David Cameron

As the General Election campaign kicked off in earnest this week, The Grocer caught up with David Cameron – Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party – for an exclusive Q&A on key policy issues affecting the food & drink industry.

Food and drink is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK and has more small businesses than any other sector. What will you do to give food & drink a greater voice and role in the Department of Business (BIS) rather than just Defra?

One in eight jobs in Britain is in food and drink – from chefs to factory workers to food scientists. The number is rising day by day as employment in Britain hits record levels.

We’ve been clear: it’s not just down to Defra and BIS to push this industry, but the whole of Government. Look at the Foreign Office. They’ve helped Hobgoblin and London Pride to launch in Serbia; they’ve supported Thatcher’s Cider in setting up in Australia.

The UK food and drink industry has really come into its own in recent years – and with our backing, I know it can reach even more markets and go even further.

Why has the government not put forward a more pro-business argument on immigration, which is vital to support food producers? Can you reassure business that their growth won’t be inhibited by politically expedient immigration caps?

I’ve been absolutely clear that the UK benefits from being an open economy, welcoming foreign companies, tourists and immigrants who come to contribute to our society. Britain needs some highly-skilled people from overseas. That’s why we’ve rolled out the red carpet to entrepreneurs and introduced special visas for them.

But we also need an immigration system that is controlled, that is fair, that doesn’t lead to abuse of the benefits system. That’s the balance we’ve pursued in Government – and that’s what we will deliver in the next Parliament.

For too long the balance of power in the food supply chain hasn’t always been right and I’m determined to correct that.

- David Cameron

What will you do to make good on your pledge to extend the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s powers to cover suppliers and producers?

The adjudicator is now up and running and Christine Tacon is doing good work. We’ve said that we will undertake a statutory review of the GCA next year to see how we can best build on its early work – and we will make sure all those people who grow our crops, ship our food and supply our shops get the protection they need. For too long the balance of power in the food supply chain hasn’t always been right and I’m determined to correct that.

It’s been four years since you appointed Mary Portas to rejuvenate the high street, yet figures show the number of shops going out of business tripled in 2014. Do you concede the government’s intervention has been a failure, and why are you not tackling business rates until 2016 at the earliest?

There is no denying how much our shopping habits have changed. Things we could once only get locally we can now order online. Shopping we used to do at the greengrocer, bakery, chemist and hardware shop we can now do under one roof at out-of-town supermarkets. High streets have suffered as a result.

But in Government, we’ve been clear: we back our high streets. They’re important for our communities and our economy. I know that from my own local town centre. I love popping into town with the children and browsing the shops in Witney or Chipping Norton on a Saturday. And I would argue we’ve done more than any other Government to boost the high street – from the doubling of business rate relief to launching a billion pound package of support, to lifting planning restrictions so that empty properties can be used.

This is having an impact. We’ve got 760,000 more businesses in Britain, many of which have taken root in town centres. Obviously there’s a lot more to do as a Government but there’s also a lot we can do as consumers – making the most of what our high streets have to offer.

Sam and I try to make sure that treats remain treats. But it’s not always easy.

- David Cameron

You said recently that companies should give their employees pay rises – do you believe supermarkets should up wages to the so-called ‘Living Wage’ rather than the minimum wage?

The economy is growing; inflation is at a record low. Businesses are feeling the effects – and it’s right their employees do too. That’s why I have urged Britain’s bosses to give their staff a pay rise. For the lowest paid we have raised the Minimum Wage, and clamped down hard on those that don’t pay it. We’ve cut the taxes of 26 million people, and taken 3 million out of paying income tax altogether – giving millions of people more money at the end of the month. I support the living wage; I think it’s good for businesses, good for staff morale, good of course for the hardworking people who work in supermarkets. Businesses that can afford to pay the living wage should consider doing so. But beyond the Minimum Wage I don’t think it’s for Government to dictate to companies exactly what they pay their staff.

What commitments would a Conservative government make toward ensuring no food goes to waste, when so many don’t have enough to eat?

It’s an absolute scandal how much businesses and households throw away – literally billions of pounds worth each year.

It’s a waste of people’s hard-earned money and a waste of decent food, and we’re doing everything we can to tackle it: ensuring pubs, restaurants, hotels and caterers to do their bit; getting the grocery sector to reduce a further 1 million tonnes of waste; putting measures in place to stop waste at source and distribution.

Ultimately this is something we must all commit to – from Government departments to businesses’ boardrooms to families’ kitchens. That’s how we will really make a difference.

I would argue we’ve done more than any other government to boost the high street.

- David Cameron

As a parent, what do you do to ensure your children are not eating too much sugar? How could retailers and food & drink manufacturers make this task easier for you?

We know eating too much sugar can have a significant impact on health. And yes, like other parents I worry about what my own children are eating. Sam and I try to make sure that treats remain treats. But it’s not always easy.

That’s why we’ve continued initiatives such as Change4Life, which offer tips on healthy eating. We’re working with businesses to reduce the overall calories, including sugar, in their food and drinks. We’ve rolled out voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling – something I certainly use when I’m choosing food for my family.

Finally, are you one of the many AB shoppers deserting Waitrose for Aldi?

I tend to shop at Sainsbury’s in my local town. But I use all the different supermarkets from time to time. In terms of Aldi, most recently I was at their headquarters in Warwickshire, celebrating their expansion plans.

Both Aldi and Waitrose have played a big part in Britain’s mass job creation over the past 5 years. They’ve helped us to get more people into work than ever before. With Aldi doubling their number of stores and Waitrose announcing more new jobs, even more people will be bringing home a wage – and I’ll do everything I can to see that more people have that security.