Public procurement in Northern Ireland never seems to be far from the news, often for the wrong reasons. We have seen four high-profile cases in the last year:
- First it was McLaughlin & Harvey Ltd v Department of Finance & Personnel.
- Then Henry Brothers (Magherafelt) Ltd and Scott & Ewing (t/a Woodvale Construction Company Ltd) v Department of Education for Northern Ireland.
- Followed by Federal Security Services Ltd v The Northern Ireland Court Service.
- Most recently, Deane Public Works Limited v Northern Ireland Water Limited.
Now the Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee has reported on the “Investigation
of Suspected Contract Fraud” and made 30 recommendations. It demands that those involved in public procurement (particularly maintenance procurement) get their act together and:
- Review procurement processes with a value of more than £1 million.
- Stop favouring “preferred” contractors.
- Provide adequate training and supervision for their procurement staff.
- Improve standards and procedures in procurement.
- Carry out regular inspections of contractors’ work.
- Name and shame poorly performing contractors.
If the Committee gets its way, the ramifications could be significant as the Northern Ireland Government’s annual public procurement spend is in the region of £2.2 billion.
Not only is there hope that these changes will open up the Northern Ireland market to other contractors but, more importantly, that the procurement process will prove to be better value for money for the public purse.
The Northern Ireland market isn’t alone in attracting “bad” publicity on public procurement projects. In recent months, projects in Devon, Bristol, Aberdeen and Manchester have all come under the legal spotlight. With the voting public tightening their belts during the recession, failures in public procurement are likely to gain increasing publicity, particularly as the general election draws near.