Labour Accuses DEFRA Of "Severe Negligence" Over Post-Brexit Shellfish Export Ban
Exclusive: The government is being told to urgently explain its handling of post-Brexit arrangements for shellfish exporters amid a growing number of questions over its claim that the European Union changed its position.
Live mussels, cockles, oysters and other shellfish caught in the UK's class B waters are no longer allowed to enter the EU since Britain left the customs union and single market on New Year's Eve.
Earlier this month, PoliticsHome revealed that DEFRA had been advising affected shellfish businesses across the country that their live exports to EU customers would be able to restart on April 21st when the bloc was expected to introduce new export health certification. But there are now questions over what the government knew about the rules and when.
Environment Secretary George Eustice has accused the EU of changing its position on the UK's live shellfish exports and pushed unsucessfully for a meeting with European Commission officials.
He has claimed that the bloc previously said the trade would be able to resume in April and that its current position, that the new regulations are permenant, are "indensible" and "legally wrong".
This week Eustice told Channel 4 that the EU changed its position "a couple of weeks ago".
However, a letter Eustice sent on December 10 has cast doubt on this claim, as it appears to show that the Cabinet minister at this point was aware that the new EU restrictions were permanent.
Now Labour's Shadow Fisheries Minister Stephanie Peacock is calling on the government to explain an apparent eleven month period during which it didn't discuss the issue with the EU, despite the dire consequences for shellfish exporters.
In a letter to Eustice, shared exclusively with PoliticsHome, Peacock said: "During my urgent question I asked for sight of all correspondence between your department and the European Union on this subject.
"It seems extraordinary that after the 8th February 2020 exchange, no further discussion was had with the EU on this matter until last month, some eleven months later.
"I would be grateful if you could confirm as a matter of urgency if the correspondence laid in the Commons Library is in fact the entirety of communication between your department and the EU on this subject.
"This severe negligence will have long lasting and serious ramifications for our coastal communities".
Peacock has also urged the government to alter the Seafood Disruption Scheme set up to provide financial support to seafood exporters hit by post-Brexit disruption amid warnings that many affected traders do not meet the government's critera and are falling through cracks.
"The criteria for the £23m Seafood Disruption Compensation Scheme (SDCS) are very limited in scope and do not appear to match the ambitions to which government ministers appear to have been alluding to publicly prior to its official launch," Peacock wrote.
"In many cases, these businesses have been tied up, shut down, and have had no income since 1st January".
Peacock told PoliticsHome that the siuation facing shellfish exporters was a "disgrace".
Most traders affected by the new rules are in England and Wales, where most waters are categorised as class b. Up until 1January this year, they would send their shellfish to buyers in the EU who would purify it before distributing it to supermarkets, restaurants and bars. However, shellfish that is not ready for human consumption is no longer allowed to enter the EU.
The industry expects many of these businesses to collapse in the coming weeks unless the government provides them with major financial support on top of what is already been available.
"At a time when the future of our relationship with the EU was being decided, the government failed to negotiate and communicate to protect an essential export to the EU's Single Market," she said.
“A gap in communication of eleven months is, quite frankly, unacceptable. This severe negligence will have long lasting and serious ramifications for our coastal communities".
A UK government spokesperson told PoliticsHome: “There is no scientific or technical justification for the European Commission banning the import of live bivalve molluscs from class B waters. This is already impacting business and damaging markets on both sides of the channel.
“We’re seeking urgent resolution on this matter. We are willing to provide additional reassurances to demonstrate shellfish health within reason, but this must recognise the existing high standards and history of trade between us".