Bradford & Bingley

The future of soft fruit production in the UK is at risk unless the UK can agree frictionless trade with the EU, MPs were warned on Wednesday.

Speaking in front of the Exiting the European Union Committee, Sian Thomas, of the Fresh Produce Consortium, warned MPs that should food standards and other product regulations in the UK diverge from the EU rules, the future of growing soft fruits in the UK would be in doubt.

The UK was heavily dependent on “importing propagating materials from mainland Europe” for growing fresh fruits such as strawberries, Ms Thomas told MPs.

UK growers needed a system where they could import seedlings efficiently without customs hold ups as any delays could have a serious impact on their businesses, Ms Thomas said.

Some 95pc of young plants needed to grow soft fruits were imported from mainland Europe she added, noting that the UK simply “did not have enough greenhouse space” for such production.

Companies were struggling not only to hire seasonal labourers for harvesting, but also throughout their supply chain in areas such as packing fresh foods. This was causing businesses to relocate to mainland Europe, Ms Thomas said.

James Hookham of UK Freight Transport Association (FTA) said that while Irish border officials were proving helpful in responding to his queries, their French counterparts were “refusing to pick up the phone”.

Mr Hookham was attempting to gather intelligence from a range of EU nations border customs officials in a bid to gauge their preparedness for any changes in tariffs and checks on the UK goods, if the country leaves the Customs Union as expected.

The FTA represents a large proportion of freight providers by sea, land and air in the UK and its members were deeply concerned by a lack of clarity as to transitional and future trading arrangements with the EU.

Four questions must be answered, Mr Hookham said, in order to keep UK freight moving, giving March 2018 as his deadline: clarity on future tariff arrangements; “conformity checks” – if different standards will be applied to UK and EU goods; vehicle permits in order to allow lorries to cross borders and recognition of driver qualifications across borders.

Without answers to these queries, Mr Hookman suggested that it might not be possible to keep “rolling”.

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