Ross Clark Ross Clark

Brexit has not made food unaffordable

Vegetables in the reduced section at Asda (Getty Images)

Imagine that for the past 30 years all food entering Britain from EU countries had been subject to stringent sanitary checks and that today, for the first time, the government had decided to abolish those checks. It isn’t hard to guess how the Labour party would react.

The government, it would be claiming, was throwing our farming and horticultural industries to the wall in the name of an ideological commitment to deregulation. Britain was being opened up to infection from devastating diseases like swine fever and foot and mouth disease – all so that the government’s friends in the food import industry could trim a few percent off their costs in order to boost their profits.

So, no, Brexit hasn’t made food unaffordable for UK consumers

That, however, is not what is happening. In fact, it is the reverse of what is happening. Today, sanitary checks are being introduced for the first time on food imports from the EU – a result of Brexit, but one which has been delayed several times in order so that the right systems can be installed. And guess what? The Labour party is lambasting the government for introducing extra regulation.

According to Stella Creasy, the checks are going to impose a ‘Brexit border tax’ on shoppers. The SNP, too, has been joining in, claiming that the new checks will be ‘highly damaging for industry and consumers’ says spokesman Steve Bonnar – this the party which four years ago could never seem to go far enough in finding ways to outdo the UK government over another sort of biosecurity measures: Covid restrictions.

According to the government, the new checks will cost the food industry £330 million a year and add 0.2 per cent to food prices over the next three years. Critics like to cite a different figure: an estimate of £2.9 billion, arrived at through an estimate for ITV by three anonymous ‘customs and boarder [sic] professionals’. This, they claim, will add £8 a month to the average shopping bill. Should we believe them? It should be remembered that Remain campaigners have been making claims that Brexit would push up food prices ever since the 2016 referendum. Has it happened?

Not according to World Bank data on the affordability of food. Indeed, post-Brexit Britain remains one of the cheapest countries in the world to eat, and to eat well. In 2021 – the latest year for which figures are available – it calculated that the daily cost per person of a healthy diet in Britain (the minimum you could spend and still eat well) was $1.95. In France it was $3.25, Germany $3.08, Italy $3.17 and Spain $2.88. The 2021 figures, of course, were for a period before the surge in inflation which followed covid lockdowns and the invasion of Ukraine, but they did come after Brexit and the end of the transitional arrangements.

So, no, Brexit hasn’t made food unaffordable for UK consumers – and the new checks are not going to change that, even if they will be unwelcome, and will add cost, for many food importers.