Politicians never let the facts get in the way of a good soundbite. Sure, you'll hear the odd bit of sympathy expressed for the rising level of shop crime , but when it comes to most of the big issues - think healthy eating, competition issues or the green agenda - they're much more likely to base their pronouncements on the assumption that retailers and manufacturers are callous, money-grabbing machines that don't care a bit if kids are fat, high street retailers are going out of business or the world is overheating. Not exactly great news considering these are the very assumptions that end up underpinning new legislation.
Fortunately, there is a way businesses can bridge this gulf in understanding. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship programme, which has been described variously as a dating agency and a marriage guidance counsellor for businessmen and politicians. The programme places parliamentarians with a business for 18 days over a period of 12 to 18 months so they can learn first-hand about the challenges business faces and the impact of legislation. It's not exactly shelf-stacking, but this work experience is invaluable for both parties. In return the business gets the opportunity to develop a contact in the corridors of power.
Marks & Spencer has been a long-term supporter of the IPT - key political figures such as Michael Martin, the current speaker of the House, completed fellowships there - but others are now waking up to the benefits. Cadbury rejoined the programme more than 18 months ago, inviting crossbench peer Baroness Lola Young to spend nine days at the business. And both Tesco and The Co-operative Group have over the past year embarked on their first fellowships with Shailesh Vara, shadow deputy leader of the House of Commons, and Jeremy Wright, Conservative MP for Rugby and Kenilworth, respectively. Their comments on their experiences present a fascinating insight into what parliamentarians really think of the grocery industry. And those from the companies they were placed with show the lessons learnt were mutual:
Arts and heritage consultant and crossbench peer Baroness Lola Young
Former head of culture at the GLA, Baroness Young started her fellowship last year and chose to split it between Unilever and Cadbury. Neil Makin, external affairs director at Cadbury Schweppes, helped organise her itinerary at the latter.
I thought there was some interesting work going on at Unilever, not just related to food and healthy eating but also with its campaigns for soap and health and beauty products.
With Cadbury, there's the question of how you balance wanting people to know about your CSR agenda and the pitfalls of doing so, and how you address the healthy eating agenda if you are a confectionery company.
When I spoke to them, they hadn't been given the fine yet for the salmonella outbreak, but the brand is so dominant in this country I wonder about the extent to which it would do lasting damage. We talked about Bournville and the philanthropic trend (Bournville Village was the first self-supporting garden city) and Cadbury's work around Fairtrade, particularly with the acquisition of Green & Black's. What I found interesting was the extent to which you can keep your identity - there's an obvious analogy with Green & Black's and Ben & Jerry's. How do you come to understand what your market is? If eight out of 10 products fail, clearly it's not an exact science. So at what point do you decide something is worth testing? You can draw analogies with the arts and culture. I used to act and if there are more actors on stage than people in the audience, you don't do the show.
I came in with a set of ill-formed preconceived ideas that I had to rethink. These companies to me were at first faceless. Then I talked to the people who worked there about the difficulties and the contradictions , the constraints under which they work, and understood a little bit more.
We rejoined the IPT more than 18 months ago though we'd been an early member back in the 1980s. Baroness Young's background is mainly in the public sector - she's taught and been in theatre. She wanted to gain some insight into how large organisations manage brands, people and reputations and was particularly interested in the mix between brands and responsible retailing.
There has to be a certain openness for these fellowships to work. So we introduced her to our investor relations people and got the supply chain director to talk to her about agricultural sourcing and sustainability issues. She also had sessions with the HR, commercial trading and CSR teams.
She was particularly interested in talent development, HR, and issues such as health, diet and obesity and the way a product is marketed, including the way we advertise to children. She's very engaging and extrovert .
MP for north west Cambridgeshire and shadow deputy leader of the House of Commons Shailesh Vara
Vara is so far just two days into his fellowship at Tesco during which he'll spend a couple of days doing a mini TWIST ( Tesco Week in Store Together programme for senior managers) and spend time with the board. Emma Reynolds, head of government affairs at Tesco, has helped organise his itinerary.
Tesco is a major employer in my constituency. I wanted to better understand this company that is able to take such a huge share of people's income. The other reason was to put out the line that smaller retailers are being squeezed out of the market by major retailers like Tesco - I'm hoping to see if there's able to be any accommodation from Tesco for small retailers. I've got a number of farms in my constituency, some of which are producing in competition with cheaper overseas producers.
I'm keen to ensure local people buy local. They need to know what sort of conditions the animals have been reared in. At the moment, we are seeing the major players buying lots of meat and fruit and veg from overseas, which may be cheaper but the origin and quality control are not known. I was very surprised about the quantity of chicken coming from Thailand. I'm keen to learn what sort of controls there are for companies such as Tesco that are buying so much food - and clothes - overseas.
I want to know how it operates, whether there's room for the smaller retailers in the market. To what extent Tesco is proactive in ensuring local suppliers are seriously considered when sourcing their goods. If somebody judges their produce purely on price it is fair to assume the cheapest will prevail, but if additional information is supplied such as country of origin, and more importantly method of production, I think people will be influenced - this is clearly shown by the fact people do buy from farm shops and farmers markets.
There's been lots of talk about helping local producers. A good example is milk. All the major supermarkets have increased the retail price of milk and have said the increases will go down to the farmers, many of whom are producing it at a loss. I want to see what measures they've got to ensure 100% of the increases the public believes are going to the farmer are actually going to the farmer . I'd also like to know to what extent the price cuts in the supermarkets are real or spin.
We've an interest as a business in ensuring politicians understand our business because of the impact of their decisions on how we operate. Some have a fantastic sense of business, but some don't necessarily have that understanding. It's a two-way process - it gives us a better insight into the pressures on them. It'll be good on a long-term basis to have built up a relationship with Shailesh so he can pick up the phone - and vice versa.
Conservative MP for Rugby and Kenilworth Jeremy Wright
During Wright's 'farm to fork' fellowship, which started in 2006 and finishes at the end of the year, he will have spent nine days at Waitrose and three at the Co-op Group, overseen by Katharine Walters, head of public affairs at the Co-operative Group Parliamentary Office.
The idea was to explore the relationship between those who produce the food and those who sell it. I was conscious there may come a time when we have to legislate depending on the outcome of the Competition Commission inquiry and I wanted a better idea of the issues. The problem I faced with Waitrose is that it's one of the best in the business - most farmers on Waitrose contracts are happy.
I knew it operated in a different way - in a fairly eccentric paternalistic way, but it works. I made a point of speaking to people stacking shelves and didn't find anyone who didn't think it was good. The conclusion I drew is that we must encourage as much employee engagement as we can. It was the same at the Co-operative Group. Everyone feels they have a stake in the company, not just that it provides their income. There was a real sense you needed to perform well for the customer.
Though Waitrose and the Co-op have a different audience, there was a lot of overlap when it came to ethical and environmental activities.
However, with the farmers I spoke to about the supermarkets generally, there's immense frustration as there are clearly many farmers that want to say they're being leaned on but are too afraid to.
Retailers are getting more prescriptive in what they want from suppliers. They're almost buying things on sale or return and it's going to cause problems - though it's not something that Waitrose or the Co-op are particularly guilty of. There are two issues: whether supermarkets are sufficiently competitive with each other that the customer doesn't lose out, and the claim that farmers are being squeezed by retail pricing strategies.
We were conscious of the need to widen dialogue with politicians from all political parties. This gave us an opportunity to pick a politician for a year with whom we could develop a dialogue. I was struck by how open the dialogue was between us.
Jeremy has an urban constituency with a rural hinterland.
The Co-op was something he'd heard of but had no sense of as a 21st-century business. He didn't know we were the UK's largest farmer. He was also intrigued by the fact that CSR was so clearly part of our DNA. He's now got a bigger appreciation of what the Co-op is all about. n