I propose to take Questions Nos. 44 and 55 together.
In relation to improving access for SMEs to public procurement opportunities the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has issued guidelines (Circular 10/10) that require public bodies to promote participation of small and medium-sized enterprises in the award of public contracts. These guidelines set out positive measures that contracting authorities are to take to promote SME involvement in a manner that is consistent with the principles and rules of the existing public procurement regulatory regime. The guidance also highlights practices that are to be avoided because they can unjustifiably hinder small businesses in competing for public contracts. The key provisions of the guidance include:
supplies and general services contracts with an estimated value of €25,000 or more to be advertised on the www.etenders.gov.ie website;
less use of “restrictive” tendering procedures and greater use of “open” tendering;
ensuring that the levels set by contracting authorities for suitability criteria are justified and proportionate to the needs of the contract;
sub-dividing larger requirements into lots where this is practical.
Circular 10/10 has been in place for just over two years. It is clear that there is a need to ensure greater consistency in relation to the implementation of this circular. In this regard, the National Procurement Service (NPS) established its 'Working Group to assist Small and Medium Enterprises' in February 2012 to facilitate open discussion on the issue of public service procurement. The Working Group consists of representatives from the NPS, the Health Service Executive, the Irish Business and Employers Federation, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, Chambers Ireland, and the Small Firms Association. The Group has met on a number of occasions and has raised many issues relating to procurement and particularly how these issues impact on SMEs. Resulting from these discussions the NPS has issued two circulars to all buyers in, and suppliers to, the public service with the aim of improving practice in the procurement arena.