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Brexit means… what?

Theresa May has finally given her first big speech on leaving the EU. Are we any the wiser? Footprint asked five experts for their views.

The lawyer: A little bit of clarity.

“Over the last six months a few things are clearer. We now know, for instance, the government needs to pass a law to trigger Article 50 and we are leaving the single market. The first is a good thing. The other, in my view, is not so much. We also know that we will ‘transpose’ EU laws into UK law, but how remains a mystery (it is far more complicated than many think – just identifying the laws is not a simple task). How this is done and what the fabled great repeal bill looks like will determine the likely impact on the sector. The more people scratch the surface of what the future will look like, the more ‘unknown unknowns’ start to pop up. How will the customs process work? Will EU test houses still be accepted? And what of the decisions made by the European Food Safety Authority? International trade is top of the government’s list. The food sector therefore needs to be at the front of the government’s mind when negotiating begins, otherwise it is likely to miss out. I predict a rocky ride ahead as we adjust to the new normal and some of those unknown unknowns turn into knowns.”

Dominic Watkins, partner, DWF


The restaurateur: As we were.

“The good news is that the economy is still holding tight. The UK economy has shown growth of 0.6% in the fourth quarter as per the economic experts in the BBC. As a result, restaurants see our customers still spending. On the other hand, a weak pound has ensured that we are paying more for our meat, poultry and vegetables from Europe. Wines and spirits have also been affected. Some restaurateurs have passed this on to customers and others like us have absorbed it, thus reducing our margins. In her speech in January, the prime minister spoke about ‘embracing the world’ and nurturing a global relationship with non-EU countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, the catering industry is still desperate for clarity on matters of immigration and attracting skilled labour from these countries into the UK. Thus, we are more or less in the same place where we were six months ago.”

Dev Biswal, head chef/owner, Ambrette restaurants


The labour expert: BHA needs to step up.

“As we predicted back in August, curbing immigration appears to be one of Theresa May’s top priorities going into Brexit negotiations. As a result the UK appears to be heading for a ‘hard Brexit’, whereby the country will leave the single market. This will affect the ability of farmers and caterers to hire EU workers, with the likely implementation of a points-based immigration system preventing many low-skilled short-term workers from getting work permits. The collapse in the pound has hit the catering industry hard, pushing up the prices of food imports; however, it has also attracted record numbers of foreign tourists by making their visits cheaper, which has offset this effect in some areas of the country. With a hard Brexit, the foodservice industry can expect more currency volatility in the five-year outlook. The role of industry groups such as the British Hospitality Association in managing relations with May’s government is absolutely pivotal. They must ensure that the sector’s voice is heard above the clamour of other lobbies trying to shape Brexit in their own interests.”

Kirsten Williams, political risk analyst, Allan & Associates


The supply chain consultant: Uncertainty remains.

“Regarding the effects on food inflation there was, sadly, rather little to be learned from Theresa May’s Brexit speech. She explicitly ruled out membership of the single market and stated that we will not stay in the customs union. And of course there was the ambition of striking a ‘new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement’ with the EU, and the building of trading relationships with countries beyond Europe as part of a ‘global Britain’ strategy. None of this removes the level of uncertainty on possible future tariff impacts, or what will happen with farm subsidies. The only short-term pointer is exchange rates, where the pound softened further in the period since August 2016 from $1.30 to $1.25. The euro remained static at €1.17 to the pound. So no improvement to come on the exchange-rate-based inflation now hitting the country’s supply chains.”

David Read, chairman, Prestige Purchasing


The campaigner: Beware the race to the bottom.

“Since Brexit it is still unclear what will happen to our food. Recent world events will influence what we eat. The poor harvests in the Mediterranean caused a vegetable shortage – an indicator of things to come – and resulted in increased food prices. In order to trade with Europe we will need to maintain the current high standards for food production; a trade deal with the US will open the doors to more industrial foods such as chlorine- washed chicken, and might cause a race to the bottom. By supporting our home-grown industries, especially horticulture, we can avoid this and

ensure people have access to sustainable healthy foods for much of the year. We will need to import food – but we can create a market for food produced to the highest standards that match our own and deliver sustainable diets.”

Duncan Williamson, food lead, WWF-UK


The environmental consultant: tough task for rule writers.

“The long-awaited Brexit white paper has little to say on the environment, beyond confirming the government’s commitment to ‘ensuring we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it’. It also repeats the government’s previous statements that the forthcoming great repeal bill will be used to bring the current framework of environmental regulation into UK law, but says nothing about the third of regulations that are expected to be too difficult to translate. The white paper does say that the UK government wants to ‘take this opportunity to develop over time a comprehensive approach to improving our environment in a way that is fit for our specific needs’. While this is a welcome statement, the details of how this will be achieved in practice remain unclear and many questions still remain unanswered.”

Jessica Tremlow, circular economy expert, Ricardo Energy & Environment