16 January 2003 | Robin Parker
Purchasers have blasted a call from Prince Charles for the public sector to favour local food suppliers as misguided and at odds with the profession's competitive role.
The prince said it was "sheer folly" that Britain is not self-sufficient in food and called on public authorities to help the farming industry by buying all their food from British, or preferably local, suppliers.
Writing in the agricultural journal Farmers' Weekly, he argued that British farmers are suffering because the UK imports £18 billion of food and drink each year, and exports just £8.5 billion.
His pro-British stance was immediately undermined, however, by reports that he replaced his own Vauxhall car fleet with models from the German manufacturer Audi.
Michael Ensor, an interim manager who has worked on a wide range of public and private-sector procurement projects, said a "buy British" policy was anti-competitive and simplistic. "Public-sector purchasers can't skew decision-making in favour of local suppliers, as they'd be breaking their stewardship of taxpayers' money just to buy from someone round the corner," he said.
"And if you buy from a poorer country, you are helping their economy. Stop doing that and you risk having to shell out more in overseas aid."
Peter Smith, consultant and CIPS president, sympathised with the prince's views but said they were unworkable.
"There are many other ways of driving change through subsidies and policies, and anyone who tries to manipulate purchasers away from achieving value for money will see it rebound on them."
But John Scowen, new chairman of the Society of Purchasing Officers in Local Government, said the prince was right to back British industry.
"Most local authorities, and the public sector in general, deal with British suppliers where they can," he said.
"Some people might not be using local suppliers, but they should give them the opportunities. The prince has brought the issue to the fore."
Public purchasers are constrained by European Union competition rules, which say that all contracts above £154,477 have to be put out to a Europe-wide tender.
Prince Charles said public bodies can bypass these rules by specifying quality and nutrition considerations a local supplier would be more likely to meet.