UK Fishing Industry — [Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:29 am on 12th December 2018.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales) 10:29 am, 12th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Henry. I pay tribute to Mrs Murray, whose long-standing commitment to the cause of fishing safety is a badge of honour and who is commendably tireless in her pursuit of a safer environment for people who work in the industry. She clearly has a very personal knowledge of the fishing industry; her personal loss means that she speaks with profound understanding of what is so often at stake for so many of the crews who go out to bring back fish. I cannot imagine what it takes to continue to campaign, as she does, for a better situation for them.

I speak from a less personal standpoint, but I absolutely acknowledge the nature of the task that the fleets face on each trip out to sea. I also recognise the unrelenting nature of the job and the difficult economic circumstances that face the fleets and the communities that depend on them. The uncertainties attached to working in the industry, onshore as well as offshore, must only be heightened by the chaos that dogs the Brexit process. I have to say that things are a little calmer in this Chamber today than they have been in the main Chamber over the past couple of days. Staid and sober consideration of the issues before us is certainly a better way to proceed.

I commend the hon. Lady for what she said about the comments quoted from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. She made the important point that those words have been taken out of context and misquoted; I commend her honesty, and I hope that when hon. Members discuss these matters in the future, they will hear her wise words. She and other hon. Members also spoke about the Fisheries Council meeting next week—the last time the Minister has a voice at the table. A very important point arising from the flawed deal that the Prime Minister may or may not have negotiated is that the fishing industry will have lost the opportunity to influence and guide decisions made at that Council. The hon. Lady made a doughty challenge at the end of her speech for the Minister to provide clarity on the issue, particularly on aspects that relate to her constituency and its interests. Her points were well made and I look forward to the Minister’s response, as I am sure we all do.

My hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara shared stories about the difficulty that the hostile environment approach to immigration has caused for access to crew, a point made by hon. Members across the Chamber. He also raised vital concerns about the advantages to be enjoyed by Northern Ireland under the arrangements in the current withdrawal deal and gave us some spirited discussion about the vexed issue of the CFP. I am sure that that spirited discussion will continue long into the future.

David Duguid reiterated my hon. Friend’s call to relax the tight restrictions on non-EEA crew members, which are causing big problems. Melanie Onn called for the maintenance of good relations with other countries—a really important point that I appreciate her making and heartily endorse. She also noted that there is no guarantee that anything will change under the current deal or that it will address the inherent unfairness that fishers see in the current system.

Derek Thomas called for clarity about the details of the deal that may be negotiated as a last roll of the dice at the Fisheries Council—possibly the last deal of its kind to be struck with the EU. He also spoke about the potential for inshore fishing, although I would argue that that could be done under a willing Government whether or not the UK retains its EU membership. Jim Shannon, as always, spoke up for his constituents and raised some specific questions for the Minister, who will be very busy in his reply; I had better be as brief as possible, so that there is time for those questions to be answered.

I thank Mr Carmichael for his helpful clarification of the circumstances surrounding the Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill. He also raised the issue of future deals for pelagic species and asked what the Government will do about the growing crisis in the availability of fishing crews, the resulting restrictions and their impact on safety.

It has been noted that the variety of our fleets and the differentiation around the shores and across species make it difficult to describe the industry as a single entity. Each part of it has different priorities. Scotland’s creel fisher-folk, for example, tell us that their product has to get to market alive, so one of the biggest threats to their continued profitability is congestion at border control. The industry could die along with the catch if the M26 becomes a lorry park. Those concerns have to be sorted out in advance of Brexit day.

Access to the EU market is essential for Scottish fleets, which should not be in a less advantageous situation than any other part of the UK. We will be losing access advantages as it is, since we will no longer have automatic barrier-free access to the world’s biggest marketplace in the world’s most affluent continent. There are something like 1,800 shellfish boats in the Scottish fleets; it is a significant source of employment offshore and has significant onshore economic impact.

The concerns of pelagic and whitefish fleets may be slightly different but they, too, require open markets. Around three quarters of the fish and seafood landed is exported, while around two thirds of the fish and seafood we eat is imported. Trade with the EU is essential for the fishing industry. We should probably see whether there is some kind of organisation that we can join that would allow us free access to those markets and keep food imports at a reasonable price—if only we could think of one.

There is a cruelty for our fishing fleets in the fact that they will be trapped in the CFP after we leave the EU and will therefore still have to comply with the rules after we have lost the ability to influence them. So much of what we heard before the referendum was simply untrue, but that is one of the cruellest tricks of all.

A host of other questions about Brexit and fishing are still unanswered, not the least of which is how the European maritime and fisheries fund will be replaced. The development of the fishing industries around these islands may be hampered if we do not have a replacement ready to go. The improvements to the boats, including health and safety improvements, that such schemes fund are important, but so are the shore-based improvements, and the environmental spend is of incalculable value.

We also need to know about access to the labour market for the industry. Like agriculture, the work of onshore fisheries in Scotland depends to a large extent on EU migrant workers, so closing us off from them will damage the profitability of the industry. I know that some Members of Parliament are dead set on ending freedom of movement, but the argument is about what to replace it with.

Some have argued that we should look at the Australian system; if I can don my outback hat for a while, I reckon that there is a new Australian scheme that might just fit the bill. The Australian Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs says that his Government

“is working to improve our immigration program to better match the needs of specific locations”.

The Northern Territory and south-west Victoria will have immigration schemes that allow in agricultural workers and hospitality workers to service the industries that desperately need them. The schemes, known as designated area migration agreements, will allow permanent residency in those areas, provided that people are willing to remain there for at least three years. I suggest that such a scheme would be helpful to the food production industries in Scotland and should be considered by any Government who value the contribution that those industries make.

We may or may not be leaving the EU soon, and we may or may not be getting a vote on it at some point, but it is high time we had a serious chat about how we want to protect our fishing communities and how we enhance them.