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Brexit 'fantasy land' claim by Jamie Stone over fall in value of exports

By Alan Hendry

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Whisky and cheese are among the top exports produced in the Highlands.
Whisky and cheese are among the top exports produced in the Highlands.

North MP Jamie Stone has accused the UK government of living in a "fantasy land" over Brexit and its impact on trade with Europe.

The Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross claimed the Conservatives were "actively destroying" the UK's leading export products by refusing to hold off on Britain's exit from the European Union until after the pandemic.

He called on the UK government to "stop misleading Highlanders" over the economic damage being done.

According to the membership organisation Food and Drink Federation (FDF), the value of the UK’s top 10 products exported to the EU fell by between 45 per cent and 98 per cent in January 2021 compared with January 2020. Overall, there was a 75.5 per cent fall in sales to the EU.

While acknowledging the disruption caused by Covid-19, Mr Stone argued that by "playing down the destructiveness of Brexit" the Conservatives were misleading the public about the impact on UK/EU trade.

He pointed out that many of the UK's top exports to Europe are produced in the Highlands and said whisky, cheese, beef, lamb and fish are particularly important to the region's economy.

Statistics from FDF indicate that the value of whisky exports to the EU fell by 63.1 per cent from January 2020 to January 2021. Cheese was down by 85.1 per cent over the same period and beef by 91.5 per cent, while lamb and mutton declined by 45.1 per cent.

Fish exports suffered a 79.1 per cent drop, and in the separate category of salmon there was a fall of 98 per cent.

Mr Stone said: "Any Tory who underplays the impact of Brexit when looking at these statistics needs to take a cold, hard look at themselves. Of course Covid-19 is behind these drastic figures, but the reality is that Brexit is the worst possible backdrop we could have had to cope with a pandemic.

"Take fish – down by nearly 80 per cent. The ability to put a net out isn't hampered by Covid. What is really behind that drop in exports is the government's continued failure to support the fishing industry – for lying to them, for wrapping up their boats in red tape. That is a Brexit issue.

Jamie Stone accused the Conservatives of 'playing down the destructiveness of Brexit'. Picture: DGS
Jamie Stone accused the Conservatives of 'playing down the destructiveness of Brexit'. Picture: DGS

"On whisky, internal exports have been a disaster thanks to lockdown with none of us going to the pub for a dram with friends. But a loss of £66.5 million – that's not just pub losses, is it?

"The UK government must stop misleading Highlanders about the impact on UK/EU trade. So long as they live in fantasy land, we have no hope of reversing these dire statistics."

Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at FDF, said: "It is extremely worrying that our exports to the EU have fallen by more than 75 per cent in January. Businesses face significant challenges when trading with the EU and small businesses in particular have been shut out because groupage distribution is not working.

"In the absence of solutions, EU exporters will face much the same difficulties when the UK’s full border operating model enters into force in 2022.

"It is clear that the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement [TCA] will not change and businesses face unavoidable changes to the terms of trade.

"However, there are opportunities to address the implementation of the deal. The EU-UK Partnership Council and its trade specialised committees should be convened as a matter of urgency to put in place solutions that deliver the TCA’s aim of enhancing the ability of small businesses to benefit from trade."

A UK government spokesperson said: "A unique combination of factors, including stockpiling last year, Covid lockdowns across Europe, and businesses adjusting to our new trading relationship, made it inevitable that exports to the EU would be lower this January than last.

“We continue to provide a range of support for businesses to adjust to our new trading arrangements and seize the opportunities of trade around the world, and we are pleased to see the majority of businesses adapting well to the new requirements.”

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