Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Questions (62)

Thomas Byrne


62. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the contingency steps being taken to limit the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the agriculture sector here. [13994/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

Will the Minister outline the contingency planning of his Department in the context of a no-deal Brexit? We have had very little detail from the Government as to its plans for the agriculture sector in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Some 35% of Irish food exports, worth billions of euros, go to the UK. This is crucially important. It is only right that farmers and consumers would know what the plans are for a no-deal Brexit.

The Government has taken a number of contingency steps to help mitigate the impacts of Brexit on the agrifood sector. For example, I have introduced a number of budgetary measures aimed at improving competitiveness and developing market and product diversification. These have included low-cost loan schemes to assist in on-farm and agri-business cost effectiveness, additional supports to Bord Bia and Teagasc to support market and product diversification and, in budget 2019, a €78 million package to support farmers, fishermen and food SMEs.

I have also held discussions with Commissioner Hogan on the impact of Brexit, most recently at the European Council of agriculture ministers in Brussels. I have stressed the need to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the impact on the sector, particularly on the beef sector, which would be severely affected by, for example, recent UK proposals on tariffs. Such measures could include traditional market supports and exceptional aid provisions under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, single Common Market organisation regulation, as well as increased flexibility under state aid regulations. Commissioner Hogan has reiterated the EU's readiness to respond and we will remain in contact on these issues as the situation evolves.

While ratification of the withdrawal agreement is still the Government's objective, preparations are under way for a no-deal Brexit. On preparedness for import controls, we have been working with other Departments and agencies to have the necessary arrangements in place at our ports and airports to allow the Department to fulfil its legal obligations as efficiently as possible while also ensuring the minimum possible disruption to trading arrangements. The Department has also sharpened its Brexit communications strategy, which now includes an enhanced Brexit page on the Department's website, the circulation of focused trader notices to the relevant sectors, the establishment of a Brexit call centre and central e-mail address, and increased use of social media and communications.

The Minister spoke about the discussions he had with Commissioner Hogan, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine website, and discussions on our ports and airports in terms of legal responsibilities, but he did not set out any plans for the agriculture sector in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He also did not provide any information for exporters in regard to what might or could reasonably be expected in terms of what is required.

Neither has the Department given any guarantees to consumers that our food chain and farmers will not be adversely affected by imports of dodgy food because of reduced standards in the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit, where our farmers would have to compete with food of lower standards and our consumers might have to purchase food of a lower standard. Has that come into the Department's preparation for a no-deal Brexit? We must bear in mind jobs, incomes and the impact there will be throughout rural Ireland if the Government does not prepare properly for such an event.

The Government and I are fully aware that the agrifood sector is the most exposed sector in the context of Brexit. The premise of the Deputy's question appears to be that if we were adequately prepared, the world would continue unchanged in the event of Brexit either through the withdrawal agreement with a transition period or in the context of a crash out, but that is simply not the case. The world will change when the UK leaves but what we can do is prepare as well as possible. The trading environment with the UK will be changed irreversibly, given that it will move from having been in the Single Market and customs union to either being a third country in the event of a crash out or, following a transition period, to being a country with a comprehensive future trading relationship.

Even in the latter event, which we hope for, the trading environment will not be as good as what we currently enjoy. We have tried, therefore, to build resilience within the sector to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead by working in all the commodity areas, such as beef and dairy, and the processing industry to foster market diversification. More resources are being given to Bord Bia, there are product diversification incentives, farmers are being assisted with financial products and so on. The response, therefore, has been comprehensive, but no response will enable the industry to continue as though life has not changed significantly, which is the unfortunate reality of Brexit.

To be clear, I do not blame the Government for Brexit but we can hold it to account for the lack of preparation, the lack of communication of the preparation, the lack of a plan for what will happen and the hoping against hope that everything will be all right on the night. While we know that Brexit will be bad whatever way it happens, all we can ask the Government to do is to be fully prepared and answer questions that arise as to what checks would be on animals and food products at our borders. The Minister has previously refused to answer that question, as have other Ministers. We always speak in terms of discussions, negotiations and correspondence, but what will actually happen if Britain crashes out in a no-deal Brexit? Nobody knows whether that will happen but it is no good for the Government to hope that it will not happen. I hope it will not happen but if I were in the Minister's seat, I would ensure we were fully prepared and would do everything we could to ensure our farmers, food industry, consumers and we were best prepared for it.

I assure the Deputy that as one of the remaining member states, we will be fully compliant with our obligations when dealing with imports from a third country, which involves the preparations to which I referred earlier in the context of border inspection post facilities at Dublin Port, Dublin Airport, Rosslare, etc. There will be no question of consumers here being subjected to dodgy foodstuffs. We will apply the regulations and certification requirements to products that are imported from the UK. I do not expect significant changes on day one, day two or day ten, because we have operated in the same regulatory environment. Over a period, however, as there may well be regulatory misalignment, and as the UK diverges in its regulations and food production systems, our regulation and protection of the integrity of the Single Market will ensure our consumers are protected in the east-west flow of goods.

In the comments of the Deputy and his colleagues, there almost seems to be a sense of disappointment that we are not preparing for hard Border infrastructure. We are not preparing such infrastructure at all.