Exclusive interview: Baroness Lucy Neville Rolfe, chair of Red Tractor and Conservative peer

In many ways, Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe’s appointment as the new chair of Red Tractor is one of the most low key roles of her career. She is a former executive director of Tesco and worked alongside Sir Terry Leahy during his tenure as chief executive during a period of extraordinary growth for the retailer.

Starting in the late ‘90s, she was there during Tesco’s move into telecoms, banking, and 16 international markets in Asia, central Europe and – for a short period – the USA.

She joined the House of Lords after David Cameron phoned her up on Christmas Eve 2012 just before she left Tesco and told her he wanted her as a peer. Did she immediately say yes? “I didn’t actually. I said, I’ve got to earn money! He said don’t worry about that, all you’ve got to do is vote. But that was probably a little bit misleading.”

As of last autumn, Baroness Neville Rolfe is also chair of Red Tractor, has agreed to an interview with Poultry Business to talk about her vision for farming standards in the years to come, especially given the challenges surrounding Brexit.

After going through airport-style security at the House of Lords, Sir Richard Packer – Neville-Rolfe’s husband – comes to meet me and after a quick tour – “this is where the Queen gets ready to open parliament” – he takes me to an interview room. Wearing a bright blue suit to match the blue streak in her hair and her quirky spotty tights, Neville-Rolfe is warm and welcoming, and points out she’s wearing a Red Tractor pin badge.

Farming background

She tells me her mother was a poultry farmer and her first job was cleaning the eggs ‘as child labour’.

“My father started as a farmer and then he had to give up farming because they essentially went bust so he went and got a consultancy career. She continued to look after the chickens. So, chickens and feed and all the rest of it is in my blood.”

Now she’s tasked with overseeing the board of Red Tractor, the assurance scheme that was designed to denote Britishness, safety, and quality. She’s come in during a period of turbulence for British farming when Brexit means, well, we still don’t know quite what. The question mark over what future trade deals will be done, and whether that will mean more imported food produced to lower standards could mean Red Tractor has more value now than ever.

There are six boards under the Red Tractor banner, covering beef & lamb; dairy; pigs; poultry; fresh produce; and combinable crops & sugar beet.

So what does she think Red Tractor’s role is now? And do the public know – 18 years on from when it launched – what it even means? “I think people understand that it denotes Britishness,” Neville-Rolfe says. “The research we have done suggests they’re less certain about the assurance side.”

This is one of the reasons Red Tractor has decided for the first time ever, to pay for a TV ad campaign, starting in the autumn. The idea, she says, it “to explain to people in simple terms that it means the food is safe, that there are animal welfare standards.”

Push for higher welfare

Animal welfare can be a contentious issue. Earlier in the spring, Red Tractor announced that from October 2020 it would require all poultry farmers to have windows totalling 3% of space, in all sheds. The reasoning was that consumers expect it, and it’s better for bird welfare. This caused an argument within the industry about the direction Red Tractor appears to be moving in.

Red Tractor has never been a higher welfare marque, but rather has guaranteed the end product has met a wide range of quality standards, usually within an intensive system.

Given that demand for higher welfare products is on a general upwards trajectory, how does Neville-Rolfe envisage the assurance standards evolving?

She doesn’t see Red Tractor becoming a higher welfare product. “I see it as providing a baseline,” she says. “But it obviously needs to observe certain standards and as you know we have a rolling process of improving standards. And this need for windows has been flagged up for two or three years and there is a reasonable implementation period so that you can invest in a sensible way as part of the business cycle, and that seems to be to be an example of good business practice.”

So Red Tractor isn’t going to become a free-range only product, even if that’s what consumers want? “I don’t think so,” she says. “A lot of people in this country are struggling to get by and I think poultry has to be a core part of their diet, so I think it’s very important myself you have a standard that is significant and then you can have extra labels on top.”

“Just after Easter Richard Griffiths of the BPC arranged to go to Northern Ireland with me and we visited Moy Park and we went to see the Ulster Farmers’ Union.

“We visited a farm that was free range and one that was in a barn, and both were very impressive. They both had invested, partly because Moy Park has contractual arrangements that encourage investment, but we went to the free-range where they were hopping out of the barn, scratching around and then going back in, and the barn is actually not that different to barn only.

“My experience with Moy Park is that the birds are having a very good life in a well invested barn. Having looked at the farms, I then went to the Moy Park head office and right through from slaughter to pack it has had a lot of investment and you can just see the value of investment in terms of cleanliness, in terms of speed, and making good jobs for those involved.

“Also, they were using robotics on their cutting lines so as to have more lean, sensible working. I’m familiar with these practices from what I learned of engineering as a business minister and it is impressive to see those things coming through.

“I think the chicken sector is brilliant. It is huge, it’s growing, it produces cheap, good-value protein for the consumer and it is a real UK strength to be honest. And with the investment we are ahead of the game, despite problems with labour and Brexit.”

Retailers’ view

Given her role at Tesco, what value do retailers see in assurance schemes? Surely they’re all trying to offer a point of difference rather than stocking the same product? “I was involved in Red Tractor when I was at Tesco because I was keen to ensure we had a better record in the retail industry on food safety,” she says. “And the interesting thing about safety incidents is they affect everybody even if you’re not the supermarket that has got the problem.

“And therefore an assurance scheme is a very, very good investment. So if Sainsbury’s has a food safety issue, that will affect consumption at Tesco and vice versa, so if you can have assurance that helps you right across the industry.”

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit…

Neville Rolfe describes herself as a pragmatic Remainer. Given her career path – she was business minister in the Competitiveness Council in Brussels, she worked across six countries while at Tesco, and in the civil service she worked with EU counterparts –  it’s unlikely she could have been anything but.

“I was a Remainer,” she says. “I’ve done a huge amount of EU negotiation. I was preparing for the presidency of the EU that never happened. So obviously… but I’m a pragmatic Remainer and I know Brexit is very much on its way now.”

“There’s been a referendum, and I think if you had another vote, which isn’t going to happen, but if you did, I think you’d get the same result. If you go round the country out of London, my feeling is people think Brexit’s happened and let’s get on with it, and I’ve rather come round to that view. For the future of the country and my children – I’ve got four sons and also grandchildren – it’s really important to actually find the opportunities for our future in the new circumstances.

“Which is another reason that we in the Red Tractor need to help the various sectors in agriculture think their way through this. It is more difficult for some than others, but I think poultry is relatively well placed.”

Sourcing labour post-Brexit is for many businesses, a key issue yet to be solved, given so many poultry businesses are staffed heavily with EU workers. “There is going to be a white paper later this year on immigration. And the industry is spending a lot of time trying to show what’s needed on agricultural labour. There’s obviously a two-year transition period which helps.”

A positive approach and continued investment are hugely important, she says. “The other key to success for me is investment. Because if you can invest to make the jobs better and combine that with training of youngsters out of schools and retraining of people from other sectors, that will help with our labour problems, but there is obviously a big transition.”

The Irish border question

One of the biggest unresolved issues is the Irish border. With the Republic inside the EU and Northern Ireland out, managing the thousands of movements between north and south in order to ensure any tariffs are paid is a huge logistical challenge, and some people have warned any physical barrier could potentially threaten the Good Friday peace agreement that was signed 20 years ago.

What does she think is likely to happen? “There won’t be a wall from north to south,” she says. “I think what will happen is there will be some sort of controls similar to those for VAT and duties. It’ll be more consignment-based with the smaller firms allowing to go relatively un-regulated.

“We’ll see how it goes, but I was very worried the Brexit thing was all going to blow up, and that we were going to have a cliff edge and we’d be out next March. Then we had progress at the December council and further progress at the March council and there is now a transition agreement and I’m sure there’ll be some further tooing and froing.

Does she have any big concerns about agriculture? “Clearly people are worried about what we might need to agree to on agriculture as part of a trade deal. But I think what will happen is existing trade deals will largely be rolled over.

Michael Gove has said he wouldn’t do a trade deal that compromised agriculture. Does she believe him? “He says that and at the moment he’s the agriculture minister. He’s not the trade minister. But I don’t think there’s going to be a change at all quickly. And I think it’s absolutely vital that we improve the brand of British food, that’s Red Tractor, so that even if you were to get some limited imports people would understand the difference. That seems to me to be the right preventative measure for us to take now.

“One difficulty of negotiating trade agreements if we were in the customs union but not in the trade committee which defines the EU objectives, is that we would essentially be a rule taker. That would be a problem because there are protectionist views in the EU which are not in the UK interest.

“So even as a Remainer, I think we have to take the Brexit medicine and find a way forward. I know because I’ve worked in business for 18 years, that even when there are difficulties there are opportunities.”

Career trajectory

After growing up in Wiltshire helping her mother by cleaning eggs, Neville Rolfe won a place at Oxford University in the early 1970s to study politics, philosophy and economics.

As a new graduate to her ‘enormous surprise’, she was employed at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as a fast stream civil servant. “It was great. It was the time of entry into the EU so there was lots of new work, going to Brussels and negotiating on all the various regimes.”

So as a graduate in her early 20s, she was handed a role with real responsibility and opportunities.

“The sheepmeat regime: I negotiated that,” she says. “And dealt with milk and cereals. And also the first agro-environmental schemes with John Gummer, Lord Deben, who is now in the House of Lords alongside me and was then Secretary of State. So, I had all of that experience at MAFF. Then I went to work for the Prime Minister in the policy unit. And that was a step change. That was for John Major in the ‘90s and I mainly worked on home affairs and regulation. I had a lot to do with business and deregulation, trying to cut red tape, particularly enforcement red tape. The question was how do you enforce things in a simple way that gets good compliance but isn’t incredibly costly?

“And then when Blair came to power I got approached by Tesco among others so I decided to jump ship and go a work there for a while. In retrospect was a big risk.”

She’s also a former non-executive director of ITV, a former board member of 2 Sisters Food Group, and currently sits on the board of outsourcing firm Capita, which provides services to both public and private firms. Like Carillion? “Unlike Carillion,” she says immediately. Amongst other things, Capita runs call centres for John Lewis, the congestion charge system for Transport for London, and chases households over unpaid TV Licenses.

In addition, she’s a governor at London Business School. “I love the LBS, it’s very, very international. I think over 95% are from overseas and it’s a mixed board from around the world.”

How much of a cultural change was Tesco? “Completely different,” she says. “In business, people value you for getting things done, rather than the power of written material and analysis. So, you have to get much better at explaining yourself orally, be much briefer, have plans and strategy and learn to deliver on time.

“Managing staff is also very important because you don’t have necessarily the same highly educated staff. And I ran all the external relations so I had to bring in and build teams in different countries.”

Riding the wave

This was a period of huge growth at Tesco – and it tapped in well to a shift in society during Tony Blair’s era – where old familiar brands were being pushed aside in favour of better value, more classless businesses. Tesco successfully managed to draw in consumers from every part of the market. “We were moving into banking, telecoms and overseas,” she says. “So, I did a lot of work on the entries into Europe, Asia and America.

“At that time there was a change in society and people didn’t all want to shop at Sainsbury’s or M&S: they were happy to shop at Tesco. Working housewives needed to go to the supermarket once a week on their way home from work and buy a carload of food for their kids, and all these extra things like clothes that we were able to sell them. It was a favourable period, but we were early into internet shopping too and I remember that going to its first £1 billion.”

During that time of rapid growth, Tesco – and indeed other big grocery retailers – were frequently accused by suppliers of abusing their size to negotiate aggressively. Neville Rolfe agrees that this was an issue, but says she worked to get a fairer deal for farmers. For example she explains she did a lot of work on the sustainable diary contracts. She added ‘There was a problem on chicken when the world market got very competitive and the prices got very low. It was good for consumers but very difficult for producers. I remember having to go to the NFU conference because Terry Leahy was ill” – she laughs at the memory – “and deliver the Tesco speech and I remember getting a lot of antagonism from farmers on the price of chicken. So, chicken haunts me.”

Senior women in business

Early in her career, Neville Rolfe got used to being the only woman around the table. But things have noticeably improved, she says.

“Wherever I’ve worked I’ve always been keen on giving women core important jobs and experience. So, at Tesco I ran the diversity council and had quite a lot of success getting women up the Tesco hierarchy and on to the executive. Sadly, I think the main ones are now elsewhere, but that’s good for other companies.

“We moved towards having a more diverse board and that makes a difference. In somewhere like the House of Lords, women are well represented. And I think that is important. But I have had four children so I understand the pressures. But luckily I have a very good husband.

“In my 20s at MAFF, I had to decide did I come back? And I decided to do so and to hire a nanny. I was not really earning anything net, but I did it for my career. That was tough but equally it is an investment you both make in the future.”

Working week

Neville Rolfe typically spends around two days a week in the House of Lords, and she serves on two committees – the Brexit committee, and the financial services sub-committee. As well as reviewing legislation coming through, the role involves producing reports, for example on the Irish border, as well as taking evidence which can involve visiting businesses and institutions. “We were at the Bank of England last week, we’re at the FCA next week. I also speak on the floor of the house. Yesterday I was speaking on obesity because I’m interested in the science of trying to do something about obesity for young people. And I’ve spoken recently about infrastructure and recycling. And then I’ve been following the withdrawal bill because I’m on the Brexit committee. I put some amendments down on that. So that would be my work in the House of Lords. And it is an amazing place to be. Lord Plumb is now gone but he was holding the flag for agriculture for 30 years.

“Then at Red Tractor I run the board which meets every couple of months. I’ve been doing visits as part of getting to know the industry. I had a day at Morrisons when I went with David Potts going round a store and visiting a slaughterhouse and so on. I had a visit with Moy Park, so I’m gradually getting out more.”

What tempted her to take the job? “Terry Jones phoned me up; and given my past and that I’m passionate about British food… I said I’d be very interested. And then I discovered there was to be a panel process! They had several candidates. I’m not sure I would have applied if I had known.. But anyway I came through.

“One needs to spend time understanding the standards, and we have six sub-boards as you know. But I think my combination of experience can help take the organisation to a higher level -having been a senior civil servant, having worked at Downing Street, then being at Tesco – where I led all the legal work for Tesco including all those Competition Inquiries so I understand the regulatory framework – then a spell as a government minister in a different area. Because of all of this I understand the way to look at politics and the opportunities of politics.”

Energy at Defra

We discuss how Michael Gove has seized the day as Secretary of State at Defra with a flurry of new announcements and policies. “I’ve known him for years and years, ever since he was a journalist,” she says. “I remember having a conversation with him and I said, ‘you’re going to be a politician’. And he said, ‘no, no’.”

Next on the agenda is the continuing battle to negotiate the Brexit bill, while juggling the interests of farming on behalf of Red Tractor. And after posing for pictures in the sunshine outside the Lords, Baroness Neville Rolfe disappears inside to do what’s she’s always done – get on with business.


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