John Stevenson: Brexit priorities for UK food and drink manufacturers
Get these talks right and our food and drink manufacturers can thrive – and lead Britain’s post-Brexit economy, writes John Stevenson
I’ve been chair of the Food and Drink Manufacturing APPG for seven years now. At every event I have attended, someone (often me!) comes out with the fact that food and drink is this country’s largest manufacturing sector.
Bigger than aviation and automotive combined – the food and drink manufacturing sector contributes £28.2bn to the UK economy, employing around 400,000 people, with a location in every constituency in the country. And I make no apologies for reiterating this fact now, as it puts into context the size and importance of food and drink in what happens as this country negotiates its departure from the EU.
So what are the Brexit priorities for food and drink manufacturers?
One of the greatest concerns is labour. Almost a third of the food and drink manufacturing workforce are EU citizens. The government has to make sure that EU citizens who want to work and add to the British economy are able to do so.
The term “skilled labour” remains a contentious one, as there are individuals with particular skills upon whom the food and drink industry is reliant, but who don’t have formal qualifications. Any immigration policy must take account of this while properly addressing public concerns over high immigration numbers.
The second great concern is customs. There is no industry where the speed and efficiency of import and export is so vital. With perishable raw materials and final products, it is vital for food and drink manufacturers that national borders are as frictionless as possible. The EU is worth 60% of food and drink manufacturing trade, and these borders need to be as porous as can be. This is especially the case for the borders between the UK and the Republic of Ireland – by far our biggest export market.
The fact is that UK food and drink exports are actually in rude health at the moment (thanks in part, no doubt, to the relatively weak pound). Exports to the EU are at some of the highest levels on record and if the UK manages to get continued good access to the single market while being in a position where it is able to negotiate trade deals with other growing markets – and play to the strengths of the Great British brand – there could be some serious Brexit dividends for our food and drink manufacturers.
Negotiating such deals as one country (rather than as a block of one of most geographically, culturally and agriculturally diverse political entities in the world) could mean being able to refine and tailor deals for the huge benefit of our food and drink sector. If raw materials – especially those we are not able to grow in this country – are made easier to import and our finished products easier to export, this would be hugely beneficial. However, to enable this, addressing tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade as soon as possible is crucial.
So much of this depends on the results of negotiations, and the difference between a good deal and no deal could mean the difference between success and failure for food and drink manufacturing. But there are also domestic changes that the government could implement in order to help our largest manufacturing sector.
I support calls for a specific food and drink sector deal as part of the Industrial Strategy. Like no other industry, food and drink manufacturing is spread right across the country. The food supply chain is worth £110bn to the economy and employs four million people. A sector deal that ensures this supply chain is maintained and expanded on, and that other issues such as skills training and research can be developed so the sector can boost productivity, must be agreed upon.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the food and drink manufacturing sector. If the government and the sector properly and constructively engage with each other to produce an industrial strategy that works, I believe that this country’s most successful manufacturing industry can thrive and lead a post-Brexit British economy.
If we get it right, I will be able to continue to make the boast that food and drink is a British manufacturing success story. If we get it wrong, the results could be disastrous.
John Stevenson is Conservative MP for Carlisle and chair of the Food and Drink Manufacturing All-Party Parliamentary Group