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MP tries to level software playing field

Small open-source suppliers are discriminated against when government contracts are handed out, an MP claims

The MP who brought a motion criticising a government agency over its open-source policy is seeking to level the playing field between proprietary and open-source suppliers.

John Pugh said that open-source providers are often disadvantaged because they tend to be smaller firms, which are overlooked in public-sector tenders. "Given what the Government says about creating a level playing field, you have to ask why there has been so little progress. Either open-source companies are not up to it or a more subtle obstruction has been put in the way. My belief is that it's the latter," Pugh told ZDNet UK.

"I've had concerns that procurement strategy has been tilted against the SMEs that proliferate in the open-source world," Pugh added, saying that suppliers usually needed annual revenues of over £50m before they could realistically bid for a government contract. Smaller suppliers were often faced with procurement procedures so long that they could not stay the course, he said. "I want to fire a shot across the Government's bows that we need a level playing field. The diversity of provision might not be around [in the future], given current procurement strategies."

Pugh filed an early day motion last Tuesday claiming that the Department for Education and Skills and its advisor Becta are denying schools the choice of whether to deploy open-source software. His motion, which said outdated supplier frameworks were to blame, has since gained the support of 18 other MPs from across the political spectrum.

Becta's rules mean that suppliers can only be accepted onto the framework if they can deliver and support a comprehensive suite of technologies, rather than provide a single, specific product.

The Liberal Democrat MP, who is a former teacher, said that UK IT firms suffered from limitations, which did not restrict companies on the Continent. "I'm hoping for a more European strategy towards IT procurement. It's a mystery why open source has not made the same progress in the public sector [as] it has on the Continent."

Pugh also drew a comparison with the multi-billion pound NHS IT programme, in which smaller companies were invited to tender as sub-contractors to the larger players.

He continued by saying that open source would be particularly valuable in bringing cost savings for the public sector. "We need an open and transparent market with many players. I see it from the value-for-money point of view, which is how the Government should see it. I'm hoping to rattle a few cages. But the campaign doesn't stop here. There'll be a sustained bout of pressure."