Michele Shirlow MBE – Farm Week Column 1 August 2019

Secretary of State Must Respond to Fears of our Biggest Industry Over No-deal Brexit

I share the anxiety of the Food and Drink Federation(FDF) in Britain over new Prime Minister Boris Johnson talking up a no-deal Brexit. FDF last week warned the Prime Minister and his new cabinet that a ‘crash out” of the EU without a deal could do “mortal damage” to the food and drink industry.

Mortal damage in Britain could mean a catastrophe here for our biggest and most successful industry, one which sustains upwards of 100,000 jobs across a vast supply chain. A recent study suggested that as many as 40,000 jobs are at risk in Northern Ireland if there’s a no-deal and most could be lost in agri-food.

I hope to have an opportunity to express my grave concern to new Secretary of State Julian Smyth at the earliest opportunity and, in particular, to support the call from our friends in the Ulster Farmers’ Union for a smooth and orderly withdrawal from the EU to avoid any possibility of food price rises, shortages and far reaching disruption for shoppers and consumers.

The new Secretary of State can certainly count on some tough talking from industry bodies representing what is after all a £5 billion industry with extensive export markets. I hope the Secretary of State is more proactive and responsive than his predecessors.

We all hope that he comes here with a brief from the Prime Minister to address positively the many challenges facing this part of the UK. We need effective leadership at the NIO as it seems likely that the dreadful deadlock at the Assembly continues without any prospect of agreement between the main political parties.

He needs to get out of the Northern Ireland Office at Stormont quickly to visit companies in food and drink and hospitality, talk to senior managers and meet real people worried about the future of their jobs in this extended period of uncertainty.

His colleague in cabinet, Theresa Villiers, now the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister, will be aware of the strategic importance of the food and drink industry here. We’ve seen the contribution of the food and drink and hospitality industries most recently during The Open at Royal Portrush.

FDF comes down in favour of the government delivering “a withdrawal agreement that guarantees the closest possible trade and regulatory relationship with our nearest neighbours so UK food and drink can flourish”. It’s an approach that makes sense.

An agreement with the EU is crucial to maintaining free trade with our closest neighbours and largest trading partners, as well as access to people that want to come to the UK to work on farms and in processing plants across the country.

There’s evidence of EU workers on many farms and in our factories heading home because of the continuing uncertainty. These employees have long made an important contribution to our industry. Continued access to these highly skilled and easily motivated workers from across the EU is vitally important.

There’s clearly a need for legislation to protect workers essential to the continued growth of our food industry in particular. And urgent action is required in other areas to support the continued growth of the industry.

I wish Mr Smyth well at the NIO and hope that his appointment will see action taken quickly to address the challenges facing our industry.