The speech made by Gareth Thomas, the Labour MP for Harrow West, in the House of Commons on 16 March 2021.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a presumption in public sector procurement in favour of purchasing goods and services from businesses based in the UK; to require the Secretary of State to publish data on the value of Government contracts awarded to such businesses, and estimates of jobs created as a result, by region and nation; to make provision for a kitemark scheme for goods of predominantly UK origin; and for connected purposes.
Ministers could and should do more to help British firms win British Government contracts. After more than 10 years of this Government in power, too often the best British companies are ignored when Ministers give out contracts. This is about jobs, and how quickly Britain emerges from recession. It is about the huge social value that Government can create for our constituents, and the stability for families and new career opportunities when procurement is done with imagination.
The Conservative party’s handling of covid and lockdown has made the economic damage, never mind the cost in lives and health, so much worse. One extra measure that Ministers could take to speed the recovery is to encourage consumers to buy local, to buy British, and they should start with Whitehall.
The PPE scandal law year saw British firm after British firm that was offering to make personal protection equipment ignored. Only those who had the mobile number of a Minister or two had the chance to win a lucrative contract. Time after time, British manufacturers, often on the doorstep of the very hospitals and care homes where staff were crying out for more PPE, struggled to get doors in Whitehall to open for them. Many were firms that because of covid were having to look for new products and new markets to keep staff employed. As the National Audit Office has set out, Ministers spent £12.5 billion on PPE that one year earlier would have cost just £2.5 billion. There was, without doubt, a huge scramble to secure PPE, but our country ended up buying equipment that was five times, or £10 billion, more expensive than the year before. If more British manufacturers had been helped to win PPE contracts, Ministers might have got better value and now have the money to spend on proper pay rises for NHS staff.
Contracts with overseas firms led to the extraordinary situation of much hailed deliveries of PPE from China and Turkey ending up being paid for, but not all used. Huge contracts were given to overseas firms such as the Miami-based Saiger jewellery company, and who can forget the Spanish businessman paid vast sums to be the middleman, ultimately by British taxpayers? All the while, local firms employing our constituents were missing out. As Make UK, Britain’s lead manufacturing body, made clear at the time, lots of firms that work with textiles and are used to working with plastics were extremely keen to help, registered on the relevant Government website and, all too often, then heard very little. Thirty-six British companies went as far as contacting Labour Members to make it clear that they had offered to help and had been ignored.
What is striking too is that many of these firms were based outside London and the south-east—for example, the Birmingham firm that offered to supply a quarter of a million aprons and masks, or the company further north, in Ripon, that could have provided 100,000 face visors per week. Some British firms that offered to help and revealed the source of their supplies discovered deals were done directly with their overseas supplier rather than with them. Indeed, in a scathing report last year on the PPE scandal, the National Audit Office found that just 12% of all PPE ordered by the Government supply chain between February and July came from UK manufacturers. If even at a time of national crisis, when the need for basic supplies was on the front page of every newspaper and running on every news bulletin, British companies’ offers of help were not getting through, it is difficult not to wonder what on earth it must be like for British businesses that want to offer their products and services to Government when there is not a national crisis happening.
Ministers made a series of claims that they were building up the UK supply of PPE, going so far as to claim that 70% of PPE was now from British sources. Sadly, this was not true; no such data was being kept. My Bill would put that right. Data would be kept and could be scrutinised. There has recently been a review of Government procurement, but despite its spirit, there is nothing in that review that will shift the dial, no great new move to help British firms to find favour in Whitehall, and no move either to help those outside London and the south-east. Many will remember the contract that Ministers gave a French firm to make our British passports. Today, when Russia is declared enemy No. 1 by the Prime Minister, we find out that a Russian company got £2.5 million to build his new briefing room.
Without question, tough rules that force civil servants to secure the best prices and the best value must be maintained. Taxpayers should not pay over the odds, certainly not after the scandal of the billions spent on Test and Trace, which those who have investigated think made little difference. The rules in international treaties on procurement that we have signed up to must be respected. But once those rules are met, British firms creating jobs in the United Kingdom should have a better chance of winning the contract than an overseas rival. British firms in general work to high standards, and while our markets are far from perfect, effective unions and a robust media all help to reinforce higher standards in our high street shops than in some overseas markets.
The suspicion in many boardrooms is that it helps to be close to London to win Government contracts. Indeed, what limited figures there are confirms that London and the south-east do disproportionately better for firms winning big Government contracts. If a business is based in the north-east, the east of England, the midlands or Yorkshire and Humber, there is a lower chance of it winning a large Government contract. Ministers have no plans to do anything about that. At the very least, and after recent court cases, figures should have to be published as part of the levelling-up and recovery agendas in which the Conservative party claims to believe. There should be debate about whether every region is getting a fair chance of its businesses landing a big job-creating deal from Government.
Lastly, for those of us who want to buy British whenever we can, why is there not a national kitemark, the flag of the United Kingdom, on every good and service provided in Britain, which British businesses can use to demonstrate to British consumers that a product is at least 50% made in the UK? The British Standards Institute could provide this service and promote it alongside the other kitemarks it operates for us.
The last thing that Britain should do is to close its mind to the world outside our shores. It would be madness to turn our backs on expertise from overseas, on the imagination and enterprise in the great goods and services that we can purchase from our friends in Europe, across the Commonwealth, in Asia, Africa and, of course, in the Americas and Australasia, but just as many of our allies overseas seek to buy local when they can, so should we. The Conservative party has been in power for a decade, yet it has never backed a serious “Buy British” campaign. My Bill would change the landscape for British businesses across the UK and not just those in our capital city. Never again will our own businesses’ expertise be ignored in a national emergency. Ministers should get on board. I commend my Bill to the House.