The Government’s Procurement Bill falls far short of fulfilling our duty as lawmakers to make the best use of the public money, argues Mick Whitley MP

Public procurement practices are in urgent need of reform. We are all aware of the serious allegations of bad practice surrounding the “VIP lanes” for PPE during the pandemic. But the Government’s proposed Procurement Bill, now going through parliament, falls far short of fulfilling our duty as lawmakers to make the best use of the public money that we invest across our country’s economy. That’s why I led a much-needed parliamentary debate on the issue in Westminster Hall on 25th January.

I argued that it was neither unreasonable nor beyond Parliament’s powers to address the needs of our communities in every corner of the UK by embedding a requirement for a measure of social value as integral to every contract awarded.

After all, we are talking about public contracts that account for one in every £3 of taxpayers’ money spent, totalling £300 billion of public funds every year. That level of spending should bring direct benefits to the people of this country and not primarily to the corporations who win most contracts and, still less, to those in tax havens who utilise loopholes in the law to siphon of taxpayer’s money into offshore accounts.

The proposed Bill does not match the scale and scope of reform needed to ensure that the existing public procurement procedures address the needs of the British people following the UK’s exit from the European Union. Nor does it provide guarantees that the danger of corruption is permanently removed from the process of awarding of contracts.

Plenty of people are familiar with the old ships of the Mersey Ferry, an iconic symbol of Merseyside and one that I and the region’s other MPs are rightly proud of. But after years of transporting tourists and commuters across the river they need renewing and the mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram successfully won a grant for them to be replaced.

The Ferries will operate between the Wirral, including Birkenhead, and Liverpool. Birkenhead is a shipbuilding town, home to the world famous Cammell Laird shipyard. In any rational world it would make perfect sense to build and refurbish the new ferries in the shipyard that sits on the river they will be sailing on.

But what happened next goes to the very heart of the Public Procurement Process and, unfortunately, is not addressed by the proposed Bill.

I worked closely with the Mayor and the trade unions in Cammell Laird – we all wanted the best deal for local people. Eventually a joint venture agreement between a Dutch shipbuilding firm and Cammell Laird was agreed. But under the existing rules the allocation of the work – the amount of work that could be awarded to each site – could not be agreed or decided by the Mayor despite him being the person awarding the contract. This means that a lifeline to employment opportunities in a deprived constituency such as Birkenhead were at the mercy of a Dutch company.

Social value evaluations are not compulsory under the existing Procurement laws and will not be compulsory under the current Bill should it pass unamended. Sound commercial practice tied the hands of the Mayorthroughout the tendering process for the ferries.

Social value is not an empty or abstract phrase. Cammell Laird is the largest employer in my constituency. Its order books create jobs, enable young people to take up apprenticeships and learn vital skills, give the shops, restaurants and sandwich bars in the local community a healthy influx of customers and of course create numerous jobs in the supply chain for local firms.

In a town like Birkenhead, where an above average number of benefit claimants struggle to survive, where shops close because so few people have decent wages to spend in them, where children with little hope of a good job and decent wages become easy prey for criminal scavengers who run County Lines drug operations, the impact of work flowing into Cammell Laird is vital to turn despair and poverty into hope and prosperity.

That is why public procurement practices must embed social value into public contracts. Reform can truly enhance the life chances of our people.


Bio: Mick Whitley, Member of Parliament for Birkenhead.

I was privileged to be elected Member of Parliament for Birkenhead in December 2019. I have worked hard to fulfil my election commitment of turning the town’s fortunes around and building a better Birkenhead – cleaner, greener and attracting investment, jobs and prosperity. I was born and bred in Birkenhead. My father was a shipwright on the docks, my mum worked at Cammell Laird Shipyard and my brothers served their time there too. After a spell in the Merchant Navy, I worked for Vauxhall Motors for nearly 40 years, becoming a trade union organiser and later regional secretary for Unite the Union.

Mick Whitley MP

Michael Whitleyis a British politician who has served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Birkenhead since 2019. He is a member of the Labour Party.