David Thomson: Brexit is already costing us millions – and no deal would be a disaster

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Since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, we have been working with the UK and Scottish Governments to ­understand what this will mean for the food and drink industry. We still have no real clarity on how our food and drink companies will be affected by Brexit in key areas such as workforce, ­trading, market access, food safety and regulation.

The Prime Minister has postponed the vote in the UK parliament on her Brexit deal. This deal needs to be approved by UK Parliament and this further delay is making the prospect of a ‘no deal’ more and more likely. This would be catastrophic for our food and drink industry.

David Thomson, CEO, Food and Drink Federation Scotland

David Thomson, CEO, Food and Drink Federation Scotland

Despite the uncertainty, our ­members have been preparing for Brexit as best as they can. Guidance from governments has been ­welcome, but of limited practical use.

Contingency planning around the possible outcomes for a deal between the UK and EU is very costly. In fact, one of our members has estimated that the staff time and resources invested in trying to understand potential outcomes has cost them £100,000 to date. In the UK, 97 per cent of food and drink manufacturing businesses are SMEs – many of these companies don’t have the ­people, resource or money to do this kind of preparation.

As part of contingency planning, some of our members are reviewing their stock to ensure they have enough supply to ship before the end of March 2019. Much of this stock will be produced with the assumption it will be sold – which may not be the case.

This is costing companies several hundreds of thousands of pounds in storage costs. Other companies may not be able to stockpile as there is a shortage of warehousing capacity in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Trade is one of the most important parts of the future deal between the UK and EU. If we don’t have a trade deal the UK would be subject to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and tariff rates. Present WTO tariff rates on many agri-food ­products and goods will exceed the profit margin a company makes. Since the EU is an important export market for many food and drink companies across the UK this would be disastrous for our industry.

WTO rules and tariff rates would also apply to ingredients and materials being imported from the EU into the UK. Around half of all the food we eat in the UK is sourced from abroad, 70 per cent of that from the EU. The weakening of the pound against other foreign currencies, but most importantly the Euro and the US ­dollar, is resulting in increased costs of purchasing ingredients, packaging and equipment.

One of our members sources 30 per cent of ingredients and packaging from Europe and the rest of the world and has seen a sharp increase in raw material and packaging. This is before we have even left the EU. It is vital that a trade deal with the EU is agreed soon. Changes to customs arrangements at ports such as Dover could mean delays to perishable food and drink consignments.

It remains unclear to whether the UK Government will get a deal in place before exit date. A no deal ­Brexit will threaten jobs and potentially cause food shortages. Yet that isn’t all our sector has to cope with.

There are a huge number of ­policy initiatives and regulations coming from Holyrood and Westminster on areas such as diet and health and plastics. This includes both Scottish and UK Government’s consulting separately on restricting promotions of food and drink products – which could mean companies have to ­comply with two different sets of regulations.

The Scottish Government has consulted on the design of a deposit return system for drinks containers in Scotland and the UK Government announced they would consult on a similar system for England. Can you imagine having different systems in place in Scotland, England and ­other devolved nations? The UK Government is proposing a new tax on ­plastic packaging as well as changes to packaging and waste regulations. This list is not exhaustive and is very overwhelming for food and drink companies.

With that in mind, for as long as a no deal Brexit remains a possibility it cannot be simply ­‘business as usual’. The time is fast approaching when the UK and Scottish Governments must ‘stop the clock’ on other policy initiatives and concentrate on getting the best possible Brexit deal to ensure our vital industry ­continues to thrive.

David Thomson, CEO, Food and Drink Federation Scotland.