My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on an excellent speech that will provide a lot of food for thought for many of our colleagues and beyond. Speaking in this Chamber after the Brexit referendum vote, I urged the Government not to let down the people who earn their livelihoods in our fishing industry and not to allow their interests to be bargained away in future negotiations with the EU. Having watched developments since then, I am sure that the Prime Minister has no intention of doing so, but it is clear that the way ahead in this area will be complex and difficult, and a great deal of tough deal-making lies in front of us.
Fishing may be a small industry—it contributes 0.5% to our GDP, and in 2016 the UK fishing fleet was estimated to employ 11,757 people—but big promises were made and continue to be made by the Government about the benefits that will accrue to our fishing communities when, as part of Brexit, we leave the common fisheries policy and are able to negotiate catch quotas and access to our waters as an independent coastal state. Despite its relatively small economic clout, I believe that the fishing industry and the coastal communities where it is embedded hold a very special place in British hearts. Their fate has become totemic, as the fraught negotiating process in Brussels has continued. It is certainly true in Scotland, where 65% of the British catch is landed. It has now become painfully clear that the Government will have to remain both resolute and vigilant to withstand EU attempts to muddy the waters when talks on a future trade deal get under way. Indeed, it now seems quite possible that fishing may provide the first trial of strength.
To make matters more complicated, we must also remember that our fishing industry is not homogenous with uniform requirements. While those who own and crew trawlers on the east coast of Scotland want access to EU markets for much of their catch, they also want new arrangements which will increase their quotas, and keep foreign fleets further at bay. Meanwhile, the major priority for those who take their lucrative catch of shellfish mainly off the west coast is swift and untrammelled entry to EU markets.
The potential stumbling block is linkage. The Government are well aware of this, and the Prime Minister—who has been pressed hard by her Scottish Tory colleagues—has said she is determined to keep future negotiations on fishing catch quotas in our waters from the bargaining over a future trade deal. However, the French President has insisted that the two issues should be linked, and without UK concessions, a trade deal will become slow to achieve. In a robust response, the Prime Minister has rightly made it clear that if a fair deal on fishing rights cannot be agreed by the end of 2020, the default position would be that French and other EU boats would be banned from British waters.
The withdrawal agreement, and the political declaration, give no guarantees to the fishing industry about its future. The declaration only states that the UK and the EU should establish a “new fisheries agreement”, preferably by July 2020. The Government insist that they have managed to resist any written reference to a link between access to our waters and the terms of a future trade deal. Ominously, a separate statement by EU leaders states that one of their priorities is a fisheries agreement which builds on,
“existing reciprocal access and quota shares”.
I must stress how severely trust and confidence in the UK Government will be damaged in Scotland if the fishing industry is not clearly seen to benefit from the UK leaving the common fisheries policy. Predictably, the Scottish nationalists are already chanting, almost like a doom-laden Greek chorus, that there will be a sell-out of fishing interests by the United Kingdom Government. The SNP, which wants to use Brexit to further its plan to break up the United Kingdom, must believe that an endless mantra of “sell-out” will divert attention from its own weak and untenable position on this matter. I repeat the words in Hansard of
“We will be leaving the common fisheries policy and taking back control of our waters. But it is a bit rich for him to make those comments, given that he belongs to a party that wants to stay in the CFP in perpetuity”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/3/18; col. 529.]
The only sell-out of our fishing industry which could take place would be as a result of the SNP’s obsession with independence, which has been accompanied by its plan to take Scotland back into the common fisheries policy. That is not what the British fishing industry wants. Theirs is an extremely good and deserving cause, and I sincerely hope and believe that it will be given priority by our Government in due course.