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UK-French Trading Dispute

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 28 October 2021

(Urgent Question): Brexit-induced exporting changes have resulted in an escalating trading dispute with France that, if not resolved, may result in British boats being banned from French ports and Scottish salmon removed from French menus. France may go further and cut—

The hon. Lady has only to ask the basic urgent question; I will come back to her for a supplementary question after the Secretary of State has answered.

Excuse me, Madam Deputy Speaker; this is my first urgent question.

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, if he will make a statement on how the UK will work with French officials to mitigate a trading dispute.

The UK’s and the Crown dependencies’ approach throughout this year has been to implement the new access requirements of the trade and co-operation agreement in good faith and in a reasonable and evidence-based way, recognising some of the sensitivities and the importance of the arrangements for both parties. Since 31 December last year, the UK has issued licences to fish in our exclusive economic zone to 1,673 EU vessels, including 736 French vessels. One hundred and twenty-one vessels have been licensed to fish in the UK six-to-12-nautical-mile zone, of which 103 are French, and 18 of those vessels are under 12 metres. The UK has licensed 98% of the EU vessels that applied for access.

Constructive discussions continue with the Commission on a methodology for allowing vessels to be replaced; once that is finalised, more vessels will be licensed. Over the past two weeks, the Government have issued four further licences, after the Commission was able to provide new and additional evidence. We remain committed and willing to consider new information. Following the receipt of more information over the past couple of weeks, we have been able to issue more licences. As I have said repeatedly to the French and to the European Commission, our door remains ever open.

In that context, it was disappointing to see the comments from France yesterday. We believe they are disappointing, disproportionate and not what we would expect from a close ally and partner. The measures that are being threatened do not appear to be compatible with the trade and co-operation agreement or wider international law and, if they are carried through, will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response.

Yesterday, I spoke to Commissioner Sinkevičius regarding the comments that French officials had made. The UK stands by its commitments in the trade and co-operation agreement and, as I have said, has already granted 98% of licence applications from EU vessels to fish in our waters. All our decisions have been fully in line with that commitment. We support Jersey and Guernsey’s handling of the fisheries licensing decisions and have remained in close contact with them throughout. Their approach has also been entirely in line with the provisions of the trade and co-operation agreement.

Finally, I am aware of reports of enforcement activity being undertaken by the French authorities in respect of two vessels and we are looking into those matters urgently.

I apologise again, Madam Deputy Speaker, for my over-enthusiastic start.

Brexit-induced exporting changes have, as we have heard, resulted in an escalating trading dispute with France that, if not resolved, may result in British boats being banned from French ports and Scottish salmon being removed from French menus. France may go further and cut electricity supplies to the Channel Islands and delay French customs checks on goods arriving from the UK, thereby further disrupting our economy.

I have to say that there is a considerable difference between the number of licences that the Secretary of State just mentioned and the number that the French claim have been issued. French officials claim that the process for obtaining a licence to fish in UK waters is too slow and laborious, while Lord Frost has said that these are only teething issues. France says that, under the Brexit agreement, 175 French fishing vessels have the right to fish between six and 12 nautical miles from the British coast, but that the UK has delivered only 100 licences. Paris also says that only 105 licences to fish off Jersey have been delivered, when French trawlermen have a right to 216.

Today, as we have heard, French authorities are to announce a sanction regime that will come into effect on 2 November. This follows news this morning of a Scottish trawler detained for fishing without a licence in French waters, according to France’s Sea Minister, Annick Girardin, who announced this overnight. Can the Secretary of State confirm what consular assistance the Government have been offering to the British fishing vessel crew currently arrested and detained by the French authorities? What support is his Department giving to the vessel and its owners?

In response to a topical question from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), the Minister mentioned that the UK Government could not confirm whether an external waters licence was issued by the Marine Management Organisation. Why does it not appear on the list? It is too early to know what has happened. It appears that it may have been on the list. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has had 12 hours to get to the bottom of this. We have a skipper of a Scottish scalloping vessel due in court in Le Havre this morning. It is simply not good enough that the Secretary of State does not have answers to those questions.

What assurances can the Secretary of State give the House that appropriate documents were in place for the vessel that has now been seized, such as whether the vessel was issued with a licence to fish in French waters by the MMO? If so, when? If other UK vessels encounter French authorities, what is his advice? What is the permitted time that French authorities are allowed to take to inspect seafood goods arriving from the UK via HGV? What advice would he offer to seafood exporters who are concerned about more stringent and additional checks the French are permitted to make? They have stated that they will, from 2 November, take longer to clear HGVs, while still keeping to permitted inspection rules, which could create significant delays.

It is important to note that, although the hon. Lady refers to this being a trade dispute over trading arrangements, what is actually happening is that the French are threatening to take a particular approach to trade, but linked to, as they see it, issues that they have over the issuing of fishing licences. I am afraid that we completely reject that caricature. The hon. Lady says that France has claimed that this has been too slow. That is not true. Indeed, the vast majority of those 1,700 or so vessels that we have already licensed received their licence on 31 December. The only vessels that did not have a licence immediately were those that struggled to marshal the data to support their application, but as soon as data has been provided, those vessels have been granted their access. As I said earlier, many of those vessels are indeed French vessels.

The hon. Lady mentioned the issue of the two vessels that have been initially detained. We understand that one of them may still be detained. She raised the issue about whether a licence had been issued. What I have been able to establish so far is that, in respect of that vessel, it was on the list that was provided by the MMO initially to the European Union. The European Union therefore did grant a licence. We are seeing some reports that, for some reason, it was subsequently withdrawn from the list. It is unclear at the moment why that might have been.

The hon. Lady asked why I have not been able to establish this morning in the course of events why that has not been the case. I can say that the relevant data for this is held by Marine Scotland. I have been asking my officials to get to the bottom of this issue. We have been told that Marine Scotland hopes to get back to us within the next hour or so. My officials will work very constructively with the Scottish Government and with their agencies, such as Marine Scotland, to understand what happened in the case of this particular vessel.

Given the escalation and “more forceful” language—I think that those are the words used—coming not from the French fishing industry, which we are kind of used to by now, but from the French Government, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the licensing process currently under dispute is entirely in line not just with the UK Fisheries Act 2020, but with the trade and co-operation agreement itself, which was signed by all sides? Can he also commit that this Government will not grant any further concession beyond that which is already granted to the French and other EU countries through the trade and co-operation agreement?

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new role as our fisheries envoy in the Government? I can think of no one better to be a champion for the interests of fishing. He raises a very important point, which is that everything we have done is entirely consistent with what was agreed in the trade and co-operation agreement. The reason that some vessels inevitably will not receive the licence that they might have had previously is that the trade and co-operation agreement is different from both the Granville Bay agreement that we had in respect of Jersey, and, of course, the previous provisions of the common fisheries policy, in that access is now determined by a reference period. There will be some vessels that might have had the right to access but that nevertheless never used that access during the reference period, and which will therefore—under the terms of the agreement, which all sides understood—no longer be entitled to access.

The threats and actions from France are completely wrong and unacceptable. There is a real need to ensure that everyone involved uses language to de-escalate the situation in order not to risk the lives of either British or French fishers in any clashes at sea, and to ensure that there is uninterrupted trade between the United Kingdom and France. It is really important to set that out.

It seems to me that the situation is a result of the Government, at some point along the way, losing control of some of the negotiations and positions that keep our fishers safe. Will the Secretary of State set out whether the crew are okay and what support is being given to them? Will he also set out clearly that we expect our British fishing boats to be able to fish legally, sustainably and uninterruptedly in French waters, as French boats can expect to fish legally, uninterruptedly and sustainably in British waters, as per the agreement that has been set out?

There is a real concern that the botched Brexit deal will lead to more clashes between UK and European fishers. Will the Secretary of State set out what steps he is taking to ensure that there are no further clashes and there is no risk of escalation? What steps is he taking to support our industry to ensure that this important trading period, in which UK seafood exports provide a huge part of the annual income for fishing businesses, is uninterrupted, because there is a risk that the situation could erode the confidence of European suppliers in buying from British companies?

May I further ask the Secretary of State whether—after having investigated whether the licence for this boat, having been granted by UK authorities, was subsequently removed from an MMO or Marine Scotland register—he will come back to the House to report on what has happened and what lessons can be learned to ensure that this does not happen again? I ask him sincerely to use his offices in Government to ensure that there are no voices that seek to escalate and churn up distrust between ourselves and our colleagues in Europe, because in the risk of escalation is the risk of lives being put at risk at sea, and we must ensure that everyone who goes to sea to catch fish is safe.

I welcome the tone with which the hon. Gentleman has approached the issue. He is absolutely right that it is important that we remain calm and try to de-escalate the situation. The UK Government, and the authorities in Jersey and Guernsey, have implemented the provisions of the trade and co-operation agreement. We have licensed many vessels. In the case of Jersey, for instance, although it has 65 of its own vessels in its waters, it will have granted access to its waters to well over 100 EU vessels; it has not been unreasonable.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the crew. This morning, I asked my officials to check on that point. We do not think that there are any issues with the crew. The vessel was asked to go into port in the usual way, as part of a routine inspection, so we do not think that there are any issues of that sort to be concerned about. He is also right that UK vessels, with their licence to fish in EU waters, should be allowed to do so uninterrupted. The UK will continue to implement and enforce things in good faith in our exclusive economic zone as well. We are not going to get into any sort of retaliatory tit for tat on this kind of thing. It is important that everybody remains calm.

On what the French have said they will do regarding borders, obviously France, as an EU member state, is bound by the official control regime. There will be a role for the European Commission to ensure that France does not break EU law in any approach that it takes. That is why our principal port of call is talking to the European Commission, which negotiates on behalf of France on these matters. We will also, of course, speak to French Ministers and officials.

Finally, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s caricature—that is, that the situation has happened because we have lost control of a negotiation. The reason that we have these tensions is that what we secured in the trade and co-operation agreement means that there will be some EU vessels that previously had access that will not enjoy access in future. That is obviously causing a bit of tension; we do understand. Even though those vessels probably never accessed our waters and never took up the right that they had, it is an option that they would like to retain, but, put simply, that is not what the trade and co-operation agreement provided for. So it is by adhering, calmly but resolutely, to the terms that were agreed in the trade and co-operation agreement that we have some of these tensions.

I do find it extraordinary that the SNP seems to be racing to take the side of the French rather than standing up for British interests. The boat that has been detained is a Scottish-owned boat that operates out of Shoreham—the largest port for scallops, which is what this boat was involved with, in the country. It is a very important trade through the port of Shoreham that has always been done within the rules. My fishermen are more concerned about the infringement into our waters of French fishing boats that appeared not to be following the rules. Can the Secretary of State assure us that he will do everything he can to make sure that the fishing boat from Shoreham is properly looked after, and to make sure that there is proper enforcement action against infringements by French fishermen and women that are happening in our waters?

If fishermen in my hon. Friend’s constituency have some specific points around specific vessels that they would like to feed into me, I would be more than happy to refer that on to the MMO, which leads for enforcement of vessels in our waters. We have significantly increased our enforcement capacity with additional vessels and some aerial surveillance in order to be able to enforce activities in our waters properly. As I said, if there are particular instances that he is aware of, I would be happy to follow them up.

As the shadow Secretary of State said, the next few weeks will be absolutely critical for fish exporters in this country. If the French do what they are threatening—which is only, as I understand it, what is allowed by the trade and co-operation agreement—then they risk damaging the confidence and the reliability of supply from this country. The Secretary of State has given the number of licences that he has issued. He should also be aware that a number of those are for super-trawlers over 100 metres and fly-shooters, that he has given away access to non-quota species without limit, and that this is on top of a TCA that allowed access to the six to 12-mile limits, which is not what was promised. When he has given away so much already, why is he risking this over such a small number of small boats that we must always have known would struggle to get the data to justify the creation of track records?

I think what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, in a nutshell, is, “Shouldn’t we just roll over and accept these vessels even though they don’t qualify?” The position of the Government is that there were very clearly agreed terms in the trade and co-operation agreement. Any vessel that qualified has been granted access, and that includes many vessels—close to 1,700—in our exclusive economic zone. I do not agree that we should take an approach that says, “We should just let in these people for an easy life.” The reality is that these vessels did not have a track record in our waters. This is not just about data. We have been open to considering data. We have looked at the VALPENA chart data that has come from the European Commission. Because the French were struggling at one point to provide the data, the UK Government went into the commercial market and bought AIS—automatic identification system—data for some of the French vessels so that we could understand their applications better. The data is available, in many cases. We have sought to be as helpful as we can to assist the EU in providing that data, but if it is unable to do so, there comes a point when we must assume that it probably did not have access during the reference period.

I thank the Secretary of State for his actions. I urge him to hold fast and ensure that we and the French obey the rule of law. If the French Government—they are clearly doing this under Monsieur Macron’s need to get re-elected and to attack us as part of that—keep threatening us and, frankly, abusing their power, I do not understand why we cannot be gently encouraging our exporters to use non-French ports and to move our supply lines potentially to people who will not play politics with the economies of the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Obviously if the French did carry through that threat, individual businesses would make decisions about how best to get their goods to market. The important thing is that we very much hope they will not. We do not think it is consistent with the trade and co-operation agreement. It probably is not consistent with the official control regime under EU law. The official control regime exists to manage risks—it is a risk-based regime—and it is not there to be used for retaliation, as it is being described.

Is it not really time to get rid of Lord Frost? [Interruption.] He obviously has a lot of friends. Presumably that is why he is there. He continues to damage the relationship with Ireland, our nearest neighbours. The Falkland Islanders have still not had agreement about their tariffs, because of a lack of agreement with the Spanish. Now, this long-running and long-brewing dispute with the French continues. The Secretary of State talks about constructive discussions, but clearly with Lord Frost at the helm continuing to destroy these relationships, that is not possible.

What the hon. Lady says is an absolute nonsense. I work closely with Lord Frost, who is a very able negotiator and stands up for the interests of our country in these discussions. I can assure her that he has very good relations with the negotiators that he deals with from the European Union.

May I commend to the House an excellent history book called “1000 Years of Annoying the French”? This is nothing new; this has been going on for hundreds of years, if not 1,000 years. My right hon. Friend has mentioned the role of the European Union, which always claims that it is an organisation based on rules. What conversations has he had with the Commission or Commissioners regarding this dispute?

I spoke to Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius yesterday to discuss this issue and the general licensing issue. I asked him whether what was being suggested was consistent with EU law under the official control regime and the trade and co-operation agreement. I expressed our view that we felt it was not consistent with either. At that point, obviously, he had not had the chance to discuss the matter with the French, but he undertook to do so.

I hope that in your recent visit to Lancashire for the G7 Speakers’ conference, Madam Deputy Speaker, you got to enjoy our Morecambe Bay potted shrimps and Fleetwood fish. Indeed, much of the UK fishing industry is made up of small-scale fishers and fish processors. Can I ask the Secretary of State whether the mechanisms proposed in the EU trade and co-operation agreement to resolve these kinds of disputes are being used to resolve this dispute?

The answer at the moment is that we are applying what was agreed, so there do not need to be further technical groups. We have very close relations with the European Commission. At official level, we are sharing all our methodology with them. For the vessels that we have not so far been able to grant a licence to, we have shown precisely the data that we have—or do not have—that means that is the case. We continue to work closely with the European Commission to identify vessels that might qualify.

One of the threats that we have heard from the French this week has been about the electricity supply to the people of Jersey. I am glad that the Secretary of State is speaking to the European Union. Will he confirm that he will make clear that threatening the electricity supply in this kind of dispute is wholly outside the terms of the TCA and wholly unacceptable from a close and trusted ally?

The UK Government will stand squarely behind Jersey on this matter. As I said, we have worked closely with it on the methodology for issuing licences. We believe that Jersey has been entirely consistent with the trade and co-operation agreement, and it has been reasonable throughout. As I said earlier, the threats that France has made are disappointing, disproportionate and not what we would expect from an ally, and we also believe that they are not compatible with the trade and co-operation agreement.

I commend the Secretary of State for his fortitude and his strong, firm stance. What steps will he take to ensure that British fleets can fish in British waters without being concerned that they may stray marginally into French waters and be detained, while watching copious numbers of the French fleet fish at will in British waters with no similar harsh justice?

Under the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement, I think that is unlikely. Vessels can enter one another’s exclusive economic zone and licences have been issued for that. Most of the remaining issues pertain to the six to 12-mile zone in English waters only, not Scottish waters. In my experience, vessels mostly know where they are, as they have pretty accurate chartplotter data.

I wish the Secretary of State and his officials well as they grapple with a fast-evolving and complicated situation. Does he agree that the mask slipped for the Scottish national party today? When it comes to a choice between working with us to stand up for the interests and rights of Scottish fishermen and scoring cheap political points, they choose cheap political points and pointing the finger every time.

All I can say is that the UK Government stand squarely behind the Scottish fishing industry and always have done. That is why we supported its wish to leave the common fisheries policy. We will always continue to support Scottish fishing interests.

It is clearly an extremely worrying time for the UK fishing fleet, especially small fishers who cannot afford a disruption in trade. What are the Government doing to encourage people to buy home-grown seafood and to support fishers trying to sell directly to consumers?

During the pandemic, there was a fall in the price of many fish species as restaurants and the catering trade closed. With things reopening again, the price of fish has bounded back and is in a strong position. During the pandemic, we ran a number of schemes in conjunction with Seafish to promote the greater consumption of fish at home.

The non-enforcement of total allowable catches for non-quota species in UK waters this year has not only undermined our inshore fleet but may have sent a signal that the UK will not enforce rules designed to promote sustainable fishing and our domestic industry. That might have played a contributory role in the lead-up to these incidents. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that those TACs will be enforced in the coming year?

I do not think that there is a connection between the approach taken on non-quota stocks, for which there was specific provision in the trade and co-operation agreement, and the specific issue about certain vessels that do not qualify for access to our waters. On my hon. Friend’s other point, we will be discussing that again with the European Commission at the next annual UK-EU bilateral negotiations. It remains our position that some limits must be set on non-quota stock species. We will seek to progress that next year.

The chairman of the Regional Maritime Fisheries Committee in northern France has indicated that his members could block UK products being exported through the Calais port and channel tunnel. We have seen how strained our supply chains are already, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with his Cabinet colleagues about the potential impact of that move? What steps will be taken to mitigate that?

That situation arose yesterday but has been brewing probably for the last fortnight. I have had regular discussions with some of my Cabinet colleagues on the matter, notably Lord Frost because of his position in the wider negotiations. I point out, however, as I said earlier, that 736 French vessels have been licensed to fish in our waters. We have behaved very reasonably on the issue throughout.

May I reassure the Secretary of State that Conservative Members have absolute confidence in Lord Frost? I welcome his reassurance that we have acted at all times within the TCA. Having met the Jersey Government and seen at first hand the GPS data, I echo their pleas for the French Government and the Commission to publish publicly anything that they disagree with. Given that France gave up sovereignty in this policy area to the European Commission, will the Secretary of State reassure us that the Commission will not support any breaking of the law or the TCA from France unilaterally?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As France is an EU member state, it is for the European Commission to speak for France on such matters. That is why our first port of call in the discussions is the European Commission, which has the legal vires to represent France on fisheries matters. As we all know, the European Union takes its laws very seriously, so I hope that it will ensure that its member states abide by them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the predictably disproportionate and unreasonable behaviour of the French authorities is inexorably linked to President Macron facing difficult elections next year, that we should expect matters to get worse before they get better, and that history shows us that this House and our great nation’s interests are best served by standing up to the threats of little Napoleons clinging on to power?

I note what my hon. Friend says. I am a bit more optimistic. In this job, we always have to hope that things will get better, and do so now, rather than get worse before they get better.

It may be fair or unfair, but for the last 50 years—probably more—fishing communities around the UK have lacked confidence that successive Governments would be robust enough in defending their interests. While I understand that my right hon. Friend does not want to escalate the present situation, will he give an assurance that we will be extremely robust in defending the interests of fishing communities around the UK?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. However, it is also important to point out that, over the last 50 years, no UK Government have had the legal right to defend their interests in fisheries properly, since the common fisheries policy meant that the policy area was ceded to the European Union. The UK Government believe passionately in our fishing industry, which is one of the great opportunities that we have from leaving the European Union, and that is why we will support our fishermen during this difficult time.

As the Secretary of State said, the situation is extremely disappointing, but if I were to describe my constituents’ response when I talk to them about it with an emoji, it would be the rolling eyes one because, sadly, we expect nothing else from French politicians. It is extremely concerning in Grimsby not only for the trawlers but for our fish processors who export. We must ensure that we are balanced in what we do and, as colleagues have said, robust. Will he assure me that he will say to the EU and France that we will not be bullied and that it is about time that they started working with us as allies, not enemies?

We have been clear with the European Commission that we are abiding by the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement, and we expect it to do the same.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s comments on the threat to cut electricity to Jersey, will he reassure people throughout the Channel Islands, who are understandably somewhat concerned, that the UK will stand solidly with the Crown dependencies in the face of any intimidation from France, whether on fishing or any other topic?

The British people do not take kindly to provocation and intensely dislike threats from other nations. If the French are so keen on impounding boats, perhaps they could focus on the real issue: the hundreds of migrants illegally crossing the channel day in, day out on small dinghies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that France’s threats are disproportionate and not at all what we would expect from a close ally and partner?

I agree that it is disproportionate and not what we would expect of a close ally, as I said in my opening remarks; I am glad my hon. Friend was listening.