An open letter to Cornwall’s MPs – “where are the Brexit benefits?”

[This letter is to Cornish MPs but many of the points made could be applied with equal force and justification to all Conservative MPs across our region and beyond. Ed]

Dear George Eustice, Cherilyn Mackrory, Steve Double, Sheryll Murray, Derek Thomas and Scott Mann,

At the last general election, all of you stood on a platform of “getting Brexit done”.

Voters were told in your party’s manifesto that this would “unleash the potential of our whole country” and “transform the UK for the better”. We were also informed that after Brexit we would enjoy “a new relationship based on free trade and friendly cooperation” with the EU, and that we would “remain close to our European friends and partners”.

People in Cornwall were explicitly promised by Boris Johnson that the £100 million a year in EU funding we would lose with Brexit  would be fully replaced by UK government funding, “to the tune of the former EU funds and more”.

Your government has indeed “got Brexit done”. But our country is now facing the worst economic crisis since the 1970s, and here in Cornwall we can see none of the promised benefits whatsoever – only severe problems across many different business sectors and in our everyday lives. Nor does Boris Johnson’s promise of replacement funding show any sign of materialising.

To list just a few of the problems that Cornwall’s businesses and ordinary people have been experiencing in recent months:

  • Due to the ending of free movement for EU workers, many of our farmers have been unable to harvest a large proportion of their crops, from daffodils to cauliflowers, and some have warned they face ruin if this continues for another season. There are no signs that this shortfall in labour is set to improve. Meanwhile, pig farmers face the prospect of having to slaughter and burn thousands of animals because of a shortage of abattoir workers from the EU.
  • The National Farmers Union said last month that, since January, UK agri-food exporters to the EU have lost more than £1.8 billion in exports. This has not been made up for by exports to other countries. As you know, food and agriculture make up a bigger part of Cornwall’s economy than for many other parts of the UK.
  • Cornwall’s fishermen have also seen ruinous drops in their crucial sales to Europe, with several leading fishing industry figures going on the record to say that they feel they were conned into voting for Brexit. Falmouth shellfish merchant Martin Laity says his business has been devastated: “We were promised some very different results and great opportunities from Brexit. And there are none… Brexit has just absolutely ruined it.”
  • Many sectors in Cornwall have been hit by labour shortages that have impacted their ability to do business. In July, the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) reported a 62.5% increase in job vacancies, and the LEP’s People and Prosperity Manager said that “the availability of migrant labour force has had a major impact on some of our sectors, especially hospitality, retail and construction. We have lost a large portion of our migrant labour force.”
  • Many in the hospitality and tourism sector, a mainstay of Cornwall’s economy, have reported severe difficulties in recruiting the staff they need to operate. As Kim Conchie, CEO of Cornwall Chambers of Commerce, said in August: “We would normally have thousands of people from EU countries here working in hospitality, having been trained in their own countries, and that has more or less been cut off entirely.”
  • Cornwall’s large care sector has also been badly hit by its inability to employ the EU citizens who previously made up much of its workforce of carers looking after our elderly and infirm. Ironically, the only funding available to improve this situation has been from the European Union’s Social Fund, under its SCALE programme of training for people in this sector – perhaps the last of the many benefits that EU funding has brought to Cornwall.
  • A severe shortage of HGV drivers, very much exacerbated by Brexit, has led to people in Cornwall seeing empty supermarket shelves. The Office for National Statistics reported on 7 October that one in six adults in Great Britain had not been able to buy essential foods in the past two weeks, with millions also unable to buy fuel for their vehicles. Despite your government’s attempts to claim that this situation is mirrored in Europe, this is simply not true – there have been no shortages of either food or vehicle fuel in EU countries.
  • Despite assurances that Brexit would lead to lower prices, the UK is now experiencing the most severe price inflation in decades, caused in large part by the supply chain issues that Brexit has worsened. Prices of essential goods have risen across the board. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has said that UK households face a major squeeze in living standards, and that if inflation continues to rise as predicted, “it will add £1,831 to the average household bill by the end of 2021”. It notes that one of the key factors driving this inflation is “a shortage of key workers, from lorry drivers to fruit pickers”.
  • Higher prices are a particularly serious problem for low-waged and unemployed people in Cornwall, one of the poorest areas of the UK. Many are now faced with having to choose between heating and eating, and the withdrawal of the £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit will push many of these people into destitution. Between March 2020 and May 2021, the number of people claiming Universal Credit in Cornwall increased by 98%. Of these, 38% were currently working. Cornwall’s Director of Public Health said on 7 October: “We are entering a period of economic adversity, particularly for families on low incomes. I am concerned about how any reduction in income or reduction in employment benefits has a knock-on effect with health outcomes.”
  • Despite Boris Johnson’s clear and explicit promise that Cornwall’s lost EU funding would be replaced pound for pound, “and more”, it is now abundantly clear that this is not going to happen. Instead of the £100 million in support that we had from the EU, it now looks as if the replacement funding will amount to no more than £3 million. Cornwall, despite being one of the country’s poorest areas, has not been placed in the highest priority band for so called “Levelling Up” funding.

In short, we can see no ways in which Brexit has benefited the people and businesses of Cornwall, but many ways in which it is continuing to do serious damage to the success of our businesses and the wellbeing of our people.

Given that you were all elected as MPs on promises that have now been comprehensively broken, and that Cornwall now faces a winter of real hardship for many of its people, we would like to hear from you what you intend to do about this shameful situation.

If you would like to sign this open letter, you can do so here: