Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:00 pm on 13th October 2022.
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.