Angus MacNeil: Scotland’s food and drink sector is a global success. It must be protected post-Brexit
Food and drink is Scotland’s fastest growing sector – but we must fight to protect it in a post-Brexit world, writes Angus MacNeil
Scotland’s food and drink industry is a global success and deserves its world-renowned status. The success of the industry is well known. It is now worth over £14bn; turnover has increased by 35% since 2007; exports are at record levels; the birth rate of new businesses in the Scottish food and drink sector is higher than anywhere in the United Kingdom, and it covers communities across the land.
At the heart of that success has been Scotland’s reputation, and the passion, dedication and entrepreneurship of the thousands of people who work across the industry. Our primary producers are the foundation and we must give credit to our farmers, crofters and fishermen. Without them, Scotland wouldn’t produce the high-quality food and drink that we can celebrate.
Despite all the successes, there are issues that the industry faces – especially with Brexit looming. We are aware the supply chain does not always function as it should and our producers must get a fair share of the margin. We need processors, retailers and food service companies to build on their good work and to deepen their commitment to that.
The SNP Scottish government is working tirelessly to ensure that the food and drink sector builds upon the last 10 years of improvement and has recently published the new industry-led food and drink strategy, Ambition 2030, with the aim of doubling the value of the industry to £30bn by 2030.
Working with industry will ensure that farmers, fishermen, manufacturers and buyers work in close partnership to ensure that greater profitability is rightfully and fairly shared across the industry.
The SNP understands how important the industry is to Scotland’s wider economy and we are taking action where we can, but it is worrying to see the UK government seemingly charging head-first into a calamitous ‘no deal’ Brexit.
A no deal risks inflicting serious economic damage to rural jobs and businesses and it is already clear that many businesses will struggle to operate without access to EU workers. But this isn’t just a political point to be made, stakeholders across the industry have warned against the Tories’ reckless Brexit plans.
Indeed, James Withers, the chief Executive of Scotland Food and Drink, talked of “alarm bells ringing in the food industry” any time the UK government continues with the inexplicable notion that no deal is better than a bad deal.
Key Scottish producers have warned that Britain faces food shortages unless the UK government’s Brexit plan includes continuing freedom of movement. But the Tories aren’t listening, wanting to carry on regardless placating their anti-immigration, “pull up the drawbridge” brigade.
The EU is currently our biggest international food and drink export market, and a hard Brexit is only going to bring uncertainty to an estimated 8,000 non-UK EU nationals employed in that sector, plus the 15,000 non-UK seasonal migrant workers employed to harvest soft fruit and veg in the summer and autumn. Many businesses depend on these workers, and where are the government’s clear options for their replacement?
Staying in the single market is crucial, but what about sectoral immigration policies, or a diverging policy for Scotland? We have seen this work successfully in New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland for a number of years, so the question is why can’t it work in the UK? The answer is, it can – but the government simply doesn’t want to know.
We are at a crucial juncture with Brexit now; the government is in chaos and has no idea whether its key legislation will even pass. We need to seize these opportunities, put pressure on this weak government, and ensure the future of our food and drink sector is protected in a post-Brexit world.
The UK government may want to close our doors to the world, but Scotland does not. We want to get on.
Angus MacNeil is MP for Nah h-Eileanan an Iar and SNP environment and rural affairs spokesperson