Give councils the core role in local public accounts committees

By Mo Baines | 25 January 2023

It’s my first column for The MJ as the Association for Public Service Excellence’s (APSE) new chief executive and, as column inches go, there is fierce competition with Prince Harry’s frostbite.

It may not provide the same level of clickbait for The MJ’s avid readership but winding its way through Parliament is the Public Procurement Bill, a lengthy tome setting out the post-Brexit ‘freedoms’ transposing EU Directives into a near-single regime for the UK. This might not be particularly interesting, except that it is – not so much because of what is now in the Bill, following hundreds of amendments and much debate – but because of what it tells us about how we use public money.

Pre-pandemic, according to the Treasury’s whole-of-Government accounts, public spend in 2019-20 saw 32% of the total sum of £295.5bn go to the private sector. A figure that increased by 16% between 2019-20 and 2020-21 and the following year by a further 8%. While mainstream media has focused on the misspends on PPE contracts, these figures highlight the significance of public spend on private contractor payments and supplies. Recent industrial unrest, a paucity of secure well-paid employment, and tragedies like Grenfell, raise questions as to what levers the public sector can pull when passporting public funds to the private sector. While APSE is a fierce proponent for social value in public contracts, the logistical and practical application of this can prove ineffective, not just for public sector ‘buyers’ but for private or third-sector ‘providers’.

The Bill was amended at report stage to ensure the National Procurement Policy Statement reflected social value principles, including ‘economic, social, environmental and public safety priorities’ alongside ‘accountability for public spending’. In APSE’s view, public money – whether spent directly or through third parties – should maximise the bang for the public buck. However, it is actionable enforcement on the ground that will deliver fairness and genuine public value, greener contracting and prevent socio-economic harms. If the aims of the Bill are to become a reality, is it now not time to give local councils a genuine role in holding all local public service providers to account? What better way to achieve this than giving by councils the core role in local public accounts committees.

Mo Baines is chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence


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