Retailers warn of empty shelves after Brexit if Government refuses to wake up

The British Retail Consortium says investment must be made in ensuring customs is ready for the extra work that will be needed if vital European supply chains aren't to be disrupted

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Wednesday 30 August 2017 10:44 BST
The consequence of Brexit? Empty shelves in a supermarket
The consequence of Brexit? Empty shelves in a supermarket (Getty)

Will empty supermarket shelves be a consequence of Brexit?

The British Retail Consortium thinks that there is a very real danger of that happening, and the best of it is it isn't even the first time the issue has been raised.

The food critic Jay Rayner said much the same thing when turning down an invitation to meet with Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

The fact that the BRC, a sober, serious, trade association, that ought to know what it’s talking about, has issued such a warning really ought to shake ministers out of their complacency.

Its report doesn’t cast a judgement on Brexit as an idea, let's be clear about that. The BRC is simply calling attention to the practicalities of a post-Brexti world.

Which is why the pro Brexit ideologues, who immediately sought to trash it, really ought to belt up and listen. If Brexit is the wonderful opportunity they claim it is, they too ought to be pressing ministers to wake up to the issues the BRC is raising, because it is they who stand to be exposed if its scenario comes to pass.

What has retailers running scared is the vast additional bureaucracy at British ports that will be required for them to be able to get the goods they import through customs and then onto their shelves after the cut off date in 2019.

“While its (the British Government’s) position paper rightly acknowledges the need for a strong customs agreement, there are two vital considerations yet to be mentioned,“ says the trade body in a paper of its own.

“Firstly, the significant investment required in the UK’s ports, roads and infrastructure to get systems ready for Brexit day and thereafter. Secondly, the suite of new agreements supplementing customs that are necessary to side-step additional red tape at ports and docks and prevent delays to goods.”

The UK, or at least that portion of it that voted in favour of Brexit, might have called a pox on all things European but, as the BRC makes clear, European supply chains play a key role in delivering the goods that UK consumers, including them, buy every day.

Most of those goods need to transported quickly, particularly perishables such as food. As such, this country badly needs to have ready a system of controls after Brexit that ensures products can continue to be imported without delays, disruption or additional costs.

That requires investment. Now might be a good time to start putting the money in.

Unfortunately, this doesn't appear to have registered with the Government (if it had the BRC wouldn't need to raise the issue), which coos reassuringly about its desire for a "deep partnership" with the EU while all the while its vocal corps of extremists are insisting that Britain could crash out with no deal. Some are positively rubbing their hands together at potential of that happening. For their electoral prospects they are incredibly foolish to do so.

The issues raised by the BRC, and the reaction to them, is eerily similar to what happened when Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary highlighted the question of air space, and the need to strike a deal over that if the UK is to avoid several months of people needing to fly via Boston if they want to reach Berlin.

Now, at this point it should be noted that the BRC, and Mr O’Leary, are dealing in what ifs. And, because their aim is to get the issues they are raising on to the agenda, relatively pessimistic scenarios that will guarantee headlines.

But that doesn’t detract from the validity of the points they have made.

Because if the Government doesn’t wake up to them, then their pessimistic scenarios will come to pass and it could all get very sticky very quickly.

You would hope that ministers' instincts for self-preservation will, at some point, kick in. A Government that presided over empty shelves at Tesco is on a Ryanair flight to oblivion the next time voters get in front of ballot boxes.

If, when, ministers wake up, and my esteemed colleague John Rentoul highlighted a recent, and surprisingly understated, speech by Boris Johnson, of all people, conceding that the UK will have to pay a divorce bill, there is something they could do to help keep the worst at bay.

It is this: Make a concession. Guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are here. It would remove the misery of uncertainty for hundreds of thousands of people who make an invaluable contribution to British society. It might stop some of them leaving, which would assist our faltering economy.

More to the point, it would also show that the Government is capable of doing the right thing, while belatedly sending a positive message to our European partners.

In that case, who knows, the BRC’s worst fears might not come to pass. Here's hoping.

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