Richard North, 11/08/2019  

Michael Gove, we are told, is taking on Brexit "fake news" with new rapid rebuttal unit which aims to quash "myths and half-truths" about the risks of a no-deal Brexit.

The response unit will be run by civil servants in the Cabinet Office with the mandate of ensuring that "the public and businesses are not being alarmed by scare stories or falsehoods".

This comes after senior government figures have expressed frustration over the anti-no deal stories aired by the BBC in recent days, notably one about cows being slaughtered in Northern Ireland after a no deal exit.

This was broadcast last week on BBC2's Newsnight programme, when it was reported that 45,000 dairy cows could be culled in Northern Ireland, in the event of a no-deal Brexit if new higher tariffs were applied to British milk.

Defra is miffed that the story went ahead despite it saying that a cull is "absolutely not something that the government anticipates nor is planning for in the event of no-deal".

When it is up and running, individual departments will be tasked by the unit with rebutting articles that officials feel exaggerate or misrepresent the dangers of leaving the European Union without a deal on 31 October.

If it is to be anything other than part of the government's spin machine, though, one hopes the unit will also be charged with keeping a balance, also dealing with the errors, misstatements and exaggerations made by government departments, and by senior politicians such as Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Perhaps the unit could start by addressing an accidentally leaked memo written by Defra officials which asserts that the UK "may not be able to police its own fishing waters after Brexit because it only has 12 boats to cover an area three items the size of the UK".

Apart from anything else, this assumes that patrol vessels are the only assets which can be used for fisheries surveillance. But this is very far from the case. The Scottish Government, for instance, operates three such vessels, but it also owns two Reims Cessna Caravan II F-406 aircraft which are attached to the Scottish Fisheries Monitoring Centre.

These aircraft are so effective in the enforcement role that, over the years it has been possible to reduce the level of operations. As regards the UK as a whole, the RAF is shortly to acquire highly capable P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft, to replace the Nimrod fleet.

The P-8A will be a powerful enhancement to the RAF's maritime capability, coming into service in the Spring, just in time to assist the civil power in its fisheries surveillance duties.

The point, therefore, is that availability of "boats" is hardly the issue. Other assets are used for surveillance and it is the capability as a whole which must be judged.

More significantly, there is in this memo the assumption that the surveillance function will be increased with Brexit. But this is not necessarily the case. As I pointed out last year, when the UK leaves the EU, it will become a third country, whence it will be illegal under EU law for boats registered in EU Member States to fish in our waters until the UK has submitted to the European Commission for approval a fisheries management plan.

Under such conditions, we have no grounds to expect any significant activity by EU-flagged boats in UK waters because, even if they broke EU law and caught fish in our waters, it would be illegal to land them in the ports of any EU Member State.

On this basis, it could easily be argued that the "concerns" by Defra about fishing arrangements, post-Brexit, are exaggerated – exactly the area in which the rebuttal unit should be operating.

Similarly, we saw recently an "internal government document" on the potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit leaked to Sky News, sets out a worst-case scenario, with summaries covering the first day, the first fortnight and the first month.

In the leaked slide is an assertion that "UK vessels could no longer have access to EU waters and vice versa", with obvious consequences for the flow of trade, and particularly the operation of ferries on the cross-channel routes.

However, that this is considered a potential problem is actually rather strange, as shipping access to maritime states is not directly an EU competence, with rights of "innocent passage" (which includes access to ports) guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Maritime states are permitted to impose certain conditions covering the access of shipping to their ports. This applies very much to the ports of EU Member States, where EU law sets requirements for pollution standards and safety inspections. However, these are dealt with in a Notice to Stakeholders, with the publication of a regulation covering the continuation of ship inspections.

Nowhere is it suggested by the European Commission that mutual access of shipping to ports, as between the UK and EU Member States, might be a problem, while both the Commission and Member States are working on the assumption that ship movements will continue.

Thus, we have another clear example of government exaggeration on the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, and another sterling opportunity for the rebuttal unit to get stuck in.

Then, of course, we have that rather interesting series of assertions by one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson about kippers, where it was alleged that stifling EU regulations were causing grief to Manx kipper producers, while Brexit would relieve them of this burden.

As it turns out, we were dealing with Manx law, implementing EU food safety law, augmented by a European industry code of practice, which had been endorsed by a European Commission technical committee, staffed by representatives of EU Member States.

Furthermore, when the UK leaves the EU, the current arrangements for the IoM end, and the European Communities (Isle of Man) Act is repealed. But, replacing it is the European Union and Trade Act 2019 which, through a series of statutory instruments, permits EU law currently applying to the IoM to be re-enacted.

Sure enough, in the European Union and Trade Act 2019 (Deficiencies) (DEFA) (No. 6) Regulations 2019, which take effect on "Exit Day" (when the UK leaves the EU), we find re-enacted our old friend Regulation (EC) 852/2004, plus all the other EU food safety laws. Thus, even if the UK dumped the entire corpus of EU food safety law after Brexit, the Isle of Man would continue applying it. Brexit would bring no relief to our Manx kipper smoker.

Here, then, seems to be another valid area for the rebuttal unit, which will surely want to correct Johnson's many errors. And indeed, the unit will surely want to intervene on the assertion that the Irish backstop, as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, is anti-democratic.

Given that this serves the purpose of allowing both the EU and the UK to honour the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, allowing "frictionless" trade across the Irish border, one can imagine that the unit would be keen to set the record straight.

In the same vein, the unit may want to address Johnson's claims that there are "abundant" solutions in the Alternative Arrangements Commission report which would allow the backstop to be removed from the Withdrawal Agreement, not least the ability to conduct "beyond the border" sanitary inspections by mobile units, without recourse to Border Control Posts.

Since this confronts elements of EU law and is clearly contrary to EU law, the unit has plenty to work on in correcting egregious and oft-repeated errors.

It seems, therefore, that the rebuttal unit has a significant backlog of work to be getting on with and, given the rather slender regard that the man occupying the post of prime minister has for the truth, it should have plenty of work to keep it occupied in the future.

In the meantime, it needs to be looking at Matthew, chapter 7, verses 1 to 5: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

When the government is in a position to get its own story straight, it might possibly be ready to start telling others where they have gone wrong.

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