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August 31, 2003



"If the government isn't concentrating on the lowest possible price, then it's engaged in a dereliction of duty..." In this specific instance you're probably right, but you assert this as though it were a general principle, whereas there are in fact several circumstances where it should not apply. For instance:

The role of the public sector is, as you observe, to serve the public. Therefore, in contracting for the supply of a service from a third party, it has a responsibility to ensure that the service will be delivered competently and safely. Any client, public or private, has a right to investigate the ability of a potential supplier to deliver, by examining their record of reliablity in similar contracts, their solvency, and their ability to comply with critical standards.

If the government had reason to believe that overseas suppliers were unable to meet, for example, national food safety standards, then they would be justified in arguing for public bodies to pay a higher price to source within Britain. This is elementary, but, as I say, I have no reason to suppose it applies in this case, or they would presumably have said so.

Secondly, the government might have other political priorities which it would be right to consider in selecting a supplier. If the Foreign Office believed that the international situation was likely to make the supply of imported foodstuffs unreliable, the responsible departments should again argue for internal procurement. In this instance it is even possible that the government would not, for good diplomatic reasons, make their concerns explicit. Again, I don't actually think this is what is happening here.

None of which contradicts your initial point that successive "Buy British" campaigns have been based on no thinking whatsoever, as far as I can see. But nobody will pay any more attention this time around than in the past.

On the other hand, my experience in working with a large public sector organisation over many years is that over-emphasis on low prices as against all other factors in selecting a supplier tends to lead to far higher costs in poor service and non-completion of contracts than if considerations of quality were properly addressed at the tendering stage. "Best value" equals "cheapest" has become a dangerous mantra in the public sector in recent years. It needs no encouragement.


I agree, but as a Keynesian you are I am sure aware of the Great Man's "I sympathize with those who would minimize, rather than those who would maximize economic entanglements between nations. Ideas, art, knowledge, hospitality and travel should be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible".

You can't really think Paul Krugam is an 'execrable' political commentator, can you? I can see why you may disagree with him on many issues, but given the standards of most political commentators, execrable?


"I was under the impression that the role of the public sector was to serve the public, not to hand out favours to interest groups."

Touchingly naive, if you don't mind my saying so.

David Carr

The role of the public sector is to deny choice and crowd out competition. It does not 'serve' the public it traps the public.

Often referred to as 'essential', the public sector is, in fact, not even desirable.

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