Public Sector Procurement of Food Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Food procurement standards

1.It is essential that the Government sets buying standards for public procurement of food in order to achieve value for money and ensure that high quality food, produced to high standards, is served by public bodies. However, standards are only effective if they are followed, and currently we do not have a clear picture of how frequently and effectively the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering (GBSF) are being followed by public bodies. There is no coherent system for monitoring compliance where public bodies are mandated to follow the GBSF. This means that food supply chains cannot normalise around one set of baseline standards. A responsibility for monitoring compliance should be emphasised to or placed on existing inspection bodies, such as Ofsted (for schools) and the Care Quality Commission (for NHS Trusts), rather than creating new structures for inspection. These data should be reported to Government. Where such inspection bodies do not exist, Defra must gather data on compliance with the GBSF and the Balanced Scorecard through annual surveys, as it already does for government departments. It should publish the results of these surveys and name Departments that are not meeting the standards or fail to respond adequately to surveys. (Paragraph 17)

2.The Government should make adherence to the GBSF mandatory for the public sector in England. We are supportive of proposals that the balanced scorecard should also be mandatory across the public sector, particularly for the NHS in England, but we have concerns that this may have adverse impacts on smaller suppliers who may not be able to afford the accreditation and certification required. Defra must gather evidence from Government departments and their suppliers on the effectiveness and impact of the balanced scorecard since 2014 and review whether to make the balanced scorecard mandatory. At the very least, the balanced scorecard needs to be better promoted by the Government. (Paragraph 18)

3.There is no reason for the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering (GBSF) to contain exemptions to meeting food production and animal welfare standards set in legislation on the basis of cost. There are suspicions that public bodies procuring and serving food in the UK are using these exemptions and that they are disincentivising food suppliers from investing in food produced to high standards. However, it was difficult to find any data proving this, and we accept that gathering such data retrospectively would be unnecessarily time-consuming. Where meeting UK food production and animal welfare standards in supplying overseas military and diplomatic operations would be prohibitively expensive, the Government should make exceptions on a case-by-case basis only if it is satisfied that every effort has been made to meet UK standards. In such cases, every effort should be made to meet equivalent standards. Such exceptions should not be an option for UK-based public procurement and therefore the scope for them should be removed from the GBSF immediately. (Paragraph 24)

4.The GBSF are outdated; in some areas such as animal welfare the baseline standards are lower than the industry norm. In other areas, such as how to meet net zero emission targets, they lag behind current Government ambitions. The Government should lead by example in setting high standards. The Government should review and update the GBSF to take account of new evidence, Government commitments, industry practice and consumer preferences on nutrition, animal welfare, sustainability and climate change. This should be addressed as part of the Government’s response to Part Two of the National Food Strategy by the end of the year. Thereafter, we suggest that the GBSF are actively reviewed every five years and updated if necessary. (Paragraph 29)

Supporting domestic producers

5.The Government has associated leaving the EU with the opportunity to encourage the public sector to “buy British” and reduce environmental costs. It is, however, clear that even under EU rules, the UK already had opportunities to support British suppliers through proxy measures, such as specifying “local” and “seasonal” in procurement. This had the potential to provide greater environmental benefits, such as reduction of food miles. We are disappointed that those opportunities were not maximised before EU Exit and we expect the Government to make more effort in future. (Paragraph 40)

6.The Government intends to support more sustainable land management and food production through provisions under the Agriculture Act 2020. It is therefore providing financial support for farmers who can demonstrate that they are producing food in ways that benefit the environment, enhance animal welfare and provide other public goods. It is therefore sensible to expect that the public sector provides a market for their produce. This is even more important at a time of disrupted trade relationships, the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on food security and the transition away from direct payments. The public sector and its suppliers should therefore be encouraged to source primary produce from domestic producers, within current rules. The Government should review and update the GBSF to ensure that public bodies are encouraged to source local, seasonal produce. The review should also consider the benefits of setting ambitious targets for how much food should be locally and seasonally sourced, how local should be defined and how progress towards targets will be monitored. Procuring organisations and suppliers will need guidance and support about the practicalities of how to achieve this and the Government should consult them on the most effective way to implement the updated GBSF. (Paragraph 41)

7.SMEs have long faced difficulties in accessing public procurement opportunities. There has been some progress since Defra’s 2014 Plan, but it has been slow. The pilot run by Bath and North East Somerset Council (BANES) using the Dynamic Purchasing System showed promising results, including, crucially, that local sourcing can be more cost-effective. We are satisfied that plans had been made to scale up this pilot in the south west of England, with a view to national rollout in the longer term. (Paragraph 54)

8.However, the south west pilot has been delayed because of the need to redeploy Government resources to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. While this delay is understandable, there is a risk that the pilot may fail before it has even started and that investment made to date may be wasted. Given the potential for the pilot to offer lessons on how to increase access to the public sector market for smaller, local suppliers, it should be prioritised and there must not be any further delays. The Government should ensure that the delivery bodies involved are adequately resourced and supported to continue planning for the launch of the pilot in early 2022. We also request that the Government provides a written update by the end of December 2021 on the progress of the pilot, including a confirmation of the launch date. (Paragraph 55)

Published: 21 April 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement