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Last week, the third Greenwich Symposium on Responsible Public Procurement featured a roundtable discussion with several alumni of the public procurement world; it was a good session, and the panel even got a few laughs from the audience!

It was chaired by Emma Nicholson of APUC (which buys for universities in Scotland) and included Samah Abbasi of Unicef; Mike Kilner from LUPC; Terry Brewer from Harrow Council; Anna Hagvall, all the way from Stockholm county Council; Jenny Barlow from the University of Leeds; and Faiza Rasheed from One Housing.

The first question posed to the panel (in abbreviated form) was – why are these topics around Human Rights or interest to your organisation and how do you approach it?

Mike Kilner talked about the high-profile risks that occur in mass manufacturing of IT technology. Higher education consortia buy a lot of IT kit, incorporating Electronics Watch terms and conditions in contracts. But when we tackle the OEMs (Dell, Lenovo etc), they say they are doing everything they can, then show surprise when something goes wrong. And it’s not just the Far East now; Eastern European manufacturing is increasing. LUPC is also interested in conflict minerals issues – there is increasing legislation in Europe in this area. The key point is that the university sector has 300,000 non-EU students studying in the UK, many from the Far East. Many are vociferous about CRS issues; so the voice of the student is a driver in this.

But the decision-making process is not always driven by procurement. It is often the IT team or others and procurement has to look for co-operation, which is not always easy. We have to overcome this – what we are talking about today can’t be just left to procurement. Seasonality is another challenging issue, with much of the IT purchasing happening in just a few months of the year.

Terry Brewer reinforced that issue about procurement’s role – he has some concerns about “the weight of responsibility coming down on procurement”. The current context in public procurement is savings targets, a social value agenda that means elected representatives care more about local jobs and apprenticeships than issues in far-away countries. There are also the remedies directives, staff cuts, revenue generation, health and safety issues, IR35, the London living wage… there is much to think about.

The main point is “I have to deliver what the members (elected representatives) want to do”. And members postbags are not filled with letters about modern slavery. So need to focus on members – this won’t work if focus is just procurement e.g. engage public to get to members.

The main driver to make things happen will be legislation, but we do want to deliver this practically. There are over 400 councils in the UK, and only a very few employ a responsible procurement officer, so we need a process or it won’t get implemented. The parallel is social value – it has been a real struggle to get that to work – people just don’t have the time to sit down and think about how to incorporate it into tenders. So need to simplify, use templates and standard approaches. Make it simple – results are now flowing from that approach.

Anna Hagvall explained that Stockholm County Council is responsible for services such as healthcare and transportation in the region. The goal is to maximise social value to citizens – “we don’t want our staff using computers made by people who have been denied their human rights”. There is nationwide co-operation between councils, with the same contract clauses, common methodologies on risk assessments, etc. but moving the industry is still a work in progress.

Different councils ins Sweden act as national leads for different spend areas; Stockholm leads on the IT industry. The focus now is on follow up – it is not enough to have contract conditions, suppliers must know they will be followed up, that the buyer will not stop asking questions. The next steps will see a focus on more specific areas e.g. conflict minerals, and also look at how more can be done on workers’ rights

Faiza Rasheed is working with a Housing Association that buys land and builds houses. London needs to build a million houses by 2020 to meet demand. There is a high reliance on construction supply chain, and 7% of the global workforce works in construction – half a billion work in that sector. There is also a high risk of modern slavery in construction businesses. Her organisation had no procurement function until she arrived; she has written the first procurement policy. Being compliant is one of the pillars of the policy – that includes Modern Slavery – but it is a balanced policy. Then, the question is how do we enshrine policies in practical procurement activities? She has previously worked in this field when at Transport for London – it is critical to get the right wording in evaluation processes and in contracts, but always balance policy requirements. It must be proportional, and linked to the subject matter of the contract.

Jenny Barlow works with the sustainability service at the University of Leeds. Embedding that thinking into contracts and the £140 million procurement spend is the aim. Core values include integrity – slavery in supply chains is a big issues, it is a question of ethics ad also international reputation; students are very engaged and interested in this sort of issue.

So there is a sustainable procurement policy and all tenders have at least 10% weighting on CSR matters. The University has researched major spend categories, this helped to target actions and make plans. High-risk categories were identified e.g. catering, electronics, medical supplies, construction, including various risk areas from freedom of association to slavery. Renewal dates for high-risk contracts are identified – then a risk analysis identifies where to get external advice and “where to put the resource to do this properly”. NGOs or other expert bodies are used to get access to expertise.

As you can see, there were plenty of ideas and good experience put forward by the panel – in part two we will feature more of the forward-looking thoughts that came out of the session.

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