Some businesses could be pushed to the brink of collapse because of additional burdens caused by Brexit, Scotland’s Rural Economy Secretary has said.
Fergus Ewing said firms that have already been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic could struggle further as a result of the additional paperwork needed to sell to European countries.
He also raised fears the UK Government may be seeking to pass the blame for a “perceived lack of preparedness” for Brexit on to the Scottish Government and councils.
Mr Ewing outlined his concerns in a letter to the UK Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary George Eustice.
Ministers anticipate a “massive increase in demand” for the Export Health Certificates (EHCs) firms will need to sell seafood and animal products to the EU.
Mr Ewing said while this issue was raised by the UK Government in recent meetings it was “difficult to avoid the impression that the UK Government is seeking to attribute blame to the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities for some perceived lack of preparedness”.
The Rural Economy Secretary said “any such suggestion is simply untrue”, adding Holyrood ministers and officials have been warning the UK Government for months that the new requirements – which will come into effect when the UK’s Brexit transition period finishes at the end of this month – will place a “significant administrative and financial burden on exporters”.
Mr Ewing warned: “Coming at a time when many of these exporting businesses are already struggling to deal with the impacts arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, these additional burdens could lead some businesses to the brink of collapse.”
Food Standards Scotland has previously estimated firms could need 150,000 EHCs a year, with Mr Ewing saying the “vast majority” of these will need to be signed off by councils.
He said that total is “likely to be an underestimate” as he further warned local environmental health officers (EHOs) are “already being stretched in dealing with Covid-19 responsibilities”.
Mr Ewing told Mr Eustice: “As you know, it takes between three to five years to be fully trained as an EHO and pathways to a career in this field are limited.
“This means there is a very small pool of EHOs available across the UK, for which there are multiple competing demands.
“To put it simply, there is just not enough trained resource – across the UK as a whole – to meet this new requirement.”
He repeated Scottish Government calls for Westminster to make more funding available for Brexit preparedness.
Mr Ewing said: “Regardless of whether a deal with the EU is reached or not, the work required in this area is clearly significant.
“In line with clear and unambiguous commitments made by the UK Government during the referendum and thereafter, we expect the UK Government to meet, in full, any costs arising from EU exit to ensure that there is no detriment to the Scottish budget.”
A UK Government spokeswoman said: “We are working closely with the Scottish Government and taking steps to ensure we are ready for the end of the transition period, regardless of the outcome of trade negotiations.
“We are working hard to ensure we have enough vet capacity post-transition period, and expect we will have the numbers needed to ensure that the food industry can take advantage of the opportunities and changes that the UK’s new chapter will bring.”
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