Countdown to Brexit: 76 days – security of UK food supply in a no-deal Brexit

A briefing to MPs ahead of next week’s debate on seven Brexit petitions includes an updated view of the potential impact on food supply.  It comes as the National Union of Farmers warns that whilst there is every opportunity to switch the balance UK farming towards feeding the Nation from domestically produced supplies - rather than the present mix of producing for profit – farming planning and lead-times are at least a year away.  With freedom of movement of goods across the EU for the last 40 years – starting with the ‘Common Market’ - both the UK and our neighbours benefit.  The UK exports what others can’t grow as economically - and imports what they offer.

Around half of the UK’s food and drink supply comes from within the UK.  30% comes from the EU and 20% from the rest of the world.

Potential disruption to food supplies immediately after a no-deal Brexit has been given regular media coverage.  BBC radio this morning picked up the concerns of food distributors – including supermarkets, wholesalers and suppliers to the public sector – such as prisons, schools and hospitals.  The Exiting the EU Committee was informed by Government that it would: “look at this issue in the round and make sure that there is adequate food supply…”.  It seems that in the event of shortages, decisions on allocating food will be centrally made using a “triage” system to prioritise who gets what foodstuff and in what quantity.  

The retail and distribution sectors are increasingly concerned about the practicalities of stockpiling food.  The CEO of the Food and Drink Federation told MPs on the BEIS Committee that warehouses around the UK for frozen and chilled food were “for all practical purposes booked out at the moment”.

The latest Public Accounts Committee Report concludes that the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) “faces enormous challenges in the lead-up to EU Exit with the deadline of 29 March 2019 looming.”

There is a high level of risk in the Defra’s remit “with many of its plans dependent on co-operation from other departments, the devolved administrations and agencies - and the goodwill of EU member states.” 

Defra is “too complacent about the levels of disruption or interruption to trade that may be faced.  Fundamental issues for food, chemical and animal importers and exporters are yet to be resolved.”

Businesses have “not been given detailed advice on what is required” for Brexit - as Defra has had “very limited engagement with stakeholders until recently.”

Defra’s focus has been on “industry and representative groups” which means that individual businesses and organisations - in particular Small and Medium-sized Enterprises “remain unaware and ill-prepared.”

The Department has made good progress in drafting the 86 post-Brexit ‘statutory instruments’ -  but in its efforts to rush through the drafting, the Committee is “concerned about risks to quality.”

The amount of parliamentary time needed to pass these statutory instruments – along with those of other departments and 6 Bills that have yet to enacted (link to our posting below) is “daunting.”   The Department needs to be clear about the impact of not being able to make the necessary legal changes in time.  “Muddling through in the hope of goodwill is highly risky.”

Public Accounts Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP, says that Defra “is a long way from being ready…and I am concerned that the Department has lost sight of its priorities.

“The risks associated with ‘no-deal’ in particular are severe.  It is alarming how little specific information Defra has provided to enable individual businesses and organisations to prepare.

“Brexit border planning is not sufficiently developed.  Six critical IT systems are still to be tested and there is a risk that in the Department’s rush to prepare necessary legislation, the quality of that legislation will suffer.”

No-deal Brexit means gaps in legislation and preparations - but UK unlikely to be granted “extra time”

John ShuttleworthComment