I beg to move,
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Charles. First, I place on the record my gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate.
Before turning to the business of today’s debate, I want to say a few words about the recent and very sad passing of David Linkie, former editor of Fishing News. David’s work on Fishing News was more than just journalism; it was a mission to give a voice to the fishing industry and to the communities that depend on it. I will not claim to have agreed with every word he ever wrote, but we do not have to agree with someone to acknowledge their passion, sincerity and commitment, and in David, all that and more shone through. His contribution will be missed, and I am sure that hon. Members from all parts of the House will want to send condolences to his family.
I hope that David would approve of what today’s debate is about, which is giving a voice in Parliament to our fishing industries—industries that were promised so much by politicians, from the Prime Minister downwards, and that now look to him and them to deliver on what they promised. When the holding of today’s debate was first announced, I put out a call for evidence to hear the views of people in the industry and its associated sectors. I anticipated a healthy response, but even so I was astonished at the volume and content of what I received. The emails came in from all around the coast, from catchers, processors, engineers and traders, and all with the same message: the deal struck by the Prime Minister on Christmas eve is not what they were promised and, six months into its first year, it is causing massive difficulties.
One Shetland skipper spoke for many when he wrote:
“I run a small wooden 22-metre trawler around Shetland. We have a ridiculously small cod quota and we find it impossible to avoid cod, there is more cod around Shetland right now than at anytime in living memory but our quota is minuscule. It has been said by skippers recently that you can catch your year’s quota in one day! There are also plans to cut the cod quota further in 2022, so it begs the question why are we still using the broken quota system the EU put in place now that we are an independent coastal state?”
Magnus, a 19-year-old fisherman from Whalsay, who has plans to buy into a whitefish boat with a few close friends and so is the future of this industry, asked:
“Why is the fishing industry having to fight their own Government for survival? Why do their advisory boards have no qualified fishermen or ex fishermen or fish processors advising them? Why are they allowing uncontrolled fishing by foreign vessels in our waters?”
From Cornwall, at the other end of the country, a skipper wrote to me as
“someone who has fished for 40 years from my home village of St Mawes in Cornwall.”
“There were 18 boats worked here when I started, all with 2 or 3 crew and now we are down to the last 2 trawlers, both working single-handedly due to the constant negativity surrounding the industry. With Brexit we had a golden opportunity, the one and only chance to keep these vessels out to at least 12 miles, the meridian line would be the next goal but no, an unbelievably weak Government has put us in a worse position than before.”
In coastal and island communities around the country, the anger and frustration felt by fishermen is almost palpable. They feel let down and used, and they want answers. At the start of the year, we saw catastrophic gridlock as exporters seeking to take advantage of what would traditionally be the busiest week of the first quarter were unable to get their fish to market in continental Europe. Promises were made then that British businesses would be compensated for their losses, and I spoke to one local exporter in Shetland who was looking at a loss in the region of £50,000; he was not alone. The Minister and the Secretary of State made big promises about compensation schemes, but how did that work out? I spoke to the same person again yesterday. He had sought to mitigate his loss by selling his fish at a much lower price on the domestic market and, in doing so, he managed to limit his loss to £20,000 rather than the £50,000 loss that he had originally faced. When he applied for help to meet that restricted loss, he was told that because he had sold his fish—he had done the responsible thing—there would be no assistance for him. If, when the Minister promised in January to help exporters, she had meant that to qualify for that help, they would have to leave their fish to rot, she should have said so. Will she revisit how that compensation scheme has worked?
Processors have been badly hit as a result of their inability to source the labour that they need to run their businesses. One major processor in Peterhead told me a few weeks ago that he was constantly at least 10% down on his required staffing levels. That means that either he is paying overtime to his staff, or he has to restrict the range of work that he takes on; either way, it has a massive impact on his profitability. What is the Minister doing to bring home to our colleagues in the Home Office the need to ensure that the processing centres have access to the skilled labour that they need?
The Prime Minister’s deal was deficient in many respects. For the catching sector, one of the most dramatic of those was the loss of easy access to in-year quota swaps. The Secretary of State assured us that those could easily be agreed on a Government-to-Government basis. However, as we enter the third quarter of the year, having only recently and finally established the quota entitlement for this year, we still do not know how these in-year quota swaps are going to work. Can the Minister tell us when the industry might expect to be told how it will get access to the extra quota that it needs? With every week that passes, this becomes more urgent.
Another theme that came through loud and clear from fishermen in every part of the country was their unhappiness at the inequality of treatment when it comes to sea boardings by fisheries enforcement officers. In Scotland, that is the responsibility of Marine Scotland. Marine Scotland figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show a massive disparity between the approach to UK boats and to the French and Spanish fleets, which are allowed to go about their business virtually unmolested. Why is that? Is it, as was suggested to me, because fisheries protection officers do not have the same access to real-time catch data from foreign vessels as they do for UK boats? Again, the complaint is the same around the coasts; it seems that what is true of Marine Scotland is true also of enforcement agencies south of the border.
The Minister has heard me speak before about the practice of gillnetting off the west of Shetland. This practice is environmental lunacy. It is just about the most unsustainable form of fishing imaginable: it contributes massively to the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and means that for several square miles of water at a time, local boats are excluded from fishing areas that they have traditionally seen as their base grounds. For years, we were told that this was something that we had to live with as part of the common fisheries policy. That no longer applies, so why do we still allow it?
The Minister also knows, because I have told her, of the friction between local boats and gillnetters. When the Fisheries Act 2020 passed into law, I urged her to give the Maritime and Coastguard Agency powers to police the waters in our exclusive economic zone, between 12 miles and the 200-mile limit. She knows how close the Alison Kay came to disaster in her encounter with the Spanish gillnetter Pesorsa Dos. I have to tell the Minister, though, that the situation continues to be bad, and that in fact it is getting worse.
“‘We are trying to fish on grounds to suit our quota allocation but can’t get fishing because of these vicious wolf packs chasing us off. The seamen ship off these guys are totally horrendous. Put the fishing to the side on this matter, it’s the danger they put both vessels in that’s totally against the law,’ says Ross. Asked if he has experienced this before, Ross says that he has, and it is a growing concern for him and skippers across the fleet, but they are afraid that the authorities are not doing enough to protect the fleet and one day it will lead to a tragedy. ‘Yes, it’s happening too often,’ he said. ‘Last year another vessel did the same to us and I reported him to the Coastguard and MAIB but I didn’t hear any outcome, so I just presumed it was a waste of time.’”
I have met the Minister and officials from her Department and others about this, and they all come out with lots of good and detailed reasons why it is awfully complicated and difficult to fix. These reasons no longer hold water, however. Will it require a boat to go to the bottom of the sea before somebody takes responsibility and acts to end this irresponsibility?
I am aware that I have already taken quite a lot of the time given to today’s debate. I have a lot more to say, but I am afraid that that must be left to others. In January, I asked the Secretary of State if he would meet me and industry representatives to discuss the problems facing the industry. He ignored the request then and has done so since, so I make it again today. Will the Minister sit down with Members of this House and industry representatives? Will she listen to us and engage? If not, I fear the anger and frustration in the industry will only grow. Our fishing industry still has enormous potential, but to realise that potential requires political will. Do the Minister and her colleagues have that political will, and will they use it for the benefit of our fishing industries and the communities that rely on them?