Northern Ireland Assembly: Private Members’ Business: Public Procurement (3 October 2011)
I thank Mr Murphy and his colleagues for bringing this proposal to the House. I am also grateful to him for supporting the SDLP amendment. There has been consensus on the motion among Members, in the main, apart from the Finance Minister. That is indicative of the support that MLAs from all parties have for efforts to stimulate the economy and get a better deal for small and medium-sized businesses in Northern Ireland.
Many good points were made in favour of making the public procurement process more flexible and more user-friendly. Indeed, some progress has been made on foot of the Assembly’s report — the report on public procurement by the previous Committee for Finance and Personnel — and that is to be welcomed. Indeed, the Minister himself illustrated that when responding to the debate.
All the steps taken represent progress for small and medium-sized businesses here in Northern Ireland. In the main, the motion is trying to emphasise the importance of making continuing progress and helping local businesses. Mr Murphy and others made the point that the Executive have yet to really embrace this. The House is saying that the Executive need to embrace the report and the 43 recommendations that have been accepted by the Department of Finance and Personnel. It is important that all Departments be involved in a concerted effort to make public procurement better for local businesses.
Other colleagues, including Dominic Bradley, emphasised the importance of the proposals and of making sure that social clauses are introduced into contracts. He cited DSD in that regard, which he has been taken to task for. However, there is no harm in using that as a useful illustration of the way in which a Department can effectively approach public procurement. I dare not mention either the former or the present Minister for Social Development in case I incur the ire of the Minister of Finance and Personnel for being involved in some sort of internal party electioneering. I hasten to add that I am not. Both Ministers and, indeed, other Ministers have contributed to this, but there is no harm in using that experience to illustrate the progress that we can make.
I was taken aback by the Finance Minister’s passionate rejection of our connection with the European Union. I do not want to dwell on that for too long, but it seems to go against the grain and against, I think, the Executive’s public policy on Europe. We want to embrace Europe. We see it as a positive benefit for the people of Northern Ireland. There is a huge market in the European Union in which many local firms can participate. Yes, bureaucracy is associated with Europe, and all of us recognise that and must work towards its reduction. However, we must not throw the baby out with the bath water by saying, “Well, there is bureaucracy, therefore we do not want to be involved in Europe”. It sends out a very bad message for our own Executive in Northern Ireland if we are seen to be publicly anti-European. What message does that send to President Barroso and his colleagues, who have come here to help us out of recession and to help us to reconstruct and rebalance our economy and work towards a better future?