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Food: Government Departments

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they have taken to increase the amount of British food publicly procured by government departments.

My Lords, the Government are taking a number of steps under the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative to increase tenders from small and local food producers. The steps include funding workshops and projects to improve their capacity to supply the public sector and encouraging buyers to increase opportunities for them by, for example, specifying seasonal produce and breaking contracts down into smaller lots.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that he is as concerned as I am that only half of the purchases made in the expenditure of £2 billion between July 2006 and July 2007 were of British produce. Surely that is to be bitterly regretted. Indeed, only 25 per cent of the bacon purchased was British. Is it not time for the Government to think across departments and adopt a standardised, integrated approach in order to find a better way of introducing British food into departments?

My Lords, one size does not fit all; it tends to be the case that the pig industry specialises in pork. The fact is that there have been considerable improvements over the past few years. Although the MoD has been severely criticised in the past, this year 100 per cent of its gammon will be sourced from the UK. The way the MoD’s figure are measured suggests that only around 40 per cent was from the UK, but it is closer to 60 per cent. Massive progress is being made in schools, for example. In some areas of the country, such as Derbyshire, Norfolk and Lancashire, 100 per cent of the produce—the meat; chicken and pork—used for school meals is British. A lot of work is going on. It is also incumbent on producers actually being able to supply what the market wants, and not the other way round. Producers are simply suppliers and they have to be in a position to supply what chefs and the market want. Part of our process is to ensure that they are geared up to be able to do that.

My Lords, while we would like all departments to buy British food, what would be the answer given by the Government if the National Audit Office found that it was not value for money in comparison with other food?

My Lords, going for the lowest possible price tender is not necessarily the best value. While this is not an implied criticism, I have to say that the NAO report on this subject—it is available in the Library—which is confirmed by a recent NFU centenary report on procurement performance, shows that the worst of the government departments, at 40.3 per cent, is Her Majesty’s Treasury.

My Lords, I do not know how to follow that one.

Does the Minister have any information about the procurement of British food by, say, French or German public departments? Assuming that it is not good, what are the Government doing to ensure that such departments purchase more and that our rights under the single market are enforced?

My Lords, herein lies the problem. When I heard about the supply to Italian schools of Welsh lamb, it became far more difficult to make the case because it cannot be a “buy British” issue. We have record exports of food and drink from this country and we want them to continue to grow. We cannot do that if we seem to imply that we should “buy British”. We can say, “Buy welfare friendly”, so the animals are reared properly. We can encourage contracts for freedom foods, for example, and we can encourage seasonal foods, which are more likely to be local, but it cannot be implied to be “buy British”. I do not think the noble Lord is implying that. We want to sell British food to schools and hospitals in France, Germany and Italy. It cannot all be local food in every country.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a small food producer, but not one who is likely to be large enough to supply any government department. I am pleased to hear what the Minister says about encouraging British food but I wonder whether he can help me. I had three reports in one day about Defra not seeming to care about food production any more. It thinks that we can get all our food from abroad and it does not matter whether farmers know how to farm or to produce food in this country. It would be enormously helpful if there be a little more knowledge within Defra.

My Lords, the noble Countess is entitled to make her allegation but, bearing in mind what I have said about what Defra is doing, it borders on the preposterous. We are going around the country holding national conferences; we are publishing guides for farmers to help them supply the public sector; we are funding projects in the English regions to develop the capacity of small producers; we are funding English farming and food partnerships to develop a share-and-supply programme to encourage and help farmers and food producers to co-operate; we are about to put more electronic adverts on to the system for universities and hospitals for the procurers to challenge tradition and the way in which they procure food. It is not perfect, but it is a lot better than it used to be.

My Lords, many in the House will know that the Minister is fully committed to this policy. I would like to ask him about the attitude of his colleagues in the Government. What obstacles has the Minister found across government? Has the policy been discussed in Cabinet? At the NFU centenary dinner the Prime Minister revealed himself as a country boy at heart. What has he done to back the Minister in this policy?

Eaten more British meat, my Lords; he is one of the members of the Cabinet who can do that. He has convinced me that he is pushing for the meat industry. As I said, there are some gaps and there are some progress moves—I have mentioned the MoD. One area where we have some concern—it is incredibly difficult—is where, for example, if one looks at the centre of the health department and then one looks at all the health trusts, which are independent procurers, one finds that there is less of an interest. I am about to have discussions with health Ministers about that, but it comes down to the local trust level. We have discovered figures which show that only about 5 per cent of NHS trusts take this issue seriously. That is quite unacceptable. We want good quality, seasonal, locally produced food in our hospitals. It is not necessarily the fewest pennies at the end of the price that give you good value. That is why all of what we are doing is fully compatible with EU rules and auditing rules for value for money.

My Lords, what is the role of the European regulation? If he does not have that information, perhaps he could write to us. Is there an inhibition by law or by direction from the European Union against labelling things as British, or from Britain or the UK?

My Lords, labelling rules for food are an EU competency; that is not the issue. Defra has been able to work with those who make the contracts to get model, legally watertight contracts so that the suppliers can request, for example, food produced in animal-welfare-friendly conditions. We can say, without fear or favour, that our records are better than anywhere else in Europe. If people then want to make it a contractual obligation to have the RSPCA’s Freedom Food designation, they are legally entitled to do so.