Government Is Accused Of Being "Asleep At The Wheel" Over The Scottish Fishing Crisis After Ministers Enraged The Industry
The UK government has been accused of abandoning Scottish fishing traders facing economic disaster after remarks by two ministers enraged opposition MPs and industry figures.
The Scottish National Party on Wednesday night called for fisheries minister Victoria Prentis to resign after she told a House of Lords committee that she didn’t read the UK-EU trade deal when it was agreed on Christmas Eve, as she was busy “organising the local nativity trail”.
Dr Philippa Whitford, the party’s shadow Brexit spokesperson, said that fishing businesses in Scotland were losing thousands of pounds due their exports of seafood to the European Union being delayed by paperwork brought about by Brexit.
The industry is estimated to be losing at least £1million a day due to European orders being cancelled, PoliticsHome reported on Tuesday.
“For the Tory government's Fisheries Minister to then admit that she did not even bother to read the details of the damaging deal because she was too busy is unbelievable and makes her position untenable,” Whitford said.
Luke Pollard, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told PoliticsHome that Prentis’ comment "does little to inspire confidence in the Government”.
He said: “It is no wonder the Brexit deal is so bad for British fishing – the Minister responsible was asleep at the wheel.”
A government source insisted that Prentis’ remark had been taken out of context, telling PoliticsHome that the minister studied the Brexit deal later in the day on Christmas Eve and then briefed MPs on what the treaty meant for the fishing industry.
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government was at the eye of a new storm on Thursday morning when Scotland Office Minister David Duguid said “how long is a piece of string?” when asked by BBC Radio Scotland how long it’d take for the government to resolve the issues facing Scottish fishing traders.
“Well, how long’s a piece of string?” the Conservative MP said.
“What I can commit to is that the UK government, whether that’s through DEFRA or the Scotland Office, are working day and night resolving the issues that we know about and can fix directly.
“The other issues that are the responsibility of the Scottish government or indeed the EU on the other side of the channel, DEFRA is engaging heavily with those parties as well. The key point is, the industry, the government, and the EU all need to come together to work on resolving the issues.”
He insisted that whether Brexit was “the right thing to do” was “irrelevant at this time,” and that it the government had “always known” that there would be “challenges as well as opportunities.”
Asked what more affected fishing businesses in Scotland could do to get the government support they need, Diguid added: “What we really need to do, is if we can get precise details of the issues coming across are, such as we cannot log monkfish tails in the system, that is an issue that can be fixed very quickly.”
Responding to Diguid’s comment, SNP candidate for the Banffshire & Buchan Coast seat in the Scottish Parliament, Karen Adams said: "it’s a disgrace that the Tories think they can just walk away and tell Scotland’s food, drink, seafood and farming industries that they’ll just have to suck it up.”
Scottish fishing businesses are calling on the UK government to compensate them for the money they have lost as a result of Brexit disruption, PoliticsHome reported earlier this week. Many species of fish and shellfish have suffered a price drop of 40-50% due to not reaching customers on the continent.
Prime Minister Johnson on Wednesday told MPs on the Liaison Committee the government “will compensate the fishing businesses” affected by delays, though the details of that pledge are not yet clear.
When the UK was in the EU’s single market and customs union, seafood caught in Scotland like salmon, oysters, and langoustines would reach shops in France, Belgium, and Spain a day after being harvested.
However, since the Brexit transition period ended on December 31, fishermen exporting to EU customers have had to complete time-consuming new customs and health paperwork, with the latter being carried out by vets.
Some Scottish fishing boats have this week taken the drastic step of landing in Denmark and processing their catch there in order to circumvent disruption to their trade in Britain.
Environment Secretary George Eustice on Thursday morning told MPs that problems facing fishing traders, which the industry says could put some out of business, were “only teething problems.”