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Portman’s new chair sets sights on building membership and advancing thought leadership

Published:  21 September, 2020

Philip Rycroft, the new chair at Portman Group, used his first interview in his new role to outline his vision for expanding the reach and success of the industry regulatory body.

Speaking to Harpers, Rycroft, who was most recently permanent secretary to the Department for Exiting the EU, identified two key areas that are “important on a strategic level” for taking the work of the Group forward.

Referencing the work already undertaken by the Portman Group in terms of reducing overall alcohol consumption, promoting responsible drinking and curbing underage drinking, Rycroft said there “has been a lot of progress over the last decade or so, in terms of commitment to Drink Aware, in terms of getting that message out to the consumer”.

He added that self-regulation had played an important part in that, but inevitably there is always more to do, and build upon that momentum, so that “the industry as a whole can demonstrate its commitment to self-regulation” as collective signatories to the Portman Group's Code of Practice.  

“There are two things I would point to at the more strategic level. It is important that people see the Portman Group as acting on behalf of the whole industry, and we have had increasing membership over the years, but I would like to see more members join from across the industry,” he said.

“The other big part of this for me, is giving thought leadership on behalf of the industry as a whole – the world changes constantly, the issues are evolving all the time, and people’s drinking habits will change over time, and the Portman Group has a really important role in providing that leadership and understanding how people are responding to those changes.”

Specific issues to the fore currently include working with government over its obesity strategy, navigating a path through the intense disruption of Covid-19, and enhancing opportunities for the ongoing uptake of low and no alcohol alternatives.

Rycroft said that while overall drinking had dipped since lockdown began, with the widely reported flip from on-trade to home consumption the most obvious change, research that the Portman Group has done suggested that most people’s overall consumption habits have not changed dramatically.

“Most people are still drinking sensibly, the moderate majority, well within guidelines, and some who have been drinking a bit more heavily are still within guidelines,” he said.

“But the concern more widely, with Covid, is a relatively small handful of people who are drinking too heavily and who may have increased their consumption under the pressure of lockdown, and we need to get support to those individuals.”

On the benefits of membership, Rycroft pointed to the fast changing current environment and its impact on the trade.

“The regulatory environment is constantly changing and can change fast. The nature of the product, already a heavily regulated product, means that it’s always going to be close to government thinking, and so ensuring that that regulatory environment remains proportionate is the overwhelming interest of the industry,” he said.

“The Portman Group plays a very important role in demonstrating to governments that the industry is taking its responsibilities seriously, so that government doesn’t have to launch itself at this with heavy-handed legislation.”

This, said Rycroft, goes beyond the way that alcohol products are packaged and labelled, also being about the way they are then sold, in an on- or off-trade context, and so “it is in the interests of everybody across this industry to demonstrate that they’ve bought into self-regulated social responsibility, promoting responsible drinking”.