Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:45 am on 7th July 2020.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 10:45 am, 7th July 2020

These two motions are to approve statutory rules. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion and then call the to Minister to move it. The Minister will then commence the debate on both motions. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and again I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I beg to move

That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) (Amendment) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister to open the debate.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The scheme was developed in response to the unprecedented difficulties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. It had an immediate impact on the sea fishing industry after social-distancing measures and the collapse of the European and domestic fish markets had made trading virtually impossible. The Northern Ireland fishing industry faced extreme difficulties as a result of COVID-19 and was in urgent need of support to ensure that there was a profitable fishing industry to return to, once COVID-19 subsided. I am pleased to say that my Department responded promptly and engaged with representatives across the sea fishing industry to discuss the financial crisis that it faced. There was a clear need to deliver financial support within a reasonable time frame, and I subsequently brought a paper in relation to the sea fishing industry scheme to the Executive and secured their support.

On 3 April 2020, I announced a £1·5 million support package to ensure that the Northern Ireland fishing industry was supported through the COVID-19 pandemic until such times as market conditions improved. I thank the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee for its initial scrutiny of the scheme and its subsequent written engagement with my officials to seek clarification of some of the details. The statutory rules that are the subject of the motion give effect to that £1·5 million support scheme.

The statutory rules were made in exercise of the powers conferred by section 15(1) and (2) of the Fisheries Act 1981 as read with paragraph 2(1) of schedule 2 to the Sea Fisheries (Northern Ireland) Order 2002. Those provide the necessary powers to make schemes of financial assistance with the approval of the Department of Finance and to make grants or loans for the purpose of reorganising, developing or promoting the sea fishing industry or contributing to the expenses of those who are engaged in it. Paragraph 2(4) of schedule 2 to the Sea Fisheries (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 provides that the scheme:

"(b) shall be laid before the Assembly after being made; and (c) shall cease to have effect ... after the expiration of the period of three months beginning with the day on which it is made, unless within that period it has been approved by a resolution of the Assembly."

It was therefore important that the motion be scheduled prior to the summer recess, and I thank the Business Committee for doing so.

The Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 — SR 2020 No. 76 — was made on 4 May 2020 and came into operation on 5 May 2020. The purpose of the scheme was to provide assistance to the sea fishing fleet towards the fixed cost of vessels for the three months from March to May. The assistance was delivered via monthly payments that were based on the length of the fishing vessel subject to qualifying conditions. Vessels less than 10 metres could apply for a grant of £1,050 per month; vessels greater than 10 metres and less than 12 metres could apply for a grant of £1,800 per month; vessels greater than 12 metres and less than 15 metres could apply for a grant of £3,550 per month; and vessels greater than 15 metres and up to 28 metres in length could apply for a grant of £4,550 per month. The maximum funding per undertaking was capped at around £104,000, but no vessels were near that.

With regard to eligibility for support under the scheme, a number of conditions applied to ensure that support was directed to vessels that were dependent on fishing and were normally active during the months in which the markets had collapsed. The vessel had to be a fishing vessel registered in Northern Ireland, and it must normally be active from March to May. The vessel must have had fish landings worth at least £10,000 in 2019, and it had to be less than 28 metres in length and be available to fish if there was a market for its product. The Department issued 172 letters of offer for support under the scheme, and, to date, grants totalling just over £1·3 million have been paid to 169 eligible applicants. I am pleased that we were able to quickly issue a single payment covering three months at once to the vast majority of applicants.

To sum up, when I announced the scheme in early April, it was the most far-reaching in the UK. Its aim was to provide prompt financial support to help the fishing fleet to cover its fixed costs for three months and to help it to survive what has been one of its most difficult periods. We have succeeded in delivering just over £1·3 million in much-needed support to the fishing fleet, and the feedback that my Department is getting from industry representatives is that the scheme has generally been well received by fishermen and that the aims of the scheme have, indeed, been met.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to speak as Chairperson of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee and outline the Committee's views.

The Committee first considered the original regulations at the SL1 stage on 9 April 2020 and was advised by the Department of the need for the policy due to the collapse in the European and domestic markets for fish as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hospitality and catering sectors had closed down, along with fish counters in supermarkets and other retail outlets. The market for much of our seafood is overseas, and it had collapsed overnight. The sea fishing industry was experiencing a major slump in demand for its product, and the demand for fish and shellfish was non-existent.

The Department advised that, following consultation with industry representatives, the need for financial support for the sea fishing and fish-catching sector in the wake of COVID-19 was recognised as a genuine and urgent need, as many incomes had been affected significantly. The Committee heard that, under state aid rules, the scheme would focus on fixed costs, rather than the income generated, and that a number of conditions had to be met to be eligible for the scheme. One of those conditions was the overall length of a fishing vessel.

The Committee was content with the merits of the policy at SL1 stage and had no issues to raise. Members were supportive of the measures being taken by the Department to support the sea fish industry, which was experiencing severe financial hardship as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

At its meeting on 4 June the Committee was alerted to a minor technical amendment that was required following scrutiny of the technical aspects of the statutory rule by the Examiner of Statutory Rules. The amendment was to correct a reference to overall length of vessels in article 2 of the rule. Subsequently, the Department presented the amended SL1 to the Committee on 11 June, followed by the statutory rule at the meeting on 24 June. The Committee noted that the amendment was as highlighted by the Examiner of Statutory Rules and had no issues with the policy. Therefore, the Committee is content with the proposals from the Department and recommends that both statutory rules are confirmed by the Assembly.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP 11:00 am, 7th July 2020

This has been an important intervention of assistance, and I thank the Minister and his colleagues for their hard work on the matter. Significant effort over a short period has been put into the scheme, and it has been welcomed by the sea fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

As we know, COVID-19 is the cause of the crisis, and, as time has gone on, we can see just how huge an impact the virus has had not only on the health of the individuals affected but on our way of life and economically on many businesses that operate in Northern Ireland. The sea fishing industry is no different in the economic impacts felt, and, with the closure of restaurants, seafood markets and many other outlets, it is easy to see why the industry found itself in such a parlous position. The impact of the crisis could not have been foreseen when we consider the huge downturn in demand, with restaurants and many outlets closed down. For fishermen, the costs continue for their trawlers, and this has been a concerning time for them all.

As with other sectors, it was recognised that something had to be done to ensure that there was a fishing industry to return to in Northern Ireland. Recognising its parlous position, our Agriculture Minister was successful in gaining support for financial assistance in the form of the fixed-cost scheme that is before the House today. It has been a welcome intervention for trawler owners at this time. The scheme, whilst not an answer to all the current difficulties, has certainly provided some relief and important assistance to our fishing fleets, which have been practically tied up since the commencement of the crisis. Uptake of the scheme has been encouraging, with scores of successful applications, as the Minister stated, meaning that assistance has been effectively administered with minimal delay.

The restrictions that were put in place were obviously important measures in those unique and concerning pandemic circumstances, and we all look forward to better days when our way of life can return to some sort of normality. I support the motion.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I rise as a Member for South Down, the home of Kilkeel and Ardglass harbours. I thank the Minister for bringing this forward today, because it was clear to all that the obvious slump in the market for fish required urgent attention, and this is it. I also thank the Minister for clearly outlining the process that was followed in respect of the requirement for Executive colleagues to come on board, alongside the Minister of Finance, to make this work. It really highlights the need for collective responsibility to recognise where there is a problem and come together to fix it.

As a Member for South Down, I have sought and acquired assurances from the Department that the amendment that will come up next is merely technical, and I understand that there will be no change in the amount of payment due to those fishers. It was based, I believe, on misquoted legislation, so I am satisfied that that is the case and that fishermen and women across South Down and across the North will be paid in due course the amounts that are due to them. I welcome that and support the motion.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

I too thank the Minister for moving today's motion to retrospectively put in place the provision of financial support to those from the sea fishing sector, which, I understand, is in the process of being administered, while the second motion serves to determine the length of the fishing vessels that would define the amount of financial support payable to those vessels.

As no one here needs to be reminded, those working in our sea fishing industry do so in challenging and dangerous conditions that are often weather-dependent. It is an industry that has suffered greatly in human loss over the years and an industry that makes a very valuable contribution to the economy of Northern Ireland, particularly in County Down. The industry, since the COVID-19-enforced lockdown, has seen its income plummet. The markets for shellfish, including that for prawns, which was one of the higher-value catches and was in high demand in the Far East, closed down virtually overnight. Then there was the collapse of the white fish market due to the closure of the hospitality and catering sectors, along with the carry-out food outlets here in the United Kingdom, which further compounded a difficult time for the sea fishing industry. However, meanwhile, cost to the fishermen continued. All of that together resulted in an industry that, if it were to survive, needed financial support. That financial support was determined on several conditions, including the length of the fishing vessel; thus the need for the second motion.

With the gradual opening up of restaurants and hotels again, hopefully the financial package claimed by approximately 109 vessels will be timely for the recovery of the sea fishing industry. I, therefore, support both motions.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

Like so many other industries, our fishing communities have struggled to adapt to the severe and ongoing economic disruption caused by COVID-19, and, indeed, few industries have such deep or culturally important roots in their communities as in our coastal fishing villages and towns such as Kilkeel and Ardglass in my constituency of South Down. With demand for fresh fish heavily reduced and suppressed at home and in European markets, local fishing vessels and their crews needed emergency support. To make matters worse, we know that fishing operations, especially smaller crews and vessels, often struggle to make ends meet. Sinn Féin recognises that many crews have wages that are insecure and often inadequate. In April, three months of support was secured to cover the fixed costs for operating the vessels, totalling some £1·5 million. By passing these technical legislative provisions today, we can ensure that that support continues to be administered to those who need it most and when they need it. As we return to more normality in society and further increased economic activity, the hope is that this support will have kept those vessels in a position where they can return to normal business safely and in a more financially secure position. I support the motions.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

Thank you, Minister. It is vital that we continue to recognise the hard work not only of our farmers but of our fishermen, who have, throughout this difficult time, continued to provide local produce for our tables. The past months have affected every sector, and the fishing industry has been no exception. As a Strangford representative, I know too well how badly affected the industry has been due to COVID-19. The collapse of the domestic and European fish markets made trade virtually impossible throughout the pandemic. That, coupled with the loss of labour and cash flow problems, created major challenges for our small fishing businesses and our fishing communities the length of the Ards peninsula and elsewhere.

I am glad that the Department acted swiftly to announce financial assistance to our fishermen in the region of £1·5 million. The Minister has been proactive in ensuring that the Executive have assisted all of our food sectors, and I thank him and his Department for their work. Many fishermen are either self-employed as crew members or work as small businesses, and I know that a lot of the work that is normally available to them has not been there during the pandemic. Supply chains have been disrupted, buying prices of fish have been affected, and there have been challenges getting products to market. Whilst the £1·5 million grant scheme will greatly benefit the industry in weathering the present storm, it is vital that the fishing industry is assisted to enable a safe and sustainable return to full operational capacity. Social distancing measures will be problematic in their implementation on board fishing vessels. With much of the processing workforce having left the UK or being unable to travel due to restrictions, there will be further hurdles to overcome in the weeks and months ahead.

The UK fishing industry faces an uncertain future, first disrupted by Brexit negotiations and now the impact of COVID-19. It is of note that the financial provision made thus far by the Executive is the most far-reaching scheme in the UK, covering fixed costs for three months. It represents a clear commitment to support our local fishing industry, and I know that that will continue.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Emma Rogan. This is Ms Rogan's maiden speech, and I remind Members that maiden speeches should be heard without interruption.

Photo of Emma Rogan Emma Rogan Sinn Féin

It is a huge honour for me to speak here today as a Sinn Féin MLA for South Down. I am honoured to continue the work of my party colleague, Chris Hazzard, our South Down MP. He was a fantastic representative for South Down as an MLA and as Minister for Infrastructure and continues to be a breath of fresh air as our South Down MP. I thank him for his guidance and support since taking over from him. I also acknowledge the 16 Sinn Féin councillors in my constituency who have offered their support to me and their hard work and dedication to our constituents. As one of two female Sinn Féin MLAs in South Down, I am extremely grateful to have ongoing support and guidance from my party colleague and friend, Sinéad Ennis.

For anyone who has the pleasure of working, living or visiting in South Down, you will know that it is a beautiful place on this island. It runs from Warrenpoint and Carlingford lough in the south, sweeping the Mountains of Mourne and running as far as the breathtaking Strangford lough and all the towns and villages in between. I am proud of the people whom I represent. It is an area steeped in culture, heritage and tradition.

I pledge to work hard to restore services to our local hospitals and to the community that they serve. That is the very least that my constituents deserve. I recognise the hard work and diligence of employees in the health and caring sector as they have battled to keep us safe in the strangest of times. I will continue to support small local businesses in our villages and towns. South Down also has many tourist attractions that the economy relies on, from the St John's Point lighthouse on the coast to the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick. As MLA for the area, I want to promote and support all that is positive about South Down.

We also have a constituency with many excellent schools. Teachers, pupils and parents will need help and support in the coming weeks to see our children back at school. Parents and their children deserve so much praise for completing their studies at home in recent weeks in the strangest of times, some with inadequate broadband and devices. To the parents of children with additional and special needs I say that I also hear your needs. I urge the Minister to secure more places in South Down.

I have witnessed at first hand in the last few months how the community that I live in and represent can work together and provide vital services and support to each other, and of that I am extremely proud.

As I represent a border constituency, it would be remiss of me not to mention Brexit. The clock is ticking towards a potentially disastrous no-deal crash-out. The Brexit deadline should now be extended to avoid what will be a devastating blow to our economy.

The purpose of both of the statutory rules is to provide financial support to those in the sea-fishing catching sector and the incomes that have been adversely impacted on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs agreed to a minor amendment to SR 2020 No. 76 to define the overall length of a fishing vessel. There will be no impact on the administration of the scheme.

Markets in Europe and the Far East, where high-value shellfish would normally have been exported, have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, social distancing measures, the closing down of the food industry sector and the closure of many fish counters in retail outlets has resulted in reduced demand for white fish and prawn tails, practically wiping out the sector.

The sea fishing industry is significant, particularly in the three main east coast villages: Ardglass and Kilkeel in my constituency of South Down, and Portavogie on the Ards peninsula. According to statistics, the sea fishing industry contributed £40 million of gross value to the economy in 2016 and employed 1,790 people in 2017, in catching, processing and marketing. These industries are key to rural communities like those in South Down. It can be argued that there is a real need to ensure that they are profitable and sustainable in the long term, especially with the context of uncertainty around Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. In that regard, future fisheries policy in the North of Ireland, and indeed the island of Ireland, needs to be conscious of the specific needs of these local industries. I support the motion.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green 11:15 am, 7th July 2020

I, too, take the opportunity to recognise the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on European and domestic fish markets, and therefore on the fishing industry in Northern Ireland. It is really good to see a package announced that so substantially addresses these issues. The package will enable fishing communities to survive and, hopefully, thrive after one of the biggest challenges that they have ever encountered. However, I do have concerns in relation to differential treatment between sectors and disparities in the levels of support that have been allocated. This is without doubt the most substantial package that has been announced for any sector within the Department's remit and, indeed, as the Minister himself stated, it is the most far-reaching in the UK.

While the package is undoubtedly welcome, questions must be asked as to why this sector is being treated differently to others. The recent separate £25 million support package that was announced for the agriculture and horticulture sectors was intended, in the Minister's own words, to be:

"driven towards those ... who can clearly demonstrate tangible loses [sic] as a result of Covid-19."

Beef and sheep farmers, like those in the fishing industry, have been affected by the falls and fluctuations in market demand for their product due to the pandemic. However, unlike fishermen, beef and sheep farmers must demonstrate proof of their losses in order to access support, and the amounts that they receive are dependent upon those losses. For the fishing industry, a lump sum has been allocated for distribution, with the only significant criterion being the size of the boat. Of course, the fishing industry differs from agriculture, and supports for the sector appear to have been treated differently, based on that justification. However, I draw attention to the ornamental horticulture sector, which has been lumped in with agriculture for the purposes of allocating a support package, without consideration being given to the fact that it differs totally from the agriculture and fisheries sectors.

Out of all the sectors, the horticulture sector has arguably been most affected, yet the level of support that it has received is nowhere near what has been accorded to the fishing industry. The sector has experienced catastrophic losses, yet the criteria for schemes such as the self-employed income support scheme, the coronavirus job retention scheme and the bounce back loan scheme all excluded growers from benefiting in many cases. According to the Horticulture Trades Association, fewer than one in five growers received help through the Government's business support measures; just 1% received financial support from the Government's coronavirus business interruption loan schemes; 48% of growers were ineligible for assistance loans, as they had no cash flow; over three fifths of UK growers said that they were not eligible for business support grants; and nearly four in five growers were not entitled to any kind of rates relief. No allowance has so far been made in the support package for horticulture to account for this or to allow for the fact that the industry does not receive an annual subsidy from public funds, which all other sectors do.

The perishability and seasonality of plants has meant that the sector has faced stock write-offs unlike any other industry. Growers have waited weeks and months with little or no cash flow and no indication of whether a package would be forthcoming until now. Many growers were not in a position to order plants that had to be ordered and paid for a year in advance, as they need to be propagated. Many were not in a position to buy stock for autumn or winter next year.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Can I bring the Member back to the legislation that is being discussed today?

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

The package for the sea fishing industry has set a precedent for supports to be made available that are not calculated based on the proportion of losses incurred. Given that the Department has been able to provide for the sea fishing industry with a lump-sum financial package, with the only criteria being the size of the boats, it is not unreasonable, then, to expect that similar standards should be applied to other sectors that have experienced more severe impacts because of COVID. While I support the motion, I call on the Minister to apply eligibility criteria for all applicants within his remit and to do it equitably.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I support the sea fish industry scheme as announced today. The benefits and outworkings of the scheme have been well rehearsed in the debate already and I do not intend to repeat them, but I should put on record that the Department has worked hard — I know this from the AERA Committee — to alleviate the detrimental impacts of COVID-19 on the fishing industry and the market for whitefish, shellfish and prawn tails. Of course, that has been further compounded by closures in the hospitality and retail sectors.

In addition to the points that have already been illustrated, it is probably worth mentioning that the scheme will benefit the economies of the towns and villages that are closest to the centres of our fishing industry. Of course, those benefits also relate to other livelihoods in those towns and villages. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I am very happy to support the scheme. I thank the Minister for his statement and the detail that he gave today. I also thank the departmental officials for what has been delivered by the scheme thus far.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. Throughout the pandemic, my officials have continued to meet on a weekly basis with industry representatives from right across the areas that we cover to discuss the implementation of the support schemes. More recently, they have discussed what future support might be required for the fishing industry in the months ahead in order to assist its recovery. I can inform Ms Bailey that not only have we provided support for the fishing industry, but we will be looking to provide further support through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, and those discussions will continue.

Let me be very clear about this: if anybody wants to look at an industry that has been in decline over the course of the last 30 years, they just need to go for a drive around our fishing harbours. They will see that many boats are in very poor condition because those people have not been bringing in the amounts of income that would allow them to reinvest in the way that they should have been. As we go forward and face the challenges ahead of us, we are looking at substantial redundancies. We have already witnessed that with the likes of Thompson Aero Seating, Bombardier and others making announcements, for example, in the aeroplane sector.

One of the biggest employers in Kilkeel is a facility that makes aeroplane seats. There will be a real challenge for that town if there are job losses, because they are well-paid jobs in what has been a very good, sustainable industry to this point. If Kilkeel is affected, how will it respond? One of the areas in which it can do so is by way of a recovery in the fishing sector. As we go forward, we need to support and sustain the fishing sector so that it can deliver investment into those communities and create offshore and onshore jobs in towns such as Kilkeel, Portavogie and Ardglass.

The horticulture sector is an entirely different sector, so there will not be a similar scheme for it. However, we are supporting that sector quite well with the funding that has been set aside. We have sought to assess the losses that have affected that industry and we will respond to that. I fought very hard to get garden centres open once again. The decision to open garden centres is one that people can now easily recognise as having been the right decision, because the R number did not go up as a consequence and many people who enjoy gardening had the opportunity to go and acquire plants grown by the ornamental horticulture sector, avail themselves of those products and help support those businesses. That was the single most important thing that we could have done to support that sector, but it is not the only thing, and we have identified funding for it and will support it.

I will go back to the motion because that is what today's debate is about, and Ms Bailey's intervention was really a little distraction. In recent weeks, a significant number of vessels, particularly those that catch nephrops and whitefish, have returned to their fishing operations on a managed basis. As more of the restrictions are eased across the hospitality sectors, some of the markets for fresh sea fish are beginning to reopen, but as things stand, they are at only about one quarter of the normal number. Therefore, a lot of the fish that is being caught is being frozen. That is fine. That is what happens in that industry, but it is not being frozen at a high price, and therefore support for the fishing industry is critical.

As I said in my opening remarks, the aim of the scheme was to provide prompt financial support to contribute to the vessels' fixed costs for three months and help the fleet to survive through one of the most difficult periods. I do not believe that the scheme has been providing more than the fishermen needed. We are looking at support that was reasonable, given the circumstances, and allows vessels to go out and catch fish at a point where the returns are lower but fishermen can sustain some of the fixed costs of the vessels. Therefore, I think that the scheme has delivered very well, and I welcome the support that it has received today from right across the House.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.