SEAFOOD exporters will be able to claim up to £100,000 in compensation as the UK Government announced the details of a £23 million package to help companies struggling with post-Brexit red tape amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But one Scottish MP said the announcement was an “admission of failure” by the Conservative administration following the “shambles” facing the fishing industry created by the UK-EU trade deal.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the move on compensation was in recognition of the “unique circumstances” of the fishing sector, which, it accepted had had the “most significant new requirements to adjust to and for which even a short delay can lead to goods perishing; at a time when the industry is facing lower market prices and demand due to the pandemic”.
On Monday, seafood hauliers drove their large trucks to roads around Downing Street in protest at how they were being “tied in knots with paperwork” caused by the Brexit fishing deal.
On Tuesday, James Withers, Chief Executive of Scotland Food and Drink, said that Peterhead, site of Europe’s biggest fish market, had been turned into a “ghost town” by Brexit.
He explained that even during the height of the pandemic thousands of boxes a day were being landed at the Aberdeenshire fish market but this had dwindled significantly since the UK left the EU.
Mr Withers tweeted: “Boats tied up, exporters crippled. No Brexit image of lorry queues, it’s the sight of trade that isn’t moving at all.”
He later explained: “We warned that systems weren’t ready at the end of last year and those warnings weren’t heeded.
“What has happened is that the EU market, the door to that market has slammed shut for a lot of seafood exporters and that is now having a ripple effect right through the supply chain where fishing boats are tied up in harbour, not out catching, and we’re seeing these kind of sparse number of boxes landing on what is normally a market that would be very busy, so it’s a real crisis for seafood exporters, fishermen but also other food exporters as well.
“We’ve spoken to a number of exporters, who are concerned that unless this gets fixed very quickly there could be permanent casualties from what is happening,” added the industry chief.
Initially, Boris Johnson suggested the post-Brexit compensation would come from a promised £100m package of help to boost the fishing industry now that Britain had become an independent coastal state. He described the difficulties facing the industry as “teething problems”.
However, this week the Prime Minister announced the outline of the extra £23m aid fund, stressing how he “understands the frustrations” of businesses exporting to Europe, which were losing out “through no fault of their own” and whose situation had been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The £23m fund will be targeted at fishing export businesses, which can provide evidence of a genuine loss in exporting fish and shellfish to the EU.
The department made clear support would be available immediately and paid retrospectively to cover losses incurred since 1 January 2021.
The fund will be targeted at small and medium enterprises and the maximum claim available to an individual operator will be £100,000.
George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said: “This £23m scheme will provide crucial support for fishermen and seafood exporters, who have experienced delays and a lack of demand for fish from the restaurant industry in the UK and Europe.
“We are continuing to work closely with the fishing and aquaculture sectors to make sure they are supported and can continue to fish whilst contributing to the economies of our coastal communities.”
The department suggested the situation had been “improving over the last week” and the flow of goods was getting better. “But we will do more,” it added.
Steve Barclay, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said the additional £23m package of support would help the hardworking fishing sector navigate the challenges of the next few months.
He added: “It is vital that no community nor region within our United Kingdom is left behind as we continue to support British jobs and build back better from the coronavirus pandemic.”
David Duguid, the Scotland Office Minister, said the funding announcement was the latest step in the UK Government’s continued engagement with the industry leaders to identify specific problems and to apply rapid solutions.
“Those conversations are, of course, aimed at addressing immediate concerns and at finding longer-term, sustainable solutions to the challenges that the industry faces.
“Working with Scottish seafood business leaders, we want to get the best out of our exit from the Common Fisheries Policy and the opportunities that presents as well maximising the investment package delivered by the UK Government,” added the MP for Banff and Buchan.
Responding to the Government announcement, Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, said: “The money is welcome but no one should be in any doubt that this is an admission of failure by the Government.
“Compensation is the bare minimum seafood exporters should expect after the shambles created with Boris Johnson’s weak deal with the EU.”
The former Scottish Secretary pointed out businesses would be particularly concerned to know the eligibility criteria for claims.
“I have already heard from companies that fear that the barrier to compensation will be set so high as to make it impossible to claim. Exporters are already buried in Tory red tape; the Government should not add to that pile.”
Mr Carmichael went on: “It is especially troubling to see that there is already a cap on claims for individual operators of £100,000. One business in my constituency lost half that on a single consignment, so the Government needs to be realistic about these losses and how they can be made good.
“It is far from clear that we are over the worst for fish exporters. Once that is sorted the Government must explain to fishermen how they intend to make up for the broken promises that they made to the industry,” he added.
Meanwhile, Brussels made clear that problems UK companies were having in exporting fish to continental Europe as a result of Brexit were a sign that “decisions have consequences”.
Joao Vale de Almeida, the EU ambassador to the UK, said he hoped the situation would improve once businesses and officials adapted to the new trading arrangements.
But he warned that the consequences of leaving the single market and customs union meant that extra checks and paperwork were now an ongoing fact of life.