The annual Tory conference has been a major drain on the party’s finances for a number of years. The party has been repeatedly advised that, if run in a different way, the spring and autumn conferences could become reasonably healthy profit centres. It is to the credit of Francis Maude and his team that they have ended the previous arrangement that the party had with CCO Conferences. CCO Conferences was an independent company that had run the conferences for a number of years but whose contract was terminated after 2006’s Bournemouth Conference. Anyone who ever booked a fringe event or hotel venue through CCO Conferences will know that it often charged hefty fees but the money went to the conference company rather than to party funds as part of the deal it enjoyed with CCHQ.
Last week the party announced that Fingerprint Events had been given the contract to run the conferences from now on. It’s a flat fee-based arrangement where all surpluses accrue to the party. The press release has been removed from conservatives.com but the text is here
as a pdf. ConservativeHome immediately emailed CCHQ to establish the exact nature of the "discussions" held with a "number of events agencies" and whether those discussions matched the tendering standards that Tory governments imposed on local authorities in the 1980s and 1990s. This is CCHQ’s reply:
"The tendering of the contract to manage Spring Forum and Annual Party Conferences has been handled by a procurement company which advertised the contract in the events industry magazine ‘Event’ during September. The tendering process involved face to face interviews with a number of companies, and after discussions to see which model met the Party’s conference needs best, Fingerprint Events Ltd were awarded the contract by the Party Board. Commercial Confidentiality Agreements signed with all companies restrict us from releasing further details other than contained in the original press release. Fingerprint Events were judged to have the most suitable model especially in terms of CCHQ control and the financial return to the Party."
Unfortunately this response adds little to the original press release and leads me to believe that the tendering process did fall short of the competitive tendering standards that Tory governments expected of local authorities. Those processes were introduced in order to ensure that insiders did not unfairly win contracts from local authorities and that local taxpayers and the Treasury received value for money. It would have been better if Fingerprint Events – which appears to be run by people with a long-standing connection to the party – had won the contract after a more formal and less secretive process. There has been a long history of well-connected individuals winning big contracts from the Conservative Party. Fingerprint Events was only registered as a company on 6th November 2006 and it is unclear who its real owners and directors might be.
In conclusion: The party’s contract with Fingerprint Events is undoubtedly an improvement on the previous arrangement but has the party’s possible return been maximised? I fear not. The conference attendees who suffered from last year’s security nightmares might be content with any new arrangement, however, as long as they can get into the conference hall!