Plan for Public Procurement – Food buyers need to look at more than cost

Public sector buyers of food will be required (in central government) and expected (in other sectors) to use a new framework that defines the evaluation criteria to be used when selecting suppliers. The new report, “Enabling a healthy future for our people, farmers and food producers” is published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Liz Truss , their Minister, has a dig against “Europe” in her Foreword (although we don’t suppose for a moment she wrote this given she only became Minister last week).

“Often schools and hospitals, due to rules from Europe, feel obliged to go for the lowest priced contractor, but this can be a false economy. It can mean higher costs in the long term, when fewer children take up meals and patients leave unappetising food uneaten”.

Ah, it’s all Europe’s fault! Those pesky rules ... OK, less of the sarcasm. This is in many ways an excellent initiative. As a citizen, who doesn’t want the food provided by public bodies, schools, hospitals, and so on to be fresh, healthy, locally produced where possible? Bearing in mind cost as well, as a taxpayer of course. And we have seen crazy situations in the past where price was everything , leading to contracting decisions that paid no regard to sustainability, “food miles”, quality and other clearly important criteria.

Here is Sir Peter Bonfield, who chaired the initiative that has developed this approach, from the report.

“We have streamlined the myriad of standards and guidance previously in place to build a balanced scorecard for the public procurement of food and catering services. This scorecard, for the first time, brings a consistent buying approach across the public sector which embraces the key elements required for excellent procurement of food. This includes price, production, health and wellbeing, resource efficiency, socio-economic factors and quality of service. It brings a level playing field and enables choice.... This is achieved in a way that is fully compliant with European Procurement Law and delivers best value per pound spent”.

Well, that answers my initial concern about the legality of this. Here is the actual “Balanced Scorecard” – not easy to find, I should say. But once you do, it’s a very useful document, with good guidance on the evaluation questions to ask suppliers. However, there are two weaknesses. Weightings for the evaluation criteria are not defined, which gives contracting authorities flexibility but leaves the door open for cost to be weighted at 90%, nullifying all the good intent.

And is says nothing about how to score the “cost” factor, a particular interest of ours and one that again can influence results significantly. But generally, this is good stuff, and well done to those who worked on it.

There is also an on-line marketplace to allow “supply chains, caterers and customers to trade”, according to the report. That’s interesting. But matters start getting less clear at this point. The link on the Defra website for this takes us to the SID4GOV home page. Gosh, I didn’t know this was still going! This was initially a common supplier information site for the health sector, designed so firms didn’t have to submit PQQ information multiple times. It’s not clear to me quite what it is now, I need to look into this more closely. It talks about advertising contracts, but I thought Contracts Finder did that?

Anyway, what is clear is that there is no mention of food or food suppliers on this page. So if I was a small food supplier, buyer or caterer arriving here, I’m lost. I have no idea what to do next, and it certainly doesn’t look like an “on-line marketplace allowing me to trade”. That needs to be addressed.

Back to the Bonfield initiative, and there are other positive ideas here, from a national programme of pilots, links with agricultural research programmes, and working groups to take the programme forward. So three cheers for the programme generally, but there is a need to sort out the “marketplace” or there will be a lot of confused small suppliers knocking on Defra’s door shortly.

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