Speaking at the PTF annual dinner at London’s Hilton Hotel on 7 March, Sutton said: “If you take one message home with you tonight, let it be that Government must honour the promise it made to Business Leaders to avoid that cliff-edge in just over one year's time.”
Time was running out to confirm that, because the next European Council meeting was in just two weeks, warned Sutton.
Earlier that day, EU council president Donald Tusk said the UK could not “cherry pick” all the bits it liked about being an EU Member State post-Brexit.
‘Deliver on promise’
Sutton said: “What we need is for the Government to deliver on the promise in its letter to business leaders around a month ago – assuring us that: ‘Every business, small or large, will be able to go on trading with the EU as it does today – until it's time to make any changes necessary for the future partnership’.
“And we need that certainty now - not at some point in the autumn or, worse still, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, as [Brexit secretary] David Davis speculated a couple of months ago.
“Because without solid guarantees that the UK will continue to be treated as if it were a Member State for the next two years, those same businesses, our businesses, small or large, will have to start putting in place contingency measures to insure themselves against a worst case outcome.”
Lack of preparations
Sutton also raised fears over the impact of lack of preparations for the fall-out of Brexit on official customs checks and controls.
“Whatever the UK's future relationship with the EU ends up looking like it should now be overwhelmingly clear to everyone that neither we, nor the rest of the EU, will have been able to put in place the physical or other arrangements needed for change to begin on day one – assuming we cease to be a full member on 29 March 2019.
“This is true whether that means space to stop and search lorries, IT systems for completing customs declarations, the trained and qualified personnel needed to carry out animal and plant health checks or any of the thousand and one other trade facilitation measures that haven't been needed when we trade directly with other EU Member States.
Some of us are familiar with some of this when we trade with countries like the US or China. But around two thirds of UK businesses have no experience of any of this at all.
“I have also been astonished to learn that there are around 30 different UK agencies which are involved in cross-border issues at the moment. Each is resourced and skilled to meet current needs. Upscaling and upskilling them to meet a step change in traffic volumes will be a massive task on its own.”
Sutton was appointed PTF chair, replacing Rob Nugent, operations director at Direct Table Foods, in June 2017. She is a director of Delamere Dairy.