The government’s lack of preparation for a no-deal Brexit could cause chaos as millions of tonnes of waste pile up and the UK is unable to prevent foreign fishing fleets entering its waters, a committee in the House of Lords has warned.
While noting progress had been made “under very difficult circumstances”, a letter addressed to environment secretary Michael Gove has raised serious concerns about his department’s ability to cope with such an outcome.
The Lords European Union Energy and Environment Sub-Committee scrutinised the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) preparations for a no-deal Brexit in a meeting with Mr Gove earlier this month.
Prior to this, the National Audit Office had concluded that the department was at “high risk” of not having necessary plans in place for a no-deal scenario.
Following from Mr Gove’s testimony, the committee chair Lord Teverson wrote to him outlining five key problem areas.
They expressed concerns about obtaining a post-Brexit status that will allow livestock to be transported to Europe.
“You acknowledged that this process could take six months, during which time no animal exports could take place,” Lord Teverson wrote. “This would be catastrophic for the UK’s agri-food sector”.
The peers urged Mr Gove and his officials to seek agreement with the EU on a “fast-track” process that would bypass this long wait, which has previously been hinted at but not agreed upon.
In earlier evidence to the committee, Mr Gove explained that his biggest concern in a no-deal scenario was what would happen at ports.
Around a fifth of British exports currently reach the EU via the Dover to Calais route. Animal products will only be allowed to enter the EU through a border inspection post in a no-deal situation, and Calais has no such post.
A solution to this problem would be re-routing animal exports to the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Antwerp, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The lords said such a situation would involve exports leaving from different UK ports, and asked what measures had been put in place to prepare for this major shift.
They also raised the issue of waste exports, which Defra thinks could take over six months to sort out after Brexit. The industry has pointed out that such an interruption to the supply chain could result in nearly 2 million tonnes of waste stranded in the UK.
Control over fisheries was another major concern, according to Lord Teverson, especially considering the import status it had in the Brexit debate.
“You will be well aware that, in the eyes of many members of the public, one of the perceived benefits of Brexit is the ability to control who can fish in UK waters,” Lord Teverson wrote. “We suspect they would be surprised to hear, therefore, that the UK will follow whatever quota allocation is agreed at the annual EU summit in December 2018.”
In practice, this means EU fishing fleets will continue to have access to British waters until the end of 2019.
The committee questioned the fisheries control and enforcement policies that Defra would have in place before March, and whether it had assessed the fishing industry’s view of continued EU incursions into UK waters.
In August, rocks and smoke bombs were hurled at British fishing vessels in the English Channel by French fishermen in so-called “scallop wars”, and Lord Teverson asked if there was any risk of these conflicts repeating themselves when EU vessels continued fishing in British waters.
The committee also said they were “disturbed to hear” from Mr Gove that he was not aware of many of the issues surrounding chemical regulations following Brexit.
“Has your department received no representations from industry on this issue? Now that you are aware, how do you intend to overcome this challenge?” Lord Teverson asked.
Responding to the letter, a Defra spokesperson said: “We remain confident that we will agree a mutually advantageous deal with the EU, however it is the duty of a responsible government to prepare for a range of potential outcomes including ‘no deal’. Defra is working hard to carry out extensive preparations to make sure environmental, welfare and biosecurity standards will continue to be met in a way that supports trade and the smooth flow of goods.”
In a separate report released on Tuesday, the same Lords committee warned that the UK’s biosecurity could be compromised after Brexit due to the loss of EU systems to prevent diseases and invasive species entering the country.
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