Central government, local councils and other public bodies together pay more than £220bn a year to companies for a variety of goods and services, including office stationary and furniture supply, computer upgrades, road building, weapons supply, management consultancy, and the provision of public services such as healthcare, education or welfare provision.
The legal framework for government procurement and details of other regulations can be found through the Cabinet Office. Details of the procurement policies of councils or other public bodies can usually be found on their websites, or by contacting them directly.
Many public sector organisations keep lists of approved suppliers for certain types of work, particularly low-value contracts. If you can’t find it on their website, contact the government department, council or other public body concerned to find out if they keep one and how you can have a look at it.
All contracts with public bodies are subject to the Freedom of Information Act so information provided by the suppliers in their tenders must be disclosed to anyone who asks for it, unless it’s exempt (for example, if it’s a trade secret) or would cost too much to retrieve. Companies can also request a non-disclosure agreement if any of the information in their tender is commercially confidential (see section 3.10 for more details and how to make an FOI request). When you get a contract, you may find it’s been heavily ‘redacted’, and key details of, for example, the revenue the company can make from it has been blacked out. If you can’t successfully challenge this using FOI rules, try the accounts of the company and the public body to get the information you’re looking for.
Companies’ accounts often break down their sources of revenue, allowing you to ascertain how much they are making from the public sector. You can often find how much hospital trusts are paying for Private Finance Initiative contracts by looking in the liabilities and finance costs sections of their accounts, for example (see section 2.6).
Other sources containing details of public sector contracts include:
At the time of writing, the government’s new Contracts Finder website includes contracts worth £10,000 and above from UK central government departments and public bodies, such as libraries, museums, and regulatory and advisory bodies. Many local authorities place their notices on Contracts Finder, and more plan to do so in future.
Contracts Finder lists contracts that have been signed since October 2010, plus contracts that are currently being tendered and those ‘in the pipeline’, giving you a chance to challenge them before they have been signed. You can also find out which companies currently have contracts with the government and what services they are providing. For contracts that have already been awarded, Contracts Finder will usually contain details of who it was awarded to, its value, how the supplier was selected, whether the supplier will subcontract any of the work and a copy of the contract itself.
It’s free but you have to register for certain services. If you can’t find anything on Contracts Finder, contact the relevant public body or check their website to find out what they are buying.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own public sector procurement websites:
The Supply2Health website has details of the contracts that NHS bodies are giving out to outsource and privatise their services. The NHS Supply Chain website has details of NHS procurement for general goods and services.
Executive agency of the Cabinet Office created by the coalition government to “save money for the public sector by improving supplier management”. Also responsible for agreeing centralised contracts for government departments.
Official gazette of record for the European Union. Public sector buyers have to place an advertisement in the OJEU if a new contract is worth more than a certain amount. This is currently just over £113,000 for supplies and services with central government.
Not-for-profit association dedicated to promoting and representing the interests of private companies and public sector organisations in project finance and public-private partnerships throughout the world
EU body that says it “helps small business to make the most of the European marketplace”. Information held on the site includes contact details of more than 600 “business support” organisations, many of which are UK-based.
Public-private partnership between Capita and the Department for Business Innovation & Skills publishing details of construction contracts offered by public bodies. Costs from £90 per year to register though.