Now this superb business faces a threat from Brussels, and the imposition of an unnecessary and badly thought-out regulation. For 134 years, the company has sourced its sugar cane from around the world — not unnaturally, since the crop doesn’t grow in the UK. Week in, week out, huge boatloads of brown crystals come up the Thames to be treated. The plant has the capacity to produce 1.1 million tonnes of refined sugar a year; and yet the company is prevented, by the EU commission, from importing the raw materials in the quantities it needs. Their current output is now down to 60 per cent of capacity — and the result is that jobs are being lost in a part of London that already faces the highest levels of unemployment in the city and indeed in the whole of the country.
And while a great London business is unable to fulfil its potential, the price of sugar is pushed up — by the EU — far higher than necessary, and that price hike is felt by every hard-pressed consumer who eats anything in which sugar is an ingredient. That is a long list of foods, in tough times, whose prices are being pushed up by the Common Agricultural Policy. It is utter madness, and it derives from the ruthless determination of the Commission to protect the sugar beet producers of continental Europe.
For decades they have been artificially shielded, by high tariff walls around the EU, which mean that sugar prices in Europe are more than double the world market price. And those sugar beet producers have been given huge sums of taxpayers’ money, in export refunds, to dump their produce overseas. In 2006 the Commission reluctantly bowed to outrage from Oxfam and others, and agreed to a programme of “reform”. Of the total EU sugar market of about 17 million tonnes, 13.5 million would be reserved for the European sugar beet barons. The other 3.5 million tonnes could be supplied by sugar cane producers around the world.
The trouble is that these countries — in Africa, the Caribbean or Pacific regions — have not been able to fill the gap. To find enough cane sugar, Tate & Lyle need to be able to bring in boatfuls from places like Brazil or Central America: and that Brussels forbids. They face swingeing tariffs to bring more in — while the sugar beet producers are given a licence to produce more. At every turn the British refinery finds the system skewed in favour of the beet producers, mainly in France and Germany. But they can’t use beet in the London plants; and you can’t use beet to make golden syrup.
Already 30 jobs are going — high-skilled jobs held by long-serving staff; and it is surely a disgrace that a natural source of employment is being choked at a critical time for the economy. London firms need to be given every incentive and confidence to hire more staff and expand, from tax breaks to the apprenticeship schemes we have been helping to lead from City Hall. And we are lobbying Brussels to drop its crazy prohibition, and allow Tate and Lyle to get cane sugar from wherever in the world it can find the stuff. It is time for common sense on the sugar regime — in the name of jobs for London and cheaper food all round.