Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 8 February.
“We have a long-standing trade in live bivalve molluscs to the EU from UK waters. This has benefited both our own shellfish industry and EU restaurants and retailers, which rely on these premium products from the UK.
Recently, concerns have emerged for our trade in live bivalve molluscs to the EU coming from UK class B production waters that have not been through purification or have not cleared testing. The European Commission has changed its position in recent weeks. It advised us in writing in September 2019 that the trade could continue. We shared the Commission’s view and worked with the industry on that basis, and that included explaining that for one small part of the industry—wild harvested molluscs from class B waters—there would need to be a pause while we awaited new export health certificates to become available in April, but that, in line with the guidance from the EU, trade in the molluscs from farms could continue uninterrupted.
We continue to believe that our interpretation of the law and the EU’s original interpretation is correct, that the trade should be able to continue for all relevant molluscs from April, and that there is no reason for a gap at all for molluscs from aquaculture. However, last week the Commission gave us sight of instructions that it sent to all member states on 3 February, stating that any imports into the EU from the UK of live bivalve molluscs for purification from class B waters, such as the sea around Wales and the south-west of England, are not permitted. Exports from class A waters, such as we find around parts of Scotland, may continue.
Bringing an end to this traditional and valuable trade is unacceptable, and I recognise that it is a devastating blow to the businesses that are reliant on the trade. While we do not agree at all with the Commission’s interpretation of the law, we have had to advise traders that their consignments may very well not be accepted at EU ports for now. I am seeking urgent resolution to this problem and have written to Commissioner Kyriakides today. I have emphasised our high shellfish health status and our systems of control. I have also said that if it would assist the trade, we could provide reasonable additional assurances to demonstrate shellfish health, but that this must also recognise the existing high standards and history of trade between us. It is in the EU’s interests to restore this trade. Many businesses in the EU had invested in depuration equipment and are configured around managing the export of molluscs from class B waters.
We have met the industry several times, and it is of course extremely concerned. We are working well with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, which is taking up the issue in meetings with European counterparts. The molluscs affected include mussels, oysters, clams and cockles. In general, the scallop trade is less affected. Scallop exports may instead undergo pre-export testing, as was the case before exit. However, we know some businesses have not traditionally been working in that way, and we are discussing with them how we may help. The issue does not affect molluscs landed in Northern Ireland. It does, however, affect movements from GB to Northern Ireland.
I know that this issue will be of great concern to many exporters around the country. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will continue the technical discussions with the European Commission, and I will update the House with any developments in due course.”
My Lords, in the Commons yesterday George Eustice once again tried to portray the fishing settlement as a good deal, whereas the truth is that it is unravelling as we speak. It is no wonder UK fishers feel angry and betrayed. You would have thought that the negotiations of the trade and co-operation agreement would have tied down the future access of live bivalve molluscs to the EU at the time of the agreement, rather than as an afterthought when damage to the sector has already been done. As a result, hundreds of tonnes of stock have had to be dumped and the multi-million-pound industry has ground to a halt.
These are more than teething problems. The future of the sector is at stake. The Minister has described the negotiations as technical discussions, but what is to stop the EU reopening other aspects of the fishing deal in return for a settlement on live molluscs? In the meantime, can the Minister clarify exactly what compensation will be made available to those whose livelihoods are affected by the loss of that EU market? Will they have access to the £23 million disruption fund made available for other fishers whose markets have been disrupted? Will the Government consider increasing this fund now that many more fishers appear to need compensation?
[Inaudible]—to Commissioner Kyriakides, because we want to restore the trade in undepurated live bivalve molluscs. That is the issue here. We think that the interpretation that the Commission has come to is not correct, and we wish to have discussions with the Commission about it. A 25% uplift in fishing opportunities is an important part of the trade and co-operation agreement, and we will be working on that. As the Government have announced, not only is there a £23 million fund for those who have been in difficulty in these early stages but we will invest in a £100 million fund for fishing over the next three years. There is a lot of promise and a lot of opportunity for British fishing interests and the shellfish industry as well.
My Lords, it is unfortunate for the Government that the BBC is currently screening its series on the Cornwall fishing industry, filmed last year. All see the dramatic effect on the Cornish crab industry of the withdrawal of the Chinese market, and now the EU is refusing to take its shellfish, which was previously acceptable. The Statement says that scallops are less affected than other bivalve molluscs. This is not the impression that I am gaining from the television coverage of the scallop fisheries in Scotland. However, can the Minister explain what the exact problem is with the class B waters around Wales and the south-west? If these waters were acceptable before 3 February, why not afterwards?
The noble Baroness has hit on why we wish to have discussions with the Commission. It interprets the matter as being one of public health. The point is that all molluscs exported from class B waters have to be depurated. That is undertaken by businesses near to the market on the continent, and it is on that we are seeking redress. The Commission made it clear in September 2019—and I can put copies of the correspondence in the House Library along with the letter to the Commissioner—that molluscs exported for purification can be certified. We therefore think that there is an issue that we need to clarify.
My Lords, is not this and other measures taken recently by the EU to punish the UK for leaving its jurisdiction a flagrant abuse not only of the EU’s own laws but of several international laws such as the WTO SPS agreement, which states that WTO members
“shall accept the sanitary or phytosanitary measures of other Members as equivalent, even if these measures differ from their own”—
ours, of course, are identical—as well as the recent TCA, which states that each party shall ensure that SPS measures
“are not applied in a manner which would constitute arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination against … the other Party’s territory where identical or similar SPS conditions exist”,
which they do in this case? I hope that my noble friend will make this lawlessness apparent to this House, which always maintains the importance of upholding international law.
Again, my noble friend is correct to raise this point. It is why the Secretary of State wrote to Commissioner Kyriakides yesterday. We wish to meet her and her officials, because we simply do not understand the legal interpretation of what has come out of the Commission very recently, which is entirely contrary to what we had been told previously.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that molluscs cannot be transferred across the United Kingdom, from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, all due to the Northern Ireland protocol. Is he aware that there is today a meeting between the European Union and the Irish Government to reach an agreement whereby all new laws introduced by the EU which may affect Northern Ireland will first have to be submitted to the Dublin Government for their approval? This is a united Ireland in operation and in practice. The approval of events in Northern Ireland is now subject to the control and decision of Dublin and not of London.
My Lords, what the noble Lord has said is important. The working of the Northern Ireland protocol and the fact that Northern Ireland is part, clearly, of the United Kingdom, our quartet of nations, are why the meeting that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will have with the Vice-President of the Commission on Thursday is important. We wish to conduct trade as good neighbours, but within the context that we are a United Kingdom.
My Lords, I have recently been in touch with my friend Ronnie Norquoy, who operates boats from Orkney. He tells me that this ban is only the latest in a series of crises: first, the restriction of the China market; secondly, Covid closing the hospitality sector market; thirdly, the wave of red tape and export chaos caused by Brexit; and, now, the Seafood Producers Resilience Fund, which barely covers two weeks of his operating costs. These are not teething troubles. When will the Government get serious about rescuing this vital sector that is fast going out of business?
My Lords, that is precisely why we wish to discuss with Commissioner Kyriakides a situation that we do not think is founded on a correct interpretation of the law. It is clear that the fishing and shellfish industries are going through difficulties, as the noble Lord said, partly because of a reduction in demand due to Covid and partly because of issues that we need to resolve. However, in the long term this is a very important part of our food supply and we will support it.
My Lords, it is frustrating that the EU is behaving in the way it is on so many issues. Would be it possible to get the class B waters up to class A, as in Scotland? Is it economically feasible to have our own processing and cleansing plants here, so that we can produce the end product rather than having to let the Europeans do that for us?
My noble friend makes an important point, which is that we all need to work on improving water quality—it is part of the 25-year environment plan and it is addressed in the Environment Bill. We believe that the depuration capacity in GB is sufficient to depurate all oysters produced in GB, but there is insufficient cover for the depuration of mussels, for instance. The £100 million fishing fund could be used to support traders setting up, for instance, a depuration centre. We will continue to explore all those options.
My Lords, UK shellfish catches were valued at £393 million in 2019, so this is a very serious matter for the fishing industry, especially in the south-west. Is this not yet another example of a loose end left over from a botched negotiation with the EU over Brexit? Does the Minister now think that Brussels is trying to punish the UK for leaving the EU?
My Lords, the Secretary of State has written to Commissioner Kyriakides in a very friendly and a constructive spirit. This issue relates to undepurated live bivalve molluscs and we are now addressing it. I hope that the discussions will resolve this matter so that this important trade can be resumed. It is important for exports; it is also important to all those businesses on the continent that have set up depuration outlets because they wish to be close to the final destination market. I think that this is where discussions with the EU will be very important.