Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Public Procurement Contracts
72. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the work of the interim procurement reform board; his plans to strengthen the procurement process in the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55832/21]
What is the status of the work of the interim procurement reform board and what are his plans to strengthen the procurement process in the State? I also ask for some detail on a timeline for that. We all accept that there have been significant and costly mistakes in procurement over the years. We could talk about the national children’s hospital until the end of time but mistakes were obviously made. Questions about the contract for the national broadband plan have been raised in newspapers in the past while. We need to ensure we can cut out as many of these problems as possible.
The interim procurement reform board was appointed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in May 2017 to provide oversight to the delivery of the procurement reform programme, advise the Government on national public procurement strategy and advise on the objectives and business plans of the Office of Government Procurement, OGP. The board meets quarterly and presents an annual report to me, as the Minister of State with special responsibility for public procurement. The most recent report, for 2020, was published in August and is available on the OGP’s website.
The board comprises 11 members. Two are independent members recruited from outside the public sector, eight are senior public servants drawn from across a wide variety of Departments and the chair is a former Secretary General of Department of Defence, now retired.
The terms of reference include that the board shall oversee the implementation of the public procurement reform programme which has had considerable success to date. Governance arrangements have been established to foster collaboration and co-operation across the OGP and the main sectors of health, local government, education and defence. Through the development of a suite of centralised commercial arrangements, the Government’s purchasing power has been leveraged by speaking to the market with one voice. Procurement reform has delivered a programme of policy supports for SMEs and has built an awareness in industry regarding the opportunities arising from public procurement.
The OGP has been developing proposals on the refinement of public procurement following consultation with our colleagues across government and industry. These will further enhance public procurement, building on the progress to date, with a greater focus and emphasis on sustainability, social responsibility, SME access, innovation, digitalisation and professionalisation.
The Government has set out a number of commitments in the programme for Government in relation to public procurement, including evaluating and managing the environmental, economic and social impacts of procurement strategies within the State, developing and implementing a sustainable procurement policy and tasking the Office of Government Procurement to update all procurement frameworks in line with green procurement practice. These commitments enhance work already under way by the OGP to promote wider policy considerations in their work.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I do not think anybody would have a major difficulty with having enhanced processes on social and environmental responsibility taken into account. One such important process is to have a greater element of due diligence, particularly for large infrastructural projects, in respect of the ability of those tendering to deliver the project and that they have a skill set to do so. I ask the Minister of State to be a bit more definitive on what actions he is referring to or to give a timeframe for doing so.
The Minister of State had an interaction with Deputy Mairéad Farrell earlier. She indicated that Sinn Féin would like the Office of Government Procurement to have more data feeds and information, and referred to legislation in that regard which would allow for a greater element of due diligence in respect of firms being actually able to deliver upon the promises of the tender.
One of the best ways in which procurement can be strengthened is through training. The Office of Government Procurement has a skills academy where it trains and teaches staff responsible for purchasing across government how to procure successfully. It is important that we have a good e-tenders platform. The platform is being replaced and a new tender has been placed to get a new software system for bidding for contracts.
The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General has an important role in making procurement stronger. The office investigates when exceptional circumstances with procurement arise or procurement has fallen short and it rings reports on such matters before the Committee of Public Accounts. The relevant Accounting Officer can be cross-examined at the committee and we can discover where changes need to be made. I assure the Deputy that this process is always taken very seriously and lessons are learned from it.
I accept the Minister of State's point on a skills academy, which is needed. I ask him to provide more detail on the new system for e-tendering, the reason for it and the weaknesses of the previous system. It makes complete sense that any learnings from investigations by the Comptroller and Auditor General be built into whatever our modus operandi will be in the future.
I ask for some leeway in respect of the Minister of State's other area of expertise and responsibility. We are dealing with a story about the national broadband plan and a crossover between areas where Eir will deliver its own service and areas where the NBP will be delivered. Were there weaknesses in the contract or are there allowances there? Will this result in dual building and will we have to pay National Broadband Ireland?
The e-tenders system has been in place for a long time and requires to be updated. We asked bidders and suppliers what they would like the tendering system to do differently and we have determined that we need a new tendering system. It will be the best we can get. We are being careful and this is not being tendered for on the existing e-tenders system so there is no advantage to the incumbent.
On the NBP, the Deputy asked about encroachment. There is an intervention area where the national broadband plan applies. It is not, however, an exclusion zone in which no commercial company can operate. If any of the major three commercial companies in the market which put in fibre to the home wants to deliver broadband or any other technology of broadband, they can do so. That has happened. I note a recent report that 45,000 homes in rural Ireland had been given extremely high-speed broadband by a commercial provider. That is great as it means these households now have a choice between different suppliers, whether it is the subvented supplier or a commercial supplier. That is an advantage which was foreseen in the contract and accords with what was in the tender and contract.