Putting food on the table

Posted on 14 Jul 2010 by The Manufacturer

Conservative MP for Carlisle John Stevenson discusses his new role as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Food and Drink.

Last week, The Manufacturer reported that the recently elected Member of Parliament for Carlisle John Stevenson has been appointed Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Food and Drink and will represent the food manufacturing industry in Whitehall.

This morning I met with the Conservative MP to discuss the role and his thoughts on Britain’s biggest manufacturing sector.

It makes a lot of sense for John Stevenson to have been approached for the position as chair of the Parliamentary food group; his North West constituency of Carlisle is home to a host of food producers among manufacturers of all sizes, including the likes of United Biscuits, Cavaghn & Gray and Nestlé.

And although his manufacturing stronghold area has “generally been quite fortunate” during recession with few major cutbacks, he agrees that the industry has been somewhat overlooked for some time.

“It undeniable that the people employed in manufacturing has declined considerably over the last thirty years while things like banking and services have taken a front role. If the economy is to be rebalanced, manufacturing generally and certainly the food and drink industry needs to play a key part.

“Like the country overall, I think Carlisle is ready for a quite a significant change.”
That is evident in his election – he is the first Tory to win the Carlisle seat in over 50 years

Stevenson describes himself as “delighted” to have been offered the role of chair of the APP group. “It’s an interesting role,” he says, “particularly as manufacturing and food and drink as the biggest part of it is the biggest is going to have a much greater say and greater involvement in how our economy is shaped. I’m happy to be a part of that. Food and drink is a huge employer, a big investor and a successful exporter and this makes it a key contributor to the economy.

“However, we’re only growing around 60 per cent of our own food. Inevitably there are certain foods that we’ll always import but this presents issues around food security and our balance of trade and we need to look at how we can address that. That’s something that the all parliamentary group will be getting involved in.”

Other areas of focus for the group which he identifies are GM Foods, the supermarket ombudsman, labelling, business regulations and employment law.

These are the issuers that APP – open to all Members of Parliament and also including some Lords – will be looking to discuss, with feed in from industry provided through the Food and Drink Federation.

But the group is not only about petitioning the requests of industry, it’s about weighing up concerns food and drink industries face against what parliamentarians feel is best for the people of this country. “It’s about providing the opportunities for industry to have discussions with ministers and between us try to influence policies which are right for the industry and right for the country. The fact that it includes all parties is good because it provides a range of opinions and views on certain issues which creates a debate and hopefully means we form healthy policies for the future.”

On Wednesday night, Stevenson had been in Parliament where a bid to have the VAT rise to 20% cancelled failed in a vote. VAT is only applied to luxury foods so not all food manufacturers will be affected but when I asked whether consumers will be likely to forego those luxuries items after what now equates to a five per cent increase in VAT in a matter of months, he gave an honest answer: “I don’t know.”

“Hopefully not,” he said, “but we have to raise taxes somehow. That’s the chosen route. Some people say it’s fair, others say it isn’t. But we are in an economic mess and we need to dig ourselves out. Part of doing that will be tax rises, part of it will be cut backs in public expenditure. Most important will be getting growth in the economy going – that’s the way to really recover.”

He says a key focus should be on setting up a good environment for businesses in this country to support that growth.

“That means getting regulation down,” he says. “Although we still need regulation we have to make sure it’s minimal and doesn’t affect competitiveness.

“We have to make sure we have a skilled workforce through good education and good training. And we need to make sure we have a favourable tax regime. If we get those ingredients right there’s no reason why manufacturing shouldn’t flourish in this country.”

In his role as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for food and Drink, John Stevenson invites the views from UK food and drink manufacturers. They can contact him by writing to him in Parliament. Details can be found on the Parliament website.

Mark Young