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Independent Review into Public Sector Food Procurement

In March 2024, Will Quince MP was appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP, to lead an independent review to enhance public sector food procurement.

With the support of a bespoke Defra team, Will looked at how to increase the impact and reach of the existing Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF) and explored other ways to improve public sector food and catering policy. In addition, he sought to identify ways to boost animal welfare and environmental standards and make public sector food supply chains more accessible to SMEs and farmers. It is worth noting that the GBSF contain elements of mandatory and good practice but are not applicable across the whole of the public sector and have not been monitored officially since their introduction in 2011. Although a consultation process took place with a view to updating the GBSF, new standards have yet to be published.

Will and the Defra team spoke to public sector procurement professionals and government departments and reviewed procurement processes and international case studies as well as the ‘Food for Life Served Here’ accreditation scheme. Furthermore, they invited members of the Transforming UK Food Systems Programme, NGOs and trade associations to a rountable to discuss food procurement. KPMG were appointed to research and provide qualitive insights on ‘buying personas and drivers for decision making’.

Six themes emerged, for which the review gave recommendations:

Barriers to compliance

Findings: There is confusion around expectation and which standards should be applied across the public sector along with a lack of consistency in monitoring and compliance.

The review recommends: That government unifies and mandates standards across the public sector (with exemptions where necessary), publishes the updated GBSF, encourages innovation, best practice and continual improvement – particularly through school accreditation to Food For Life Served Here.

Monitoring and compliance

Findings: With no routine monitoring of compliance with the GBSF or implementation, there is little evidence for their effectiveness or implementation. Clarity was lacking on what is needed for compliance, with the burden of proof on the supplier, and difficulty evidencing for the procurer.

The review recommends: That government develops metrics to assess compliance with the GBSF and through a mapping exercise identifies what data is needed and why, introduces centralised data monitoring and clear reporting structures for reporting to government.

Making public sector food procurement systems more accessible for SMEs, farmers and growers

Findings: Public procurement should be more accessible to a range of sources including SMEs and farmers. The lack of understanding of how to supply the public sector, and complexity of the tendering process are barriers.

The review recommends: That government provides a support service for both buyers and suppliers to navigate and access public sector procurement contracts. This would be akin to the service which the Department for Business and Trade provides on exports.

Promoting best practice

Findings: Public food procurement contracts often require large quantities of aggregated products and services which SMEs and farmers are unlikely to be able to offer. Contract design broken into smaller parts would be more practical for SMEs and farmers. More flexible systems, such as Dynamic Purchasing Systems (DPS), would allow SMEs and farmers to bid for what they are able to provide when they can.

The review recommends: Government encourages flexibility and accessibility within procurement systems for SMEs and farmers as well as procurers. In addition, that government promotes best practice and accessibility, and mandates that contracts be published on ‘Contracts Finder’ on gov.uk. It also recommends that government reviews the approach taken by the Schools Fruit & Veg Scheme to supply 4-7 year olds, to ensure it too maximises access. Finally, that government sets sector-specific target spend on SMEs and farmers where appropriate and assesses where these add most value.

Supporting practical access to public procurement

Findings: Even where organisations make procurement systems more accessible to SMEs and farmers, practical barriers for suppliers will likely remain, such as logistics, capacity, and infrastructure. Access will not significantly change without also addressing these.

The review recommends: That government provides £1-2 million of grant funding to facilitate local collaborations between SMEs and farmers and procurers. In addition, that Defra runs a regional pilot or partners with existing collaborations to help SMEs and farmers get involved in public procurement.

Funding

Findings: Little will change if public sector organisations cannot afford it.

The review recommends: That government increases and ringfences free school meal funding to reflect inflationary pressures, prepare for expansion of the GBSF across all public sector settings, and support future take-up of Food for Life Served Here.

 

Whilst FixOurFood is a supporter of these set of welcome recommendations, they could be strengthened to take into account both the quality of food provision and the need for food system change to ensure food produced and consumed should be both healthy and sustainable.

Read the report in full