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The Caterer interview: Martin Couchman

27 April 2016 by
The Caterer interview: Martin Couchman

The deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association retires this month. He looks back on 23 years in the industry and recalls his crowning achievements. James Stagg reports

The British Hospitality Association (BHA) has no doubt changed dramatically since you joined. How different is it now?

Well, yes and no. Back then we had many member queries over the phone on legal issues. Now we have a legal helpline, but not the same volume of calls. People probably now get their advice elsewhere, but the essentials, about lobbying and information, haven't changed.

Have the needs of members changed?

Members expect us to do the lobbying - and hopefully we've got a good reputation for that - but the other point is the nature of the members themselves has changed. When I joined we had a much higher proportion of independents and now it's mainly groups. We've got more establishments, but effectively fewer people writing the cheques. I'm pretty convinced that the National Living Wage (NLW) will push that process further, and make it even harder for small, independent businesses to operate.

So operators' concerns are the same as they were in 1993?

It's still about costs, what government is going to do and the state of the market. There's generally not much we can do about the state of the market except translate that into lobbying terms. For example, the foot and mouth crisis was an obvious case where we had to explain to the Government that it wasn't just the poor cows and the farmers that were suffering, but that our members' establishments had become inaccessible. The farmers were well organised, but as an industry we weren't in terms of the awareness in government - Bob Cotton, the then chief executive and I, had to push the government to give operators more time to pay PAYE or VAT.

We're seeing the same story but on a lesser scale with the recent flooding. At least now the government recognises that it needs to help businesses suffering financial hardship.

Is there more legislation and bureaucracy to deal with than before?

Well, everyone always says there is. Every new government that comes in says they're going to sweep away red tape. We have 'red tape' challenges and 'cut bureaucracy' initiatives. I've always taken the view that when a law exists, it's extremely difficult to get rid of it - partly because it comes from Brussels, and we know at the moment what difficulties we have changing anything. Secondly because removing a law is like taking a brick out of a wall - something needs to be put in its place to balance it. It's much better to look at new laws, which is where our lobbying efforts are concentrated.

So what are the priorities right now?

The obvious priority is the NLW, as 90% of hospitality businesses are affected by it. We also have auto-enrolment, and one of the ironies is that the cost of enrolment is going to go up, just as the NLW comes in. Of course, it's a good thing in terms of pensions, but it's a cost that has to be paid.

The other cost is the apprenticeship levy, which is a complete mess. People 1st has three pages of questions to present to government, to which we've added a few. Nobody knows the answers and we're a year away. There needs to be a delay as nobody knows what the rules are. For example, you will pay - if your payroll is over £3m - half a per cent of your payroll, but with a £15,000 deduction. That means if your payroll is £3,000,001 you pay a ha'penny, but if it's £4m you pay £5,000. Somebody hasn't thought this through.

The fear is that it's just a tax, and that in order to operate it you have to employ lots of people and you also distort what you do by way of training. There are lots of challenges like that, but in the end, it's the people who are running businesses who are under real pressure.

Was the NLW the biggest surprise in your time as deputy chief executive at the BHA?

I described it as the shock of the century to the Master Innholders, though the century is still young. We were half-expecting something from government because there had been talk about minimum wage, but we didn't expect anything like this.

When the original National Minimum Wage emerged there was a lot of debate in the industry but, in the end, we took the view that it was better to be inside the tent and that we would co-operate with it. The fact that it was accepted meant it was one of the things that government did that was well done.

You mentioned that the BHA does more lobbying for larger groups. Is that just a reflection of the membership these days?

I don't mean specifically lobbying for them - there are sometimes issues that only affect larger groups, such as an incredibly complex way of dealing with taxes on energy. But generally, the issues affect everyone. All businesses are affected by VAT and the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme, for instance.

The Food Hygiene Scheme has been a new development that's caused huge difficulties. It affects everybody, from the tiniest café to the largest hotel chain. The problem is there is no proper way to appeal. We have already opposed an attempt by the London boroughs to make display compulsory, but that was for London only. Now the Food Standards Agency is saying because every local authority in England has agreed to operate the scheme, they can look at countrywide compulsory display. They will have to go through a lot of phases, but it will take effect in two or three years.

The problem is that environmental health officers are under such pressure they can't operate the scheme effectively. If somebody asks for re-inspection it takes ages to get it done.

The Restaurant Association was integrated during your tenure too. Was that a success?

Oddly enough, it's been very successful in attracting change. The Restaurant Association itself was very much a grouping of independent restaurateurs in London, but we've now got more of a focus on bringing in the chains, such as Greene King, who has just joined.

Many of the pub groups are moving towards food and bedrooms, so there are many similar issues. Like copyright, where we worked with other associations and got millions back from PPL, for instance (see box). It was a plus for hotels, but also pubs and restaurants.

Do you think the government will ever take heed of the argument for a reduction on VAT for hospitality?

Well, they're shifting. We now have 140 MPs in support - we had more, but we lost many at the last election. It's SNP policy to support it. All I can say is - having had meetings with treasury ministers just weeks ago - that they're softening. They have always had two arguments against. One is that they don't think it works; that if you divert people to spend money on hotels, they won't buy jumpers. But they now accept the evidence is that it does create jobs.

The bigger problem they have is that they need to lay out some money to start with. Not an enormous amount - around £750m, which in these terms is relatively small money.

The issue for us is that we can only make the economic case work for hotels. Unfortunately, we can't make it work for restaurants and out of home meals, simply because people eat out now so much it's such a huge potential cost.

The changes in the structure of Visit Britain and England seem to demonstrate that the government is at a loss to know how to organise tourism. Do you think there is a good understanding of the industry in the corridors of power?

They took one view and immediately went in the opposite direction. A lot of the government funding for tourism has gone. There is a new £20m campaign, but it will rely on matched funding and how it will work is still not clear.

With regional tourist boards you knew what you were doing and who you were talking to. Now we have this mishmash of destination management organisations and it's an absolute mess. Whether some will survive will depend on whether they get a share of this Government money.

The problem is new MPs come in and they're often honest and say something like "my background is in structural engineering and I don't know anything about your industry". But at least they have a basic understanding.

Then there is a problem of the tourism minister changing so frequently. Consistency of approach has been a problem, whereas it hasn't been in Wales and Scotland.

Have relations with the government changed?

Civil servants are now more open. Now the official secrets act doesn't apply to such a great extent, officials can be more open about what's going on. I think that's positive.

What difference will staying or leaving Europe make to the hospitality industry?

In terms of employment, nothing will change. The Working Time Directive gave people four weeks' holiday; the UK now gives people 5.6 weeks. Nobody is going to get rid of laws banning discrimination to part-timers and so on. In the industry as a whole, members don't like the stuff about straight bananas, but I think they would all say there are risks to international businesses that rely on non-UK-born workers.

What is the greatest challenge for the industry in the next five years?

It will continue to be what it's always been: it's about costs. Not letting things get out of hand. There are now much tighter systems in operation, so there is less reason for things to get out of hand, but you still have to keep a tight control on costs. Every time there is the sort of squeeze we have from something like the NLW, everyone has to sit down and go through all the costs. We may be in a slightly easier period because inflation is lower and food costs aren't going up so sharply and energy costs are dropping too.

When you look back at the past 23 years, what do you see as your greatest achievement or the campaign that has given you the most pleasure?

In a sense, what gave me the most pleasure - because it was a really hard fight and we had to go to court four times before winning - was the court case with PPL. The government made a mess of the way they arranged the law, but we got millions back for the industry. To hear the judge say the appeal is dismissed - because it was their appeal - that was it. We were delighted.

If there is a regret, it's that we haven't cracked the VAT thing yet, but it's really shifting in our favour.

Martin Couchman's career

Martin Couchman started working life in his family's construction business. In 1977 he joined the National Economic Development Office and worked in sectors such as the domestic appliances and air cargo industries. The latter provided an insight into the travel industry and the issues experienced at Heathrow.

Couchman was soon promoted and in 1987 went to run the European Year of the Environment, a joint UK and EU project that aimed to promote environmental projects, with Prince Charles as patron. He then became secretary of the National Economic Development Council for five years before the body was closed by Norman Lamont in 1992.

"I knew the British Hospitality Association because we had been doing work together, and Robin Lees, who was then chief executive, asked if I wanted to come along for a chat," Couchman says.

"The chairman David Levin interviewed me too, before I went to see Rocco Forte, who was president. They gave me a grilling and I got the job."

The industry bids farewell to Martin Couchman

We are very thankful to Martin for his outstanding contribution to the association and the wider industry. For 23 years, Martin has worked tirelessly to represent our industry's best interests to Government. He has also advised hundreds of BHA member businesses, in particular SMEs, providing them with invaluable support. We hope that members from across the UK will join us at the Hospitality and Tourism Summit on 27 June to thank Martin personally and bid him farewell.

Ufi Ibrahim, chief executive, BHA

During the past 23 years Martin Couchman has been an outstanding and loyal executive of the BHA and can be justifiably proud of the enormous contribution he has made to the British hospitality industry.

Whether he was addressing the Annual General Managers' Conference, chairing a regional meeting or on the end of a telephone, Martin had a calm and humorous way of making red tape and new legislation interesting and easy to understand. No doubt his sharp legal brain and his interest in amateur dramatics made him a natural for this role. I wish him a well-deserved and happy retirement.

Harry Murray, chairman, Lucknam Park

I've been a member of the BHA Foodservice Forum on and off for about 10 years. As one of the smaller companies represented, I'm always slightly daunted by the amount of legislation and bureaucracy generated by both Brussels and the UK Government. Martin has done a marvellous job of lobbying Government and keeping the hospitality industry and its varied sub-sectors fully informed of imminent changes.

Ruston Toms, co-founder, Blue Apple Contract Catering

Martin has been a real driving force for the BHA in pushing our point of view to those at Westminster. Without him, we would be in a much worse place and having to deal with even more red tape than we already do. His efforts and input into shaping our industry cannot be underestimated. He will be greatly missed.

Graham Grose, managing director, Thurlestone hotel

Couchman's finest hour: how The Caterer reported the PPL case

Hotels, pubs and restaurants win recorded music fee battle

15 February 2010

Pubs, restaurants and hotels across the country could share up to £20m in refunds after the British Hospitality Association (BHA) and British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) won a High Court legal battle over the charges they pay to play recorded music.

Phonographic Performance (PPL) appealed against a decision by the Copyright Tribunal, which ruled that its tariff increases were unreasonable.

The Tribunal ordered that refunds should be given to all businesses that had paid over the odds since the new tariffs were introduced - a figure estimated at £15-£20m.

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