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EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement: Fishing Industry

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 14 January.

“As honourable Members will know, before Christmas the UK and the EU concluded a new trade and co-operation agreement, which established tariff-free trade in all goods and, among other things, sets a new relationship with the EU on fisheries. Before turning to the specifics of that agreement, I should briefly set the wider context.

The withdrawal agreement that was agreed by this House in January last year established the United Kingdom as an independent coastal state. Over the course of the last year we have taken our independent seat at the regional fisheries management organisations, including the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and the North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation. In September, we reached a partnership agreement with Norway—our most important partner on fishing interests, and with whom we have responsibility for shared stocks in the North Sea.

We have also developed new bilateral arrangements with our other north-east Atlantic neighbours, including the Faroes, Greenland and Iceland. We have recently commenced annual bilateral fisheries negotiations with the Faroes in relation to access to one another’s waters, and a UK-Norway-EU trilateral is about to begin to agree fishing opportunities on shared stocks in the North Sea. There will also be a UK-EU bilateral negotiation on fishing opportunities for the current year in remaining areas. For the first time in almost 50 years, the UK has a seat at the table and represents its own interests in those important negotiations.

The trade and co-operation agreement establishes an initial multi-annual agreement on quota, sharing and access, covering five and a half years. It ends relative stability as the basis for sharing stocks. Under the agreement, we have given an undertaking to give the EU access to our waters on similar terms as now and, in return, it has agreed to relinquish approximately 25% of the quota that it previously caught in our waters under the EU’s relative stability arrangement. That means that we move from being able to catch somewhat over half the fish in our waters to two thirds of the fish in our waters at the end of the multi-annual agreement. The transfer of quota is front-loaded, with the EU giving up 15% in year 1. On North Sea cod, we have an increase from 47% to 57%. On Celtic sea haddock, our share has moved from 10% to 20%. On North Sea hake, we secured an uplift from 18% to 54%, and on West of Scotland anglerfish, we have an increase from 31% to 45%. After the five-and-a-half-year agreement, we are able to change access and sharing arrangements further. The EU, for its part, will also be able to apply tariffs on fish exports in proportion to any withdrawal of access.

Although we recognise that some sectors of the fishing industry had hoped for a larger uplift, and, indeed, the Government argued throughout for a settlement that would have been closer to zonal attachment, the agreement does, nevertheless, mark a significant step in the right direction. To support the UK industry through this initial five and a half years, the Prime Minister announced, just before Christmas, that we will invest £100 million in the UK fishing industry, and I will be bringing forward proposals for this investment in due course.

Finally, although it is not a consequence of the trade and co-operation agreement, the end of the transition period and the fact that we have left both the customs union and the single market does mean that there is some additional administration accompanying exports to the EU. I am aware that there have been some teething issues as businesses get used to these new processes. Authorities in the EU countries are also adjusting to new procedures. We are working closely with both industry and authorities in the EU to iron out these issues and to ensure that goods flow smoothly to market.”

My Lords, would the Minister like to join me in condemning Jacob Rees-Mogg’s flippant comment about fish being happier in the UK at a time when the fishers’ jobs are once more on the line? Does he understand the sense of betrayal they feel now that the reality of the Government’s broken promises becomes apparent? As they say, they are furious that the Government have tried to present the agreement as a major success, when it is patently clear that it is not. To begin to make amends, would the Minister like to clarify how much compensation in total will be made available to them? When will the fishers currently tied up in port or delayed in getting their fish to market start to receive the compensation they deserve for this shambles?

My Lords, the Prime Minister announced that £23 million of funding is being made available to support the seafood sector. It will support those parts of the sector that have suffered genuine loss, through no fault of their own, as a result of disruption and delays of seafood exports to Europe. Details will follow shortly. I would say to the noble Baroness that I think there is an uplift in quota for UK fishers equivalent to 25% of the total value taken by EU vessels from UK waters over the five-and-a-half-year period, and 15% of that uplift is in the first year, so I do not identify with her view. What we want to do is work with all parties to ensure there is a smooth passage for this very important sector, and that is what we are doing, with very regular communication and meetings.

My Lords, I note that the one area where Brexit could have been a real success, and important to one of our important industrial sectors, has been a complete failure in its negotiation. I have two very brief questions for the Minister. First, is it true that EU fleets will continue to have unfettered access to our EEZ to fish species for which there is no quota? Secondly, given the urgency and the crisis there is at the moment for the fishing industry and its exports, have the Government called a meeting of the specialised committee on fisheries with the EU? Has it already done that to resolve these issues urgently?

My Lords, on the specialised committee on fisheries, those matters are being worked through and there will be an update on that in due course. What I would I say to the noble Lord is that we have been working with industry and also, particularly, with Dutch, French and Irish officials to resolves issues with documentation, which is the key point. On the issue of the trade agreement, I disagree with him. With a 25% uplift in quota, what we want to do is to work with industry, and that is why we have said there is this £100 million fund programme to modernise fleets and the fish processing industry, precisely because we think there is a great future for UK fishing.

It seemed very odd at the time, but maybe it is just as well that the Prime Minister chose to focus on fish not finance. The City survives, while the fishing industry is on its knees. I really would not advise the laid-back Mr Rees-Mogg to repeat his uncaring quips on the pierhead at Peterhead. In my day, the UK team in Brussels Fisheries Councils always included an expert Scottish Minister. The autumn negotiations might not have ended in such a disaster if that precedent had been followed. Why was it not followed?

My Lords, my experience, having been at Fisheries Councils where I have been with the Scottish Fishing Minister—and, indeed, the Welsh and Northern Irish—is the close collaboration that we have with all part of the United Kingdom as we, in this case, work towards a more successful future for fishing. All I can say is that my experience is precisely that: that there is a very close dialogue across the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I ask my noble friend the Minister what urgent work the Government are undertaking to roll out a digital solution to this largely paper-caused crisis. We have the technology, and it is on public record that the EU is prepared to accept digital certification, not least for capture and other requirements. If it is good enough for other nations, what digital means currently available to us can we put in to unblock the border?

My Lords, we will look at all ways to improve the passage of goods from this country to the EU and for a digital solution wherever possible. I understand that there will be requirements for paperwork, but this is a sensible way forward and I am grateful to my noble friend. We should be working on this area, as we all want an improved flow.

My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, but his answers on this real crisis in the fishing industry at the moment are inadequate. When Michael Gove introduced the Government’s negotiating strategy for Brexit, in the House of Commons last spring, he said, with great enthusiasm, that Brexit would bring tens of thousands of new jobs in fishing to Britain. Does the Minister now regret that those promises were made?

My Lords, I said that there would be a £100 million programme to modernise fleets and improve and increase the fish-processing industry. I also said that the agreement involved the equivalent of 25% of the total value taken by EU vessels from UK waters going to UK fishers. This is a feature of the first section, of five and a half years, of our new relationship as a sovereign state. I am sorry if the noble Lord thinks that my answers are not adequate, but the investment we intend to undertake is because we think there is a very strong future for British fishing.

Will my noble friend join me in regretting that fish are going to rot, having made their way to a French port? Will he join me in pressing for training, so that the computer problems experienced on both sides of the channel can be resolved as soon as possible? Does he agree with me that, once again, inshore fishermen are the poor relations? They do not have exclusive access up to 12 nautical miles, as they were promised; nor have they been given an additional quota, which we did not need to leave the European Union for them to receive.

My noble friend is right that we should bear down on any waste, particularly on this issue. That is why, at official and ministerial level, there have been meetings with the Dutch, Irish and French to ensure that there is flow of food from this important sector, as well as a recognition that we need to ensure that companies know what documentation is required. On the issue of six to 12 nautical miles, access by EU vessels to the UK is limited to a number of ICES areas—the southern North Sea, the channel and the Bristol Channel. We want a vibrant future for all parts, but we understand that the inshore sector is important and will work with it on this.

My Lords, we were promised that Brexit would free the UK from EU red tape. Having seen the troubles of our fishing industry, the New York Times describes that promise as “a macabre joke.” The chief executive of the Scottish Seafood Association describes the situation now as “red tape gone crazy.” The Minister acknowledges that there will be continuing requirements for paperwork, so could he tell the House how he equates the former promises with the current reality?

As I have already said, there is obviously work to be done on this side of the channel and with our neighbours to improve some early problems, which we need to resolve. Officials are working with individual companies to ensure that the situation improves rapidly, and I have already said that there will be a compensation package. Pulse trawling, for instance, is no longer permitted in the UK EEZ from 31 December. As a sovereign country, we will be able to resolve issues such as these now that we are able to make our own decisions about sustainable fishing in our waters.

Sitting suspended.