Food and Drink: UK Economy

Natural History GCSE – in Westminster Hall at 4:36 pm on 1st December 2021.

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Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 4:36 pm, 1st December 2021

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in Portcullis House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the contribution of food and drink to the UK economy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate the importance of the food and drink sector for the UK economy. I also mention that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for food and drink manufacturing.

During the pandemic, we rightly clapped and acknowledged the work and dedication of the medical staff, who did so much for the many people affected by covid. We rightly recognised the commitment of those who continued to work in supermarkets and the many drivers who ensured that the deliveries actually got through. However, there were many other unsung heroes in many different industries and sectors who also helped to ensure that our society continued to function and that life continued in a manageable way.

One such group was the food and drink manufacturing sector. Hon. Members may recall that, at the beginning of the crisis, there was some concern that our food shelves could become empty or the supply of food would be greatly reduced. The adage is that if there was no food available, it would not be long before there was a major crisis, panic buying and potentially something rather worse. That did not happen. Indeed, the factories, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, continued to produce the food and drink that we as a country needed. The deliveries continued to be made, the supermarkets were supplied, the shelves remained full and families continued to shop in the knowledge that there would be food to buy.

There was no panic buying, except—interestingly enough—of toilet roll and pasta, which to this day I do not understand. Nevertheless, that did seem to be something that exercised many people up and down the country, but even that was short-lived. We therefore have a lot to thank the food and drink sector for and, very importantly, all those who work in it. At the time, there was some recognition of their work, and clearly there was a greater awareness of the importance of the food and drink sector, of the vital need to ensure the supply of foods to shops, and of the overall significance of the sector to our society. In many respects, that awareness has sadly disappeared. I believe this is extremely unfortunate. We should be far more aware of the nature of the sector, how important it is, its many strengths, and also its weaknesses. This is about not just the basics in life, such as the supply of food, although that is extremely important, but the real and substantial contribution that the sector makes to our economy, both nationally and locally.

I have a few statistics and facts about the sector. The food and drink sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the United Kingdom. I am amazed at the number of people who are surprised by that. They often think that pharmaceutical, automobile or aerospace would be the largest manufacturing sector, but in reality the food and drink sector is our leading manufacturer.

It has a turnover of more than £104 billion, representing 20% of all UK manufacturing. It contributes over £29 billion to the economy, and directly employs over 440,000 people and thousands more indirectly. Think of the many brands, a large number of which are iconic and international—the very best of British products. Exports exceed £23 billion, going to more than 220 countries and territories, with a huge potential for much more.

We should also be aware of the contribution the sector makes to the local economy. It is often a substantial local employer, which has a significant impact on the performance and growth of local economies, and offers employment and training opportunities to local people.

My constituency of Carlisle is a prime example. Nestlé employs 400 people. It is the largest food and drink company in the world, a significant exporter and a purchaser of much of the milk that is produced by local farmers. The 2 Sisters Food Group employs nearly 1,400 people, and if I were to have a ready-made meal from Marks & Spencer, it would probably have been produced in the factory in Carlisle. McVitie’s, part of Pladis Global, employs nearly 800 people. Talking of brands, Carlisle produces the iconic Carr’s water biscuits and, of course, 6 million custard creams every single day.

These businesses make a huge contribution to the Carlisle economy and the wider regional economy. Think of the spending impact that 2,500 directly employed staff have on the local economy, and those are just the larger employers, as these figures do not include the many smaller businesses.

Indeed, the sector as a whole is incredibly diverse, with over 10,000 manufacturing businesses, most of which are small and medium-sized enterprises. In reality, there are very few large players, which can be both a strength and a weakness for the sector. It means it is a dynamic sector, with much innovation, but at times it also means that the voice of the sector is not heard as much as it should be.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is making some very interesting points, but does he agree that one of the problems the sector has had in recent times is labour shortages? They do not just affect the retail end of the sector, but the farm gate, with many pig farmers, for example, suffering from a lack of qualified abattoir workmen. Is this not something that needs to be addressed?

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I will come to that later in my speech, but he has picked up one of the key issues that relates to the sector at the moment, and that extends beyond the food and drink sector, which I fully acknowledge.

The sector can be dynamic, but sometimes the voice of the sector is not heard as much as it should be. This can be a drawback, and something of which the Government should be acutely aware. Just because it does not have the loudest voice, is not the most glamorous sector and does not have a few substantial players with easy access to Government, it is still vital that the industry’s concerns are heard at the very highest level of Government.

I have talked about the economic importance, but I am fully aware of the health issues surrounding this sector as well. I appreciate that we, as a society, have become concerned about obesity and health, and rightly so. To be fair, the industry gets this and is aware of the criticism that is often directed, rightly or wrongly, at them, partly because of their products. However, the issues do not wholly lie with the industry. Indeed, the industry has made huge strides in producing many new products that are healthier and reformulating existing products, and substantial reductions in salt and sugar have helped to improve many of the products.

New products that have been brought to the market often reflect consumers’ interest in these healthier products. I must, therefore, question just how useful schedule 17 to the recent Health and Care Bill will be. The industry is already working hard to improve its products, it co-operates fully with the Government and is receptive to change. However, as a society, we must be realistic and look for other solutions to obesity concerns. We cannot and should not overlook our personal and parental responsibilities. I suspect that the provisions of schedule 17 are unlikely to produce any real improvement, as some people anticipate.

The purpose of this debate is primarily to raise awareness of and the success of the food and drink manufacturing sector, its contribution to our country, what the Government can do to support it, and the challenges it faces in future.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I congratulate my hon. Friend, as has already been said. I know he is a great champion of the British food industry. There is something very straightforward that Government could do: they could ensure that public sector purchasing—the procurement of food—prioritised and favoured domestic produce. We make some wonderful things in this country, yet we continue to import far too much food. That would add to traceability, food security and, frankly, simply back Britain. The Government should buy British, and I hope the Minister will confirm that that is exactly what they intend to do.

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

I very much agree. The two key parts of Government policy in terms of security are energy security and food security. At present, we probably import more food than we should.

I want gently to challenge the Government on some of their attitudes and thinking towards this sector. First, what will the Government do to help promote the sector domestically and internationally?

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech. One of the sectors in the food economy that concerns me is fishing. As my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes said, in this country we do not buy our own produce. How can we encourage people in this country to buy the brilliant seafood we produce all round the coastline, so that it is not reliant on a foreign market?

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point. How can the Government help our industry both domestically and by creating greater opportunities in the export market? We need to continue to see the success of the industry and exploit the opportunities in both our domestic market, as my hon. Friend James Daly just said, and in exports.

The development of new products, the competitiveness of the sector and the opportunity to export are vital to our country. However, there is sometimes a feeling that other countries promote this sector far better than we do. I am interested to hear what plans the Minister has to improve that.

The Minister knows that hers is a sponsoring Department for the food and drink sector. Therefore, will the Department with such responsibility challenge in a more constructive way some of the unreasonable pressures that sometimes emerge from the health lobby? As I said, the sector has made great strides on the health issue and does work with Government. Everybody accepts that more needs to be done, but a realistic approach is fundamental.

The supply chain is critical to all industries and the food and drink sector is no different. The appointment of Sir David Lewis as the new supply chain adviser is welcome. I know that the Food and Drink Federation will fully engage with the new supply chain advisory group. It is an outstanding advocate for the industry that works well with Ministers. I am sure the Minister will comment on that in her remarks.

None the less, there are concerns about the supply of food and the inflationary pressures in the supply chain. Those will undoubtedly have an impact on the consumer in due course. That leads on to issues surrounding our trading relationship with the EU. There are concerns about the border controls on exports, but also the very real issue of shortage of appropriate labour. As we know, there is a shortage of HGV drivers, farm workers and factory workers. I can easily give local examples of the firms I have already mentioned and the issues they have with securing employment. We also have pressures in the tourist industry, which compounds the problem in places such as Cumbria.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I agree with my hon. Friend on this point: the shortage of labour is a real problem for employers in my constituency at this time of year, as they are quite busy in the run-up to Christmas. Does he agree that the industry needs help to increase its productivity and invest in the new machinery that it needs, and that in the short term it probably needs some access to additional labour to help it produce the products that we all want to see in the shops?

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

I very much agree with my hon. Friend; it is about striking a balance between the two. Clearly, at this moment in time there is a shortage of labour, and the industry needs to secure that labour if at all possible. However, I think the industry itself would accept that driving productivity is equally important, and that through productivity it can quite often end up needing fewer employees while being a much more productive sector. My hon. Friend will know from our visits to factories that the food and drink sector is an incredibly innovative and productive sector overall. It is therefore vital that industry and Government work together, so I would be interested to know what actions the Government are taking on the issues I have already mentioned.

As I have already said, the food and drink sector is a hugely important part of our economy. It employs a large number of people and contributes significantly to our economy, but there is the danger that the Government add more and more cost and regulation, which endangers its success. A small but significant example is the definition of “small and medium-sized enterprise” in the Health and Social Care Bill, which could have a huge impact on UK businesses and give a competitive advantage to foreign competition.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. One area in which I am sure much of the UK food and drink industry would welcome greater support from Government is that of honest food labelling. As it stands, food could be farmed in Argentina or elsewhere overseas, but packaged in the UK and still labelled as UK produce. Does he agree that the Government need to look at that area, so that we can back British farmers and British food producers more effectively and make sure we have informed consumers who can back our food producers in the shops?

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Interestingly, food labelling could potentially give us an advantage as a country when selling those products: the UK label, the Union Jack, has great resonance with many overseas consumers as well as our own domestic consumers.

On the cost and regulatory side, we also have the prospect of the extended producer responsibility. The sentiment behind it may be sensible, but the additional cost to the industry will potentially have serious consequences. Have the Government fully thought through the very real cost implications? I appreciate that the relevant primary legislation, the Environment Act 2021, has already passed, but it is the secondary legislation that will determine the detail. As the Minister will know, the industry is concerned about the scope, timescale and implementation of those regulations. It believes that the costs have already risen and could reach £2.7 billion for the industry, which will inevitably be passed on to the consumer. Indeed, it is estimated that each household will face a £75 increase in its annual food bill. Is that something that the Government are happy with? If not, will they work with the industry—particularly, as I have already mentioned, the FDF—to ensure that the regulation and costs are proportionate, and that the industry can absorb them without losing its competitiveness? If it cannot, there is a real danger that the regulations could backfire and be detrimental to an important sector of our economy.

In conclusion, I look forward to hearing from the Minister on the specific points I have raised. I look forward to her comments on how she intends to properly and fully support what is one of the unsung successful sectors of our country, but also one of the most important, as has been conclusively demonstrated during the pandemic through the industry’s performance in making sure that we continue to be fed at a very difficult time. I also hope that the Minister and her Department will fully recognise the importance of this sector, celebrate its successes, and truly be a champion of the industry.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Order. I call James Daly first, as not everybody had previously indicated that they wished to speak, but we will make a note.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North 4:54 pm, 1st December 2021

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Stevenson on securing this debate on what is a very important issue. The debate has a very wide scope, and we could talk for many hours on the subject, but I want to talk about the interconnectivity between the food and drink industry and the market in this country—how we can ensure that suppliers of food and drink, big or small, local or national, have the best possible conditions for people to buy what they produce. I am meeting a little business on Friday that works in the production of gin. How are we going to ensure that it is competitive—that the markets are there for people to buy that product?

I am passionate—I do not think this is a secret—about pubs. Perhaps I should not frame it in that way. I have set up an all-party parliamentary group on tenanted pubs. One of the points that is directly linked to the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, is that we cannot see the food and drink industry on its own; it is interconnected with so many different markets. Tenanted pubs are going through a very difficult period. They are the buyers of the meat from local farmers, the drinks from the suppliers I just mentioned. To allow the industry to flourish, as we all want it to, we have to support the market for it. That is pubs and restaurants—pubs in my constituency such as the Waggonmakers, the Dungeon and The Two Tubs, which just won my pub of the year competition.

Until we as a country consume the shellfish from the coast of Cornwall or the east coast around Bridlington, until we have those markets and create the campaign and market conditions where, as a matter of course, we are buying and making best use of the fantastic products we have throughout the country, then we will have failed. There is much to be done as a Parliament in championing British food. We have some real champions in this room. The small producers of quality produce and drinks require this Government to support them in any way possible. The Hearth of the Ram, a great pub in Ramsbottom, buys everything local. If we did not have it, there would be no market for local producers in my area.

Local, small producers are part of this debate, but I fully accept that the scale of the contribution that the food and drink sector makes to our economy should not be underestimated. As a native of Carlisle, I recognise a lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said. Two of my favourite places on earth, Carlisle and Bridlington, are represented in this room today. I am delighted to have taken part in this debate.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

I will take the Front-Bench speakers at around a quarter past 5. I invite Navendu Mishra to contribute.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Labour, Stockport 4:57 pm, 1st December 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I start by congratulating John Stevenson and thanking him for securing this important debate.

Although I am sure that Members from all parties will be keen to share details of the great local businesses in their own constituencies, I can truly assure everyone that none of them can quite compete with Stockport. We have a massive range of food and drink businesses in the constituency. From the vegan Hillgate Cakery in the heart of my town centre, run by Simon and Sarah, to Robinsons pubs, which stock some of the best beer in the country, Stockport boasts some of the best food and drink venues that the UK has to offer. Like the hon. Member for Carlisle, I also have a McVitie’s biscuit factory in my constituency. It is part of the Pladis Group, which is one of the largest employers in my constituency.

The pandemic has put a significant strain on the hospitality industry, with the sector seeing one of the biggest economic declines of all sectors of the economy since the start of the pandemic, but the industry is resilient. Businesses have re-opened, adapted and transformed. However, the effects of covid-19 have exposed some shameful pre-pandemic trends.

The pub economy, part of the lifeblood of our country, has been particularly damaged. Between 2010 and 2020, Stockport lost 31% of its pubs. In the year 2019-20 alone, Stockport saw a reduction of 8%. That is in spite of the fact that it has been reported that the brewing and pub sector contributes £28 million to wages locally, employs over 1,400 people and contributes £26 million in taxes.

In today’s debate, we celebrate the contribution of food and drink to our economy, but it also gives us an opportunity to reflect on and push for what needs to be done to protect and grow this important industry. Independent businesses need to be given assurances that they will be protected in the depressing situation that there may be another lockdown. Far more needs to be done to support local retailers in the face of a growing online multinational markets. Equally, the Government need to legislate to ensure that all those working in the sector—all of them—earn the Living Wage Foundation’s living wage, so that their work pays.

Any discussion about the contribution of food and drink to the UK economy must include the workers in the sector, who are sadly often overlooked. Workers in the food and drink industry, from those in manufacturing and production to those in the service sector, often work long and unsociable hours so that we can all enjoy ourselves. Since the pandemic, there has been a crisis in hospitality staff numbers. This is often attributed to a culture of harassment, burnout and poor pay. Research by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers revealed than nine in 10 retail staff has been victims of abuse, threats or violence. That of course includes those working in the food and drink distribution sector. That is why I am backing the campaign to legislate to protect retail workers in the face of abuse.

Although the picture seems wholly bleak, sharing food and drink unites us and our communities. I was so proud the day Stockport gained the Purple Flag award in recognition of the excellent management of our town centre at night back in 2019. So much of that is due to our independent food and drink retailers. Their passion and drive to provide for the people of Stockport and all those who visit is truly inspiring. I encourage all Members to come and visit Stockport to see what our excellent food and drink businesses have to offer.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 5:01 pm, 1st December 2021

I have only two points to make, and given that other Members want to contribute, I shall make them briefly.

First, I want to amplify the point I made about procurement. In my various roles as Government Minister —during which time, by the way, the Minister served as my Parliamentary Private Secretary—I attempted to persuade the six Government Departments that I served to buy British. It was a struggle throughout. I was usually told that it was because of some regulation—state aid rules were often cited. There was a reluctance on the part of the administration to even entertain the prospect of prioritising British products and services. This has to change. It is disadvantageous to our economy. It is, frankly, out of keeping with the expectations of our constituents. It is intolerable, as it lengthens the supply chain, with all the consequences that brings.

My hon. Friend John Stevenson, who very sensibly brought the debate to this Chamber, emphasised the issue of food security. He is right to say that there are other factors—air miles being one of them, as well as traceability and similar matters. Again, I urge the Minister to look at this matter closely. I have no doubt that she will face a struggle, but I know what her perspicacity, determination and assiduity look like from the time we spent together in government. I am confident that if any Minister can do this, it is her. I know that her heart is in the right place, as it is in respect of my second point—I promised to make only two point and am sure that people will be counting, so I had better stick to my promise.

Secondly, we must shorten the food chain. We have far too much food travelling immense distances across the country, with all kinds of consequences, not least those that I have just described: travel miles and traceability problems. We have got to get back to purchasing what is grown locally. I represent an area that might be described as the food basket of Britain. We produce immense amounts of foodstuffs in South Holland and the Deepings, both through the good work of primary producers—farmers and growers—and through the food sector itself. I have a number of food businesses located there.

Imagine the nonsense of growing a cauliflower in Holbeach, in my constituency, transporting it to some distant distribution centre miles away for it to be processed, whatever that means—it usually means being stuck on a piece of polystyrene and covered in plastic. It would then be sent back by truck to Holbeach to be sold in a supermarket yards from where it was grown. My parents would have regarded that as some sort of dystopian nightmare 50 years ago. It would have been the stuff of fiction, but fiction has become fact in our lifetimes. Are we prepared to sustain this? We certainly should not be if we have any sense.

Local production and shortening supply chains helps our own food sector and is also the right thing for local communities, because it sustains communities. We must build a kind of fraternal economics, if I can call it that— this will be dear to the heart of the shadow Minister, who agrees with me on so many things, to his great embarrassment, I suspect—that sustains a strong degree of social solidarity, because what we do economically has a huge effect on our sense of local purpose and pride and the connections between people.

We have to ask: what kind of future do we want? In asking that question, we must face these huge challenges of changing trends that have prevailed for the whole of my lifetime. There is no such thing as a predetermined course of history—that is a Whiggish nonsense. We must create a future better than the present. We can do that by ensuring that more food is consumed in the locality and country in which it is grown.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:06 pm, 1st December 2021

I have a lot of sympathy for the argument of Sir John Hayes about the shortening of the supply chain, as he called it, but I do not think that any of us should be in any doubt about the complexity of that task. This is essentially about the transport around the country of goods. He mentioned cauliflower. From my family perspective, I come from and was raised in a meat-producing community. The consolidation of abattoirs into large central points is part of that whole process. That did not happen by accident; it was a consequence of the dominance of the supermarkets as the customers for food production in this country. Until we tackle that and level the playing field between the producers and the supermarkets—in that regard, we need to get a serious grip and give proper powers to the Groceries Code Adjudicator—nothing in that respect will change.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I will be very brief. The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I served with him in Government when he was a member of the Cabinet and I attended it. He was a very good Secretary of State, by the way. Is one allowed to say that? I suppose one is. He is absolutely right. We need to back small retailers and face down the huge power of the supermarkets, which frankly sell short their suppliers and bemuse, befuddle and make immense profits out of the people who shop in them.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I essentially agree with his analysis. Since I am talking about producers, I should perhaps have reminded the House at the start of my contribution of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am an unremunerated partner in my family firm in Islay—I am one of the few people who seem to have found a second job that actually costs them money, rather than bringing it in.

To our local economies in Orkney and Shetland, food and drink production is absolutely critical and essential. Orkney has Orkney beef and Orkney lamb, and Shetland has Shetland lamb. Shetland is one of the largest and finest seafood-producing ports in the country, producing Shetland shellfish, as well as our substantial and very valuable aquaculture industry, which produces salmon in particular. It has been fascinating to see that grow over the years. When I was first elected in 2001, we had one and a half whisky distilleries—one full time, one part time—and two breweries. Twenty years later, we have two full-time distilleries, four breweries and four gin distilleries. Lest there be any doubt, I do not take single-handed credit for that growth, contrary to popular belief. We also see the way in which that growth brings with it myriad small artisan producers—people adding value to local produce, which is critical to the success of our local economy.

Indeed, it does not stand on its own; as a consequence of the quality of local food produce in Orkney and Shetland, we have seen a significant growth in the visitor economy, because being able to offer good-quality local produce is enormously attractive to those who wish to visit the isles. I often feel, however, that somehow or other that growth has been achieved despite rather than because of Government intervention. Orkney, which is one of the best suckler beef-producing counties in the country, has seen its abattoir regulated out of existence.

At the moment, we have a consultation from the Scottish Government about the transportation of live animals by sea. If the proposals under consultation were to go ahead, we would see a massive reduction in the number of days on which we could ship cattle off the islands. The way in which cattle are shipped from Orkney and Shetland is in cassettes. It was designed by local farmers along with Ministry vets and the shipping companies some 20 years ago, and is there as the gold standard in animal transportation for all to see, but that consultation, were it to be followed through by the SNP-Green Administration in Edinburgh, would be an existential threat to agriculture in the northern isles.

I will touch briefly on protected geographical indications. The conclusion recently of the Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein deals—an interesting triumvirate—is causing concern among many food producers. The absence of protection for PGIs, which are very important to us in the northern isles, for our export markets is causing concern. It may not be massively important in those three deals, but the danger is always that, if we allow a provision in one deal, those who come along the line later on will want to follow.

Time is against me. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. This is, for us all, an enormously important industry. For communities such as mine, however, it goes beyond important; it is vital to our future.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:12 pm, 1st December 2021

Thank you, Mr Davies, for letting me speak. I too thank John Stevenson for setting the scene on a subject that every one of us takes a great interest in. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, Daniel Zeichner, in his place. I am also pleased to see the Minister back in Westminster Hall; we seem to be here quite often—this is two days in a row—but, again, this is something we are both interested in. I was intrigued by the introduction from the hon. Member for Carlisle. He mentioned some of the products. I have to say that, in my house, not just for me but for my grandchildren, custard creams are top of the tree when it comes to biscuits. I usually dunk them in tea, but the children just eat them by the score. The more packets I bring in, the more they eat, so I think we are keeping the custard cream sector going in my constituency.

There has been much emphasis today on the creation of a more resilient food and drink system across the United Kingdom, especially after the consequences of the pandemic. The hospitality in particular sector has suffered incredible financial and personal losses. I know that that is nobody’s fault, by the way. It is not the Government’s fault; it was the pandemic, and the changes that it made, but it has affected the food and drink sector, especially the EU-UK economy.

In addition to the pandemic, other factors have had a negative impact on the food and drink industry, such as Brexit. The Northern Ireland protocol has had an horrendous impact on us in trying to get our products out and back in again. Our biggest trading partner is the UK mainland. The UK Food and Drink Federation says that the UK has lost over £2 billion in sales. We have been proven to be heavily reliant on the EU in the past in relation to food and drink; 28% of our food supplies come from the EU, and the UK’s ratio of food production to supply has dropped by 10% since the 1990s.

Northern Ireland food and drink is worth £5 billion per year. In 2019, just before the pandemic came in at the end of the year, we had an increase in Northern Ireland of 4% on the year before, to £5.77 billion, and some 25,000 jobs. Therefore, when it comes to the Northern Ireland economy, and particularly that of my constituency, the food and drink sector is massively important.

The UK food and drink sector involves 440,000 people, has a turnover of £104 billion and accounts for 20% of total UK manufacturing. I know that the Minister is well aware of the Red Tractor labelling, which was a proactive move by the Government that I was happy to support. I always like to see the Union flag on labels, not just because I am a Unionist but because it is my country and I am proud of it. I am proud of my Union flag and want to see it shown wherever it can be. We must, however, set some goals for the hospitality sector to regain what has been lost in the past year.

In 2019, UK food and drink exports exceeded all expectations, going to 220 countries worldwide. That was truly brilliant in trade. We should be proud of what we have done and, now that we are out of the EU, look to where that extra business is going to happen. In Northern Ireland, Brexit and the pandemic have led to a greater focus in the industry to ensure that, if something similar happened, we would be in a better position to respond. I believe that we can do so.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

Does the hon. Member agree that, now that we are out of the EU, we can properly address issues such as deficiencies in food labelling?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We are in a better position for that to happen.

A more localised approach to food production would be beneficial to our systems. On how we can do it better together here and in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Mash Direct, a company in my constituency, does significant work in the Strangford community and beyond, delivering to the UK mainland, the EU and the middle east.

I want to give right hon. and hon. Members a culinary experience of Strangford. We are lucky to have Lakeland Dairies, which produces some of the best milk in the world because the grass is sweeter—the Park Plaza hotel just across the way has its wee milk sachets to go in a coffee, so they have made it here. For the main course, there is the beef, lamb, pork or chicken from my constituency. It is not just that—alongside, you can have Mash Direct’s products, Willowbrook Foods’ products and Rich Sauces. You can have Portavogie prawns and Comber potatoes, which are both protected under the EU, and you can finish the meal with Glastry Farm ice cream. That is another company in my constituency that has done extremely well in food and drink. Then there is Rademon gin and Echlinville whiskey, local beers and all the cheeses you can have to finish up. Right hon. and hon. Members who want a culinary experience should come to Strangford because it has got everything. They could not go to any better place for a restaurant or a menu. All those things are in my constituency.

The importance of the hospitality sector goes beyond turnover. Our exports make a key contribution to overall industry growth. Greater understanding of industry performance often depends on Government reporting. I am confident that the Minister well understands the importance of that for us in Strangford and indeed for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Let us see all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland work and sell together across the world. I believe that the world is our oyster for selling things now that Brexit has been undertaken. Perhaps it is not entirely the same for us in Northern Ireland as it is for the rest of the UK, but we hope that we will shortly overcome that. We should grasp the opportunities for food and drink sales with both hands.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Manufacturing) 5:19 pm, 1st December 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank John Stevenson for calling the debate. Going to Strangford for the ultimate British Isles culinary experience? Well, we will see about that in the course of the next five minutes.

It is a pleasure to sum up the debate. We sometimes get those calls from the Whips where they rhetorically ask whether we would mind going to Westminster Hall to sum up a debate on anything from synthetic fuels to the shape of clouds, but this one is a shootie-in for a Scottish MP, much less the MP for Angus. I like to explain to English colleagues that if Kent is the garden of England, Angus is very much the garden of Scotland, and it is in that context that I will sum up.

Food and drink manufacturing is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carlisle, who secured the debate, for highlighting that point, because it is often lost in the noise of other, more prominent industries. There is a footprint of food manufacturing and production in every single constituency across these islands, and the sector contributes more than £120 billion to the UK economy. If that sounds good for the UK, we have bells on it in Scotland, because exports of Scottish food and drink make a vital contribution not only of many billions to the Scottish economy but therefore, for the time being, to the UK economy.

We export to countries worldwide: Scotland, with 8.2% of the UK population, delivers almost 20% of the food and drink exports—doing the heavy lifting once again. It is little wonder, with iconic produce such as Scotch lamb, Aberdeen Angus beef and Scotch whisky. I could go on—[Interruption.] You want me to go on, Mr Davies? Okay. I will add to that list Irn-Bru, haggis, shortbread, smoked salmon, porridge, Scotch broth and steak pie, and let us not forget that the iconic Skull Crushers sweets were invented in Scotland.

That is just Scotland’s produce, and I have not started on Angus—specifically our world-famous Arbroath smokies, of which I know the Minister is a fan, and the supreme champion of savoury pastries, the Forfar bridie. Looking around Westminster Hall this afternoon, I see a lot of potential Marks & Spencer customers, so let me assure them that their summertime Red Diamond strawberries from Markies come from Angus too, because Angus is the leading soft fruit producer across these islands—[Laughter.] That is uncontroversial.

Scotland delivers 80% of the valuable seed potato sector, and Angus is at the forefront of that, which is why McCain has its Pugeston facility in Angus. On the drinks side, to name just a few, we have Ogilvy vodka, made from potatoes in Charleston; the Gin Bothy up the road in Glamis; the Glencadam distillery in Brechin; and the Arbikie Highland Estate distillery at Lunan, not far from Lunan Bay Farm, which produces Scottish asparagus and pasture-fed goat meat just down the road from the lobsters landed at Ferryden. If anybody is looking for directions to Angus, I can provide them after the debate.

So it is all well and good, then? No, I am afraid it is not. Remember that seed potato sector? Thanks to the UK’s hard Brexit, the sector has lost not only its European Union market access, but its Northern Ireland market access. Jim Shannon can no longer buy seed potatoes from Angus, and that is much to be regretted at both ends of the transaction. Neither can his farmers take their bulls to Stirling to be sold any more, because if they do not sell, farmers will have to pay to keep them there because they cannot take them home as they used to.

The jute sacks that seed potatoes need, which are imported from India and Bangladesh, were tariff-free while we were in the EU, but now they come with tariffs. That is a matter for the Department for International Trade to intervene on, but it seems unable or unwilling to do so. Similarly, I have asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to intervene, along with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Trade, on the proscription of pork exports to China—I know the Minister is aware of this—from the Brechin pork processing plant in Angus, and they are unable to help with that either.

It is interesting listening to right hon. and hon. Members today. If Hansard were to do a Wordle of today’s debate, the big word in the middle would be “labour”. There can be no doubt about the crippling labour shortages and how they threaten to undermine the great strides made in market development—[Interruption.]

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Order. We need to suspend for Divisions.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 5:48 pm, 1st December 2021

Right—I have had my Angus steak. Dave Doogan, to finish off.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Manufacturing)

Thank you, Mr Davies. Before we were interrupted, I was talking about the crippling labour shortages that threaten to undermine the great strides made in the market development and process efficiencies of the food production sectors.

Industry experts are being undone by Whitehall Departments and Ministers with little knowledge of, much less regard for, this industry, although I would not apply that to the current Minister, who will be answering today and—in my estimation, at least—gets the industry and has its best interests at heart. However, she is part of an Executive who are putting substantial problems in front of the industry.

In closing, I will mention the Home Office, with its arbitrary £30,000 figure, which has deliberately made it as difficult as possible for the industry to access those figures. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 is an extremely problematic piece of legislation, which does nothing to enhance the devolution settlement or relationships between the industries north and south of the border. I met with the National Farmers Union of Scotland this morning, which described a perfect storm coming down the road, and we need to protect this valuable industry at all costs.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:49 pm, 1st December 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate John Stevenson not just on bringing the debate but on introducing it in a very informative way. I will not repeat the good points he made about the success of the sector. It has been a remarkably wide-ranging debate, from tenanted pubs, to Strangford, to whisky in Scotland—and who could forget the invitation to Angus, which I am sure we will all be taking up?

It has been a remarkable achievement of the sector to maintain the reliable availability of food and drink at prices that most can afford 24/7, 365 days a year. There is much to be proud of, but it has been a tough time. I am grateful to many in the supply chain who speak to me regularly, particularly the Food and Drink Federation in the context of today, but the story over the last 18 months is a mixed bag. I want to particularly focus my comments on those who work in the sector and pick up some of the points made by my hon. Friend Navendu Mishra.

At the retail end, the violence and abuse that shopworkers face has been highlighted by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Sadly, I see it in my own city. I pay tribute to the Co-op stores in my city and particularly to PC Matthews—or EJ, as she is known—because they have made a huge difference in cracking down on some of this abuse. People should not face abuse when they are at work.

It is not just the retail sector; as we go down the chain, there is the processing sector. Far too many people are working on contract and too many are on poor wages in shared accommodation—frankly, there is a real covid risk there. Sadly, I am told by the GMB that some employers that introduced more flexible approaches during the pandemic have been pulling back from some of those. That is really dangerous for all of us. We cannot have people going to work because they cannot afford to isolate. With omicron upon us, may I ask the Minister what plans she and her colleagues have to tackle the sick pay issue once and for all? Some employers have behaved well, but others have not and we need the Government to act on that.

I am also grateful to the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union for highlighting the sad issue of low pay in the sector, which means that some are not able to afford the very products that they produce, because of their low wages. In a survey, it found that 40% had reported not being able to afford food on some occasions, which is shocking.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ian Byrne, who has been highlighting this scandal through the Right to Food campaign. The campaign has launched a study to look at the impact of food poverty within the food sector, and I commend my hon. Friend for that, but what are the Government doing? Can the Minister tell me what she is doing to tackle low pay and insecurity within the sector? What analysis has her Department done?

That leads me to the point made by a number of hon. Members about labour shortages in the sector. We all know the problems, but I ask the Minister on behalf of many: when are we going to have some clarity on the seasonal worker pilot scheme for next year? Producers really need to know. One operator told me recently that in some farms up to 35% of edible crops were wasted last year, as a direct result of these shortages. These points were raised effectively earlier in the debate.

What about ornamentals? Does the Minister really want almost 300 million daffodils wasted again next year? There are also the points made about the pig sector. The figures that I heard, yesterday, were an on-farm cull of 16,000, but we know that actually the figure is sadly likely to be much higher. How many of the pork butchers that were promised have arrived? How much has gone into private storage so far? I fear that the answer may well be none and none.

We also need to look at the wider supply chain issues. Lots of points have been made about the resilience of our food supply. Sir John Hayes, who is no longer present, made a point about shorter supply chains being necessary. We know that under the Agriculture Act 2020, the Government are bound to produce a report on food security by the end of the Session. That is within two weeks.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I see the Minister nodding. I wonder whether she could tip us off about when we might expect that.

We also need fairness within the supply chain. We have heard about the power of the retailers, and the imbalance of power. What we are seeing at the moment, I fear, is that although consumers may be benefiting from the price competition between retailers, they are just pushing the pressure down the supply chain harder and harder, which is not sustainable. Perhaps she could tell us something about where the Government have got to on those supply chain contracts, and on dairy contracts, the consultation on which was, of course, a while ago. She may need the opportunity to once again comment on competition laws, and suspension and relaxation, which has happened a number of times.

In the interest of time, I will not make any further points on farming and environmental land management, but we are hoping for some more information soon. Finally, I praise and thank all those in the British food and drink sector. We are fortunate to have a sector that can produce food to such good standards and to such excellent quality, and we cherish it. That is why we want a plan from the Government. We have repeatedly called on the Government to produce a plan for the sector: a plan for food, a plan to get to net zero and a plan to buy British. If the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings were here now, I would tell him, “There is a party that will do that!”, if he is dissatisfied with his own side. We want to get to a situation where people can buy our food with confidence as part of that strategy, but that strategy must also improve conditions for the workers throughout the sector who have given so much. There is plenty to celebrate, but much to be done.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Over to you, Victoria Prentis. We need to end at 6.5 pm.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:55 pm, 1st December 2021

Thank you very much, Mr Davies. I am sorry you have had to cope with so many interruptions for votes during the debate. I join everyone in thanking my hon. Friend John Stevenson for organising such a fantastic opportunity to talk about food and drink, which is obviously my favourite subject. I will now refer to him as the hon. Member for custard creams, which is how I will forever think of him. He made a thoughtful and serious contribution, and I will do my best to answer as many of his points as I can.

We have had a bit of a pub crawl around the nation, and I look forward to being bought a drink in The Two Tubs. However, my hon. Friend James Daly also made some serious points about the consumption of British fish, which is something we are working very hard on with Seafish. I will definitely discuss that matter with him outside this debate, because it is something I feel passionately about.

From Stockport, we heard more about beer, but also a serious point about the unsocial hours and sometimes difficult conditions in which hospitality workers, in particular, have to work—a useful contribution from Navendu Mishra. We heard from Shetland, where we can get our chaser of whisky and gin, and where there are many small artisan producers. I have enjoyed working with Mr Carmichael on some of the difficulties that we have been able to overcome, by and large, for his fish exporters; we will continue to do so. We also had a culinary experience of Strangford, which was an extension of the experience of the fish of Strangford that we had yesterday—although very little can beat a smokie from Angus.

The food and drink sector is a vital part of our economy; it is our largest manufacturing sector, and I certainly think about it many more than three times a day. This is a very exciting time for food. We are preparing for the publication of the Government’s food strategy early next year. However, in the meantime, before the end of this Session—on or before 16 December—we will publish our analysis of statistical data. That may not sound exciting, but it is a large and serious piece of work that will be used to inform the Government’s food strategy going forward. There is a plan and it is being developed; I will not pretend in any way that the strategy we publish next year will be the end of the plan, but it will include many of the solutions that we need for this important sector.

I pay tribute to Ian Wright, whose retirement do is later tonight, for all the Food and Drink Federation’s superb collaborative work with Government. Ian took the helm of the Food and Drink Federation in 2015; he has represented the industry with knowledge, passion and enthusiasm through Brexit and covid. He has also overseen a major overhaul of that organisation, and I salute him.

Many Members have commented on food supply chains. We have all thought a great deal about food supply chains in the last 18 months. We know that the most effective response to food supply disruption is industry led, but I firmly believe that Government also need to provide appropriate support and relaxation of rules, as Daniel Zeichner mentioned, when appropriate. One of the most helpful things we did early on during the pandemic was to relax drivers’ hours and extend supermarket delivery hours.

We all know that labour is a major challenge across the industry as we have a very tight labour market. We are working closely with the Home Office to introduce temporary visa solutions: for example, for poultry workers before Christmas, ensuring that turkeys will be on the table; and for butchers, as my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight alluded to. Other mitigations for the pig sector include the slaughter incentive payment scheme and the private storage aid scheme.

On dairy, yes, we consulted, and one of my first acts when I joined DEFRA was to ensure that we did that work on the dairy supply chain. That is coming to fruition, and I thank all dairy farmers involved in that work. It has been a difficult and sensitive piece of work. I hope that we will be in a position to regulate next year, and pigs are definitely next on the list in terms of supply chains. Sir David Lewis has been mentioned, and I thank him for his work on the new supply chain advisory group and the new industry taskforce, which will look to pre-empt future issues. There will be clarity on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme very shortly.

Tackling obesity is a priority for the Government. Some 64% of adults are classed as obese and for children in year 6, the figure is 40%. The strategy was set out in July by the Department of Health and Social Care. We have ensured that some of the more stringent requirements do not apply to smaller retailers, and it is important that we continue to bring industry with us when making these changes—some useful points were made on that.

Every area of the UK has drawn on the local ingredients they produce, often because of a particular place, climatic conditions or type of ground, to make distinctive drinks and dishes. We are working hard to expand abroad. We aim to secure free trade agreements with countries, covering 80% of our trade within the next three years. We are very ambitious for this sector. We have heard figures of £23.6 billion in 2019. We have taken some recent action, including setting up the food export council and the new agri-food councillors. There were announcements on that yesterday, and I had a meeting with the Paymaster General at lunch today to discuss the issue with people in the industry. It is very exciting.

My right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes mentioned Government procurement. I agree that it is very important. We have not refreshed the Government buying standards on food since 2014; now is definitely the time to do so. We are consulting on that at the moment. I hope that I can repay his faith in me as his willing PPS for doing this. We will definitely place a greater emphasis on local, seasonal and sustainable produce in the new procurement rules.

On extended producer responsibility, our proposals are trying to shift the payment for excess packaging waste from local taxpayers to businesses. The analysis indicates that that will not push up consumer prices, but I accept that further work needs to be done to ensure that that really is the case, and it is important that we continue to work on this issue as we prepare the statutory instruments.

In short, the Government are totally committed to maximising real opportunities for our vital food and drink sector across all parts of our nations. And I don’t know about you, Mr Davies, but I am getting hungry.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Hungry for John Stevenson to wind up—we need to end by 6.5 pm.

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle 6:03 pm, 1st December 2021

I thank hon. Members for participating in this debate. I have often said that this industry affects us nationally, but equally importantly it affects us at the local level. As individual constituency MPs, we all know that the food and drink sector has an impact in virtually every constituency up and down the country, which was demonstrated by the contributions that people have made today.

I am grateful to the Minister for her speech at the end of the debate and for the comments that she made. I look forward to challenging her on some of the issues that we touched on and to maybe having further conversations with her. But as I say, I thank her for her contribution to the debate and I will pass on her good wishes to Ian Wright, who I will hopefully see very shortly as he departs from the FDF. I think he has been a great advocate for the food and drink sector, and I am sure that his successor will continue the good work that he has done.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the contribution of food and drink to the UK economy.

Sitting adjourned.