John Stevenson: I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the contribution of food and drink to the UK economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate the importance of the food and drink sector for the UK economy. I also mention that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for food and drink manufacturing.
During the pandemic, we rightly clapped and acknowledged the work and dedication of the medical staff, who did so much for the many people affected by covid. We rightly recognised the commitment of those who continued to work in supermarkets and the many drivers who ensured that the deliveries actually got through. However, there were many other unsung heroes in many different industries and sectors who also helped to ensure that our society continued to function and that life continued in a manageable way.
One such group was the food and drink manufacturing sector. Hon. Members may recall that, at the beginning of the crisis, there was some concern that our food shelves could become empty or the supply of food would be greatly reduced. The adage is that if there was no food available, it would not be long before there was a major crisis, panic buying and potentially something rather worse. That did not happen. Indeed, the factories, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, continued to produce the food and drink that we as a country needed. The deliveries continued to be made, the supermarkets were supplied, the shelves remained full and families continued to shop in the knowledge that there would be food to buy.
There was no panic buying, except—interestingly enough—of toilet roll and pasta, which to this day I do not understand. Nevertheless, that did seem to be something that exercised many people up and down the country, but even that was short-lived. We therefore have a lot to thank the food and drink sector for and, very importantly, all those who work in it. At the time, there was some recognition of their work, and clearly there was a greater awareness of the importance of the food and drink sector, of the vital need to ensure the supply of foods to shops, and of the overall significance of the sector to our society. In many respects, that awareness has sadly disappeared. I believe this is extremely unfortunate. We should be far more aware of the nature of the sector, how important it is, its many strengths, and also its weaknesses. This is about not just the basics in life, such as the supply of food, although that is extremely important, but the real and substantial contribution that the sector makes to our economy, both nationally and locally.
I have a few statistics and facts about the sector. The food and drink sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the United Kingdom. I am amazed at the number of people who are surprised by that. They often think that pharmaceutical, automobile or aerospace would be the largest manufacturing sector, but in reality the food and drink sector is our leading manufacturer.
It has a turnover of more than £104 billion, representing 20% of all UK manufacturing. It contributes over £29 billion to the economy, and directly employs over 440,000 people and thousands more indirectly. Think of the many brands, a large number of which are iconic and international—the very best of British products. Exports exceed £23 billion, going to more than 220 countries and territories, with a huge potential for much more.
We should also be aware of the contribution the sector makes to the local economy. It is often a substantial local employer, which has a significant impact on the performance and growth of local economies, and offers employment and training opportunities to local people.
My constituency of Carlisle is a prime example. Nestlé employs 400 people. It is the largest food and drink company in the world, a significant exporter and a purchaser of much of the milk that is produced by local farmers. The 2 Sisters Food Group employs nearly 1,400 people, and if I were to have a ready-made meal from Marks & Spencer, it would probably have been produced in the factory in Carlisle. McVitie’s, part of Pladis Global, employs nearly 800 people. Talking of brands, Carlisle produces the iconic Carr’s water biscuits and, of course, 6 million custard creams every single day.
These businesses make a huge contribution to the Carlisle economy and the wider regional economy. Think of the spending impact that 2,500 directly employed staff have on the local economy, and those are just the larger employers, as these figures do not include the many smaller businesses.
Indeed, the sector as a whole is incredibly diverse, with over 10,000 manufacturing businesses, most of which are small and medium-sized enterprises. In reality, there are very few large players, which can be both a strength and a weakness for the sector. It means it is a dynamic sector, with much innovation, but at times it also means that the voice of the sector is not heard as much as it should be.
Greg Knight: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is making some very interesting points, but does he agree that one of the problems the sector has had in recent times is labour shortages? They do not just affect the retail end of the sector, but the farm gate, with many pig farmers, for example, suffering from a lack of qualified abattoir workmen. Is this not something that needs to be addressed?
John Stevenson: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I will come to that later in my speech, but he has picked up one of the key issues that relates to the sector at the moment, and that extends beyond the food and drink sector, which I fully acknowledge.
The sector can be dynamic, but sometimes the voice of the sector is not heard as much as it should be. This can be a drawback, and something of which the Government should be acutely aware. Just because it does not have the loudest voice, is not the most glamorous sector and does not have a few substantial players with easy access to Government, it is still vital that the industry’s concerns are heard at the very highest level of Government.
I have talked about the economic importance, but I am fully aware of the health issues surrounding this sector as well. I appreciate that we, as a society, have become concerned about obesity and health, and rightly so. To be fair, the industry gets this and is aware of the criticism that is often directed, rightly or wrongly, at them, partly because of their products. However, the issues do not wholly lie with the industry. Indeed, the industry has made huge strides in producing many new products that are healthier and reformulating existing products, and substantial reductions in salt and sugar have helped to improve many of the products.
New products that have been brought to the market often reflect consumers’ interest in these healthier products. I must, therefore, question just how useful schedule 17 to the recent Health and Care Bill will be. The industry is already working hard to improve its products, it co-operates fully with the Government and is receptive to change. However, as a society, we must be realistic and look for other solutions to obesity concerns. We cannot and should not overlook our personal and parental responsibilities. I suspect that the provisions of schedule 17 are unlikely to produce any real improvement, as some people anticipate.
The purpose of this debate is primarily to raise awareness of and the success of the food and drink manufacturing sector, its contribution to our country, what the Government can do to support it, and the challenges it faces in future.
John Hayes: I congratulate my hon. Friend, as has already been said. I know he is a great champion of the British food industry. There is something very straightforward that Government could do: they could ensure that public sector purchasing—the procurement of food—prioritised and favoured domestic produce. We make some wonderful things in this country, yet we continue to import far too much food. That would add to traceability, food security and, frankly, simply back Britain. The Government should buy British, and I hope the Minister will confirm that that is exactly what they intend to do.
John Stevenson: I very much agree. The two key parts of Government policy in terms of security are energy security and food security. At present, we probably import more food than we should.
I want gently to challenge the Government on some of their attitudes and thinking towards this sector. First, what will the Government do to help promote the sector domestically and internationally?
James Daly: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech. One of the sectors in the food economy that concerns me is fishing. As my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes said, in this country we do not buy our own produce. How can we encourage people in this country to buy the brilliant seafood we produce all round the coastline, so that it is not reliant on a foreign market?
John Stevenson: I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point. How can the Government help our industry both domestically and by creating greater opportunities in the export market? We need to continue to see the success of the industry and exploit the opportunities in both our domestic market, as my hon. Friend James Daly just said, and in exports.
The development of new products, the competitiveness of the sector and the opportunity to export are vital to our country. However, there is sometimes a feeling that other countries promote this sector far better than we do. I am interested to hear what plans the Minister has to improve that.
The Minister knows that hers is a sponsoring Department for the food and drink sector. Therefore, will the Department with such responsibility challenge in a more constructive way some of the unreasonable pressures that sometimes emerge from the health lobby? As I said, the sector has made great strides on the health issue and does work with Government. Everybody accepts that more needs to be done, but a realistic approach is fundamental.
The supply chain is critical to all industries and the food and drink sector is no different. The appointment of Sir David Lewis as the new supply chain adviser is welcome. I know that the Food and Drink Federation will fully engage with the new supply chain advisory group. It is an outstanding advocate for the industry that works well with Ministers. I am sure the Minister will comment on that in her remarks.
None the less, there are concerns about the supply of food and the inflationary pressures in the supply chain. Those will undoubtedly have an impact on the consumer in due course. That leads on to issues surrounding our trading relationship with the EU. There are concerns about the border controls on exports, but also the very real issue of shortage of appropriate labour. As we know, there is a shortage of HGV drivers, farm workers and factory workers. I can easily give local examples of the firms I have already mentioned and the issues they have with securing employment. We also have pressures in the tourist industry, which compounds the problem in places such as Cumbria.
Nigel Mills: I agree with my hon. Friend on this point: the shortage of labour is a real problem for employers in my constituency at this time of year, as they are quite busy in the run-up to Christmas. Does he agree that the industry needs help to increase its productivity and invest in the new machinery that it needs, and that in the short term it probably needs some access to additional labour to help it produce the products that we all want to see in the shops?
John Stevenson: I very much agree with my hon. Friend; it is about striking a balance between the two. Clearly, at this moment in time there is a shortage of labour, and the industry needs to secure that labour if at all possible. However, I think the industry itself would accept that driving productivity is equally important, and that through productivity it can quite often end up needing fewer employees while being a much more productive sector. My hon. Friend will know from our visits to factories that the food and drink sector is an incredibly innovative and productive sector overall. It is therefore vital that industry and Government work together, so I would be interested to know what actions the Government are taking on the issues I have already mentioned.
As I have already said, the food and drink sector is a hugely important part of our economy. It employs a large number of people and contributes significantly to our economy, but there is the danger that the Government add more and more cost and regulation, which endangers its success. A small but significant example is the definition of “small and medium-sized enterprise” in the Health and Social Care Bill, which could have a huge impact on UK businesses and give a competitive advantage to foreign competition.
Daniel Poulter: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. One area in which I am sure much of the UK food and drink industry would welcome greater support from Government is that of honest food labelling. As it stands, food could be farmed in Argentina or elsewhere overseas, but packaged in the UK and still labelled as UK produce. Does he agree that the Government need to look at that area, so that we can back British farmers and British food producers more effectively and make sure we have informed consumers who can back our food producers in the shops?
John Stevenson: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Interestingly, food labelling could potentially give us an advantage as a country when selling those products: the UK label, the Union Jack, has great resonance with many overseas consumers as well as our own domestic consumers.
On the cost and regulatory side, we also have the prospect of the extended producer responsibility. The sentiment behind it may be sensible, but the additional cost to the industry will potentially have serious consequences. Have the Government fully thought through the very real cost implications? I appreciate that the relevant primary legislation, the Environment Act 2021, has already passed, but it is the secondary legislation that will determine the detail. As the Minister will know, the industry is concerned about the scope, timescale and implementation of those regulations. It believes that the costs have already risen and could reach £2.7 billion for the industry, which will inevitably be passed on to the consumer. Indeed, it is estimated that each household will face a £75 increase in its annual food bill. Is that something that the Government are happy with? If not, will they work with the industry—particularly, as I have already mentioned, the FDF—to ensure that the regulation and costs are proportionate, and that the industry can absorb them without losing its competitiveness? If it cannot, there is a real danger that the regulations could backfire and be detrimental to an important sector of our economy.
In conclusion, I look forward to hearing from the Minister on the specific points I have raised. I look forward to her comments on how she intends to properly and fully support what is one of the unsung successful sectors of our country, but also one of the most important, as has been conclusively demonstrated during the pandemic through the industry’s performance in making sure that we continue to be fed at a very difficult time. I also hope that the Minister and her Department will fully recognise the importance of this sector, celebrate its successes, and truly be a champion of the industry.
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John Stevenson: I thank hon. Members for participating in this debate. I have often said that this industry affects us nationally, but equally importantly it affects us at the local level. As individual constituency MPs, we all know that the food and drink sector has an impact in virtually every constituency up and down the country, which was demonstrated by the contributions that people have made today.
I am grateful to the Minister for her speech at the end of the debate and for the comments that she made. I look forward to challenging her on some of the issues that we touched on and to maybe having further conversations with her. But as I say, I thank her for her contribution to the debate and I will pass on her good wishes to Ian Wright, who I will hopefully see very shortly as he departs from the FDF. I think he has been a great advocate for the food and drink sector, and I am sure that his successor will continue the good work that he has done.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the contribution of food and drink to the UK economy.