UK Shellfish Exports

– in the House of Commons at 4:34 pm on 8th February 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:34 pm, 8th February 2021

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on the EU ban on UK shellfish exports.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We have a long-standing trade in live bivalve molluscs to the EU from UK waters. This has benefited both our own shellfish industry and EU restaurants and retailers, which rely on these premium products from the UK.

Recently, concerns have emerged for our trade in live bivalve molluscs to the EU coming from UK class B production waters that have not been through purification or have not cleared testing. The European Commission has changed its position in recent weeks. It advised us in writing in September 2019 that the trade could continue. We shared the Commission’s view and worked with the industry on that basis, and that included explaining that for one small part of the industry—wild harvested molluscs from class B waters—there would need to be a pause while we awaited new export health certificates to become available in April, but that, in line with the guidance from the EU, trade in the molluscs from farms could continue uninterrupted.

We continue to believe that our interpretation of the law and the EU’s original interpretation is correct, that the trade should be able to continue for all relevant molluscs from April, and that there is no reason for a gap at all for molluscs from aquaculture. However, last week the Commission gave us sight of instructions that it sent to all member states on 3 February, stating that any imports into the EU from the UK of live bivalve molluscs for purification from class B waters, such as the sea around Wales and the south-west of England, are not permitted. Exports from class A waters, such as we find around parts of Scotland, may continue.

Bringing an end to this traditional and valuable trade is unacceptable, and I recognise that it is a devastating blow to the businesses that are reliant on the trade. While we do not agree at all with the Commission’s interpretation of the law, we have had to advise traders that their consignments may very well not be accepted at EU ports for now. I am seeking urgent resolution to this problem and have written to Commissioner Kyriakides today. I have emphasised our high shellfish health status and our systems of control. I have also said that if it would assist the trade, we could provide reasonable additional assurances to demonstrate shellfish health, but that this must also recognise the existing high standards and history of trade between us. It is in the EU’s interests to restore this trade. Many businesses in the EU had invested in depuration equipment and are configured around managing the export of molluscs from class B waters.

We have met the industry several times, and it is of course extremely concerned. We are working well with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, which is taking up the issue in meetings with European counterparts. The molluscs affected include mussels, oysters, clams and cockles. In general, the scallop trade is less affected. Scallop exports may instead undergo pre-export testing, as was the case before exit. However, we know some businesses have not traditionally been working in that way, and we are discussing with them how we may help. The issue does not affect molluscs landed in Northern Ireland. It does, however, affect movements from GB to Northern Ireland.

I know that this issue will be of great concern to many exporters around the country. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will continue the technical discussions with the European Commission, and I will update the House with any developments in due course.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Whoever is to blame, the fact is that shellfish farmers and fishermen are not able to export their most valuable product to their most important market. The rule banning imports from third-party countries of untreated shellfish from class B waters has been in place for decades. The Secretary of State claimed in front of the House of Lords EU Environment Sub-Committee last week that the EU had changed its position on how the rules would affect the UK. He had originally told the industry that the ban would be lifted in April, but we now hear it will not. On that basis, will he publish and put in the Library all the correspondence between his Department and the EU that demonstrates why he believed a change would occur? Can he explain to the House today what mechanism he expected the EU to use to make that change?

The letter that the Secretary of State has published today is welcome, but it does not answer those questions. It refers to contact in September 2019, when the UK’s future trading agreement still was not clear. Many fleets are unable to sell their catches and exporters unable to ship and trade. What assessment has his Department made of how many businesses and employees are affected by the situation? What provision has his Department made to use some of the £23 million compensation fund that the Government recently announced to support the businesses who are unable to trade and how long will that support last? A multimillion pound industry has ground to a halt overnight. Jobs and communities are at risk. Unless this situation is resolved, the UK shellfish industry will not survive.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady refers to the evidence I gave to the House of Lords, and indeed that is entirely in line with what I have just set out. It is the case that in September 2019 the European Commission told us that for wild caught molluscs there would be a need for a new health certificate and, when that was discussed more recently, indicated that that could not come on stream until April. The Commission said that the existing trade in farmed molluscs could continue under existing export health certificates, so it has indeed changed its position. The hon. Lady asks whether I would be prepared to put that correspondence in the Library; I am happy to do so, including the letter I have written to the Commission today and that earlier letter from 2019.

The hon. Lady asks what we wanted to have changed. The answer is that we do not really want anything to be changed. We simply want the European Union to abide by its existing laws. The export of molluscs is governed by the animal health regime, and falls under directive 2006/88/EC and regulation 1251/2008. The directive and regulation are clear that the export of bivalved live molluscs is indeed lawful.

The Commission now seems to be pointing to separate public health regulations, namely regulation 853/2004 and regulation 2019/628, and suggests that they are the reason for a prohibition on sale. Again, that is incorrect, because legislation is clear through article 12 of the Commission implementing regulation 2019/628, which makes it clear that it does not apply where the molluscs are exported to a depuration centre. That is because when they are sent to a depuration centre, they are not yet food for sale. Therefore, the reason given by the European Commission for this change in position is not consistent with the EU’s existing law. That is why we will continue to raise these issues with the Commission because under both the aquatic animal health regime and the public health regulations that the EU has cited, there is no legal justification for a bar on this trade.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

This is all very disappointing and unfair. Following what Stephanie Peacock has just said, I have many small independent fishermen and wholesalers whose very livelihoods depend on the export of live molluscs to the European Union. I know that my right hon. Friend is working very hard on the issue, but will he redouble his efforts? We just want the law to be upheld. The EU changed its mind on vaccines; perhaps it will change its mind on shellfish.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We believe that the EU has simply made an error in interpretation of the law in all the regulations it has cited. We are working closely with it to try to resolve this at a technical level. We do not think that the ban it has put in place is at all justified and, indeed, it represents a complete about turn on everything the EU has told us to date. We want the EU market to have access to the fantastic shellfish we produce in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The past five weeks have been an absolute nightmare for food-exporting businesses. Fishing businesses face bankruptcy, dairies cannot shift their cheeses, and meat was sitting rotting in lorries, stuck in customs. Small businesses ended mail order deliveries to Northern Ireland and European truckers are refusing UK loads bound for Europe for fear that they will end up stuck in a lorry park in Kent. Forty years of building good customer bases in Europe have been swept away in one month by this Government’s incompetence. The Government blamed the companies for not getting the paperwork right, said it was teething problems or blamed the French, the Dutch or any other big boy who might have done it and run away. Will the Government accept that the fault and the blame lie with them, because they made a bollocks of Brexit? Will they go back to the EU to seek a grace period and new negotiations on market access, even if that means accepting some regulatory alignment?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We will not accept regulatory alignment. This country voted to become an independent, self-governing country again, and to make its own laws again. We were elected as a Government on a clear manifesto commitment to deliver what people voted for in the referendum, and that is what we have done.

Of course, there have been teething problems in these early stages, as people familiarise themselves with new paperwork—not just businesses, but border control post inspectors in France and in the Netherlands, who are also on quite a steep learning curve. They are getting better, and we are working with them to iron out difficulties: for instance, the French at one point said that everything needed to be in blue ink, but they now accept that that is not correct and is not what is required in law. We are working to iron out those difficulties, working with authorities in France, the Netherlands and Ireland to try to improve these processes, and of course we would be willing to have a discussion with the European Commission about how we might modernise some of the forms they have to make them more user-friendly.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

I did not realise that “bollocks” was parliamentary language, Madam Deputy Speaker, but obviously that is for you to decide.

My right hon. Friend is very familiar with the Filey fishing community, and lobster and crab are important markets for them. Food exporters of all types are currently finding it more difficult in instances to export to the EU than to non-EU countries and, as he said in his opening remarks, this seems to be a consistency problem related to a common understanding of the rules. Will he do whatever he can to build an agreement that deals with food and plant exports and resolves these issues as soon as possible?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I have focused my comments so far on bivalve molluscs, where the European Union is now proposing an outright ban, which is a change from its former position. We are aware that there have also been some teething issues in other sections of the shellfish industry, notably crabs and lobsters, particularly when they are exported live. There have been improvements: a lot of consignments are now going through the short straits, clearing border control posts, often in no more than 45 minutes, and reaching their destination on time. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that the paperwork associated with that could be improved. That would require the EU to engage constructively in such a discussion.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

On the matter of unparliamentary language, Kevin Hollinrake is quite right to question the matter. Deidre Brock uttered a phrase that I would not have allowed had she directed it specifically at any individual Member of this House. I did not interrupt her for the way in which she used it in her question, but I remind all hon. Members that regardless of whether they are participating virtually or physically, they ought to be very careful never to use any language that could be considered offensive. We are honourable Members in this place.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Families in Flookburgh in my constituency have fished on the sands for centuries. In recent generations, they have built a market that means the majority of their catch is sold in France. The Government’s failure to secure export rights for Flookburgh fishermen is a negligent betrayal of my communities. My constituents do not care whose fault it is, and are not impressed with the Secretary of State’s buck passing while their livelihoods are destroyed. Will he be clear about what he will do to compensate my constituents and restore their access to live shellfish markets, as they had been promised?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The UK Government, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and other bivalve mollusc producers around the country were all promised by the European Commission that this trade could continue. We are all greatly disappointed by the about-turn by the European Union, which made the change just last week. I have written to the Commissioner setting out why that approach is wrong in law. We will be progressing those technical discussions, so that this trade can resume, since there is no justification—neither animal health nor plant health—for such a ban to be put in place.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Does my right hon. Friend share my utter frustration that the European Union has completely changed its position on the rules governing the export of unpurified shellfish with virtually no notice, putting UK exporters in an extremely difficult position and hardly acting in the EU’s promised spirit of fairness and co-operation?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s frustration at the way the EU has conducted itself in this matter. It changed its position just last week, having assured us all along that it simply sought a new export health certificate for wild-caught molluscs. That is why we want to work with the EU to try to get this situation resolved. There is no justification for it whatsoever.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

May I seek clarity from the Secretary of State in relation to the measures being taken to support the Northern Ireland fleet in making the shipment of shellfish landed in GB and returned to Northern Ireland unfettered? May I also take this opportunity to urge him to ensure that opportunities are maximised for our Northern Ireland fleet by delivering a full Brexit dividend in the allocation of extra quota won from the EU?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I said in my opening comments, the ban that the EU proposed does not affect bivalve molluscs that are landed into Northern Ireland or that are farmed in Northern Ireland waters. It is a restriction on GB trade, although under the Northern Ireland protocol, it could affect the trade in these molluscs from GB to Northern Ireland. As the hon. Lady points out, we are working on other issues with the Northern Ireland industry, particularly around the allocation of new quota as we depart from relative stability.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to offer my sincere condolences to the family of the Cornish fisherman who died while fishing off the coast of the Isles of Scilly at the weekend and remember the fishermen onboard who witnessed this horror.

The Government and the Secretary of State are right to do everything to unblock this. Shellfish is normally purified or processed in the EU before it is distributed to supermarkets, restaurants and bars. Surely a further course of action available to the Government is to urgently fund the setting up of the necessary processing plants in the UK and identify what other infrastructure investment is needed to satisfy and increase our export market. Will the Secretary of State support those investment priorities, including here in Newlyn?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

First, I join my hon. Friend in offering our condolences to the family of the fisherman who was tragically killed in an accident off the Isles of Scilly over the weekend. It is a reminder that fishing is a dangerous occupation, and our thoughts are with his family at this very difficult time.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which we will consider: if we are unable to unblock the current situation and get access to the EU for our undepurated shellfish, one of the options available to us is to support the industry in procuring the depuration equipment, so that it can be done here. We will be exploring that and other options.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General)

Despite the EU’s well documented position on third country exports, the Government breezily assured our shellfish industry that the ban would be lifted. We now know that that is not the case. Agriculture and fishing are devolved; negotiating trade deals is not. It is this Government’s responsibility that the Welsh shellfish industry is now unable to export to Europe, and further proof—if any were needed—that Wales needs a seat at the table when it comes to negotiating. Will the Government now guarantee to cover the costs of all necessary export facilities for Welsh businesses such as Bangor Mussel Producers in Gwynedd, which are presently unable to trade with their export market?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I pointed out earlier, it is not the case that we sought assurances or thought we had them and that the EU has not made a change to accommodate this trade. Nor is it the case that the EU had a ban on the trade from third countries for bivalve molluscs. Indeed, its own health certificate—in the notes to guide it—makes it very clear it is within scope, because it states:

“This certificate is to be used for the entry into the Union of consignments of live aquatic animals intended for all other aquaculture establishments including purification centres”.

So the status quo law the EU has does allow this trade to continue. That is the guidance that the EU gave us all along. It has changed its position. In the short term, our objective is to get the EU to abide by its own laws and legal processes here. Obviously, if it refuses to do so, or it decides to change its law to make things more difficult, we will consider what steps are necessary at that point to support industry.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

Under the terms of the UK-EU trade deal, two committees are to be set up: a trade-specialised committee on sanitary and phytosanitary measures; and a specialised committee on fisheries. If those are not being set up, which they should be given the urgency of those issues, surely it is right to move towards an arbitration panel to figure out what can be done. The fishermen of Brixham, Salcombe and Dartmouth are incredibly worried about that point and, if they go under, they expect compensation from the EU for changing its mind over this issue.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Under the trade and co-operation agreement, there is provision for a specialised committee dealing with SPS issues. There are some early discussions on what that would look like—it would probably be a senior level technical group, probably led by our chief veterinary officer. At the moment, the issue is that the EU, because it has not even got around to ratifying the TCA, is not yet in a place to have formal discussions on how we would form those groups. That of course does not prevent us from doing what we are doing, which is working very closely with the EU at a technical level to iron out the difficulties.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Prime Minister and Conservative Ministers made grand promises about how they would take back control of our fishing waters and how the fishing industry would prosper. The Leader of the House stood there recently, smiling and saying that

“they are now British fish, and they are better and happier fish for it.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2021;
Vol. 687, c. 510.]

The reality, however, is that our shellfish industry is on the verge of collapse and that, thanks to this Government, costly new red tape and bureaucracy are holding back British businesses and our economic recovery. Does the Secretary of State accept that no business, consumer or community should have to pay the price for this Government’s incompetence?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The reality of the trade and co-operation agreement is that its fisheries section delivered a 25% uplift in fishing opportunities, a rebalancing of the sharing arrangements and an abandonment of relative stability as the quid pro quo for granting the EU continued access to our waters for five and a half years. We are free to review it after that. We also have the freedom to set our own regulations in this area. But we recognise that there have been teething problems. That is why the Government announced a new £23 million fisheries disruption fund to support those businesses that struggled with the paperwork in the initial weeks.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Fishermen who land scallops into Scarborough and Whitby have been told by their wholesalers that there is no market for their fish, so they are currently tied up, despite approaching peak season, which ends at the end of April. Is the situation with regards to the European Commission—this flies in the face of the advice it gave in September 2019—an example of its vindictiveness, or its incompetence? Will the Secretary of State write to the chair of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee, whose job it is to hold the Commission to account?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My right hon. Friend makes an important and a good suggestion, so I will indeed write to the chair of the fisheries committee to ensure that they are apprised of the discussions that we are also having with the European Commission. I am happy to do that.

My right hon. Friend invites me to comment on why the EU might have done this. I am afraid I am not going to be drawn on that, since I do not know. We very much hope that on reflection the European Union will look at this again and realise that the judgment it has made on the legal position is wrong and that it can adjust it at this late stage.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Education)

What compensation do the Government intend to provide to the shellfish industry and other fishing industries, and boats like the Kirkella, which I have mentioned many times and currently remains tied up in Hull unable to fish?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We have announced a £23 million fisheries disruption fund specifically to help those exporters who attempted to send consignments of shellfish, or indeed any other fish, during the month of January and encountered difficulties and delays that led to a verifiable loss. On the issue of access to Norwegian waters to catch cod, which, as the hon. Lady highlights, is what the Kirkella vessel undertakes, it is not unusual, in the absence of a bilateral agreement, for access to one another’s waters to be suspended during the month of January. The normal situation is that once an agreement is in place, that access resumes, and I am sure that the Kirkella would be able to catch anything it might be allocated under that agreement.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Will the Secretary of State work with fish and general food retailers to promote and sell more of our great fish and other food products to domestic consumers? Will that in mind, will he urgently make grants available to expand cleansing facilities for shellfish, because we will need them for the domestic market?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. It is important that we build domestic demand. Indeed, many fish processors say that demand in the European Union is flat anyway because of the coronavirus and the lockdown, while UK retail demand remains quite buoyant for some species, although sadly not for all—in particular, the shellfish sector is quite reliant on export trade. He is right that we should do more to promote fish, and we are working on a project with Seafish that the Government will co-fund to help build demand in exactly the way he outlines.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

Scotland Food and Drink has said:

“There’s still a huge amount of uncertainty. It feels like we’re scrabbling around in the dark”.

Does the Secretary of State think that suggesting that businesses “give it a go” is alleviating uncertainty for them or perpetuating their feeling of being lost in darkness?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We have been working closely with the industry over the past month to iron out some of the difficulties that have been encountered, helping businesses to understand where they have made some small errors on the paperwork at the beginning, helping to understand from businesses the problems that they are encountering on the French side of border control posts, and helping to understand any errors that fish certifying officers might have made. We are meeting twice a week in a stakeholder group, working very closely with industry to resolve all the problems being encountered.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to send my condolences to the family of my constituent who suffered a fatal accident aboard a Newlyn fishing vessel on Saturday. It is almost a decade since Neil was killed, and I know how they feel.

I know that my right hon. Friend has tried his best, but the time has now come to show the EU that we will not surrender to its games over these shellfish exports. I call on him to start the necessary and frequent boardings on EU vessels in our exclusive economic zone to ensure that they comply with UK laws. If we disrupt their fishing activity, so be it, but we must show the fishing industry support and also provide details of the promised financial support without which our industry will not survive.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I appreciate that this was a constituent of hers and that it was therefore close to home. All parts of the House also recognise the personal tragedy she suffered with the loss of her husband, Neil.

On my hon. Friend’s wider point about the approach we are taking to the European Union, in many, many areas we have taken a pragmatic, sensible, phased approach in the initial months, but there is no obligation on us to continue that. Indeed, as she points out, we want to see some reciprocation from the EU on the application of common sense and reasonableness. We reserve our position in all those other areas. Of course, it goes without saying that any EU vessels accessing UK waters will need to abide by UK law.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Our superb west country shellfish sector faces ruin because of the Government’s botched Brexit deal. The Secretary of State has said repeatedly that he does not want to water down UK food standards now that we have left the EU, so why not do what fellow non-EU fishing nation Norway does and agree to European food standards? That would solve these problems in one fell swoop.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not think it would solve this issue in one fell swoop, since the regulations that require the depuration of molluscs coming from class B waters are already in EU law. This is really a change that the EU is making to its law. It is not even that the EU would accept it if we had the same approach; indeed, standards in our own waters are higher than in most EU waters. I therefore do not accept that offering to align with the EU would be of any assistance at all in this instance. What we need is for the EU to abide by its own laws.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

On vaccines, on Northern Ireland and now on fishing, is it not the case that the EU says one thing and does the other? Will the Government supercharge their investment in the UK fish processing industry so that coastal communities like mine in Redcar and Cleveland can be supported?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend speaks for many Members of the House representing coastal communities. Yes, indeed, as we leave the European Union there is an opportunity to build back those coastal communities and invest in aquaculture, port facilities and fish processing facilities. We have launched a new £100 million fund to support such investment.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Did the Secretary of State know, when the Prime Minister dumped his half-empty EU deal on us on Christmas eve, that it might mean export bans for fishermen from south Wales fishing in the Welsh sea for cockles, mussels and oysters? If he did, why did he not make arrangements for those products to be sold for British consumers, and in particular those in food need? Will he make such arrangements so that those fishermen can face a sustainable livelihood and not possible bankruptcy?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We did not know that there would be such a ban since, at that point, the European Commission was telling us that the trade could continue with the exception of wild-caught molluscs, for which it said there would be a short delay while an export health certificate was designed. This is a complete change in position by the European Union that occurred just last week.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

Businesses such as Menai Oysters and Mussels in my constituency are struggling to export their molluscs because our Welsh sea waters are grade B and they will not be accepted into EU ports. What can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say to reassure local businesses on Ynys Môn that this matter will be resolved?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We are doing everything possible to get the European Union to revisit the decision it appears to have taken and revert to its original interpretation of the law, which we believe to be right. We believe the approach it has taken is not consistent with EU law and is completely unjustified under either animal health or public health reasons. That is why we are working very hard to get the position changed.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

The UK currently has a very basic trading regime with the EU with respect to food, akin to World Trade Organisation rules. Surely these problems with shellfish and other food exports point to the need for a UK-EU veterinary agreement, which could be negotiated through the sanitary and phytosanitary standards specialised committee. Does the Secretary of State recognise that such an agreement would go a long way to defusing many of the current tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I very much agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. Of course, during the negotiations, we made arguments to the European Union around equivalence—the fact that we could recognise each other’s equivalence and have more proportionate regimes. At that point, the EU was simply unwilling to entertain such a discussion, but it has veterinary agreements with countries such as New Zealand, with lower levels of inspection and simpler procedures to enable trade to continue. Of course, we very much hope that, now that the trade and co-operation agreement is in place, the EU will see fit to be much more pragmatic and proportionate in the measures it puts in place.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

At the weekend, I got to enjoy some amazing St Austell bay mussels, which I get to watch being harvested by the sea regularly through my window. However, that exceptional produce, along with Cornish scallops and Cornish oysters, currently cannot be enjoyed by people in France or across Europe because of the change in policy by the European Commission. The Secretary of State will know what a devastating impact that is having on the Cornish fishing industry and how urgently action is required. What discussions has he had with the European Commission about its change in policy, and what hope can he give us of progress being made in the coming days?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend does indeed have some fantastic mussels grown at St Austell; I visited one of the mussel farms there myself. We have written to Commissioner Kyriakides today, but my officials and the chief veterinary officer have been in regular dialogue with officials in the Commission over the last couple of weeks on this matter and, as I said, a change in position manifested itself just last week. We are in regular dialogue, and in my letter to the commissioner I requested an urgent discussion on this matter.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

Deepdock, a mussel exporting specialist, says that it now requires 41 pieces of paper to ship 10 bags of mussels to the EU where only one was required before. Is this just, as the Secretary of State likes to say, a teething issue, or is it yet another sign that the Tories’ Brexit deal has completely failed the UK’s fishing industry and communities?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is the case that people seeking to export all fish or products of animal origin will now require an export health certificate. It is also the case that the design of the forms that the EU prescribes in the schedule to its animal health regulation is sometimes a little clunky and not particularly user-friendly. We have had many suggestions from industry about how the form could be improved, particularly from businesses that are experienced in exporting around the world to other developed countries, many of which do this far better than the European Union. We will obviously seek to learn the lessons from that and try to encourage the European Union to change the nature of its forms.

Photo of James Wild James Wild Conservative, North West Norfolk

This arbitrary action by the European Commission is causing real concern in fishing communities that have already suffered losses from export disruption, and I urge the Secretary of State to confirm details of the compensation scheme. While I strongly support his efforts to have this ban lifted, will he also put in place contingency arrangements to support fishing firms in King’s Lynn and elsewhere, with grants for purification facilities?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As well as seeking to unblock this problem with the Commission and resume the trade, which is obviously our first and most important objective, we are considering other options and other interventions to help the industry to adapt should the EU permanently change its position.

Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Labour, Gower

Does the Secretary of State have any idea of the devastating financial impact that the ban is going to have on historic cockling communities such as Penclawdd in Gower? What conversations has he been having with the Welsh Government to ensure that the fisheries disruption fund reaches Penclawdd?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I said in my opening remarks, we realise that this situation is devastating for many sections of the mollusc industry. We recognise that a large proportion of bivalve molluscs—in some cases up to 80%—are exported, which is why we are working so hard to get the Commission to revisit its decision. We have indeed had conversations about the fisheries disruption fund. It is a UK-wide scheme and will be open to anybody, including those from Wales, who attempted to export and ran into difficulties.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I thank my right hon. Friend for his letter to the EU Commission that addressed these issues, but what is being done to ensure that generations of fishermen, such as those in Ilfracombe in my North Devon constituency, can return their fleets to the waters and do not moor up forever? Will my right hon. Friend assure desperate fishermen who have had no income all year that they can rapidly access the announced £23 million and the £100 million fund, to give them hope for the future?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We will shortly announce further details on and open the fisheries disruption fund for those exporters who encountered difficulties in January. I assure my hon. Friend that we recognise the impact of the European Union’s change of heart on the bivalve-mollusc industry, which is why we are working to unblock the problem. This particular step by the European Union does not affect the wider shellfish industry, including not only most scallop producers in the catching sector but those doing crabs and lobsters, but we recognise that some of those producers nevertheless encountered difficulties in January, and the fisheries disruption fund is there to support them.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I associate myself with the comments of colleagues and send my condolences to the family of the fisherman who was lost this weekend.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work to resolve this matter. I reiterate that it is vital that the cash assistance reaches not only the affected shellfish exporters but the smallest boats on the Fal estuary, which are currently tied up and facing serious difficulties. What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the opinion of some in the industry that its French market was, in fact, intact and profitable, despite restaurants in France having been closed in November and December, but is now non-existent, which adds to the current issues?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend and neighbouring MP has an important heritage oyster fishery in the Fal. I have been on board one of the vessels and seen its work at first hand. The export market will of course be important for some oyster fisheries, including the farmed oyster sector. As I have said, we are working very hard to try to get the position resolved. There will be a good future for our fishing industry once we can resolve these particular issues.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

To allow the Chamber to be prepared for the next item of business, I shall now briefly suspend proceedings for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.