As you may be aware, customs formalities are not a devolved issue, although my Department has been liaising with HMRC to seek clarity on those issues. The HMRC advice states that for fish caught in UK territorial waters, the EU's view is that there is the need for customs and regulatory requirements, including the submission of safety and security declarations by the fishers on each landing. That potentially means that there is the need for additional control for the landing of goods — that is, fish, at Northern Ireland fishing ports — which would be extremely burdensome and totally unworkable for most of the smaller vessels, as some of the requirements mean that they have to land in a port that is under customs control, which may be a considerable distance from their home port.
The UK Government (UKG) have provided us with a different legal interpretation of those customs formalities and have advised that Northern Ireland vessels will be required to meet only pre-existing obligations, such as those in the fisheries control regulation, when landing into ports in Northern Ireland until further notice. That is in line with the approach that has been taken to the implementation of the protocol more broadly where there is the need for pragmatism as traders and fishers adapt to new requirements.
The UKG have assured me that they would robustly defend that approach should any challenge to it be raised by the European Union, although it is important to note that that has been the subject of engagement between the UK and EU during Joint Committee proceedings. It is accepted that that approach will require further discussions with the EU. However, the UK's position is clear that Northern Ireland vessels should not be subject to any new customs requirements until further notice.
My Department has been working through a number of Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol issues in the recent UK/EU negotiations that relate to fish being landed in Northern Ireland ports by NI registered vessels, and two of those issues have been successfully resolved through those negotiations. The outstanding unresolved issues relate to illegal, unreported and unregulated regulations and the application of EU customs formalities on the fish landed by our vessels into our ports. I have been pressing the UKG on those matters since early last year —
I thank the Minister for that fulsome answer. I absolutely appreciate that the matter is outside his control. I know that he is working hard on it. However, he will agree with me that it is absolutely ridiculous that the waters around Northern Ireland can be classed as a third country when fishermen go into them. It is one of the ludicrous aspects of the protocol.
My question spins off slightly from that. What influence does the Minister have to ensure that Northern Ireland's fishermen get their full quota from the new quota system and extra fishing quotas post-Brexit?
Obviously, I was not happy with the deal that was initially arranged by the Prime Minister and the European Union. We should have obtained much greater quota volumes under Brexit, but the UK Government settled for less. However, we will revisit that in 2025. With regard to the quota as it was awarded, we had extensive discussions and correspondence with the UKG on the matter. They arrived at the circumstance at which they arrived, which did not give us the uplift that we would have wanted, albeit we have, on average, a 10% uplift across the fleet. Therefore, in that respect, fishermen are considerably better off after Brexit, but it could have been much better again, had the UK Government negotiated a tougher deal with the European Union.
Given the devastating impact of Brexit on fishermen and fisherwomen, what exactly is the current position for fishing vessels that go from the North to the South, and vice versa?
First of all, I do not accept that there has been a devastating impact on fishermen as a result of Brexit. As I indicated, they will be able to catch more fish, and, were it not for the COVID situation, the value of those fish would be considerably higher than is the current situation.
As the Member is probably aware, there was a voisinage agreement between ourselves and the Irish Republic. Under the Fisheries Act 2020, all EU vessels that fish in UK waters must be licensed by the UK. Similarly, all UK vessels that fish in EU waters must be licensed by the EU. Reciprocal access to the Ireland/Northern Ireland zone of nought to six nautical miles under the existing voisinage neighbourhood agreement means that we must license each other's vessels. That is being progressed urgently. Vessel lists have been exchanged. We are waiting on confirmation that licences will be issued to Northern Ireland vessels before we can respond. We are very keen to ensure that Northern Ireland fishermen can continue to fish in Irish waters and that Irish fishermen can continue to fish in UK waters under the previous agreement. It worked extremely well. If there is any holding back on that, it is not coming from the Northern Ireland side.
It is better than it was before Brexit but not as good as it could have been had the UK adhered to tougher negotiation with regard to regaining the waters that we have been deprived of for many years. The opportunities that exist are not what they could have been. However, I hope that we will take the opportunities that exist now and that, in future negotiations, we will gain considerably more opportunities for our fishermen.