Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 13th October 2022.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered post-Brexit fisheries management.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Mundell, and to welcome the new Fisheries Minister to his position. He and I have worked together in previous roles in the House, and I am delighted that we have the opportunity to continue working together. I have always found him to be a straightforward and decent man to deal with, and I hope he will continue to take that approach to his new responsibilities. It is not always the easiest or most attractive brief to take on in Government, but for communities such as mine in the north-east of Scotland and for many small coastal communities around our country, it is an enormously important one. I hope that he will find he gets good assistance and mature co-operation from around the House, as has generally been the practice over the years on fisheries matters.
I think it would be appropriate to pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, Victoria Prentis, who took on the brief and managed it through, let us say, a tricky time. She did not always deliver everything we wanted—she would have been the first Fisheries Minister to have done so had that been the case—but she was sincere in her commitment and we were impressed by her engagement with the industry and by how generous she was with the time she gave to MPs with a fishing interest. We wish her well as she undertakes her new responsibilities.
If we look at the current prospects of the fishing industries, we will see that there is still some cause for optimism. The fundamental proposition of the UK fishing industries is a sound one, but it is also fragile at the same time. It has to be said that the industry is facing severe challenges. There is the rising cost of fuel. A lot of the boats, particularly in fleets such as mine in Shetland, are already subject to significant costs from interest payments on loans for their purchase, and if interest rates go up, that will be challenging. Of course, like every other industry, they have the challenges of wage increases and general inflation. While the prospects are good for an industry that is in a strong position and fundamentally sound, there is no room for complacency and it has to be accepted that these prospects are somewhat brittle.
In the medium to long term, some of which I will deal with today, the industry is increasingly concerned about a number of different threats, some of which will, if they are not addressed now, be existential for the industry or parts of it. I am thinking in particular of the pressures of spatial squeeze, with other industries having grown over the years. We have seen the coming of oil and gas industry pipelines, electricity cables, fibre-optic cables and now the growth of offshore renewables, such as electricity generation. If nobody acts now and we do not find a proper strategic approach to this issue, all of those things will squeeze fishing to the margins.
The first challenge to which I want the Minister to apply his mind is more immediate—namely, the availability of crew from outside the United Kingdom. This is a matter on which I and others in this House have been fighting for years, and it sometimes feels like we get one step forward only to then go two steps back. There is no arguing with the proposition that we would like to see fishing boats in the United Kingdom crewed by local crew—this is an important source of employment for many fishing communities—but we have to be realistic about the fact that for decades many young people in our schools and colleges have been told that the industry has no future for them and have been gently discouraged from going into it. It will take a long time to turn that around, and to allow young people to see that it is an industry with great opportunities for them and in which they can have a future—a future that, in turn, will be there for their children when it comes to that time. In the meantime, however, we need a sensible immigration policy that will allow us to get the crew who are needed to keep the boats going, especially, but not exclusively, for the inshore fleet.
At the moment, the bigger boats that are able to operate outside the 12-mile limit can bring in non-European economic area nationals on transit visas. That route has been employed for years now. Frankly, it is an abuse of the transit visa system, although I do not say that as any sort of criticism, because, in fact, it has been the only route available to skippers wanting to bring in non-EEA nationals. The way in which transit visas work—they are usually intended for merchant ships to take on crew coming in through United Kingdom ports—leaves those who fish on UK vessels but only through the means of a transit visa without the protections of minimum wage, health and safety, and the general employment conditions that we would all expect of any other sector. There have been some well-documented abuses of crew who have been brought in this way, although that is by no means a universal. I would like to think that such cases are still the exception, rather than the rule, but we do need a working visa scheme.
We first did battle on the issue through the Migration Advisory Committee, which for years denied that it could deal with the matter, because the job was not listed as a high-skilled occupation. We eventually persuaded it to change the advice given to Ministers. As a consequence, the Home Office brought forward a scheme to allow a number of non-EEA nationals to work on UK vessels. In fact, however, the way in which immigration rules work is such that very few of those visas have been able to be taken up—principally because very few of those who would be coming to work under that visa scheme are able to meet the English language test requirements. It is a particularly narrow definition of what it is to be a skilled worker that says that someone has to obtain that level of English language skill. Surely it would not be beyond the wit of man for someone in the Home Office to design a scheme—the principle of which already seems to have been conceded and the advice on which is consistent with that of the Migration Advisory Committee—which would allow the industry to get the access to the crews they need.
The shellfish boats in my constituency in particular—Orkney has a significant brown clam fleet, of which I will speak later—do not fish outside the 12-mile limit for the most part, so they are not able to use the transit visa route. As a consequence, those fishers are left unable to operate the boats that they have committed to and taken finance on, and ultimately they will not be able to make a living. If they go, the shoreside jobs in processing and exports go. The Government claim to care about growth, but who profits from that particularly unhelpful and narrow interpretation of what is required? I am sorry for labouring the point; it is the luxury of having the time to do it.
I know this is not the Minister’s responsibility, but in addition to his direct ministerial responsibilities, the industry looks to him as its advocate in Government. I hope he will pursue that case as vigorously as he can with Home Office Ministers. It should have been sorted years ago, and it is nothing short of a scandal that it has not been.
The other issue of particular concern to me—I have spoken about it in the past, and it is of growing interest to my constituents—is the industrial-scale gill netting that we still see around so much of our waters. For us in Shetland, it is a particularly acute issue. Spanish boats, in particular, regardless of where they are flagged, come in with gill nets that run to several kilometres in some cases. They exclude local boats, especially whitefish boats, from grounds they have fished for generations. It is a particularly environmentally and ecologically unsustainable way of catching fish. It is also a major contributor to plastic pollution, because the nets are often just cut adrift and left on the bottom of the seabed to be caught up by others in the fullness of time.
My frustration is that we have nobody else to blame now. For years, we could look to Brussels and say, “We’ve got to let the Spaniards in because we are part of the European Union, and they can do this and that,” but we no longer have anybody else to blame. It lies within our own control. It lies within the control of the Minister here and his colleagues in the devolved Administrations. The inability, or the lack of political will, to tackle something so fundamental is really frustrating the industry and the fishing communities that are most directly affected by it. There have been demonstrations in the streets in Shetland about gill netting.
Last week, the local newspaper, The Shetland Times, carried a comment that sums up the lack of urgency around tackling this issue. It states:
“The Scottish Government responded with an unattributed statement”
—not something that got anywhere near a Minister—
“which said: ‘We take protection of the marine environment seriously and are clear that any form of dumping and other illegal activities is completely unacceptable.
Gill netting is a legitimate form of fishing activity permitted within Scottish waters.’”
Think about that for a second. An official Government spokesperson from the Government in Edinburgh describes gill netting as a legitimate form of fishing activity permitted within Scottish waters. I suppose that, legally, that is a justifiable statement, but in terms of displaying an understanding of what gill netting is about, and given the way in which it is used on an industrial scale and the impact it has on our local fleets, I think that was a shockingly complacent thing to say. The statement goes on to say:
“As with all forms of sea fishing, gill net vessels must comply with all applicable rules, regulations, and technical standards, when carrying out their fishing operations.”
We are also told:
“The safety of our fishers is of paramount importance and any allegations of behaviour that risks the lives of fishers and the safety of vessels are very serious.”
We know that, because we have seen quite shocking examples of Spanish gill netters forcing Shetland boats off their fishing grounds, which has sometimes come very close to having tragic consequences.
If we are talking about a form of sea fishing that must
“comply with all applicable rules, regulations, and technical standards, when carrying out their fishing operations”,
why have we not introduced regulations that state simply that any boat carrying out gill netting—if we continue to allow it—has to declare the number of nets on board when it comes into our waters and the number of nets when going out? We could then see that there is no mismatch. We could control the fact that the nets are being left at the bottom of the sea. That is the very least that we should be doing, but even that seems to be beyond the political will of the Governments.
The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Banbury, undertook a piece of work when I brought to her attention the situation faced by the skipper of the Alison Kay in Shetland. He very nearly came to grief as a consequence of the actions of a Spanish trawler, the Pesorsa Dos. The hon. Member for Banbury got together all the various parts of Government. There was quite an impressive number of civil servants and lawyers on the call, but it seemed that everybody was looking for an excuse—for why it was somebody else’s problem. Everybody acknowledged that the situation should not be allowed to continue, but nobody was prepared to find a working solution to it.
I say to the Minister today that that piece of work remains live. If we do not do it, the situation experienced by a number of Shetland boats in recent years will only get worse. I can guarantee that eventually somebody will end up at the bottom of the sea. There will be a tragedy, and then there will be a rush to find a solution. Why not accept that this is a dangerous practice and that proper action is needed to deal with it now? Get the different devolved Administrations, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and the Department for Transport around the table, and find a way to offer our fishing boats proper protection when they absolutely need it.
As I indicated earlier, spatial squeeze continues to cause great and growing concern in the fishing industry right around the coastline. If the Minister has not yet read the work done by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, I would certainly commend it to him. That work first tracks the position from 2000 to today, and then it looks forward to 2050. In 2000, fishing boats were excluded from less than 1% of UK waters. The SFF and the NFFO estimate that by 2050 we could see fishing effort excluded from no less than 49% of the exclusive economic zone around the UK as a whole. In Scotland, the figure could be as high as 56%, and that is before we know the actual extent and meaning of HMPAs—highly protected marine areas. It seems inevitable that there will be further restriction.
It will be interesting to see how that all works. It is not that any individual source is particularly difficult; there is a cumulative effect. We have had the growth of aquaculture and offshore and gas activities. We now have the coming of offshore wind and floating wind. We have significant development to the west of Shetland, and I am keen to see that, but at some point somebody has to say, “There has to be a strategy for managing the marine area”, so that the salami slicing does not continue. As a consequence of the growth of offshore wind, vessels will be excluded from something like 4.28% of the area. In and of itself, that is not unmanageable, but it is 4.28% on top of all the other slices that have already been taken off the joint.
My plea to the Minister is for someone in Government to take control. The growth of offshore wind will result in more cabling on the seabed. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to find a way to bring all those cables together instead of leaving them like a plate of spaghetti on the seabed. As things stand, nobody has taken charge and nobody is taking an overall, holistic view. As a consequence, we fear that the fishing industries will be excluded.
I will mention in passing a particular concern of ours in Orkney. Our brown crab fishery is very important to us, but the female brown crab is migratory. It goes from Orkney and around to the west coast of Scotland, but its behaviour is affected by the electromagnetic frequencies from some of the cables. The science is in its infancy and there is a lot that we do not understand. In every other respect, we proceed on a precautionary basis, and I hope that some effort will be made to ensure that there is a proper understanding of how these things fit into the wider seabed use.
The subject of scientific advice has long been of concern to the industry. For a number of years, the SFF, NFFO and the Scottish White Fish Producers Association have been calling for another body to sense-check the International Council of the Exploration of the Sea data and the conclusions drawn from it. ICES is the gold standard and we are not seeking anything that would undermine that, but, given its academic rigour, the ICES process is lengthy and the decisions informed by it are sometimes made two years after the data has been gathered.
The Minister’s predecessor set up the UK fisheries science advisory board, which brought together the chief scientists from the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. What is the status is of that board? Is it still functioning and what scope is there to continue to build on its work? There is a wealth of expertise in the fishing industry, and it is willing to contribute financially to the scientific research.
The situation is remarkable. When I was first elected in 2001, I remember being shocked when I was told that monkfish was a data-deficient species. And, well, in 2022 it is still a data-deficient species. It is an enormously important species for the Scottish whitefish industry. It is our most valuable catch, with 12,600 tonnes of it, worth £34 million, landed in 2021, but the ICES regards it as data-deficient. The industry actually offered Marine Scotland and the Scottish Government a vessel and crew to go out and get the data to supplement what the Marine Scotland vessel was getting, but unfortunately that offer was refused because of the covid protocols. In future, I hope that all Governments in the United Kingdom will be more willing to engage with, listen to and accept such offers.
There is a view out there, often expressed by non-governmental organisations and other campaign groups, that fishermen are all hunters who have no concern for the future ecology of the species. My experience is very much the opposite. Most people who work on fishing boats come from fishing families. They have inherited that business from their parents and want to hand it on to their children. They understand that if they are not responsible in their stewardship of it now, there will be nothing to hand on.
Fishermen are thwarted in a number of areas. We hear a lot spoken about bottom trawling and unsustainable fishing practices. I have some sympathy for some of those arguments, but others are occasionally exaggerated or inflated. Almost exclusively, where there is unsustainable practice, it is done by boats that are well away from their own home port. On scallop dredging and clam fishing, the Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation regulates those that fish for those species in the local waters.
The industry can take credit for what it is going to ask for from the year-end negotiations that the Minister is about to undertake. On blue whiting, for example, the ICES advice is for an 81% increase in the total allowable catch, but the Minister will find that the industry is taking a much more cautious approach. The industry’s view is that an increase of 20% to 25% is much more sustainable. To my mind, that demonstrates the industry’s willingness to say, “Actually, we’re not always pushing for more, bigger, faster and better,” and that it is motivated by sustainability.
Given that the Minister is coming into this job at a very important time of year for the industry, I ask of him only that, as he speaks to his EU counterparts—in Norway, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and elsewhere—he always has at his elbow somebody who can tell him what the industry is actually thinking. The industry might give him slightly different advice from that which he might get from his officials. He can choose to follow it or not, but he can only make an informed decision if he has access to the industry. In my experience, industry bodies are responsible and reasonable, and, if given the opportunity, they will offer unwary Ministers opportunities to avoid jumping into holes that they might otherwise find themselves in.
I have taken more time than I would usually have taken, but this is a three-hour debate and these issues are important. Given that the Backbench Business Committee allowed us three hours, it is unfortunate that Members were not able to be here today. This debate was held over from the middle of September, when I know there would have been a lot more Members here. However, given that Jim Shannon is here, this is definitely and constitutionally a Westminster Hall debate—it could not be one without him. I am grateful to Members for their indulgence of the extra time that I have taken, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Over the years, I do not think there has been a fishing debate in which I have not been sat alongside Mr Carmichael. I feel strongly in my heart about the issues that he has referred to, so it is a pleasure to come to Westminster Hall—I am here most often than most, but that is not the point—to discuss where we are on the Brexit opportunities for fisheries. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman for setting the scene in introducing the debate.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, and very much look forward to working alongside him. I put on the record my thanks to the previous Minister for Fisheries, Victoria Prentis, who was incredibly helpful. There was not a fishing issue that I asked her to look into that she was not responsive to. We may not always have got the answers, but we always got a response, and we always felt that she always went the extra mile in trying to get us a pertinent answer.
Portavogie in my constituency of Strangford is the second largest fishing village in the whole of Northern Ireland, second only to Kilkeel but slightly ahead of Ardglass, both of which are in the bordering constituency of South Down. The Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation and the Irish Fish Producers Organisation work closely together and represent people in those three villages, and when discussing something with them, we get the answers we need quickly and collectively.
I know that the Minister’s portfolio is wide ranging, but not only is commercial fishing is one of the most challenging sectors; it can be—if he gets it right—one of the most rewarding. There would be a lot of satisfaction in helping fishing villages across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and across all of England as well. I am proud to be a member of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and to have a Minister who thinks likewise. When we talk about delivery, we mean delivery for us all. That is what I want to see.
Brexit provides us with an opportunity to grow the sector sustainably in remote parts of the United Kingdom. Our Northern Ireland fishing sector is eager to contribute to that growth and to the economy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am pleased that my colleague and friend, Pete Wishart, is here to represent Scotland and the Scottish National party, and I look forward to his contribution. His colleague, Angus Brendan MacNeil, David Duguid and I have had a number of meetings on the very issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman, which I will speak about again.
I wish to speak about four themes in respect of the commercial fishing fleet in Northern Ireland, particularly in Portavogie in my constituency: how the fleet can continue to fish, where it can fish, what it can fish, and the cost of fishing. To be fair, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has referred to those four themes. The first is critical, and I know that the shadow Minister, Daniel Zeichner, will reinforce that every bit as strongly as we will in our contributions.
How can the fleet continue to fish? Without a crew, a fishing vessel cannot harvest the seas. That seems obvious, but it is a matter of fact that crews are increasingly difficult to secure, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said in his introduction. We did not consult each other on what we were going to speak about, but he led on this matter and I intend to do likewise because it is a major issue for fishing fleets in mine and neighbouring constituencies.
Recruiting fishing crew is not a new issue. I have attended fishing debates over many years and have raised the point many times. I have met Immigration Ministers, who have always been incredibly helpful; I genuinely believe they wish to find a route through the process. The utopia we aim for—a domestic fishing fleet crewed by a domestic crew—regretfully remains some distance away. That is the nature of the economics of it all. There is not the same tradition of working on fishing boats as there was in Portavogie. My brother worked on a fishing boat many times. Dads passed on boats to their families, which is how the tradition continued, but there is less of a wish to do so that now. To be fair, there are also more job opportunities. Why would people go out fishing in a boat that is tossed about in the greatest of storms when they could work in an engineering firm up the road, where there are plenty of opportunities?
There are particular pressures on fishing, such as competition from other sectors, and quayside prices that mean that fishermen are, more often than not, price takers. This all contributes to a scenario where a career in a fishing fleet is no longer the choice. For a growing proportion of the UK’s fleet, the option has been to recruit from overseas, and that has been pretty successful. In Portavogie, we have Ghanaians, Nigerians, many people from Estonia and Latvia, and even some from further east, such as Romania and Bulgaria.
The use of transit visas—the preferred route for bringing overseas crews to the UK—has become a grey area, and we need some clarification. I know it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but we would all be pleased if we could have some encouragement from the Department to help us get the matter sorted with the immigration department. The Home Office has made it clear that it wishes to see the points-based system being developed by fishing vessel owners to sponsor overseas crews. However, the sponsorship route was not developed for marine-based careers. Concessions for workers involved in the construction of offshore energy projects, as well as the boats used to transport salmon smolt between fish farms in west of Scotland waters—both within the UK’s 12-mile limit—are evidence of that. There is also evidence that where a sound case is made, the Home Office can facilitate short-term solutions as part of a longer-term plan. It would be encouraging to see a wee bit more of that.
At the same time, we should laud the majority of fishing vessels owners who do the right thing by their crews and are eager to develop a system that provides the necessary safeguards while assisting the Government to fulfil their immigration commitments. I understand that the Government have to control immigration flows, but we should be doing our best to help industries, sectors and parts of our economy in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and across all of England that could do more to produce extra bonuses for the economy. The imminent launch of a pilot project in Northern Ireland that will deliver a grievance mechanism is an example of best practice, in compliance with international rules that Northern Ireland’s fishermen are working up. I cannot have the same knowledge of what is happening in Scotland and Wales, because my constituency is not in those areas, but I understand that all three regions are working together on these issues.
The fact is that the fishing fleet need to recruit new crews from overseas; that is a fact of life. There is manifest evidence of that. It is a matter of regret that DEFRA has to date excluded the fishing fleet from the independent review of labour shortages in the food supply chain—a review that includes fish processors. I invite the Minister to correct that anomaly. I am always more interested in trying to work constructively and move forwards collectively, so I would be grateful if the Minister could drive that for us. I applaud DEFRA and the Minister for their early intervention on this critical matter, which encouraged the Home Office to facilitate a breathing space to allow fishing vessel owners to resolve the matter. May I gently, kindly and with all respect suggest to the Minister and the Government that the breathing space be used wisely to meet and work with the industry and other stakeholders to devise a long-term resolution to the unique challenges for the fishing and marine sectors? We are all happy to work alongside the Minister to ensure that that happens.
Where can we fish? For fishermen, the marine space is increasingly squeezed. Crew transit visa rules mean that many fishing vessels have altered their fishing patterns to stay outside the UK’s 12-mile territorial limit. The squeeze is associated with marine protection, the development of offshore wind and the hard border in the Irish sea. I will not say too much about that, but I wanted to make a point about where we are.
As the Government engage on issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, through either the preferred route of direct and sincere negotiation with the EU or the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, I implore the Minister and Government not to ignore the fact that a hard sea border already exists in the Irish sea. That prevents fishermen from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland fishing in their traditional waters on each side of the sea border, as they have always done. To be fair, we would like to see it continue. There must be a way in which that can be concluded.
For many, the situation was an oversight created by the trade and co-operation agreement. As fishing industry representatives have recently reminded us, even with its many flaws, 40-foot lorries with lots of paperwork and admin can still trade back and forth across the land border, yet 40-foot fishing vessels cannot cross the sea border. That seems to be an anomaly that needs to be addressed.
It is a unique situation for Northern Ireland’s fishermen, and I invite the Minister to visit the fishing communities there to see for himself the impact that the measure is having. Unfortunately, because of the covid restrictions, the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Banbury, was not able to find the time to visit Northern Ireland. I extend the invitation to the Minister; we would be very glad to host him in Northern Ireland. I extend that on the record, and I hope it can be taken up. That invitation will, of course, extend not only to my constituency of Strangford and Portavogie but to Ardglass and Kilkeel, since the two fishing organisations cover the three ports.
What can we fish? Brexit has developed additional fishing opportunities or quotas for our fishermen. It is not as much as had been promised; nevertheless, we have had an increased share of the total allowable catches. Previous Ministers promised that no one would lose out from the Brexit quota dividend. However, what they did not say was that some would gain more than others, and Northern Ireland’s fishermen firmly believe that they fall into the “others” category.
Northern Ireland has a small maritime zone. It is about 5% of the UK’s but is equally important for the economic growth of Northern Ireland, and indeed of the United Kingdom as a whole. Our fishermen have traditionally been nomadic, fishing all around these islands. Yet, partly because of zonal attachment, Northern Ireland’s fishermen were penalised when it came to the apportionment of the additional quota.
It is precisely because of that penalty that I hope the Minister understands how nervous Northern Ireland’s fishermen are as a result of DEFRA’s most recent consultation on apportioning additional quotas in 2023 and beyond. Those are issues that we discussed with the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Banbury. I cannot overemphasise the fear that our fishermen and this sector have around that issue. If the Minister increases the element of the zonal attachment used in the quota apportionment equation, there can only be one set of losers—I seek the Minister’s help on this—and those are the fishermen from Northern Ireland.
With all the challenges in the Irish sea, including the hard sea border, any reduction in the share of the additional quota for Northern Ireland’s fishermen will be regarded as unjustified punishment by London. I know that the Minister is not keen to see that, and I am certainly not, so can we work together to address that? Their ask is simple: even with its flaws, keep the system agreed in 2021. We need the Minister’s help to ensure that happens. Again, we have thrown other things at him today, and I would love the opportunity to discuss them at length with him—or even for a short time; it does not have to be at length—to ensure that we get these things on record.
My last point is on the cost of fishing and fuel. The Government have announced help for businesses with energy costs. That is to be extended to Northern Ireland, and fishing businesses onshore should get some help. However, what about businesses that float? Fishing vessels incur a huge fuel bill. Fuel is second only to crew wages in a vessel’s expenses. As well as fuel, other expenses around fishing have increased significantly over the past 12 months. Recent surveys indicate that, within the UK, marine diesel is most expensive in Northern Ireland, returning this week to levels not seen since the early days of the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
I applaud DEFRA and the regional funding in Northern Ireland designed to examine and implement fuel efficiency measures. Those include retrofitting trawlers with equipment such as the Kort nozzles around propellors and the use of new fishing gear, which, as well as being easier to tow or pull through the water—therefore saving fuel—can help reduce unwanted catches. There is an eagerness in the Northern Ireland fishing sector to work with energy efficiencies, new ideas and innovations to make fishing more productive and safer.
Our sector has also been proactive in seeking to secure higher quayside prices. However, as we enter the winter months and a time of reduced catches, none of those measures provides the silver bullet for fuel costs. The Government have acknowledged the hardship for businesses based inland. I would urge the Minister to engage with industry representatives as soon as possible to extend that help to our fishing fleet. There have been a lot of asks today, and I ask that the Minister forgives me for that. However, it is important that we lay out the things with which we need the Minister’s help.
To finish, I repeat my invitation for the Minister to visit Portavogie and Northern Ireland’s other fishing communities in Ardglass and Kilkeel. Combined, Northern Ireland’s fishing fleet might make up a small part of the UK industry, but dynamism, innovation and a wish to make fishing sustainable for the future have been shown by all of our sector. The Minister should be assured of a warm welcome in County Down. I look forward to his reply and I am sure others will extend the same invitation. County Down welcomes the Minister in advance.
Of course, Mr David Duguid, the Member for Banff and Buchan, whom the hon. Gentleman referenced in his contribution, has recently been made a Minister and therefore would not be able to participate in the debate as a Back-Bench Member.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. I congratulate David Duguid on his reappointment to the Scotland Office—I know for certain he would have liked to be here to contribute to proceedings. Mr Mundell, there is always something comforting when you are looking down at us from above as we are debating issues such as this. I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing this important debate. I know we are thin on the ground today, but we have managed to net enough Members and corral them into the Chamber to make a meaningful contribution to this ongoing debate. It is a really important one.
I welcome the Minister to his place. He and I seem to be forever bound to each other. We thought we had escaped the clutches of one another with the Leader of the House gig on a Thursday morning, but here we are on a Thursday afternoon discussing fisheries. I always enjoy working with the Minister, and I look forward to working with him as we go forward to consider the important issues that are now part of his brief.
I want to speak to what this debate is about: it is about Brexit. I want to discuss exactly where we are and where Brexit has left this important sector. I again pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and his colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group. It was a fantastic report—it was excellent. It captured some of the key discussions, debates and issues around Brexit. I thought it made some really meaty and robust conclusions and recommendations, which, if implemented, would go a long way to addressing some of the problems we have. It was a report that found a sector experiencing financial difficulties as a result of Brexit and facing ongoing uncertainties regarding its future, with closures and reductions in operations affecting real businesses.
The fishing industry is a sector that has been utterly pummelled by the impacts and effects of Brexit—effects and issues that are still being played out and experienced by real businesses and people who owe their living to the sea and to the catches that they bring in. I want to look at where we are. I want to assess what Brexit has done to the sector and where we go from here, because we have real difficulties and challenges. I remember the “sea of opportunity”. The one thing we were told about, again and again, was the opportunities there would be for the fishing industry.
We all looked hard for winners in Brexit, particularly those of us who were not all that sold on the idea. We all looked, across all the industries and sectors, for who would win from this situation. The one sector that was always presented to us as the beneficiary—the great winner—when it came to Brexit was the fishing sector. I do not think people are saying that any more. I think that the sea of opportunity has become an ocean of tears, with shipwrecks off a deflated and defeated industry, and other boats quickly bailing out the water just to stay afloat. That is the reality of the sector several years down the line, because of Brexit.
Of all the sectors that have been impacted and hurt by Brexit, the fishing industry must be ranked as one of the highest. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that the fishing industry has experienced probably the greatest betrayal when it comes to Brexit policy, in terms of where it has been left compared with its initial condition.
Pre-Brexit, things were not great; of course they were not. There were years and years of decline in the fishing sector, some of it due to the EU and the common fisheries policy. We have to acknowledge and accept that it was not a particularly great experience for the UK fishing sector, given some of the issues around the CFP. But by God, the way those Brexiteers so carefully designed a case around the frustrations felt by generations of fishermen was quite extraordinary and they managed to list them as their key champions when putting the case for Brexit.
This is an industry that had been in decline for decades, which the Brexiteers grabbed on to so successfully and so profoundly. The Brexiteers were able, quite skilfully and carefully, to blame all the woes in the fishing sector on the EU; it was all the fault of the EU and the CFP. All of us will remember the glorious picture of a future with increased catches, doing away with regulation and red tape, and opportunities that they said were just waiting for us when we became an “independent coastal state”. Do people remember that phrase: the “independent coastal state”? They said we would be independent, when there are international waters, where arrangements and agreements have to be met. The illusion the Brexiteers sold to fishermen right across the United Kingdom will go down as one of the greatest deceptions and betrayals that any sector or industry has experienced during the past few decades.
Fishers and fishing communities have every right to be furious, as they increasingly now are, with this UK Government for what was sold to them. Like the worst snake-oil salesmen, the Brexiteers offered an elixir that they claimed would cure a condition; in fact, it only ended up making the patient much worse. This Brexit was, in fact, as rotten as the dead fish that Nigel Farage threw into the Thames in his attempt to mislead and enlist an industry and a sector to his particularly malign and malevolent cause, because it was all just rubbish—we know that now.
The fishing industry should have known what was in store, because it had been there before—it had been at the hands of a Conservative Government promising the earth to it. We need only go back to the days of our youth in the 1970s, Mr Mundell, to find that when we joined the Common Market, as it was then, the fishing industry was expendable; it was something that could easily be set aside for the greater ambitions of the UK Government’s priorities and strategic intentions.
It continues to be expendable now. The Brexiteers could not care less about the fishing industry; it was a minor detail when it came to their greater ideological intention to take the UK out of the EU. That is exactly what it was to them; this is an industry that they really could not care about at all.
The hon. Gentleman knows, because I have said it often enough, that I felt that the fishing industry was used in the course of the Brexit debate. I could understand the reasons why the industry wanted to believe the things that it was promised; he has touched upon some of those reasons. Nevertheless, we are where we are now and we do not have Brussels to blame any more; we have to look to our own resources.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration that there are so many things that we could do better now for ourselves, but that we are not doing? I touched on one thing—gill netting. I will offer him another, which is Marine Scotland’s practice of always picking the low-hanging fruit—that is, the Scottish vessels—while leaving Spanish vessels fishing in UK waters, relatively unscathed in terms of interruption and intervention. Why are we not doing more to protect our own fleet? We have nobody else to blame now.
I am really grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because I want to come on to those points and to address some of the issues he raised. He is right: there is nobody to blame any more. For years and years, it was all the fault of Brussels, the EU and the CFP; now the Minister is exclusively in charge of the details of UK fisheries. But it is the right hon. Gentleman’s debate—I did not call it “Brexit and the fishing industry”; he called it that. He did not spend all that much time discussing the impacts of Brexit on the fishing industry, so maybe I can fill that gap for him and explain a little about how we got here and where we are. He is right about what we do; it is really important that we get this right. We cannot compound misery on misery, because that is exactly what has happened just now.
If the hon. Gentleman will indulge me, I will build on the point made by Mr Carmichael, who called the debate. Gill netting is something that lies with Marine Scotland; it is within the control of the Scottish Government. I wonder if the hon. Gentleman will explain whether that is something the Scottish Government may do. Will they use their powers and ban gill netting in Scottish waters?
I am grateful to the Minister for raising that point. I was going to reserve that for later in my speech, but I will address it now because it is important. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland addressed it and he deserves and requires an answer to that, which I am more than happy to give him. It was not a press release; I think it was a written question by his colleague in the Scottish Parliament to the Minister, Mairi Gougeon, about gill netting in Scotland—he will correct me if I am wrong. [Interruption.] He did not quite quote it all, which is all I will say ever so gently to the right hon. Gentleman. He was accurate in the way he gave it; as reported in the response he gave, gill netting is a legitimate business. However, the thing he did not mention in his contribution is that the Scottish Government are considering this. They are looking at exactly what is happening in their waters.
I am new to this role, but I am not new to my colleagues and their instincts. I say to the right hon. Gentleman: be patient. Wait until the consultation has concluded, because we are looking at this just now. I am pretty certain, if we come back in a few months once this has been considered and we have looked at all the evidence, he may be satisfied with the outcome of these considerations. Be patient. I know Green colleagues in Shetland are standing with Liberal Democrats in order to have this addressed; this is an all-party situation. He is right that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Government, but I know my colleagues, so we will wait and see what happens. Hopefully, we will be able to put a big smile on his face when he talks about these issues in the future.
I will get back to Brexit, because that is what the debate is about. I know there is lots of interest in other issues, in things to look forward to and things we could be doing, but the right hon. Gentleman rightly said that we should have a debate about Brexit and that is what we should do. I see the Minister nodding his head in agreement, so let’s do it. Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster for UK fishing, just as it has been an unmitigated disaster for all the other sectors that have to operate in the real world of international markets, partnerships and the harsh reality of doing trade across borders.
We know this has been difficult; we have seen it in the report by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, which chronicles these issues only too well. We hear in the report of falling incomes as a result of increasing costs and the decreasing value of catches; we see reduced opportunities, increased paperwork and markets more or less closed. He is right that we can address the labour issues, and it is important that we do. I know it is not in the Minister’s purview and remit, but the labour issues are acute, and they must certainly be addressed. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, just as my hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil consistently raises issues about crews in some of our island communities. This is absolutely pressing.
I do not know if the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has detected this, but I am beginning to get a sense that the Government are a bit conflicted about this issue. They are beginning to realise that, for all this talk about growth zones, investment zones and growing the economy, they actually need people to do it. I think they are beginning to understand, “Right, if we’re going to have a successful economy, and we have to protect and develop sectors such as fishing, we need people to come in and do it. We have not got them just now.”
Perhaps I am just being naive, Mr Mundell, but I hope not. You will probably say, “Quite typically, you are, Mr Wishart.” I hope I am not. Perhaps the Minister will confirm this when he speaks, but I am detecting that they are getting it through their heads that people have to come in to do this work because we cannot find indigenous labour, particularly in constituencies like that of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and my own when it comes to things such as hospitality, hotels and farming. We need people to come to the UK to do the tasks that people living in our communities will no longer do. The only way to do that is to get people to come in from abroad.
Actually, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure he was as surprised as I was to hear Ms Dorries say that we needed people to come in to help with the broadband roll-out. The other sector that I should have touched on but did not—that was remiss of me—is the processing sector, which is absolutely desperate for labour to process the fish. We can catch every fish in the sea if we want, but it will not earn us any money if we do not have people to process it and sell it onwards. Through the hon. Gentleman, I might add to the question of labour for the processing sector to the list that the Minister has to take to the Home Office. It is a serious and pressing matter.
Again, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. He is absolutely spot on. I have the great pleasure and privilege of chairing the Scottish Affairs Committee and one of our first inquiries in this Session of Parliament was on labour shortages. I think food processing was identified as one of the first sectors that started to experience real difficulties. It needs to be addressed. There is most definitely a problem there.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for the all-party group’s report. I know that people will be watching this afternoon’s proceedings with great interest, and I recommend that they look at this very good report and its recommendations.
It is not just the all-party parliamentary fisheries group that is coming to the same conclusion after looking at the issues—it is everybody. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has produced a report on the economics of the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU for fishing industries. Its general conclusion is that there are very few winners and an awful lot of losers. The NFFO talks of a £64 million loss to the industry each year because of Brexit. In Scotland, we are trying to come to terms with that loss. We are trying to process it and see how we can start to address it with the limited powers we have in a funding envelope that is obviously not what we feel is required to deal with some of these issues. We have the bulk of the United Kingdom’s fishing industry. It is an imperative, important and iconic industry for us in Scotland. It brings 15,000 high-value jobs to some of our more diverse and hard-pressed rural and coastal communities.
Our seafood industry is world renowned. When I was in Singapore a few years ago, Scottish salmon opened up a sector that was bringing in all this seafood from Scotland. They could not shift it fast enough. Such was the provenance, idea and suggestion of Scottish produce that people wanted it—they wanted to be part of it. We now have a worldwide reputation as a renowned exporter of high-quality foodstuffs, in particular when it comes to our fish.
In 2021, fish and seafood exports were valued at £1 billion, which was 60% of all Scottish food exports. I know that trade has been dreadful with the EU, but prior to Brexit, things were relatively good between 2016 and 2019. We had annual exports of £618 million, with the bumper year for that in 2019—just before this disaster started to kick in. Now, Brexit trade barriers are expected to cause output in the fishing sector to be 30% lower than it was pre-Brexit. As well as the damage to EU markets, Brexit has ensured that the Scottish industry has access to fewer staple fish species than under the CFP.
We will wait to see what happens in 2026. I know we are in the transition period just now, but there is a great deal of unhappiness. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked us to think about the future. As we move forward, we have to start thinking about what will happen in 2026, when the transitional arrangements are lifted. I hope the UK Government get up to speed with their negotiating position and are able to argue more adequately on behalf of Scottish fishing.
What are the UK Government doing in response? They are doing several things. The total funding envelope was about £100 million across the whole sector to try to mitigate some of the damage. That £100 million seems quite generous and will certainly assist a number of fishers and processors in the sector, but Ireland—independent, small Ireland, with a smaller population than Scotland—has just secured €335 million to be distributed across its whole seafood sector and coastal communities in order to meet some of the difficulties and challenges of Brexit. They have difficulties that are not even close to the difficulties that we have because of Brexit, but that is the funding they get. The irony of all ironies is that €225 million of that funding is coming from EU funding in the form of the Brexit adjustment reserve.
Jim Shannon, whom I always enjoy listening to, must recognise that if the EU can do that for small, independent Ireland, surely we should be doing better in the UK for our fishing sector, which has taken the majority of the hit. Yes, Mr Mundell, I will stray into the constitutional debate—you know me, I like to bring up this little point. Does this not say something about the relative positions and conditions of independent Ireland in the EU and dependent Scotland as part of the United Kingdom? Independent Ireland is supported to the hilt, backed by the EU and part of a partnership, whereas I do not even know what the figure would be for Scotland—perhaps the Minister could clarify that. I tried to find exactly how much Scotland got out of it, but it will be peanuts compared with what independent Ireland will get from the European Union, which his Government dragged us out of against our national collective will, for which we will have to endure the consequences years down the line.
With Scotland not being independent, being subject to a Brexit that we did not vote for and without the EU support that Ireland has, the Scottish Government do what they can, but they cannot do all that much. We have limited powers. We have powers over fisheries, and there are things we can do. Again, I hope the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will be satisfied with some of the deliberations we will have on these issues. We have put out a new fund to the seafood sector. We have the blue vision in Scotland and hope to do all we can for marine protection. We have given £37.75 million of funding to support our fishers. That is out of a budget that, again, is peanuts in comparison with Ireland, but we will do everything that we can.
I will come back to gill netting and some of the bigger issues around trawling. I do not know about everybody else, but my mailbag has been besieged by correspondence from people who are concerned by what they are observing, particularly the activities of supertrawlers in our marine protected areas. My constituents are upset and anxious about what they are observing and they are writing to me to raise this, which I am doing, because they want action. They want fast and decisive action because they do not like what they are observing. Our constituents have been concerned about the activities of supertrawlers for a number of years. We will have a consultation and we will take decisive action, and it is now up to the UK Government to try to do what they can. We are expanding the number of marine protected areas in Scotland. We will put another one in place over the next few years. People expect marine protected areas to do what they say on the tin: to protect the marine environment. They do not want to see supertrawlers operating in these areas, and I hope the UK Government get on top of this.
Where do we go from here? We are where we are. We have Brexit. The all-party parliamentary group report makes some reasonable suggestions about the way forward. The main UK parties—representatives of which are present today—often say that they are the parties of making Brexit work. I do not know how you make Brexit work, but one day somebody will tell me how something like this can be a positive. I have yet to see where that happens or how it comes down the line. Our ambition will always be to return to the European Union—to return, when it comes to fisheries, to a safe harbour with a set of consistent rules that apply across the EU.
I am terribly excited about my new role as the SNP spokesperson. Before I had it, I observed the disastrous negotiations and discussions that we have had as a new, independent coastal state. There were hours of inconclusive debate and negotiations with small nations such as Norway and the Faroe Islands. We now have to debate and negotiate with the EU, which comes prepared with all sorts of materials, background and experience. We come prepared to more or less give in before we even get anywhere.
I have no great idea that things are going to get better. The Minister may be able to convince me that there is some sort of future with Brexit, but I hope that in the next few years Scotland will make the decision to do these things on our own and start the process to get back into the European Union, where my nation belongs and where I know it will be properly supported.
It is reassuring that the hon. Gentleman can bring his unique style to his new role. I call the Opposition spokesman, Daniel Zeichner.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair once again, Mr Mundell. I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing this debate, which is timely given the unrelenting challenges that the UK fishing industry is facing, and the public interest in protecting our marine environment. I associate myself with some of his comments, particularly those about transit visas and, as Jim Shannon also pointed out, labour shortages. Those issues are clearly very pressing.
I welcome the Minister again. I have previously welcomed him in a farming capacity, and today I welcome him in a fishing capacity. I enjoyed his splendid piece in Fishing News, where he is pictured heroically holding what I am told is a large cod. I also associate myself with all the positive comments made about his predecessor, Victoria Prentis. She did a very good job and was always helpful. I wish her well in her new role.
I am interested that the Minister’s first visit in his role was to Peterhead. When I started my tour—which is ongoing and has taken me north, south, east and west around the country—my first port of call was the hard-pressed fishers of West Mersea. That area has a different set of problems and challenges, which shows just how different the challenges are around the country. However, wherever I have been, similar concerns have been raised, and some of those will come up in my comments that follow.
I pay tribute to all the fishers who go out in all weathers, day after day. We know that it is still a dangerous job and the sea is unforgiving. Too many lives are still lost; too many life-changing injuries occur. All those who are out there working on our behalf deserve our thanks.
Post-Brexit fisheries management has to start with the experience of the last couple of years. Although I will not be quite as colourful in my language as Pete Wishart, there are elements of his ascription that I definitely recognise. The travails of the shellfish export sector, for instance, are well known. One of my early visits was to King’s Lynn, which confirmed the huge amount of extra bureaucracy encountered by workers. I felt for them in those circumstances, although they were at pains to point out that they felt it would be worth it in the end. We have to make sure that we do our best to make the situation work.
The fishing industry, like so many UK sectors, was made a lot of promises in the run-up to 2016. It is fair to say that many feel that those promises are yet to bear fruit. I quote the opening lines of the recent report by the APPG, which has already been referenced:
“Since Brexit was fully brought about from the beginning of 2021, the fishing industry has seen a range of impacts, many of which industry members have reported to be unexpected and unwelcome.”
That is delicately put.
On top of that, the industry faces a range of other challenges; we have heard reference to many of them. It is fighting to keep afloat against the rising tide of rocketing fuel costs, rising interest rates that devalue the pound, new post-Brexit red tape, the labour shortage that I mentioned, the spatial squeeze, and pressure—rightly so—to maintain stocks while protecting and maintaining our precious marine environment. It is tough out there, and it is made tougher sometimes by the attitudes of our regulators. The catch app, the inshore vessel monitoring system and boat inspections by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency pile pressure on people, with the consequence that too many are suffering stress and poor mental health. I hope the Minister will address the issues that are in his power; I urged his predecessor to do the same.
We need to start by establishing what we are trying to do on fisheries management. It is widely agreed that we are trying to balance food production, ensuring sustainable stocks, undoing damage to the marine environment and moving to a long-term, more sustainable approach. I recognise that there are difficult trade-offs, such as what the NFFO describes as the spatial squeeze. We hardly need telling that energy security is key at the moment—it should always have been key. In some ways, this is similar to the debates raging on food security, energy security and environmental sustainability on land. I am not sure whether the Minister would like to wade into that issue; I suspect he will not be drawn on it.
On land and sea, we need processes and structures to allow us to make these trade-offs in a fair and civilised way. What are those frameworks? Where are we exactly in terms of legislation and Government action? How are we helping our UK fleet of some 4,300 fishing vessels to provide work for some 11,000 people?
At the end of 2020, Parliament passed the Fisheries Act 2020, which gave the Government the authority to act for us as an independent coastal nation outside the EU and outside the common fisheries policy. It allowed us to embark on bilateral agreements with our closest neighbours and potentially negotiate much more favourable fish quotas for UK fishers. How has that gone? Under the terms agreed between the UK and the EU in the trade and co-operation agreement back in December 2020, the Government ceded access to fish in UK waters to EU vessels for six years and failed to establish an exclusive 12-mile limit—not exactly what had been hoped for. In July, Paul Gilson, chair of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said:
“The Trade and Cooperation Agreement laid bare the hollowness of the government’s rhetoric as we left the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy. The gap between the promise and reality was spelt out in quota shares and access arrangements little changed from the Common Fisheries Policy and very far from what any self-respecting independent coastal state would expect.”
As so often, views on the financial benefits differ. We have touched on them in previous debates. The Commons Library brief tells us,
“The Marine Management Organisation estimated in September 2021 that the TCA delivered an average increase to the UK fishing fleet of £143.9 million a year”,
but the NFFO analysis challenged that. It details that the sector will see losses of £64 million or more a year, totalling more than £300 million by 2026 unless changes are secured through international fisheries negotiation.
Let us hope that the bilateral agreements made this year with Norway and the Faroe Islands, which the Government failed to reach last year, will result in changes to those figures for UK fishing fleets. Let us hope that Government negotiators get a better deal for our distant fleet. I echo some of the comments made about our negotiating capacity. The fate of the Kirkella, based in Hull, is well rehearsed, and there is something deeply troubling about our dependence on Russian fish for our much-beloved fish and chip sector. I hope the Minister will say something about that.
Maintaining stocks must be a prime goal for the fisheries management plans under negotiation. It hardly needs saying that, for the industry to flourish, it needs fish. In some areas, the basic lack of fish is the biggest challenge. That was certainly the strong message to me from West Mersea.
The next piece of the puzzle is the joint fisheries statement and the fisheries management plans. Those are the frameworks for the Government to deliver on their commitments in the Fisheries Act to ensure the UK develops a
“vibrant, modern and resilient fishing industry and a healthy marine environment.”
The objectives of the JFS and the FMPs are positive: planning to ensure we have a sustainable fishing industry while protecting our precious marine environment. I am grateful to the marine conservation organisations for their account of some of the challenges. As outlined by the report by the Blue Marine Foundation, stock levels of cod in the west of Scotland have declined by 97% since the 1980s, and trawlers continue to operate in 98% of offshore protected areas. As we know, bycatch remains a serious problem. The Future Fisheries Alliance highlights studies that show that bycatch is responsible for the catching and killing of around 1,000 harbour porpoises, 250 common dolphins, 475 seals, and 35 minke and humpback whales in gill nets and other fishing gears in UK waters every year.
We know that there is much to be done and that limits based on properly agreed scientific data will be required. It is disappointing that two thirds of UK fishing limits are currently above the scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, according to the Government’s own report.
I welcome the objectives of the JFS and the fisheries plan. They are a good basis on which to start, but there are significant question marks over some of the detail. The NFFO raised some key questions, which I hope the Minister will address. The NFFO seeks clarity on how UK fishing plans will interact with third countries. There are questions around the extent to which plans will be based on data, and around a potential lack of transparency on data exchange—similarly on quota and access exchanges.
The NFFO is concerned about the spatial squeeze. What can the Minister tell us about the potential displacement of fishing areas as more marine protected areas are, rightly, introduced, as well as about the need for offshore wind farms? How will the Minister ensure that fisheries management is simplified in future, and not made as complicated as under the CFP? Is there not a danger that Brussels red tape will simply be replaced with UK red tape?
I remain concerned about DEFRA and the devolved Administrations working together. I again ask the Minister: who speaks for England? The Scottish and Welsh Governments have their roles, but DEFRA has a dual role, and it seems that England all too easily loses out. Perhaps the Minister can explain how that conundrum is to be resolved. DEFRA will shortly release the final JFS following the consultation, and I am sure that we all look forward to reading it closely to see whether the concerns raised by the sector have been addressed and clarity delivered. Any early conclusions that the Minister can share with us today would be welcome.
There has been plenty of law making. The Fisheries Act set the structure. The inshore fisheries and conservation authorities are busy setting rules, even if in some places there is clear unhappiness with the way they are operating. Fisheries management plans will play an important role. However, the big overall questions about the future of our fishing industry remain. To me, everything seems piecemeal. I do not see a vision for the next 25 years. The Conservative approach to trade deals and negotiations with countries in distant waters is too often naive and amateurish compared with our long-experienced and wily competitors. What is the plan? Where is the vision? Maybe the Minister can enlighten us now, or perhaps, as the previous Secretary of State, George Eustice, tellingly revealed in recent evidence to a Lords Committee, there is no land use framework because he did not put too much store by plans.
The Labour party takes a different view. We think that knowing our destination makes it more likely that we will get there. A Labour Government would guarantee action on three priorities for the fishing sector. A Labour Government will back our British fishing industry and work together to see them get a fairer share of the quota in our waters: more fish caught in British waters and landed in British ports, supporting British processing jobs. We will work directly with fishers themselves to deliver improvements in safety standards. We will ensure that foreign boats that are allowed to fish in our waters follow the same rules as British boats. We will use the many frameworks and conventions already in place to ensure that we have a sustainable marine environment that is safeguarded for future generations, while ensuring that our food security needs are met. There is always more to be said, but that is our goal, and we are determined to deliver on it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. Let me reflect, before I get going, on the kind words said about me and my new role. Hon. Members spent about 30 seconds praising me and celebrating my appointment before they started attacking me, and I was grateful for those 30 seconds at the beginning. I also join colleagues in paying tribute to my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis and to my right hon. Friend George Eustice, who as Secretary of State did an awful lot of work on the fishing sector.
There were a number of references to how dangerous it is out there on the seas. Before I respond formally, it is worth reflecting on the Guiding Star, which sank just off Shetland only last week. Fortunately, nobody was killed in that disaster, but it demonstrates just how dangerous it is on our seas.
We heard a lot today about the challenges that we face. I do not think we have heard many solutions from colleagues, but we have certainly had the challenges identified. I recognise those challenges. I pay tribute to Mr Carmichael for securing this debate and setting out the challenges facing us, but I am up for the challenge. I want to help and support our industry to try and get us through these choppy waters and to make the most of Brexit and take back control of our waters and our industry.
As we have heard today, there is a huge challenge out there. I am conscious of the experience that we have in the room here today and in the industry, but I have confidence in the team at DEFRA. My experience, as the new Fisheries Minister, is that there is huge enthusiasm and experience among members of the team at the Department. They understand the challenges and are working very hard to navigate their way through them. They work closely with the fishing industry and other stakeholders, and that should give us confidence moving forward.
Turning to the comments that have been made, I will start with the spatial challenge. Clearly, there is huge pressure on our oceans. We heard from various people in the debate who had demands for marine protected areas and more wind turbines. All of that adds to the pressure. We cannot stack the ocean with all of these things. We cannot have our cake and eat it, so we have to find a way through that. I recognise the growing spatial tensions between sea users, including fishermen, and offshore wind, as well as the need to conserve and enhance our marine environment. We are considering the cumulative impacts of fisheries displacement, because when we move people aside or move them further, that has a cost implication. It means that people have to steam further to get to the fish stocks that they want to catch, and of course that means moving people from their traditional fishing areas, but we will get through that. We will consider the future vision and the uses of our seas in due course.
In the meantime, protecting and improving the health of the marine environment will help support a diverse, profitable and sustainable UK fishing industry. In the marine plan proposals, given the significant adverse impacts on fishing or fish habitats, we must make sure that fishing industries are helped, supported, protected and able to continue to trade.
Much reference was made to staff and access to employees—not only in the processing industry, but on the boats. One of the first things that I did when I took on this role was to engage with the Home Office to make sure that it understood the challenges we face. To that end, DEFRA continues to run its access to labour working group, with the aims of supporting recruitment, industry uptake of skilled workers and visas; improving the understanding of regulations around migrant workers; and exploring further options for automation, technology and support for domestic recruitment and retention. In English, that means we continue to work with the industry and engage with the Home Office, and it is open to that conversation. That is not a promise to deliver lots more visas, but it is a promise to work robustly with the Home Office to help support the industry.
I do not think anyone is looking for “lots more visas”, to use the Minister’s words. We are looking for a visa regime that matches the skills that are needed for the crew that we are looking for. It is as simple as that.
I understand that. It is a skilled occupation. It is certainly something that I could not do. To work at sea I would need sea legs, and I am not sure I have those. People need skills to process fish on a boat and the resilience to work in a fridge, in effect, while bobbing up and down on the ocean.
It is clearly a skilled job. The number that is needed to sustain the crews of the boats for the whole of the United Kingdom is not more than 600 or 650 people, so it is a small number, but it would be key to enabling the fishing sector to move forward in a positive way. It is always good to understand what the numbers are.
That is very helpful. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned fuel prices and I recognise that challenge. The pressure on fishermen to go further adds to the cost of fuel, but I hope he recognises that there is support from the Treasury in reducing those fuel costs. They get tax rebates for the fuel that they are allowed to use and I hope that helps to reduce some of the costs. I think there is 100% relief on fuel duty. There is also wider investment to help make vessels more efficient and research into how they can be more efficient in respect of the size of their propellors and the types of engines they use.
Lots of challenges have been identified, not least when Pete Wishart made reference to Brexit, which is actually the topic of today’s debate. It struck me as a little ironic that we have heard lots about the challenges. The one solution we heard today was around gill netting. Now that we have left the European Union, it is within our gift to ban the use of gill netting if we choose to.
I think there was an indication that the Scottish Government are considering doing that in Scottish waters, as we speak. The ironic thing is that, if we followed the hon. Gentleman’s advice and plunged Scottish fishermen back into the EU, we would pass the power to ban gill nets back to Brussels; it could then reintroduce gill nets if the Scottish Government decided to ban them. We would hand all of that control back to the European Union to send its fleets of Spanish trawlers back into Scottish waters to use gill nets. The one thing Brexit has given us is the ability to control that ourselves.
It is a huge challenge, but at least it is our challenge to control and we have the ability to influence it. We have the ability to manage the spatial challenges and decide what goes where and how to support our fisherman. The £100 million of funding that the Government have offered is an example of our investment in those fisheries and those futures to make sure that we have a thriving sector moving forward. The first round of bidding is taking place at the moment and we will hear soon who has been successful.
Lots of challenges are on the way, but we have a Government who are up for the fight. We have a fishing industry that wants to engage with us. During my first month in the role, I visited Fraserburgh and Peterhead and heard at first hand how those in the Scottish fishing industry feel. I look forward to meeting more of the industry as I continue in this role. Of course, if I get the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, nothing would give me more pleasure than getting over there to meet our Ulstermen as well.
As has been noted in the debate, there are significant challenges. Between Government regulators, scientists and the industry, we must continue to meet those challenges, but we must not talk our fishing industry down. We have come through the covid pandemic. We have new trading conditions and together we can find a way through this. Sometimes we can talk ourselves down and make ourselves feel negative; let us talk ourselves up a bit and be optimistic about the future. Let us co-operate across the parties and across the nations with all sectors and with those in the fishing industry.
I had a sense that the Minister was coming to his peroration, so I wanted to bring him back to the point I made about co-operation with the industry in relation to scientific advice. The industry is very keen to work with the Government to ensure that there is the best possible advice—based on sound science, but available in a timely manner—to inform the decision-making process. It is not easy. If it were, it would have been done years ago. Will the Minister undertake to talk to the fishing organisations to get that workstream working properly?
Of course I will, and I have done so already, to be honest. There have been some challenges for Marine Scotland, and covid brought its own challenges. I think the right hon. Gentleman referred to monkfish in particular. They are bottom trawling fish that like to hide and are quite difficult to spot. Getting that data is quite a challenge. There has also been an issue with the Scottish boats getting out there to collect the data. Of course, we commit to working with the industry and finding a way through that.
Science is our friend in these circumstances. I think data and science will lead us to the right conclusions. As the right hon. Gentleman identified, there is a recommendation to increase whiting quotas by 80-odd per cent. I recognise that the industry does not think that is sustainable. We have some very skilled negotiators. There was a bit of criticism, shall we say, about our negotiating skills. That is not my experience, and it is not what I have heard. We enter into negotiations from a very informed perspective and with a clear plan, but of course so does the other side. We cannot get everything we want, but we have to find a way through. We will do our best.
I hear what the Minister says, but could he say something about the prospects for the distant fleet? They seem to have suffered out of this process.
I do not want to jinx us. That is the last thing I want to do going into these negotiations. I do not want to identify our red lines or what we want to achieve, because that makes our negotiating position weaker. We enter these negotiations in good faith. We recognise the fleet that the hon. Member mentioned as well as our inshore fleet. We want to do the best we can. Not only do we want to secure a sustainable quota, but we want to secure our access to the market so we can actually sell the fish we catch. That is a delicate balance, but we are very much up for the negotiation and the fight. We will be in there punching very hard for our industry.
The Minister is being incredibly generous in giving way, and his responses are very knowledgeable. In my contribution, I made the comment that the Northern Ireland fishing sector had not in reality received its full quota or the advantages of the quota. Probably from a different perspective, to be fair, but Pete Wishart made a point about how the quotas are distributed. Northern Ireland’s fisheries sector has felt the girth—not the girth, I mean the dearth—of the advantage that we thought and hoped we should have got through the Brexit agreement. I am happy for the Minister to come back to me on this if he is not able to answer today, but could he address that issue as well?
I am more than happy to come back to the hon. Gentleman with more detail on that. Let us not kid ourselves here. We could have all the quota if we wanted. We could have all the quota tomorrow, but we have to make sure we get the balance right between what we can catch in our own waters, working with our international colleagues in a sustainable way, and ensuring that we protect access to the markets to sell that fish. Reaching a balance with the market share has always been the challenge, right back to the ’70s. Colleagues will be aware that lots of the fish we catch we tend to sell, not eat, and lots of the fish we eat we tend to import. That is just because of the species we find within our own waters and the historical routes to market. We are trying to balance all those things at the same time. That is a huge, huge challenge. We are up for the fight, and we are going to deliver for the industry.
I expected that when the Minister got to his feet, we would hear about all the benefits of Brexit—given that this is what the debate is about—and about how he was working to ensure that we are able to assert ourself as an independent coastal community. The all-party parliamentary group on fisheries has gone to the trouble of asking people in the industry about their Brexit experience. One thing kept coming up in the report: a fisherman, when asked if the impacts he had experienced because of Brexit had been unexpected, said, “All of them,” because we were told that we would be getting the independence of our sovereign waters back, and that has not happened. What would the Minister say to that fisher?
I would simply say that that is not true. We have got control of our own waters and it is our choice to work with our international neighbours and friends to secure market access and the ability to sell the fish that we are catching. But at least we are in control of it; it is our right and ability to give away some of that quota to secure market access. It is also our right not to do that. That is exactly what the process that we are about to undertake—again—is about; it is ongoing.
I understand the frustration that that causes for some people in the industry, and as part of my role there is no doubt that I will upset people on that journey, because we will not get everything we want. There will also be French fishermen and Spanish fishermen who are equally grumpy about not getting all that they wanted, simply because there are not enough fish in the sea to satisfy demand.
We have to work together across an international coalition to make sure that what we do is sustainable, to make sure that our fishing fleets are sustainable, not only for this generation but for many generations to come, to make sure that we get access to the marketplace, and to make sure that we protect our marine environment at the same time. That is a very delicate balance that the Government are trying to achieve. That is what we will deliver, and I look forward to working with colleagues and keeping them informed on that challenging journey.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Mundell, for calling me to wind up the debate.
When I spoke to the Minister about this debate yesterday, I expressed concern that we were seeing people dropping out of the debate, but I said, “Don’t worry. I can do the whole three hours on my own if necessary.” The Minister normally has a very good poker face, but I must say that he lost a bit of colour in his face when I said that. However, I can assure the House that I will not use the remainder of the time allocated for this debate to reprise the outstanding issues.
Of course this debate comes, as Pete Wishart said, in succession to the piece of work that we did in the APPG, which itself came after a debate on fishing in July last year. I will give fair notice to the House that I intend to keep coming back to this subject. It is very important that the House has time available for fisheries to be debated. In terms of the whole GDP of the United Kingdom, fishing is not a massive industry, but for those communities for which fishing matters, it matters a great deal.
Next year, though, I think that I will just talk about fisheries management instead of the post-Brexit situation. I always tend to assume a degree of classical education among Members of Parliament; I may be a wee bit old-fashioned in that regard. Of course, “post-Brexit” means after Brexit, so I really want the focus of these debates to be about how we manage things now that we are in the position that we are in, however much I may have wished not to be here, because that is what the industry is looking for us to do.
The Minister has a number of substantial tasks on his plate between now and the end of the year. The EU-UK-Norway talks have taken the place that arguably they always did had, rather than the December Fisheries Council, which we all tended to obsess about. Those talks are the focus of what will be on his agenda. We wish him well in that regard, because it is in everybody’s interests that he is successful and gets the best possible deal.
If the Minister goes away with no other message from today’s debate, I ask him to take this away: his chances of getting the best possible deal for our fishing industry will always be increased the more he talks to and listens to the industry itself. I do not know how many Fisheries Ministers I have seen come and go over the years, but the difference between a good one and a bad one has always been their willingness to engage with the industry. There is good will and there is an enormous amount—a wealth, indeed—of expertise there, but it has to be asked for.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered post-Brexit fisheries management.