I, again, congratulate Mrs Murray on securing this extremely important debate. Had it not been for events elsewhere, which I fear have conspired against us, it could have made the front pages tomorrow morning.
All hon. Members who represent fishing communities know the importance of the industry—not just to those directly involved in the catching and processing side of the business, but to the overall economic wellbeing of our coastal communities. The fishing industry in my constituency has undergone great changes in the last few years and would be almost unrecognisable to someone who fished the waters of the west coast of Scotland a few decades ago. Back then, herring was the mainstay of the local industry, but changes to technology and a focus on new species has seen a move away from herring towards prawn and scallop fishing.
Today, freshly caught high-quality Argyll and Bute seafood is in demand across the world, particularly in Europe, as I said earlier. I am delighted that the fishing industry remains a mainstay of our local economy. Of course, in Argyll and Bute we also have a thriving fish farming industry, which includes award-winning halibut producers on Gigha and salmon from Argyll, which boasts the prestigious Label Rouge, awarded under the most stringent criteria by the French Ministry of Agriculture.
As well as praising and promoting the excellent produce, I want to highlight some of the issues and challenges facing boat owners, skippers and producers on Scotland’s west coast. What I am about to say will come as no great surprise to attentive hon. Members, because I said it last year—and, I believe, the year before that.
Despite being raised by MPs representing the west of Scotland and Northern Ireland for many years, the issue of access to crew persists. It is problem that only the UK Government can fix, but they have chosen not to. Once again, I ask the Government to relax the rule and allow non-European economic area crew to work on fishing vessels that operate inside the 12-mile limit on the west coast. One look at a map of the west coast of Scotland shows that the 12-mile limit extends vast distances into the Atlantic. Few inshore vessels can or will travel that distance, but they are told repeatedly that they cannot recruit professional international seafarers from countries such as the Philippines or Ghana, and can use only UK or EU nationals to crew their vessels.
Last year, I highlighted the case of Jonathan McAllister, a skipper from Oban who was struggling to find suitable crew. He eventually found a crew of EU nationals from Latvia, who worked so well as share fishermen that they were invited back this year. In May, Mr McAllister contacted me again to say that one of the Latvian crew members had been refused entry to the UK and had been detained and questioned about the non-filing of a tax return.
Those allegations turned out to be utterly baseless, but on that basis, the crew member was detained at the Dungavel detention centre, pending his deportation to Latvia. That EU national, an experienced professional seafarer who had come to work legally in Scotland, was detained for seven days before being released without charge. He was then able to join his shipmates in Oban freely, but at what cost to Mr McAllister’s business?
The entire crew have already said to Mr McAllister that, regardless of the political situation in the UK, they will not return in 2019, so he will have to find yet another crew. Even when our skippers jump through the hoops the Home Office set for them, they are still penalised. It is little wonder that so many are totally scunnered and are seeking a way out of the industry.
Access to crew is just one issue affecting the west coast fishing industry. Last week, I met the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, which represents 65 boats, including mobile and static vessels. We met principally to discuss the Fisheries Bill, but we also spoke generally about the health of the industry on the west coast of Scotland. Naturally, Brexit and anything that would adversely affect the association’s ability to export directly into Europe was a huge concern, as over almost four decades our west coast fishermen have perfected getting their catch out of the water and delivering it fresh to some of the best restaurants in Europe in a matter of hours. Reports of six months of disruption at the ports post Brexit would be absolutely catastrophic for its members.
Another area of huge concern on the west coast is the possibility of having to work within a different regulatory framework from colleagues in Northern Ireland, who, because of the backstop protocol, would essentially retain unfettered access to the single market and the customs union. It is worth remembering that Northern Ireland is just 12 miles from my constituency, so we fish in the same waters for the same catch. Indeed, on a clear day, I reckon I could see the house of Jim Shannon from the edge of my constituency.