By Tim Montgomerie
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Public procurement may not be the most exciting of topics for a Sunday morning but the state is now spending half of the nation's income. Much of this spending involves transfers to pensioners, the unemployed and families but the state is still by far the biggest purchaser of goods and services in Britain. How it buys those services is of enormous interest to British business.
Francis Maude has announced a significant overhaul of that procurement process today. A Cabinet Office press release states that Mr Maude will unveil a package of measures that will include online publication of £50bn of potential business oppotunities; a 40% increase in the speed of the procurement process; and, retraining of civil servants so that become more open to awarding contracts to smaller and medium-sized firms. One aim is to slash the cost of the overall process. The average UK public sector contract costs £46,000 to administer – more than twice the cost in France. The online dimension of this process will be the most important innovation. Transperency in government contracts will allow competitors to inspect previous deals and undercut them. Mr Maude also understands the importance of the EU dimension. He heads off to Brussels tomorrow to discuss the new UK arrangements with the Commission. Philip Hammond and Vince Cable have already initiated a review of UK procurement processes in light of EU restrictions so that the domestic supply chain can be protected when big contracts are awarded.
Today's announcement gives me an opportunity to note the quiet rise of Francis Maude. Mr Maude has been one of the most impressive members of David Cameron's Cabinet. Grassroots members of the party have noticed. in the latest ConHome survey 57% were satisfied with his performance and 27% dissatisfied. That is a significant change from before the election when he was the least popular member of the shadow cabinet. Members seemed unwilling to forgive him for his time as Tory Chairman. He was then an uber-moderniser, responsible for attempting to end members' role in the election of Tory leader and being chief evangelist for the hated A-list of preferred candidates.
More recently he has been getting on with the job of delivering better value for money for taxpayers and he has been succeeding. His PPS Angie Bray set out his achievements in an article for ConHome earlier this summer. "In only 10 months," she wrote, he has found "more than £3.75 billion of cash savings." "To put this in perspective that is enough money to fund the salaries of 200,000 junior nurses or the equivalent of saving more than £225 worth of tax for every working household right across the country." And that money-saving work continues.
His biggest test still looms, however. Can he deliver a deal on public sector pensions that saves the taxpayer money but doesn't trigger widespread and recovery-wrecking industrial action? Some are not optimistic. Michael Johnson of the Centre for Policy Studies has accused Mr Maude of surrendering to the unions. He has certainly trodden a softly, softly path rejecting modernisation of trade union laws of the kind advocated by the CBI and Boris Johnson. Both wanted minimum thresholds for industrial action but Maude and the Tory leadership rejected these moves, fearing they would antagonise the comrades sat across the negotiating table.
Francis Maude is a steady performer in the media and we can expect to see a lot more of him on our screens if the 30th November's TUC Day of Action is only the first of many. If he does well perhaps a bigger Cabinet job awaits him but his current status shouldn't be underestimated. He may not occupy one of the biggest offices of state but like Oliver Letwin he has long been at the heart of the Cameron project.