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Locally Grown And Produced Food

Volume 407: debated on Thursday 19 June 2003

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6.

What steps she is taking in the EU to enable the preferential procurement by public sector bodies of locally grown and produced food. [120189]

We encourage public sector bodies to adopt purchasing policies that allow local growers and food producers the opportunity to compete for business. Local sourcing is an element of our sustainable food procurement initiative.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but it did not address the question about what he is doing in the EU. We lag way behind France and Italy in local procurement. I draw the Minister's attention to the excellent report, "Relocalising the Food Chain", which Cardiff university produced. It found that

"barriers imposed by EU procurement legislation, while considerably restricting purchasing discretion are not insurmountable."
Will the Minister give a clear and quantifiable pledge to increase the amount of locally produced and procured food in our schools, hospitals and other public bodies, and thereby dispel the Government's reputation for lacking imagination and ambition on local procurement?

The hon. Gentleman has imagination because he has managed to answer his question. I am delighted that he has done that. The EU rules do not prevent local procurement. It is a question of engagement between farmers, food producers and their market. We are trying to help the industry to understand the way in which to get into that market. We have issued guidance, which is publicly available, so the hon. Gentleman can read it. We have provided case studies and advice, and we shall continue to do that to enable people to understand the way in which they can help local producers to bid and succeed. We also need to help the producers to get into the market and supply what their market wants.

As the rest of the ministerial team have been congratulated, may I offer my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on still being in his job? Does he accept that cheap and prepackaged foods are often stuffed full of fat, salt or sugar, and that that is contributing to an alarming increase in the incidence of obesity, diabetes and ill-health? Is there not a responsibility across government to establish rules for procurement—within EU rules—that would require more fresh, wholesome food? Such rules would obviously contribute to a greater degree of local production and supply of food.

I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations; I am delighted still to be in this role and to be a member of this very fine learn. He is absolutely right: it is possible to set procurement standards that enable fresh local produce to have the best chance of succeeding. He is right to place an emphasis on health and good quality, but we cannot demand that local produce should be included. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) suggested in his supplementary question, however, there are ways of encouraging good quality, fresh and locally produced food to come into the public service. That is the way in which we should approach this.

The Minister must realise that public sector bodies have a problem, in that they have to buy according to best value. When I walk into Tesco's supermarket in Ballymoney, I know whether the lamb, chicken, vegetables and loaf of bread that I am buying have been produced locally in Northern Ireland, because they are labelled. Could the Minister direct all public sector bodies in the health service and education to have the same labelling policy in their restaurants and canteens, so that it would be quite obvious which products had been locally produced? That would lead to a massive increase in demand for such products from the customers. Does the Minister agree with that constructive proposal?

There is a variety of ways in which the choice available to consumers—in public organisations and elsewhere—can be extended. There are two halves to the equation, however. The first involves ensuring that public sector bodies know that they are not precluded from designing their procurement policies in such a way as to promote fresh and local produce, to give it a fair chance while not excluding other bidders. The second involves encouraging UK producers to understand the service that they are providing and to be more competitive through greater collaboration, more co-operative working, and having a greater understanding of the public procurement approach. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that informing people about what they are purchasing and what their choices are is an important part of that.