East Antrim MLA, and chair for the Assembly All-Party Group on Social Enterprise, Stewart Dickson discusses the implications of a fresh election on the Social Value Act for which he pioneered.
A requirement for commissioners of public services to consider how they can also secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits came in to force in England and Wales since 2013 through the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. Despite major progress in attempts to tailor the law for introduction in Northern Ireland, recent political events have created a challenging environment to bring the Bill forward.
Earlier this month, the Department of Finance made a significant and powerfully positive statement. It was announced a Bill would be brought forward at the Assembly for a Social Value Act.
This was something that, as chairperson for the Assembly All-Party Group on Social Enterprise, I had spent months progressing. The announcement was a triumph for the social enterprise sector in Northern Ireland.
Three days later, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, called an election. The Executive approval, the cross-party support, and the work I had achieved with Social Enterprises NI all fell apart.
When an election is called, any ongoing business stops. After an election, when a new government is formed, everything starts again from scratch.
While there is some hope as the Procurement Board has given its approval for a Social Value Bill, work can be continued. But this is far from being a certainty. With no clear idea of how the election will go, or its aftermath, we cannot predict what will happen.
One possibility is that a new government may pick a new Minister of Finance. While Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was supportive of the Bill, a new Minister may have other ideas. Indeed the Department may not even pass to Sinn Féin. It could be a DUP Minister in charge of finance, or perhaps some other party.
An even worse scenario, but one much discussed, is that no devolved government will be formed at all. Instead direct rule will return. This possibility could see an English Minister, months down the road, fighting budget fires and having no time to bring forward a Social Value Bill. Furthermore, if there was no Assembly, there would be nobody to pass new legislation.
Without a Social Value Act in Northern Ireland, we will continue with the old template of always looking for the cheapest option when procuring public services. Our social enterprises will continue to lose out when bidding for contracts, even when they are the better applicants. And we will lose out on the economic, social and environmental benefits that can be achieved when we think more creatively about contracts.
The disappointment in getting so close, yet remaining so far away from the goal of a Social Value Act, is hard to take and has far reaching implications for the social enterprise sector.
Yet, before I received assurances from the Department of Finance, I had been navigating my own course with a Private Member’s Bill. Providing I am returned after the election (and there is an Assembly to return to), I will again prioritise social value and social enterprise in Northern Ireland.