Apologies, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for being slightly late. We were told that the debate would be at 4.30 pm, but then it came up on the screen. I had a bit of a rush down, but I am here now.
Members will recall that, on 3 April 2020, I announced an initial £1·5 million support package to ensure that the Northern Ireland fishing industry was supported through the COVID-19 pandemic. That financial support package was in response to the unprecedented difficulties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had an immediate impact on the industry after the introduction of social-distancing measures and the collapse of the European and domestic fish markets.
The Northern Ireland fishing industry faced extreme difficulties as a result of COVID-19. It was in urgent need of support to ensure that there was a profitable fishing industry to return to once COVID-19 subsided. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to have a significant impact, I announced a second financial support package for the sea fishing industry on 5 October 2020. Part of that second package was a scheme specifically to assist with the fixed costs of the fishing vessels of commercial fishermen that deploy static gear, such as pots and creels, typically to target crabs and lobsters. That sector continued to be badly affected by the closure of the hospitality sector.
The scheme covered the period from 1 September 2020 to December 2020. The regulations, which are the subject of this motion, provided for the financial assistance scheme and were developed in consultation with the main sea fishing industry organisations in response to my announcement on 5 October 2020. The regulations were made under powers conferred on my Department by the Fisheries Act 2020.
Under those regulations, Northern Ireland fishing boats were eligible for support if they: had a valid safety certificate issued by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency; at the date of the application, were insured for the purposes of commercial sea fishing; had, during the period 1 November 2018 to 31 October 2020, conducted more than 50% of their sea fishing activity using static fishing gear; had, during the period 1 November 2018 to 31 October 2020, landed more than 50% of their value of declared sea fish landings into ports in the United Kingdom; had declared sea fish landings for the year 2019 that were valued at £10,000 or more; and had a minimum of 12 declared sea fish landings during the period 1 June 2020 to 31 October 2020.
The financial assistance that was available to eligible Northern Ireland fishing boats under the scheme was calculated at 50% of the potting fleet's average monthly fixed costs, as evidenced in their previous three financial years. The support covered a maximum of four months, and the total maximum amount payable for each month was capped at £1,250 and a total of £5,000 over the four-month period under the scheme. It was specifically designed to assist the smaller inshore vessels, which target shellfish such as crabs and lobsters. Just over £142,000 in total will be received by 51 vessels.
The regulations that you are being asked to affirm today replace a previous scheme that was made under the confirmatory procedure in March 2021. Unfortunately, that scheme was made under repealed primary powers and had to be remade and laid under powers under the Fisheries Act 2020. Before it was brought to my Department's attention that the previous scheme had no legal effect, it had made payments totalling £139,000 to 49 vessel owners. As soon as my Department became aware of the issue with the scheme, it stopped making payments under it and brought in the replacement regulations. The regulations allow the owners of the remaining eligible vessels to be paid and bring the total amount of payments to the potting fleet to just over £142,000.
Since the start of the pandemic, my Department has been actively engaging with all sectors in the sea fishing industry to deliver a number of financial assistance packages to overcome the immediate impacts of COVID-19 on their businesses. The latest scheme brings the total amount of support to the sea fishing industry to £2·87 million, of which £287,000 was specifically for aquaculture.
I thank the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee for its prompt scrutiny of the SL1 for this statutory rule that provides financial assistance to the potting fleet.
I welcome the opportunity to outline the views of the Committee.
The Committee considered the regulations at SL1 stage on 10 June 2021 and welcomes the introduction of the scheme that extends a compensatory package that was initially introduced in October 2020 in order to support sea fishing vessels in respect of their fixed costs. The regulations will enable two additional vessels to claim compensation in addition to the 49 vessels that have already made successful applications.
The Committee is aware of the significant challenges that have been placed on the local sea fishing industry due to COVID-19, which led to a sharp and dramatic fall in the demand for fish and shellfish products, a huge drop in market prices and economic challenges for fishing communities. The significant financial support that has been provided to the sector by local and national Governments throughout the last 18 months has been welcome, and the regulations will go some way to extending that support. However, the Committee is conscious that the industry still faces stark challenges in price recovery given the phased easement of restrictions in the hospitality and tourism sector and different levels of lockdown across Europe. Therefore, financial support will be required in the short and medium term to stabilise the sector and ensure a viable recovery from the impact of the pandemic.
The Committee was content with the merits of the policy at SL1 stage and raised no issues. At its meeting on 24 June, the Committee considered the advice of the Examiner of Statutory Rules, who drew no specific attention to issues of concern. Therefore, the Committee is content with the proposals from the Department and recommends that the Assembly confirm the statutory rule.
I welcome the motion. As I have stated many times in the House over the past year, COVID-19 and dealing with its health and economic effects have been hugely challenging for everyone, not least our Departments, and in the Assembly and Executive.
While some industries undoubtedly thrived during the pandemic, even those industries had to adapt to keep pace with what has been a very changeable picture. As I said previously, the agri-food sector really stepped up to the mark when other industries were having to wind down and, in many ways, had to redouble its efforts to meet increasing demand and panic purchasing and to ensure that it was able to place food on the shelves. That, of course, brought many challenges, and, as with our sea fishing community, COVID-19 had an impact.
In line with other payments that have been made to other industries and sectors, it was important that our hard-working fishermen also received financial aid. To that end, it is important to note that our fishing sector received the greatest level of support of any fishing sector in the British Isles, and I thank Minister Poots and his officials for listening to the needs of the industry and moving towards a scheme of support that responded to those needs in a practical manner. I am interested to enquire of the Minister what additional support will be made available for COVID recovery and his views on the UK-wide Seafood Response Fund. I support the motion and welcome the views of the Minister on the points that have been raised.
The global COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate and significant financial impact on the sea fishing sector. The collapse of European and domestic fish markets as a consequence of restrictions on movements in line with public health guidance, and further restrictions on the hospitality sectors, made trading virtually impossible.
My colleagues Stephen Farry MP, John Blair MLA and councillors Patrick Brown and Andrew McMurray have continued to engage with and meet representatives of the fishing industry to discuss future opportunities for developing the fishing and seafood sector in Northern Ireland and to identify prospects to further promote our excellent local food product.
The financial support scheme for fishing vessel owners in the Northern Ireland fleet, whose incomes have been significantly affected by the impacts of COVID-19, is welcome. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Department's intervention. My colleagues and I remain hopeful that some outstanding matters, including a permanent commitment to Northern Ireland boats being able to land products at local ports without checks, and the exclusion of Northern Ireland boats from all but two ports in Northern Ireland, can be resolved.
The Alliance Party will continue to engage with the Department on those matters in order to secure a successful outcome for Irish sea fisheries, support our fishing communities and safeguard Northern Ireland fishing for future generations. As outlined in the recent Alliance Party 'Green New Deal' document, we are committed to supporting the fishing industry so that it can prosper and achieve environmental sustainability in the long term and to ensuring that the capacity of fleets is economically viable and does not compromise the marine ecosystems and overexploit marine stocks.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the regulations to support the sector, deliver economic, social and employment benefits and contribute to the availability of our food supplies.
I appreciate the comments made by Members in response to the issues that I have brought to their attention today. A couple of questions were raised about additional funding for COVID-19. The UK-wide Seafood Response Fund was a further bonus for the local fleet of potters and trawlers. That covered support towards fishing vessels' fixed costs during the first quarter of 2020-21. In total, 144 Northern Ireland fishing vessel owners secured £1·212 million in financial assistance. The scheme was administered across the UK by the Marine Management Organisation. My officials are considering a submission from the Northern Ireland Fishermen's Federation for further COVID-19 support for the period from April to June 2021.
I published a final report on the fishing and seafood development programme on 5 May 2021. It was a strategic review of the opportunities for developing the sea fishing and seafood sectors in Northern Ireland as a whole, including the potential role of new public investment in infrastructure. The report focuses on recommendations on capital investment at the main fishery harbours and highlights a number of challenges and opportunities for the wider industry that could be addressed through a future fisheries financial support scheme.
The report marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the fishing industry here. It highlights the considerable investment that is required to help the industry to adapt to the challenges that it faces and to grasp the opportunities presented following the UK's exit from the European Union. Northern Ireland needs to build a stronger, more resilient fishing and seafood industry that can adapt to change. Of course, that will not be easy, but I hope that, with government and industry working together, we can build new infrastructure, become more prosperous, improve the marine environment and enhance our reputation as suppliers of quality sustainable seafood.
My Department is finalising the business case to inform decisions about procuring the detailed environmental and technical studies that will be needed to take the harbour proposals forward. I thank all Members who commented.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Sea Fish Industry (Coronavirus) (Fixed Costs) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be affirmed.