Speaking at the first FDF Convention, held in London, Wright set out the manifesto to help tackle the challenges Brexit would bring for food and drink manufacturers and other businesses.
Before the EU referendum, the government had focused on “winning over the public and not on contingency [planning in case of vote for Brexit]”, he said.
So now the food and drink sector should ensure those negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU “do so armed with the very clearest instructions from the food and drink industry as to what we need”, said Wright.
The FDF pledged to undertake “a brisk consultative exercise” to guide its planning.
Meanwhile, the FDF manifesto included proposals to retain access to the single market and customs union, retain the EU’s favourable trading terms with third countries, maintain access to labour, boost productivity, ensure regulatory stability and to urge government action to provide certainty.
Access to the single market
First, retaining access to the single market, unimpeded by tariffs and with the minimum of bureaucracy across the 27 other EU nations was “at the heart of the UK’s competitiveness”, said Wright.
The EU remained the UK’s largest market for exports of food and non-alcoholic drink and many manufacturers would struggle to substitute existing EU customers for ones in other parts of the world, he added.
Second, the FDF promised to lobby for continued access to the free trade agreements that the EU has secured with 53 countries without need for renegotiation.
The third point on the FDF manifesto was maintaining access to labour. Of the UK’s food and drink manufacturing workforce numbering nearly 400,000 people, nearly one quarter were from EU countries outside the UK. Many were from eastern European countries.
“The immediate priority for those workers is to support them through this deeply unpleasant climate of ‘anti-foreigner’ sentiment and to provide them with speedy reassurance that their future here is absolutely secure and their contribution is valued and warmly welcomed,” said Wright.
Food and drink manufacturers needed cast-iron assurances that their access to a flexible workforce, with a wide range of skills and capabilities as well as a strong work ethic, would continue, he added.
The sector would need to 130,000 new skilled workers by 2024 and workers from other EU Member States were said to provide a highly valued solution to help close the skills gap.
Fourth, boosting productivity should be another key goal. The FDF boss welcomed business secretary business Sajid Javid’s commitment that the government would give the topic greater priority.
“The immediate priority for those workers is to support them through this deeply unpleasant climate of ‘anti-foreigner’ sentiment and to provide them with speedy reassurance that their future here is absolutely secure and their contribution is valued and warmly welcomed.”
- Ian Wright
Needed a roadmap
Fifth was the need to ensure regulatory stability. The industry needed a roadmap for future UK food legislation so that businesses could see how government would manage the exit process in the complex area of food legislation, said Wright.
Food and drink businesses also needed regular updates about how legislative discussions were likely to affect food safety, quality and labelling.
Crucially, the industry needed reassurances that mechanisms would be put in place to ensure mutual recognition of potentially different regulatory systems.
Finally, the food and drink manufacturers, in common with other business managers, needed the government to provide certainty, reduce burdens on business and help boost competitiveness.
As part of that process, the implementation of the proposed Apprenticeship Levy and the Sugar Levy – “and any other fresh burdens” – should be put on hold, he urged.
The FDF Convention took place at the office of Willis Towers Watson. Speakers included representatives from: Nestlé, Spar UK, Tesco, Mars UK, Mondelēz International, Coca-Cola GB, Weetabix, Agrico, HSBC, McCain Foods, Seabrook Crisps, and Kantar Worldpanel.
FDF’s six-point Brexit manifesto
- Access to the Single Market and customs union
- Access to the favourable trading terms with third countries secured by the EU
- Access to labour
- Boost productivity
- Regulatory stability
- Government action to provide certainty