MPs tell government to invest in Defra IT systems to minimise Brexit disruption to imports and exports

Environment select committee also calls on department to publish ‘sector-by-sector analysis of the impact of Brexit’

It is “imperative” that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) invests in IT systems to minimise delays in the import and export of food after Britain leaves the European Union, MPs have warned.

The cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee said post-Brexit “friction to trading routes” was inevitable and must be addressed in any future agreement between the EU and the UK.

In a report setting out the scale of Brexit challenges for the agricultural industry, including the possibility of higher export tariffs if there is no EU-UK trade deal by March 2019, MPs also called for the department to introduce a fund to support UK farmers.

The committee pledged to hold the environment secretary Michael Gove to account for his insistence that post-Brexit trading arrangements will not compromise animal welfare, environmental, and food standards. Its report was published ahead of the announcement this week that Gove plans to introduce a subsidy for farmers who treat livestock well as part of the redistribution of £3bn in EU subsidies for the UK farming industry.

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At the moment, animal products from outside the EU are only allowed to enter at designated border inspection posts, of which there are just a few on the northern coast of the EU nearest to Britain. Some 16,000 trucks pass through the Port of Dover every day – capacity that has only been achieved by removing all checks at both Dover and Calais. Meanwhile, approximately 390,000 live lambs cross the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland each year.

The government has announced it intends to agree comprehensive free trade and customs arrangements with the European Union after Britain leaves the bloc, to minimise disruption to trade. But the environment committee said there was “no guarantee that this will occur”, and that increased friction to trading routes was inevitable in any event.

It called on the government to ensure that a future agreement addresses the costs and delays associated with customs and border controls, and called on Defra to focus on getting IT and infrastructure up to scratch to deal with additional checks in the future.

“Delays at border inspection posts lead to increased costs, and are a threat to perishable goods,” said the report. “It is imperative that the government sets out how it intends to ensure that the right IT systems and infrastructure are in place for the import and export of agricultural produce so that businesses can continue to trade smoothly with Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, and the rest of the world.”

The committee also called for Defra to publish “a sector-by-sector analysis of the impact of Brexit” before the publication of an Agriculture Bill that will set out the government’s plans, and also urged ministers to “consider providing a fund to support our food producing industry to adapt effectively to the challenge ahead”.

It said an Agriculture Bill should be published as soon as possible, the working rights of vets who are EU nationals should be secured, and Defra should consider introducing policies that stimulate home-grown food production.

Committee chair Neil Parish pointed out that 60% of the UK’s agricultural exports and 70% of its imports are from the EU, while the UK’s agricultural sector employs one in eight people in the UK and generates over £110bn.

He called on the government to explain how it would safeguard the livelihoods of UK farmers and guarantee domestic food security after Brexit, adding that an analysis of each farming sector was the first step.

“UK agriculture will need to adapt to the changed trading circumstances following Brexit, so the government should consider putting funding in place to enable farmers to do so,” he said.

“It is crucial that the government takes positive political action towards new trading relationships as a matter of priority. We should under no circumstances compromise on our world-renowned animal welfare, environmental, and food standards. Brexit should be an opportunity to improve, not undermine, our global reputation for quality.”

Responding to the report, a Defra spokesperson said: “Leaving the EU gives us a golden opportunity to secure ambitious free-trade deals while supporting our farmers and producers to grow and sell more great British food. Any future deal must work for UK farmers, businesses, and consumers, and we will not compromise on our high environmental or welfare standards.”

The report follows an update on Brexit spending which revealed that Defra had received the biggest chunk of the Treasury’s £245m pot in 2017-18 for departments requiring additional funds for work to prepare Britain for leaving the EU.

Sam Trendall

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