Schools and hospitals urged to buy British

Will buying British help organisations save money?

Updated: 

Prime Minister David Cameron makes a speech in the garden of 10 Downing Street

The government is scrapping the existing food purchasing rules for public bodies, in order to encourage everyone from schools and hospitals to the armed forces and Whitehall itself to buy British. David Cameron said that new rules would mean a £200 million boost for British farmers and the food industry.

So is this a good idea?

Boon

At the moment, buying policies mean that public bodies are directed to buy the cheapest possible food - regardless of where it comes from. It spends around £1.2 billion on food every year - around half of which is imported from overseas. The government has calculated that £400 million of this could be produced within the UK instead, and that the changes will mean that £200 million of it will be diverted to British farmers.

Cameron said that by 2017 buying policies will be changed so that locally-sourced food will become one of the main priorities - even when it costs more than imported alternatives. Buyers will still consider value for money, but will also have to consider the sustainability of production, the involvement of smaller businesses, and nutritional content.

Cameron said: "Our long-term economic plan is all about backing the do-ers and the hard-workers – and no one does more or works as hard in Britain today than our farmers. By opening up these contracts, we can help them create more jobs, invest in their businesses and make sure people in our country have a healthier lifestyle."

Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss added: "It will help drive growth in Britain's first class food and drink industry and benefit the environment through reduced waste, higher take-up of meals and less unappetising food left on plates. This is a huge boost to British farmers and producers and for students, patients and employees who want to enjoy fantastic food."

The move has also been welcomed by British farmers, who have long-argued that not favouring British suppliers has been proof of the government's lack of dedication to British farmers.

The drawbacks

However, we will have to wait and see how effective the new policies are, because changing purchasing policies in the public sector is like turning a supertanker - it takes an enormous amount of effort, and then far longer than anyone would expect for any impact to be felt.

So, for example, for the best part of the decade, saving money on food procurement in the NHS has been a priority. In 2006 a report on buying food in the NHS found that just by shopping around for cheaper ingredients would save £40 million a year. Since then there have been more reports, new rules and new bodies - including the NHS Procurement and Efficiency Board - all of which highlight that there's a great deal more that could be saved.

Now, while this job is still unfinished, the goal posts have been moved. The question is whether this is just a small adjustment to the supertanker, taking us further in the right direction, or whether it's the kind of u-turn which will require enormous amounts of change, which will take forever to realise any benefits - and may do so just at the point that the government changes its mind again.

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