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Brexit: road-kill

2021-02-16 07:37:47

So established has the new genre of hardship tales become that, the other day, the Financial Times actually gave one of its headlines a category heading of "Brexit woes".

This particular story was about the struggles of small-scale UK gin and whisky distillers who are finding it very difficult to ship single pallets of spirits to EU customers, because of the complexities in handling bonded goods.

In due course, it is conceded that distillers and freight forwarders will get used to the paperwork but no one is under any illusions that trading will be as simple as before. Slower and more costly is the new normal.

With that, there is clearly a limit to the number of "Brexit woes" the media are prepared to handle and, while the focus is still on Covid-19, they are not exactly rolling off the presses. They are there to find, but more of the character of "road kill", left by the side of the carriageway for the carrion crows to pick at.

Some tales of woe find a readier audience than others. With the show-biz luvvies crawling all over the problems of UK artists, actors and musicians touring in Europe, there is still a market for reports about the travails of budding British artistes, burdened with higher fees, paperwork and permit issues.

Bristol singer Elles Bailey, therefore, despite being barely known outside her immediate fan base, is allowed by the BBC to complain that the additional costs of a 12-country European tour could cost her at least an extra 10,000 before she has even left the country.

The national media, however, seems to be rather selective on who (and which industries) it allows access to its whinge-fest. While the lovely Elles Baileys of this world are sympathetically handled, with fishermen and certain other industries given extensive publicity, there are curious omissions in the coverage.

For instance, very early in January 2017, I warned that horseracing (and by implication, related activities) would have a much harder time of it after Brexit. And, by and large, this warning has come true, although one would struggle to find any mention of the industry's problems in the legacy media.

In the latest edition of the Racing Post, though, there is a long article headed: "The Brexit burden: trainer reveals the full cost of getting horses to France", coming after trainer Richard Hobson posted on Twitter an itemised breakdown of the new costs of taking three horses to France.

Hobson relies on being able to run horses in France from his base near Cheltenham and sending others on longer stays to his satellite operation there, and listed costs totalling almost 2,000 for sending three across. These included 420 for the Animal Station at Calais, vet charges for the health certificate of 186, and 340 for export clearances at Dover and Calais.

Although some responded with little sympathy to Hobson's tweet, assuming that rich racehorse trainers could easily absorb the costs, he was quick to point out that shipping these horses was an essential part of his business.

These particular animals had been young horses, he said, on their way to their first races in France, for which he had carried the best part of three years-worth of costs from when they were foals. He wants to try to win a couple of races and then sell them on.

"From that side of things", Hobson said, there are massive expenses before they even see the track and this is just extra cost on top before I can even think about selling them. "The bottom line" he said, was that previously he had been paying for the ferry, a 50 export licence and a racecourse clearance to go to France.

Even then, in his itemised bill he had not included the extra 1,000 per horse in VAT payments, which he would not recoup as they are unlikely to be returning to Britain.

Hobson added: "With a young horse you can estimate the value and if it wasn't bought at auction or led out unsold, a lot of people will just say it's worth 500. I've been realistic and said they're worth five grand. He says he cannot claim the money back because where they are going in France was not VAT-registered.

Nor were costs the whole extent of the problem. In addition to the extra costs and planning involved, there are considerable delays before even leaving Britain.

For instance, Hobson says, "We've got a horse, Eureu Du Boulay, who runs next week at Fontainebleau and you have to do a carnet for them." Although he says the carnet covers ten return trips, and you can put as many horses on there as you want, once the ten trips are up, that's another 700.

"After that", he adds, we'll probably have three or four runners going back and forth, depending on what they can win. You can't go splashing out two grand every time if you're going to come back empty handed".

Of potential delays in crossing, Hobson complains "I've got to be down there at eight o'clock on Friday morning which means leaving home at four because I've been warned that I might not be getting on a ferry until four in the afternoon.

"The movement of horses in our business is massive", he says. "So many people rely on it at the smaller end. Of course you get the big consignors and the big-money people who won't think twice. They get the right people to do the paperwork and whatever it costs, they'll pay it".

But, he warns, "There are a lot of people like me trying to make ends meet and have a bit of success. We're trying to attract a few new owners, have a few winners and to make it pay".

Oddly, there's another piece about the subject in Horse and Hound, where showjumper William Funnell complains that the extensive paperwork and the costs involved in transporting horses across the Channel along with the effects of Covid - are a "disaster for our industry".

A side effect of the new rules is that drivers have to have a certificate of professional competence, and their vehicles have to be inspected to see if it is fit to carry horses for more than eight hours. To get this, Funnell says, you have to take your empty lorry into Europe, to get it inspected and collect the paperwork.

For his last tour, he had to book a haulier to take his horses to Calais while he took empty lorries to Calais to get the paperwork done, before he could pick up his own horses and carry on down to Spain.

On top of that, Funnell says, you need a carnet, a Coggins test (for equine infectious anaemia, a disease which hasn't existed in the UK for nearly a decade) and each horse's health papers now run to 32 pages with the vet having to sign every single page. (Funnell doesn't say anything about the coloured crayons, though).

To add insult to injury, the costs of crossing the Channel have risen considerably, with the ferry having increased by 75 per horse, while the train has upped its rates by an eye-watering 300 per horse, ruling that out as a transport option.

Funnell admits to having voted to leave at the referendum, but now says that if he'd realised the full rigmarole it would cause, "I certainly would have thought twice".

The like of these stories, one might think, would be meat an drink for a media which was supposedly interested in news. But the casual way reports of post-Brexit troubles are reaching us, almost with the randomness of road-kill, one suspects that we're only hearing a fraction of the problems being experienced, and then with no coherence behind their selection.

This must very much benefit the Johnson administration, which is keen to dismiss problems as "teething troubles". But, if horse racing and allied activities are any guide, the indications are that the true extent of the post-Brexit trauma is being understated and heavily distorted. But, when the truth finally emerges (if it ever does), Johnson may find that the issue still has the potential to do him serious damage.

Also published on Turbulent Times.