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WAO seeks procurement improvement

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Highlights risks of defective procurement: Huw Vaughan Thomas

IN 2015-16, public bodies in Wales spent around £6 billion through procurement on a range of goods, services and works but need to improve their performance to ensure value for money.

That’s the message of wide-ranging report from the Wales Audit Office (WAO), which suggests that the existing procurement process provides no more than mixed results.

In a changing landscape, public bodies face challenges in balancing potentially competing procurement priorities, responding to new policy, legislation and technology, and in the recruitment and retention of key personnel.

The Welsh Government’s 2015 policy statement sets out the overriding principles for public procurement, in the context of relevant EU and UK procurement legislation.

However, the WAO report has found that national governance arrangements could be strengthened, with the national procurement board currently having limited effectiveness.

Of the £6 billion spent through procurement in 2015-16, £880 million was through collaborative procurement managed by the three main Wales-based consortia and public buying organisations. While these organisations are reporting financial savings and other benefits, public bodies have mixed views on their effectiveness.

The report also highlights clear scope for improvement in procurement arrangements at a local level. Public bodies have experienced several notable procurement failures and our audit work continues to identify examples of other weaknesses.

New legislation – including the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 – presents new challenges and despite some investment by the Welsh Government, public bodies continue to have problems in recruiting and retaining qualified procurement personnel.

Developments in technology present opportunities to make procurement processes more efficient but are not yet being used consistently.

The report makes eight recommendations on issues including:

  • Membership of the national Procurement Board – the Welsh Government plans to merge this board with the National Procurement Service board.
  • Regular review by public bodies of their procurement strategies and polices to ensure that these stay up to date with the changing landscape.
  • The scope of any future Procurement Fitness Checks – the Welsh Government has been planning to roll out a new programme of checks.
  • For the Welsh Government to explore the impact of differential pay for procurement staff across different sectors and any potential solutions.

Auditor General, Huw Vaughan Thomas, said: “Procurement is one of the key ways in which public bodies need to be able to demonstrate that they are securing value for money. Our findings are clear: while public bodies face a range of challenges in a changing procurement landscape, they can do more to strengthen their procurement arrangements and recent examples highlight the financial and reputational risks of getting procurement wrong.”

The Chair of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM, said: “The Committee has been concerned by recent examples of poor procurement practice and this report emphasises the significant amount of money spent each year by public bodies through their procurement activity.

“There are clearly opportunities to ensure better value for money, not just by avoiding obviously poor practice but also by maximising wider benefits from contracts where possible.

“Public bodies need to ensure that they have access to the commercial skills necessary to manage potentially complex procurement activity and it is concerning that, despite some investment by the Welsh Government, public bodies are still facing difficulties recruiting and retaining the skills they need.

“The Committee will be considering the findings in this report and in the separate report that the Auditor General is preparing about the National Procurement Service over the coming weeks.”

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Politics

Action to tackle homelessness

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Homelessness: Minister sets out new approaches for WG

REBECCA EVANS, Minister for Housing and Regeneration, has published new policy documents which set out new approaches to tackling homelessness in a statement to the Assembly.

Rebecca Evans said: “Talking to those I meet, I often hear distressing accounts of family breakdown, domestic violence, mental health problems, financial problems, substance misuse and bereavement.

“These issues can lead to some people losing their homes and create a vicious cycle leading to rough sleeping.

“The recent increase seen in the National Rough Sleeper Count is disappointing in the face of our efforts and investment but I believe it largely reflects the increasing effects of continued austerity, increasing in-work poverty and welfare reforms”.

As well as new funding to their revenue settlements, councils in Wales will receive grant funding of £2.8m in 2018/19 to embed homelessness prevention best practice models which will help to reduce rough sleeping, prevent youth homelessness, improve access to the private rented sector and strengthen services for people with mental health and substance misuse problems.

Rebecca Evans AM also said: “Today I’m publishing a policy document which outlines how Housing First will be taken forward across Wales. There is strong evidence that Housing First works best where its core principles are followed – housing with no strings attached, ready and available support services and access to funds to help meet individuals’ needs.

“I’m also launching our Action Plan to reduce rough sleeping. Developed with organisations including Shelter Cymru, and members of Rough Sleepers Cymru, it covers a range of activity, supporting people to engage with services and get off the streets as quickly as possible. It also addresses wider issues such as a review of priority need and our guidance on cold weather plans.

“Rough sleeping is one aspect of homelessness. We can only truly address the issue if we have a system that offers secure housing for all. Building homes and expanding social housing stock can only go so far and I will work with the private rented sector to find innovative ways to harness their supply and meet demand. I will also be looking at how we continue to reduce the number of homes lying empty.

“The Welsh Government has a good track record of delivery on homelessness prevention and we will continue to provide the leadership to ensure we can end the need for people to sleep rough in Wales.”

Conservative Housing spokesperson David Melding welcomed the initiative, but, speaking outside the chamber, called for the Welsh Government to set a target for ending rough sleeping in Wales.

“We know that in Manchester they have set a highly ambitious target of eradicating rough sleeping by 2020, and the UK Government target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022 with targeted full eradication by 2027. I think that we should be aiming for a more ambitious target than that, perhaps somewhere in between.

“Wales has the potential to be a real leader in this area and so I do hope that the Welsh government step up and tackle this problem once and for all.”

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Politics

Call for Speaker’s conference on Brexit

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Brexit: Parliaments need to work together

THE LLYWYDD of the National Assembly for Wales Elin Jones AM and the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, Mick Antoniw AM, have called for a review of the inter-parliamentary and inter-governmental arrangements relating to the UK’s exit of the EU to ensure that Wales’ voice is heard loud and clear.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) inquiry into devolution and Brexit, Mick Antoniw AM referred to the key findings of the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report “UK governance post-Brexit” published on 2 February. Specifically, he reiterated the report’s recommendation to establish a Speakers’ Conference to improve the way parliaments work together and hold governments of the UK to account.

Mick Antoniw AM said: “A conference involving Speakers and Presiding Officers from all UK legislatures would increase understanding and cooperation between UK parliaments at this crucial time in UK constitutional affairs. Similarly, we need to see a step change in the mechanics for inter-governmental relations. The Joint Ministerial Committee, established in the wake of devolution in the 1990s, simply hasn’t evolved in line with the depth and breadth of the constitutional settlements of the devolved nations. The Committee also wants to see the EU (Withdrawal) Bill amended to put inter-governmental relations on a statutory footing. Currently, the process is driven by personality and makes the Joint Ministerial Committee little more than a speakeasy for Ministers to discuss ideas behind closed doors without any transparency or accountability.

“Now is the time for reviewing these arrangements and to develop UK inter-parliamentary working fit for the purpose of scrutinising the impact of Brexit on the constitutional framework of the UK.”

Llywydd, Elin Jones AM, said “This unique moment in time calls for a unique inter-parliamentary arrangement to scrutinise our respective governments’ arrangements. I welcome and support the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee’s call for the establishment of a formal Speakers’ Conference focused on arrangements for Brexit. Considering the impact of exiting on the range of powers repatriated and then devolved to Wales is particularly crucial as it will determine how quickly we can make decisions for the benefit of our constituents. At a time when most Assembly committees are considering issues related to Brexit as part of their ongoing scrutiny programmes, this is the missing piece of the jigsaw – and one I will be raising with my counterparts in Scotland, Westminster and Northern Ireland at our next speakers’ meeting.”

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Conservatives claim email ‘cover up’

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Couldn't get a yes or no answer: Andrew RT Davies

A ROW over whether the First Minister permitted an inquiry into his conduct access to his personal emails during a leak inquiry has intensified.

An inquiry recently concluded into whether or not details of the Cabinet reshuffle which led to the dismissal and subsequent death of former Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary Carl Sargeant.

That inquiry found that there was ‘unauthorised’ leak of the reshuffle details, leading to the obvious question as to whether any leaks were ‘authorised’, as it appears beyond question that news of Mr Sargeant’s dismissal was provided to at least two Labour MPs and one journalist.

In addition, the First Minister has refused to confirm that the Permanent Secretary was granted access to his personal emails during the recent leak inquiry.

Last week, in a response to a written question from Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, Mr Jones said that he did occasionally use a private email address to deal with diary issues and clearing urgent press lines.

On Tuesday, Mr Davies asked the First Minister whether the private email address was used at all to instruct or to brief staff as to press lines in relation to the reshuffle.

After responding ‘No’, Carwyn Jones said that ‘all relevant evidence was made available to the inquiry’.

Mr Davies pressed the point, asking whether access was given to the personal e-mail addresses that Mr Jones uses for Government business
Mr Jones avoided a direct answer, saying: “I can’t comment on what the evidence looked like. All I can say is that all relevant evidence was submitted to the inquiry.”

Responding that ‘it’s not unreasonable to assume that, if there’s an inquiry into leaks from Government, then all correspondence would’ve been made available to the person carrying out the inquiry’, Andrew RT Davies asked for a straight yes or no answer.

Mr Jones declined to give on, instead repeating ‘all relevant information was provided to the inquiry’.

The Conservative leader has now suggested that the inference to be drawn from the First Minister’s answers is that the decision as to which evidence was either relevant or irrelevant was down to the First Minister himself.

The Welsh Conservatives are now demanding that the Permanent Secretary re-opens the inquiry, with the Permanent Secretary given “unfettered access” to Carwyn Jones’ personal email address.

In a press statement after First Minister’s Questions, Mr Davies said: “This reeks of a cover up.

“Just last week the First Minister admitted that he uses his personal email account on ministerial business, and now we learn that it is left to him to decide which emails are in the public interest.

“It calls to mind the recent Presidential elections, where public confidence was seriously undermined after allegations relating to the use of personal emails.

“How on earth can we have confidence in the system if the First Minister is the only judge of his own conduct?

“The inquiry must be re-opened, with unfettered access granted to the two email accounts that we know he has used for ministerial business.”

Mr Davies also called for a transparent process to log the use of personal email accounts by Welsh ministers and their advisers.

At present, such correspondence is only picked up by Welsh Government logs where an official email account is ‘copied in to an exchange’ – or where a conversation starts or finishes with an official email account.

He added: “There is nothing to stop the First Minister from emailing advisers directly using private email addresses, and I have no doubt that we would learn a great deal about the way Welsh Government business is conducted if his emails were to be opened up to closer scrutiny.

“We need rigorous checks in place to stop ministers from conducting government business entirely through back channels.

“This kind of practice should be entirely outlawed, except in approved accounts where security is heightened and exchanges are open to scrutiny.”

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