Skip to main content

Food Procurement (Public Sector)

Volume 515: debated on Thursday 9 September 2010

6. What steps her Department is taking to encourage the procurement of food of British origin by the public sector. (14177)

17. What steps her Department is taking to encourage the procurement of food of British origin by the public sector. (14188)

We are committed to ensuring that food procured by Government Departments, and eventually the whole public sector, meets British or equivalent standards of production wherever this can be achieved without increasing overall costs. I have written to ministerial colleagues asking them to look closely at how they can help us to meet this objective.

As Ministers agreed, British animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world, which may make products slightly more expensive. I understood that Government policy was to ensure procurement in the public sector of British-produced food wherever possible. I am concerned, therefore, about the response that it may be procured from other sources. Also, how will the Government measure whether food has come from British sources?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are proceeding with the commitment that I have given and which was outlined in the coalition agreement. With respect to the gap, the Government also intend to develop Government buying standards for the public procurement of food, which means that Departments will have to buy food that meets minimum sustainability standards. We know that our rules, especially on animal welfare, reflect the importance that the nation attaches to this issue.

The Secretary of State referred to the fact that she has asked the Cabinet to implement her policy on food procurement. Will she explain more about the practical policies that she will implement to ensure that this procurement goes ahead?

Again, I can give the hon. Lady this assurance. I have just said that I have written to all Departments about the importance that the coalition attaches to encouraging the public sector to procure food to the highest possible standards, followed up by the development of Government buying standards for food. However, I would like to give her some encouragement regarding our progress. It is demonstrable that we can implement this policy without increasing overall costs. Nottingham city council is a good example. It procures 90% of its fresh food from the east midlands area while demonstrating that the average cost per meal is 30% lower than the national average. That fact is welcomed by the Secretary of State for Health.

May I begin by complimenting the right hon. Lady on her choice of outfit? It is very DEFRA-esque—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, there is surely room for manners in the House of Commons. Will she describe what obstacles she sees in the way of Departments and the rest of the public sector procuring British produce?

First, I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman for his very nice compliment, which was received absolutely as it was intended. As much as anything, the obstacle might be a perception in the public sector that buying in food to British standards might cost more. The illustration from the health service that I gave to his hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) demonstrates clearly that it is possible to procure to British standards—the highest standards—and save costs, but I will give yet another example that might help to change perceptions. Shropshire council sources local produce for school meals. It uses seasonal, local, organic ingredients and still made a saving of 11% in the first year of shifting to locally produced, British food made to high standards, particularly fruit and vegetables. Perception is an important point to address.

I assure the right hon. Lady that seeing British produce procured by the public sector is a shared objective. Will she therefore say how she intends to measure the success of her policy in increasing procurement, and how she will make this information available to the House?

I recognise this as a shared objective, as the hon. Gentleman described it. He will know that DEFRA carefully records, by Department, the percentage of farm-assured food from all food supplied to the public sector. In writing to every Cabinet Minister about the issue, I have attached the league table of performance by Departments to provide an added incentive. We believe that the public sector should not spend taxpayers’ money on food that is not equivalent to British standards of production, because it is unfair on our farming and food industries.

I was very reassured to hear the Secretary of State say that animal welfare standards were important, as well as the British origin of the food. If the application for an 8,000-strong dairy factory farm in Lincolnshire is approved, will she join me in urging a boycott of battery milk by the public sector, and does she support the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ “Not in my cuppa” campaign?

The hon. Lady is talking about welfare standards and examples of planning applications—well publicised in the press—for large-scale units which, to date, have not been accepted. Logically, however, it is not scale that is the determinant of welfare: there can be animal welfare problems at both small and large-scale units. It has everything to do with the quality of the husbandry.