Chair of the All Party Group on Social Enterprise and Alliance Party MLA, Stewart Dickson, says that hope for the delivery of social value legislation in this Assembly mandate is not gone.
The Chair of the All Party Group acknowledges the testing times that social enterprises in Northern Ireland have faced as a result of the pandemic but expresses his amazement at the agility of many of those enterprises to reimagine their services and continue to deliver for wider society and the economy.
Recognising the valuable role played by social enterprises, Dickson is a long-standing champion of the introduction of a Social Value Act in Northern Ireland, currently the only region of the UK not to have one in place.
The public sector spends £3 billion annually on goods, services and works and Dickson, backed by the sector, pioneered the legal introduction of social value obligations in the public sector through the introduction of a Private Member’s Bill.
The Bill received cross-party support and was subsequently taken up and shaped by the All Party Group on Social Enterprise, for which Dickson was Chair. However, despite a statement from the Department of Finance in early 2017 that the Executive was willing to bring forward legislation, Northern Ireland remains without a Social Value Act in 2021 and there is significant doubt whether the Department will bring a bill forward given the length of time remaining in the current Northern Ireland Assembly mandate.
Highlighting that the All Party Group had worked through and modelled the proposed legislation with evidence taken from experiences in other UK regions, before the Department agreed to take it forward, Dickson bemoans the over three-year absence of the Assembly, stating: “The reality is that those three wasted years could have delivered a Social Value Act for Northern Ireland.”
Outlining his understanding that Finance Minister Conor Murphy MLA faces a range of financial priorities since taking up post in January 2020, Dickson expresses his “exceptional disappointment” that Northern Ireland still does not have a Social Value Act.
On whether enough time remains before the Assembly’s mandate ends in March 2022 to progress a Bill, Dickson says: “It’s a very simple and fairly short bill. I understand that the timing is awful given the Assembly absence, the pandemic, and the end of the mandate but I still believe the Minister should make the effort to bring this legislation forward. It is, after all, sitting there on the shelf ready to be used.”
While yet to introduce a Bill to the Assembly, the Department of Finance has not been completely idle on the implementation of social value in processes. In a welcome step, the Finance Minister announced in December 2020 the restructuring of the Procurement Board, which is responsible for developing the Executive’s procurement policy, including representation from key sectors of the economy, one of which is social enterprise.
“It doesn’t make the whole apparatus of government across Northern Ireland do it because it’s not the law.”
The factoring of social value into contracts towards a contribution to social goods was one of the first items the Minister asked the new board to explore. Asked whether this step negated the need for a Social Value Act, Dickson says that while the move was welcome, it does not generate an excuse not to deliver legislation.
“The policy to make social value a mandatory component only compels the Minister and, to a certain extent, other Executive departments to do that. What it doesn’t do is take that out into the wider public sector such as local government and arms’ length bodies. It doesn’t make the whole apparatus of government across Northern Ireland do it because it’s not the law,” he states.
Dickson believes that the All Party Group on Social Enterprise has remained one of the most active throughout the pandemic and has continued to meet regularly, adopting a digital approach. Most of the work, he highlights, has been in relation to raising many of the challenges faced by social enterprises in the early stages and pressing both the Department for the Economy and the Department for Communities on the type of financial support that was necessary.
Dickson assesses the All Party Group’s role in this regard as moderately successful, however, as the Chair looks to the future, he points to fresh emphasis on securing social value legislation.
“We will continue to press the Minister. In his address to us, the Minister did say that legislation in this mandate wasn’t impossible. However, if it really can’t be done by the end of this mandate then at the very least it has to be ready to run for the next mandate,” he adds.
Concluding with a discussion on how the social enterprises can play a central role to Northern Ireland’s ambition for economic recovery, Dickson says that placing an imperative on government procurement to give first consideration to delivery by social enterprises has wider benefits.
“It’s often assumed that social enterprise is about charity and helping people in to work. Those are key and important planks but it’s also a sector that is delivering new, bright and innovative ways of working and it’s often the best and most cost-effective route for public sector purchasers and buyers,” he concludes.