UK Universities must soon comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

In 2016, the EU adopted the Web Accessibility Directive to foster better access to the websites and mobile applications underpinning public services – in particular by people with disabilities, and especially persons with vision or hearing impairments. This Directive is meant to complement the European Accessibility Act and to implement the EU’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Article 9 UNCRPD requires the adoption of appropriate measures to ensure equal access to information and communication technologies, including the Internet, for persons with disabilities. Under the Web Accessibility Directive, this translates into an obligation for public sector bodies to ensure that their websites and apps comply with a 2014 EU standard adapted to the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) at level AA (currently WCAG 2.0).

The Web Accessibility Directive must be transposed into UK law by 23 September 2018 and will generate obligations for new websites from 2019, for pre-existing websites from 2020, and for all public sector apps from 2021. The UK Government is currently analysing the responses to a public consultation on the draft Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (the Web Accessibility Regulations), and the Government Digital Service is developing a host of initiatives to roll-out accessibility policies throughout the public sector. This blog post explains that UK Universities and further education institutions are covered by the Web Accessibility Directive. They must be clearly placed under the scope of application of the future Web Accessibility Regulations and be supported by the Government Digital Service and the Department for Education to ensure that their websites and apps comply with the relevant accessibility standards as soon as possible. This is not only legally mandated, but also essential to the public service mission of universities and other educational institutions. (more…)

New book on enforcement of labour standards through public procurement

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).

Smart procurement aims to leverage public buying power in pursuit of social, environmental and innovation goals. Socially-orientated smart procurement has been a controversial issue under EU law. The extent to which the Court of Justice (ECJ) has supported or rather constrained its development has been intensely debated by academics and practitioners alike. After the slow development of a seemingly permissive approach, the ECJ case law reached an apparent turning point a decade ago in the often criticised judgments in Rüffert and Laval, which left a number of open questions.

More recently, Bundesdruckerei and RegioPost have furthered the ECJ case law on socially orientated smart procurement and aimed to clarify the limits within which Member States can use it to enforce labour standards. This case law opens up additional possibilities, but it also creates legal uncertainty concerning the interaction of the EU rules on the posting of workers, public procurement and fundamental internal market freedoms. These developments have been magnified by the reform of the EU public procurement rules in 2014.

This freshly-released book assesses the limits that the revised EU rules and the more recent ECJ case law impose on socially-orientated smart procurement and, more generally, critically reflects on potential future developments in this area of intersection of several strands of EU economic law. The book includes four contributions by Bristol scholars, including Prof Phil Syrpis‘ perspective from an EU constitutional law standpoint, Prof Tonia Novitz‘s reflections on collective bargaining and social dumping in posting and procurement, Ms Nina Boeger‘s thoughts on public procurement and business for value, and my own views on the competition and State aid implications of the use of procurement to enforce labour standards.

The collection of essays includes additional insights by colleagues at Oxford, Cambridge, Turin, Birmingham, Leicester, Warsaw, and the UNCITRAL, and is the result of a conference held at the University of Bristol Law School in May 2016. The papers have been constantly updated and include an assessment of the agreed revision of the Posted Workers Directive in the fall of 2017.

Full details of the book are as follows: A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards–Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018).

Brexit and Public Procurement Reform: What Next?

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

Eight months ago, by giving formal notice under Article 50 TEU, the United Kingdom formally started the process of leaving the European Union (so called Brexit). This has immersed the UK Government and EU Institutions in a two-year period of negotiations to disentangle the UK from EU law by the end of March 2019, and to devise a new legal framework for UK-EU trade afterwards. The UK will thereafter be adjusting its trading arrangements with the rest of the world, and the Government has recently stated its intention for the UK to remain a member of the World Trade Organisation Government Procurement Agreement (GPA).

In this context, public procurement regulation is broadly seen as an area where a UK ‘unshackled by EU law’ would be able to turn to a lighter-touch and more commercially-oriented regulatory regime, subject only to GPA constraints. There are indications that the UK would simultaneously attempt to create a particularly close relationship with the US, although recent changes in US international trade policy may pose some questions on that trade strategy. Overall, then, Brexit has created a scenario where UK public procurement law and policy may be significantly altered. In a paper* recently published in the Public Contract Law Journal with Dr Pedro Telles, I speculate on the possibility for Brexit to actually result in a significant reform of UK public procurement law (of which I remain sceptical). (more…)

Scoping the impact of Brexit for NHS procurement

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

NHS England spends over £20 billion every year on goods and services, which typically accounts for around 30% of the operating costs of each hospital. A significant part of the remainder of NHS non-salary budget involves the commissioning of health care services. This expenditure and commissioning is controlled by NHS procurement rules, which in part derive from EU law. Different procurement rules apply in different countries within the UK, and both Scotland and Northern Ireland both have separate regulatory schemes. Even though this post only focuses on the situation in England, some issues reflect broader concerns in the UK context. Generally, NHS procurement rules are regularly criticised for imposing excessive red tape and compliance costs on the NHS, and calls for NHS procurement reform to free it from such strictures are common.

In this context, Brexit could be seen as an opportunity to overhaul NHS procurement and to move away from the perceived excesses of EU law (see eg Cram: 2016). However, I think that it is far from clear that such reform could not fit within the blueprint of EU law, and that most of the constraints on NHS procurement rather derive from independent decisions adopted by the UK over the last 25 years. Moreover, from an economic perspective, Brexit will probably hurt the functioning of the NHS (including its procurement), with or without significant regulatory reforms.

This post is based on my presentation at the event Brexit, Regulation and Society, held by ManReg on 13 June 2017, and concentrates on two issues. First, does EU law prevent significant reforms of NHS procurement and, if so, can Brexit suppress such constraints? Second, is the way the Brexit process is unfolding conducive to an improvement of NHS procurement, both from an economic and a regulatory perspective? (more…)

Transparency in public procurement is necessary, but not for all to see

By Dr Vitali Gretschko, Head of the Market Design Research Group (ZEW Mannheim) and
Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

The airport Berlin-Brandenburg, Stuttgart 21, and the Elbphilharmonie have one thing in common. Irregularities in the procurement process and delays in execution led to immense cost explosions to be covered by taxpayers. Thus, given the risks of corruption, favouritism and misuse of public funds, the award and management of public contracts requires a high level of scrutiny to avoid mismanagement and waste.

Moreover, even when things go well, improvements in public procurement law can have significant effects. Today, over 250 000 public authorities in the EU spend around 14 per cent of the GDP on the purchase of services, works, and supplies. Even small relative efficiency gains through carefully crafted rules can therefore result in savings in the billions. Therefore, the design of procurement rules need to reach a balance between safeguarding economic efficiency through competition and ensuring the proper level of transparency and accountability. (more…)

A law and political science analysis of the reform of EU public procurement rules

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

olykke-reformationMy most recent edited collection has now been published:
GS Ølykke & A Sanchez-Graells (eds), Reformation or Deformation of the EU Public Procurement Rules (Edward Elgar, 2016). It features contributions from a gender-balanced group of 16 young political science and EU economic law scholars based in 9 different EU/EEA Member States, including a number based at top UK universities. It is the result of a two year research project generously funded by the Copenhagen Business School and the Danish Gangstedfonden.

Using an innovative  interdisciplinary ‘law and political science’ methodology, the book carries out a critical assessment of the reform of the EU public procurement rules in the period 2011-2014. It does this by a detailed assessment of the initial Commission proposal for new rules, the travaux preparatoires behind it, as well as the several inter-institutional negotiation and compromise texts that resulted in the 5th generation of EU public procurement directives in 2014. (more…)

The EU public procurement remedies directive needs some revision, and the Commission should not shy away from it

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

my-performance-reviewEU public procurement law relies on the specific enforcement mechanisms of the Remedies Directive, which sets out EU requirements of administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts. Recent developments in the case law of the CJEU and the substantive reform resulting from the 2014 Public Procurement Package may have created gaps in the Remedies Directive, which led the European Commission to publicly consult on its revision in 2015. One year after, the outcome of the consultation has not been published, but such revision now seems to have been shelved. In a chapter* I am contributing to an edited collection, I take issue with the shelving of the revision process and critically assesses whether the Remedies Directive is still fit for purpose. (more…)

Brexit may have negative effects for the control of public expenditure, particularly regarding subsidies to large companies

By Dr Albert Sanchez Graells, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

image028In the current state of turmoil, it is difficult to speculate on the exact relationship between the EU and the UK that can result from the Brexit vote and the future negotiations to be held under Article 50 TEU, in case it gets triggered. However, in order to contribute to the debate of what that relationship should look like in the interest of taxpayers in the UK, it is important to consider the implications that a post-Brexit deal could have in terms of the potential disappearance of the EU rules applicable to the control of how public funds are spent. A reduction in the control mechanisms applicable to certain types of public expenditure could indeed diminish the effectiveness of policies funded by taxpayers in the UK and create shortcomings in public governance more generally. (more…)

Would A Brexit Significantly Change The Way The English Public Sector Buys Supplies And Services?

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

download (1)With a few days to go for the all important UK referendum on EU membership, it may be worth focusing the analysis on one of the issues that can affect trade between the UK and the EU to a very large extent: that is, the regulation of public contracts.

There has been some serious thought put into the potential implications of Brexit for the ways in which the UK public sector buys supplies and services—or, in technical terms, on the Brexit implications from a public procurement perspective. Academics, such as Dr Pedro Telles, and practitioners such as Michael Bowsher QC, Peter Smith, Roger Newman or Kerry Teahan have started to reflect on the likely consequences from a legal and business case perspective. (more…)

Can English universities adopt a more commercial approach and stop complying with EU public procurement law?

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

© NTSU magazine.
© NTSU magazine.

Since the introduction of student fees, and particularly after the 2011 White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, English universities have been exposed to increasing commercial pressures. This has encountered significant opposition, and both the path of reform of the higher education sector and the resistance against it are echoed overseas.

However, this trend will not reverse in the immediate future, whatever the outcome of the consultation based on the 2015 Green Paper ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’. English universities will continue needing to adapt to increasing commercial pressures. However, they seem to have the cards stacked against them. English universities are not entirely free to pursue whichever commercial approaches they see fit. Their activity is highly regulated, and they are bound by significant constraints, both under domestic and EU law.

One area of increasing controversy is the possibility for English universities to move away from what are considered burdensome and restrictive public procurement procedures and adopt a strict commercial approach to the way the purchase supplies, services and commission works. Such flexibility would allow them to choose their suppliers and contractors more freely, reduce the red tape associated to their day to day operations, and some claim that this would unleash innovation. Unsurprisingly, this is catching the attention of practitioners in the field, and the Higher Education Procurement Academy is prioritising this issue. The trouble is that, while some practitioners have made claims supporting the adoption of such a commercial approach, others consider that reforms in the English higher education system are insufficient to warrant such a change.

In order to tackle these issues, together with my colleague Andrea Gideon, I looked in detail into the constraints that EU public procurement law impose on English universities. In our paper*, (more…)