Minister Refuses To Apologise To Shellfish Industry For Post-Brexit Trade Collapse
The fisheries minister has refused to say sorry for the government's handling of the post-Brexit shellfish saga amid tough questions from exporters whose sales to the European Union have been torpedoed since the New Year.
Victoria Prentis, a parliamentary under-secretary in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), on Wednesday admitted there was "no silver bullet" to revive the UK's live shellfish exports to the EU, but insisted the fault lay with Brussels, not the government.
As originally reported by PoliticsHome, exports to the EU of live shellfish like muscles, oysters and scallops caught in most British waters came to an abrupt halt in early January due to the bloc's strict health and safety rules for trade from third countries like the UK.
It has resulted in swathes of shellfish exporters across the country in areas like Morcambe Bay, Devon and Wales losing their main source of sales overnight.
DEFRA argues the EU originally said this trade would be allowed to continue and has accused the bloc of changing its position without justification and legal basis. The bloc categorically rejects this claim and says rules for third countries like the UK are clear and long-standing.
Speaking at the Shellfish Association of Great Britain's annual conference this morning, Prentis said: "The decision taken by the EU to ban the export of Live Bivalve Molluscs (LMBs) from Class B waters is wrong.
"It is unfair, unjustified, and I want you to know that we stand with you and will help in any way that we can".
However, Prentis faced tough questions from shellfish exporters who attended the virtual conference, including one who said DEFRA had lacked "in-depth knowledge" of the industry at "all levels" during the Brexit process.
Asked by PoliticsHome whether she would like to apologise on behalf of the government to shellfish exporters whose livelihoods have been impacted by Brexit, the minister refused.
“I’ve made my views very clear," she said. "I do not think the European Commission has taken the right approach to this. The LMBs that we have always exported are delicious and safe and this was a good way to export and trade.
"I want to do everything I can to help that to continue in the future".Prentis said the European Commission "continues to be unwilling to engage in constructive discussion" and that the government was "speaking to individual member states who want this trade to continue – and indeed need it to continue".
The minister told the conference that while it was "too early" to say whether the government would take legal action against the EU if it didn't change its position, "I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point".
"It is important that we do what we can to represent your industry," she said.
DEFRA for the time being was focused on discussing the issue with the EU through the committees set up under the post-Brexit trade deal agreed on Christmas Eve, Prentis told the conference.
Luke Pollard, the shadow environment secretary, said: "Our shellfish industry is in crisis, and the government's botched Brexit deal is the problem. But all we're getting from Tory ministers is excuse after excuse".
He called on ministers to "get a grip, take some responsibility, sort the problem and get support to the frontline".