Belfast Telegraph

Watchdog slams Stormont for 'dithering' over spending curbs

By Steven Alexander

A powerful Stormont scrutiny committee has slammed the lack of bulk buying by Government bodies – a practice that could save the taxpayer millions.

In a damning report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said there had been dithering over a strategy to make savings for more than a decade.

By not joining up to drive down prices, individual bodies are paying over the odds for goods and services, the PAC said, while Finance Department plans for change are "relatively unambitious".

"The new strategy is high level in nature, it lacks a detailed analysis of spend and contracts, it does not identify which products and categories will be subject to collaboration and it does not contain detailed actions or targets," the PAC said.

It called for a major shake-up of how Stormont departments and agencies buy goods and services.

One example is in IT, where different bodies are buying small numbers of computers independently, but if they joined together and ordered a large number in bulk, they could be bought more cheaply.

"Disturbingly, there is evidence of arm's-length bodies paying several times more than the lowest prices for common goods like laptops and computer monitors," the report said.

"There was no overarching plan outlining how procurement bodies would collaborate and no detailed actions to promote co-operation across the public sector."

The Executive had agreed that there should be greater collaboration to ensure savings way back in May 2002, but by last June there was still no strategy in place.

"Given the lack of progress in collaboration over the last decade, the committee is of the view that it may be timely to review the current procurement structures, examine potential alternatives and deliver better procurement outcomes," the PAC said.

It made 10 recommendations, which would amount to a major shake-up if implemented.

If said that if departments or others do not collaborate to make savings, that would have to be justified by accounting officers.

At a committee hearing last June, the Finance Department said it had set a realistic savings target of £30m through "collaborative procurement" over the period 2012 to 2015 – just 1.1% of expenditure.

But the PAC reported: "While the committee welcomes these plans, it is clear that there has been very little progress to date in this area. The public sector has been slow to develop a strategy, and its targets for savings are relatively unambitious.

The PAC also told Government bodies to pay their bills on time as this can cause "severe cashflow problems" for sub-contractors.

FACTFILE

In 2012, the Audit Office said the cost of a standard civil service specification laptop was estimated at £659. Yet on one occasion the Public Record Office paid £965. By contrast, the Department of Agriculture quoted the lowest price of £369.

Northern Ireland Screen was also found to have paid £499 for a computer monitor which another body had purchased for just £87.

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