Industry leaders tackle Brexit and other issues in public sector debate

Top 20 line-up 2019
Sharon Hodgson MP, the shadow minister for public health
21/01/2019 - 06:00
Despite major concerns about the potential impact on public sector catering of the UK’s departure from the EU, industry leaders see an opportunity to lobby for a comprehensive British food policy, as Siobhan O’Neill reports.

As MPs and peers grappled with the intractable issue of managing Brexit amid chaotic scenes and confidence votes in parliament, Cost Sector Catering assembled public sector catering’s most influential players to provide their own take on it.

The annual gathering of the year’s leading names to discuss the most important issues confronting the sector found plenty of concerns and frustration as a result of the uncertainty still attached to the UK’s exit from the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, but also elements of optimism about the opportunities a post-EU Britain could offer.

The halls of Westminster felt more turbulent than usual on 11 December when the Public Sector ‘Most Influential’ (PSMI) Top 20 personalities arrived for our round-table debate, followed by lunch hosted by House of Commons executive chef Mark Hill. The day should have seen MPs voting on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, but instead saw the Conservative Party trigger a confidence vote in her as prime minister.

Nevertheless, those who came to discuss the potential impacts of Britain’s departure from the EU on their businesses felt there were opportunities it could bring – providing they could focus the government’s mind on the future.

Two concerns were a preoccupation as the discussion kicked off: continuity of the supply chain and recruitment.

Matthew White, chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), opened the debate by saying: “Our members are looking to us to advise them on how the food chain is going to be able to survive, and a lot of our university members rely heavily on a European workforce.

“We've seen a big migration of workers that have been working for us for a long time who feel unwelcome and upset at what is happening.”

Stewart McKenzie, chair of the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA), agreed: “My procurement colleagues are working with the supply chain to look at our contingency fall-back positions in the eventuality of supply difficulties.”

Although he felt the centralised purchasing in Scotland would shield them from some problems, he had concerns about the situation in England where individual hospital trusts are responsible for their own procurement.

“It’s very difficult to gauge how these organisations are going to cope with this change,” he said, adding: “The NHS relies heavily on individuals from Europe, so we have real concerns over workforce planning going forward.”

Michael Hales, chair of the Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA), had witnessed first-hand London-based colleagues from Eastern Europe disappearing from the workforce. He felt this would add labour costs to an already challenged school meals budget, and wondered how this and any additional food cost pressures would impact universal infant free school meals (UIFSM).

“If there isn't the funding there then we need to look at how we can reduce the offer,” he said.

Neel Radia, chair of the National Association of Care Catering (NACC), felt that a shrinking workforce was having a big impact on the care sector, creating uncertainty. His members had also expressed concerns about whether the supply chain would be affected by Brexit. But he said: “We have a close relationship with our suppliers and we're working alongside them to try to minimise that impact where we can.” He was worried that smaller care groups with limited buying power would be particularly challenged.

Owen Sidaway, head of prison catering and physical education with National Offender Management Services, said: “The two big issues for us is a surety of supply and the logistics behind getting that supply into the country and then distributing it.”

Although he was also working on contingency plans, Sidaway was worried that a lot of the potential impacts of Brexit were beyond the control of those in the room – for example, if a crash in the value of the pound raised food costs.

“We've got to be realistic. Food is going to increase beyond our control to do anything about that. It’s going to have major effects on public sector bodies. I don't believe it's the end of the world, but it's something for us to be very aware of and [we must] put in place ways to manage it now,” he added.

Keith Warren, director of the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association (CESA), said his concerns stemmed from any separation of the UK from EU directives.

“We don't know what the potential is for tariff barriers, what the paperwork is likely to be that may hinder the free movement of equipment. All of this is going to put time into the system and there has to be a cost for that,” he said.

He pointed to the many EU standards that commercial catering equipment was held to, and wondered what was going to replace it for the UK. “What the industry wants is complete alignment with Europe because we don’t want the UK to be a dumping ground for non-compliant product, nor do we want it to have a different standard … because that has a tendency to hinder exports,” he said.

CESA had been influential in pushing higher EU standards for sustainability in equipment and he was concerned there was no longer “a seat at the table” as new legislation was set.

Andy Kemp, group sales and marketing director at Bidfood, a major foodservice supplier, described how his company was working to ensure continuity for customers.

“We've gone through our 13,000 products and given them a red, amber or green rating. Green being British produced, easy supply route, no risk. Amber could have ingredients coming in from World Trade Organisation countries or the EU that could be subject to future tariffs or supply disruption, and red is a risk. We’re balancing those against what our customers currently buy and keeping control of that.”

He added that Bidfood had taken the decision not to accept new contracts in order to manage any potential disruption to existing customers.

But Alexia Robinson, founder of Love British Food and British Food Fortnight recognised a positive side to Kemp’s statement, saying: “It was music to my ears hearing you describe the British supply chain as ‘green’, and I was wondering what are the opportunities to move products that are currently in amber or red into the green section via a new supply chain?”

Kemp pointed to the fact that Britain would struggle to supply everything it currently needed to import, but agreed: “You're right. I think this gives us a great opportunity to look at British-produced product.”

Robinson noted: “I hope that British farming and food producers will start to look at the public sector as an opportunity.”

Al Crisci, founder of The Clink restaurants that help train and rehabilitate prisoners, said: “I passionately believe we should use British produce. We need a culture change. We can preserve food, we can pickle food, we can go back to basics. I think there's enough variety in this country and you will probably have more growers and farmers if the market’s there for them.”

Discussion moved on to address issues around sustainability and, in particular, single-use plastics and food waste. Everyone agreed that the sector was working to reduce plastics and food waste, but felt there needed to be greater education of those working in kitchens to use plastics appropriately and to better control stock and storage.

They felt there was a need for improved recovery of plastics and recycling, as well as for greater adoption of sustainable alternatives. Similarly, the room agreed that customers also needed to realise that plastics helped prevent food waste, which had a greater environmental cost, and they should be educated to take greater responsibility for their own portion control.

Hazel Detsiny, vice-president of marketing at industry supplier Unilever, pointed out that customers and employees did care about sustainability, and the role of those at the table was to give them the tools to reduce their food and plastic waste and teach them how to do better.

David Nuttall, catering manager at Harper Adams University, said quantifying waste in ways customers could understand was a good approach.

Cathy Amos, senior sector marketing manager at supplier Brakes, added there needed to be smarter thinking around foodservice industry events and conferences, and a rebranding of leftover food as ‘surplus’ rather than ‘waste’, which could be used by charities.

Andy Jones, chair of the PS100 Group, reminded everyone that plastic straws were essential in care settings to ensure that patients who needed them, because they could not hold a glass, could stay hydrated.

The conversation moved on to address succession planning and the concerns that were felt around the table about a lack of junior managers ready to step forward when the current generation of leaders head to retirement. Many in the industry confirmed they were taking steps to encourage young people into the industry.

White pointed to the TUCO Academy: “We're having to look at growing our own because there is a sector shortage of skilled labour,” he said. University catering offered a varied portfolio of work and career progression White said, so TUCO had been working on a careers map to signpost a growth route for candidates.

“The people around this table will all testify that we've had fantastic career opportunities,” he said. As far as the academy was concerned, he was finding ways to remove barriers to entry, particularly for those who hadn’t been to university.

Julie Barker, former chair of TUCO, said caterers were under-represented as potential employers at school Careers Hubs and she believed hospitality organisations should be doing more to address the skills shortage, particularly in craft.

Ruth Westcott, campaign coordinator at food and farming champion Sustain, felt that all the challenges discussed on the day provided the room with an opportunity to draft a joint statement to government regarding the planned food bill that was being worked on.

“We'd like to do something to make sure we have influence over what's in the plan and set out some priorities,” she said.

She proposed a joint statement of encouragement to Michael Gove at the Department for Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra), Matt Hancock at the Department of Health (DoH), and Damien Hinds at the Department for Education (DfE) to use public sector food procurement to support the best of British farming and fishing and high-quality jobs in catering.

She said it could, as well, be a mechanism for contributing to national priorities such as eating for health and wellbeing, sustainable fishing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Sharon Hodgson MP, shadow minister for public health, agreed that a joint statement or letter signed by as many organisations as possible was a great opportunity to focus the government on issues beyond Brexit.

There was wide support from those present and agreement to implement a taskforce to begin drafting the statement.

Jones said: “We need a louder voice at the political table and we can drive change. We need change. This is our industry. Let’s align and let’s do it.”

CESA’s Warren summed up the mood: “This is a great approach because fragmentation is what divides our industry and it's events like this that unite us.

“We've all got a part to play and the more we can present a joined-up approach to government the better the chance we have of getting support.”

Copyright 2019 Public Sector Catering
Dewberry Redpoint Limited is a company Registered in England and Wales No : 03129594 Registered Office:
Riverbridge House, Anchor Boulevard, Crossways Business Park, Dartford, DA2 6SL VAT registered, number 305 8752 95.

Design & Development by Eton Digital