. There is already comprehensive guidance for contracting authorities on assessing and addressing modern slavery risks in supply chains.
As my noble friend knows, we are not only strengthening the grounds for exclusion in relation to modern slavery, but introducing, for the first time in the UK, a debarment list of suppliers. For the first time, we are making explicit provision to disregard bids from suppliers known to use forced labour or perpetuate modern slavery themselves or in their supply chain. I concede that the current rules are too weak in this regard: they require the supplier to have been convicted, or for there to have been a breach of international treaties banning forced labour, or they require evidence of grave professional misconduct.
We recognise that modern slavery often occurs in countries which are not party to international treaties on forced labour and which are unlikely to prosecute the perpetrators, and where there may be no relevant national laws. Paragraph 3 of Schedule 7 allows authorities to exclude suppliers and disregard their bids where there is sufficient evidence of modern slavery—
I have listened very carefully to the description the noble Lord has given. Exactly the same kind of provisions exist in states which do torture, where there are no laws or treaties that those states uphold. So, what is the difference between modern slavery and torture when they take place in a state where the laws and the regime that rules that state do not protect its citizens from either?
My Lords, I referred to the position where there may be no relevant national laws. The Government’s submission is that this Bill greatly strengthens the defences we have against modern slavery and the vile abuse of individuals in these circumstances. As I said, this will apply whether or not there has been a conviction or a breach of an international treaty.
On modern slavery, the Minister is surely saying that there has to have been a conviction for somebody to be on the debarred list. The first person prosecuted under the Modern Slavery Act—I almost hesitate to say this—was Sainsbury, so they had a case against them. Sorry, I am just trying to understand this; is the Minister saying that they would therefore be on the debarment list? I do not think that is the intention.
No: I said that the current rules are too weak. They do require the supplier to have been convicted. I am saying that we are moving beyond that to a different evidential base and test. I recognise the strength of feeling among noble Lords on this issue. I commit to engaging further with my noble friend and other Members of the Committee on this prior to Report. On that basis, I respectfully request that these amendments are not pursued.
My Lords, that was the very definition of a wide-ranging debate. I do not want to delay the Committee for too long, but I must just say that I appreciate the difficult hand that the Minister is having to play at this stage. I reflect on the fact that I have been in this House for just over eight years, and during that time, there is not a single piece of legislation I have been involved with that has been delivered with the intention that the Ministers wanted. All have failed for one reason or the other, and all are coming up for some form of revision at different points. It seems to me that yet again we have a problem in drafting and delivery that will bedevil this Bill as it goes on.
I also have to say that I do not really think it is that radical a Bill. As the chairman of a public limited company, I think that the Government, who have been pressing the corporate sector to take ESG and other matters more seriously, have been leap-frogged by the private sector and are quite behind. There can be a better process in thinking this through to delivery—one that either takes a different form of comply or explain, or other sorts of things—but the Bill is starting to get to the point where it does not really address the issues or create good behaviour. In the end, we are going to end up with an overreliance on decisions made by people who I suspect have not really seen how these things work in real life. So, while I beg leave to withdraw my amendment, I think it is important to understand that over time we may live to regret quite a few of the provisions we have put in this Bill.
Amendment 174 withdrawn.
Amendments 175 and 176
175: Clause 30, page 19, line 17, leave out from “must” to end of line 18 and insert “in relation to the award—
(a) treat the supplier as an excluded supplier for the purpose of assessing tenders under section 18, and(b) exclude the supplier from participating in, or progressing as part of, any competitive tendering procedure.”
176: Clause 30, page 19, leave out line 23 and insert “In subsection (1), the reference to a supplier acting improperly is reference to a supplier—”
Amendments 175 and 176 agreed.
Committee adjourned at 8.55 pm.