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Let’s stop using the fishing industry as a political football and work together to untangle Brexit red tape

Let’s stop using the fishing industry as a political football and work together to untangle Brexit red tape

Continuing to boast about increased quota shares when fishermen know that much of this is “paper fish” we will never actually catch adds insult to injury, writes Alistair Carmichael MP. | Adobe Stock

4 min read

Scottish fishermen have been losing £1M each day for the past week because of Brexit disruption. They need urgent support from the Prime Minister, not excuses and uncertainty.

It seems like only yesterday that a fresh-faced Boris Johnson was making sweeping promises to UK fishermen of the opportunities we would secure outside the EU. How times have changed.

The Prime Minister was looking a lot less fresh on Wednesday as he struggled in front of a parliamentary committee to explain the disruption and loss faced by our seafood exporters in the past days since we left the transition period. Today, and all this past week, many fishing boats have been tied up in harbour, their propellers tangled with red tape manufactured in Whitehall.

Whatever the excuses given – Mr Johnson needs to be held to his past promises, and our fishing industry needs to be supported. That is why I secured an urgent debate in Parliament to get answers. What we got, however, was excuses and uncertainty.

The Prime Minister set the bar pretty low yesterday with his flailing and defensive account of the government’s failures – but DEFRA Secretary George Eustice still brought it clattering down with a performance of breath-taking complacency at the despatch box.

Mr Eustice repeated Mr Johnson’s blithe assertion that the chaos faced by the seafood industry is just “teething problems”. It suggests a total lack of engagement with the real issues which are growing day by day and may spread to other sectors if untreated.

When we left the transition period government should have agreed a grace period to avoid the harm we are seeing. They should still be asking for one now

The Prime Minister made an offer of compensation to those losing out on Wednesday but it took just hours for yet another U-turn, as the DEFRA Secretary appeared to suggest that this support was not certain and tried to imply that this was all the fault of business for not being prepared for the changes. He should know better – particularly since his own deputy, the Fishing Minister was caught out this week showing a worrying ignorance of the EU trade deal and of the needs of the industry.

When we left the transition period the government should have agreed a grace period to avoid the harm we are seeing. They should still be asking for one now, as our exporters are tied up in red tape and trade barriers. Scottish fishermen have been losing £1M each day for the past week because of the disruption – one business in my constituency took a hit of £50,000 on just a single consignment and that is far from exceptional.

Continuing to boast about increased quota shares when fishermen know that much of this is “paper fish” we will never actually catch adds insult to injury. Tariff-free access only matters when you can get your fish to market.

I offered to help the minister meet with industry figures who are affected, an offer that was waved away. He may claim to already be talking to businesses regularly, but the evidence suggests their needs are not being heard. The offer is still there.

Politicians of all colours need to work together for the benefit of the fishing industry. Using it as a political football has to end – it is time for the Government to put political will behind their years of posturing and support the industry when it counts.

Coastal communities have always felt as though they were left on the periphery while successive governments had bigger “fish” to fry. Whatever else is said about our new relationship with the EU, this should have been the opportunity to change that impression and bring genuine political energy to support fishing.

That opportunity is still there, but we can only hope to grasp it if ministers get serious. After yesterday’s session I am not confident that the government cares to understand the challenges we face – but I will keep working with fishing businesses to make sure that their case is heard.

 

Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland.

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