If anyone had been in any doubt that the Brexit process is going badly for Britain, my Cornwall Brexit summit would have quickly updated them on the reality.
The speakers were Tim Jones, Chair of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council, Dr Ian Tonbridge, Chair of the Cornwall College Board, Professor Juliet Osborne, Director of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at Exeter University (Penryn) and Steve Attwill, Regional Officer with Unite.
I held the event to look for positive ways to support Cornwall but listening to their concerns made me even more angry at this government’s current bluster and internal strife, when the future economy of our country is at stake.
It was very worrying to hear Tim Jones also talk of dismay at the Whitehall shambles and government’s inability to give any certainty to business at the time when it is most needed.
After 40 years of partnership building the integrated supply chain that underpins trade, business is understandably anxious about how the future will look. A 2 minute delay in shifting lorries through Dover leads to a 17 mile tailback to the town.
With no help from government, business is looking for ‘DIY’ solutions but faces huge difficulties with negotiating other markets and fears a downturn due to the uncertain future.
More positively, Tim said EU funding has supported new, adaptable businesses in Cornwall, we have more fibre than London and creative and digital businesses are more Brexit proofed.
On skills and education, Dr Ian Tonbridge expressed concern about government’s refusal to release the sectoral studies into the effects of Brexit.
He stressed the importance for the sector of continued access to EU research funds and student exchanges, which provide huge opportunities for young people. Foreign students are a good source of income as well as enriching college life but the Home Office crackdown on immigration is already having a negative effect. Students should not count in immigration figures.
Professor Juliet Osborne gave a detailed presentation on income generated for Cornwall from our EU ties: the work at the university in Cornwall, research income and the knowledge economy contributing around £44.2 millions of Gross Added Value in Cornwall in 2015/6 and supporting 853 jobs.
Juliet urged government to protect residency rights for EU nationals and to continue participating in EU research and exchange schemes and recognition of professional qualifications. She expressed concern that we would no longer have a seat at the table discussing regulatory standards based on science but felt it is vital to maintain those standards.
Steve Attwill spoke of problems faced by working people in Cornwall, where wages are still only 77% of the national average. The union wants continued access to the European Single Market and protection of employment rights.
Unite wants to work with local government and business on a proper industrial and manufacturing strategy and to deal with increasing job insecurity and under employment. Devolving more powers to Cornwall would help implement a common agenda and Steve stressed that we have only months to prepare for Brexit, not years.
Following this, we moved to an audience Q and A chaired by Jacqui Merrington, Editor of Cornwall Live. With me on the panel were Tim Dwelly, a Cornwall Councillor and founder of Workspace business units in Penzance, Matthew Thomson, who runs Fifteen in Cornwall and Lucy Jewson, founder and CEO of Fruji. The latter three were all born in Cornwall, left to pursue careers and then returned to work here.
After many interesting questions and lively debates, it’s clear that for many people Brexit is not settled, no matter how many times we are told that the referendum decision is final.
The panel were asked for their priorities for Brexit and this included rural communities and landscape. Farmers faced with huge tariffs on World Trade Organisation rules are talking about giving up farming. Who will look after our landscape?
There also concern from the panel on access to the single market and continued support for small business.
Emily Thornberry, Shadow Foreign Secretary then joined us ‘virtually’ and gave Labour’s view. What she said was, frankly, very worrying. We had heard from business leaders and education providers of the risks we face and hoped there would be good news from Westminster. Unfortunately, there was no sign of it.
Emily told us that people across the country share our fear that government does not understand our needs but Brexit is being played out in the context of fights within the Conservative Party and government.
Emily promised that Cornwall’s needs would be met. And, understanding business’ need for certainty, a Labour government would commit to five years continuity in infrastructure, regional funding and farming subsidies.
Brexit without a deal would be devastating for Cornwall and the UK and Labour will not support the government in that. At this stage, there is deadlock. Government has to come back to parliament in autumn with a deal to consider and at the moment, they can’t.
As Emily said: this has massive implications for the UK, tax, the economy and the reality is that Britain is in a very bad place with Brexit negotiations.
I found the whole event incredibly helpful in informing me about the challenges and risks of Brexit in Cornwall and am very grateful to all participants for the time they took to give considered responses and positive ways in which I can support Cornwall through the next few months and years.
My priority is people. Concern for workers and families facing restrictions on movement, residency and employment rights. The workforce are the people who pay tax and fund the public services that we rely on. The situation is obviously very difficult but I will do whatever I can to move forward and hope that we can either persuade the government to take the country’s needs seriously or replace it with people who will.