Lunch with... Tim Rycroft
PRCA director general Francis Ingham sits down with Food And Drink Federation corporate affairs director Tim Rycroft at Shepherd's restaurant.
Where do you interview the corporate affairs chief of the Food and Drink Federation -a man who knows a fair bit about food and drink and politics after all? Shepherd’s of course! And in true pun style I couldn’t resist asking him what was on his plate at the moment?
"Two big things. Brexit is massive for our members. So trying to secure the best possible outcome for the food and drink industry is one of our big objectives. Whether that’s workforce access; or future trading arrangements; or the future of food and drink regulation. And on the last point, don’t forget that for 40 years, those regulations have been set in Brussels.
"The second big issue is health and obesity. This area has been a little quieter over the last year, since the Government published its childhood obesity plan. But we know that attention will return to it soon."
On the European topic, I ask if I’m right in assuming FDF members were predominantly on the Remain side of the argument?
"Yes. We surveyed them before the referendum, and they were about 75% in favour of Remain. We’re now trying to take a pragmatic view about how to secure the best outcome. But there is growing fear around the lack of clarity about what happens in March 2019. For businesses that have a two-year minimum planning cycle, the idea that they’re now contemplating a complete black hole is getting more and more scary.
"They essentially want a status quo transition. They want to know what will the trading arrangements be? What will the future immigration rules look like? What about food regulation? What about the Irish border? We’ve become increasingly strident in our external communication about how important clarity is."
And on obesity, I suggest that the Government seems to have moved on a little. He replies:
"There was a significant shift when David Cameron left and Theresa May came in. As we understand it, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill took a lot of the content out of the draft childhood plan and made it into a smaller document. That is something we would welcome broadly. However, that means that there is now a clear agenda for the campaigners and NGOs to focus on -things that they feel were removed from the draft, and that they see as unfinished business.
"At the same time, of course, we’ve got the soft drinks levy coming in, in April of next year. We suspect the first audit will show that there has been quite modest progress across food, and much greater progress in soft drinks. So the conclusion that will be drawn is that the threat of taxation is the most effective leader of change. We will dispute that. We will argue that a lot of the soft drinks reformulation was already in the pipeline voluntarily before the tax was announced. But it’s going to be a difficult argument."
In making those difficult arguments, what kind of hearing does the FDF receive in Whitehall I ask?
"We have a very good relationship with DEFRA, at both Ministerial and official level. I would say that the appointment of Michael Gove has been very positive. He’s seen as both an intellectual and a political heavy-hitter. That hasn’t always been the case with DEFRA Secretaries of State, I think it’s fair to say.
"Over the last 20 years, DEFRA has probably moved away from the centre of gravity of Government, and is no longer seen as being one of the big players. Although food and drink is Britain’s biggest manufacturing sector, we don’t have a direct relationship with BEIS. And Brexit has exposed that for us that’s not a great place to be. While DEFRA are very effective on our behalf as a voice within Government, we find ourselves in a different position from colleagues who are representing automotive, or defence, or aerospace, and who have a voice through BEIS.
"On the other hand, one of the advantages that our industry has over some of the other manufacturing sectors is that food and drink is an incredibly geographically diverse industry. The food and drink industry has a base in every constituency in the country, with the exception of Cities of London and Westminster. There are no food and drink manufacturers in the constituency of Westminster, but there are in every other constituency. So, we are able to speak to MPs from a very local angle."
Tim being an alumnus of Bell Pottinger, I ask for his thoughts on what had happened to it.
"I was very sad to see that business go. I enjoyed my time there, and I think Tim Bell remains a very significant figure in our industry; in its history; and in its development.
"It’s an interesting case study in the importance of reputation, and investing in reputation. What was striking to me was that when it became clear that there had been bad practice in the South African part of the company, there weren’t many people rallying to its defence. The fact that a business that’s so longstanding and established could collapse pretty much like a house of cards should be an important lesson to everybody in the industry.
"We spend a lot of time telling people about the importance of reputation and investing in relationships. We need to make sure that we apply those rules at home as well as we do with clients or with members."
Amen to that. Finally, I ask Tim for something that our readers might not know about him, and that he’s willing to share with them.
"I used to play the bongos in the fourth-best school band in Britain."
We ate: Mackerel and Corned Beef Hash; Welsh Rarebit and Corned Beef Hash
We drank: Cote du Rhone