Yesterday’s first meeting of the new Food and Drink Sector Council could prove to be a momentous date in the industry’s history, if those who believe it is a game-changer are proved right.
And it truly could be, if it transforms the industry’s ability to reach the corridors of power. Sadly, at the moment those corridors sound like they are filled with ministers and civil servants running around like a bunch of headless chickens.
If there was ever a time when the government needed more input from the food and drink industry into its future policies, this was it.
However, the incredibly low-key FDSC launch comes as major question marks hover over its role, amid the continuing chaos of Brexit.
The main one is this: Can it help the government provide desperately needed certainty to all quarters of the food & drink industry about the plans for its post-EU future?
Granted, it can hardly fail to provide more clarity than there has been thus far – but the omens aren’t good. Defra’s launch announcement today got the date of its first meeting wrong, and failed spectacularly to name any of the members of the new council, or give any real details of what its actual powers are.
Little wonder the launch barely registered any interest among the national press, who instead continued to report the ongoing mayhem surrounding Brexit.
The group is made up of figures from the agriculture, manufacturing, retail, logistics and the hospitality sectors, including the likes of Iain Ferguson, chairman of Stobart Group and FDF director general Ian Wright.
Bizarrely, however, Defra had still not released the full make-up of the group as this article went to press.
Show us the money
One of the main items on the agenda yesterday was talks over for a new sector deal with the government, which the industry hopes will lead to major ring-fenced new funding for food and drink.
Environment secretary Michael Gove says the council is a major step forward in supporting an industry “already worth over £110bn to the UK economy”.
So it will be interesting to see how much taxpayers’ cash the government is willing to spend on the new deal, considering the £100bn-plus coming back into its coffers from the sector.
Sources on the new council believe that if they are given the sort of financial funding that other countries, such as Ireland, give to its food & drink sector, they can help transform the ability of UK food & drink to punch its weight in the economic and political agendas.
But will the new council have teeth? Just how will it feed into the decision-making of departments like BEIS, Defra, the Department of Health and, perhaps most importantly, the Treasury? Any detail on this was sadly missing today.
The biggest let-down would be if the new body proved to be simply a glorified talking shop.
If it is, however, genuinely allowed to help forge government policy, the council – and the government’s industrial policy, from which the idea was spawned in November – could prove hugely influential.
Plans to avid a post-Brexit skills crisis, ways to ramp up agricultural productivity, the future of regulation, ways to boost domestic productivity to counter the loss of EU imports, proposals to revitalise the technology in the sector… the list goes on.
All of this needs not just money, but ministers prepared to listen to advice on how it should be spent.
Yesterday’s launch could not come a moment too soon on all those fronts. A leaked report from the government’s own scenario planning today revealed that it fears the food & drink and retail sectors will be among those worst affected by Brexit – even if the catastrophic impact of a ‘no deal’ scenario is avoided.
Perhaps the ultimate message from the council’s launch needs to come not to the government, but to the industry members who will sit on the body itself.
The response to the politicians, should they fail to come up with meaningful sector funding, or to listen to the sector about the need for greater clarity, is a quite simple two-word answer: No deal.