FWD column December 2018: James Bielby

While all options still appear to be on the table for Britain’s exit from the European Union, FWD Chief Executive James Bielby explains that opinion on the best outcome for wholesale remains split across the industry

Since the referendum decision to leave the EU, it’s been an eventful couple of years for FWD – the wholesale sector’s voice in Westminster.

It’s our job to interpret government policy and legislation, and tell our members how it’s going to affect them, and the wheels of government turn slowly enough for us to give notice of the impact on our sector. In the case of Brexit, the confusion, complexity and intransigence on all sides has made it impossible to give a clear steer on what we’ll be looking at come the end of March and beyond.

Uncertainty

There isn’t even a clear consensus among FWD members on what the best outcome is. Some take the view that whichever alternative most closely reflects the trading environment we have now is the pragmatic way forward. Others feel that they are nimble and prepared enough to take advantage of the shake up that will inevitably follow a ‘no deal’ exit.

Some have stockpiled goods, if they have the cash flow and capacity, in anticipation of potential food shortages, or are buying products they believe will face high tariffs under new trading arrangements. Some run very lean businesses and speculative over-purchasing just isn’t an option, and others are confident that a deal will be made, and we will sail smoothly into the two-year transition period with no immediate impact on the supply chain.

By the time you read this, we may know which of these got it right. But we can be sure that, whatever the level of disruption, food and drink wholesalers will keep the supply lines open, and keep serving customers with the efficiency they expect.

Current issues

Hard as it is to believe, Brexit isn’t the only game in town in 2019. There are major policies on the horizon that will affect wholesale, particularly around the health and environment agendas. Impending changes in Packaging Waste Recovery Notes, with the current wholesaler exemption for the packaging they pass on to the customer under threat, could mean very large cost increases for our members, and we’re working closely with Defra to mitigate as much as possible any changes in wholesalers’ obligations.

We’re also very much involved in the forthcoming track and trace requirements on tobacco, which will apply from May. All cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco will have to carry a unique identifier and be scanned out, with details of what will be required still unclear.

Then there’s the restriction on sales of energy drinks to children, Minimum Unit Pricing of alcohol in Wales, calorie-labelling requirements on menus, the possibility of a Deposit Return Scheme in England, increased controls on plastics, and the Clean Air Strategy announced in March, which will all have long-term implications for distributors. All this and Brexit!

Plenty to keep us busy in 2019, but in the meantime, we at FWD wish you good trading in December and a very happy Christmas, and we’ll see you next month for a fascinating new year in wholesaling.