I propose to take Questions Nos. 18 and 23 together.
In relation to improving access for small and medium sized enterprises my Department has issued guidelines (Circular 10/10) that require public bodies to promote participation of such enterprises in the award of public contracts. The guidance does not distinguish between micro-enterprises and other SMEs, and the approach set out is intended to be applicable to them all. These guidelines set out positive measures that contracting authorities are to take to promote the involvement of smaller enterprises 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.
In order to promote and improve such practices 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.
In order to encourage greater SME participation the NPS, over the past three years, has conducted a targeted programme of education for suppliers who wish to learn more about doing business with the Irish Public Service. This programme consists of seminars, workshops and large scale 'meet the buyer' events hosted nationwide. To date the NPS has facilitated workshops and presented at seminars to over 3,000 SMEs nationwide. Parallel with these events the NPS also works closely with business representative bodies such as ISME and IBEC to provide briefings for their members.
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, I have arranged for my Department to remind public bodies about this aspect of the public procurement guidance and the importance of contracting authorities ensuring they implement it appropriately.