Brexit’s hostile environment

The British establishment has a number of strengths, not all of them positive. Long standing cultural patterns such as racism or mysogyny are not always associated with the toxic knee jerk emotions they unleash. Sometimes stretching back for generations, past prejudices cast veiled shadows over current mindsets. 

A common marker of such underlying tendencies is the urge to promote a hostile environment for groups that the establishment does not feel comfortable around. Avoiding confrontation, but nevertheless antagonistic towards them, officialdom reserves a superficial welcome for people of colour, migrants or women, among others.

At an institutional level, something similar could be seen in the gung-ho pursuit of aggressive tactics throughout the Brexit negotiations, during which concessions were demanded with little thought of any form of quid pro quo

Left to its own devices, the civil service is capable of creating procedures and regulations that contribute to an underlying malaise. This administrative hostile environment casts a shadow on those who are bound by or who enforce such oppressive rules. The Border Transit Operating Model offers a number of examples of the genre, such as the Common User Charge (CUC). 

DEFRA consulted with business leaders last summer, promising to share its findings in the autumn. For months there was talk of a “world class” system, but no operational detail that anyone could use for the day to day running of their business.

On January 19, Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy challenged the government’s wall of silence surrounding the Common User Charge. Here is how Hansard recorded the occasion.

[She told the House that]: “The charge is intended to apply to each consignment, whether it is one leg of lamb or a van full of reindeer and frogs’ legs. As 65% of lorries coming into this country carry multiple consignments, known as groupage, it is clear how expensive this way of applying the charge will be. 

“The Government have therefore chosen to fund the new border by imposing fees directly on businesses that import. The pledge that Brexit would be a bonfire of regulation turned into a smouldering pile of paperwork that will kill imports for small businesses. Can I just put it on the record  on behalf of British business — this is mad.”

Parliamentary Undersecretary of State of Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow, replied: 

“We have provided further facilitation and guidance for importers using groupage models – the honourable Lady referred to groupage models, where a lorry delivers a whole lot of different models in one lorry – in terms of moving sanitary and phytosanitary goods into the UK, in order to make the system of certification more streamlined.” 

The word “consignment” is completely absent from the minister’s frankly incoherent reply, which is a thinly-disguised attempt to buy time.

Creasy then asked the government on February 8 whether a decision had been taken as to the rate at which the Common User Charge would be fixed and when such a decision might be published. Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mark Spencer, replied on February 27 that an announcement would be made “imminently.” He added that: “This will help commercial ports in setting charges for their own facilities and provide traders with time to make the necessary finance, accounting and operational arrangements.” More stalling, more flannel, more empty words. 

The simple fact is that by the time the final workings of the CUC were revealed to the public, there was less than a month to do anything about it. For those who are still catching up with reality, the British government is rolling out a punitive tax on imported goods, starting on April 30.

For those who are up to speed with this news, there is a very real prospect that European traders will resent the British government’s crude attempt to monetise inland inspection facilities. The result will probably be a sudden and brutal drop in food shipments to the UK. 

Cumulative cereal crises (1)

Climate change can be expected to set off multiple simultaneous food crises around the world. The following post started with a story about rice, then collected a footnote about wheat from war-torn Ukraine and another from southern Europe in the grip of a drought. It could have had a snippet from north America’s struggling maize crop, but that will have to wait.


India is curbing its rice exports in the face of predicted shortages. The country is the world’s biggest exporter of rice, selling 22,000 tonnes abroad in the crop year 2023. An estimated 10% of the world’s rice production is exported and traded internationally, according to data curated by the All India Rice Exporters Association . The tonnages traded internationally are less than one might have expected for one of the world’s most important cereal crops: global production tops 50 million tonnes.

In all its diverse forms, rice supplies about a fifth of the human calorie intake. As a labour intensive crop with very specific irrigation needs, rice does not travel as far or as readily as other mainstream cereals like wheat or barley. Rice is a complex commodity, with many specialist varieties and qualities. Indian rice growers produce premium grades of scented basmati rice for export sales, in addition to more basic varieties. The guiding principle is that all basmati rice is scented, but not all scented rice is basmati.

The first two months of the new growing season (2023-2024) have seen growth of just over 6% in volumes traded internationally, even though India imposed an export duty of 20% on rice part way through the 2022 crop year. The additional duty has not damped down demand, which remains strong. The current season has been hit by more rain and flooding than usual. “We are still keeping our fingers crossed over the likely impact of El Nino” AIREA president Nathi Ram Gupta told his members.

Rice export figures from India and all the significant growing areas across the world for the 2022-23 crop year have not moved dramatically against previous years. But past performance is a notoriously unreliable indicator of future shortages in any sector of the world economy.

This week there are reports of Russian military action destroying a grain silo in Odessa. First reports suggest that 40,000 tonnes of wheat were destroyed in the attack: more significantly the action removes storage capacity for 120,000 tonnes of grain in the middle of the harvest. One single incident casts a shadow over both dockside facilities and the safety of shipping that up until now had been able to deliver wheat to east Africa.

With southern Europe in the grip of a persistent heat wave, there are signs of firmer prices for durum wheat, which is grown across Spain and Italy. Since July 1, prices for European durum wheat price have bottomed out from a pre-harvest low point of around 330 Euros/tonne and moved up to almost 400 by late July. Southern European shoppers are high volume consumers of pasta, which is likely to push up prices of durum wheat in the coming weeks.