Bishop Auckland is home to the last television factory in Britain. Cello Electronics employ between 80 and 120 people, depending on the time of year, and make high-quality LED TVs in a wide variety of sizes.
Since Cello was founded in 2001, it has been a pioneer of new technologies. In 2010, Cello led the way in the development of Smart TVs. In 2016, they launched the world’s first solar powered TV. We should be proud to host an innovative company like this in the heart of County Durham, but current government policy unfortunately does not support UK-based manufacturing. As a direct result of this policy, Cello has lost out on a lucrative supply contract, despite submitting the best product.
For the last four years, Cello held the Ministry of Justice contract to supply UK prisons with in-cell televisions.
While delivering on this contract, Cello produced specially-made televisions ideally suited to the unique needs of a prison. These products included features such as:
- Transparent backs so that guards can see contraband items hidden inside
- Software limiting the channels prisoners can access
- Screens with wide viewing angles, designed to be seen from lower bunks
- Security screws to prevent tampering with components
You might think that a track record of excellence would be enough to keep Cello as the front-runners for future contracts. However, in September this year, Cello were informed that despite being ranked top, the Ministry were taking their business to HTC Group Ltd, an importer of cheap Chinese-made goods.
At the request of Cello’s chief executive, Brian Palmer, I queried the decision making process with Rory Stewart, the Minister of State for Prisons. His response revealed that Cello “achieved a higher quality/technical score than HTC Group Ltd” but that “there was no ranking of this element. Therefore, as stated in the tender documents, the deciding factor was lowest price.”
It is appalling that instead of supporting a UK-based manufacturer who have poured time, money and ideas into developing a custom product for use in British prisons over the last four years, the Ministry’s procurement policy actively disregards quality in favour of an imported product offering the lowest possible price.
While a case can be made for keeping public spending to an absolute minimum – especially for a product that is often viewed as luxury in prisons – this cost-first police is short-sighted and a total false economy.
The stance of the Ministry of Justice on their procurement policy is confounding. Quality is assessed, yet counts for nothing toward a decision where the cheapest product wins out. What about the longevity of the product and associated repair or replacement costs? What about the impact on the wider UK economy and supply chain? What about the security of the finished product and the impact this may have on the safety of prison staff and inmates alike? Cello have designed tamper-proof, transparent cases. If their cheaper imitation does not offer the same level of security, the risk of harm from concealed drugs, weapons and other prohibited items increases.
The tendering process pay nothing but lip-service to these considerations before decision-makers glance at the bottom line and grab their cheque-book.
This summer, the Labour Party launched their #BuildItInBritain campaign in response to similar cases where British manufacturers were disadvantaged by public sector supply contracts. From Navy ships to train carriages and our post-Brexit blue passports, manufacturing sites in the UK have missed out in favour of overseas suppliers.
The philosophy is simple. By backing companies who #BuildItInBritain, we can:
- Support secure, well-paying manufacturing jobs in our country
- Rely on high-quality goods, reducing costs by avoiding the need to repair or replace
- Encourage new businesses to invest in the UK
- Stop the brain drain of our innovators, inventors, and engineers
- Ensure that the products supplying our public services are manufactured in places with workers’ rights, high welfare standards and environmental safeguards
- Boost the benefits of taxation. More income for UK companies translates into higher tax revenues to reinvest in our public services.
I have written again to Rory Stewart at the Ministry of Justice, outlining my views toward their tendering process. Although the decision is final for Cello (who will continue to innovate and produce for their other customers), we must work for a change in the rules so that a “Made in the UK” sticker doesn’t automatically disqualify a product from a tender competition against discount overseas suppliers. I await a reply.