A vision of social value

Ensuring all public sector procurement includes an element of social value is a simple concept says one MP who has introduced the idea in a private members' bill
Chris White MP wants all public sector procurement includes an element of social value which some might describe as a utopian vision. Photograph: ABC/Getty

Chris White, the MP for Warwick and Leamington, faces a tough task. At a time when all efforts in the public sector are focused on cutting costs, he wants to persuade public managers to think about commissioning services in a different way.

White, a new MP who was elected at last May's general election, is promoting a private members' bill on social value. He wants to ensure that all public sector procurement includes an element of social value. That, he says, is a simple concept, the principles of which can work equally well on a small or a large scale.

Some, such as the Third Sector Research Centre, disagree with White. But White has had, he says, all round support for his bill, which had its first reading last November. "It's been superb that we didn't have any opposition [to the bill]," he comments. "Everybody recognised that there's a degree of unfairness in the system at the moment. Among other things, we want to make this a lot fairer."

White argues that a small, local organisation "with four people and a van" should have as much chance of pitching for public sector contracts as big multinationals, but he acknowledges that this approach to procurement is something of a leap in the dark for a lot of local authorities.

At a time when the emphasis is firmly on cost-cutting, White's argument that a multinational will always be able to undercut a small, local organisation seems like a major obstacle. But he remains upbeat. "Efficiency should still always be a watchword, but it's how you do that and what you consider to be value," he responds. "It's about best practice and the long-term goals rather than short-term goals.

"A local company may employ guys who used to be on benefits, with good skills and knowledge. They may purchase from local suppliers, they may go into local schools and educate students about their work. The whole local network will be much improved."

Some might describe this as a utopian vision and White himself acknowledges it will need a strategic change in the way public bodies commission services. He has support from many in the voluntary sector. "There's an enormous variety of things that the community can deliver as well as the public sector does at the moment," he says.

"The voluntary sector and the small business sector should have as much opportunity to bid for these and to run them well."

So is this part of the prime minister's vision of a 'big society'? White says his bill is part of the big society agenda, but that it is also different. "It is probably the first time we can start to put some of these things into practice," he says.

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