Public food procurement standards ‘should be mandatory’

21 April 2021

The UK government must “pull public food procurement rules into the new decade” and support small producers, MPs have said. 

In a report the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee said the government was “missing the opportunity to support small businesses, improve animal welfare and promote sustainability within public sector rules for buying food”.

The report said public procurement of food and catering services represents an annual spend of around £2bn. 

While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Plan for Public Procurement published in 2014 contained “commendable ambitions”, the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF) had been “poorly monitored and enforced”, the report said. 

“It is therefore difficult to evaluate how successful they have been,” it said. 

The report added GBSF “should be compulsory across the public sector” in England, including schools and local government, rather than bodies purely being “encouraged” to comply.

MPs criticised the government’s failure to use GBSF as a mechanism to promote “buying British” within the public sector due to its potential to “provide greater environmental benefits, such as reduction of food miles”, as well as supporting British suppliers.

They also called on the government to remove an exemption in 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,” it added.

Neil Parish, chair of the EFRA Committee, 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.”

Parish added the report had found that buying British does not have to be more expensive and government buying standards should “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,” he said.

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