Food and drink companies have reason to be upbeat as the coalition government begins to put flesh on the bones of its manufacturing policies.
Jack Matthews, chief executive of sector skills council, Improve, says he received assurances from ministers at a breakfast briefing held by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the government intended to “fully recognise” the economic and strategic importance of the food and drink supply chain. This will come as a relief to manufacturers in the sector following pre-election concerns that government strategy for the support of UK industry would slight food and drink manufacturing in order to support areas scoring higher on skills league tables and targeted for strategic growth.
“I was greatly heartened by how both the new Secretary of State Caroline Spelman and Minister of State Jim Paice talked about engaging with the whole of the food chain,” says Matthews. “When asked if we could expect the new government to recognise the economic importance of food processing and manufacture, logistics and retail as well as the politically sensitive area of farming and agriculture, there was a clear recognition that this had been a failing of past policy.
“For too long, food and drink has been treated as a group of separate industries, and its importance has not been recognised by past governments, despite the whole supply chain contributing £155 billion to the economy and employing 3.6 million people.”
A more integrated approach from government may well be a reflection recent projects to educate civil servants in the dynamics of supply chains and to promote knowledge of lean principles and methodologies across government departments for a better end-to-end appreciation of policy impact. These schemes and training initiatives were highlighted by Lord Mandelson in his review in of New Industry: New Jobs and it is to be hoped they will continue to be built upon by the new government.
Matthews clarified the potential of a more inclusive approach saying “As a single, integrated industry, food and drink has a key role to play in food security, sustainability, the development of advanced and green technologies and, as one of the most reliable sectors in terms of output and productivity, in creating jobs and returning the UK economy to growth.”
In order to support this growth however it is vital that the UK develops the skills and capability in order to develop industry offerings. This being the case Matthews also welcomed the fact that education and skills had largely been protected from the Treasury’s first round of departmental budget cuts announced earlier this week. “The pledge to allocate £150 million from savings to fund an extra 50,000 adult apprenticeships will be widely applauded among employers,” he said. “Apprenticeships in their current form are one of the big success stories of the sector skills network, and support for them demonstrates that this is a government which recognises the importance of skills to boost productivity and performance.”
In addition to supporting apprenticeship style education however the government have also unveiled new plans to reform the education system at primary and secondary levels. The Academies Bill announced in the Queen’s speech on May 25th will give schools greater flexibility and freedom to shape their own curriculums. It remains to be seen however whether it will also allow greater employer engagement in skills development or enable skills growth to be pulled effectively by the real and evolving job market.