Time to stand up for our national interest, and not be a slave to EU procurement nonsense

Britain shouldn't be hamstrung by rules from Brussels which make no sense, writes Michael Dugher.

The Government recently confirmed that the German conglomerate, Siemens, has won the £1.6bn contract to build rolling stock for the Thameslink line.  This decision is a huge blow to Bombardier, the Derby-based train manufacturer, and a stark example of the Government’s approach to British industry.  Ministers have defended the appalling decision by citing EU procurement rules, but it is inconceivable that any other EU country, bound by the same rules, would have made the same decision 

This month also saw the first meeting of Labour’s new cross-departmental procurement group, made up of a frontbench shadow minister from every shadow team.  The quality of procurement practise across the public sector varies markedly and part of the problem is that there is still a fragmented approach with Whitehall operating in silos.   The aim of the new group is to address this, as well as to develop new thinking to feed into our ongoing policy reviews.  One of the major issues we will be looking at is the need for more flexibility in relation to EU procurement rules. 

The problems around EU procurement are complex and far from new.  Initially, EU Directives were designed to ensure transparency and non-discrimination, leading to outcomes which represent good value for money.  But there has been a growing sense amongst British businesses that when it comes to EU procurement rules, the current system simply doesn’t function fairly and that our continental neighbours (and competitors) manage to support their domestic industry in a way that simply doesn’t happen enough in the UK.  This has got to be bad for the British economy.    

In 2004, Gordon Brown commissioned Alan Wood to look into this area and he produced a report which showed just how one-sided the procurement rules have been operated.  Many British business leaders quoted in the report spoke of an uneven playing field and how other European countries were able to fit the specifications of a contract to give a good chance to domestic suppliers.  This explains, for example, why all trains in Germany are built by Siemens.

In countries like Germany and (above all) France, contracts are often sliced up into parts so that each slice falls below the minimum required for compulsory international tendering.   There is also often an important specification that states that as well as considering price, the final choice has to represent “best value”, a concept which forces Ministers to take into consideration wider economic, environmental and strategic industrial factors. 

The result is that the single market in procurement is often a bit of a chimera, with countries tending to support home industries and domestic taxpayers as much as they can.

The obvious question then is this: why have we not been acting in the same way in the UK?  In Britain, it seems, many of the problems have stemmed from what might be described as Whitehall's rather ambivalent attitude towards British industry.  For years, civil servants in Whitehall have too often used EU procurement rules as a basis - an excuse even - to make recommendations to Ministers that simply do not do the right thing by the UK.

As the procurement expert Professor Dermot Cahill said when giving evidence to the new shadow procurement group this month, purchasers often hide behind EU law as “the problem”.  He added that to start with only 20 per cent of public procurement tenders are large enough to fall under the EU rule requirements, and that even large contracts are more flexible than they are sometimes made out to be.   

Unfortunately, Ministers in this Government appear either to share the indifference to British industry or are simply content to sign off advice without properly challenging their officials.  The Government’s handling of the Thameslink contract is an example of this attitude.  And another scandalous recent example was with the London Olympics – where out of the 2,717 cars procured to drive officials and athletes around during the event, only a 360 were manufactured in the UK.

So a complete shift in mind-set is needed in Whitehall.  Public procurement is an important driver for economic growth and employment and its creative use can help maximise the impact of public spending.  As Ed Balls has said recently, Labour could be set to inherit a very difficult financial situation in 2015, which will require us to govern in a different way with much less money around.  So how we use procurement to best effect and best value will become increasingly important.   

Ed Miliband and Chuka Umunna have both already spoken about using the power of procurement to support British innovation and jobs, calling for large suppliers to offer apprenticeship opportunities on public contracts as a way of sharing the proceeds of growth.  And over the last few years, the Labour Government in Wales has been successfully moving towards this wider approach.  For example, Dermot Cahill said that the introduction of “community benefit” criteria in Wales has meant that there is public value left behind when procurement contracts finish.     

This approach is certainly not about being anti-open competition.  It is about being smarter.  It is about considering what is best for the UK, in a wider economic context, when deciding the criteria for major public procurement contracts and when spending British tax-payers money. 

And despite perceived wisdom, none of this is incompatible with EU law.  Of course, there are technical revisions to EU procurement rules that will help remove barriers for British businesses trying to access the European market - and this will be part of Labour’s determination to drive reform in the EU so it once again works in our national interest.  But crucially, we need to look at why we are not showing the same ingenuity and flexibility that other EU states currently do.

The irony is that by standing up more for our national interest, and refusing to be a slave to EU procurement nonsense, our approach might actually make us more European in that we would be acting in a way that is more like our European counterparts.  The consequence of this would be Britain left better off.        

Michael Dugher MP is Shadow Minister without Portfolio and Vice-Chair of the Labour party. He jointly chairs, together with Chuka Umunna, Labour's frontbench procurement group

Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and the former Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.