Import tariffs and labour issues lead industry responses to Prime Minister's Brexit speech

Trade tariffs and access to labour have dominated reaction to Prime Minister Theresa May Brexit speech in which she ruled out the UK's continuing participation in the European Single Market or the EU Customs Union - and instead stated her intention to pursue a free trade agreement with the EU.

May said: "Any agreement with the EU must "allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services. But I want to be clear: what I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.

"It would, to all intents and purposes, mean not leaving the EU at all. That is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the single market."

The NFU said on the Brexit speech: "We hope the Prime Minister’s ambition can be achieved, but as we know these kind of deals normally take years to conclude and do not cover all products.  If a quick and comprehensive deal cannot be achieved it would be absolutely vital that there are appropriate phased arrangements to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge to allow Britain’s farmers to adapt – especially given that farming is a long term industry where farmers are making decisions now without knowing what a future trading environment will look like.  

The British farming sector – along with many other industries – has consistently warned of the dangers of putting up barriers to accessing the European Market whether financial or logistical."

HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin said the announcement was "as expected", adding: "Because of the pressure's she's under in terms of controlling migration, she had not a lot of choice. We've been thinking it would most likely be a separate deal she's going for.

"This strengthens our view if anything that we need to get our position straight on behalf of the industry so they're aware of what we need specifically. I think we will be negotiating industry by industry because each industry has such a complex relationship with the EU."

British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson said: "The Prime Minister has an ambitious plan with the right priorities. It is crucial that Britain gets a new deal that works for ordinary British consumers, which doesn’t hit them with the costs of new import tariffs at a time when the pound is already weakened.

"The Government has an opportunity to secure a win-win deal that works for the UK economy, by keeping prices down for consumers, while allowing the EU to continue benefiting from its open-trade relationship with the UK.

"This deal will take time to agree. The proposed ‘phased introduction’ must at all costs avoid the cliff-edge scenario - a sudden and overnight change in trading conditions that won’t benefit anyone. The number one priority for an orderly exit should be to allow all goods traded between the EU and the UK to be in free circulation."

At the HTA Contact conference NFU horticulture adviser Amy Gray said the union was seeking "reassurance" that EU workers will be able to stay in the UK.

May gave an assurance in her speech about the rights of EU workers to remain in the UK.

The BRC said: "Workers from the European Union are part of the reason that British retailers are often able to deliver affordable and high-quality goods. The Government is right to signal reassurance to EU workers throughout our UK supply chains about their right to remain here." 

Chief plant health officer, Nicola Spence, also speaking at Contact, said the Government was still intending to implement the EU Plant Health Regime because the UK will remain in the EU for the next two years. She said she would then look at elements that would give better biosecurity and elements "not as important to us".

The Forum of Private business has welcomed the plans set out by the Prime Minister in her Brexit speech as ‘the best business could hope for at this stage’. Having juggled, over the last few month, with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the UK would be following a Norway model, a Sweden model, a soft exit or a hard exit, businesses are now able to plan based on knowing what the intent of the government is, even if there is no certainty that they will be able to deliver.

Forum of Private Business Chief Executive, Ian Cass, commented, ’Businesses are facing challenging times at the moment with fuel prices rising, inflation showing an increasing trend and the exchange rate volatile, all as a result of Brexit uncertainty. The Prime Minister has now at least sought to introduce some optimism for businesses by setting out the Government’s plans for the next two years. Whether those plans will come into fruition is another matter, but at least we now have an indication of their intent which is welcome."

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