So the UK has finally triggered Article 50, formally initiating our divorce proceedings from the European Union. Now begins the extremely challenging task of negotiating our terms of departure to deliver the least negative consequences for the United Kingdom and the remaining 27 members of the EU.
From a procurement perspective, I’d like to consider how procurement functions in both private and public sector should prepare over the next couple of years and beyond to mitigate the risks and seize the potential opportunities out there. First let’s consider the possible impact on public procurement law.
Procurement Procurement Legislation
The UK implemented the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, Utilities Contracts Regulations 2016 and the Concession Contracts Regulations 2016 which all make up the EU Public Procurement rules. These laws seek to ensure transparent competition whilst ensuring non-discrimination on the grounds of nationality. Whilst on exit (but not before) the EU Procurement Directives will cease to apply, the UK version of these rules will continue to be applied in law unless and until the UK repeals them. The Great Repeal Bill lays out how this hugely complicated process will happen.
Why the existing Procurement Laws in the UK are likely to remain
The extent of legislative change surrounding public procurement may well depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations relating to trading. However whatever the outcome, I expect the existing procurement laws in the UK to remain broadly the same (though without the need to demonstrate cross border interests being considered) for the following reasons.
If we have a ‘soft’ Brexit
If the UK agrees to a ‘soft’ Brexit, it will leave the EU but will either remain part of the Single Market (unlikely, if Theresa May’s sticks to her recent comments) or perhaps the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA), it will remain bound by the existing EU Procurement Directives anyway.
If we have a ‘hard’ Brexit
If on the other hand the UK takes the ‘hard’ Brexit line, and doesn’t sign multiple bilateral trade agreements with each member
of the EU, it will likely to become a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The WTO has its own procurement rules, laid out in the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) which it requires members to adhere to. The GPA requires that its members treat suppliers from other member states as favourably as domestic suppliers, as well as ensuring transparency and impartiality. And many developing countries have adopted EU Procurement Regulations as a blueprint for their own procurement rules, in order to reassure funders such as the World Bank.
Other reasons for status quo
First, the current UK Government will remain focused on cutting public spending and seeking value for money across all government departments. Removing the key principles of public procurement law could result in a potential loss in competitive challenge and innovation, resulting in poorer value for money for UK taxpayers. It should be added that the elements of procurement law relating to supporting SMEs in public sector bidding and the opportunity for bidders to challenge public and utility procurement decisions would be difficult to repeal without an outcry from UK business due to the perceived negative impact on fairness and transparency.
Secondly, with so many complex legislative changes required to be made in a relatively short period of time, I think that there will be little urgency to simplify the public procurement rules in the short to medium term. Any adjustments to public procurement legislation would require significant consultation across large numbers of public sector and industry bodies. Bear in mind that significant consultation happened prior to the most recent changes in EU law. Any deviation in public procurement law will also add complexity to UK companies sourcing from EU supply chains.
Increased currency market volatility and inflationary pressures
Whilst the view is that legal changes to UK Public Procurement are unlikely to be significant, other factors will have an ongoing impact on procurement and supply chain management. The current political and economic uncertainty risks dampening institutional and corporate investment within the UK. The consequence of lower investment could be a fall in employment levels, thereby cutting domestic consumption and damaging UK economic growth. Procurement departments must evaluate how they should respond to these threats.
One early challenge for procurement is the weakening of the Sterling exchange rate against the key international currencies. Whilst this is good news for exporters, it also means a higher risk in the medium term of increased import costs (e.g. raw materials, oil prices which are priced in dollars), even if their overseas suppliers are not themselves experiencing an uplift in costs.
Barriers to travel and movement of goods to and from the EU
The tightening of UK borders is likely to increase the time taken to ship goods and increase the administrative burden of moving goods and people to and from the UK to EU Member States. One example of this would be the introduction of security checkpoints and customs posts between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It could also create political tensions.
And add into the mix the risk of Scotland voting to become an independent country outside of the United Kingdom, now that the SNP has secured a mandate from the Scottish parliament for a second independence referendum. The consequences of independence would be far reaching and procurement on both sides of the border would have to manage the new complications involved in managing cross border supply chains.
A further inflationary and logistical threat is the raising of customs duties and additional administrative hurdles imposed on EU goods and services being imported into the UK. UK buyers need to think about the impact on their business of lengthy delays at UK ports, or the introduction of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. When we experience delays at ports caused by French strikes at Calais it hurts UK companies but only happens infrequently. Imagine if such delays became the norm.
Re-evaluation of existing suppliers
With UK companies under pressure to maintain profitability and protect cash flow, buying departments will feel the heat from their Boards of Directors to keep a lid on these inflationary pressures. This will in turn force procurement to re-evaluate their existing supplier relationships, particularly those suppliers based in the EU, and to consider other non-EU supply options to mitigate risks for their organisations. It may encourage buyers to consider contracting with alternative suppliers in other parts of the World, though this introduces other risks, such as delays in logistics due to increased transport distances, cultural differences, new language barriers, new currency dealings, commercial laws which may differ from EU law, and so forth.
Procurement professionals will not only need to consider their own concerns but must also be sensitive to the concerns of their EU suppliers who may themselves wish to re-evaluate existing trade with UK customers. Trade is after all a two-way street. If the nationalist movement continues to flourish (as demonstrated by the Brexit vote), or if anti-British sentiment develops after a difficult Brexit process, some EU based manufacturers and service providers could decide to re-focus their energy on selling to EU member states and away from the UK market. Other economic and legal factors could also dampen the enthusiasm of our EU neighbours to export to the UK. This could include a significant deviation in UK commercial law versus EU law over time, a continued weak pound relative to Euro, administrative barriers such as import border checks and paperwork, UK imposed import tariffs. Any of these factors could result in lower profit margins or lower UK demand, which in turn may result in inflationary pressures or a fall in supply to the UK.
So sourcing is likely to become more of a challenge from the UK’s perspective. UK buyers will need to keep a close eye on their existing EU suppliers to spot any change of approach as early as possible, and to build a contingency and costings plan for switching supply out of the EU if supplier relationships become more challenging within the EU.
But with risk comes opportunity. Buyers may be currently in a comfort zone with certain EU suppliers, blissfully unaware of some highly innovative and value add supply chains outside of the EU in the rest of the World, and even back here in the UK. If Brexit forces buyers out of their comfort zones, some positive consequences may well result, but only if buyers develop the appropriate alternative supply strategies. And they will need to work closely with their colleagues in sales, operations, quality assurance and so forth to ensure that the non-EU sourced alternative products and services are fit for purpose for the needs of their client base whilst complying with UK law.
A shrinking supply of cheap labour and increased wage costs
Cost pressures will grow in those industry sectors reliant on cheaper labour recruited from overseas, such as construction, hotels and hospitality, food production, contract cleaning and logistics, if these people leave the UK. The government will be under pressure to show that they have cut immigration numbers as this was a key reason for voters choosing to leave the EU. Yet UK companies will still need to employ resources and if there is a skills shortage they will have to either pay more to recruit new staff. Buyers will be under pressure from recruitment agencies who may decide to increase their fees if staff search costs rise or who pass on higher wage demands.
And the pool of talented procurement staff may well diminish if migrant numbers are cut. What impact will this have, and what plan can be developed to safeguard talent within the organisation?
Change is the one certainty
In summary, Brexit poses both threats and opportunities for UK based procurement people. And in the short to medium term it also brings uncertainty. The only certainty is that big change in the business landscape is going to happen, for good and bad. It is therefore critical that procurement starts to plan now, even though much is unclear, otherwise they are likely to miss the biggest opportunities and be more vulnerable to supply chain risks and cost increases. They must review their existing EU supply base and regularly assess the degree and risk of cost increase, time delays, relationship tensions. And they must consider new alternative sources of supply outside of the EU (or even within the UK) and weigh up the risks versus rewards of switching.
by M Roper | 31 March 2017