Sunday, 13 October 2013

Can there be smoke without a fire in procurement?

al-Madinah, the UK's first Muslim free school, has been under scrutiny quite a bit this week and today the spotlight is being shone on its procurement. Now there are quite a few things about al-Madinah I would fundamentally disagree with but that shouldn't mean I swiftly place them on the 'naughty seat'. However, when I see headlines in the Sunday Times of "Gove inquiry queries ... school's tendering" I'm interested in finding out more.

Duplicate payments are not something which only al-Madinah have suffered from. Sometimes duplicate payments are made due to system failures. However, good controls and processes should be in place to manage this risk. Were the controls in place? Was this a deliberate fraudulent act which found a way of circumnavigating the controls? Sadly, we're not told so this may be smoke without a procurement fire.

Perceived conflicts of interest are also something we have discussed, particularly in the context of the new Clinical Commissioning Groups. When new structures are established sometimes the well-intentioned need to be protected from their ignorance of how things might look. It appears that al-Madinah did give some thought to potential conflicts of interest and those who had the links were excluded from the contract awards. As I have said before, undue influence over contract awards can be exercised in more discrete ways that merely contract awards, but in this particular news story there is no evidence of undue influence. This may be smoke without a procurement fire.

Finally, we learn that one of al-Madinah's committee chairs is also the director of a firm which supplies services to the school. Yet, we are led to believe that contract was awarded prior to his appointment as a governor. I personally can't see any reason why someone could see that is being suspect. Volunteering as a school governor is surely something to be encourages not a cause for suspicion. This too may be smoke without a fire in procurement.

So what is the story all about? Is there smoke without a fire in al-Madinah's procurement? Actually I think it is perfectly acceptable to query a school's tendering but that doesn't mean there is something wrong. However, why on earth has The Sunday Times chosen to give a headline which leads you to think there is something untoward with a school's procurement without any substantive evidence to back it up? Have I missed something?

There are clear lessons though in this 'story'. Firstly, the need to put in place proper processes and controls which reduce the risk of duplicate payments. Secondly, the need to be conscious of the potential claims of conflicts of interest and to not only be clean, but to be seen to be beyond any doubt.

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