The first in our series of articles (second here) looking at the looming supply chain crisis in the UK.
Sir John Hayes (Conservative MP for South Holland and the Deepings) is a stalwart of the Tory party right wing and an ardent Brexiter. At the beginning of June he wrote a piece for his local paper, Spalding Today, under the heading “Globalisation is bad for British firms and workers”.
Globalisation is bad for Britain
It’s a curious article for someone so strongly in favour of Brexit as Sir John. Yes, it’s full of praise for British farming especially in his constituency, which produces 30% of the UK’s food; and he argues for greater support for farmers and growers ‘for all our sakes’. You might expect no less.
But while he has spent much of his parliamentary life complaining about trade with countries on our doorstep, here he is warning against “throwing open the doors of our markets to a tidal wave of foreign goods.” Suddenly he seems to have become aware that global free trade which he has supported and argued for, has substantial risks for the food and farming industry he represents.
He doesn’t want imports from thousands of miles away because “the introduction of thousands of tonnes of Australian beef could very easily completely unbalance our internal market to the detriment of farmers across the UK”. He warns that the “food miles involved in flying goods into the UK from from across the world means burning fuel non-stop to bring produce here”, without acknowledging this as an obvious consequence of leaving the single market and relying on places like Australia.
He proposes that the government should compel local authorities to buy their produce locally because “local provisions can go a long way to ensuring our food security, the traceability of goods and appropriate standards”, with no apparent recognition or awareness of the fact the UK is not food self-sufficient or that the Australian deal will serve as a template for other global food suppliers such as Brazil and the USA. He says nothing about the government’s plan to bribe farmers to leave the land. Sir John won’t admit this but the contradictions in his argument are bellowing from the rooftops.
Bad news for agriculture
For much of the past five years actual trade experts have been pointing out the nonsense of this global free trade position, to no avail. Now we are starting to find out the real consequences of the Brexit Sir John and others have always wanted. 2021 has seen a rising tide of bad news for food and agriculture in all its forms. The New Year had hardly got going before it became clear that the fishing industry – especially shellfish – would be devastated. As Spring began, stories started emerging of farmers concerned at shortages of labour. Flower farmers in Lincolnshire and those producing soft fruit were quick to voice concerns at the cost to their businesses.
Shortly after Sir John wrote his piece at the start of June, it was apparent that distributing food was likely to become difficult because many European HGV drivers were avoiding the UK. There was particular concern this would impact the supply of chilled food. The warnings are now coming thick and fast. The Grocer has reported that major supermarkets are having to scramble to find their own solutions to the shortage of drivers.
The British Growers Association is the latest food industry body to warn of a ‘real prospect’ of food shortages as the challenges posed by the shortage of Eastern European farm labour merge with problems in the haulage industry; and reports of crops having to be abandoned in the field are starting to appear while hauliers are planning to relocate to the EU.
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The government is trying to come up with solutions such as extending drivers’ working hours and changing visa rules but the problems are now being noticed in Sir John’s own backyard. Two weeks after his piece appeared in Spalding Today the same paper ran an article spelling out the growing problems faced by horticulture in South Holland; it also recently reported a local haulage company’s scathing verdict on the idea of extending driver hours as ‘sticking plaster on wet cement.’
So Sir John has a problem he dare not admit to. He doesn’t want trade with the EU for political reasons. He’s wary of trade with distant countries because of the threats to his constituents’ livelihoods. He makes no mention of the fact that prices are likely to rise as shortages occur hitting communities across the country which are dependent on low-paid jobs hardest. South Holland and the Deepings is one such area.
Five years after the referendum, and all the arguments and the promises that persuaded his constituents to give him a majority of over 30,000 in December 2019, could it be that Sir John may have to eat his own words?