Exclusive: Government Plans To Revive Shellfish Exports By The Winter By Building Purification Sites In The UK
The government is planning to build purification sites in the UK so shellfish businesses which have been shut out from the European Union since January can resume exporting mussels and cockles to the continent this winter, Environment Secretary George Eustice has said.
The move is a dramatic u-turn on the messaging from Eustice's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which earlier this year told affected traders that they would be able to continue sending live shellfish to European buyers, despite rules prohibiting shellfish caught in the UK's class B waters from entering the EU.
It threatened to push British sellers of cockles, mussels and other shellfish in areas like Cornwall, Cumbria and Wales towards financial ruin.
Last month PoliticsHome revealed the European Commission told the UK industry that the new rules were in fact permanent and affected all shellfish caught in the UK's class B waters.
And speaking to this website, Eustice has now said that the government will use some of its £100m fisheries fund to help businesses impacted by the EU's block on live shellfish caught in class B waters build their own facilities for purifiying their catch before the next trading season at the end of the year.
He has accused Brussels of changing its position on shellfish exports entering the continent from the UK. Eustice is asking the EU to change its mind and has requested a meeting with the European Commission.
However, "at the moment is they are not in a position to discuss it," he said.
The minister revealed that if Brussels did not change its rules, the government would get to work on building facilities in the UK so traders could purify — or depurate — their shellfish before exporting them to the continent. The EU prohbition affects shellfish that are not ready for human consumption and before January 1st were purified after reaching the continent.
"We are having conversations with member states like France and a lot of their restaurants actually want this trade to continue as it’s built around buying shellfish from class B waters that they then depurate on site," he said.
“We'll work with the European Commission to see if we can get this trade unblocked and moving again.
“If though, it’s a change of policy that the EU intend to maintain, the next option for us is to support our own industry by identifying alternative markets, as there is a global trade in these products, and also by investing in depuration facilities so we can do purification here as well.
“We’d probably take the new £100m UK-wide fisheries fund, that is designed to invest in fishing communities as well as port and processing capacity, and use it to support businesses make that sort of investment so that they’d be able to depurate their own goods for the next season”.The Cabinet minsiter admitted that the first few weeks of Brexit had been "quite a steep learning curve" for businesses and officials on both sides of the Channel.
Fish and meat exporters in particular have struggled to adapt to the plethora of new customs and health paperwork. Delays to exports have led some European customers to cancel orders from the UK, resulting in huge financial losses, while some businesses have already been forced to close.
However, Eustice insisted that it was an "improving situation" at the borders.
"There were some quite difficult teething problems in the first few weeks of January but generally speaking, what we are finding now is that the big salmon producers in Scotland are getting goods through in 24 hours, which is what they are aiming for," he said.
"The average time taken to clear Border Control Posts in France has fallen quite considerably. More than half are getting through within an hour and more than 90% are clearing customs within three hours”.
Asked whether he understood why fish traders struggling to get to grips with the new red tape said they felt betrayed by ministers, Eustice admitted that the government "didn't get everything we wanted" in its post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU and "that's no secret".
But he stressed that: “A consequence of leaving the single market and customs union is that there is additional administration and businesses would always rather not do that”.
The Cabinet minister confirmed reports by PoliticsHome and others that the government was "considering" relaxing plans to introduce checks on EU imports in April and July.
The government's stated plan is to implement some Sanitary & Phytosanitary checks on animal and plant goods on April 1st and then introduce the full range of post-Brexit customs, health and security checks on July 1st.
However, a number of ports have said that they will not be ready to carry out these checks, while industry groups have warned that delays at the border will disrupt supplies of items like vegetables, cheese and wine as food retailers and hospitality begins to reopen in the next few months.
“We always keep all of these things under review," Eustice said.
“The important thing to say is we have already recruited the first wave of staff through the Port Health Authorities to carry out the SPS checks from April. Around 100 are in place and are already trained.
“There is a concern raised by some importers about whether exporters on the EU side are prepared and whether they can get access to vets. We are looking at that carefully.
“The important thing is on import checks, it’s open to us to adopt a more pragmatic approach and adjust things as we see fit.
"But it is important that we start to implement some processes so that people get used to the journey that they’re on and we don’t keep kicking the can down the road”.
He added: “It’s something we are considering because it’s about the checks that we put in place for imports and something we have control over in a way we don’t have on the other side of the channel.
“It’s already the case that we have taken a more pragmatic approach to this than the EU. We decided not to put in any SPS checks at all at the start of January even though the EU did.
“Leaving the single market is a big change and we want businesses to have the space and time to adjust, whether they are exporters or importers of goods from the EU”.