Direct rule threatens Social Value Act

Chair of the Assembly All-Party Group on Social Enterprise, East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson, discusses the current status of a Social Value Act for Northern Ireland and the obstacles to implementation.

A Social Value Act, essentially a requirement for the procurement of public services to consider wider social, economic and environmental benefits, was introduced in England and Wales in 2013, and in Scotland in 2014. Unfortunately, despite major progress in attempts to introduce similar legislation in Northern Ireland, political events have stalled movement.

In early 2017, the Department of Finance made a significant and widely welcomed statement, announcing the Executive was willing to bring forward legislation to enact a Social Value Act for Northern Ireland.

This was something that, as Chairperson for the Assembly All-Party Group on Social Enterprise, I had spent months progressing, as a Private Member’s Bill. The announcement that the Department was going to take on my Bill was a triumph for the social enterprise sector in Northern Ireland.

Three days later, the then-Northern Ireland Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, called a snap election. The Executive approval, the cross-party support, and the work I had achieved with Social Enterprise NI crumbled.

When an election is called, any ongoing legislation falls, and a new Executive must do a cold restart. Nonetheless, the Procurement Board had given its approval for a Social Value Bill, therefore work was able to continue on preparing for a bill.

In December 2017, a representative from the Department made a presentation to the Social Enterprise All-Party Group, and we were pleased to see the work that has been done, and the proposals that are being considered. We are told the next step would be a consultation, which would be subject to ministerial approval.

I am still optimistic about a return to the Executive in the first part of 2018. But the obstacles do not end there. While Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was supportive of a Social Value Act, a new minister may have different priorities for the Department of Finance. In reality, the Department of Finance today, has many more things on the ‘to-do’ sheet than last January.

So, while a new Finance Minister could find a Social Value Bill Consultation document ready and waiting on their desk and with all-party support, the minister could nevertheless refuse to move forward with it. The ultimate remedy to this would be a Private Member’s Bill, which I would once again seek to introduce without hesitation.

In recent months, there has been more talk of direct rule ministers being installed in the absence of an Executive. Local voluntary organisations and social enterprises know all too well the ‘democratic deficit’ that this would bring, as direct rule ministers were notoriously hard to access and somewhat impervious to local opinion.

This is all within the context of severely limited parliamentary time at Westminster, as masses of Brexit legislation is being processed, leaving little time for Northern Ireland-specific bills. Furthermore, the Government commanding a razor-thin majority, requires every single vote to be present in the House to pass key legislation. Therefore, direct rule ministers will likely focus on ‘keeping the lights on’, rather than long-term reforms like a Social Value Act.

In short, I see direct rule as a likely dead end for a Social Value Act for Northern Ireland.

Going forward without a Social Value Act, we will continue with the old template of procuring public services. Our social enterprises will continue to lose out when bidding for contracts, despite the added value they can provide. Indeed, wider society will also lose out on the economic, social and environmental benefits that can be achieved when we think more creatively about contracts.

It is of course disappointing to get so close to a Social Value Bill, and see our governing structures stall for more than a year. I am happy to report the Department of Finance has been responsive to the All-Party Group on Social Enterprise, and informed us they have continued to work on a Bill despite Stormont’s collapse. Nonetheless, the key ingredients for success are a Finance Minister and a working government, which I sincerely hope we will see soon.

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