Brexit: So will Johnson act to avoid ‘further unnecessary pain’?: Ian McConnell

As the ruling Conservatives keep patting themselves on the back over their hard Brexit, even amid the internal party strife over Boris Johnson’s position, they seem unlikely to listen to a plea for them to help Scottish businesses and communities avoid “further unnecessary pain”.

Nevertheless, it is important such appeals are made. And, while it seems unlikely based on their track record that the current vintage of Conservatives will act to alleviate the Brexit woe they have heaped on businesses, the economy and communities, the Johnson administration does have a responsibility to do so.

The plea came on Monday from Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands.

And it focused on the effects of Brexit on Scotland’s rural communities, and key food and drink sector.

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Ms Gougeon is telling it as it is –food and drink is a sector which has been among those hit hardest by labour and skills shortages arising from the Johnson hard Brexit and the loss of free movement of people between the UK and European Union member states.

Walker’s Shortbread, one of Scotland’s venerable food producers, last October highlighted the challenges after losing around 400 members of staff from EU countries as a result of Brexit (around one-quarter of its normal workforce).

Director Jim Walker said then: “Shortage of labour is our biggest issue now, and some problems with supplies as well. But mainly labour is our biggest problem.”

Spelling out the realities for the company, which apply to other food producers and companies across a raft of sectors operating in relatively small and remote communities as well as in other areas, Mr Walker said: “We are in a position here where there is a very small community. There’s only about 800, 900 people in Aberlour… so it is hard getting the people we need.”

Like a broken record, you hear the “Brexit is done” and “we just need to get on with it” refrains from many in the Leave camp.

The act of Brexit is indeed done but the effects, as these people should be well aware, are having a huge impact and will continue to do so over years and decades.

Surely a government interested in people’s standard of living, and in wealth creation and the economy would act to mitigate such problems. The difficulty in this situation, however, is that the problems are of the Johnson administration’s own making and it would need to admit them as a starting point to securing limitation of the damage. Meanwhile, the spotlight has been elsewhere, with Mr Johnson embroiled in the Downing Street lockdown party furore.

British Chambers of Commerce called this week for “urgent action to improve trade with Europe”.

Noting 60 per cent of UK exporters surveyed by it in November reported difficulties in trading with the European Union, an increase from an already high 49% in January last year, British Chambers declared: “It is clear urgent action is needed.”

William Bain, head of trade policy at British Chambers, said: “No one is expecting goods to flow as freely across the channel now as they did prior to Brexit. But the way the trade agreement is being interpreted in 27 different EU countries is a major headache for UK business – especially smaller firms without the cash reserves to set up new EU-based arrangements. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible for the UK Government and EU to take a pragmatic approach and work together to reach new understandings on a consistent interpretation of the rules and to build on them further.”

Of course, barring the UK rejoining the European single market in some way or another, the detrimental effect of Brexit on the country will inevitably be huge.

However, what Ms Gougeon, British Chambers and many others are doing is flagging some problem areas and asking for these to be addressed. And they should be addressed – there is no excuse for the UK Government letting ideology get in the way of taking sensible action to try to mitigate its self-inflicted damage.

The Scottish Government on Monday highlighted Ms Gougeon’s intention to “raise labour and skills shortages, as well as the burden of red tape, as barriers to trade at an Inter-Ministerial Group for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs” being held later that day.

Noting “total food and drink exports to the EU in 2019 were worth around £2.6 billion – accounting for 40% of Scotland’s total overseas food and drink exports”, it added: “In the first nine months of 2021, Scotland’s food and drink exports to the EU were 12.1% lower than the equivalent period in 2019.”

The UK left the European single market and customs union at 11pm UK time on December 31, 2020 (after technical Brexit on January 31, 2020), so the much-reduced exports in the opening nine months of 2021 relative to pre-pandemic levels is indeed something that should make the Johnson administration sit up and take note. Ms Gougeon called on the UK Government to re-engage with the EU to find solutions to the blockages facing Scottish exporters.

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Speaking ahead of Monday’s meeting, Ms Gougeon said: “Two years on, Brexit has failed to deliver a single benefit for Scotland’s rural communities, or the countless food and drink businesses that support them. Fragile rural and island communities are bearing the brunt of a hard Brexit, recklessly pursued while a global pandemic has ravaged our society and our economy.”

“Failed to deliver a single benefit” will resonate with many as an apt assessment of the situation. It is also right that Ms Gougeon highlights the fragility of rural and island communities in the context of the damage being done by Johnson and co.’s hard Brexit. The UK Cabinet should be aware of this fragility but who knows?

Laying out the problems on the ground, which the Johnson administration should be up to speed with, Ms Gougeon said: “Scotland’s food and drink sector has been a global success story, providing highly paid, highly skilled jobs, and businesses, often in remote rural and island communities. But Brexit has caused labour and skills shortages and created barriers to trade that have harmed many businesses and communities in the short term, with research suggesting a significant risk to their success in the longer term too.

“Scottish exporters are also being forced to cope with a mountain of complex, time-consuming and costly customs and borders arrangements. Businesses put in huge amounts of preparation for the new export health certificates introduced this year, but they still face uncertainty around the level of certification needed to ensure valuable seafood exports enter the EU without delay.”

The Scottish Government is calling for a 24-month visa for temporary workers to alleviate the labour and skills shortages which continue to weigh on the food and drink sector.

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This would obviously be nothing like as good as free movement but it would hopefully take away some of the woe, within the strictures imposed by the Johnson administration’s ideological clampdown on immigration.

The food and drink sector, much of it in rural areas, is a huge contributor to the overall Scottish economy.

It has a turnover of around £15 billion with about 17,500 food and drink businesses employing around 122,000 people, according to the Scottish Government, which noted that 88% of sheep-meat exports, 78% of seafood exports, 75% of pig-meat exports and 30% of Scotch whisky exports go to the EU.

Ms Gougeon said: “The UK Government must listen to the needs of Scottish businesses and re-engage in good faith with the EU to find pragmatic solutions to the problems still facing businesses, before they – and the communities they support – endure further unnecessary pain.”

This seems only sensible. After all, what kind of government would not act to avoid unnecessary pain for households and businesses? Nevertheless, sadly the chances of what Ms Gougeon suggests should happen appear remote indeed.

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