11. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on whether the guidelines for public procurement are being applied consistently throughout the public service; the specific measures that have been implemented to ensure that there is adherence to the rules on public procurement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 53462/17 asked on 14 Dec 2017)
Deputy Dara Calleary: The Minister and I have had several discussions on procurement and particularly on making it a friendlier process for small business. Is he happy that the guidelines for public procurement are consistent across the public service? Is he happy that those rules are being applied? Will he comment on an issue that arose overnight, the spending of €135,000 by the Central Bank on a lighting installation in its new headquarters? Is that a good use of taxpayers’ money?
Deputy Patrick O’Donovan: I thank the Deputy for his question. As he and the rest of the House know, public procurement is governed by well-established European Union, EU, and national rules and guidelines. The aim of these rules is to promote an open, competitive and non-discriminatory public procurement regime which delivers best value for money.
As Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with special responsibility for public procurement, I launched new public procurement guidelines for goods and services in July this year. These guidelines replace previous guidelines published by the Department of Finance and take account of 2014 EU directives on public procurement, as implemented in Ireland. The purpose of these guidelines is to promote best practice and consistency of application of the public procurement rules relating to the purchase of goods and services. The guidelines form part of the national procurement policy framework, which consists of five strands. These are legislation, policy, capital works management framework for public works, general procurement guidelines for goods and services and more detailed technical guidelines, template documents and notes issued periodically by the policy unit of the Office of Government Procurement.
These new guidelines are aimed at demystifying some of the more complex rules and procedures around public procurement and making them more accessible to both contracting authorities and suppliers. They are intended to serve as a tool kit for practitioners and a general reference document for suppliers. They have been written in plain language with a view to providing a clear appreciation of the rules and best practice attached to the various stages of the procurement process from specification through to selection and award stages, and through to the contract management stage. They promote and reinforce improved best practice, standardisation and consistency of approach among public procurement practitioners. The guidelines facilitate public bodies in meeting their corporate governance requirements relating to procurement. However, it is the responsibility of each contracting authority to ensure they comply with EU and national rules relating to public procurement.
Public procurement practices are subject to audit and scrutiny under the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993 and the Local Government Reform Act 2014, and Accounting Officers are publicly accountable for expenditure incurred. Individual contracting authorities are responsible for establishing arrangements for ensuring the proper conduct of their affairs, including conformance to standards of good governance and accountability with regard to procurement.
I do not have the details of the last point mentioned by the Deputy. I did not hear of it overnight but I will certainly have my office and the Office of Government Procurement look at it and I will facilitate the Deputy with an answer later.
Deputy Dara Calleary: I thank the Minister of State. It is in this morning’s Irish Mirror and I recommend that the Minister of State look at it. It sends a very bad signal as people are still struggling. We have discussed the shortage of money for section 39 organisations but in some sections of the State there is a level of extravagance.
I acknowledge the work being done by the Minister of State and his office in “demystifying” procurement. What complaints procedures are in place and are the complaints procedures around procurement demystified for people who want feedback on why they failed or lost a contract? What is the Department doing to ensure small businesses can access Government procurement? I have quoted the case before of libraries - I know this relates to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government - that buy their books centrally. This inhibits small, independent publishers from getting access to local libraries because of the manner in which procurement in libraries is done. There are countless examples of small and niche businesses being excluded from Government procurement because of the way rules are applied. What is their avenue for getting involved with procurement and complaints?
Deputy Patrick O’Donovan: Deputy Calleary has acknowledged before that the vast majority of Government expenditure on procurement is spent in the State. It is in excess of 90%. Of that, over 50% is spent with small and medium enterprises, SMEs. I chair the SME section within the procurement element of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We meet regularly and tease out matters that representative organisations of the SME sector have. There are a number of matters we are working through, particularly in the communications area. We will launch a more user-friendly communications strategy early in the new year to identify how people would best facilitate their own business with respect to procurement.
We do not disagree with the Deputy’s comments on appeals. That is why the tender advisory service is being updated so people can get proper feedback when they do not succeed. It is important to say it is ultimately the awarding contract authority that has the responsibility for managing the contract and not the Office of Government Procurement, which deals with the implementation of frameworks.
The Deputy raised the matter of library books and I appreciate that. I come from a place where local journals are very important but those Limerick journals might not be as important in County Louth. The same would apply in Mayo. It is something on which we are reflecting to see if we can reach an accommodation.