Pressure to reduce expenditure restricts government departments procuring sustainable goods and services, a National Audit Office report has found.

In Sustainable Procurement in Central Government, the NAO also argues that a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) report in 2004, painted a “misleading” and “overly positive” view. The Defra study, Sustainable Development in Government, examined 20 Whitehall purchasing departments.

The NAO, which quizzed the same 20 departments, found 70 per cent of them said reducing procurement costs was more important than sustainability. The House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee has now launched an inquiry.

The NAO report said departments are not procuring as sustainably as they could be and half of these noted the Gershon efficiency review as the key driver. The NAO said there was a gap between high-level sustainable procurement processes and operational practice. Progress was stagnant due to a “lack of appetite” for change, leadership and training, it said.

John Belza, head of procurement and property services for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, told SM: There is a conflict of interest. Trying to implement sustainable procurement at the same time as the efficiency drive is making it difficult.” The NAO report recommends that the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) amend its Gateway review programme to ensure sustainability issues are addressed at each stage of the process. “The OGC must emphasise that value for money does not necessarily equate to the least cost,” it said. “Staff should receive training to encourage buy-in for sustainable procurement.”

Leigh Ginnever, sustainable procurement adviser for the Environment Agency, said: “I don’t think the public sector as a whole is there yet. There is probably a lack of training but there is guidance available for those that seek it. I think we will see major changes in the next 12 months.”

Paul Farthing, sustainable procurement adviser for the Department of Trade and Industry, said there had been conflict at first, but suppliers were now responding to government demand for a wider range of sustainable goods and lower prices. The OGC said it could not comment on the findings until after the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry.