National and local government fail to take steps to protect food security

With the press now carrying more warnings about expected disruptions to our supply lines come January, which will have a direct impact on the availability of food and medicine among other things, Stella Perrott has investigated what this means at a local level, and what action is being taken to protect us from these outcomes.

I wrote to North Yorkshire County Council on 8 October making the following Freedom of Information request (FOI):

“Please could you tell me:

  • with whom (organisations and individuals) you have consulted in your preparations for the end of the (Brexit) transition period in December 2020;
  • the risks you have identified for individuals, businesses and public sector organisations;
  • the mitigating actions you intend to take;
  • when the public will be advised of the measures they need to put in place and what support will be available to them, and when and how these are to be communicated.

“Please provide copies of all assessments and reports pertaining to Brexit resilience planning”.

I received a reply on 6 November, with more information on 8 November. The information received included the council’s risk register grid, an updated management report from 20 October, and a paper on agriculture. Following a further request, the council confirmed they had sent me all the relevant papers and assessments. The risk register was initially constructed at a time when ‘no deal’ appeared to be a likely outcome of the Brexit negotiations and has changed little since then.

The guidance and plans cover several areas of identified risk including staff shortages (as the number of EU citizens fall), internal contracting and purchasing requirements, and potential food or fuel shortages. There are no plans identified to assist businesses or citizens other than those for whom the council has a statutory responsibility.

Significantly, the council has no plans to advise the public of any risks. It would appear it has not yet completed any detailed risk assessments and it has not put in place any plans to mitigate the risks identified. In other words, it knows about the risks Brexit poses to the public of North Yorkshire, but hasn’t investigated these in detail and hadn’t done anything to lessen the impact.

Operation Yellowhammer, the leaked “reasonable worst case scenario” planning of 2019, identified a number of problems, none of which had been resolve over the past year. In September 2020, the government’s new updated “reasonable worst case scenario” outlined the severity of the situation. Although, the details of this document were only leaked to the press in the past couple of weeks, knowledge of its existence and the concerns raised in it have been in the public domain since September.

The risks identified include food, medicine / medical equipment, and fuel shortages, concerns over national security, the potential for civil unrest, a reduced ability to respond to an outbreak of disease, a shortage of people working in adult social care, and failures in the chemical supply chain that could disrupt our food, energy medicine and water services.

Looking solely at the possibility of food shortages – by the time the council received my FOI request in October, it was already clear that, with or without a deal, there was likely to be some considerable food disruption.

More from Yorkshire Bylines:

The UK imports about half of its fresh fruit and vegetables from the EU. It imports more in the winter and is importing even more this year, since there were not enough EU agricultural workers in both the planting and harvesting seasons to ensure a supply of local food. Coronavirus has had an additional impact on food supplies and this is likely to continue through to next spring at the earliest. Whether or not there is a deal with the EU, the risk of food supply disruption, scarcity and increased prices will remain, given the complicated, untried, and administratively overwhelming nature of the border arrangements after 1 January.

Bearing all of this in mind, I was expecting to receive detailed plans for managing identified risks or to be denied access to information that was ‘sensitive’ in the interests of public order or to prevent panic buying. I was therefore very surprised that the county council had no assessments, few plans, had not updated the risks, and had taken no mitigation action.

I then wrote to the county council and Julian Smith (my MP) on 23 November (with copies to the other N Yorkshire MPs) saying:

“These papers reveal that local and national government clearly understood the high risk of food shortages and began to take steps to secure food for those for whom it has a direct statutory responsibility, but has chosen to keep the general public ignorant of the likely risks and consequences.

“There are no plans to inform citizens of likely shortages or to help them take action to mitigate them. Initially too, the government imposed ‘gagging clauses’ (Government’s Brexit Non-Disclosure Agreements) on organisations with whom these risks have been discussed. After many objections, these have since been rescinded.”

My letter concluded with a plea to the county council and Julian Smith to make:

“immediate plans to ensure that every citizen is properly advised on the impact on food supplies of withdrawing from the EU in January and no person is unable to feed themselves of their family through insufficient food being available for purchase or because prices have risen beyond their reach”.

North Yorkshire County Council has not replied to my letter. Julian Smith has replied, repeating the government’s line saying that everything is in hand. His letter reduced my confidence further, as it indicated that the government appears to relying on the Food Chain Emergency Liaison Group to manage the risks. Apart from not having met for some time, this group has been entirely focused on coronavirus in recent months. Even when it has met in relation to Brexit, it was concerned only with the government’s responsibility to public service users – such as patients, children in school older people in care homes.

More worryingly, in July 2019, the environment secretary Zac Goldsmith stated that the government did not have a responsibility to feed people, even in an emergency, or to ensure effective food chain management or supplies. He pointed out that this was the responsibility of the transport industry. He was effectively saying that although the government has chosen to pursue a hard Brexit which will impact on food imports and supplies, and has failed to seek an extension to the transition arrangements that might alleviate this disruption and hardship, it’s not the government’s job to ensure people have food – even when we are facing the worst winter months of a global pandemic (which is already affecting food supplies).

For months now, trade groups for the transportation, agriculture, supermarket and food distribution sectors have been calling for government clarity on future arrangements, and the necessary infrastructure to make arrangements these work. They have been consistently clear that ensuring fresh food supplies after 1 January will be a significant challenge.

So, not only is the government failing to ensure adequate food supplies can reach the UK when Brexit starts but it has created considerable additional hurdles for food supply industries to navigate and overcome. Meanwhile, local government has also washed its hands of any responsibility to local people.

The refusal of both local and national government to accept responsibility and plan for food shortages, while also failing to advise citizens of the likelihood of these shortages and their personal responsibility for securing their own food supplies, is a dereliction of duty.

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