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UK Shellfish Sector

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to reports of restrictions on the export of live bivalve molluscs to the European Union, what steps they are taking to support the shellfish sector in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we recognise the importance of this long-standing trade and the impact of restrictions on a valued industry. Live bivalve molluscs ready for human consumption can be exported to the EU as “products of animal origin”. The Secretary of State raised the matter of exporting from GB class B waters with EU Commissioner Kyriakides, and we are pressing for an urgent solution to enable trade to resume.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in extending our good wishes and regrets to Baron Shellfish of Bridlington, which prospered as one of the success stories of the common market, selling direct to customers in the European Union in the 1970s? Because of the bureaucratic and administrative barriers to trade since 1 January, it is now ceasing to trade, which is highly regrettable.

Given the recent ban, to which my noble friend referred, on exports from the UK of live bivalve molluscs, what plans do the Government have to use the regulatory framework set up under the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU? When does he expect that the specialised committee on fisheries will be set up? This would seem to be a classic case of an ideal solution being found by talking, rather than taking retaliatory tit-for-tat action.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend’s tone. We seek to have a quick discussion with Commissioner Kyriakides about how this trade can resume. We do not believe that the legal interpretation that they are putting on the class B waters is correct. We are working very closely with stakeholders and the devolved Administrations: my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will have further discussions with the Welsh and Scottish Ministers tomorrow. We wish to resolve this matter. Of course, we want to ensure the smooth passage of exports of our excellent produce.

My Lords, yesterday, the Minister was uncharacteristically reluctant to answer my question about compensation, so I will ask it again today: will the fishers affected by this EU ruling have access to the £23 million disruption fund, made available to other fishers whose markets have been disrupted? Will the Government consider increasing that fund now that so many fishers seem to be in need of that kind of compensation?

My Lords, of course I shall seek to answer the noble Baroness’s question. The £23 million fund for financial assistance announced today is for those businesses that suffered a financial loss because of

“delays related to the export of fresh or live fish and shellfish to the EU during January”.

With our dialogue with the Commission, we seek to resume this valued trade from class B waters, which we think is completely justified under the law. What is more, many EU businesses have invested in depuration facilities, and that is what they wish.

My Lords, the Minister will be very aware of the damage that has been done to various aspects of the fishing industry by the trade and co-operation agreement and the lack of other agreements. It is very important that the Government get their own view over in this case, so would the Minister or one of his colleagues come down to Cornwall with the noble Lord, Lord Frost, who negotiated the deal, to explain all these issues face to face with the industry itself?

I am grateful to the noble Lord, and this gives me an opportunity to mention the very regular dialogue that there is between Defra and stakeholders that work with the exporters—the UK Seafood Exports Working Group, for instance. Of course I will take back to the Fisheries Minister the point about meeting Cornish fishing interest groups, and I am sure that they will be part of the discussions that we need to have to work towards resolution of some of these matters.

My Lords, we can all agree that this is a desperate time for a great many small businesses in this field. The latest figure I have seen for the size of this part of the industry was from 2019, when sales were recorded as £113 million; they now must be much more. Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House what proportion of UK production has been affected by this ban? What proportion of the remaining trade takes place in Northern Ireland?

This is a different angle from that voiced by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, but I believe that a concern for the industry is that the £23 million support package appears to be geared to those who handle exports and is less likely to be accessible to the catching sector. It is reassuring to know that the Scottish Government have promised £6.5 million to help with the costs of the vessels involved; will further support be available from the UK?

My Lords, there were quite a number of questions there. In terms of trade, the figures are that the annual value of exports of live fresh bivalve molluscs to the EU in 2019 was £13.8 million, excluding scallops, which are less affected by this issue. The other point is that this particular ban does not relate to Northern Ireland. On the issue of support, in addition to the £23 million support scheme for across the UK, there is a newly established Scottish Seafood Exports Task Force, which will be engaging with Scotland and Scottish interests. In addition, there is the £100 million UK fisheries funding, which is £100 million over three years and begins in April, for the rejuvenation and modernisation of fishing fleets.

As the Minister will be aware, the new rules also require export hygiene certificates. These would be a considerable cost to fishermen, but Cornwall Council is using Defra funding at the moment to meet those costs. However, that runs out in March. Can the Minister indicate that new funding will be made available so that these costs do not hit fishermen?

My Lords, I will take that particular point back to the Fisheries Minister, because it is important that that is received by my honourable friend. Clearly, we want to ensure that there is a smooth passage of exports, and that is what we are working on to resolve in the particular matter of class B live bivalve molluscs.

Will the Government urgently redeploy the £23 million seafood winter scheme funding, which was set aside for a no-deal Brexit, to install and reupholster tanks and UV filters for mollusc fish farms to create a market-ready product for export and home promotion as well as maintaining and creating local jobs? Will the Government also work with water companies to improve run-off water quality discharged into our coastal waters?

The noble Baroness makes two important points on the improvement of our waters. The water industry has invested £200 million in improving waters. We need to work on improving our waterways and marine environments, which is part of the 25-year environment plan. Also, the £100 million scheme may well apply to depuration and facilities, but I should say that, as part of the profile of this trade there are depuration facilities on the continent, so that the molluscs are purified close to the point of human consumption. This is part of the business model, and we think that this trade is legitimate and should resume.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that this is a situation where a little bit of compromise would be advisable? Standing on principles of control is not something we should do here, because the only alternative to keep this industry going is to encourage us all to eat moules frites more frequently.

My Lords, I would like to follow on from the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. The Minister said a little bit about what needs to be done to bring our class B waters up to class A standards. Can he say how long he thinks this might take? Will the Government move this into a higher priority area now?

On the timeframe, there has been a lot of work to improve waters and achieve our water regulation standard results in shellfish waters of high class B quality. As I say, there is investment, and this will need to continue. Part of our 25-year environment plan is to have three quarters of our water in its natural state. This is going to need investment, and we are working on this. But I want to emphasise that our molluscs from class B waters are of very high quality, and we wish to work with permission to ensure that this legitimate trade, which is important around the country, is resumed.

Sitting suspended.