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Publicly Procured Food

Volume 457: debated on Thursday 8 March 2007

My Department does not hold that information, but I have commissioned work to determine the proportion of publicly procured food that is British. I am optimistic that it will be completed by the late autumn of this year, and I will place the information in the Library of the House.

How do the Government justify feeding hospital patients and service personnel so much food that does not meet British standards? In my area, the Bedfordshire food mark ensures that Bedfordshire schoolchildren eat the county’s food. Will the Government ensure that publicly procured food meets the red tractor assured food standard?

Order. I must repeat that I do not expect hon. Members to read a supplementary question into the record. I say that in the nicest possible way, but they should hear what Ministers have to say in answer to a question, and respond orally.

I am sure that, by his reference to standards, the hon. Gentleman would not want to suggest that unsafe food was somehow being fed to hospital patients. I am concerned that, inadvertently, some people listening might have got that impression, and it is certainly not the case. Obviously, I believe that it is important that we give British producers the maximum opportunity to ensure that their food is supplied to public services such as hospitals, schools and the Prison Service. That is what the public sector food procurement initiative is designed to do, and it is helping local producers around the country to get their produce into the public sector. That is good and is consistent with the trade rules that ensure that our producers are able to export overseas as well as supply domestically.

Given that we are in the middle of Fairtrade fortnight, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should use our purchasing power to support subsistence food farmers abroad, as well as home-grown produce? To that end, will he join my campaign to make Burnley a fair trade town?

I cannot save the football team, but I have heard a rumour that Mr. Alastair Campbell is going to be its next manager, and perhaps that will be the source of its salvation. That will be in addition to his memoirs, rather than as an alternative to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) makes a good point. The best thing for fair trade around the world, and for a fair deal for British producers, is an open trading regime. I am sure that, like me, she will remember that there was a ban in the 1990s on British producers selling beef overseas. That was very dangerous. Now, 5,000 tonnes of beef are being exported every month, and that is a good thing. However, open trade is equally essential to people all around the world who have a right to develop in a way that means that they can support themselves. It is possible to achieve a balance. We are trying, rightly, to give every encouragement to British producers, but they will prosper best in an open and liberal trading environment.

I represent the constituency of Macclesfield in the county of Cheshire, which is heavily agricultural. Does the Secretary of State agree that the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is relevant? The best boost that he could give today’s hard-pressed farmers is to ensure that the food used in the public services, the Army and schools meets the red tractor standard and is purchased from British producers. Surely we should back our farmers, just as so many other countries in Europe and elsewhere back theirs.

We certainly should do that, and I can give the hon. Gentleman some happy tidings. Fresh from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs canteen, I can report that more than 80 per cent. of our fish is domestically sourced, as is more than 90 per cent. of our pork, nearly 100 per cent. of our dairy products and fully 100 per cent. of our eggs.

However, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) makes a serious point about backing British producers. There are two approaches, one of which is to say that we should have a protectionist regime and that we should force our public sector suppliers to buy British only. However, that would be damaging, because Governments around the world would retaliate against British producers. It is far better to say, alternatively, that British farmers will prosper best when theirs is the best produce available in an open and fair market, and that is what we are trying to achieve.

I urge the hon. Member for Macclesfield to back the public sector food procurement initiative, which tries to ensure that our farmers get into the retail and public sector chains that are so important. They can win on quality, and do not need special favours.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we want good local food chains and that there is no better way to provide them than by using county farm estates—smallholdings still owned by county councils and other authorities? Using those farmers to supply our schools and hospitals would be the best of all solutions.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I went to the Oxford farming conference in January I specifically pointed out that all our experience shows that the urge to buy local is growing fast. The red tractor has an important place as a mark of British standards, but, equally, local produce often has the provenance, quality and attachment that people look for, which is important. My hon. Friend’s point is important and I shall look into it.

I assure the Secretary of State that nobody seeks protectionism for British producers. The public sector procurement initiative was launched four years ago, yet in response to my questions to Departments, seven do not know how much of their food is British and three others, including Health and Education and Skills—two of the big ones—will not answer the question. Even the Prime Minister, who had the brass neck to front up the Country Land and Business Association’s “just ask” campaign a few weeks ago, does not know how much food served at No. 10 is British, so what sort of example is that? Is not it now clear that there is no way to judge whether the initiative is actually working and whether there has been any change after four years? There is no way of knowing how much of the £2 billion of taxpayers’ money is delivering the goods. The Secretary of State—

I am sure you agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is important that Opposition spokesmen actually listen to the answers given at the beginning. If the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) had bothered to listen he would know that in the course of this year we shall have the figures he seeks so zealously. I am sorry he seeks to run down projects that are helping British producers in every region of the country to supply the public sector. I am sorry he seeks to run down the English Farming and Food Partnership, which many people in the industry think has made an important contribution. I suggest that rather than bleating he should actually support some of those campaigns.