Government Told To Reveal How Much Money It Spent On Brexit Adverts That "Ignore" Business Disruption
Exclusive: Labour has told the government to disclose how much money it has spent on adverts which they say illustrate "pretty deep denial" over how post-Brexit paperwork is affecting British businesses.
In a letter to Cabinet Office Minister David Frost, who led the UK's trade negotiations with the EU, Shadow Cabinet Officer Minister Jack Dromey asked him to reveal how much the government has forked out on sponsored articles in media outlets "promoting the apparent success of UK businesses in adapting to the new trading arrangements with the EU".
The adverts, which appeared in The Metro, The Daily Mail and The Sun in recent weeks, showed "great disrespect [to] the many businesses who feel they are on the edge of a precipice because of the great difficulty navigating the new trading rules negotiated by the Government," said the letter shared with PoliticsHome.
The articles contain interviews with the owners of three firms which according to the government are "going from strength to strength" under the new terms of the UK's trade with the EU.
They are Control Techniques, a manufacturer of electric-motor technology in Wales; Portsmouth-based marine technology company RS Aqua; and Lilypads, a personal hygeine company in Edinburgh which exports reusable period pads to a number of EU member states.
In the articles, Anthony Pickering, owner of Owner of Techniques, says while "there are some delays" to trade, he believes "it will all figure itself out" and that his "commitment to Europe has actually strengthened".
Alison Wood, who co-founded Lilypads, says: “It has been a few months of growth and change for us – but other than that, things are looking just fine".
Labour said the cases failed to reflect the disruption facing thousands of businesses across a range of industries whose trade with the EU is being hampered by taxing new paperwork.
“These [adverts] claim that ‘British business is going from strength to strength under the new trade rules’ and that companies are keen to build on the success of trading with Europe’ – which, while recognising the deep resilience and perseverance of our brilliant British businesses, ignores the alarm bells they have been sounding about a lack of government support on these matters," the letter to Frost said.
Many exporters to the EU have been overwhelmed by post-Brexit customs and health paperwork since January 1st, with lengthy delays leading some European customers to cancel orders.
Stark Office for National Statistics figures released last week showed that UK exports to the continent across all industries dropped by an eye-watering 41% in January after Britain left the EU's Single Market and Customs Union on New Year's Eve.
Food exports took the biggest hit, with the ONS reporting a 63% fall. Fish and shellfish exports to the EU collapsed by 83%, while meat (59%) and dairy (50%) sales decreased sharply too.
Frost tweeted "caution should be applied when interpreting these statistics" and that the government expected an "unusual" drop in cross-border trade because many businesses stockpiled goods in the run-up to the UK leaving the Brexit transition period on New Year's Eve.
The closure of retail and hospitality businesses on the continent in response to the coronavirus pandemic also meant there was reduced demand for UK goods, he added.
However, James Withers of Scotland Food & Drink said last week that Brexit was "right at the heart of this trade collapse" due to the "creation of huge, new, non-tariff trade barriers with our biggest export market".
The "grim" figures "simply can’t be talked away as a Covid issue," he said.
"The crash in UK trade has not been seen in sales to non-EU markets, despite it being a global pandemic. Also, we did not see a fall like this at any point during the first lockdown".Numerous other sectors have warned the government that many of issues facing businesses are not "teething problems" but structural consequences of the UK's new relationship with the EU, enshrined in the trade deal signed by the two sides in December.
Dromey, the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington, told Frost that Labour had heard testimony from businesses across a wide range of sectors, from "hauliers to the fishing industry to those running our country’s fashion sector... who have faced significant disruption and delays due to the new trading arrangements, with very little support from the Government".
He also asked Frost to explain how ministers planned to address the significant "shortfall" in customs agents needed to carry out post-Brexit checks at Britain's borders. There are industry warnings that the UK needs an additional 30,000 "to cope with the extra regulations".
"How will this gap be filled, and what is the Government going to do to strengthen this badly needed resource for British businesses?" Dromey wrote to the UK's chief negotiator.
The shadow minister told PoliticsHome that the adverts paid for by government showed "just how back to front" its priorities are.
He said: "Instead of listening to and engaging with businesses and exporters and taking practical action to help them deal with reams of new, costly red tape, the government seems in pretty deep denial about the real work it needs to put in to support industry".
A goverment spokesperson said: "The UK Transition communications campaign has always been focused on getting the country ready for the changes that came into force on 1st January and it has been successful, reaching 99.7% of UK adults.
"While the vast majority of businesses and citizens have taken the necessary steps to prepare, some still need to adjust to our new relationship with the EU and we will continue to support them to do so, including through our communications campaign".
Last week the government moved to delay a fresh wave of post-Brexit paperwork by six months in order to give businesses and ports more time to prepare.
Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, announced that checks on EU good entering the UK would begin in October, not in April as originally planned, while physical checks on animal and plant goods from the continent would not begin until 2022.
Industry groups had warned ministers that the new checks would have disrupted food supplies when demand was set to rocket due to the re-opening of restaurants, pubs and food retailers.