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Public Sector Food Procurement

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered public sector food procurement and healthy eating.

Before I get under way, I thank the Backbench Business Committee both for its allocation of this debate and indeed its reallocation of this debate when we were put off track the other day due to votes.

We are locked into a seemingly never-ending debate when it comes to food and health. Since 1992, there have been 14 obesity strategies piled high with hundreds of policies. All of them have identified various aspects of cause and concern, while offering up positions that attempt to address the stark reality that we are now the third fattest country in the G7. Of course, a common thread runs throughout all these strategies: the simple fact that the food we eat matters.

Good, high-quality, well-produced food is unsurprisingly better for us than cheap, ultra-processed, quickly produced food. Do not take my word for it; look at the countless studies that have shown students’ concentration and behaviour improving when served better-quality food in their cafeterias. Look at the improvement to patient health and recovery times when served with from-scratch, cooked food using high-quality ingredients. In fact, look at every study conducted by the NHS, local authority or think-tank. Pick out any one of the 14 obesity studies since 1992, and we will find direct evidence linking good-quality food to improved health and outcomes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate. It is a massive issue in my constituency, as it is indeed across the whole of the United Kingdom. In 2012, 31% of children were overweight or obese. Research demonstrates that obese children are more at risk of being overweight as adults and of developing a range of related health conditions. Does he agree that there must be a happy medium to ensure not only that meals made in schools are nutritious and healthy, but that students will eat and enjoy the food that is in front of them?

The hon. Gentleman always makes salient points in Westminster Hall debates. He is absolutely right to talk about schools, education and how we can start talking about food, where it comes from and its nutritional value, and also starting a relationship in places of education to ensure that we do not lose that link with our food. That is one of the sure-fire ways of addressing obesity and ensuring that we have better health as a result of the food we eat. It also allows us to inject some of the points around localism and supporting local producers, which I will come on to later.

The purpose of this debate is not for me to stand here and tell people what they can and cannot eat—after all, I do implicitly believe in the freedom of choice. However, it is for me to say that when taxpayers’ money is spent on food procurement, we can and should be improving what we buy, how we produce it, as well as how we serve it. Change is rarely as simple as one might want. However, my proposal for change is a simple one: the UK Government, working with local authorities, need to set targets to improve the public procurement process to ensure that local, sustainable, higher-quality, healthier food that comes from organic, regenerative or family-run farms and fisheries is served in our schools, hospitals, care homes, military, prisons and Government offices. I think that covers nearly every farming organisation in the country and should not leave anyone out.

I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests as chairman of the Country Food Trust. My hon. Friend has made some extremely good points. Is it not the case, given that the Government are embarking on one of the most expensive deer-feeding programmes ever invented—in other words, planting trees to be eaten by 2.5 million deer a year—in order to get the culling effort up to the level of 750,000 where it needs to be, that that high-protein, low-fat meat should be used in public sector kitchens, as it is one of the healthiest meats available in the United Kingdom?

I did not expect the debate to be going in that direction, but I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. How can we get game meat into our schools and places of education? How can we find a better link to that and a better understanding of the food that is in abundance across this country? I think that is a perfectly reasonable and sensible point.

My proposal, as I said, is a simple concept but a complex challenge. We spend £2.4 billion annually on public sector food procurement and catering, and there is the opportunity to support local producers, improve food quality and diets, and safeguard the environment, all of which can be achieved by setting national standards. As I have found over the last four years, half the battle in this place is persuading others, including the Government, that a point of view or argument is the right one—and even when we are proven right, it may not count for much.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Food security and the production of high-standard, locally produced food are vital. In 2021, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produced a report on public sector food procurement. It highlighted the loophole in Government buying standards for food and catering that allows public sector bodies to purchase food that does not meet our UK legal standards in food production or animal welfare on the basis of cost.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should close that inconsistent loophole as soon as we can, so that we can become a beacon to the rest of the world on food production and animal welfare standards? In so doing, we would be backing our fantastic British farmers and food producers, who produce food to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all his work as a member of the EFRA Committee, in which he brings his expertise both as a veterinarian and as a representative of a rural constituency with many farmers. He is absolutely right that we must close those loopholes. We must take the recommendations in the EFRA Committee report, to which I will refer later. I will be happy to follow through with anything he needs to strengthen his arm on that point.

The Government already accept the premise of what I am calling for. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation on possible changes to the public sector food and catering policy stated:

“Government is adopting an ambitious and transformational approach to public sector food and catering. We are determined to use public sector purchasing power to ensure positive change in the food system. Our vision is that public sector food and catering is an exemplar to wider society in delivering positive health, animal welfare, environmental and socio-economic impacts.”

That is exactly the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson). The consultation ran from June 2022 to September 2022, and there were hundreds of submissions from worthwhile national organisations. Unfortunately, the Government have yet to respond to their consultation. Will the Minister say when we are likely to see the findings of the consultation and any recommendations, so that we can recognise the opportunity to see those targets and ambitions met?

To make those changes and recognise the ambitions stated in the consultation, the procurement process has to be widened to encourage and incentivise small businesses to engage with the system. Whether it be a national or a local authority contract, it is time consuming, risky and costly for small farms, fisheries or local food producers to submit a bid. That clearly needs to change. The Procurement Act 2023 reforms the procurement process to make it simpler, faster, more transparent and less bureaucratic. It is perhaps one of the most boring pieces of legislation that has ever been passed by Parliament, but it is an important one that will make a huge difference to small businesses. With the measures coming into force in October 2024, the Government have rightly made it their ambition to open the market for public contracts to new entrants, especially small and local businesses. The Act is the catalyst for reforming our food procurement system, to ensure healthier, higher-quality food is at the heart of our publicly funded organisations.

When the Act was debated in the Lords, a number of amendments aimed to set national targets, such as ensuring that 50% of purchases must be from the UK or that “locally” would mean within 30 miles of a contracting authority. I understand that those proposals would have contravened many of our World Trade Organisation legal obligations, but there are steps that we can take to develop and improve local purchasing strategies while continuing to adhere to WTO standards. Will the Minister say when the Government will use section 107 of the Procurement Act to introduce secondary legislation to disapply section 17 of the Local Government Act 1988, which

“currently precludes local authorities from awarding public supply or work contracts by supplier location”?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 November 2022; Vol. 825, c. 1641.]

That was stated at the Dispatch Box in the House of Lords by a Minister. Introducing secondary legislation would be welcomed, I presume, by both sides of this House—I see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), nodding—so there is an opportunity to quickly see that reform brought to reality.

The more sceptical might think that this is all wishful thinking, but international comparisons should be made, and some of the successes are remarkable. For instance, in 2001 Denmark introduced an organic action plan aimed at 60% organic procurement in all public kitchens by 2020. Evidence showed an increase in public kitchen procurement of organic food of 24% by 2016. The policy proved so popular that the city of Copenhagen increased the target and achieved it, at 90%, earlier this year. The policy improved not only the health of those using public kitchens, but the understanding of food and nutrition, as well as cooking skills. The Danish agricultural community also found themselves boosted when able to bid for local tenders, with small and medium-sized businesses actively engaging and benefiting from the policy.

Brazil passed a law that requires 30% of the national budget for food served in school meal programmes to be spent on food from family farms, with priority given to those using agroecological methods. Perhaps the most interesting point about that policy is that it has also restricted the purchasing of processed and ultra-processed food with taxpayers’ money. That has had a positive impact on the farming and fishing communities, as well as benefiting schools, hospitals and other publicly funded organisations. In the United States, which we are often quick to deride, states such as California and Massachusetts have put in place frameworks that steer public purchasing towards local sources, with the express purpose of improving the diet, health and nutrition of their citizens. Austria and the Nordic countries also have fantastic examples.

Even in my area of south Devon, in the south-west, we have piloted interesting and innovative schemes such as the dynamic purchasing system to help to facilitate greater buy-in from small and medium-sized enterprises to allow them to take advantage of public tenders—all with the express hope of streamlining the consolidation and delivery of orders from multiple suppliers with an online food store, a local delivery hub and knowledge of local suppliers. Both at home and abroad, there are examples of how the proposals that I have put forward could and should work.

The Government buying standard for food and catering services sets out what public sector organisations should apply when procuring food and catering services. The standards relate to food production, processing, distribution and nutrition. Some of the standards are mandatory; some are best practices. DEFRA is responsible for updating public sector procurement standards, and the Department of Health and Social Care is responsible for the nutrition standards in the GBSF, as it is known.

The “National Food Strategy” report and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report that has already been mentioned on public sector procurement of food rightly consider what needs to be done to update the GBSF: the buying standards should be updated to ensure procurement of healthy and sustainable food; standards should be mandatory across the entire public sector; the monitoring of compliance with the standards should be improved; and supply chains should be opened up to a wider range of businesses. Some of those measures are already under way.

However, it is frequently remarked on that the lack of joined-up thinking between Departments when it comes to food has been the predominant block to action in this space. Reshaping the GBSF to take on board the food strategy recommendations plus improved oversight and strategy, coupled with mandatory targets and enforcement mechanisms, will be the only way in which we can speed along the change that we wish to see in our public sector. Mandatory standards across all sectors of public sector food procurement would not only be a huge vote of support for our food, farming and fishing communities, but necessitate an oversight body to ensure that targets were met and promises delivered.

I have sought to demonstrate that my proposal is not out of kilter with the Government’s ambitions. I have referenced the fact that the Government’s consultation on this topic asked for submissions on the very points and ambitions that I have raised. We wait in hope for its findings. I have provided the international comparisons that show that we can not only be compliant with WTO rules, but ensure that we have strong and robust legislation that meets our own domestic interests. We can do that while adhering to our international commitments.

I will end on the work of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, whose excellent work on this topic and so many others has demonstrated the overwhelming positive public appetite—no pun intended —to change the public food procurement system. Specifically, citizens across this country want the Government to improve public sector food procurement and nutrition standards, with 84% of people believing in stronger standards for the food provided in our hospitals and schools.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his passionate and extremely persuasive speech, but could we go back one step and underline how important it is that our schools get this sort of local, fresh produce? It is during those early years that one gets the tastes and the habits of a lifetime.

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. I will take a moment to mention a national organisation called Chefs in Schools, which was started and supported by Henry Dimbleby, who wrote the food strategy report. It is a brilliant organisation that goes to schools across the country, starts that early relationship between students and food and encourages cooking skills to be commonplace in every school. We should be encouraging that, and I know that Chefs in Schools will welcome any MP who wants to hear more about its programmes and whether they could be launched in their schools. I have not spent enough time speaking about schools, but I have made the point that we need to do better on that relationship, in terms of quality and standards. My hon Friend is right to raise the point, and I thank him for doing so.

If this is done correctly, the Government need not commit more money. None of the schemes I mentioned earlier required an uplift in funding; they required a change of approach and attitude to how we were purchasing food, and the schemes, initiatives and platforms in place to allow them to do so. We can boost our support for UK domestic producers across our rural and coastal communities and provide an enormous vote of confidence in our farmers and fishermen. As the Minister is a farmer, I have the utmost confidence in him to deliver in response to my speech. It would benefit farmers right across the country, and we should not lose sight of that. We can uphold food integrity and standards by creating a transparent, competitive, easy marketplace, and we can provide high-quality food that will make all the difference to our places of education, our hospitals, our prisons and our military organisations.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate. I thought I had missed it last week, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it on the Order Paper again.

The hon. Member mentioned the Government consultation on public sector food and catering that closed on 4 September 2022. Almost ever since then, it has become something of an obsession of mine to chase the Government for a response. The last time I asked, in September, I was told it would be out this year—which means by next Tuesday—so I hope the Minister has good news for us today. I gather that the 126 responses were the reason given for it taking so long. That is not that many, so I hope the Minister can tell us how many people are working on looking at those responses. It should not have taken 15 months to come to a conclusion.

One thing that was consulted on was the idea that 50% of food procured should be locally sourced and/or sustainable. When I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, we were very keen to look at what France was doing. It showed that it can be done, and in a country full of farmers, they very much welcomed it. I support that. The leader of my party, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), committed us to it when he spoke at the NFU a while ago, so I am keen to hear from the Minister whether that is still in active consideration.

As I said, I used to chair the APPG on agroecology. In that role, I had the pleasure—it was quite a pleasure—of interviewing the then DEFRA Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), on stage at the Oxford Real Farming conference. He went down very well with the audience—this was before the Agriculture Act 2020 came in—because it was the first time, I think, that a serving Conservative Secretary of State had been to the conference. This was more the agroecological end of things than traditional farming. One thing on which he got a good response was committing to more support for county farms, peri-urban farming and local farming in general.

As a Bristol MP, I think there is so much potential. We have gold status as a sustainable food city, but we also have food deserts where people cannot access affordable and healthy food, so the idea that through public sector procurement we could become the customers of things that are being grown in Somerset, in Gloucestershire and nearby—we are surrounded by countryside—to an extent to which we are not at the moment seems so much something that should be at the heart of what we are trying to do. That was followed up when I was on the Bill Committee for the Agriculture Act 2020, when the then Minister confirmed that it was very much something the Government were going to do. Unfortunately, I then had a meeting over Zoom—this was during covid—with his successor, and it just seemed like it had dropped off the table all together.

Will the Minister tell us whether he sees county farms and peri-urban farming playing an important role, and what has happened to the land use framework? There is quite a long list of DEFRA things that seem to have disappeared into the ether, but maybe the Minister has just got a very big in-tray and it is somewhere in there. I hope that part of that land use framework will include earmarking what land could be used for development to support this kind of peri-urban farming approach.

I also want to ask the Minister about the horticultural strategy. We do know that it, at least, has been definitely dropped. The strategy would have promoted the growing and consumption of more fresh fruit and vegetables, which the sector was very much pushing for. It was only after I attended a Food Foundation event and was asked if I knew what had happened to it that I tabled a question and found out that the strategy had actually been dropped. The sector had not even been told. In fact, it had been announced via a written question in the Lords, but the sector had then gone on to have meetings with DEFRA officials—there was at least one roundtable —about the proposal after it had been dropped. We know the pressures that fruit and vegetable growers are under; we know the importance of the strategy. Can the Minister explain why that was dropped? I have read the written answers, but they did not do justice to the question.

Finally, I want to briefly talk about school food standards and food poverty. One in four teachers reported that they have been bringing in food themselves for hungry pupils over the last term, while seven in 10 schools have said they are supplying basic food and hygiene items to children. There is the basic issue of not having access to enough food, but we know there is even more of a problem when we get on to healthy food. I congratulate Henry Dimbleby on his excellent work on this issue. I went to his book launch—I think Chefs in Schools, which does excellent work, provided the catering. We know that school food is not up to the nutritional and sustainability standards that we would like to see. In addition, according to The BMJ, in 2020, just 1.6% of packed lunches met school food standards, so there is also an issue with that.

The Government did say at one point that they were going to review the national school food standards. They told me that in response to questions, but later confirmed in response to other questions that they did not feel the need to do so. I absolutely feel, as we have heard, that the Government need to review those standards. We have a lot more information now on the nutritional impact of certain diets, and something that has been mentioned is the impact on behaviour. There was a very interesting study—going back quite a long time now—in young offenders institutions, which showed that once those teenage boys were taken off junk food, their behaviour changed radically. It seems to me, again, to be a bit of a no-brainer: why would we not seek to change their diets if we know we could basically save them from a lifetime spent in the criminal justice system by just doing something as important as feeding them properly?

This will be the last intervention I make. The hon. Lady and I may come from different sides of the argument around eating meat and this, that and the other, but I take her point entirely. The fact of the matter is that there are more than 2 million deer in England. To sustain the number at that level, we need to cull 750,000. We are talking of putting this low-fat, high-protein meat into dog food while people are going hungry. Diets make such a difference. We really do need to be imaginative in how we work with schools and public sector organisations to improve people’s diets.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point entirely, but he has intervened on me just as I was about to say something about plant-based diets in schools, so it was perhaps not the best timing. I would argue, and I think most people would agree, that plant-based diets are healthy and sustainable, and it would be a good thing if people—children, in particular—ate more vegetables, regardless of whether or not they eat them as a side helping on a plate of meat. They do need to eat more fruit and veg—can we all agree on that?

Right. According to the national school food standards, one or more portions of veg or salad has to be served as an accompaniment to each meal, and there has to be one or more portions of fruit every day and at least three different fruit and three different veg every week. We can do better than that. There are also requirements for meat and for dairy to be served. We should explore doing what Mayor Eric Adams has done in New York, where plant-based meals are the default option in schools and hospitals. They are not the only option; people can choose to eat meat and fish, but it is just the fall-back option. Uptake of those diets has gone up radically as a result. People have not wilted away and fallen out of their hospital beds due to lack of energy just because they have been eating a few more vegetables. That is worth exploring.

ProVeg UK’s school plates programme works with 55 local authorities and catering companies and is responsible for catering in 6,500 schools. It provides free advice on menus and recipes, and it trains chefs. It says that nearly 12 million meals have been switched to plant-based options since the programme began in 2018. It was actually 4.5 million until 2021, so the uptake has been massive. I am not saying this with an ethical vegan hat on or anything like that; I am just saying that it would be a good way of getting young people to eat more fruit and veg, which would be a good way of supporting fruit and veg growers in this country.

More plant-based meals would help with sustainability, too. I have just returned from the climate change talks at COP, where there were some very interesting discussions. Land use and food systems were meant to be on the agenda at COP for the first time, and I hope that the Minister would support that. At the moment, only 5% of public procurement contracts—across the board, not for just food—require a carbon reduction plan, so I will finish with this question: does the Minister see public sector procurement of food as helping to reduce our carbon footprint?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate.

Food must form an important part of any credible long-term health proposal, as well as any long-term environmental and geopolitical planning. The hon. Member for Totnes has already mentioned the role the south-west played during the local food hub trials, but many of my constituents feel led up the garden path by this Government’s food and farming strategy.

Somerset had 8,500 people working on farms or in food production in 2021—the highest of any county in the UK. It brought in around £500 million to Somerset’s rural economy. The farms of the south-west are some of the smallest in the UK, and we must recognise that nuance when talking about food supply. Indeed, I live in the Blackmore vale, where my family farm is. It is known as “the vale of the little dairies”, made famous by Thomas Hardy, as some hon. Members may know. We have so many different types of farms, and a supply strategy that may work for a large arable farm is not necessarily applicable to small dairy farms, like the one that I grew up on. I am in Westminster to ensure that farmers’ voices are heard loud and clear—something farmers have recently had to look to a motoring journalist for.

A recent 2022 report from the Food for Life project, which is run by the Soil Association along with other partners, showed that although regional supply companies win about 78% of public food contracts, the food itself is often not local. One in three organisations surveyed did not even know where the food it supplied came from. If the public sector is set up to favour local food and understand the nuances and complications of the industry, our population will be not only food secure, but job secure and health secure. Food for Life and its partners are calling for reforms to the way that food producers and public sector procurers link up. We should make use of ugly fruit and vegetables, and encourage and fund rural hubs like Frome Community Fridge, which gathers and distributes food that would otherwise go to waste. We need to educate public food procurers and consumers on seasonality, and promote fruit and vegetables that grow better here than highly popular but non-native recipe mainstays. We need seasonally produced nutritious food in our public sector institutions. By cutting out food miles, the impact on the environment is lessened, and we all need food in our public sector to be affordable.

The recent programme for international student assessment report reveals that 11% of pupils in the UK miss out on a meal at least once a week; that is above the OECD average. As we have heard today, hungry pupils are less likely to learn. I frequently receive emails from teachers and parents calling for free school meals to be extended. The appetite is clearly there and I hope the Minister will listen. The Liberal Democrats will provide free school meals for every primary school child and every secondary school child living in a universal credit household. Children who eat well learn well, and children who learn how to eat well will eat well for life. We want children growing into educated and informed consumers who champion seasonality, safeguard our precious environment, eat locally and, above all, eat healthily.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this debate on public sector food procurement and nutritional standards.

According to Government estimates, the UK public sector spends approximately £2.4 billion a year procuring food and catering services, representing approximately 5.5% of UK food service sector sales. Of the total spend, 29% is in schools. We have just heard about the advocation for nutritional meals in schools. Of course, in Scotland every child between primary 1 and primary 5 can avail themselves of free school meals. Twenty-nine per cent of the total spend is in further and higher educational settings; 25% in hospitals and care homes; 11% in the armed forces; 5% in prisons and 1% in Government offices. The sheer amount of food being purchased by central Government and Government bodies and agencies, and the spend itself, highlight just how important policies that work are for those seeking to procure, but also for taxpayers, workers and, indeed, our planet. UK Government procurement rules are, of course, subject to change, with the Procurement Act 2023 having passed through this place and received Royal Assent late this year. That will replace the current EU law-based regimes that we are working against.

What must be considered in all this, of course, are the decisions made on the cost of food through the procurement process. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities. The APPG has found that the cost of infant formula has increased by over 25% in the past two years alone. Just two companies hold 85% of the market share and are thus making high profit margins within that one item alone. The choice to procure a more expensive formula over a cheaper one not only costs our NHS unnecessarily more, but burdens families even further in what is already a relentless cost of living crisis, because people are likely to stay on one brand throughout the course of their child’s feeding. That is why procurement choices are so vital and why I am pleased that the SNP Scottish Government have their own procurement policies; of course, procurement is devolved and we will continue with the strategy that we have implemented. As ever, dialogue between Scottish Ministers and the UK Government will be ongoing—and, I am sure, will be as cordial as ever.

It is vital that food procurement policy represents the need for healthy, nutritional and sustainably sourced food. The Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022 was introduced in Holyrood exactly to ensure that the Scottish Government can deliver on their aims of sustainable and healthy food procurement in Scotland. The core aims of the policy include work to ensure that it is the norm for Scots to have a keen interest in their food, knowing where it comes from and what constitutes good food, and valuing it and seeking it out wherever they possibly can; and work to ensure that those who serve and sell food—from schools to hospitals, retailers, restaurants and cafés—are committed to serving and selling good, nutritious, healthy food.

Enormous strides have been made when it comes to Scotland’s relationship with food and its dietary requirement knowledge. As a result of ensuring that everyone in Scotland has ready access to the healthy and nutritious food they need, diseases are in decline, as is the environmental impact of our food consumption. All that is hugely encouraging. World-class Scottish producers, when they produce, strive to be increasingly healthy and environmentally sound, which we know is so important. The 2022 Act underpins a lot of work that is already being done across the Scottish Government to make Scotland a good food nation. That is the foundation on which we will build a healthier country.

I just wonder, since he is speaking about the high standards that Scotland might have, whether the hon. Member has any comment on the WildFish report about the damage that the Scottish salmon farming sector is doing to the habitats in which the fish are farmed and to the quality of the food that comes out of it.

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course, we will always look for sustainability wherever we can. Salmon is worth so much to the UK economy—far less to the Scottish economy. We have had some discussions about highly protected marine areas, so there is some ongoing work there, but I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point.

The Scottish Government is also improving the quality of food purchased on their behalf, with 12% more eggs, 14% more pork and 69% more beef, although there is no more venison, yet—it is too dear, probably—and 7% more milk and cream of UK or Red Tractor standard now, compared with before the pandemic. We have been making really good inroads in Scotland, and we in the SNP would welcome and encourage the UK and the other devolved Governments to follow our example in working to make all the UK’s nations good food nations.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on his characteristic vigour and energy in introducing such an important topic and launching a volley of questions that I am confident the Minister will evade. Let me also thank several people for their assistance in preparing for this debate: James Bielby of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors; Vicki Hird, formerly of Sustain and now of the Wildlife Trusts; and Joss MacDonald from the Food Foundation whose excellent report, “The Broken Plate”, is invaluable.

Given the time constraints, my comments will inevitably be brief, but we know from masses of research, including Henry Dimbleby’s excellent “National Food Strategy”, that the food consumed by the majority of adults and children in the UK does not currently meet the requirements of a nutritious diet. Most adults and children consume in excess of the maximum recommended intakes for sugar, saturated fat and salt, and do not meet the recommendations for fruit and vegetable, fibre or oily fish consumption. Is that an issue for just those individuals? Frankly, I do not think so. It has got to be about system change, and Government procurement is an important lever.

Sadly, I see no evidence that the current Government have a strategic approach to the food system. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Totnes mentioned a whole series of pieces of work that we are waiting for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to respond to by the end of the year. I remember that the food security strategy was sneaked out on the last possible day a couple of years ago, so maybe we will have lots of Christmas presents in the offing in a couple of weeks’ time. Those pieces of work include not just the public sector food and catering policy consultation but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, the demise of the long-awaited horticultural strategy. There is a widely held consensus that the Government’s national food strategy is inadequate and fails to build on the strengths of the Dimbleby report.

A future Labour Government will take these issues far more seriously. They are much too important to be left to chance, and they deserve a considered and strategic approach. For Labour, food security is national security. For the benefit of the consumer, the producer and society as a whole, we need more seasonal, sustainable and nutritious British-grown food. Instead of encouraging more low-quality imports, a Labour Government will back British farmers to produce more locally grown, healthy food in this country. One of the ways that we will do that is through public procurement. We will ensure that 50% of all food purchased by the public sector is locally produced and sustainable. That will be £1.2 billion of public money spent on quality food that is genuinely better for people’s health—a clear target for every year we are in government.

The hon. Gentleman has done a dangerous thing: it sounds like he has produced a Labour party policy, which must be the first we have heard in many months. Perhaps he might answer this. He has suggested that Labour will produce food locally and set a national target, but how will it make that compliant with WTO standards? I would also make the point that, although I am happy to have a prod at the Government for what they have and have not done, the landmark piece of legislation that has passed is the Procurement Act 2023, which does all the things we want and which people on both sides of the House have been asking for.

I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s interventions. He is a touch prickly, and I think he will find that there are hundreds of worthy Labour party policies out there. I am happy to engage in full consultation and dialogue with him on what the future holds. I also have to say that it is not beyond the wit of people to find ways through this; others have done it, and we will do it.

As I said, we are talking about £1.2 billion of public money being spent on quality food that is genuinely better for people’s health—a clear target for every year in government. Fifty per cent is just the minimum—just the start—and we will do everything to go beyond that, so that we can maximise the power of public procurement to drive up standards and fortify food security.

As part of our aim to improve children’s nutritional intake, in particular, and to build a future where children come first, we will introduce fully funded breakfast clubs for every primary school in England—another excellent Labour policy that I commend to the hon. Member for Totnes. Our free breakfast clubs will put money back in parents’ pockets, give every primary child a healthy meal at the start of the day, and be an important first step on the road to building a modern childcare system, enabling parents to work and providing an important spur to economic growth. We will improve children’s diets by finally implementing the 9 pm watershed for junk food advertising. The Government’s own impact assessment found that that policy would lead to children eating nearly 12.5 million fewer calories across the UK.

But that is for the future. Sadly, the situation at the moment is getting worse. The wholesale sector supplying the public sector has been hard hit by rising costs and inflexible budgets. Many in the sector are struggling to fulfil their public sector food contracts, with some servicing them at a loss. The Government response has been frankly woeful. Their announcement to increase the funding rate for universal infant free school meals by 12p per pupil was a belated token acknowledgment of the problem. That increase remains well behind the current rise in food inflation, which for wholesalers is running at 20%, and fails to consider the range of external factors the food and drink industry currently faces.

Soaring costs are putting the public sector food industry under considerable strain, forcing conversations to be had about the realities of fulfilling public sector food contracts. Inevitably, the quality and quantity of the food being served to young and vulnerable people are being adversely impacted. Public sector caterers are struggling to meet food standards and being forced to reduce portion sizes and to use less UK-grown produce, directly contrary to the Government’s stated aims. The quality of the food used to service public sector contracts will continue to decline in order to mitigate rising costs if the Government do not take action. The impact of food inflation has already resulted in pupils being forced to accept smaller lunches with a lower nutritional value. In some cases, schools have opted to offer only cold packed lunches because of the cost of energy. I am sure we will remember the scenes during the covid crisis when some of the meals on offer were shameful. Several wholesalers that supply school contracts have mentioned to me that they are reducing portion sizes by, for example, offering less protein less frequently.

In conclusion, we need a new way. Labour’s mission-based strategic approach will help us to see the food system as a whole and will ensure that we all have access to more nutritious, sustainable, local, British-grown food.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher, and not in the Chamber asking me difficult questions. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for calling this debate.

The debate provides a great opportunity to put a spotlight on the important role the public sector has in leading positive change in our food system. Our public sector spends close to £5 billion a year on food and catering services in its supply chain, and it very much has an influential role in the transition to a healthier, more sustainable food system. DEFRA’s Government buying standards for food—GBSF for short—set out the requirements for public sector organisations to do that and to champion healthier, higher-quality, sustainable food in their supply chains. We want the public sector to lead by example and to demonstrate best practice, playing a vital role in helping local food culture and economies flourish by providing those standards. We are unleashing the purchasing power of the public sector.

Can I just highlight again the loophole in the Government buying standards the Minister mentioned? The public sector can deviate from buying high-quality food on the basis of cost; it can deviate from animal welfare standards if it is cheaper to do that. The Minister’s predecessor gave us very encouraging answers on the EFRA Committee on our recommendations for closing that loophole. It is a simple thing to do. I really urge the Government to look at that and to close the loophole, so that we can give the best example with our local public sector food procurement.

Of course, we want those consuming food purchased in the public sector to have access to the healthiest, best-quality food possible. We need to balance that with a desire to get good value for taxpayers’ money at the same time. Where foods are of the same quality and standard, we would of course expect people to purchase locally wherever possible. We want to use our influence to encourage people in the public sector to make the most of locally produced, high-quality British food. That is done through a blend of mandated standards that apply to central Government Departments —His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, NHS hospitals and the armed forces in England—and best practice standards, which exist to encourage all public sector organisations to work towards having healthier and more sustainable food in their supply chains.

Public sector food should champion healthier, sustainable food that is provided by a diverse range of suppliers. To underpin that approach, we held a consultation last year on public sector food and catering policy, including on updating the Government buying standards for food and catering services, which were last updated in 2014. Leaving aside the nutritional standards, which were updated in 2021, there was broad support for some of the proposals we included in the consultation, including pursuing greater environmental sustainability gains and increasing the opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses in the sector.

I am pleased to say that we have worked hard with colleagues across Government to take our response through to the final stages of drafting. I am confident that the revised standards will deliver positive change, as well as making life easier for those implementing them. The team has been working across Government with those Departments that have a vested interest, such as the Ministry of Defence, which has specific operational challenges in feeding its workforce, and with the Crown Commercial Services to oversee the consideration of SMEs in its new Buying Better Food and Drink agreement. That agreement will help SME food producers to access public sector food opportunities, provided that they meet the GBSF.

The GBSF already supports and strengthens cross-Government policies linked to environmental sustainability, animal welfare, food safety and nutrition. With regards to the environment, for example, the standards encourage the championing of seasonal produce and mandate that a proportion of food in the supply chain meets higher environmental production standards. That can currently be demonstrated through membership of organic and LEAF—linking environment and farming—assurance schemes, and we will continue to work to link them to world-class environmental land management schemes.

As well as bringing the standards up to date, the refresh will make the GBSF simpler and more engaging for those in the sector to interpret, whether returning to the standards or coming to them for the first time. Accompanying guidance will clarify how any changes can be applied, as well as improve the transparency of the supply chain, so that a greater range of potential suppliers are able to understand the opportunities the sector has to offer. To continue driving improvement and ambition in the sector, we will continue to develop and refine guidance following publication by engaging with the sector to improve uptake and retain Government focus on the priorities I have mentioned.

We have had a very interesting debate. I hope I have reassured Members that we are on the right track.

The Minister has been teasing us here. I think we all want to celebrate the hard work of the brilliant officials in his Department, so can he give us the date when these things will be published? We will then champion them in this place and recognise the brilliant work that has been done in refreshing all the things he has just mentioned.

I think “soon” is the answer that I can give my hon. Friend. We will soon publish the consultation findings, alongside the updated standards and guidance I talked about. We want to showcase the sustainable, high-welfare, quality produce that the public sector can procure. I will probably have to let the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) down and say that we will not deliver before Christmas, but I do not think she will have long to wait after that, because we want to get on with this—we want to procure the best food for our local schools.

I hear the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) assuring us that he is going to procure only local food. If I am being honest, I do not believe him. I hope that the model used by Labour-controlled Exeter City Council, which has denied people the right to have meat in their diet, will not be followed nationally.

It is not meant to all be locally produced; it is 50%. They do it in France. In the Government’s consultation, which closed on 4 September last year, that was one of the things they asked people for a view on. If the Minister thinks it is such nonsense, why did he bother consulting on it?

My point is that it cannot all be done locally. There has to be a balance. We are committed to improving the amount of food that we produce and procure locally. We want UK producers to be engaged in the system. We are making great progress on that, but we have to do it within the WTO standards, which are internationally recognised within the law. We will do it within those rules, and we will drive the amount of UK produce that is procured in the right direction.

I thank all the people who have taken part in the discussion today.

We accept that protein is an important part of a balanced diet, particularly for children. I make this as a serious point: venison is sustainable. There is universal agreement—George Monbiot included—that we need to cull those animals. We must ensure that that healthy protein, with no hormones and no antibiotics, goes to those most in need, and our schools would be a good place to start.

I wholly accept my hon. Friend’s argument, and it is something we are taking very seriously. DEFRA is working on a deer strategy. I want to see that meat enter the food chain; we want to ensure that those animals are culled safely and that the meat is processed in the right way to make it available. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is low-fat, high-quality, sustainable, high-welfare meat, which we should make the most of. I commit to helping him with his campaign with DEFRA officials, to ensure that we can make it happen.

When we publish the revised GBSF, I encourage Members on both sides of the House to support their implementation across the public sector. They will not only help to demonstrate best practice in improving the healthiness and sustainability of the food we eat, but encourage small businesses, producers and social enterprises to make the most of the opportunities that the sector provides.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for bringing forward this debate. I hope that Members will conclude that we are on the right track and heading in the right direction.

I will not take up much time, other than to thank you, Sir Christopher, for chairing this debate, and to thank hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions. I set out to create a specific definition that would allow us to comply with our international obligations and learn from international examples—from Denmark and the Nordic countries, Brazil, Austria and states in America—so that we can get this right.

We should also look at introducing the secondary legislation that was promised at the Dispatch Box. It offers us a real opportunity; it would have no difficulty passing through the House extremely quickly and would be welcomed in the House of Lords. As we approach the end of the year, I hope we can look at introducing and delivering that next year, as the Minister suggested.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered public sector food procurement and healthy eating.

Sitting adjourned.