Exclusive: Shellfish Industry Leaders Claim DEFRA Privately Admitted The EU Was Right On The Shellfish Ban
The UK's leading trade body for the shellfish industry told its members that the government privately accepted that the European Union's ban on UK shellfish exports was correct, PoliticsHome can reveal.
Publicly, Environment Secretary George Eustice has described the ban as "legally wrong" and "unjustified".
The new barriers, which came into force on January 1, stopped most shellfish that are not ready for human consumption from entering the EU, where previously they were sent to Europe and purified there before going to restaurants, bars and supermarkets.
Eustice yesterday wrote to the European Commission's Stella Kyriakides expressing frustration with the bloc's third country rules for unpurified mussels, clams, scallops, cockles and oysters — known together as live-bivalve molluscs — caught in Britain's class B waters, which effectively bans the trade of shellfish from the UK to the EU. He described the rules as having no "scientific or technical justification".
However, the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, which represents the majority of shellfish traders in the UK, yesterday wrote to members claiming that in private the government had now "changed this position" and had said that the EU's position "is correct".
The email seen by PoliticsHome said: "We have now received another update from DEFRA regarding the export of live-bivalve molluscs.
"All along they have told us that they believe the trade in class B animals is legal and that the regulation supports this. They have now changed this position.
"They now say that they believe on balance that the EU view, that the trade is not legal, is in fact correct. This is in complete contrast to everything they have told us so far".
The email went on to urge members ask their European customers to "stress to the Commission that this trade is wanted in the EU," amid warnings that UK shellfish exporters depend on EU trade and will collapse if the new arrangements remain in place.
A DEFRA spokesperson said the government's position had not changed. "We continue to believe that our interpretation of the law and the EU’s original interpretation is correct and that the trade should be able to continue for all relevant molluscs from April," the spokesperson told PoliticsHome.
"And there is no reason for a gap at all for molluscs from aquaculture."
PoliticsHome revealed last month that the European Commission told the British shellfish industry that these shellfish exports were barred indefinitely, after DEFRA had advised the industry that the EU ban would only last until April 21 and would not affect farmed shellfish.
The government has accused the EU of changing its position on the matter and has described the current rules as the bloc getting confused by its own laws.
Eustice last week told the House of Lords EU Environment Sub-Committee that "we think this is a misinterpretation of their [EU's] own laws" and described the ban as "legally wrong" and "unjustified". This morning, he told LBC Radio that the EU approach was "indefensible".
The British industry received a boost from Pierre Karleskind, the chair of the European Parliament's fisheries committee, who this morning told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme that the ban "doesn't make any sense" and that "UK waters didn’t become dirty on December 31".
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs Spokesperson, called on Eustice to resign, telling PoliticsHome: “Yesterday George Eustice made a statement in Parliament blaming everyone else – today he has thrown in the towel. The seafood industries can no longer have confidence in anything he says.
"He should step aside and let somebody else fix this mess. It is difficult to see how he can remain in his job after this fiasco".Luke Pollard, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, said: "Just yesterday the government sent a letter to the EU blaming them for the block on shellfish fishers exporting their catch.
"The shellfish industry is on the verge of collapse unless something is done fast.
"Instead of shifting the blame, Ministers should be looking to sort the problem — are they incompetent or do they simply not care?"
Rob Benson, co-director of Kingfisher Seafoods Limited in Cumbria, recently told PoliticsHome that the government was at fault for misunderstanding how Brexit would affect the UK shellfish industry, telling PoliticsHome: "This is not new EU policy. This has always been there.
“This is the government not doing their job to safeguard the industry.
“Before December 31 we were in the EU and DEFRA was responsible for policing imports from third countries. Now we are out of the EU how come it is only now we are told of the situation. It’s like saying a policeman who’s been on the beat for the last 50 years didn’t know the law”.
Like the rest of the shellfish industry, his 17-year-old business "relies almost entirely" on EU trade, Benson said, adding that the new rules had "all but destroyed any hope we had of the future".
Steve Manning, whose family catch shellfish in nearby Flookbrough, said 95% of their exports went to France. “Without the EU customers, we wouldn’t exist as professional fishermen," he told PoliticsHome.