As purchasing within the public sector is concerned with the spending of taxpayers' money, procurement processes are subject to strict controls. There are both UK and European laws that define how the sector must operate with everything being subject to audit and scrutiny.

Purchasing has to be done in a fair and open way so that nobody is unfairly excluded from the process. The public sector must also demonstrate at all times that anything it buys is of benefit to the public and that it provides the best value for money.

There is however a variation in the approach to procurement across the public sector. With the need for public sector organisations to be flexible according to their own circumstances, there is no single or standard approach to purchasing. Many public sector organisations have developed their own procedures, standards and protocols within the legislative framework. It is important that voluntary and community organisations become familiar with and engage with the relevant public sector organisation from the outset.

EC procurement directives

An EC treaty covers all public sector procurement contracts within the European Community, no matter what their value. The treaty sets down principles to prevent discrimination against organisations from any member state.

The four fundamental principles that govern public sector procurement are:

Principle 1: Equal treatment- suppliers are entitled to equal and fair treatment at every stage of the contract award procedure.

Principle 2: Transparency- information about contracts and the rules to be applied should be available to all interested candidates. The rules that will be applied in assessing applications for tender lists and the criteria for selection should be clearly advertised.

Principle 3: Proportionality- the demands placed on providers should be both relevant and directly related to the contract being awarded.

Principle 4: Mutual recognition- this requires that the standards, specifications and qualifications in use throughout the EU receive equal recognition to ensure services are suitable for their intended purpose.

The principles are backed up by a series of EC procurement directives. The directives have been included in UK law as a number of regulations. The directives and regulations set down procedures and standards (based on openness, non-discrimination and competition) for choosing tenderers and awarding contracts with an estimated value above a set limit. Further information on the EC procurement directives and regulations can be found on the Cabinet Office website.