Beware of reports fuelling No Deal hysteria based on documents which actually provide reassurance

Beware of reports fuelling No Deal hysteria based on documents which actually provide reassurance

According to the latest Hammer House of Horror narrative, Brexit will now apportion doom to schools. Earlier in the month The Observer front page ran with a leaked Whitehall document that warned that educational establishments might run out of food. The reader is left half-pondering a scene involving extras from Lord of the Flies wrestling over a bucket of proscribed turkey twizzlers.

What the article glosses over, however, is that on the slide it shows from the report, all of the issues are either categorised as running from “amber” to “green”, meaning that they are all resolvable within the timeframe or are already addressed.

Once again, serious journalists are caught playing misplaced sensationalism with a document that has been leaked to them in pursuit of a malicious political agenda. The warning signs are clear to anyone who has read the Brexit No Deal preparatory reports; many of those documents state that the primary concern about delivering a smooth Brexit is about avoiding panic – a case of nothing to fear but fear itself.

Indeed, The Observer’s article itself highlighted this: the reason why the document carries a (low) classification marking is implied as being because “communications in this area could spark undue alarm or panic food buying among the general public”. Yet here we are with the newspaper acting as the very agent of alarm. It is hard to think of a more irresponsible act: its only defence might be is that it is encouraging people to panic now rather than choosing to leak the document later.

Or perhaps, more gravely, that as a society in an age of asymmetric and cyber-borne threats, we ought to be seriously reviewing the potential vulnerability of our supply chains to disruption. Brexit planning paradoxically may well be doing us favours here. But that’s not what the journalists spent a moment considering.

It is frankly about time that, after years now of the poison of Project Fear being dripped into the public consciousness, journalists get a grip of what contingency planning documents are for, what they contain, and what they mean. They are designed to stress test the most likely course of events, and contemplate the most dangerous set of circumstances. Simply listing the prospects, however remote, of a set of events happening does not mean that they will happen, especially not all of them at the same time – any more than the (real) existence of a contingency plan in the MoD in the 1960s to respond to alien invasion should prompt us into our cellars today. Indeed, it is the absence of any such thinking or wargaming that would be a concern.

Brexit contingency work consists of a range of categories of preparation. I spent over three months (outside of Government, alas) running an EU Reverse-Accession audit that, in effect, captured over 200 pages of them. We might break them down into the following categories;

  1. Personnel: areas such as staff training, numbers, security clearance, contracts and conditions
  2. Deployment: making sure that people are in the right place (sorting out leave, surge postings, temporary accommodation); that assets are in the right place (like vehicles, or fisheries vessels); and that locations are prepped (extra toilets, catering facilities, parking space, perimeter fencing)
  3. Cross-departmental support: for example clarifying the operational chain of command; agreed mission statements; the loan of experts (say, MoD veterinarians, or RMP for route management); or lent comms
  4. Cross-departmental planning: so lead departments are clear about what issues are facing other affected departments (for example again looking at the MoD; Fallen Livestock legislation grievances arising from leaseholders on MoD estates, the extra costs arising from POL rules on oil spillage, or over horse transport regulations), avoiding incoherent policy responses that carry extra new burdens or are incompatible
  5. IT: the physical assets, and running the hard systems (ensuring power supplies to portacabins say, or internet access); checking the broader compatibility of software between key users; ensuring staff familiarity with them; and formally requesting or signing off on access to EU- and UK-held data sets
  6. Jurisdictional cooperation: for example over air traffic control; the Channel Tunnel; and the Dover Strait
  7. Transitional deterrence: including fisheries waters; illegal migration; and smuggled goods
  8. Assurance: including kitemarks; safety; and phytosanitary
  9. Legal: ensuring the continuity of the legal system; the continuity of contracts; clarity over liability and insurance cover; practical enforcement (for example checking boarding and holding rules for Fisheries vessels, or guidance to judges)
  10. Permits and licensing: certifying the current certifiers; and certifying the certificates, whether state-sanctioned or undertaken by chartered or simply recognised institutions – an example here being the Commission having accepted aviation safety certificates
  11. Subsidy and support: financial assistance; state purchaser preference; or accelerated lifting of regulatory burdens the industry has previously complained about, especially where originally considered “out of scope” owing to EU membership
  12. Strategic ambition: starting the wider process of auditing EU red tape and Whitehall gold plating and removing it – best done earlier rather than later to avoid retrenchment.

That’s a lot of things to be covered (especially if you start to think in micromanagement terms). That’s hardly surprising, considering how massively the EU intrudes into our lives, and continues to seep every week. But I’d be far more worried if we had to do it in a real hurry, say in the middle of a massive Eurozone crisis.

This list is a quick one and one might add more. The point, however, is that Whitehall has been involved in a considerable amount of work over the past years assessing how, across the vast circuitry of governance and the wider threads of society, advanced analysis and targeted preparation can avoid or at least mitigate risk and effect.

The worst-case scenario, the ultimate Project Fear nightmare with all those Moher seascapes, has long passed with the EU already declaring it will avoid “cliff edge” issues like by allowing UK lorries to drive onto the continent, and it has not signalled it will enter into a trade war, blockade Britain, or ban the export of medicines and hospital radiological material. Meanwhile, when you dig into them, many of the issues on the UK side can be managed unilaterally by changing process and procedure.

That certainly does not mean that there will be no problems, costs or difficulties; but it does mean that commentators should be more professional about how they report them, and apply due perspective. Otherwise, by fuelling political hysteria and with it encouraging “undue alarm or panic buying”, they will be revelling in the chaos of a masochistic Nerobefehl for which they themselves will be largely responsible.

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