Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted the NHS procurement process for IT is weighted towards large technology providers, but asked smaller businesses to "hang on in there" for contracts.
When the government came to power in 2010, it pledged that at least 25% of public sector contracts would go to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). However, speaking at a Digital Life Sciences event in the Houses of Parliament yesterday, the health secretary said current procurement processes damaged the companies they were trying to protect.
“I think the NHS has got a long way to go before we are a truly level playing field for SMEs,” said Hunt.
“I think that one of the great ironies, or the great mistakes really, is that even procurement law, which is designed to create that level playing field, actually creates procurement processes of such bureaucracy that it puts off SMEs.
“[It] favours incumbents who tend to be the bigger companies who have the resources to invest into six- or nine-month procurement processes. I think we need to do better, opening ourselves up to SMEs.”
The minister blamed Brussels for some of the issues, adding: “We are going to do what we can to break down those barriers to procurement, though some of them I am afraid are constrained by EU procurement law.”
However, he claimed the new Health and Social Care Act which came into force in April – focusing on projects locally rather than centrally at the Department of Health – would go some way to even things out.
“What I will say is hang on in there and remember that the approach we are going to be taking is very much at a level of individual trusts,” said Hunt.
“I think there is quite a lot of evidence that where we have made the fastest progress is places… where small is beautiful and you have teams that are nimble enough [to] deliver stuff really quickly.
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“That is the way we have got to go. Don’t give up. The NHS needs you. I think it is really worth hanging on in there. This is a market that is really going to grow and I think it could do with nimble, flexible people who have brilliant new ideas.”
With the new localisation agenda replacing the old model of centrally-provided IT systems through the now-defunct NHS National Programme for IT, there should in theory be more opportunities for SME suppliers.
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