Brexit: damp squib on regulation

Friday 17 September 2021  

The mockery has already started, following the government's commitment to review the EU's ban on markings and sales in imperial units and its promise to legislate in due course.

This is one element of the plans "to capitalise on new Brexit freedoms" announced yesterday by the ennobled David Frost, part of a process to make our rules and regulations "best serve the UK national interest".

But those who choose to mock at the return of pounds and ounces to Britain's high streets will be missing the point. Compulsory metrication was one of those landmark issues which illustrated how EU powers were reaching into the lives of ordinary people.

The resentment was given a focus on 4 July 2000, when council officials supported by two policemen converged on a fruit and vegetable stall in a Sunderland market, owned by Steve Thoburn, to seize his scales.

This draconian step had been precipitated by an ordinary action of Thoburn, selling his wares by the "pound", as his customers preferred, rather than in the kilograms that since 1 January had become compulsory. But what was once an natural, legal action had now become an offence for which Thoburn faced criminal prosecution.

This was the first time the EU's new metrication law had been put to the test, the culmination of the process of compulsory metrication that had been imposed on Britain without Parliament ever being consulted. With Thoburn having, in effect, been selected as a test case, his case hit the national headlines, and through the efforts of his fellow marketeer-turned publicist, Neil Herron, the legend of the "metric martyrs" was born. It attracted massive nationwide and international publicity for the anti-EU cause.

When a case taken by Sunderland Council against Thoburn reached the High Court, its decision in 2002 reaffirmed the supremacy of EU law. Metrication thus became a cause célèbre in the growing Eurosceptic community.

The affair took on a more sombre turn in 2004 when Thoburn died prematurely at the age of 39 from a heart condition. His funeral and the subsequent wake at the Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland Football Club, was attended by many devoted followers.

Thus the "metric martyrs" acquired cult status. Their efforts did much to shift political sentiment in the north-east of England against the EU and were almost certainly responsible for the 61 percent leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum, against the 39 percent who voted to remain.

That the result was unexpected is indicative of how little the impact of the metric campaign had registered with outsiders – including a Ukip MEP, who had no more idea than the chatterati what was going on.

In that sense, it represented a microcosm of the entire anti-EU movement, which had been gathering strength under the horizon, decades before Cameron finally committed to a referendum. And the fact that so few of the above-the-liners realised what was happening is the story of the campaign.

It is some of those some people who are currently indulging in their mockery, demonstrating that they still haven't come to terms with Brexit, or understood the forces that were unleased by the growing encroachment of Brussels on our daily lives. Many are beyond reach, and will go to their graves without understanding.

It is entirely predictable, therefore, that the likes of the Daily Mail should have focused on what, in effect, is payback time. Those of a certain age will be able to embrace the return of imperial measurements – a gesture of defiance and a tangible sign that we have left the EU.

In another iconic move, the government is to repeal the EU-derived prohibition on printing the Crown Stamp on pint glasses. It will allow publicans and restaurants voluntarily to "embrace this important symbol on their glassware, should they choose to do so".

This remedies another irritation, imposed by the Measurement Instruments Directive (2004/22/EC) which came into force in 2006, requiring glasses to bear the "CE" mark and prohibiting "supplementary metrology marking".

In so doing, it broke a tradition reaching back to the reign of King William III in 1699, and to the reign of William IV with the compulsory introduction of verification marks in 1835. The Directive thus stood as a testament to the lie that the EU would not have any effect on the British culture. On the accumulation of such small traditions does the culture of a nation in part rest.

That said, as a serious attempt to reduce the burden on EU regulation, yesterday's announcement is pretty thin stuff overall, built as it is on Iain Duncan Smith's Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR). This was launched in February of this year with the objective of scoping out and proposing options "for how the UK can take advantage of our newfound regulatory freedoms".

The Guardian tried to make a fist of it, headlining: "Rules on GM farming and cars to be top of UK bonfire of EU laws", adding by way of a sub-head: "Minister reveals plans to change laws inherited from EU, with rules on medical devices also in crosshairs".

The reference to "cars" is an odd one, with Frost's letter stating that the government will shortly "set out ambitious plans which include modernising outdated EU vehicle standards to unlock the expansion of new transport technologies as outlined in TIGRR".

One hesitates here to suggest that the ennobled David Frost really doesn't know what he's talking about – if only because the repetition is so tedious. But he should know by now that the "EU vehicle standards" are actually produced by UNECE's World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29).

Far from being outdated, the regulatory process is dynamic, with amendments and new standards constantly being framed. Currently, the working party is focusing on electric vehicles, producing global standards, conformity with which will be vital for export sales.

Furthermore, the ennobled David Frost may have forgotten, but the UK is committed to working with WP.29 standards, by virtue of the TCA (Annex TBT-1).

As to rules on genetically modified farming, it is fair to say that progress (if it can be called that) in the EU has stalled, but if the UK wants to join the US in developing and using this technology, it will thereby ensure that much of its agricultural production is excluded from the Single Market.

For much of the so-called plan, though, much of the text is so vague that little can be deduced from it. Some issues, such as procurement and port regulation, look promising, but there will be "double coffin-lid" constraints here and elsewhere, which may shape the final proposals. That much certainly goes for the ideas on financial services and investment reform.

On balance, therefore, much of what we see is not so much a bonfire of regulation as a damp squib, to be taken with a pinch of salt. But, at least that pinch can be measured as a fraction of an ounce rather than a gram. What more can one ask?

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 17/09/2021 link

Agriculture: another disaster secured

Thursday 16 September 2021  

One does not have to be unduly cynical to suggest that Johnson's reshuffle was aimed at replacing his low-performers with ministers who have the potential to do even worse.

That would certainly explain why Defra secretary George Eustice hasn't been reshuffled. Quite evidently, Johnson was unable to find anyone who could make as big a mess of his new farming policy, thus protecting his administration's reputation for incompetence, limited, it seems, only by the number of activities in which it partakes.

Certainly, the farming policy, is the latest in the long line of clusterf**ks perpetrated in the post-Brexit world of team Johnson. It's the government's idea of a replacement for the EU's CAP, but it turns out to be so bad that most farmers don't want anything to do with it.

So utterly destitute of good sense is it that even the National Audit Office has noticed, issuing yesterday a lengthy report, accompanied by a press release, heralding its critique of what the government calls a "once in a generation opportunity to reform agriculture".

We've actually touched on this recently, remarking on the uselessness of Defra secretary Eustice and his fabled hedgerow policy, but this is only part of a broader initiative which goes under the name of the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM).

The ELM, we are told, is the primary mechanism for distributing the £2.4 billion subsidies previously paid under CAP. Instead of the direct payments under the EU's scheme, which accounted for about 80 percent of disbursements, ELM (in theory) will pay farmers for environmental improvements, through the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes.

Farmers, we learn from our own sources, have been discussing these schemes and have concluded that they are basically "tick box" exercises run from Whitehall. This is bolstered by the general view that Defra desk jockeys in charge would be hard-pushed to manage a window box – even a paved one – much less a farm, an observation borne out by the NAO's observation that: "Defra has not yet established objectives to support its high-level vision for ELM".

One of the many weaknesses of the scheme is that, for assessment purposes, the country is lumped together as a single unit, with no quarter given to temperature, structure, crops or weather conditions in different regions, thereby replicating the central flaw in the CAP.

Grass crops, for instance, cannot be taken before 8 May in any year – irrespective of the area, whether in balmy Cornwall or frigid Northumbria. Subsequent cuts of silage can only then be made after 8 weeks. These may be arcane details but experienced farmers will tell you that these restrictions would impact severely on their ability to crop grassland profitably.

Another little gem is the way fallow wildlife strips are treated. Under the CAP, farmers were required to leave one metre uncultivated between the hedge margins and the crop. But Mr Eustice wants 4 metres, either side of a "hedge", regardless of whether that's green or stone or earth banks. That takes such a huge chunk of the working area that cropping some smaller fields would no longer be viable.

Payments are also smaller than farmers have been getting for the CAP scheme and the indications are that they will not be index-linked. Thus, cash paid in year one could be the same as in year ten, despite increases in the costs of inputs to comply over the period.

With so many petty tick box "must do" requirements for so little reward, enforced by legions of inspectors knocking on doors and imposing penalties for non-compliance, it is hardly surprising that the take-up has not met with Defra's expectations. Of the 44,000 eligible farmers in England, only 2,178 have expressed an interest in taking part. Johnson's reputation for securing policy disasters remains intact.

Despite, or because of this, the prime minister was one of the virtue-signalling MPs attending PMQs yesterday sporting heads of wheat in various places on their attire to celebrate the NFU's "Back British Farming Day". Johnson had three heads stuffed in his top pocket, but so far distant has the very idea of farming become that The Sun described them as "sheaves".

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the only national paper which seems to have run the NAO story is The Times. It leads on the NAO warning that that lack of participation by farmers could undermine the government pledge that Brexit will benefit the environment by allowing farmers to be rewarded for improving soil and water quality and protecting wildlife.

The audit office says that: "Defra has not yet regained enough trust from farmers to be confident in achieving a high level of participation in the environmental land management scheme".

The Department, it asserts, lost farmers' trust as a result of difficulties with its management of past agricultural subsidies. But delays in informing farmers which actions they will be paid for, and how much they will be paid, have made matters worse. "Defra sees rebuilding trust as vital, but both the NAO's and Defra's own evidence show it has not yet succeeded", the NAO warns.

The NFU agrees that there are "significant challenges to overcome" to ensure that the Defra schemes are successfully delivered – typically pulling its punches when it should be slamming Defra in general and Eustice in particular for their incompetence.

One might think though that even this mild rebuke might have Eustice springing into action to make his schemes more palatable to hard-pressed farmers, who are already having to complete against better-subsidised EU farmers who are still able to export their produce to the UK without border checks.

But the only response we have seen so far, though, is another half-baked plan, this one supposedly to help farmers export their produce.

Amongst the goodies on offer are more, dedicated "agri-food attaches" to act as "representatives on the ground" in UK embassies "to unlock key markets across the world". The government will also appoint another quango, a "Food and Drink Exports Council" which – as farmers are doubtless excited to learn – will "work collaboratively to expand our food and drink exports strategy".

And if this wasn't enough, the government will strengthen our technical expertise as well as our farmers and producers' understanding of export markets to ensure that food and drink exporters are able to benefit from market opportunities. I am sure farmers will be delighted to have their understanding strengthened.

All this, though, will have to wait as the "initiative" isn't going to be launched until later in the year, on some as yet unspecified date. The only thing immediately on offer is a raft of patronising slogans from the egregious secretary, who describes our hard-pressed sons of the soil as "the lifeblood of our nation – producing home grown food and acting as stewards of our natural environment".

As if that wasn't bad enough, they also have to suffer the newly-appointed foreign secretary, Liz Truss, telling them that "our food and drink is among the best in the world and [as] an independent trading nation we're seizing new opportunities that were previously denied to us".

Their cups overfloweth as they learn from this source that, "We have already secured better access to lucrative Asian markets, including for UK beef in Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines". This might be absolutely peachy when or if any UK slaughterhouses are approved to handle this trade.

On the other hand, farmers may just be a little wary after the gushing announcement back in 2019 of a beef export deal to China. With none of the small-print details yet having been satisfied, nearly two years later, not so much as a hoof-clipping has been exported.

Nevertheless, the sycophantic NFU president, Minette Batters, is easily pleased, welcoming this "positive step in the right direction", not specifying how it is possible to have a positive step in the wrong direction. While her membership is being starved of cash and fed a diet of platitudes, she looks forward "to seeing more detail on this proposal and working with government to boost our agri-food exports abroad".

And still, as Mr Eustice is claiming that: "We will incentivise sustainable farming practices and reward farmers for environmental assets on their land", we can see Johnson's point. It is hard to imagine that he could hire anyone worse.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 16/09/2021 link

Brexit: pragmatism redefined

Wednesday 15 September 2021  

Formally, the nation was advised yesterday by way of written statements, one from the recently ennobled David Frost addressed to the Lords, and the other from Penny Mordaunt, to the Commons.

The plebs were then advised in a press release, telling us that: "The government has set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full import controls for goods being imported from the EU to the UK".

According to our wise and beneficent government, now the UK is an independent trading country, it was our intention is to introduce the same controls on incoming goods from the EU as on goods from the rest of the world.

The initial timetable for the introduction of the final stages of those controls was announced on 11 March, says the ministerial statement – setting the introduction of checks on SPS goods to start on 1 October. And, says the government, its own preparations, in terms of systems, infrastructure and resourcing, "remain on track to meet that timetable".

However, it goes on to say, the pandemic has had longer-lasting impacts on businesses, both in the UK and in the European Union, than many observers expected in March. There are also, it says, pressures on global supply chains, caused by a wide range of factors including the pandemic and the increased costs of global freight transport. These pressures are being especially felt in the agrifood sector.

Given these circumstances, therefore, our wise and beneficent government has kindly decided to delay further some elements of the new controls, especially those relating to Sanitary and Phytosanitary goods. The key requirements will now come into force on 1 July 2022, a further nine months' delay.

In the following press release, Frost is then cited as saying: "We want businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border, which is why we've set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full border controls".

With that, it's come to the stage when one has to conclude that ministers in the Johnson administration couldn't even tell the truth if they were ringing up the fire brigade to report themselves on fire and ask for assistance. The lie has become embedded in the very fabric of government.

Unimpressed by this outbreak of "pragmatism", the Financial Times reports that Johnson's government has been "forced" to delay imposing checks on EU goods entering the UK until mid-2022, as it attempts to stop Brexit further exacerbating supply chain problems.

This, though, seems to falling for the Labour party schtick, which has it that delays on border controls were due to the government's inability to tackle supply chain problems caused by Brexit.

"This announcement shows what we have all known for months - that the government do not have a workable, sustainable answer to tackling delays and red tape at the border", says Baroness Jenny Chapman, shadow Cabinet Office minister.

Here, we see iNews go with this canard, headlining: "UK delays post-Brexit border checks on EU imports amid fears over Christmas supplies". The Sun treads a similar path, despite a view in much of the food trade that border checks would have relatively little effect on the supply chain.

The Guardian, on the other hand, goes for the Covid meme in its headline, reporting: "Britain to delay some post-Brexit border controls due to Covid", with the sub-heading: "Brexit minister says 'longer-lasting impacts' of pandemic on businesses have led to timetable shift".

However, this self-same newspaper also reports that signs that the government might have to delay the physical checks emerged in the summer when the officials told angry residents in Dover that plans for a giant lorry park for HMRC and SPS checks "had been radically downsized and would not be ready until July 2022".

It thus concludes that the government's lack of planning for Brexit "meant the necessary infrastructure involving border control posts in key ferry ports including Holyhead, Pembrokeshire and Dover has yet to be built". To this can be added Portsmouth while, even now, the locations of some border control posts remain to be announced.

On that basis, as I remarked yesterday, even if the government had wanted to go ahead on 1 October, it could not have done so because mechanisms for carrying out checks uniformly throughout the country simply do not exist.

Interestingly, when the government announced a six-month delay, from 1 April to 1 October – on 11 March – the Guardian then reported that the delay had been forced "because a network of 30 border posts being built to process incoming goods would not have been ready on time".

Now, though, even though the newspaper acknowledges that the network still isn't ready, it seems content to run with the government's Covid excuse. But then, last time the paper had business correspondent Joanna Partridge reporting. Currently, it has its real experts on hand, Lisa O'Carroll, the Brexit correspondent, and Daniel Boffey in Brussels.

The Financial Times, though, does allow some EU officials to "suspect" that Britain's border control regime is not yet fully ready for the new rules, despite Frost's insistence that the government is "on track".

Obviously enjoying the moment, one EU diplomat savours the irony. "They [the UK government] talked about taking back control", he observes, "but they are letting products into Britain without any controls at all. That’s fine with us".

That point is picked up in the Telegraph. It cites Ian Wright, the FDF chief executive, who complains directly that the delay "actually helps the UK's competitors".

"The asymmetric nature of border controls facing exports and imports distorts the market and places many UK producers at a competitive disadvantage with EU producers", he adds. ""Businesses have invested very significant time and money in preparing for the new import regime on 1 October 2021. Now, with just 17 days to go, the rug has been pulled".

Minette Batters, NFU president, reinforces these points, saying: "While our exporters have been struggling with additional costs and burdens, EU competitors have been given extended grace periods by our own government to maintain access to the UK market relatively burden free".

What nobody seems to be talking about, though, is the impact of a nine-month delay on local council port health authorities. In a way, this is hardly surprising as most hacks do not seem to realise that SPS checks are entirely separate from customs checks, and are carried out by local authorities. I even heard Damian Gramaticus on the BBC 6 o'clock TV news talking about "customs agents" carrying out the checks.

Unless the government comes up with serious money – probably running to several million - to enable local authorities to keep their inspection teams together, there is a real danger that, by the time the checks do come into force next July, there simply won't be the personnel available to operate the new border control posts.

In my view, the FDF and others are being rather optimistic about the impact of border checks on incoming food supplies but, if the staffing of BCPs falls short of operational needs, there really will be problems. And, one should recall, this also applies to airports, many of which handle considerable and growing volumes of freight.

Johnson's band of liars may have got away with it for the time being, by redefining the nature of pragmatism, but – as always – they are simply stacking up problems for the future. This one is set to come back and bite them.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 15/09/2021 link

Brexit: confusion at the top

Tuesday 14 September 2021  

Archie Norman, chairman of M&S, has asserted that EU controls on exports, due to be mirrored on imports from Ireland and the continent, have added 24-hour delays to his company's deliveries and "serve no purpose at all". Food standards remain aligned to the EU, he says, so: "This is a pointless exercise".

"What we've discovered", he says, "is that the EU rules for governing borders, and their customs union are totally out of date, and not suited for the purpose they are designed for", calling them "a fandango of bureaucracy".

"Our product, our fresh sandwiches and ready meals, going to Ireland or France are delayed by about a day", he complains, adding: "that is not good if you are a sandwich". Only about 80 percent of our product gets through, he observes, "less than that in France because the French, predictably, are draconian".

What is extremely worrying about this is that the chairman of a major UK food retailer is apparently ignorant of the basic principles of the EU's "official controls". By his "customs union" reference, it is not even clear that he understands what he is actually dealing with.

His display of ignorance is at its most profound, though when he notes that "food standards remain aligned to the EU", and thus considers that the controls are "a pointless exercise".

The man seems to be so isolated from reality that Michel Barnier's caution obviously hasn't registered – that in leaving the EU and the Single Market, we are stepping outside the "regulatory ecosystem". Does not Norman realise that alignment with EU regulations is just the basic requirement for export? To be exempted from border checks requires much more.

But even without that, does he not realise that WTO rules require non-discrimination in the treatment of third countries. Without there being a specific "veterinary agreement", the EU must carry out the same checks on UK goods as it does on goods from any other third country.

On a broader level, his company enjoyed the ability to export fresh products such as sandwiches to his shops in other EU member states as a result of the UK's participation in the Single Market, a function of our EU membership. Does he seriously think that alignment with EU rules is sufficient to retain access to the Single Market?

The irony is that M&S has a reputation for maintaining the highest standards of food safety in the business, often imposing requirements on its suppliers that exceed statutory requirements, including requiring them to submit to additional, company-mandated inspections.

He is the very last person in the world to complain of "a fandango of bureaucracy", when doing business with M&S is far more onerous than having to deal with (by contrast) the relatively modest requirements of the EU.

The intervention of Norman (once again) into the Brexit debate, though – and the almost reverential treatment of this "prestige" figure by the legacy media – illustrates the low quality of the discourse, and the difficulty in settling on the relevant issues.

By now, one would have thought, it would have been understood that border controls are here to stay, and the need is to tailor trade patterns accordingly. That includes recognising that much of what was commonplace while we were in the Single Market will no longer be feasible.

As to the other side of the coin – whether the UK should delay the implementation of its own border checks – there is an indication that there is no great enthusiasm for this idea.

Predictably, NFU representative Nick von Westenholz – whose members stand to benefit from the imposition of controls – opposes a delay. It would "do little to address these problems, nor the long-term trade frictions we are experiencing", he says.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) takes the view that the big importers such as supermarkets are already prepared for the checks. On balance, a delay will only help small food suppliers in France, Spain and elsewhere in the EU who are not ready to handle the extra controls.

FDF chief executive, Ian Wright, says: "Most of our members who do this stuff regularly have done an enormous amount of work on this and invested really considerable sums in training, in getting new relationships with customs agents and in personnel. That’s all going to be wasted to some degree if it doesn’t start on 1 October".

The Guardian then tells us that sources at high street retailers have conveyed to the government that delays "would not be helpful as they would add more uncertainty".

The source also says that a delay would mean, "there will be an asymmetric relationship for British business where we are doing all the work on exports and paying the costs while EU business don't have any of these checks or costs". The government, he says, "has been telling us firmly for the last six months there will be no changes, so its credibility is on the line here".

However, while reports within the industry say the government seems to be divided on the matter, there is evidently more to this than meets the eye. The Independent is running a story which suggests that some of the ports are simply not ready to carry out the necessary checks.

This does not apply to all ports, by any means, but some are complaining about the lack of guidance about where different kinds of goods will need to be brought into the country. Others say they are struggling to physically build the infrastructure needed for the checks, because of global supply chain shortages for building materials and labour.

One of those ports is undoubtedly Dover, where the extra staff needed have yet to be recruited and trained, and where planning permission for new buildings has not been secured. Even if the government wanted to go ahead, therefore, the mechanisms for carrying out checks uniformly throughout the country simply to not exist.

The problem seems to be exacerbated by the inability of government to set out details of what foods and other products each of the border control posts should handle. The lack of clarity throws out the plans of both businesses and port health authorities – which must plan staffing levels and provide sufficient facilities.

Given that the requirements have been on the cards ever since Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January 2017, that the preparations haven't already been made is a serious indictment of this administration. There has been plenty of time to get things sorted and we should not still be messing about.

The same goes for the fool Frost, and his Northern Ireland protocol, which continues to cast a shadow over relations with the EU, and hamper the rational implementation of border controls.

Currently, he is threatening to suspend the protocol unless the EU takes his renegotiation proposal "seriously", based on his earlier command paper.

This is another instance of people in high places who seem unable to grasp the basics. There must come a point when the EU finally loses patience, and the issue comes to a head, but there is no value in trying to predict events or second-guess any of the players.

Obviously, the longer this drags on, the greater the uncertainty and the more damage caused, but with all the other issues mounting for this government, Brexit may end up being the least of our problems. It nevertheless remains disturbing that the "top people" seem to be in a world of their own.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 14/09/2021 link

Brexit: empty shelves or full coffins?

Monday 13 September 2021  

In my piece on port health inspections last week, with border checks of SPS products entering the country from the EU due to start on 1 October, I speculated briefly on the effects of a delay in introducing these checks.

The issue here is that local authority port health services, up and down the country – which actually carry out these checks – have invested a considerable amount in expanding and training their inspection teams.

And, while local authorities have had some financial help from central government, especially in covering the capital costs of building or enlarging border control posts, ongoing operational costs have to be met from fees charged to the importers of goods.

It follows, I wrote last week, that if the government doesn't go ahead on 1 October with the border inspections, it will dump unrecoverable costs on local authorities; they will still have to bear the employment and other operational costs or running the services, but will have no fee income to cover them.

Unless the government agreed to cover these costs, port health authorities might find themselves having to shed staff, making large numbers of newly-appointed inspectors redundant. Then, by the time the regime is reintroduced, there may be no authorities available to run it, as it would be extremely difficult to recruit new staff.

Now, it transpires, the government is seriously considering suspending the checks (with the Telegraph insisting on calling them "customs checks", which they are not).

Amid concerns that the checks "will fuel further disruption to goods flowing across the Channel and hammer consumers with higher prices", we are told that senior UK officials have confirmed that a decision to delay the checks is now "highly likely".

One suitably anonymous "senior source" states that an announcement is expected imminently, with a range of options being considered. One of those is a delay of six months or more.

There appear to be, though, splits within government over the mooted postponement. Some officials are said to be convinced that another extension will merely prolong the uncertainty for businesses and prevent them from adjusting to the reality of post-Brexit trade.

However, it seems that concerns over the impact on the supply chain may prevail. To that affect, the Telegraph offers a "comfort quote" from Adam Marshall, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. He obligingly tells us that: "From a whole economy perspective, given the supply chain crisis and the inflation pressures, delaying friction on imports means no additional transport costs, no additional price pressures from that".

Another senior business figure is called in aid to add: "I wouldn't be surprised if they delayed, given the pressure it is going to put on supply chains coming into the country".

Meanwhile, a third says: "I don't believe we're going to be ready for the disruption to the supply chain. We’re still going to want to eat salami next year. There's so many things that will be disrupted if we do it straight away". He adds: "It would probably be in the interests of the consumers of the UK if the SPS controls were delayed into 2022".

Nevertheless, the Telegraph does note that delaying the new checks is likely to provoke a backlash from UK exporters. They have been forced to comply with the full suite of SPS checks when sending goods into the EU.

Many have been worried about the competitive disadvantage between British exporters and their EU competitors. One business figure complains: "It is an unfair and asymmetrical situation and it's not right. It's not a position that can stay in place indefinitely".

Nothing is said, though, about the adverse impact on local authorities – possibly because the Telegraph doesn't even realise that the checks are carried out by council port health services. But collectively, even if the checks are delayed only for a further six months, they stand to be out of pocket to the tune of several million pounds – the shortfall having to come from the same budgets which fund social care.

But, in terms of "backlash", this may be the least of it. It can surely be only a matter of time before people start realising that we are importing foods and other goods from EU member states, which are produced to standards over which the UK has no control, and sometimes very little information – as we are now excluded from the EU's surveillance systems.

And while the assumption is that the food sent here is produced to rigorous EU standards, monitored by European Commission officials, this has not always been the case, and we have no means directly of ascertaining whether standards are being enforced.

This is illustrated by reports in Dutch newspapers at the beginning of this month, about the conduct of the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) over the standards maintained by the Belgian-owned meat products company, Ter Beke, operating under the Offerman banner, from a factory in Aalsmeer, 13 km to the south-west of Amsterdam, close to the famous flower market.

Although the plant has since closed, in 2019 it was implicated in a serious Listeria outbreak from which 35 people became seriously ill, six people died and two pregnant women had miscarriages. Although the outbreak was notified by the European Food Safety Authority, it didn't name the companies involved, even though they supplied the Aldi supermarket chain, which trades in the UK.

But, from de Volkskrant and other Dutch media, that prior to the outbreak, it emerges that the NVWA had repeatedly told Offerman to cease applying over-long shelf life code to their products – a significant issue in listeriosis control, where the bacteria can grow slowly under refrigerated conditions.

In 2016 and 2017, the NVWA had rejected several shelf life studies from the meat company. Offerman, for instance, stated that its luncheon meat could be stored for 31 days without properly substantiating the claim. The NVWA maintained a shelf life of 21 days was more appropriate.

With the problem unresolved, though, after 2017, the NVWA responded by temporarily ceasing routine checks. Subsequently, it claimed insufficient capacity, that it was "too busy"' to carry out re-inspections and needed to concentrate on "other priorities".

Only in September 2019, just before listeria outbreak became public, did the NVWA resume checks, when the company was still applying use-by dates that were too long. It was fined for multiple offences and, the same year, listeria bacteria was found on cutting machines, in drains and on the walls of the company's premises. Salami, roast beef and chicken breast that had been processed in the Aalsmeer factory were found to be consistently contaminated with the listeria bacteria. Millions of product packs were recalled, including ham and chicken fillets.

Offerman was again fined but the company still considered renovating its affected cutting rooms. Then, it was found that listeria was lodged in the walls and the cost of cleaning and decontaminating them turned out to be too high – saying a great deal for the standards approved by veterinary inspectors. The factory has now been permanently closed, with the loss of sixty jobs.

Adding to the detail, the regional newspaper, de Limburger (no link) pointed out that staffing in the NVWA had been cut considerably under former CDA ministers Veerman and Bleker. In addition, the regulator had been transferred from the Ministry of Health to Economic Affairs in 2003, as a result of which inspectors often had to deal with conflicting interests between food safety and the economy.

Since then, the functioning of the NVWA has often been criticised. In the past two years alone, multiple damning reports have been published: in slaughterhouses, NVWA vets have been allowing improper practices without intervention, complaining of intimidation. Supervision of pig exports has been sub-standard, with vets allowing the transport of sick and lame animals.

Last year, Deloitte was asked to investigate the regulator and concluded that the NVWA cannot cope with its workload and is failing in two thirds of its tasks, risking both food safety and animal welfare. In addition, the organisation is ridden with internal struggles.

In this country, through 1988 to 1990, we had our own Listeria "scare", which had a massive and long-lasting effect on the conduct of food safety controls, including the transfer of responsibility of policy-making from the Ministry of Agriculture to an "independent" food safety agency.

Since the turn of the century, the UK had been increasingly reliant on the EU for its food safety policy, with veterinary inspectors and their fabled coloured crayons. But the Offerman outbreak is by no means the only food scandal to affect EU-produced food, with memories of the 2013 horsemeat scandal still fresh.

Now that we have left the EU, if Brexit is to mean anything, the UK should be insisting on border inspections to protect us from unsound EU-produced food, and systems which seem incapable of maintaining basic standards. When it comes to disrupting the food chain, sooner, one might say, empty shelves than full coffins.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 13/09/2021 link

Energy: April comes early

Sunday 12 September 2021  

If it wasn't for the fact that we are becoming steadily immunised to the absurdities which beset modern life, a story in the Sunday Times on electric car charging points could easily be mistaken for an April fool joke, except for the minor detail that it's come more than half a year too early.

The gist of the story is that under new regulations, due to come into force in May, electric car charging points in people’s homes will be pre-set to switch off for nine hours each weekday at times of peak demand, from 8am to 11am and 4pm to 10pm.

The precaution is being taken because ministers fear that surges arising from electric car owners plugging in when they come home – or topping up before they leave for work – might over-stress the National Grid and cause blackouts.

The government, we are also told, is also taking powers to impose a "randomised delay" of up to 30 minutes at other times to avoid pressure on the grid if there is a scramble among motorists to recharge their batteries at the same time.

These restrictions are tucked into same regulations which will require all new homes and offices to be fitted with electric car chargers, with industry bodies saying that 700 electric car chargers need to be installed at homes each day to meet demand, but currently only around 500 are being added each month.

Thus, we have the bizarre situation where the government, on the one hand, is to force people to fit home chargers while, on the other hand, restricting their use. And then, there is the "vehicle to grid" provision, where the National Grid can suck the juice out of car batteries when the windmills stop turning, which could leave many drivers with no power at all.

For many people, though, this will not be a problem. As long as they are stereotypical plebs who conveniently work nine-to-five jobs, and are obediently tucked-in overnight, charging their cars as they sleep – provided they have off-street parking – the limitations should not present a problem. Pity the people with non-standard lifestyles.

Nevertheless, the government clearly realises is has what it believes to be a "perception" problem, having last week published on its website a propaganda screed entitled: "Common misconceptions about electric vehicles".

This starts off by addressing the most serious concern of EV drivers – potential and actual – that the cars "don't have the battery range to travel as far as people need". The "reality" says our wise and beneficent government is that 99 percent of journeys in England are under 100 miles. Therefore, we are assured, "most drivers' needs are easily met by an electric car".

For those pesky plebs who insist on driving further in one session, we are happily advised that there are "over 20 models available with a quoted 200-plus mile range". Some new electric cars, we are told, "come with a range of over 270 miles, enough to get from Southampton to York".

What we are not told, of course, is that the longer-range models cost considerably more than the basic "utility" versions and, as I wrote back in August actual range (as opposed to posted figures) varies according to conditions.

Factors such as ambient temperature, battery state of charge and condition, driving style, vehicle payload, vehicle electronics, heating and climate settings, can all reduce range, and driving on a cold night, with lights and heater on, can cut the range by as much as 60 percent.

Assuming 200-mile journey, even for those lucky enough to start with a fully-charged car, that means at least one, if not more, stops to re-charge on the journey. But, for those concerned with how long this might take, the government is nothing if not reassuring.

"Most charging", it says, "will be done at or near home overnight". Thus, it implies, the amount of time it takes to charge doesn't really matter. But if you are rash enough to risk a long journey, it tells us: "new cars are typically capable of charging up 120 miles or more in as little as 20 minutes – the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee".

You know it is a million miles away from reality when it uses the word "enjoy" in relation to motorway service station coffee, especially as this chirpy optimism doesn't take account of a Friday night when hundreds of thousand of motorists are all setting off at the same time to travel long distances up and down the nation's motorways.

When we used to live in London, my wife and I used to travel up from Croydon at least once a month to visit her folks in Yorkshire. Originally, we had a Hillman Imp which, coincidentally, had a range of almost exactly 200 miles. With a partial tank after a day's driving at work, we would top up at Hendon, just before joining the M1, and just about make it to Boroughbridge, driving on fumes, filling up again to complete the journey.

Even at 20-minutes a charge, that would add an hour to the journey. But. on a Friday night, we could be waiting ten minutes in a queue for petrol. Does the government have any idea what the queues are going to be like for working EV charging points, once the 14 million electric cars forecast for 2030 are on the road?

But never mind. At least, says the government, you're going to save money. EVs do cost more to buy outright today, it concedes, but "they already benefit from a huge advantage in running costs: as low as 1p a mile for off-peak electricity and far fewer moving parts, so much lower maintenance costs".

Already, in a number of cases, it says that EVs have a lower total cost over four years. Further, owners of EVs don't pay Vehicle Excise Duty and new cars under £35,000 are eligible for a government grant of £2,500. Vehicle manufacturers, including BMW and Nissan, have even reduced prices of electric models to under £35,000 to qualify for the grant.

Clearly, though, our government is not telling the whole story. As the Sunday Telegraph obligingly points out, the government's commitment to phase out petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 will leave the Treasury with a £40 billion black hole.

The head of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) is saying that the Chancellor will make "sweeping changes" to transport levies to raise revenue from battery-powered vehicles, not least the £28 billion generated from fuel duty.

Motoring taxes account for 5 percent of total government revenue, which will create a huge problem for the chancellor if people do as expected and buy into the electric car schtick – assuming they have any choice.

One option being considered by the Treasury is a road pricing, or "pay per mile", system, but nothing here is being said of a rather embarrassing elephant in the room. To manage a universal road charging system, a high-accuracy, secure GPS system is needed.

Such a facility could be afforded via the EU's Galileo system – which was the real reason for which, many of us suspected, the system was designed. But, rather inconveniently, with Brexit, we have dropped out of this facility and it will not be available for any UK road charging scheme.

Nevertheless, there will be a revenue "black hole" and the government will have to fill it. Electric vehicles will not remain tax-free for long. No chancellor can afford to let such an easy target go free. A way will be found to load costs onto the electric driving experience.

As time goes on therefore, Johnson's 2030 electric fantasy looks more and more unrealistic. But if the real agenda is to drive the average pleb off the road, leaving more room for ministerial chaikas, then his policy is on its way to being an outstanding success.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 12/09/2021 link

Afghanistan: a graveyard of experts

Saturday 11 September 2021  

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the subject of the situation in Afghanistan again climbs into prominence, and more so with an article in the Guardian by Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff.

Using that event of 20 years ago as a hook, he argues that the lesson we failed to learn from 9/11 is that "peace is impossible if we don't talk to our enemies". "We should", he says, "have engaged with the Taliban 20 years ago, but we thought the winner takes all", adding that this failure "undermined our own armed forces".

This is a thesis much favoured by prominent, US-based journalist and author, Anand Gopal, who asserts that, after the US invasion of Afghanistan, when the Taliban government was crumbling, some of the chief lieutenants of Taliban leader Mullah Omar secretly gathered and decided to surrender to the forces of Hamid Karzai.

Some of the Taliban members even saw the new government as Islamic and legitimate, and some senior Taliban officials even surrendered to Afghan authorities in early 2002.

But, Gobal records, Karzai and other government officials ignored the overtures - largely due to pressures from the United States and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's erstwhile enemy. Moreover, some Pashtun commanders who had been ousted by the Taliban seven years earlier were eager for revenge and were opposed to allowing former Taliban officials to go unpunished.

Widespread intimidation and harassment of these former Taliban ensued. Sympathetic figures in the government told former members of the Taliban that they should flee the country, for they would not be safe in Afghanistan.

The men eventually vanished across the border into Pakistan's Baluchistan province, many later to become leading figures in the Taliban insurgency, playing an important role in rallying the scattered Taliban remnants to rebel against the Americans.

Thus, the narrative goes – picked up and amplified by Powell - if only the US had been disposed to talking to the Taliban, and perhaps offered key members of the movement places in the Karzai government, this would have nipped the insurgency in the bud.

As Powell puts it, "Instead of engaging them in an inclusive process and giving them a stake in the new Afghanistan, the Americans continued to pursue them, and they returned to fighting".

Seductive though this thesis is, and endorsed by many prominent members of the Afghan commentariat, the suggestion that insurgency would have been avoided is nonetheless entirely speculative. However, there is a tendency to play the "prestige" card, to the extent that the prominence of some of its advocates tends to afford it a level of credibility not warranted by its speculative status.

Much of the prestige attaches to members of the so-called Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), the go-to source by the media, for much of its information on Afghanistan.

However, while its members pronouncements are often treated on a level akin to papal infallibility, it is well to be aware that they too, on occasions, have feet of clay. One such is Kate Clark, former BBC journalist who was stationed in Kabul 1999 and has covered the country's affairs on and off, ever since, joining the AAN in 2010.

On 1 May 2021, Clark had published by her employer a paper entitled, "As US troops withdraw, what next for war and peace in Afghanistan?". There, she concluded:
… the US is leaving Afghanistan after 20 years, with a negotiated end to the war looking the least likely scenario. More probable is that the Taleban will, sooner or later, move to try to capture territory and attack Afghanistan's provincial capitals. Yet, the likelihood of the movement taking power through military victory also seems remote. The Taleban show every sign of having underestimated the ANSF. There is every prospect that any Taleban drive to intensify the violence will be resisted, with immense suffering to countless Afghans.
Then, on 1 August, as the Taliban were taking more and more provincial capitals, she was telling Channel 4 News: "It's by no means over … I would say the next few months are crucial". Two weeks later, the Taliban had strolled into Kabul and president Ashraf Ghani had fled the country.

Nevertheless, the AAN does produce some good analytical work, even Anand Gopal who, with Alex Strick van Linschoten, in June 2017 produced a paper entitled "Ideology in the Afghan Taliban". This augmented another report, written by Thomas Ruttig, written in April 2010, entitled, "How Tribal Are the Taleban?", with the sub-heading, "Afghanistan’s largest insurgent movement between its tribal roots and Islamist ideology".

This earlier report is particularly interesting because Ruttig writes, amongst other things, that in the Taliban, there are three different types of network: religious; political and tribal. In any given situation, he says, individual Taliban – leaders as well as fighters – can choose from these networks in any given situation, when mobilisation, support, solidarity, etc. is needed.

Gopal and his co-author stress that the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun-based organisation, with its structures and mores reflecting their tribal composition, overlaid by these political and religious influences.

From these and a galaxy of other authors we get reminders of the egalitarian nature of Pashtun tribesmen, the lack of a hierarchical structure, and the inability of tribal chiefs and elders to exercise control over their tribes, particularly when under the influence of religious leaders who have declared a jihad.

One wonders, however, whether the august authors of the AAN fully understand the practical implications of their own work, which tends to indicate that, amongst Pashtun and therefore Taliban leaders, there tends to be a strong element of followership. They either go along with their members or they may be ignored or, at worse, violently deposed and replaced.

The point that emerges from this is that, just because Taliban leaders agree to a course of action, that does not mean that members will follow them, or that the leaders have any way of enforcing their decisions. And, as we have so often seen in such tribal affairs, members who disagree with their leaders commonly set up or join rival groups – or form their own.

A propos the Gopal/Powell thesis, therefore, there is no good cause to argue that, if in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion in 2001 some Taliban leaders had sued for peace, their members would necessarily have followed – especially as the Taliban is by no means a homogeneous organisation.

Something of this dynamic we are seeing between the Taliban of today, and the ISIS-K, where any relaxation of the zealous application of the Sharia code is likely to be met by mass desertions to ISIS-K – most of its membership having come from the Taliban in the first place. The Taliban could find themselves deposed by their own bastard child.

Whatever does happen, in my view there is only one certainty – so complex is the situation in the region that any attempt to second-guess the outcome, past or present, is bound to be frustrated. Afghanistan has been called the "graveyard of empires". That is a disputable proposition but it is certainly turning out to be a graveyard of experts.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 11/09/2021 link

Defence: not needed at all

Friday 10 September 2021  

In the Commons yesterday, Jeremy Quin, the somewhat harassed Minister for Defence Procurement, led a debate on the Army's new Ajax armoured vehicle, delayed as a result of a series of technical problems.

The debate followed a written ministerial statement, published on Monday in which the minister admitted that it was "not possible to determine a realistic timescale for the introduction of Ajax vehicles into operational service with the Army".

The government has undertaken to buy 589 vehicles of this family, for which it has undertaken to pay it £3.5 billion. But, so severe and difficult to resolve have been the problems – relating to noise and vibration – that Labour's John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, declared that the minister's statement put Ajax "on an end-of-life watch".

On the face of it, therefore, we have yet another of those MoD procurement blunders which have dogged the armed forces for so many decades (or even centuries) that the origin of the first is lost in the mists of time. And once again, it would appear that the Army is being deprived of essential fighting capabilities as a result of MoD blunders.

This notwithstanding, I have been reluctant to write about this programme, as the problems are a lot more complex than simple procurement or even technical failures. The real question – which, of course, wasn't addressed in yesterday's debate – is whether we need the Ajax programme at all.

This is a question that can be addressed at two levels. The first is whether the vehicles' capabilities could not have been provided by the cheaper alternative of a series of Warrior upgrades, rather than buying a new and (for the British Army) an untried platform.

Certainly, the technical problems currently being experienced would have been avoided if the Warrior option had been chosen, but that skirts the more important question as to whether the Army actually needs the capabilities offered by the programme, packaged in an expensive armoured platform.

The discussion here goes way back, and I wrote specifically on what was to become the Ajax programme when, David Cameron's administration placed the order with manufacturer General Dynamics in September 2014 – making for a gestation period longer than the Second World War.

But, in fact, the genesis of the programme pre-dates Cameron's intervention by a considerable period. But, for the purpose of simplicity – in what is a very complicated story – the timeline begins in 1996.

It was then that we saw launched the joint US/UK Tactical Reconnaissance Armoured Combat Equipment Requirement (TRACER) programme, a light, tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicle, with an in-service date of 2007. The UK purchases were intended to replace the CV(R)T Scimitar light tank, which had its roll-out in 1969.

However, in 2001, with demonstrator vehicles already having been produced the British government pulled out of the project, having already spent £131 million – for no benefit. It then put its money into a consortium with Germany and Holland to produce the Multi Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV), a version of which would fulfil the reconnaissance requirement.

This was to become the Boxer, but in 2003, the UK also pulled out of this project, with a loss of (at least) £48 million, again with nothing to show for its money. It has now opted back into the project with an order currently standing at 523 vehicles, replacing the Warrior MICV but with no reconnaissance variant ordered.

By then the Scorpion was becoming distinctly aged and with no replacement in sight, the MoD embarked on an "Extension of Life" programmes at a further cost of £75 million. Meanwhile, as a potential replacement, it linked into the Future Command and Liaison Vehicle programme, ordering 401 Italian-made "Panther" vehicles in November 2003, at a cost of £166 million – a sum which, incidentally, did not include radios or any of the other equipment needed.

Many problems were reported with the vehicle, forcing the MoD to admit that it would not to deployed either to Iraq or Afghanistan – where it would be too dangerous to use. The Army thus became the proud owner of 400 brand new but otherwise unusable vehicles, most of which have spent their lives lying idle in stores somewhere in the UK.

With other armoured vehicle procurement failures, going back to the 80s, it is estimated that the Army has wasted around £1 billion in seeking replacements for its medium-weight armoured fleet, without procuring a single operational vehicle.

When it comes to the Ajax fleet, therefore, if this programme fails, it will be in good company. But, given the intended role, it could even be a blessing if it did. The reconnaissance vehicle itself is not a stand-alone piece of equipment but part of the "digitised battlefield" which earlier acquired the label Future Rapid Effects System, and a price tag of £14 billion.

The underlying concept of FRES was to provide an integrated range of lightly armoured, air-portable vehicles, where heavy armour would be dispensed with in favour of high-tech electronic surveillance and digitised, networked communications.

This science-fiction vision of modern warfare would provide real time intelligent and enhanced "situational awareness" enabling potential threats to be detected before they came within striking range, which would then be destroyed by a galaxy of high-tech stand-off weapons, drones and air-delivered precision munitions.

From the very start, the concept was flawed, not least because the original weight limit, set at 22 tons, to allow rapid deployment by C-130s, has grown exponentially. The Ajax stands at 38 tonnes, with a growth potential to 42 tonnes, requiring either an A400M or a C-17.

But any idea of air portability was always a delusion. The RAF simply does not operate a large enough fleet to deliver a usable battle formation, before it must devote its lift capability to re-supply.

The bigger problem, though, is that in the last two of the Army's major deployments it was confronting irregular, guerrilla forces in long-standing insurgencies. No amount of high-tech gimmickry or "situational awareness" can deal with insurgents who can mount hit-and-run raids in civilian dress, drop their weapons and merge into the crowds.

On the other hand, despite the weight and armour of the Ajax, its protection against IEDs is poor. Even with the up-armoured Warriors, which are of similar design, were extremely vulnerable in Afghanistan. And yet, the very next deployment – as far as we know – could end up fighting insurgents again.

Thus, as I wrote in 2014, while the Army doesn't have the first idea of what sort of battles it is going to have to fight in the future, it is selecting kit for the wars it would like to fight, rather than the ones to which it may be committed.

The greater lacuna, I added, is that Ajax is a military machine devoted to collecting real-time information to aid the conduct of a conventional engagement. It is designed to pave the way for fast-moving armoured formations to fight a type of battle that we are most unlikely to encounter.

Yet, as borne out by recent events, what the Army most lacks is a strategic intelligence capability which enables it to understand the complex situations into which it is deployed. It then needs an ongoing capability to analyse the information it does get, in order to fit it into a coherent tactical framework.

Here, I noted, it is very much the experience of those on the ground that there is no shortage of information – per se. Rather, the information very often does not get to the people who need it, analytical capabilities are poor, and the distribution of the finished "intelligence" product is overly restrictive. On top of that, so often, strategic decision-making is poor.

In other words, even if the Ajax programme does manage to deliver, it will not enhance the fighting capability of the Army. All that will happen is that it will acquire some information-gathering machines, to inject more data into a creaking system that is unable to handle what it already gets. Most of what it does gets will be unusable anyway, because it will be the wrong sort of information for the wrong sort of war.

One could, therefore, venture a view that the best thing that could possibly happen is for the Ajax programme to fail. Fortunately, the contract is structured so that we only pay on delivery and, if the vehicle fails to perform, the taxpayer would be saved the cost of another costly failure.

If the Army is again deployed in force, for another long-term commitment, it will have over 500 lumbering Boxers to play with. That should be an improvement on the Snatch Land Rovers with which the Army was equipped initially for Iraq and Afghanistan.

And that equipment should give us the time to buy what we really need through the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) system, a system which delivered Mastiff protected patrol vehicles within six months of them being ordered.

Generally, when we know what it is that we need to buy, the procurement system can perform well and quickly. And, as it stands, we do not need to buy the Ajax.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 10/09/2021 link

Brexit: worse than anyone could possibly imagine

Thursday 9 September 2021  

Amongst the many issues which seem to stretch the capabilities of the legacy media to report, the HGV driver shortage must rank highly in the list. As the saga drags on, the print media and broadcasters seem no further forward in understanding the issue than when they first started reporting on it.

A small, but relevant contribution did, however, make its way into the Guardian on Monday from a former editor of Trucking magazine, Richard Simpson, but then only in the letters page.

He asserted that the shortage of truck drivers had been "a long time coming". Road transport, he wrote, shared with the social care industry an enduring culture of increasing profit by reducing costs, with frontline workers paying the price.

Both transport and care were now dominated by agencies, which seemed to do little for the pounds of flesh that they extracted from staff and clients. Unsurprisingly, Simpson said, people prefer to earn a living in other ways.

There are, he added, about 600,000 people holding LGV cat C (rigid truck) or cat C+E (articulated lorry) licences in the UK who do not currently drive trucks for a living. Why, he asks, would they want to return to the job? Facilities are poor, the hours brutal and the responsibilities onerous.

There is quite evidently a great deal of truth in this and, as I pointed out, in this piece, the crisis had been a long time coming, with shortages forecast well before the EU referendum.

One of the main reasons why the UK did not reach crisis level earlier was because the logistics industry had been able to rely on a flow of ready-trained foreign drivers, mostly from eastern and central Europe, who have been prepared to tolerate the dismal working conditions.

Quite how dismal there were (in part), Pete picked up in this piece, pointing to an industry rife with exploitation which in many instances could easily be described as modern slavery.

Needless to say, this did not stop the industry lobbying government to allow it to continue its exploitative practices, whence it was largely given a free pass by the legacy media, some of which organs were only too keen to pin down the shortage on Brexit.

Belatedly, however, the Daily Mail managed to report that mainland Europe was experiencing an estimated 400,000 lorry driver shortage, which raised questions as to whether Brexit was actually responsible.

Yet, despite all their resources, none of the UK legacy media sought to look into one of the main triggers of the immediate crisis, explained by Pete here, based in part on coverage from Euractiv.

Considering that the Guardian is a media partner with Euractiv, one might have thought it might have followed the coverage, particularly this piece which reported that EU Member States were to take action in the ECJ against the first Mobility Package which had been adopted in July 2020.

The adopted measures in the Mobility Package I, they complained, had gone far beyond the original objectives of reforming EU law on international road haulage and violated EU Treaty provisions. Furthermore, they lead to the distortion of the EU Single Market by introducing artificial administrative barriers to the functioning of road transport companies.

Seven Member States were involved, warning that the measures would result in higher prices for transport services and consequently for goods in the European Union, which will in turn would reduce the EU’s global competitiveness and may increase costs for consumers.

The new legislative acts did not provide a level playing field for EU hauliers and introduce protectionist measures that hinder competition among EU member states. This approach ran counter to the idea of furthering the EU Single Market. Moreover, the geographical specificities of member states located at the external borders of the EU as well as island member states were not taken into account.

But, as Pete explained, the more immediate effect was to change the working conditions for eastern and central European drivers, to their financial disadvantage, making it no longer worth their while to tolerate the poor conditions.

A burgeoning crisis, already forecast by the European Parliament in 2009 – seven years before the EU referendum - suddenly got a whole lot worse, courtesy of the European Commission.

The Euractive reports were in October last year and, since then, the ECJ hearing has disappeared down the rabbit hole. Little had been publicly reported since, other than an attempt by the European Transport Workers' Federation to have the ECJ referral abandoned.

But now we have the logistics industry news website, Loadstar reporting that "acute driver shortages in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) are coming to the fore, amid a post-pandemic spike in volumes".

It cites several sources, including Deutsche Post DHL, which say that supply chains are struggling to find drivers in and around CEE, with one source suggesting this "blew open" the claim that UK driver shortages could be cured with a "dose of European drivers".

A DHL spokesperson is cited, saying, "Our supply chain division is seeing additional demand for drivers, especially in the UK but also North America and parts of Europe". He adds: "The major pinch points in Europe are in the Central Eastern European countries because of a return of volumes and the associated year-on-year increase from the 2020 impact of the Covid pandemic".

Although CEE countries appear worst hit, the knock-on effect from the crisis is being felt widely across Europe, with a port of Hamburg spokesperson acknowledging that Germany was experiencing similar issues.

One haulier, Loadstar tells us, challenged the assertion that there was "simply a pool of Eastern European drivers" other countries could dip into when struggling to train and retain their own. Instead, the haulier said, events in CEE reflected the situation in the UK, namely "an undervalued job was losing its key asset, drivers", and large firms were struggling to recognise their role in this.

The haulier went on to say: "I am actually really pleased this has all come to a head – the big retailers and, by default, the big haulage firms and logistics companies have had it far too easy for far too long when it comes to transport costs". There is a global driver shortage because of poor treatment, and it's all becoming apparent.

But then, he said, the match that "blew open" the lid on the lack of European drivers was lit by an EU law change preventing the weekly 45-hour rest requirement being taken in cabs, and imposing a "return-to-base" rule, requiring drivers to return home every four weeks.

This is exactly the problem Pete reported in his piece. Prior to this, some drivers would accept reduced hourly rates in exchange for unlimited hours, but the new rule meant poor rates and treatment "was no longer worth it".

The haulier dismisses the claim that "tens of thousands of European drivers" suddenly went home after Brexit – significant numbers had settled status. What has happened is that big firms were exploiting drivers from Eastern Europe. Some coped with it, as longer hours meant more money, but others started leaving the industry as the culture and pay were not worth it.

"The rule change occurred", he says, "now this treatment has been exposed and rates are having to go up to lure them back in. But it’s going to take more than that; the shippers and big haulage firms have ignored this issue, so the problem isn’t going away any time soon".

In an additional piece, Loadstar writer Gavin van Marle reiterates points I have made.

For decades, he says, the driver shortage crisis has been hiding in plain sight, and while it is only in the past few months that it has come to the attention to the wider public, the reality is that it has been a slow-burn car crash – some 20 years ago, the consensus in the industry was a shortfall of 15,000.

Each year it has progressively got worse, to the extent that it now stands at 100,000, due to a well-known combination of structural reasons – poor pay; long and unsociable working hours; poor working conditions; a lack of secure, off-road rest facilities; and generally abysmal treatment at the hands of customers.

Van Marle notes that the standard Home Office response to numerous requests to slacken working visa rules for European drivers is that, post-Brexit, "firms now need to invest in UK staff", and offers little else – apart from shortening the HGV driver testing process.

But, Van Marle writes, given the hitherto lack of success in attracting UK drivers, and the now common understanding that, like it or not, haulage is a sector without which the economy would fall apart, the government really needs to get more involved in resolving this. "The responsibility for making the profession more attractive has now spread beyond the industry itself", he adds.

In effect, the industry has got itself in such a mess that it no longer has the ability to solve its own problems – and must look to the Johnson administration to rescue it. We really do have a problem here, worse than anyone could possibly imagine, and it ain't Brexit.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 09/09/2021 link

Afghanistan: nobody cares

Wednesday 8 September 2021  

In the Guardian on Monday, Frank Ledwidge, former soldier, author and academic, wrote a piece of profound importance.

Expressing the view that an inquiry on the Afghanistan debacle was probably likely, he went on to suggest that it wouldn't make any difference. "We know from Iraq", he wrote, "that those with responsibility for 20 years of strategic disaster won't actually be held responsible". There will, he concluded:
… be no accountability for the men (there are only about 25 very senior female officers, with 430 males) who have been crucial in bringing us the most damaging strategic defeat for many decades. We can talk about cultures of impunity, the calumnies of politicians. All that is true. Also true is that the country doesn't really care. It's just not important enough.
Sadly, he's dead right. The evidence of my own blog tells me that, from a carefully researched and written piece about the treatment of one of the most egregious failures of the British military during their occupation of southern Iraq between 2003 and 2009.

Comments which normally run to over 200 and go to, on occasions, 700 or more, stuck at less than 80, of which considerably less than half addressed the subject of the post. By far the most discussed topic was the Northern Ireland Protocol, which wasn't mentioned by me.

Readers who are particularly interested, of course, might have been able to refer to my book, The Ministry of Defeat, except that they can't any more. My publisher has informed me that it is out of print and the sales don't warrant a reprint. A unique perspective has been successfully buried.

However, in asserting that the treatment Afghanistan won't be any different, Ledwidge is also pointing to the reluctance of politicians, the media and the population at large, to criticise the military.

Instead the tendency is to retreat behind the comfortable tropes about our "heroic" soldiers and kid themselves that we have the "best Army in the world", despite its lacklustre performance in two major campaigns. Politicians are fair game, but the military is off limits, so much so that hapless ministers are no uncommonly taking the blame for decisions made by the military, over which they have little control.

It doesn't help, though, when politicians make themselves such easy targets. From his address to the Commons on Monday, the fool Johnson conveyed that he believed elements of the Taliban were "different", with his strategy directed at putting "the maximum pressure on them not to allow the more retrograde elements to have the upper hand".

It only took until the following day for the Taliban to appoint a hard-line caretaker government, with Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund appointed as head of state. This is the man who is currently head of the Taliban's powerful decision-making body, the Rehbari Shura or leadership council.

As an indication of how "different" the Taliban has become, the man hails from Kandahar, the birthplace of the movement. Lacking a military background or administrative experience, he is a religious leader known for his character and devotion.

His government includes Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, one of the founders of the movement and former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Movement (IRMA), while the acting interior minister is Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network who has close links to al Qaeda and the ISIS-K terror group.

Officially designated as a terrorist organisation by the US Government Sirajuddin Haqqani is himself a designated "global terrorist", currently on the FBI's most wanted list. Considered "armed and dangerous", the US is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading directly to his arrest.

The Taliban have also reintroduced its notorious Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the enforcement arm of its extreme version of Sharia law, responsible in the first iteration of Taliban rule for mutilations, public beheadings and the beating and stoning of women.

Needless to say, this "inclusive" government is all male, mostly Pashtun, despite this ethnic group comprising less than 40 percent of Afghanistan's population. According to the Guardian, just three appointees appear to be from other ethnic groups. This is a Pashtuni coup.

As a measure of the mess the new government will have to deal with, the UN is reporting that access to food aid and other life-saving services is close to running out, as concern mounts that the country is facing a "looming humanitarian catastrophe".

On top of an emerging economic collapse, as a remarked earlier, the crises affecting the country would tax the skills of a highly experienced developed government, and is most likely beyond the capability of a group of religious fanatics and terrorists to resolve.

Already, we have had the first taste of the refugee crisis building as a result of the Taliban take-over, and a significant proportion of the dinghy people coming ashore in their thousands are Afghans. But, if – as expected – we see the humanitarian crisis develop, this could be only the start.

The point here is that, one way or another, this current crisis was avoidable and, while the politicians bear a huge responsibility for what has transpired, the military have also had a major hand in shaping this mess. And while soldiers in the field (very much the minority) must be commended for their service and sacrifice, that sentiment should not apply to the senior ranks in strategic planning positions.

However, as long as they can parade in their lanyards and, sashes their chocolate buttons and sewing badges resplendent on their chests, with the KGBs and bars and comfortable pensions, they will bask in the reflected glory of the combat soldiers under their command, and gain immunity from the barbs directed at the politicians.

The worst of it all is that the UK domestic agenda itself is demanding attention as Johnson proposes to raise the tax burden to its highest in 70 years, with no serious plans to deal with the social care crisis. At the same time, he proposes to throw money at an unreformed NHS which has long ceased to function as an effective service, ditching his manifesto promise on pensions at the same time.

Inevitably, as a result, Afghan news is way down page. While on a quiet news day, the appointment of a caretaker government might have had some prominence, the details have been banished from the front pages. 

Currently, on the Telegraph website – by way of example – you would be hard put to find any Afghan news. The lead item in the news section at the time of writing is telling us that: "Wondrous wooden carvings re-emerge after 1,000 years entombed in bird droppings". 

If there ever was a window where the responsibilities of the military might have come under media scrutiny, then it is rapidly closing – if it is not already closed. But then, as Ledwidge points out, nobody cares. And that's why we are doomed to rinse and repeat.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 08/09/2021 link

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