A critical friend

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Industry Government

Stevenson would like more factories to open their doors to the public
Stevenson would like more factories to open their doors to the public
John Stevenson is a big industry supporter, but don't expect blank cheques, reports Gary Scattergood

The old adage goes that it's better for friends to tell the ugly truth than pretty lies. And it is one that John Stevenson MP clearly subscribes to.

The chairman of parliament's All-Party Group for Food and Drink Manufacturing is a vocal supporter of the industry, but that doesn't mean he will kowtow to its every demand and always tell it what it wants to hear.

Instead, the Carlisle MP prefers to categorise his role as that of a "critical friend".

So while he fought for the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) to have the power to fine supermarkets; is instinctively opposed to any statutory regulation of levels of salt, sugar and fats in foods; and maintains the hybrid traffic light system of front-of-pack labelling is "too simplistic"​, he stresses he is not prepared to write the industry a blank cheque.

"The purpose of the All-Party Group is to bring together parliamentarians to discuss the issues that are relevant to the food and drink industry. Our aim is to support the industry but also to question it. We are here to challenge some of the issues that are concerning or worrying the industry, but also to ask it questions."

Stevenson's background does not mark him out as a natural candidate to chair the group. Born in Aberdeen, he graduated with a degree in history and politics from Dundee University before studying English law and qualifying as a solicitor, working in Carlisle until his election in 2010.

As he puts it, his industry knowledge before then was somewhat limited.

"I knew virtually nothing about the food and drink sector whatsoever, but I became the Member of Parliament for Carlisle. The town has a number of food and drink manufacturers, with the three biggest ones​ [Crown BevCan, McVities and Two Sisters] alone employing more than 2,000 people. It's very relevant to me as a constituency MP, so I was asked if I would come along and chair the All-Party Group."

Since getting involved, he says his industry "has increased enormously"​, adding "it is very, very important to our economy and I think a lot of MPs underestimate how important it is for their own individual constituencies."

A key part of Stevenson's role with the group is making sure ministers, civil servants and individual MPs are aware of the industry and how it can be helped.

Glamour contest

He believes the coalition government now has a greater understanding than it did in 2010, but concedes it isn't always easy for the industry to compete against other more "glamorous"​ sectors.

"We must repeatedly highlight that the UK food and drink manufacturing sector is the largest manufacturing part of the economy, which often comes as a surprise to many people, because the pharmaceutical, car and aeroplane industries are often seen as being a bit more glamorous,"​ he says.

"One of the reasons for this is that food and drink manufacturing is not as geographically concentrated. For example, there are not that many car plants up and down the country, while the food and drink industry is spread right across the country and it ranges from very, very small firms right up to big multinational companies."

The message does seem to be getting across with environment secretary Owen Paterson and his Labour shadow Mary Creagh both highlighting the sector's value in the Commons and during their party conference speeches last year.

Talking is one thing, though, and while the recognition will be welcomed by industry, is the group's work having an impact on a practical level? Stevenson freely admits that some of the 300-plus all party groups can be "niche"​ talking shops, but pledged when he took over as chairman that he wanted his committee to affect Whitehall legislation.

And herein, he states unequivocally, lies the group's biggest success story in this parliament ensuring the GCA has the bite to match its bark when it came to protecting producers.

"At second reading a number of colleagues from all sides, myself included, challenged the government about the fact that on the face of it there wasn't the ability to fine​ [retailers who mistreat their suppliers].

"The government changed its view and that is unheard of. To see a government actually change a fundamental part of a bill after a debate at second reading is a great credit to parliament and a great boost to the industry. That is certainly one of our biggest achievements. I'm hoping that the power to fine will never be used and that it will be unnecessary but at least the government recognised the strength of feeling and that is to its credit."

Stevenson also praises the government for its drive to increase the number of apprenticeships with ministers claiming an increase of 50,000 apprentice jobs in the last academic year compared with 2010/11. He says this is a "significant change",​ especially for manufacturing industries, and a "welcome shift"​ away from Labour's pledge to get 50% of all school-leavers into universities.

"That obsession was completely wrong,"​ he maintains. "Those that want to go to university should go and they should be supported, but they should also have the qualifications to get there. I think an awful lot of people ended up going to university because they felt it was what they should do as opposed to being what they wanted to do."

He warns, however, that the rise in apprenticeships isn't a short term fix and manufacturers will have to wait five to ten years to experience the skills benefits on a significant level.

True Tory

While government policies on the GCA and apprenticeships are very much welcomed, Stephenson is a true Conservative and his natural inclination is to shy away from full-scale government intervention on many other levels, even if some people within the industry are clamouring for it.

While some would like to see a greater government role to reward sustainability initiatives and deliver concrete policies to drive exports, his free market convictions lead him to reel away from such viewpoints.

With regards to exports, yes he would like to see them grow "but I also want to see greater focus on import substitution where we grow our own domestic markets and push out some of the imports we have".

He challenges industry to look at how it can use more homegrown products in the manufacturing process, adding "that will be equally beneficial to our balance of trade so we shouldn't lose sight of that we shouldn't think that it's just about exports".

He also doesn't think the State should commit to buying only British produce for schools, hospitals, prisons and government institutions, something he views as being anti-competitive.

"I think you have to be careful here,"​ he warns "because we need to get the right products that are competitive and are of good quality.

"Now I want British products to be at the best price, the highest quality and most efficiently produced but we have to recognise that other countries have the right to compete with us and I wouldn't want to get away from the competitive side of business. We have to make sure we are as competitive as anyone else."

Looking ahead, Stevenson believes food security and food policy, along with energy security, are going to be two of the most fundamental political priorities in coming years a view he says is gaining greater credence at Westminster as the amount of home-produced food dips. He is also keen for the group to work with manufacturers to improve the sector's image and public perception something he says will be a key area of focus over the next year.

"I think the image of the industry is one of the key things that manufacturers need to address. We talk about the skills agenda, and that's important, as are some of the health issues, but I think the over-arching issue is image and I think a lot more can be done to improve it and to make it more attractive to people to go into as a career.

"I would like more factories to open their doors to the public so they can see what they do; to let schools in so the children are aware of what is there and what careers choices are available to them."

If the industry can do its bit to replace public perception of rows of people on a production line with that of a high-tech sector with a vast amount of innovation and a deep commitment to research and development, Stevenson says the benefits in terms of attracting high quality employees will be huge.

And if the industry fails to step up to plate and risks looking a bit shabby around the edges? Rest assured Stephenson won't be reluctant to tell it. After all, what are friends for?

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