Food, drink and Brexit

The chair of the all-party parliamentary group on food and drink manufacturing discusses the importance of the sector to the UK economy and how it will be affected by leaving the EU

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The largest manufacturing industry in the UK is so big that it is larger than the aerospace and automotive manufacturing industries combined. It is an industry that produces goods which almost everyone uses every single day. It is one of the oldest industries we have, but also one of the most innovative and modern. It has a presence all over the country and its products have the power to evoke childhood memories and bring people together. Indeed, its products keep us alive and healthy.

The industry is, of course, the food and drink manufacturing sector. I have been chair of the all-party parliamentary group on food and drink manufacturing for nine years now, since my election in 2010. This has afforded me a great deal of insight into the industry, the way it works, the concerns it has, and the potential there is for the future. And there is great potential. But first I think it is important to put into context just how essential the sector is. In the UK, according to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), food and drink manufacturing has a turnover of over £100bn and makes up nearly 20 per cent of all manufacturing. It has a presence in nearly every part of the country – helping to provide more than 400,000 jobs – and of course it supports all sorts of industries such as agriculture, logistics, and packaging.

In my own constituency of Carlisle there are a number of major food and drink manufacturers including Nestle, McVitie’s, 2 Sisters Food Group and others. These aren’t just places that happen to be in Carlisle; they have been providers of employment for local families for decades. People from Carlisle talk about the biscuit smell of the city, with some locals claiming to be able to tell you what biscuit is being cooked in the factories just by sniffing the air.

And almost every other constituency in the country will have similar stories. The food and drink industry is important because food is a great unifier, and the production of food requires love, skill, and a real community business chain. It is also an important industry because of the increasing concern the public have over food security. And this is why the outcome of the ongoing Brexit negotiations is so vital to the food manufacturing industry.

The FDF – which represents more than 300 companies – believes that a disorderly exit from the EU would be disastrous for UK food and drink. It paints a picture of significant and adverse changes to product availability from a consumer point of view within weeks. From an export point of view, it says that on day one there would be massive disruption, with some products being shut out of Europe completely until the EU grants approval. Given that the EU27 are responsible for buying more than 70 per cent of exports, this will have a harmful effect.

World Trade Organisation rules mean higher tariffs, but the issues aren’t just about tariffs – which themselves will have a huge impact – but also about regulations and requirements. Many people like to talk about the importance of the “just in time” supply chains of advanced manufacturing industries like aerospace or vehicles; but timings are just as important in the food and drink manufacturing industry. Quite simply, food cannot afford to be left standing around waiting for checks or approval. So, the first and best thing the government can do for the industry is to come to an agreement with EU.

As time quickly runs out, the chances of the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement are now higher than ever. I still hope that something will change, and, for the sake of food and drink manufacturing, as well as a whole range of industries across the UK, that the issue of the Irish backstop can be resolved to the satisfaction of the European Union and Parliament.

The industry’s skills gap could also be exacerbated by Brexit. Currently, more than a quarter of the industry’s workforce is made up of EU citizens. These workers are valuable members of our society, and the government needs to ensure that they are made to feel absolutely welcome, whatever happens on October 31st.

But I think the industry itself would like to be in a position where it was able to train and recruit more from the existing British workforce. So many of these jobs require a huge amount of skill, and food and drink has to be part of a nationwide strategy to work with the government to improve the skills of the workforce and prepare for automation.

Moving beyond Brexit, the move to healthier eating needs to be addressed, with the government and the industry working together. Food and drink manufacturing companies are going to play a vital role in delivering the government’s laudable aim of halving childhood obesity by 2030, and there are a variety of methods that need to be employed for it to happen. Portion sizes, reformulation, sugar reduction, packaging and marketing changes will all play a part, but the government has to be careful that it doesn’t fall for the idea that there is a silver-bullet solution to the issue and it has to work with the industry to bring about these changes.

The largest manufacturing industry in the UK is a success story to be proud of. It is the where the solution to our country’s food-related health issues will be found. It is where future skills and export opportunities can be grown. It is astonishingly advanced and resilient, but also one of the most vulnerable to a disorderly Brexit. The government should be looking at the food and drink industry as a national opportunity and ensuring that the success story continues.