It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Sir Charles, for this morning’s important debate. I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing it.
Since 2016, the Government have repeatedly told fishing communities that there is a post-Brexit bonanza waiting for them, famously describing it as a sea of opportunity. In preparing for today’s debate, I contacted four fishing businesses in four different parts of my Argyll and Bute constituency to ask them exactly what that sea of opportunity had delivered to them. I spoke to Jonathan MacAllister, a trawler owner and skipper who fishes out of Oban; Connie Macaskill, the office manager of Easdale Seafoods; Fiona McFarlane, director of Islay Crab Exports; and Jamie McMillan, the owner of Lochfyne Langoustines. From Oban in the north to Islay in the south, they all tell a story of an industry struggling with falling prices and loss of markets, an industry drowning in bureaucracy and red tape, and one struggling to cope with labour shortages and facing huge transport and logistical problems. That is an existential threat to the industry in the west coast of Scotland.
Jonathan MacAllister has seen the price he gets for his catch fall by a third since 2019. The routine of landing his catch at Kilkeel in Northern Ireland is now time consuming and wrapped up in customs paperwork and red tape. That is assuming he can get a crew to go in the first place, as the new skilled worker visa is actually more of a hindrance than a help in recruiting non-domestic crew. He now struggles to get spare parts for his boat. The engine is American, it is distributed via Holland, the refrigeration unit is German, the condensers are Italian and the boat’s electronic control unit is manufactured in Denmark. He can no longer get vital spare parts quickly and cost- effectively, while the cost of delivery has soared too.
A few miles down the road at Easdale Seafoods, Connie Macaskill’s office manager job now requires a forensic knowledge of French customs and VAT regulations. Like so many other small exporters, Easdale Seafoods has had to adapt quickly to change its practices and has spent an awful lot of money just to stay afloat in this sea of opportunity. Although fish are zero-rated for VAT, Easdale Seafoods still has to pay VAT in advance and then reclaim it from the French authorities, which use the single euro payments area business-to-business scheme. However, very few banks in the UK are set up to use SEPA B2B and currently, this very small Scottish company has thousands of euros tied up with the French VAT authorities and has no idea when it is getting them back.
Like many Scottish seafood exporters, the shortage of qualified heavy goods vehicle drivers has added another layer of complication for Easdale Seafoods. It is the same on Islay. Fiona McFarlane’s company, Islay Crab Exports, is suffering from the lack of qualified HGV drivers, but that is just one of the Brexit-related problems facing the business. More pressing is a shortage of workers. Jobs that were once filled by EU nationals now lie unfilled and the business needs double the number of processors that it currently has. Fiona told me yesterday: “We have worked hard building our business and have invested in the future. I desperately need people to work. There are people who want to come and work, but it is just not possible.”
We live in an economically fragile constituency, and the situation is unsustainable. It was laid out starkly by Jimmy McMillan of Lochfyne Langoustines. He employs 23 people in the village of Tarbert. He exports about 40%, the cost of getting that to market has soared and three hours of every day is spent dealing with Brexit-related paperwork. His costs are £300 to £500 a day in customs fees alone. That is the reality of Brexit for the fishing communities of Argyll and Bute. That is the reality of the “sea of opportunity”. That is why we voted against Brexit.
I will leave the final word to Fiona MacFarlane:
“If people had all the information and knowledge of what Brexit really meant, they would have voted differently. Someone should be held accountable to the country for misleading the people.”
She is absolutely right.