Written by Alistair Driver
The Government should do more to support small businesses, improve animal welfare and promote sustainability in its public procurement policy, according to a new report published by MPs.
In its report, Public Sector Procurement of Food, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee calls on the Government to ‘pull its Buying Standards for Food (GBSF) into the new decade, address outdated standards on nutrition and animal welfare, and close loopholes in the existing rules’.
This includes making certain guidance for public sector buying policies mandatory and closing the loophole that allows public bodies to import food produced to lower standards than permitted in the UK on the basis of cost.
The committee, chaired by Devon MP Neil Parish (pictured), expresses disappointment that Government Buying Standards have not, thus far, been used as a vehicle to support British producers. Noting the ‘startling lack of monitoring of existing food procurement standards’, including by Government departments and NHS hospitals, the report also demands action to push bodies to ensure compliance.
The report urges the Government to place greater focus on factors such as seasonality that would support British producers within procurement rules. It also recommends:
- That Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF) should be made mandatory across the public sector in England, including in schools and local government, who are currently merely ‘encouraged’ to comply.
- GBSF is updated to ensure that public bodies are encouraged to source seasonal produce, therefore supporting British producers. The report expresses ‘disappointment’ that the Government has not used the GBSF as a mechanism to promote “buying British” within the public sector, as is the norm within public bodies in countries such as France.
- The introduction of Dynamic Purchasing Systems, which proved, during a pilot run by Bath and North East Somerset Council, to be cost-effective for public bodies whilst supporting small enterprises, should be prioritised. Government pilots demonstrated food costs did not increase when buying from local SMEs.
- The immediate removal of an exemption to the GBSF which permits deviation from the UK food production and animal welfare standards in the case of ‘significant increase in costs’. The existence of this exemption, the use of which cannot be quantified due to the lack of monitoring, may disincentivise food suppliers from investing in food produced to high standards.
- The Government must update the GBSF, taking into account the latest consumer preferences and industry practise on nutrition and climate change. The report notes that standards currently fall short of the industry norm in areas such as animal welfare, and do not align with the Government’s target for net zero emissions by 2050.
- Inspection bodies, such as the Care Quality Commission, should monitor compliance with Government Buying Standards for Food (GBSF) in their sectors.
Mr Parish said: “The Government has a real opportunity to support high standards, small businesses and British farmers through its food procurement system.
“Our prisons, schools and hospitals spend billions each year on food, yet government buying standards are not up to date and remain poorly enforced.
“Our report found that ‘buying British’ does not have to be more expensive—and at the same time we can support local, seasonally produced food, which is often healthier for the consumer, has lower food miles, and chimes with the Government’s own ‘net zero’ and future farming ambitions too.
“Government buying standards should therefore be urgently updated and made mandatory across the public sector.
“If we fail to act, ministers are in danger of paying mere lip-service to vital policies and falling short of their manifesto promises ‘to encourage the public sector to Buy British, support our farmers and reduce environmental costs’ at the same time.”
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