Saturday, 7 May 2011

In the in-box

So the dust has settled on the Assembly election and in the coming week we will learn who will form the new Government and what their priorities will be for the coming Assembly term - we will also learn who will become the new Ministers and what portfolios have been chosen as Ministerial briefs.

In all likelihood we will see a Labour Government formed and that means that we will have a Labour Minister in charge of the Rural Affairs portfolio - or whatever it may be called by the new Cabinet.

One of the biggest disappointments of the last Assembly Government was the decision by Elin Jones AM, the then Minister for Rural Affairs, to in effect almost totally dismiss the report of the Rural Development Sub-Committee which had launched an Inquiry into the 'Wine, Beer & Cider Industry in Wales'.

The Chair of the Committee at the time, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM said at the report launch: "The key message that this inquiry has highlighted is that what is potentially an extremely lucrative industry for Wales is hugely under-developed and in need of direction."

Mr Glyn Thomas said people only needed to look at the examples of whisky in Scotland and Guinness and Baileys in Ireland to see the economic impact a well-marketed drinks industry with a strong national identity could have.

"The committee felt that the development of a dedicated strategy for the industry by the Welsh Government's Food and Market Development Division would go a long way towards achieving this," he said.

The report recommended that government encourage maximum uptake by farmers through the Glastir scheme of funding to support the planting of orchards so Welsh cider makers can source apples from Wales.

It also called on the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure it is "fully involved" in any discussions at UK level regarding minimum pricing for alcohol.

The report also went on to recommend the need for a dedicated strategy to exploit the economic potential of the wine beer and cider industry in Wales, further stating that while there is support available from the Welsh Government for people involved in the sector, it is hampered by a lack of Government expertise in the area and the absence of a co-ordinated strategy for developing and promoting it.

It called for clearer direction and guidance for people wanting to get involved in the industry - including farmers wishing to diversify into growing crops for the brewing industry or apples for cider makers. 

The report cites New Zealand's thriving wine industry as a positive example of what can be achieved in a region with a climate not unlike Wales.

It also highlighted the need for the reform of beer ties, which have created a virtual monopoly over beer sales in some establishments by preventing locally-brewed beers from being stocked. 

All of these were pretty sensible ideas and pretty achievable at pretty minimal cost - or so you would have thought. However, in her response to the report, Ms Jones pretty much dismissed all of the recommendations out of hand - citing a lack of resources and the fact that much work was already being undertaken by departments of the Welsh Assembly Government.

Her response stated 'In considering its priorities the Welsh Assembly Government has to make decisions based on pragmatism and value for money.' and that ' I would recommend that the sector continue to work with my officials to develop their businesses and products and make use of the Wales the True Taste brand if they are successful in winning their category. I am confident that the sector can embrace the values of the True Taste brand and work with us to convey a message to the consumer that we are indeed a small country producing high quality food and drink'.

Ms Jones had clearly missed the point and meanwhile our industry gets more diverse with even more producers bringing even more quality products to the market but receiving little or no support from WAG. That must change in the new Assembly and in the new Cabinet and we must have a clear and overarching strategy for the drinks sector in Wales that isn't tied in to the True Taste Awards scheme.

We deserve better and we deserve it now. As the new Minister takes office next week I will be sending a copy of the report and Elin Jones' response to them and will be asking them to look again at the whole issue. The economic impact of the industry in Wales cannot be underestimated and the Assembly needs to recognise quickly the positive impact it can have on many aspects of it's activities - tourism, economic development, agricultural development, sustainability - all of these will benefit positively if we truly look to promote our industry here in Wales as they do in Ireland or New Zealand. 

So let's see what next week brings and lets get on with the job of making this industry even more successful with the right Government support.

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