Richard North, 07/12/2018  

A brief exchange on Wednesday, at a private seminar in London on Brexit, has had me thinking about how far we have to travel before we can even begin to deal with the vast well of ignorance and prejudice which pervades even the knowledgeable and the well-educated.

The context was simple enough – a discussion about the Irish border and whether technology could remove the need for border controls. I had made the point that such claims as had been made applied only to customs controls which was only one small sub-set of a much larger system of checks applied at borders.

Not least, I averred, were the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks, which included checks on live animal movements. There was not a robot yet, I said, that could carry out veterinary examinations of live animals. When you added foodstuff, this meant that there was inevitably going to be a significant amount of activity on the border, with no obvious means of avoiding it.

At that point, my interlocutor airily expostulated that this was just a "matter of bureaucracy", for which a simple solution could be found if there was the will to do so. There was no reason why such issues should provide any obstacle to a Brexit agreement.

So often have I heard such sentiments that the temptation is wearily to dismiss them, but here was an opportunity to lay out before an important audience precisely what was involved.

Laboriously, I explained that, inside the EU, the UK was subject to a system known as "official controls". As set out in my Monograph, these comprise a multi-tier system of controls, starting at the very highest level, with the coordination of food safety policy, to the minutiae of food premises construction and operation, right down to the frequency of inspection and the qualifications of officials engaged in monitoring standards.

As a food safety professional (I still practise), I have been working in and with this system for many decades and looked in great detail at part of it in my PhD research. As such, I have plenty of reservations about the functioning of certain aspects of the system and of the competence of some of the people involved. But, for all that, the fundamental system is sound.

That it should be is hardly surprising. It is a development of, and builds on the British system for controlling the standards of food imported into this country. This (or its failures) came into high profile during the 1964 Aberdeen Typhoid Outbreak, which I looked at in detail here, caused by contaminated corned beef produced by Fray Bentos. The events then are surprisingly relevant to today. 

Sticking only to the points strictly relevant to this narrative, one needs to know that the cause of the outbreak was eventually attributed to a minor defect in the can which had allowed the ingress of typhoid-contaminated process water used to cool the cans.

What was especially interesting about this is that, theoretically, this was supposed to have been detected. It had always been assumed that, if bacteria-laden water got inside a can, once they started feasting on the contents they produced copious quantities of gas.

In order to assure the safety of the food, therefore, it had become standard practice to incubate the cans before release, for up to three weeks. In theory, if the cans were contaminated, the natural flatulence of the bacteria would cause the cans to "blow", providing visible evidence of unfitness.

Like all good theories, though, this had a minor flaw: Salmonella typhi bacteria do not produce gas. Thus, in the rare event that the bacteria gained access to a can of meat, unaccompanied by other bacteria types (which was supposed not to happen), then the incubation would not reveal anything.

The point that emerges from this is that safety systems which rely on a single, end-point safety check are unlikely to be dependable. Derided as "end of pipe solutions", the lessons have been learned (to an extent) and, for most of my working career as a food safety practitioner, I have been dedicated to evaluating and installing multi-tier systems, characterised by a series of overlapping checks.

For all its many flaws, the EU system is just that – a multi-tiered system. And, by all means, a well-endowed white-collar executive in a comfortable venue in fashionable Mayfair, can dismiss this as "bureaucracy". But, there again, he might pause to reflect on when we last had a food-borne typhoid outbreak in Europe or, indeed, in the United States where a very similar system is in force.

Now to put this firmly in the context of Brexit, what the UK will be doing when it leaves the EU (without a comprehensive agreement) is detaching itself from this complex, multi-tiered system. But, with the weight of history and experience behind it, it is not going to rely on a fragile system of border controls.

Hence, upon the UK (which will become a third country), the EU will superimpose a layered system to replace that which has been abandoned. So, this is not a matter of "bureaucracy". This is not something that can be sorted and it is not something that is going to go away.

The trouble is though, there is a huge credibility gap here. Some ten years ago, I wrote a piece called "Invisible Government", remarking on the complexity of modern government and how much of the detail was unknown to most people.

And that really is a problem. So few people know how the detailed business of government operates that they do not understand what is involved. And when, as is the case, we are exposing the system to fundamental changes, there are bound to be consequences. But if people don't even know that the system exists, it is unsurprising that they don't get too concerned about the details.

My further problem is that, to get the message over, one has first to explain the nature of a complex system, how it works, why it works, what we are losing and what has to be done if we are going to mess with it.

Personally, I also find it interesting how my fifty years of background in food safety – with a very rare PhD in the subject – seems to count for nothing when it's up against the ranks of self-appointed Brexit "experts", their media hangers-on and think-tank starlets.

This is especially serious when we have an information environment where people simply do not do detail. They are not interested in detail and the moment an attempt is made, you can see eyes glaze over. It's all "bureaucracy" and, with a little bit of good will, everything can be sorted.

But what I wrote in 2008 stands as much today. When "invisible government", disappears and no one realises it has gone, because so few knew it was there in the first place, that has the makings of a tragedy.

If we are going to mess around with complex systems, then we need to know what we're doing and the potential consequences. Yet, as we listen to the MPs prattling their way through the debate in the House of Commons, amplified by the echo-chamber of the media, I don't get any sense that there is any understanding of what Brexit really involves.

It just so happens that food safety (and in particular cross border trade in food) is one of the oldest and best-established areas of community activity. The interest goes back to the directives of the early 60s, when the EEC was in place and we hadn't even joined.

Since then, what is now the EU has got itself involved in a huge number of safety-critical systems. And while one can so very easily rail against the bureaucracy inherent in these systems – and the general inadequacies of their laws – what we should not be doing is countenancing rapid change that will cause unnecessary stresses in safety-critical systems.

And this is where we came in with Flexcit. Far from supporting the idea of the EU's Single Market, it was always my objective that it should eventually be abolished. But what you simply mustn't do is dismantle systems that have taken many decades to build up, without taking the time to ensure that there are workable alternatives in place. Hence, there was always a need for a plan, and there still is.

Those of us who have been involved at the sharp end, away from the comfortable offices and the sneery certainties of the Westminster village, know how fragile some of the systems really are, and how easy it is for things to go wrong. Such things go beyond politics, or should do so. Those people who are messing with Brexit are not only changing people's lives - they are putting them at risk.

Whatever one might think of Brexit – and I am not going to entertain that debate here – it is incumbent on government to manage the process effectively. So far, we are not seeing any evidence that government is discharging that duty. But not only does it need to get a grip. Parliament also needs to take a long, hard look at itself. It too needs to remind itself of where its duty lies.

We have got to the stage now (and have been for some time) when the prattle has to stop. But is there anyone left in Westminster who is capable of doing anything else?

comments powered by Disqus

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Buy Now

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few