Vince Cable squirms as tea is served in cups not Made in Stoke-on-Trent
FOR one terrible moment, I thought Business Secretary Vince Cable was going to end up with a mug of tea down his front. And it would be Joan Walley's fault.
At a meeting in the Department for Business on country of origin marking for ceramics, Joan had reached across the table to have a look at the cabinet minister's mug. Triumphantly, the Stoke North MP then held up the milky tea – to Vince's evident discomfort – to show that even in the ministry which is meant to help manufacturing, civil servants were supporting foreign imports.
Last week, Stoke and Newcastle MPs came together to highlight the issue of 'bogus back-stamping' – the practice of getting ceramics fired abroad and then stamping 'Made in England' or 'England' on the back of them.
Because if we want The Potteries to reclaim its title as a ceramics centre of excellence, we need to do everything we can to protect the 'Made in Staffordshire' hallmark.
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And now is the time to promote it. After decades of decline, the pottery industry is beginning once more to put on jobs.
The hotelware and tableware makers in the north of the city are expanding, while every month I get enquiries from designers and artists wanting to source ceramics from our fine bone china makers in the south.
And what London retailers and everyday consumers want is the authenticity and quality that comes with a 'Made in Stoke-on-Trent' back-stamp. With those words, they are instantly buying into the generations of skills, application, and creativity which made The Potteries a premier brand and sent the names of Wedgwood, Spode, Minton and Royal Doulton across the world.
But the brand quality is now under threat from weak consumer protection legislation and poorly enforced trading standards.
Because just like horse meat labelled as beef, ceramics are also being marked misleadingly.
Mugs from Indonesia or Thailand can be transported into the UK and have the word 'England' stamped onto the bottom.
Similarly, if a plate is made in Vietnam or Turkey, then finished off in England, it often has 'Made in England' stamped upon it. This wrongful attribution of country of origin marking is harming jobs and investment in Stoke-on-Trent.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with goods being made abroad and finished in the UK. Supply chains that extend across nations are a fact of a global marketplace and hundreds of jobs in the industry depend on it.
With energy, labour and environmental costs being as high as they are in the UK, it is difficult to produce mass volume bone china at competitive prices.
If it is designed in the UK, made abroad and finished here, so be it. Most companies that do this are good firms providing decent jobs for their employees.
And if the back-stamp simply says 'Decorated in Stoke-on-Trent,' it is not ideal but the consumer knows where he or she stands.
But when it comes to 'Made in Stoke-on-Trent' the rules are clear: the first-firing of the blank has to take place in North Staffordshire. European Union rules on ceramics state any further changes – glazing, decorating, finishing – do not qualify for country of origin status.
Furthermore, the Trade Descriptions Act is adamant that any back-stamp placed upon the product cannot have the effect of misleading the consumer.
So, if a piece is made in Jakarta it should not have 'England' stamped on the bottom of it – as the purchaser might reasonably think it is has been produced in the UK.
Our case to ministers was that the Government needs to make this a priority, allocating special funding to local trading standards officers through the Trading Standards Institute to make sure that all labelled goods – not just ceramics – are labelled correctly.
Unfortunately, for far too long Government ministers have preferred to listen to big retail chains who demand the cheapest goods at any price, claiming that any measure that informs the consumer is protectionist.
The horse meat scandal should have shown, once and for all, that it is not.
It is about transparency for the consumer and supporting a decent industrial strategy for British based manufacturers.
But we can also act locally. That is why in the coming weeks, MPs will be working with Stoke-n-Trent City Council, Unity – the potters' trade union, and the ceramics' confederation to urge trading standards' officers to take this matter seriously and end the culture of bogus back-stamping.
And if we don't get the right support from Ministers, there could be another milky tea moment for Vince Cable.