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WAO seeks procurement improvement

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Highlights risks of defective procurement: Huw Vaughan Thomas

IN 2015-16, public bodies in Wales spent around £6 billion through procurement on a range of goods, services and works but need to improve their performance to ensure value for money.

That’s the message of wide-ranging report from the Wales Audit Office (WAO), which suggests that the existing procurement process provides no more than mixed results.

In a changing landscape, public bodies face challenges in balancing potentially competing procurement priorities, responding to new policy, legislation and technology, and in the recruitment and retention of key personnel.

The Welsh Government’s 2015 policy statement sets out the overriding principles for public procurement, in the context of relevant EU and UK procurement legislation.

However, the WAO report has found that national governance arrangements could be strengthened, with the national procurement board currently having limited effectiveness.

Of the £6 billion spent through procurement in 2015-16, £880 million was through collaborative procurement managed by the three main Wales-based consortia and public buying organisations. While these organisations are reporting financial savings and other benefits, public bodies have mixed views on their effectiveness.

The report also highlights clear scope for improvement in procurement arrangements at a local level. Public bodies have experienced several notable procurement failures and our audit work continues to identify examples of other weaknesses.

New legislation – including the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 – presents new challenges and despite some investment by the Welsh Government, public bodies continue to have problems in recruiting and retaining qualified procurement personnel.

Developments in technology present opportunities to make procurement processes more efficient but are not yet being used consistently.

The report makes eight recommendations on issues including:

  • Membership of the national Procurement Board – the Welsh Government plans to merge this board with the National Procurement Service board.
  • Regular review by public bodies of their procurement strategies and polices to ensure that these stay up to date with the changing landscape.
  • The scope of any future Procurement Fitness Checks – the Welsh Government has been planning to roll out a new programme of checks.
  • For the Welsh Government to explore the impact of differential pay for procurement staff across different sectors and any potential solutions.

Auditor General, Huw Vaughan Thomas, said: “Procurement is one of the key ways in which public bodies need to be able to demonstrate that they are securing value for money. Our findings are clear: while public bodies face a range of challenges in a changing procurement landscape, they can do more to strengthen their procurement arrangements and recent examples highlight the financial and reputational risks of getting procurement wrong.”

The Chair of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM, said: “The Committee has been concerned by recent examples of poor procurement practice and this report emphasises the significant amount of money spent each year by public bodies through their procurement activity.

“There are clearly opportunities to ensure better value for money, not just by avoiding obviously poor practice but also by maximising wider benefits from contracts where possible.

“Public bodies need to ensure that they have access to the commercial skills necessary to manage potentially complex procurement activity and it is concerning that, despite some investment by the Welsh Government, public bodies are still facing difficulties recruiting and retaining the skills they need.

“The Committee will be considering the findings in this report and in the separate report that the Auditor General is preparing about the National Procurement Service over the coming weeks.”

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Politics

Halfway to Paradise

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Jonathan Edwards: Question ignored

PARLIAMENT had its first opportunity to discuss the unsurprising revelation that the seriously wealth retain their serious wealth by means of aggressive tax avoidance schemes on Monday (Nov 6).

With the Chancellor of the Exchequer engaged elsewhere, questions were fielded by Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Mid Devon, Mel Stride.

It appeared that Mr Stride was unprepared to admit that anything was at all untoward with tax avoidance schemes that only the rich and shameless can afford.

Adopting a startling line – prefigured by briefings to the right wing national media – Mr Stride averred that there was no ethical difference between a retail investment available to all UK residents, namely the ISA, and Apple sending out a questionnaire to British Crown Dependences asking them whether or not they would be so kind as to allow Apple to use a brass plate in one of them to ensure it did not have to pay that pesky tax on hundreds of billions in profits.

Never mind brass plate: Mr Stride’s stance had the appearance of brass neck.

In fact, he made great play of the fact that Labour – last in government seven years ago – had done nothing to close the tax loopholes the party now complained of during thirteen years in power. And he was helped in repeatedly avoiding – or perhaps evading – the main issue by being given the opportunity to underline that point by a number of tame questions posed by Conservative backbench stooges.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, presented with the opportunity to make a decent and succinct point on the subject attempted to ask questions of Mel Stride, specifically with regard to investments made by the Duchy of Lancaster – whose current chancellor is Conservative MP Patrick Loughlin – on the Queen’s behalf in offshore tax vehicles.

He may as well have tried nailing jelly to the wall.

David Lammy invited the minister to explain the legitimate reasons for funnelling money offshore to avoid tax, when two-thirds of UK taxpayers are subject to PAYE and have no choice in the matter.

Mr Stride’s response was as remarkable for ducking the question as it was for its content.

“It may be that I want a trust for my children and I do not want it to be known publicly exactly how that trust will operate, for reasons of confidentiality,” Mr Stride suggested, indicating that all was preventing the average worker from availing themselves of the opportunity was a lack of ingenuity and the odd £10m knocking around to make such a vehicle worthwhile.

Jonathan Edwards’ question and its answer deserve full repetition to underline the extent to which the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was prepared to be candid.

Jonathan Edwards asked: “After nearly a decade of austerity, and with living standards facing their biggest squeeze in nearly a century, the public will, quite rightly, be outraged by the most recent revelations. The Treasury cannot run with both the foxes and the hounds on this, so will it back either the ordinary working people or the super-rich? Which will it be?”

So, the question is whether the government back the wealthy over the poor and acknowledge the outrage of those with no choice but to hand over their money to the Treasury.

Mr Stride’s response suggests he heard an entirely different question.

“The hon. Member talks about our having to live within our means, and it is, of course, right that we do that. He talks about the amount of money we need to bring in. What has been most unhelpful is that the previous Labour Government were so ineffective at bringing in tax, the tax gap became so high they cost our country over £40b. If they had had the same average level of tax gap in their last seven years in office as we have had in our seven years, we would be about £45 billion better off.”

An answer to the question actually posed was absent.

It was that sort of performance. Brazen, shameless, partisan, and deliberately obstructive.

Mr Stride will go far on that sort of form.

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Politics

New leader for Welsh Liberal Democrats

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'We've been down but aren't out': Jane Dodds

JANE DODDS has been elected by Welsh Liberal Democrat Members as the party’s new Leader, beating Ceredigion candidate Elizabeth Evans in a keenly-fought contest.

Jane Dodds, Montgomeryshire Candidate and child protection social worker, takes over the role from Acting Leader Kirsty Williams immediately.
The result was announced to an audience of members in Cardiff by returning officer Lord German.

Jane Dodds, the new Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, commented: “It is an honour to have been elected as the next leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats – to focus my energy on bringing like-minded people together to rebuild our party and to re-establish the Welsh Liberal Democrats as the radical, progressive force of Welsh politics.

“I’d like to thank Liz Evans for running an excellent campaign and giving members a vital opportunity to discuss our next steps as a party. I’d also like to pay tribute to Mark Williams and Kirsty Williams for their unwavering commitment to our party.

“Wales needs the Welsh Liberal Democrats now more than ever. Wales needs the progressive, pragmatic, and reforming voice of Welsh Liberal Democrats in the Assembly and in Westminster to give us an exit from Brexit, a fresh look on creating more and better paid jobs, protecting our environment, and delivering on Kirsty Williams’ education reforms.

“We have been down, but we aren’t out, and I’m confident of what lies ahead for my party.”

Kirsty Williams AM, Welsh Liberal Democrat Cabinet Secretary for Education said: “The Welsh Liberal Democrat membership had two fantastic candidates to choose between. Two proud Welsh women with long records of standing up for their communities.

“What has become clear over the last few years is that nothing can be taken for granted. We must fight tooth and nail for the values that we liberals hold dear.

“I know that the Welsh Liberal Democrats will be safe in Jane’s hands. I know she has the skills, drive and energy as we look to rebuild this great party.”

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Politics

Impact of Brexit on Wales discussed

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Progress being made: Carwyn Jones

PARLIAMENTARY questions last Thursday (Oct 26) were not easy for Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis.

Nailed to the spot about pronouncements he had made to a committee of MPs the previous day which had rapidly been contradicted by the Prime Minister, he managed to combine apparent certainty that there was no tension between his position and government policy (whatever that turns out to be) with an unwillingness to acknowledge that anyone could conceivably be concerned about Parliamentary sovereignty being bypassed by the refusal to give it a vote on Brexit’s terms.

For those who backed Brexit on the principle that parliamentary sovereignty and the ability of the House of Commons to make and scrutinise legislation was of paramount importance, it was uncomfortable listening.

Bluster and bloody-mindedness, it is rapidly turning out, are no substitute for the ability to master a brief, understand it, express it, and stick to it.

In fact, the position was rendered even worse by statements made by the Ministers of State in Mr Davis’ own department the previous day that they had not even bothered to read, let alone understand, briefing papers prepared for them by their own civil servants on the potential impact of leaving the EU. You might suppose that ignorance is bliss and, if it is, the Minister wished to share its blessings widely by refusing others the opportunity to examine that of which they remain willfully – and, no doubt ecstatically, ignorant.

After being offered sympathy by Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Sir Kier Starmer for the difficulties in which he found himself, Mr Davis was successively hit by a series of exasperated questions – some from his own colleagues – to which he offered increasingly snappy and impatient answers.

Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards, who has the misfortune of seeming to be more familiar with Mr Davis’ brief than Mr Davis does himself and doomed to try to educate pork as a result, attempted to get a straight answer on whether or not the UK Government would seek endorsements for the Brexit deal – if any – from devolved administrations.

Jonathan Edwards reminded MPs that national and regional Parliaments within EU member states will all be consulted on the final withdrawal deal and that six months have been allocated for that process.

Mr Edwards asked Brexit Secretary David Davis that ‘in order to ensure that the future relationship works for every part of the British state’ did he agree that ‘the formal endorsement of the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly should be sought before any final deal is reached—or is it going to be a case of “Westminster knows best”?’

In response, Mr Davis again failed to guarantee Wales a voice in the deal, stating ‘this is a treaty for the United Kingdom’.

Bearing in mind the continued absence of any commitment to discuss with ministers within the devolved administration on any substantive points, it seems that the UK Government is increasingly determined to go its own way and drag the other nations of the UK along behind it.

Speaking after Mr Davis’ shambolic and ill-tempered performance, Jonathan Edwards said: “As I and my Plaid Cymru colleagues have said before: the British Government is using the Brexit process as a means of re-centralising power in Westminster, rolling back the progress we have made towards self-government in order to reinstate Westminster-rule.

“In his answer to me this week the Brexit Secretary once again fails to guarantee our democratically elected representatives in the Welsh Parliament a formal role in influencing the deal with the European Union. This is particularly concerning when we consider the profound economic differences between Wales and England.

“The position of the British Government is even more insulting when we consider that devolved governments within the other EU member states will have an opportunity to influence and effectively veto the deal. The British government needs to say why it refuses to afford the same right to the devolved governments here.”

However, on Monday (Oct 30) the UK Government made an effort to – at least partly – assuage those concerns.

First Minister Carwyn Jones met with Theresa May in Downing Street in an attempt to at least break down the conflict between the Senedd and Westminster on how a way forward might be found in relation to what Mr Jones had previously described as ‘a constitutional crisis’.

Speaking to BBC Wales after the meeting, Mr Jones said: “Progress is now being made in making sure there is agreement as to the way forward, not imposition. But that progress needs to continue. We’re not in a position yet to support the bill.

“The bill needs to change so the warm words that we hear are reflected on the face of the bill, and that means making sure that powers meant to come to Wales do come to Wales.”

Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns said: “I’m optimistic that the Welsh government will be able to respond to the new powers that they’ll get, but also that we’ll have a common framework around the UK that will work for business and for stakeholders and for investors.”

A No 10 spokesperson said Mrs May and Mr Jones ‘spoke about constructive dialogue at the recent Joint Ministerial Committee and the progress made on working together to establish principles on common frameworks’.

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