Secrecy in public sector contracts must be removed if government is to ever put an end to freeloading by suppliers at the taxpayers' expense, parliamentarians have been told.
A Public Administration Committee probe into government procurement heard this suggestion yesterday, as the top bods within the Cabinet Office were quizzed on efforts to reform purchasing.
Bill Crothers, Cabinet Office chief procurement officer told the PAC chaired by Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Essex North, that "tension" remains between various departments.
"The truth is there has been a habit, a culture, an established norm, practice, call it what you will, across the system where departments have primacy and are used to having the total relationship with the supplier," he said.
In the last two months, government CIO Liam Maxwell was blocked by lawyers working inside a department from accessing confidential data on a bid, the PAC was told by Crothers.
"So there are still residual issues," said Stephen Kelly, COO, "which prevent us quickly moving on data and a consolidated one Crown relationship with industry."
Transparency has vastly improved under the new government, the Cabinet officers claimed, as until January 2011 they had no data on suppliers or the spend in each department.
The Cabinet Office claims it saved taxpayers £702m on tech and comms spending in fiscal 2012 but the National Audit Office said it was unable to verify £348m of this.
Jenkin asked what would be the impact if he recommended in his report that government should abandon its current practice of "hiding the true margin that commercial suppliers are making," specifically by "saying we are going to publish all the financial information?"
"Perfect competition requires perfect information. In theory this moves toward perfect information; it would help competition."
"Improvements we've made are [intended to] stop those practices. We've taken money out. However it is a continual battle, I don't think suppliers have got there yet," he said.
Arguably neither has government, which has already mandated that all contracts should be published on Contracts Finder to little effect.
Sally Collier, Cabinet Office deputy chief procurement officer, said invariably "some of that commercial in confidence information is redacted on those grounds of commercial-in-confidence."
So as it stands, some people in some departments continue to use secrecy to cloak inflated prices paid to suppliers with influential unseen access to the process, instead of safeguarding the public purse - a point not lost on Crothers and Co.
And this practice can often mean very large amounts of money indeed: it is not limited just to IT buys. ®