Above: An anti-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in London/Photo: UNI
Britain is so much in the grip of “no-deal” Brexit fears that bureaucrats are discussing the Civil Contingencies Act, 2004, which grants sweeping powers to the government to stop civil disobedience
By Sajeda Momin in London
As Britain hurtles towards its March 29 deadline to leave the European Union, both the government and the people are preparing for an unknown future and the chaos that is likely to follow.
After parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s personally negotiated withdrawal agreement from the EU by 230 votes, the biggest defeat suffered by a government in British history, the likelihood of a Brexit without any trade deals in place has become much stronger. The country is in the grip of “no-deal” Brexit fears and is discussing the likely scenarios of what could happen and how it could impact different aspects of life.
It has emerged that government officials are so worried about possible disorder resulting from a no-deal Brexit that they are considering announcing a state of emergency and even the introduction of martial law if the situation demands it. Bureaucrats have been discussing how to use the Civil Contingencies (CC) Act, 2004, which grants sweeping powers to the government to stop any civil disobedience resulting from Britain’s exit from the EU.
The Act gives the government powers to impose curfew, place bans on travel, confiscate property and even deploy the armed forces to quell rioting. Under the measures available, ministers can amend any act of parliament, barring the Human Rights Act, for a maximum of 21 days.
The legislation was introduced in 2004 to deal with national emergencies such as acts of war and terrorism, but the possibility of using it for a post no-deal Brexit scenario was discussed last week. According to reports, Robert MacFarlane, the deputy director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, has been discussing the practicalities of implementing the Act.
“Respecting the referendum decision means leaving the EU. The prime minister has said there will be disruption in the event of a no-deal, but as a responsible government, we are taking the appropriate steps to minimise this disruption and ensure the country is prepared,” said a Downing Street spokesperson.
The CC Act was introduced because the Tony Blair government believed the previous emergency framework had proved inadequate during the fuel crisis and severe floods in 2000 and the foot- and-mouth outbreak of 2001.
Critics have described some of the powers that can be used under the legislation as “truly draconian”. It grants the government the power to make “any provision which the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate to protect human life, health and safety, and to protect or restore property and supplies”.
The fact that the May government has been making contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit was leaked in September last year. Codenamed Operation Yellowhammer, the secret Treasury document warns that government departments will have to make cuts to prepare for crashing out of the EU and that their first call should be internal reprioritization. It acknowledges the need to “maintain confidence in the event of contingency plans being triggered, particularly important for financial services”.
At the time, Labour MP Owen Smith who supports the anti-Brexit “Best for Britain” campaign had said: “Operation Yellowhammer is the latest proof that Brexit will be a colossal act of economic self-harm for the country. It’s the political equivalent of dismembering yourself.”
Operation Yellowhammer is being overseen by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat which is usually responsible for coping with emergencies such as floods and disease outbreaks.
Making the connection, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: “We now know the government is preparing for Brexit in the same way they’d approach catastrophes like flooding, a disease outbreak or a terrorist attack. This is not what anyone voted for in 2016.”
With only weeks to go and no withdrawal agreement in sight, it is not just government officials who are anticipating chaos in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Ordinary citizens are also concerned that a no-deal Brexit could cause shortages in food and medicines if customs checks are suddenly introduced at Britain’s borders after it leaves the 27-nation trading bloc after four decades.
Companies have responded to people’s concerns with major supermarkets announcing that they are stockpiling supplies. One businessman, James Blake, has produced what he calls a “Brexit Box” that contains a survival kit in case food imports come to a halt as a result of Brexit. Hundreds of these Brexit Boxes have already been sold. Costing £300, the packs include enough freeze-dried food to last one person for 30 days, a water filter and fire-starting gel.
Blake, managing director of a Leeds-based outdoor supplies company called Emergency Food Storage, said his Brexit Box would protect people against possible food shortages and “help calm fears of what may come”. The box consists of 60 servings of main meals and 48 portions of meat. Interestingly, eight portions of Indian chicken tikka masala, considered to be Britain’s national dish, are included in the Box along with other international favourites such as Italian pasta bolognese, Chinese sweet and sour chicken and Mexican chicken fajita. Vegetarians will not go hungry as there is lots of macaroni cheese, vegetable tikka, vegetable chipolata chilli and vegetable fried rice.
Blake said he has been selling about 25 packs a day and though each meal worked out to about £4.40, his product was better than buying low-priced tins of food from supermarkets as they had the right number of calories, nutritional balance and a shelf life of 25 years.
“We are hearing that there could be some problems at the ports and this could affect food imports. If that is the case, then you need something to protect yourself. We want people to be prepared. I think there’s a definite possibility people will need these kits, things are so chaotic at the moment,” said Blake. Emergency Food Storage UK also sells a deluxe Brexit Box that includes breakfasts and desserts.
The government tried to allay fears of shortages by telling the public that there was no need to stockpile food. “The UK has a high level of food security built upon a diverse range of sources, including strong domestic production and imports from other countries. This will continue to be the case whether we leave the EU with or without a deal,” said a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
However, not everyone was convinced by the government’s reassurances. Senior citizen Lynda Mayall bought a Brexit Box after hearing reports of possible food shortages.
“I feel there’s going to be a bit of chaos for the first six months until border controls are sorted. Does it matter if I’m being overly anxious? I’ve got something there to protect me in times of need and trouble,” said Mayall.
Meanwhile, a new study by Imperial College London and the University of Liverpool suggested that rising food prices caused by higher rates of imported food after Brexit could lead to thousands more deaths from heart attacks and strokes. They used data from the World Health Organisation and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to model the impact of Brexit on health.
With so much uncertainty, May is under immense pressure to work out a compromise deal that will be acceptable to both Houses of parliament and end the confusion quickly.
However, as of now, renegotiating the Brexit deal seems difficult as the European Commission has said that the rejected agreement was a legally binding text that had been signed, sealed and delivered by the EU member states and cannot be reopened.
May has her work cut out to come up with something that the whole country can get behind and is acceptable to the EU to prevent the disaster of no-deal Brexit hitting the UK.