MSPs have been providing food for thought since 2004 – Mary Lawton

The Cross-Party Group on Food is about to hold its landmark 50th meeting, says Mary Lawton

Mary Lawton, Secretary for the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Food
Mary Lawton, Secretary for the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Food

The Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Groups (CPGs) are a key way for a broad range of organisations and individuals to share their experiences and information on a particular subject; and to raise awareness of issues relevant to MSPs’ parliamentary duties. The Scottish Parliament has a number of CPGs on many important topics such as oil and gas, older people, science and technology and of course food. These groups provide an opportunity for MSPs from across all parties to engage with external stakeholders.

In 2004, following discussions with Rhona Brankin (then MSP for Midlothian), the Scottish Consumer Council worked closely with some MSPs to set up the CPG on Food. The aim of the group is to raise awareness of food issues in Scotland and their importance to the consumer, the economy, the environment, and to the health of the Scottish people. The CPG acts as a policy forum for discussion and contributes to the development of policy on a range of food issues in Scotland.

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The topic of the first meeting was local food procurement which led to a short-life subgroup being set up to investigate this further. Other topics over the years have ranged from skills shortages, improving the health of Scotland’s people, sustainability, food security, food safety, and celebrating Scotland’s food and drink industry. It is interesting looking back – these issues are all still very important today. There has been the addition of more recent concerns including the impact of Brexit on the price of food, plastics and packaging; and connecting climate change, natural capital and health. The CPG has gone from strength to strength, the next meeting will be the group’s 50th! I am sure discussions will continue to cover the topics we have in the past. In addition, inevitably other challenges will emerge from the coronavirus crisis which will have an impact right across the food chain.

The CPG on Food has over the years had a number of conveners. This parliamentary session there are four co-conveners – John Scott MSP (Conservative), Mark Ruskell MSP (Green), Gail Ross MSP (SNP) and Rhoda Grant MSP (Labour) – who take turns chairing the meetings. I have been the secretary from the start, sometimes sharing this role as the group grew. When I left my consumer role and moved to what is now Food and Drink Federation Scotland; I brought this position with me. It has been fascinating and I am very grateful for the support and commitment of MSPs, some of whom have been involved from the very start. The group is also fortunate to have very knowledgeable, enthusiastic members, with wide ranging expertise and views, some again who have been with us from the beginning.

The group has grown over the years and now has around 250 members from across the food chain. The broad range of members come from farm to fork and include those working in areas such as health, inequalities, science, agriculture, education, regulation, animal welfare, social enterprise, and environment. It provides a useful forum for discussions that may not happen elsewhere and leads to increased understanding of issues by MSPs and also by attendees.

These meetings are not just “talking shops”. If there is a consensus and cross-party agreement, actions can include writing letters to ministers or committee chairs where we sometimes give recommendations, and explain the impact key issues are having both on the people of Scotland and local businesses.

The group has had success when working with other CPGs. For example, the CPG on Food held a joint meeting with the CPG on Older People, Age and Ageing last year to discuss malnutrition issues in Scotland. Members of the groups were pleased that there was a commitment to tackling and preventing malnutrition in the Scottish Government’s framework “A Fairer Scotland for Older People”.

The CPG on Food has been very involved in the development of Scottish food policy. This included the original national food policy Recipe for Success. In 2018 there was a focus on the Good Food Nation policy, where each meeting throughout the course of the year explored different themes from this, such as synergies with Scotland’s food and drink industry strategy – Ambition 2030.

Our food and drink industry benefits from a strong partnership between MSPs, the Scottish Government, and stakeholders from across the food chain, who are all working together on the issues that are most important to Scotland. The CPG on Food plays an important part in this collaboration and we look forward to the next 50 meetings!

Mary Lawton, Secretary for the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Food

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