Richard North, 27/05/2016  
 


On the Vote Leave grid yesterday was another of those "bent-banana" style of shock-horror-probe "revelations", concerning the cost of EU laws, this time "foolish" EU procurement rules, obligingly given space by the Guardian and the BBC.

The rules are something of an obsession of Dominic Cummings and he has been keen to see them in the frame. Thus, Vote Leave is telling us that they are costing UK taxpayers of £1.6 billion a year - which, of course, could be better spent on "new hospitals and flood defences".

The claims are published online, referring to Directive 2014/24/EU, approved after a 2011 White Paper COM(2011) 896 final. The current Directive, which came into force on 18 April, builds on the experience of the 2004 Directive, simplifying and redefining procedures to make them more user-friendly.

The cost is supposedly based on a 2011 study for the European Commission, which is said to have estimated the cost of (EU) procurement legislation at 0.7 percent of the total value of spending on procurement in the UK.

There are, in fact, several studies in 2011, but Vote Leave links to this one from PWC. Interestingly, this does not offer a 0.7 percent figure as an increased cost. What it does tell us is that the (average) cost of public procurement in Europe is estimated at about 1.4 percent of purchasing volume and that the total UK cost is 0.7 percent (see figure 2.15).

Crucially - and a point missed entirely by Vote Leave - the report warns that these costs are not fully attributable to the procurement directives. "All costs are captured whether or not they are direct results of obligations from the directives. Procurement costs include business as usual costs that would be incurred even in a world with no EU-wide procurement legislation", it says.

This much we have no problem in understanding. With or without EU intervention, public procurement always carries a cost. UK defence procurement, for instance, costs £1.3 billion annually (around four percent of the budget), where EU involvement is minimal.

However, there was another 2011 report - this one - which refers to yet another report, this one by Europe Economics. In this you will also find a reference to a 0.7 percent cost (as an EU-wide figure), representing an EU-wide increase attributable to the procurement Directives. But it also states that overall the administrative costs for awarding authorities have gone up by 20-40 percent (on average by 35 percent). The would only put the overall UK cost increase, as a percentage of spending at 0.25 percent, as opposed to the 0.7 that Vote Leave claims.

Furthermore, there is also an interesting conclusion that is not mentioned by Vote Leave. As a result of the tendering process, this report says, overall prices of goods and services purchased were 2.5 percent lower than they would otherwise have been. If this is representative of the UK situation, the Directives would actually deliver net annual savings of about £4 billion to the UK taxpayer. These could actually be higher, as Commission modelling in 2009 indicated that savings of 5.5 percent were possible (see p.147).

Cost issues are is further elaborated by another Commission report, which stated (p.19):
The total cost to society of procuring the goods and services covered by the Directives is estimated at around €5.26 billion per year (for the EEA-30 in 2009), which is less than 1.3% of the value of invitations to tender published (by the EU-27) in the same period (i.e. €420 billion). This estimate covers the whole cost incurred during the entire procurement process i.e. from the pre-award phase, through the preparation of offers by all participating bidders, the selection of a successful bidder, and including any costs of litigation. Much of this cost would be incurred whether the Directives were in place or not.

As a result, this global figure would not reduce to zero if the Directives were repealed. Procurement carried out below EU thresholds, as well as private procurement, has associated costs. In fact, the additional cost imposed by provisions of the Directives is likely to be relatively limited, as has been pointed out in an earlier evaluation of the public procurement Directives carried out in 2006. That evaluation put the additional cost of the compliance with the EU Directives compared to national/below-threshold procurement at 0.2% of total contract value for public purchasers, and a further 0.2% for suppliers – or approximately €1.68 billion in 2009.
This much emerges from a proper evaluation of available data - leaving us with a scenario where Vote Leave substantially exaggerates the cost of the Directive and ignores the benefits. But it wasn't just this work that brought me into the fray. For some days, I had already been working on an article about public procurement, specifically to reassure readers that the Directives would not be affected by Brexit.

The point here is that the opening up of public procurement is seen as advantageous to a considerable section of British business – and is a vital step if we are to build on our knowledge economy and develop service industries internationally. It is also considered an important way of increasing the efficiency of public spending.

Crucially, though - and this was what caught my interest - opening up public procurement does not stem primarily from the EU. It relies on the WTO 1994 Agreement on Government Procurement, which is reckoned to have opened up procurement activities worth an estimated US$ 1.7 trillion annually to international competition. It was this that led to an EU Green Paper in 1996, and has driven progress ever since.

Interestingly the Agreement has not only been behind intra-Community legislation but also an agreement with Switzerland, liberalising respective public procurement markets, and with the United States. It has also filtered into third country deals.

Such is the importance of this market liberalisation that we saw recently an article in the trade magazine Supply Chain, dealing with the potential effects of Brexit on public sector procurement. Fortunately, in a refreshing change from the usual FUD, the author reassured readers that UK legislation had been put in place to deliver the benefits of the EU Directives, and "would continue to have an effect".

In the article, the belief was expressed that the Government was unlikely to reverse EU based procurement laws, which had "firm principles aimed at transparency, equal treatment, open competition, and sound procedural management".

And indeed that is likely to be the case, and specifically because this is another example of the UK implementing via the EU an international agreement that would remain in force even after the UK has left the EU.

Given the apparent advantages of the Agreement, and its potential, it would appear that the very last thing a "leave" campaign needs to be doing is claiming that the procurement Directives (or their UK implementing legislation) will be abolished.

One wonders why, then, that the two most enthusiastic media publishers of the Vote Leave claims have been the BBC and the Guardian, giving chief executive, Matthew Elliott the opportunity to tell us: "Pernicious interference from Brussels not only stifles business, it makes government more bureaucratic and less responsive".

Perhaps, before this totally undermines the reassurances in Supply Chain, someone will tell Elliott that this "pernicious interference" is actually implementing a WTO agreement, and is saving us money – with the prospect of creating more business for UK Plc.






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