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A Sunday Times news feature outlines the problems for small firms seeking local authority and government contracts ...
A Sunday Times news feature outlines the problems for small firms seeking local authority and government contracts and how the government is trying to make tendering easier so small firms can get a bigger slice of £112bn market, (Business, p12).

It focuses on Frank Berry managing diector of Frank Berry Tyson, a stationery supplier with 20 staff, who says the newspaper has had no choice but to become an expert at bidding for local government contracts. A tendering document, picked at random from his desk, runs to 64 pages and contains detailed instructions listed under 45 different sections. To apply for the contract he will have to spend hours completing the document and supply at least seven certificates.

These must prove that his firm, based in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, meets various standards ranging from health and safety and equal opportunities to environmental policy and 'non-collusion'. The document also asks him to supply details of compliance among his suppliers. All this work is for a modest contract to supply a few local schools with stationery.

'It's complicated, to say the least, dealing with local authorities', said Mr Berry. 'They ask for all sorts of strange information that they will probably just file away and never look at again. Then we are left waiting for the decision and the wheels move very, very slowly.

Some local authorities are charging £125 to hand over tendering documents. To add insult to injury, Mr Berry also found himself competing for contracts with one council. In a bid to stop this, he launched and lost, a legal action against the council. It cost his firm £60,000. More often than not, big companies are the only ones that can afford the time and money to find out about public sector tenders.

In his pre-Budget report this month chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to cut red tape on central government procurement. Two pilot schemes in the west midlands and Haringey, north London, aimed at making the tendering process simpler and cheaper for small and medium-sized companies are up and running. If successful, they will be rolled out nationally in 2005.

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