New Clause 20 - Coronavirus and the fishing industry: report

Fisheries Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 15th September 2020.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must, within six months of this Act being passed, lay before Parliament a report on the impact of coronavirus and coronavirus disease upon the fishing industry.

(2) The report must assess and address the effects of coronavirus and coronavirus disease upon—

(a) the fishing industry workforce;

(b) the supply and availability of fishery products;

(c) demand for fishery products;

(d) access to export markets for fishery products;

(e) prices of fishery products, and

(f) the commercial viability of the catching sector.

(3) In this section—

‘coronavirus’ means severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2;

‘coronavirus disease’ means COVID-19 (the official designation of the disease which can be caused by coronavirus).”—(Stephanie Peacock.)

This new clause requires the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on the impact of coronavirus and coronavirus disease upon the fishing industry.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 20 addresses the impact of covid-19 on the fishing industry. The coronavirus pandemic has clearly caused immense disruption across different sectors of our economy, but the fishing industry has been affected by a particular set of challenges. They include a significant hit to demand for fish in key domestic and overseas markets, with the closure of the restaurant sector and many supermarket fresh fish counters during lockdown; the challenge of getting fish to market; a collapse in prices, with falls of as much as 85%; and disruption to supply chains.

Alongside those challenges, many fishers have faced labour shortages caused in part by overseas workers leaving the UK. Many small fishers were unable to adapt to these challenges, as throughout the lockdown period their quota allocation and the fish they catch remained unchanged. All of that has been exacerbated by what happened earlier this year, when many boats were grounded by storms and high winds.

The difficulties are well known to the Government. On 24 April, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs heard from experts in the fishing industry, who highlighted some of the challenges. We have broadly welcomed the Government’s economic support measures during the pandemic. However, in many cases, the measures have not addressed the particular challenges faced by the fishing industry, where smaller businesses often have very tight profit margins, continually reinvesting in their businesses and vessels. As Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said, “broad brush” Government support left many smaller fishing businesses struggling.

The Government’s £10 million fund for England’s fishing and aquaculture sectors came too late, while the bounce back loan scheme, capped at £50,000, did not cover fixed costs, from maintaining boats to funding berths for charter boats in marinas and ports, which were necessary to ensure the long-term viability of businesses when they were not operating during lockdown. Cash-flow problems and ongoing costs have impacted not only fishers, but fish processing businesses and ports, with the British Ports Association finding that only 36% of UK ports are confident about their business outlook over the next 12 months.

The Government have made support for the fishing industry one of the key elements of their programme, and that has taken on even greater importance in the context of coronavirus. The new clause presents an opportunity to provide greater certainty for an important industry in uncertain times. It would require the Secretary of State to lay before the House a review of the impact of coronavirus and the coronavirus disease on the fishing industry within six months of Royal Assent.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution)

Once again, I rise to speak about devolution, of which the new clause betrays a lack of understanding. There are four Governments, four Parliaments and four countries of the UK who are taking what steps they think best to tackle the coronavirus and to mitigate the economic damage from it, including in the fishing industry. Again, we have a new clause that thinks it appropriate to ask the person in charge of English fishing to make a report on the economic wellbeing or otherwise of the fishing industries in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I just make the helpful suggestion to the hon. Lady that the Labour party should consider the impact on the devolved Administrations when it puts amendments together.

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

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. If the Government are willing to accept the new clause, it might be an area that can be improved om, but the point is to try to give greater certainty and greater information to the sector as it struggles to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Under the terms of the new clause, the report would assess and address the effects of coronavirus on the fishing industry workforce and on the supply availability of fisheries products. The new clause places no obligation on the Government to adopt any particular approach to supporting the fishing industry through these difficult times. It simply requires the Secretary of State to report to the House on the challenges that the industry faces as a result of the pandemic.

I hope the Minister will agree that the covid-19 pandemic has placed a great strain on our UK fishing industry. I hope she will support our new clause to ensure that the Government commit to monitoring the impact of covid-19 on small and big fishers across the country.

The Government need to answer key questions. What measures, if any, will they take to provide more sector-specific support to the fishing industry? What actions will they take to support jobs in coastal communities impacted by covid-19? How will they support British ports? What will the Government do to ensure that more fish caught in UK waters are landed in UK ports, providing important foods to communities hard hit by covid-19? Those are important questions. We hope that work to address those issues will take place in any case, but I am sure the House, the fishing industry and the public would appreciate its being as transparent as possible.

Given the difficulties that the coronavirus pandemic has caused for the fishing industry, if the Government are to oppose the new clause, will the Minister clarify how they will assess the impact of the pandemic and provide support for the industry? What mechanisms will they adopt to ensure that the House, the industry and the public are updated on this work?

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West

The coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of slowing down or stopping in the immediate future. We know that the disease will, regrettably, live among us and our communities for some time to come. New clause 20 seeks to mandate that the Secretary of State lays before Parliament a report on the impact of coronavirus and the coronavirus disease on the fishing industry.

Last week at the Opposition day debate on protecting jobs and businesses, I commented on the disproportionate and devastating impact the pandemic is having on our communities. In last week’s Fisheries Bill Committee, I spoke about the need to secure, safeguard and create jobs within our coastal communities, particularly at this devastating and worrying time for many of us. Our coastal communities have been severely impacted by the pandemic already, following years of austerity, as well as having to contend with the spiralling expenses of the fishing industry—this particularly affects smaller businesses with smaller vessels.

The new clause indicates to UK businesses that they are at the forefront of our minds during this really difficult time. Providing a report that outlines the impact of coronavirus on the fishing industry workforce, the supply and availability of fishery products, and the commercial viability of the catching sector in general will highlight any issues. It will give the Government and those in the fishing industry a chance to adapt and change, if that is needed to avoid bankruptcy or other financial issues that might arise. It will also mean that Parliament is given sufficient opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s action—or inaction—in supporting UK fishing communities. The Minister will surely agree that that is something our constituents would want.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

While I understand that all Members of the House are very worried about the effects of covid-19 on the fishing industry, I want to assure the House that we are very carefully monitoring the impacts on the fishing and seafood sectors. The work that we are doing includes monitoring prices and demand, including landings, for UK seafood, as well as analysis of employment data. We are concerned that the new clause would require a duplication of ongoing engagement and monitoring work. The timeframe in the new clause means that it would not capture the effects of coronavirus after the next six months, which, given the seasonality of fishing, means that it would not capture the full effects, as not all of them will have worked through in the six-month period. We are also concerned about the devolution aspects.

It is definitely true that the coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on the vital role that the food system plays in all our lives, which is why part one of the national food strategy is already looking at the food system in relation to the pandemic. We recognise that it is vital that everyone has access to healthy and affordable food, and the national food strategy is taking forward that work, in addition to work being done by Seafish in data gathering for its 2020 surveys, which are under way. The work is very detailed and the surveys include specific questions about the impacts of covid-19. Subsequent analysis of that data will, I believe, provide the information that is being sought.

The Bill is intended to frame our fisheries management for many years to come. While the pandemic has certainly not gone away in the way that we might have hoped six months ago, I do not think it is appropriate to legislate in a framework Bill for something such as this, when I am confident that the work hon. Members seek is being covered elsewhere. I therefore ask that the clause be withdrawn.

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

I do appreciate the Minister’s remarks and all the work that the Government are doing, but I am not convinced by her argument that this new clause is a duplicate. It simply asks the Government to come back and report to Parliament, so that they are open and transparent to the public and, most importantly, so that the fishing industry can see the impact of covid-19 on its industry and the support the Government are giving. On that basis, I would like to press the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 13 Fisheries Bill [Lords] — New Clause 20 - Coronavirus and the fishing industry: report

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.