'Stop playing pass the parcel with our sector,' says Improve

By Freddie Dawson and Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food supply chain Food and drink

'Stop playing pass the parcel with our sector,' says Improve
Food and drink manufacturing skills council Improve has called on government to stop putting the industry's contribution to the nation's economy at risk.

The chairman of Improve and the National Skills Academy for food and drink, Paul Wilkinson, last month made a impassioned plea to John Hayes, the minister for education and skills at the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS). At an employability summit organised by the grocery think tank IGD, he called for more coherence in the way that food manufacturing in the UK was dealt with by government.

Wilkinson said: "The problem we have, minister, is that we don't see our business model being reflected either by the thinking of the [UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UCES)] or your Department, who are seeking to take out food manufacturing [from the food and drink supply chain] and merge that with the overall manufacturing sector."

He added: "It is a great concern to everyone involved with our sector the whole food supply chain. I would welcome your assurance as minister responsible for this: that BIS will, in future, recognise the integrated nature of the food supply chain in its thinking and strategic planning in relation to skills."

Hayes accepted the "challenges"​ created when there were overlapping responsibilities for sectors between different government departments and agreed to a meeting with Wilkinson to discuss his concerns.

Responsibility for food manufacturing has historically fallen between the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and BIS responsible for manufacturing issues. Unfortunately, neither department had assumed overall responsibility for the sector, claimed Improve's chief executive Jack Matthews and this had hit its activities in areas such as training and exports, he added.

Matthews recognised that some improvements had occurred since the decision was made by food minister Jim Paice and DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman to include food manufacture when considering farming and environmental issues. But he argued that communications with BIS still needed to be improved.

There is widespread concern that funding for sector skills councils, controlled by BIS, may also disappear as a switch is made from a system of government grants to one of "contestable funding" under which councils would need to compete for central funding. This would inevitably lead to the demise of some of the 22 existing sector skills councils that are controlled by UCES, warned Matthews.

Matthews is confident that Improve will survive. However, it is seeking to raise £2m in government funding on top of the £2.8m it has raised from industry.

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