Charity leaders have warned peers that new guidance for procurement “simply isn’t going to work” for charities.
A House of Lords committee heard earlier this week that the government’s intentions behind a green paper on simplifying the system for procuring goods and services, while “laudable”, was poorly suited to small charities trying to help their communities.
Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, and Paul Streets, chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation, also argued that grants were a better way for local and national government to guarantee quality and innovation from voluntary bodies.
'An opportunity lost'
The green paper, which was published last month and sets out government plans for consultation on "a single, uniform framework" for procurement, was being discussed at the House of Lords Public Services Committee.
Streets told the committee: “We think that the aspirations were laudable. We think that the government’s intent was absolutely sincere in this. It did want to create a set of regulations which were simple to use that actually covered everything.”
However, the plan “feels like an enormous opportunity lost”, he said, describing the paper as “a triumph of process over purpose” which would discourage charities and local authorities from working together to solve social problems.
Asked about the difference between how the government approached buying goods, like crockery in Parliament, compared to how it paid for frontline services provided by charities, Streets said: “What works for crockery simply isn’t going to work for domestic violence [charities] in Stoke.”
Evans said the system needed “two different regimes for services commissioning and procurement of goods”.
“It is impossible to ask a single set of rules to give the right weighting and balance to each of those,” she said, adding: “There is no market for befriending services for the elderly. It is not a market.”
Evans: Government is asking the wrong question
Earlier in the session, Evans said that the green paper posed the wrong question.
She said: “One of my favourite quotes is that if you are doing the wrong thing then doing it better makes you wronger, not righter.
“If you start doing the right thing wrong, then every step in the right direction is a step to improve.
“And unfortunately, this [paper] is reinforcing the wrong starting point. It is starting with procurement rules and with public services.
“What we need to start with is the people who need them.”
Call for more grants
Evans and Streets also argued that grant funding, rather than procurement contracts, would help charities work in partnership with local authorities.
Evan said: “It is possible, and quicker, to use grant funding to support partnerships without going near a procurement reg[ulation].
“I have always been bewildered at the out-of-vogueness of the idea that discretionary grants are still at the discretion of local commissioners, [when they can] can make partnerships happen very quickly.”
Streets said later that half the organisations funded by the Lloyds Bank Foundation receive grants alongside other sources of income including central government contract cash, a “mixed economy” which was important for their survival.
Evans concluded that commissioning contracts were never an effective way to help charities adopt new ideas.
“Contracting for innovation is like dancing to architecture. It is the wrong noun for the verb,” she said.