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Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2019

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of aquaculture to the UK economy.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am very grateful to have secured this debate on a subject that is so important in my constituency. Figures from 2017 show that the value of farmed Scottish salmon alone is higher than the value of all species landed in UK ports, principally due to the high value of Scottish farmed salmon, which was worth just over £1 billion to the UK economy in 2017. It is our single highest earning food-type export and ranks second only to whisky in UK exports in the food and drink sector. Aquaculture as a whole is worth £1.1 billion to the UK economy, and 96% of that is based in Scotland.

Let us look at the broader picture for Scottish salmon. It is an industry that employs 2,300 people, who have an average salary of £34,000, and it generates well over 10,000 additional supply chain jobs and £216 million in tax. When it comes to carbon emissions per tonne of edible protein, aquaculture produces up to 9.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of edible protein, compared with 46.34 for chicken, 56.4 for pork, and 337.2 for beef. That is understood globally: the global tonnage of captured fish has plateaued at 90-93 million tonnes per year, but aquaculture continues to grow. In 2016, it produced some 170 tonnes.

The sector is fast becoming one of the key ways of producing protein for human consumption. It is a matter of global food security, tackling hunger and sustainability.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Aquaculture is important not only to the UK economy but to my constituency. Does he agree that the importance of aquaculture in the UK economy will grow once we leave the UK and the common fisheries policy? It is imperative that we support that essential industry. I want the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and Strangford to do well from it, to grow the UK economy, jobs and opportunities.

I agree; there is a tremendous future ahead for aquaculture. My constituency has always been at the centre of aquaculture. The historic fishery at Howietoun was created by Sir James Maitland in 1873. Many of the methods used today in fish farming were developed there. It was part of the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling until recently, when it was taken over by Michelle Pearson, who is a model social entrepreneur. She has hugely impressive plans for the environmental and ecological enhancement of the site.

The Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling has a growing global reputation as a centre of excellence, and the university has a long history in this field. Even as long ago as when I was a student there in the 1980s, Stirling had a formidable reputation in aquaculture and that continues to grow. It is truly global in its scope. The university is a pioneer of aquaculture as a solution to the challenges of feeding a growing global population. Its contribution should be celebrated. It has done significant work on aquatic animal health, focusing on aquatic infectious diseases, studying how diseases spread and how to fight them with vaccines and other systems.

Let us not shy away from that issue. Significant environmental issues need to be addressed, including the destruction of natural ecosystems, the acidification of water environments and riparian ecosystems, the general pollution of water that could be used for human consumption, invasive non-native species and the spread of disease to wild populations. Those are real accusations that have been levelled at the sector, but they are surmountable.

Given the current value of this industry to the Scottish and UK economies, and the vast potential promise and future prosperity connected to the industry, we are rightly investing and must continue to invest in this sector. We must push on with the necessary research and development and give the champions at the University of Stirling the space and the resources they need to develop solutions to those challenges. That is why, as part of the Stirling city region deal, the UK Government are rightly and properly investing in the Institute of Aquaculture on the campus of the University of Stirling. The UK Government have already committed to invest £17 million through the deal, to support research by building brand new, state-of-the-art facilities in Stirling.

The University of Stirling campus is also home to the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, led by the excellent chief executive Heather Jones. It works to ensure that commercial opportunities from aquaculture research are fully realised. Its first five years of activity are expected to create additional sales of £284 million. It brings industry and academia together, from research and development to retail. It houses the ecosystem of a whole industry, by bringing the whole industry together in one place, acting as an engine, delivering real benefits in the sector, developing markets and partnerships, growing the number of jobs, growing sales, promoting best in class practices, driving up standards and securing the industry for the future.

I strongly urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to co-invest in the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, to bring those benefits to the whole of the UK. The Institute of Aquaculture and the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre are invaluable assets to Scotland and the United Kingdom. They have the potential to become a much bigger global player—a world centre of excellence, putting the UK at the forefront of this important and valuable agenda. I welcome the creation by BEIS of a new seafood innovation fund, announced in last November’s Budget; it is a welcome recognition that new technologies and innovations can drive economic growth and productivity across the sector.

As I said, capture fisheries and aquaculture add disproportionate value to the Scottish economy, notably the latter: Scottish salmon is worth more than all wild fish landed into UK ports put together, and it represents 93% of UK aquaculture. Given those facts, I call on the Minister to commit to ensuring a proportionate distribution of innovation funding to aquaculture, giving it at least 50% of the total, and at least 50% going to Scotland.

I am aware, and I think the hon. Gentleman is aware, that farmed salmon infect some wild salmon—I have read proven cases in the papers in the last 10 days. Does he fear that the rise of farmed salmon could be detrimental to wild salmon?

That is exactly why I request that the Government proportionately invest in Scottish aquaculture, particularly in research at the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling. There are solutions to the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises, but they require innovative, scientific research breakthroughs, which come about through the funding of world class research, such as that at the University of Stirling. We need to encourage business investment in research and development. The innovation centre that I referred to earlier is important because it brings together the entire sector.

The UK industrial strategy sets out the bold ambition to increase UK investment in research and development to 2.4% of GDP. That is a good objective. The Government have firmly put research and innovative at the heart of their industrial strategy, setting a grand vision for the UK to become the most innovative country in the world. We need to see better co-ordination of innovation in the sector; that is the focus of this debate.

As we have seen already, the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre in Stirling has created a £36 million programme of research and development, with £22.8 million from commercial partners and £1.3 million from university finance. Many companies are investing in this valuable sector, but we need it to work better together.

My hon. Friend is speaking with his usual combination of insight and eloquence. He draws attention to a critical matter that I know will be close to the Minister’s heart, and that is the marriage between research and development, skills and macroeconomic strategy. If we are really serious about productivity, we have to invest in the competence of the people who work in aquaculture, agriculture and horticulture, and the necessary innovations that he has described.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend; there is a connection between investment, the resulting gain that we make in national productivity and the benefit that will then accrue to the whole UK economy. Innovate UK, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, the Scottish Government and Marine Scotland all need to work together to create a shared strategy of supporting investment in research and development in this area.

At the very least, we need that shared strategy to be agreed in a spirit of cooperation. The industrial strategy calls for innovation across the board to boost our national productivity, as my right hon. Friend suggested, but it also calls for a new technological revolution in agriculture and food production. UK aquaculture is an innovative sector; there is a big opportunity to utilise big data, sensors, imaging or robotics. It is at the forefront of the productivity challenge, but it needs more investment and interest from the UK Government.

I ask the Minister whether DEFRA will consider investing UK funds to help to support the growth of a vital UK industry such as farmed Atlantic salmon? This is far too important a sector to be devolved and forgotten about. We need an explicit acknowledgment that UK aquaculture is a high tech, high growth, low carbon food source and direct future funding through the industrial strategy challenge fund to support further innovation in the sector. That would also give us an opportunity to address some of the other issues I have spoken about in terms of environmental sustainability, which can and will be solved through the power of science and innovation.

There is no doubt in my mind about the importance of this sector and I hope there is no doubt—I am sure there is not—in the mind of the Minister.

The hon. Gentleman speaks a lot about the importance of productivity and R&D and about investment. He will be aware that in the event of a no-deal Brexit Scotland’s salmon industry may need four times as many export health certificates as now, which has the potential to cost the industry £15 million. Can he tell us how he thinks that should be addressed?

That is a very good intervention; the hon. Lady is absolutely right. Government and business need to be fully prepared for any eventual outcome in relation to Brexit.

We are right on top of that. We understand what would need to be done in the event of a no-deal Brexit in terms of the export health certificates. We are well on top of that and understand exactly what other work would need to be done.

One of the encouraging things about interacting with Ministers from DEFRA is the state of readiness in that Department, which is led by an excellent Secretary of State and ministerial team, in relation to the potentiality of any Brexit outcome.

I am delighted to hear that from the Minister and to receive those reassurances. I do not know how much influence the Minister has in terms of local authorities. I know about one department that examines export health certificates in a local authority in Scotland that has been cut considerably. I do not see how it is possible for the Minister to give us complete assurances about export health certificates.

It is illuminating and apposite that the hon. Lady draws the attention of the Chamber to the cuts that the SNP Scottish Government have inflicted on Scottish local authorities. In fact, the UK Government gave a parcel of money that was intended to be passed to local authorities to help them be ready for any eventual outcome in relation to Brexit. The Scottish Government thought better than to pass that money on to Scotland’s local authorities and decided they had other spending priorities.

That is not surprising given the fact that this is a Scottish Government that borrows to the hilt on the nation’s credit card on the one hand, then has dramatic underspends from year to year on the other. They are frankly incompetent when it comes to managing Scotland’s economy and Scotland’s public finances. I am afraid that they are incompetent in just about every field we look at in Scotland; the sooner we can shine a bright light on the performance of the Scottish Government in this matter, and every other matter, the better, because then we can talk about real substance in terms of political issues that impact on the quality of the lives of constituents.

To conclude, I have specific asks for the Minister. Given the fact that Scottish farmed salmon alone is worth over £1 billion to the UK economy, we have got to give aquaculture its proper place. I look forward to the Minister’s reply on the issues I have raised. I would like to hear how the Government will ensure Scotland and the aquaculture sector benefit from the seafood innovation fund; that is key. The UK Government is working with the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre in Stirling, but what more can be done to support that valuable work and promote a UK-wide approach, harnessing our global reputation in this sector? What more can be done to ensure closer working across and between Governments to develop a shared vision and strategy for innovation in the aquaculture sector? Putting aquaculture at the heart of our food security policy and acknowledging what a tremendous innovative and high-tech sector it is, how much more would be possible with the right level of investment and partnering?

In short, the whole point of my speech is to ask the Minister to support the idea of creating a UK-wide sector deal for aquaculture. Can we have one?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for securing this debate on such an important subject. I am excited to have so many Conservative colleagues from north of the border shining a bright light on the failures of the SNP Government there.

Aquaculture is a critical part of the UK’s food industry. As we have heard, the value of the UK’s aquaculture produce is over £1 billion and the industry employs over 3,000 people. Before I respond in full to the debate, I note that policy on the aquaculture sector is, and will remain, devolved to the four UK fisheries administrations. I use the word sector with a proviso: just as with fishing, I take the view that when we talk about the sector, we actually mean sectors. Aquaculture is rich and diverse, comprising a range of activities. In the UK as a whole, this ranges from farmed salmon—Scotland’s largest non-liquid export—through rainbow and brown trout to the cultivation of marine shellfish such as oysters and mussels, and more exotic species such as king prawns, with which I know there are exciting developments in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Stirling is clearly already at the cutting edge of technology in this area.

I am acutely aware of the key contribution that aquaculture specifically makes to the Scottish economy; it had a sales value of £765 million in 2016 and employs more than 2,000 people. Of course, it is not just those people directly employed in aquaculture who depend on it. The wider impacts across the supply chain are estimated to be around £620 million in gross value added and 12,000 jobs. The value of aquaculture produce also extends beyond Scotland. According to Seafish figures, its value in the rest of the UK is likely to be around £100 million in revenue and 1,700 jobs.

Aquaculture is a sector with a bright future. Global production, as we have heard, has been growing by nearly 7% per year and it is making an increasingly important contribution to global food security. Overall UK production has risen more rapidly. The biggest percentage growth is in Northern Ireland, as I am sure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will be pleased to know, but the largest growth by volume is in Scotland. We recognise that the Scotland is currently leading the way in UK aquaculture, and I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling says about sharing out the budget proportionally. He makes a good case. England has set out its the aquaculture growth opportunities in “Seafood 2040”. I encourage the Seafood 2040 Aquaculture Leadership Group to engage with Scottish counterparts to seek opportunities for learning and working together.

On food security in particular, my right hon. Friend will know that the best guarantee of food security is to shorten the distance between production and consumption. A significant contributor to that is public sector procurement. Will he give a commitment in this Chamber, as a result of this excellent debate secured by our hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, to look again at how we can maximise consumption of British produce in aquaculture, agriculture and horticulture through changes to public sector procurement?

Certainly, leaving the European Union gives us more flexibility on procurement, but I would like British suppliers and British public services—prisons, schools and so on—to buy British food not because they have to, even though it is more expensive, but because it is the best quality and the most cost-effective source. The way to get more British food on to British plates is to ensure that it is the best and that it is delivered at a cost-effective price.

Henry Dimbleby is leading the first major review of the UK food system in nearly 75 years. He will investigate across the entire food chain, carrying out an integrated analysis of our food system, resulting in a new national food strategy to be published in 2020. Only a couple of weeks ago, Henry attended an aquaculture workshop for the public sector, academia and officials hosted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I strongly encourage more engagement from the sector and devolved Administrations in this important undertaking.

It is only right to acknowledge the environmental and sustainability challenges that the aquaculture sector faces. They have been brought to the fore by two recent parliamentary inquiries in Scotland, which culminated in a debate in the Scottish Parliament that demonstrated broad cross-Chamber support for the sector, but emphasised that progress must be made on known issues such as sea lice.

At the end of March 2019, 111 aquaculture projects had been approved for funding under the European maritime and fisheries fund, with a value of approximately £14.5 million.

There are huge economic opportunities in aquaculture—indeed, Scottish salmon is one of our biggest food exports—but, as my right hon. Friend says, there are some environmental consequences. One of those is the plight of the wrasse, a species of fish found in Cornish waters. Is he aware that Scottish vessels go to Cornwall, kidnap live wrasse from Cornish waters and take them to the North sea to eat sea lice on their farms, which has a big impact on wrasse? Will he ask his officials to look at the impact on and the plight of the Cornish wrasse?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend did, as my predecessor, in getting to grips with these issues. He is a hard act to follow. I was aware of the wrasse being kidnapped and taken to harvest the lice, and of the impact that has on the ecology in the south-west of England.

I am a little surprised to hear the Minister talking about the industry leadership group here, because there is one set up in Scotland, the Aquaculture Industry Leadership Group, which seeks to double the economic contribution of the sector and double the number of jobs to 18,000 by 2030, as opposed to 2040, which I think is the ambition of the group down here in England.

I give the Scottish Government credit for its achievement where credit is due. I hope the groups will work across the four Administrations to ensure that we do not duplicate effort, but work together. At this point, I must pay tribute to the huge investment in the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal, which is a clear demonstration of the Government’s commitment to aquaculture.

Does the exchange we have just witnessed not underpin the importance of having a UK-wide approach? Is not the answer a UK sector deal for aquaculture?

We need to be careful that we do not intrude on the devolution agreements, but where we can work together, we should. The best way to work together would be to have Ruth Davidson in Holyrood; I think she would be much easier to work with than some people currently inhabiting that place.

My right hon. Friend makes the point about working together, which is very important, and mentions the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal, where the UK Government are also investing in the International Environment Centre. The centre will work with the University of Stirling on these kinds of UK-wide impacts and will not only help Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom, but lead the world.

It is clear that the UK is at the cutting edge globally of progress in this area, and I am pleased to recognise that.

I reassure those in the industry that EMFF funding will continue to be available until 2021. In December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an additional £37.2 million for fisheries and aquaculture over the next two years. He also made a commitment that the Government will put in place domestic long-term arrangements to support the industry from 2021, through the creation of four new schemes comparable to the EMFF to deliver funding for each part of the UK. In addition to the EMFF funding, the UK Government’s seafood innovation fund is a three-year, £10 million research and development fund, which I can confirm applies to the whole of the UK. The fund will focus on investing in innovative research and development, helping to improve both the environmental sustainability and the productivity of the fishing and aquaculture industries, and will be launched imminently.

The Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre at Stirling University, which connects industry with academia, facilitates knowledge exchanges and funds projects, plays a key role in addressing the sustainability challenges through innovative solutions. Further investment of £17 million through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal to develop the new National Aquaculture Technology and Innovation Hub is welcomed.

Important points have been raised in today’s debate, which I hope I have covered. I am optimistic about the future of aquaculture. I want to see a sustainable, profitable fishing and aquaculture industry, to have the greatest possible tariff-free and barrier-free trade with our European neighbours, and to negotiate our own trade arrangements around the world. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met representatives of the Scottish aquaculture and salmon industry just last week to discuss this issue. We look forward to continuing our engagement with the sector to achieve our common goal: that exports of top quality UK aquaculture products should be able to continue in all scenarios.

Delivering a negotiated deal with the EU remains the Government’s top priority, but like any responsible Government we are planning for all scenarios, which must include leaving without a deal. We acknowledge industry concerns about the impacts of a no-deal EU exit, particularly on the continued ability to rapidly transport a premium product to the EU. We and the devolved Administrations have published guidance on the revised export requirements and will ramp up engagement with businesses to ensure that they are clear on those requirements.

Hon. Members have raised many important topics today, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to close this debate. I have heard voiced today the passion for further developing this dynamic and innovative industry. We have heard about the valuable contribution that aquaculture is making to the UK economy, boosted by Government investment in research and innovation in Stirlingshire. We have heard about the innovative recirculation aquaculture system farm that has recently opened in the region. I will be interested to see what role that technology plays in the expansion of the UK aquaculture industry, and look forward to having an opportunity in future to visit the facility to see the research that is going on and how we can not only reduce food miles in domestic production, but have low-carbon protein delivered to our plates. We have acknowledged the sustainability and export challenges that the industry faces and how the Government are working to support it through those challenges. Overall, it is an exciting time for UK aquaculture and I look forward to seeing the industry continuing to grow and thrive.

Question put and agreed to.