Richard North, 19/02/2018  

It was only a little while ago that I was ruminating about the inadequacies of select committees, with a particular focus on the proceedings of the Brexit committee.

This time, it's the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee, chaired by Conservative MP (and former MEP) Neil Parish, which has delivered a report on "Brexit: Trade in Food". And what an appallingly slender document it is.

The report was an opportunity to tell it like it is – what happens to food and farming once we leave the European Union. Instead, amongst other things, what we got was that:
Non-tariff barriers are also a huge concern to the agricultural industry. These will add additional paperwork and checks to trade, with the potential to cause an additional expense and delays to businesses. The Government must be prepared for a situation where we trade under WTO rules, and start preparing accordingly.
This is a report that concerns itself mainly with tariffs, and that it its first big weakness. For sure, if we walk away from the EU and decide to adopt the full monty on tariffs, food prices will take a hit. But that very fact makes it most unlikely that we will go down that path. Even this inept government is capable of closing a deal that lets in food from EU territories tariff and quota-free.

It has always been the case, therefore, that the real grief will come with non-tariff barriers. These are not "also a huge concern". They don't just have the potential to cause "additional expense and delays". That's rather like saying that the H-bomb that's just been released over London has the potential to raise street temperatures for a while.

Non-tariff barriers, in respect of food and farming are the main event and, unless we take heroic efforts to mitigate their effect, they are a show-stopper. Exports to the EU come to a screeching halt and remain blocked for the foreseeable future. Imports are difficult and slow, and it is almost certain that we will see significant shortages in the aftermath of Brexit, once any transitional period it over.

But from Neil Parish and his band of MPs, we get no evidence that they even begin to understand this. For a start, they deal with the matter of Border Inspection Posts and veterinary checks under the subject heading of "customs checks". Yet, as readers of this blog will readily understand, these are not customs checks. They are official controls, set out in Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 and are not part of the Union Customs Code (UCC).

From the phrasing of the report, however, it seems the MPs think that the absence of veterinary checks that we enjoy now stem from our membership of the Customs Union, and then refer to "evidence" taken on the impact of the UK trading as a third country.

Should that status apply (and they seem to convey that this is option), they tell us that "the UK will be subject to strict customs checks and controls at the first point of entry into the territory of the EU, to ensure that products are of a satisfactory standard".

One could take from this a certain ambiguity in that the "controls" could be considered separate from the "customs checks", but that is grasping as straws. The MPs are marking down veterinary checks as customs checks. They are not. They MPs have got it wrong – they don't know what they are talking about.

For the nature of the "official controls", the MPs could get their researchers to read the relevant parts of Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 into the record. They also have the advantage of the Notice to Stakeholders on "Withdrawal of the United Kingdom and EU Food Law", published on 1 February. Heavens forefend, they could even have read my Monograph 17 on food exports to the EU.

But they do none of these things. Instead, they rely on five pages of written evidence from N G Brooks, a retired former Principal Veterinary Administrator in DG Sante of the European Commission.

In one material respect he gets things wrong, declaring that, "in the absence of any negotiated agreement between the UK and EU, we risk overnight on the day of exit becoming a third country with the practical problems for transport and export of animal food products that will ensue".

But, short of us staying in the EEA (which Theresa May has said we will not do), we automatically become a third country. There is no "risk" – as in probability: we will become a third country, with all that that entails.

Mr Brooks then goes on to specify what that entails, but he makes two important omissions. The first is in the Notice to Stakeholders, and – as we pointed out recently, on becoming a third country after Brexit, the UK will no longer be listed as a country from which foods of animal origin may be imported.

This alone, I wrote, will mean the complete cessation of imports until such time as the UK is listed – a process which must apply product by product, and sector by sector. There is no single listing applying to all products. And how long that will take simply isn't known. The EU can fast-track certain provisions by, in the main, full listing could take anything up to six months or even more.

In proper evaluation of the effects of Brexit on the food industry, this should be stated. After all, this is exactly what the Commission is telling us. But Mr Parish and his MPs don't think it important. More to the point, their incompetent evidence gathering and their reliance on witnesses has led them to produce gravely flawed work.

Then there is the second thing missed by Brooks. All establishments in the United Kingdom from which the food is dispatched to the EU, and obtained or prepared in, must be "listed" by the Commission for public health purposes under Regulation (EC) No 854/2004. But, as the Commission points out, on Brexit, this Regulation will no longer apply. These establishments will no longer be approved to export to the EU.

When the hurdles are overcome (assuming that we maintain regulatory convergence), there is then the matter of the BIPs – and their acute shortage. The Committee seems to note this, remarking that "this would limit the ports through which UK exporters of products of animal origin may initially send or route their consignments". It also notes that, "Current border inspection posts are not capable of dealing with additional checks required from imports and exports to and from the EU".

Thus, you might have thought that the Committee would put two and two together. After all, "not capable of dealing" means that consignments will not be dealt with. But, all we get from the Committee is:
Any change in our trade arrangements has implications for the smooth movement of goods between the EU and the UK, and could lead to serious disruption to supply chains. A future bespoke agreement must address the costs and delays associated with customs and border controls.
and …
Delays at border inspection posts lead to increased costs, and are a threat to perishable goods. It is imperative that the Government sets out how it intends to ensure that the right IT systems and infrastructure are in place for the import and export of agricultural produce so that businesses can continue to trade smoothly with Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, and the rest of the world.
There is more to the report, but we need go no further. If this is the best the select committee system can offer, it needs to be wound up forthwith. All it is doing is wasting time and money.

And then there is the opportunity cost. An uncritical media, with no specialist knowledge, reports the drivel, with both the Independent and the Guardian being among those which miss the crucial points.

With the select committee having visited the subject, there is now no need for the media to revisit it. Ignorance will prevail.

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