Anthony Browne is a former director of Policy Exchange and a former Europe correspondent of the Times.
I admit that procurement policy is not something that has ever threatened to swing an election, but making it less dysfunctional could dramatically improve the quality of public services that voters receive.
The EU rules are essentially well-intentioned, but so complex and often perverse that they stop many public projects from ever happening, or only happening in clear deficient ways. Officials grappling with procurement bang their desks with frustration, and politicians who have got ensnared have vowed to never get involved again.
When I worked for Boris Johnson in his first term as Mayor of London, I was involved with many projects that were frustrated by the procurement department, who were granted god-like power over projects by the opacity of the EU rules. At one point, City Hall officials told me the only way to get a project done was to hire external lawyers to take City Hall’s own procurement lawyers to court. I just thought: too ridiculous – too much a waste of public money, and life is too short. The project was killed.
Under the Coalition Government, Francis Maude, as Cabinet Office minister, valiantly battled for years to improve the procurement process, but because all the rules for procurement of projects over a certain threshold are set by the EU, there is little he could do. The rules are effective, since they have basically been designed to stop things happening.
When I was the Times’s Europe Correspondent, I had a three hour wine-fuelled lunch with the Italian head of the EU Anti-Fraud Agency (cutely known as OLAF), who explained at length why they needed such rules. He cited an Eastern European official who only ever gave work to his “cousins” because it was the only way he could guarantee the work would be done properly and he wouldn’t be ripped off; which might have made sense to him, but in Northern Europe, that sort of thing is frowned upon.
And when you start introducing procurement rules to introduce a level playing field for companies across the EU, to combat national preference, and to combat endemic corruption in some countries, then national officials resort to more creative ways to evade them, so new and more draconian rules are needed. And do it goes on. And in Britain, we are very punctilious about obeying all such rules.
But when Brexit happens, the government can decide on a procurement policy that properly balances the need to combat fraud with the need to actually deliver value for money projects for the public. It won’t win votes, but it could be transformative.