We Must Have a Plan for a No Deal Brexit

This is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on the 30 August 2019.

We Must Have a Plan for a No Deal Brexit

Since the elevation of Boris Johnson from the back benches of the House of Commons to Downing Street, a “No Deal” Brexit appears to be the central assumption that most people are making.  This is despite the early claims of the new Prime Minister that the chances of a No Deal Brexit were a million to one.  However even he has rowed back on that rhetoric in what we believe to be the first of many “People’s PMQs” streamed on Facebook.  In shifting his position, he has pointed the finger both at the EU for its intransigence in negotiations and to the UK Parliament, even though it is in recess, in its attempts to prevent the Government from pressing ahead with Brexit on 31 October – “do or die” to quote another of the Prime Minister’s catchphrases.

However, the manoeuvring of the “pro-remain” interests coming together with Brexiters who fear the consequences of No Deal could yet mean that we are in for a rocky early autumn once Parliament returns from recess on 03 September.  There is already much speculation about a possible vote of no confidence in the Government which the Labour Party says it will bring forward at the earliest opportunity on the basis that it thinks it can defeat the Government.  If it did, the question remains as to whether Brexit can be stopped or delayed whilst either Parliament or the country decides on the make-up of the new Government.  There is every chance that the momentum is already too strong to prevent our exit from the European Union at Halloween.  In the circumstances of potential Parliamentary chaos, the nightmare will be neither remaining in the European Union nor leaving without a deal but leaving without a plan.

That is why, at the beginning of August, together with the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) wrote to the Prime Minister and to his No Deal Tsar, Michael Gove, calling for preparations to ensure that the minimum requirements are in place to maintain the sustainability of UK agriculture.  Leaving the European Union will bring both opportunities and challenges for the farming industry.  However, it would be reckless to leave the European Union without a deal and without a package of underpinning measures for the agricultural industry.

The most immediate threat to the agricultural industry within the context of a “No Deal” Brexit would be disruption to export markets particularly for sheep but also for other agricultural outputs.  It is essential for these export markets to remain open and accessible to UK producers.  The Government must therefore ensure that we secure and maintain our ability to export to the EU as a third country and that we avoid all possible non-tariff barriers to exports including guaranteeing the smooth administration of export certification and customs checks and controls.

However, there will be little that can be done, at least in the short term, to avoid the imposition of tariffs on our exports.   Inevitably, that will mean a much smaller return to the producer.  Therefore, the Government must commit to a time-limited transition support package, in addition to existing measures, to help the industry through market changes as a precursor to a Free Trade Agreement with the EU.

As important as export markets are, by far the more important marketplace to protect and enhance is the domestic marketplace into which we provide over half of the food consumed.  As we leave the European Union, we must ensure to protect the internal UK market from disruption, unnecessary barriers and impediments to trade.  We need a commitment from the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations to work in partnership to ensure the continued openness of the UK market nationwide.

The Government should also require all public bodies involved in the procurement of food to source that food from domestic sources.  If necessary, central Government should aid those public bodies in identifying suppliers, drawing up new procurement contracts and any additional expenses that may be involved. At the same time, as part of the review of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the Government must require a much greater degree of effort on the part of AHDB to enhance and secure additional routes to market both at home and abroad.

The farming industry will need guaranteed access to imported inputs including agrochemicals, machinery, spare parts, medicines and fertiliser whilst, at the same time, expecting the full implementation of the import tariffs on food announced by the Government in March.  This must be accompanied by a legislative ban on the importation of food and food ingredients produced to environmental and animal welfare standards that would be illegal anywhere in the UK.

The heavy dependence on migrant labour, particularly from the EU and the associated lack of willingness displayed by domestic sources of labour in taking up employment opportunities provided within the agricultural, horticultural and food processing sectors, despite the fact that they are comparatively well paid against similar grade positions in other sectors of the economy must be addressed.  We need a labour immigration policy which focuses on need rather than skills and alongside that the industry will commit to work with the Government to find ways of displacing migrant labour with domestic sources into the long run.

Finally, in the inevitable uncertainty of a No Deal Brexit, it will be imperative to at least maintain the current level of public support to the industry through the Basic Payment Scheme and the various agri-environment schemes in play.  Changing too much, too quickly could destabilise the farming sector significantly.  The Government must commit to leaving the current arrangements in place until there is greater clarity around the economic realities of operating outside of the EU.

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