WHILE councillors and government ministers are still ruminating over their New Year’s Resolutions, here’s a suggestion: Do something about the rigid and illogical way public contracts are allocated.

It was a bit of a theme in 2017. In May a report by Common Weal called for more openness about the way the Scottish Government procures projects, warning many such contracts are impossible to scrutinise.

Evidence of this emerged later in the year as attempts to uncover the detail of PFI school building deals foundered. Despite the wall collapse which led to 17 schools closing amid safety concerns, publication of the contracts was refused by the council under a freedom of information exemption clause.

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The Common Weal report also pointed out how few local businesses win public procurement contracts – meaning profits often leave Scotland. Such examples are not hard to find. Indeed, public sector procurement very often looks like privatisation by another name. How else does a company like Serco end up running Scottish asylum accommodation and ferry services, prisons and waste services in England and even, in Bradford, educational support in schools?

A quick internet search will turn up dozens of private sector public procurement specialists, which is a bit of a mouthful and a heck of an oxymoron.

This matters because these consultants, and the companies they work for, crucially, are good at this. So when charities are looking to bid for major public contracts – often in areas where they have a special expertise – they face significant challenges. All but the biggest can be ruled out by tender requirements which demand significant capital, or existing experience of major public sector contracts.

Edinburgh charity Kindred, has been providing an advice service to the parents of disabled children for more than two decades. When money was allocated in a recent tendering exercise for just such a service, the charity were unable to bid as the fee was rolled into a much larger contract, for which it could not possibly bid.

The most ludicrous example is Glasgow City Council’s inability to even bid for the contract to house asylum seekers in the city. This is an area in which the private sector has not acquitted itself well either north or south of the border. Yet the UK Government restricted bidding to those with experience of delivering similar contracts – excluding a council which has done more than almost any other in the UK to offer refugees a humane welcome. The Home Office line on such procurement regulations is a classic catch-22: “We are not in a position to discuss details, as we are bound by procurement regulations”.

The Scottish Government has faced criticism over its new Fair Start employability programmes which went largely to the usual suspects and large charities. But there are chinks of light – a local authority consortium will handle the job in Falkirk, and the Wise Group, excluded previously by the UK government gets a look in. Slow progress, but progress at least. More of this in 2018 would be welcome.