It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I commend Mr Carmichael for securing this timely debate today, in which I am very pleased to participate. He began by setting out the staggering number of problems that fishing organisations are experiencing. He spoke of the promises made, by the Prime Minister downwards, to the fishing industry—promises broken, with little regard for the impact. He posed a question from a young fisher of his acquaintance that I found particularly telling—why is the fishing industry having to fight its own Government to survive? That is a very good question.
Numerous Members have outlined details of the great difficulty being experienced by those in the fishing industry. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland commented, the anger and frustration felt by fishing communities is palpable. It certainly is among those representatives who have been in touch with me.
Peter Aldous made some interesting points. As he said, this debate has been a long time coming, and there has been a lack of transparency around this year’s negotiations—in comparison, ironically, with what happened when the UK was still part of the EU. I would be pleased if the Minister could address that issue.
Liz Saville Roberts called for apologies to the fishing industry and commented on Wales’s devolved control being swept aside, which is something we are certainly familiar with in Scotland. I note her calls for devolution of the Crown Estate to Wales, as has occurred in Scotland. My understanding from industry representatives is that relationships have improved considerably since that happened in Scotland, so I would certainly encourage her to pursue that aim.
My hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara made an excellent speech. He spoke of an existential threat to the fishing industry. His words were brimming throughout with a deep knowledge of the problems being experienced by businesses in his constituency and the harshness of the impact of Brexit on those businesses.
What of the sunlit uplands of Brexit? What a mess has been made of people’s lives in the name of taking back control. It was a nonsense, pursued by an unthinking herd of populist and arrogant politicians. It is causing massive damage. Some of us predicted damage, but I do not think any of us grasped just how bad it would be.
It has been particularly bad for Scotland’s food and drink industry, as we have heard, and for smaller producers, especially, who have seen their overseas markets disappear. Fishing got a huge skelping and it is not really feasible to transport fresh fish halfway round the world to sell into the Australian market, no matter how fabulous a deal the Government think they have done.
Fishing is, of course, a far more important industry for Scotland than it is for England, so it was a prime candidate for the flinging-under-the-bus treatment during the Brexit negotiations—and that is what happened. Now, there is no sea of opportunity, no easy access to the EU markets and no help from Government. They will say that there is £100 million available, but where is it, how is it being distributed and how come we are not getting any details? Even more importantly, do the Brexit Government think that that is enough to compensate for the damage that is being done to the industry?
When damage is done to the industry, it affects not just the crews on the boats but the communities back on land, many of which, certainly in Scotland, are sustained by fishing. Removing the industry will remove the lifeblood from those communities. Scotland’s coastal communities could be facing the same devastation in the 2020s that Thatcher’s Governments visited upon the industrial towns of Scotland’s central belt.
I am aware that this Government will not listen to the voices calling for action. We are well used to the sneering contempt from the Leader of the House, the airy-headed enthusiasm of the International Trade Secretary and the blank refusal of the DEFRA Secretary to acknowledge problems. Week after week, we hear the Prime Minister refusing to acknowledge the problems that are so evident to the rest of us.
Before Brexit, three quarters of Scotland’s seafood exports went to the EU, bringing in revenues of over £600 million in 2019. Since Brexit, those exports have been held up by red tape and logjams at the ports. Our fleets are still subject to the common fisheries policy, thanks to the atrocious deal negotiated by the UK Government. Members do not have to believe me that it is a terrible deal; they just have to ask the guy who negotiated it. Lord Frost thinks it is a terrible deal, too—that is one bowl of Frosties that is anything but terrific.
The Food and Drink Federation has produced figures showing that EU sales have all but halved—a £2 billion loss to the UK economy right there. These are not teething troubles. They are disasters happening in real time under the view of a Government that do not give a damn. It is clear that the Government had no idea what Brexit would bring and had not thought about the difficulties that would be put in the way of traders. They gave no consideration to the complex administration that takes hours of extra time—hours precious to the small and medium-sized enterprises that make up the bulk of the sector—or to the need for customs agents, health certificates and battling miles of bureaucratic red tape, the extra costs fishers now bear for fishing gear supplies, or the delays and extra costs of now exporting not just to the EU but to Northern Ireland. I now hear that Danish and Irish sectors are, unsurprisingly, picking up the lost UK market and that they are seen as more stable suppliers after confidence in the UK drains away.
We should not allow the Government to forget the difficulties that their hostile environment approach to immigration is causing the sector. Non-domestic crew who are brought over to Scotland under the new skilled worker system are being sent back because they fail the advanced English exam required of skilled workers, which comes at a great cost to skippers, who are left with no crew. The UK Government must look urgently at where they can usefully intervene to resolve that issue.
In September 2020, I remember being shouted down by virtually every Member present on Second Reading of the Fisheries Bill for daring to say that it was in no fit state to be passed any time soon. I gave a number of reasons, the primary one being that we had no idea what sort of deal the UK’s Brexit negotiators would arrive at or what the fall-out would be. Well, we ken noo, as they say in my neck of the woods.
I read again the Secretary of State’s speech at the start of that debate. It was stirring stuff—some would say a triumph of starry-eyed optimism over actual knowledge and foresight—pummelling once again the CFP punch-bag, though forbearing to mention the many advantages the EU brought in the way of open markets and easy access, and, ironically, lambasting it for its
“anachronistic methodology for sharing quota”,
which we are still largely subject to, and the
“uncontrolled access to UK waters for EU vessels.”—[Official Report,
Which, again, we are still basically subject to.
We were told that the Bill gave the UK powers that were needed irrespective of the Brexit outcome—powers that have ultimately come to nothing as fishing interests were sold away in those negotiations. I look forward to reading in years to come the close analysis of those deliberations and exactly how hard the negotiators fought for our fishing communities’ interests. That information will surely come out, as will, perhaps, a published account of the meeting between the Secretary of State, his officials and several blazingly angry fishing representatives after the truly terrible outcome of the Brexit agreement was finally made public.
It is actually quite useful to go back over that Second Reading debate to remind myself of the deception practised on our fishing communities by the Government and many of their MPs. Were Back Benchers really as convinced as they sounded then of the benefits of Brexit? I remind hon. Members of what one Conservative Member said during that debate:
I will return the favour now and say that only the hated Tories, with their hearts of stone, could pledge to the fishing communities of Scotland a bonanza, and then just shrug as it turned into a sludge of mendacity.