The Northern Ireland procurement policy applies to all Northern Ireland Departments, their agencies, non-departmental public bodies and public corporations. In March 2006, my Department issued a policy guidance note on the procurement of Fairtrade products by Northern Ireland Departments. That guidance defines fair and ethical trade and details a range of products currently recognised as Fairtrade products. It also provided contracting authorities with advice and guidance on the actions that they can take — under EU procurement rules and procurement policy — to ensure that fair-trade practices are included in procurement contracts. That is set in the context of existing UK and Northern Ireland sustainable development policies.
That question is, perhaps, more relevant to procurement contracts for catering services and supplies, which provide the greatest opportunity to procure such products. All recently renewed catering service contracts specify that Fairtrade products must be used for internal meetings and official hospitality, and that such products should be available as an option for staff to purchase in tuck shops and staff restaurants. However, the latter requirement is demand-led and, therefore, has commercial implications for the suppliers should staff not wish to purchase such products.
EU law prevents procurement practitioners from taking certain actions. For example, they cannot frame contract specifications on the basis of fair or ethical trade requirements. EU procurement rules require that social labels do not define the end product in terms of characteristics or performance.
My officials and officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development have developed guidance to encourage the procurement of locally produced food. That guidance provides procurement practitioners with practical advice on developing procurement specifications that will deliver fresh seasonal produce and encourage healthy eating. Local producers will be able to compete to supply food and catering services.
Due to EU procurement rules, we cannot specify Northern Ireland-grown products. However, specifying freshness, and so on, can help local producers to compete better. We have regular meetings with local producers to organise awareness sessions, which are targeted, particularly, at agrifood businesses that can compete for contracts that are due in the following 18 months.
The Member is correct and, indeed, sustainability, equality and economic factors are at the centre of our procurement policy. The Procurement Board takes all those issues into consideration and its membership is fully signed up to ensuring that we get the best value for money.