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Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Strict restraints on public procurement are set out in EU legislation. Nevertheless, I believe that the North produces a wholesome quality product that more than meets the public procurement criteria. Our challenge is to ensure that the agrifood industry is in a strong position to tender for contracts and that contracts are accessible for small and medium-sized businesses to deliver.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education are key players in the procurement of food contracts, and that is why I met recently with Ministers Ruane and McGimpsey to discuss the possibilities for increasing public-sector procurement for local food. My officials are working with the Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) and Central Services Agency (CSA) to assist in the development of a range of guidance to support and encourage the participation of small and medium-sized enterprises in competition for Government business. They are also looking at how to integrate sustainable development considerations into public-sector contracts.
Departmental staff are continuing to provide technical support and advice to individual farmers, processors, producer groups or co-operatives — large and small — to help them engage in public-sector contracts. I have also approved a new processing and marketing scheme under the 2007-2013 rural development programme, which will provide assistance to improve competitiveness of the agrifood sector and enable it to compete for such contracts.
Staff from the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) at the Loughrey campus have supported CPD by providing advice on the specifications for public food contracts. In addition, they have had an input to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s initiative that aims to improve the nutritional quality of food in hospitals. CAFRE also provides a comprehensive range of education and training programmes for producers and processors to develop technical and business management skills. College staff can assist with product specification, product development and the adoption of new technology. In addition, the college benchmarking programmes can be used to monitor and identify opportunities for improved efficiency and competitiveness in production systems.
My Department is also contributing to the success of the renaissance of Atlantic food authenticity and economic links (RAFAEL) project that aims to encourage local authentic food producers to develop new markets. The aim of the initiative is to promote the use of local food as a firm foundation for public health and ensuring that local food has been brought to the attention of consumers.
On 22 October, I wrote to the Minister — in my capacity as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development — asking about her Department and other Executive Departments taking the lead in the promotion and purchasing of Northern Ireland-sourced products.
As yet, the Committee has not received any response. Will the Minister indicate whether she will formally respond to my Committee, or is it now a matter of policy that it will not be consulted? Is this strategy the only ministerial response to the dire findings of the Red Meat Industry Task Force, or is the Minister insisting that diversification is the only salvation for the farming industry?
On the first point, I have signed that letter of response, and the Committee should receive it today or tomorrow.
Secondly, the strategy is not a response to the Red Meat Industry Task Force, but represents one of the points in the UFU’s (Ulster Farmers’ Union) five-point plan, which it put to all the parties before the last Assembly election.
My departmental officials are working very closely with the Central Procurement Directorate, which has a key role to play. To date, we have developed guidance to support and encourage integration of sustainable-development considerations into public-sector contracts. That work is not being done solely in response to the Red Meat Industry Task Force, but in response to several issues.
The Department of Finance and Personnel is responsible for managing the Civil Service contract-catering arrangements. There are three DARD catering contracts that incorporate the Government’s aims and objectives for sustainability in farming and food sectors, and they are contributing to a better environment and to healthy and prosperous communities.
Where appropriate, or possible, the contractors should use products that are environmentally friendly and that have been recycled or organically produced. There is also a stipulation that the use of local produce should be considered, where possible, and the Department wants to see that enhanced. The answer to your question is yes.