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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 14, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual) 14 January 2021

Agenda: Managing Scotland’s Fisheries, Portfolio Question Time, Employment Opportunities (BAME Women), Drug Deaths, Decision Time


Contents


Managing Scotland’s Fisheries

Good afternoon and welcome to the Scottish Parliament. As you can see, our meeting this afternoon is entirely online. We begin with a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing, on managing Scotland’s fisheries in the future. The cabinet secretary will take questions following his statement.

13:00  

Presiding Officer, 2020 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons and 24 December 2020 will be remembered as the day that the United Kingdom Government sold out Scottish fishing interests in the most egregious way.

The outcome of the negotiations expose to all and sundry that the promises that were made to fishermen in Scotland, and indeed throughout the UK, have been broken. On 29 December, the Scottish Government published its analysis of the impact of the Brexit trade deal’s measures for fishing and seafood. That analysis details stock by stock, fishing area by fishing area, the results in terms of actual fish landed and it shows that there will be major reductions in certain of those, including North Sea white-fish stocks.

Remarkably, the Scottish industry will now have access to fewer fishing opportunities than under the existing common fisheries policy arrangements, even at the end of the five-and-a-half-year adjustment period. The UK Government negotiated away existing quota share for white-fish stocks, which are among the most important to our fishing industry, including onshore interests, with more than 90 per cent of what is caught being landed at harbours and fish markets in Scotland and then processed here for sale.

To compound those shortfalls, full access to our waters has been granted to the European Union, leaving little if any negotiating capital in forthcoming negotiations where we would seek to redress those shortfalls.

The Tories promised Scotland’s fishermen “a sea of opportunity”, but instead they have effectively made our “seas gang dry”. As Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, put it, the UK is now

“a coastal state with one hand tied behind our back”.

Those broken promises leave our fishermen woefully short of their expectations and their sense of betrayal is evident in their responses. Mike Park said that the members of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association were

“deeply aggrieved at the very challenging situation they now face for 2021.”

John Anderson, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation described it as

“capitulation on a monumental scale”.

Of course, it is not the Tories who have to play the appalling hand they have dealt here—that is left to us; we have to pick ourselves up and work out how best to manage the situation. I have already met key industry leaders to discuss how we will work together to mitigate the shortfall in available quota and deliver the best possible management structures in our waters.

We face a bleak future, but the one bright spot is the fact that we have secured direct involvement for Scottish officials in the annual negotiations. My officials are working flat out to identify new and creative ways to plug the many quota shortfalls we now find ourselves with. We will apply our expertise and knowledge and do our best to prevent the UK Government from trading away any of our interests to protect its own. Our priority will be to redress the balance of Scottish waters and stocks being used as negotiating currency without delivering tangible benefits to the Scottish fishing industry.

Let me lay down this warning: we have long experience of the UK Government trading away Scottish interests in order to secure its own in annual negotiations. Any attempt by the UK Government to correct its own failings through the upcoming bilateral negotiations at Scotland’s expense will be resisted utterly and publicised relentlessly.

This week’s total allowable catch setting negotiations on the jointly managed stocks with the EU and Norway began on Tuesday, and I expect that negotiations with Norway and the EU on bilateral arrangements will soon follow. Although not yet concluded, discussions with the Faroes on a bilateral arrangement are already under way.

We will promote and support action that helps to recover stocks by introducing appropriate management measures, reducing discarding and addressing choke species.

We will fight for what is fair and deliver, in partnership with the industry, a progressive yet practical catching policy as part of our strategy on the future management of Scotland’s fisheries. The strategy that I published on 17 December sets a course to deliver our vision for Scotland to be a world-class fishing nation. That vision is centred on the key themes of transparency, accountability, resilience, responsibility and, of course, sustainability. I am clear that we will work with all stakeholders to deliver the 12-point action plan in that strategy.

Crucially, I and this Government will do all we can to defend our devolved fisheries powers. That includes pressing for Scotland to get its fair share of future funding for fisheries and marine. We believe that our share should be £62 million, but the UK offer is a paltry £14 million, much of which would go on other functions, such as compliance. The same applies to the new £100 million fund; Scotland’s share is £60 million and we need it devolved in full, right now, to determine how best to meet our needs and interests.

However, one overriding, immediate pressure must be addressed. Members are aware of the terrible impact that the new rules for exporting seafood are having, not just on export businesses but on fish markets and the catch industry. Yesterday, I wrote to George Eustice to demand that the UK Government delivers on its promise to pay all the costs of Brexit and provide compensation to help all those businesses. Those jobs and livelihoods might not matter to the Tories, but they matter to Scotland.

I understand that the Prime Minister indicated that compensation would be forthcoming; that needs to happen and it needs to happen now. I extracted that concession after rattling the cages of Whitehall in representing Scotland at a meeting there yesterday. We need more urgency and effort from the UK Government to resolve the system problems that are stopping and delaying exports.

Papers revealed that, on the way into the EU, Edward Heath’s Tory Government considered Scotland’s fishing interests as “expendable”. On the way out, the Tories have made them expendable again. They have delivered a shocking deal for our catching industry that offers no succour in any part. They ignored our and the food and drink sector’s warnings about the impact of customs barriers and calls for a six-month grace period. Thirteen days into Brexit, they are yet to lift a finger to help our businesses, and they are failing to match even the funding envelope that we got under European maritime and fisheries funding.

Brexit is a boorach and its pathways are littered with broken Tory promises, but this Government will do better; we do not overpromise and underdeliver. All we can do is offer our coastal communities and everybody who works in Scotland’s fishing industry—offshore, inshore and onshore—the commitment that we will not stop trying and that, using our skills and expertise, we will try to get the best possible outcome from the annual negotiations. We will try our hardest to get the UK Government to do right by those communities and people and fix some of the mess that it has created, and we will work to ensure that it compensates them for their Brexit losses. By working with them to deliver our strategy and action plan, we will also try to build a brighter future than the one that the UK Government has delivered for our fisheries.

When I became Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, I promised to champion and fight for the interests of Scottish fishing, and this Government and I will continue to do that.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. Despite his claims that he and his Government will do all that they can to defend the devolved fisheries powers, the simple truth is that he and the Scottish National Party would hand those powers back to Brussels and have Scotland’s fishermen back in the common fisheries policy just as soon as they could.

It is clear that the sector has faced considerable problems in recent days, compounding some of the border issues related to the coronavirus from before Christmas, with a number of boats opting to stay in port because of uncertainty as to whether their catch could be exported in time. There have been a range of issues, and customs declarations and information technology issues have played a part.

I turn to an area that is within the Scottish Government’s competence. We have heard about delays in granting export certificates at the Larkhall seafood hub. On 19 August, the cabinet secretary said the Government would be

“as prepared as we can be for the end of the transition period.”—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 19 August 2020; c 2.]

Does he now admit that that was not the case and that the Scottish Government was not as prepared as it should have been? I hope that he will give a personal commitment to work with Food Standards Scotland to address the problems. Will he commit to a date by which his officials will iron out those problems?

It is increasingly apparent that short-term support for businesses that have been impacted by losses will be vital. Will the cabinet secretary put aside party politics, recognise the need for support—backed by both Governments—and work with his counterparts in the UK Government to ensure that that essential support gets to our fishing industry as quickly as possible?

First, it would be churlish of me not to welcome Mr Halcro Johnston to his new responsibilities.

We have already been working with all parties, including Food Standards Scotland, around the clock to do our best to ameliorate the problems that have arisen. Scotland Food & Drink and others representing all the major sectors of the industry sought a grace period of six months in which any teething problems could be ironed out and the new, untried and untested systems—involving an extra 150,000 environmental health certificates every year—could be worked through and difficulties sorted out. That request did not even get a response when it was made on 4 November by Scotland Food & Drink to the Prime Minister. In a subsequent meeting with junior ministers, the request was dismissed out of hand.

As far as the Tories are concerned, I notice that Mr Halcro Johnston does not say whether he thinks that the deal is a good one and whether it offers “unparalleled” opportunities—the term used by the Prime Minister just yesterday—or whether he agrees with the fishing representatives that it is a betrayal and a dreadful deal that has utterly broken the promises made to the Scottish fishing industry.

I have been working with the UK Government for the past five years. I have suggested a grace period and various other things. The UK Government has rejected all those suggestions. The situation in which we now find ourselves is entirely a result of Brexit and the lack of preparation by the UK Government for the bureaucratic system in which the seafood sector now finds itself enmeshed.

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement.

The fact that the Brexit trade deal is neither what Scotland’s fishing sector needed nor what it was promised will not surprise anyone. The devastating delays that the sector is facing were entirely predictable. There is anger and frustration from our fishers, who have been badly let down. However, they do not want to be used as a constitutional football by two Governments—they want solutions now.

In addition to raising concerns—rightly—with the UK Government about the need for compensation and to tackle the bureaucratic burden currently crippling the sector, will the cabinet secretary tell us what specific additional resources the Scottish Government is bringing to the table to speed up the checks for which Scottish Government agencies have responsibility? Will there be additional financial support for the sector from the Scottish Government, to get it through these difficult months?

On Mr Smyth’s final question, I believe that the Prime Minister has promised to provide compensation. That compensation must be paid very quickly.

This morning, I spoke to a business that said that, if the problems that there have been in the past two weeks are repeated, it might not be in business next week. That story could be repeated many times. Fishing vessels are now landing their catch in Denmark in order to avoid the bureaucratic system. Prices in the cod fish sector have collapsed by 50 per cent or more, trade deals have been lost and customers have gone elsewhere. That is a truly dreadful situation.

I have been in regular contact with the UK Government through attendance at the EU exit operations—XO—committee meetings, which are chaired by Michael Gove. We have prepared extensively in every respect that we could, and in all ways that were required, in order to ensure that, in so far as it is within our power, the new system is capable of operating. In that respect, we set up three hubs, including one with DFDS, to streamline the system. We have ensured that environmental health officers are available, but it would not matter if there were another 1,000 certifying officers—that is not the problem.

The problem is the untried and untested system, which the UK Government said at the meeting that I was at yesterday is only now being tested. The paperwork and the IT systems are incompatible with each other, the customs documentation is defective, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does not recognise that particular types of fishing stock exist, and there has been a complete failure to establish a good rapport, relationship and working operation with the French authorities. In all respects, it lies with the UK Government to sort out the Brexit boorach that it has created, and to do so without any further delay.

This morning, as has been the case for many days, Peterhead market, which is Europe’s biggest white-fish market, was eerily quiet. On the radio this morning, David Duguid—a minister at the Scotland Office—was attacked by a representative of the industry and called a liar, which he rejected, as we might expect. I also gather that, on Christmas eve, Victoria Prentis spent time preparing for Christmas rather than reading the agreement to which she was party. My question is about the next time that the cabinet secretary meets representatives of the UK Government. Does he expect Victoria Prentis or David Duguid to remain in office for long? The industry is clear that it is time for them to go.

I am not entirely convinced that UK Government ministers are the cabinet secretary’s responsibility. I ask for a brief answer.

They are not my responsibility. The important thing is that we work to sort out the problems as best we can. I have been doing my best to do that. Later this afternoon, I will attend another meeting with Mr Gove to that end.

Mr Stevenson referred to the deal that has been done, which has resulted in the loss of the Hague preference and in extra quota of paper fish only—in other words, extra quota that will never be of any practical benefit. The Scottish industry has lost the option of buying or swapping extra quota. We have lost the negotiating leverage that we had, because European Union vessels have automatic access to our grounds. In five years’ time, we also face a retaliatory clause because, if the EU does not get what it wants, it can start imposing tariffs on aquaculture and other sectors. This is a rotten deal.

To answer Mr Stevenson’s question, I think that fishermen expect a bit of honesty and for just one Tory parliamentarian to acknowledge that this is a bad deal. I have not seen any sign that any Tory parliamentarian, whether at Holyrood or at Westminster, has the guts to be honest with the Scottish fishermen whom they have betrayed.

I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the cabinet secretary has taken up parliamentary time with one of his infamous rages, rather than coming up with solutions to what should be short-term issues. He is famous for overpromising and underdelivering on the reaching 100 per cent programme, for which he failed to resign.

The cabinet secretary’s statement has little to do with future fisheries management, and it does not offer any immediate support for the fishing industry, including the hugely important scallop industry in my Galloway and West Dumfries constituency.

Across the chamber, we all want to support the fishing and fish processing industries in Scotland at this challenging time. Given that Food Standards Scotland is the responsible body and comes under the auspices of the Scottish Government, will the cabinet secretary outline what action he has taken during the past 48 hours to address the issues at Larkhall seafood hub with regards to the granting of export health certificates, which goods entering the EU now require?

The allegation about R100 is nonsense; the R100 commitments will be fulfilled by the Scottish Government, as Paul Wheelhouse made clear in the statement that he gave last August.

I will answer the relevant questions that were posed—or those that were at least on topic. I have spoken to Food Standards Scotland several times during the past few weeks, and its staff are working around the clock with DFDS and the industry. At my behest, FSS is working closely with the industry and particular businesses within it to enable them to complete what are extremely complex sets of documents.

I have one of those documents here. It is 60 pages long. I went through it this morning so that I could understand what businesses have to do. FSS is helping businesses to work out how correctly to complete the documentation given the complexity of the process. However, even if businesses overcome that hurdle, they find other problems—for example, HMRC does not recognise particular types of fish and the IT systems are incompatible.

There are all sorts of bureaucratic problems at the UK border. Therefore, the suggestion that the Scottish Government has failed to prepare or provide adequate personnel is simply untrue, and it is not one that I have seen any UK minister seriously advance.

The fact is that these problems must be sorted out. Yesterday, I suggested to Michael Gove that he really must get a grip of the issue and the UK Government must end its complacent approach, which included a presentation to one of its committees in which the majority of deliveries across the channel were said to be “going okay”. Well, they are not “going okay” from Scotland. It is absolutely essential that the UK Government sorts out the Brexit mess that it has created.

New regulatory delays are having an impact on the fishing industry in my constituency. I understand that hauliers are now having to leave a day early to make connections on time, that in many cases produce has had to be left behind, and that some vessels have simply been told to stop fishing.

The total financial cost of all that to coastal communities is yet to be known. However, does the cabinet secretary agree that, although fisherman have justified grievances with the common fisheries policy, in this Brexit red tape, the Tories have delivered medicine that is truly worse than the disease?

Yes, I do. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to say so, but we warned the UK Government about the risk of the new bureaucratic system, including the estimated 150,000 new certificates that would be required in combination with other necessary documentation—which is all entirely new and is all only necessary because of Brexit.

I could not put the issue better than James Withers of Scotland Food & Drink, who described businesses as

“being strangled by the very red tape that we were promised we were escaping.”

That, sadly, is where we are at the moment. The short-term priority is to sort out those problems PDQ. If we do not, as we have heard from numerous businesses already—let us not forget the shellfish businesses and aquaculture businesses, as well as the caught sector—they will find that they cannot sell their produce and are losing money hand over fist. They urgently require these problems to be sorted out, and they are also entitled to compensation from the UK Government.

We have seven more potential questioners and about seven minutes left, so can we please have succinct questions and answers?

The 2015 inshore fisheries strategy has been a failure in the main, and a leaked NatureScot report shows that most regions have suffered declines during the past 10 years. What is the cabinet secretary doing to correct the years of delay in designating marine protected areas and priority marine features and the development of management arrangement, and to address the proper monitoring of those sites?

That is primarily the responsibility of my friend and colleague Roseanna Cunningham. For my part, we are beginning to implement remote electronic monitoring equipment. It is designed to improve sustainable fisheries and will be a tremendous advantage to fisheries, particularly those on the west coast, once it is implemented.

The UK Government claims that we will be able to make up the shortfall in fishing opportunities when the agreement ends, in five and a half years’ time. Is that correct?

It is not. The retaliatory clause in the agreement means that the EU can impose tariffs if it does not get what it wants in a fisheries deal at that end of that five-year period. It would be able to apply immediate sanctions to aquaculture, a sector that is entirely separate from the caught sector.

The fact that such a clause, linking tariffs and trade to fisheries, was included in the deal is a clear breach of numerous promises that were made by innumerable Conservative members and ministers. More importantly, it is deeply damaging to the future long-term prospects of Scotland’s fisheries.

Like the rest of the fishing industry, the Shetland fleet is bitterly disappointed by the content of the fisheries agreement.

Can the minister assure the fishing industry that it will be fully involved in designing a workable catch policy to replace the CFP landing obligations and that policy papers such as “A New Approach to Discards in Scotland”, which was published by the Shetland Fishermen’s Association in April 2019, and other proposals derived from the reality of operations at sea will be treated seriously?

Ms Wishart makes a series of fair points, and I give an undertaking that we will do that.

This morning, I spoke to West Coast Sea Products in Kirkcudbright, which is a major scallop exporter and employer that now has to register to pay VAT in France as a result of Brexit. That company has lost thousands of pounds because the UK Government failed to ensure that a workable system was in place before 1 January. Will the cabinet secretary outline whether the UK Government has indicated how it will fix the mountain of mayhem that it has caused and whether the Scottish Government is able to put in place any mitigating measures to protect Scottish inshore exporters?

The inshore and shellfish sectors are important to many Scottish communities, including those that are represented by Emma Harper. We are doing all that we can to support them. The inshore sector was one of the first sectors in the UK to receive Covid compensation support, thanks to the diligence and efficiency of Marine Scotland.

The six-month grace period that I alluded to would have allowed those teething problems to be resolved practically, but that idea was rejected out of hand. I believe that a derogation, which is something that many in the industry are calling for, is the only way to resolve those problems immediately. It is incumbent on the UK Government to urgently consider seeking such a derogation, which would allow the difficulties that Emma Harper has described to be resolved.

The cabinet secretary has highlighted the importance of the creeling sector. Last week, the Court of Session ruled that the Scottish Government had unfairly rejected proposals from the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation for a sustainable fisheries pilot in the sound of Skye. Will the cabinet secretary commit to reconsidering the SCFF’s proposal?

We must carefully consider the judgment that was made last week. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on a live legal process.

We work closely with the majority of bodies that represent inshore fishing interests around our coasts. We have excellent relationships with almost all of them, and we have proceeded with pilots in accordance with the working arrangements that we have with them. I believe that we have achieved a great deal through working with those who represent our fishermen along the west coast and in the islands, and we will continue to work in collaboration and co-ordination with them, as our discussion paper undertakes.

The cabinet secretary will recall that, a few months ago, Michael Gove specifically reassured Scottish fresh produce exporters that—[Inaudible.]—would get priority access. Given that they cannot even get out of Scotland now because of UK IT problems, was that not just another example of empty bluster on behalf of the Brexiteer Johnson Government, which is hell-bent on destroying Scotland’s food and drink exports?

The promise of providing prioritisation and a fast track has not been implemented, and that is a matter of some sadness. I refer to my earlier answers that I personally want to see the present problems overcome rapidly. If they are not, the commercial damage—the loss and injury to businesses and people—will be on a simply enormous scale. However, those difficulties are unlikely to be resolved in a short period unless some grace period or derogation is granted. I very much hope that we can jolt the UK Government out of its complacent attitude and get it to take the issue as seriously as it and Scotland’s fishing communities deserve.

[Inaudible.]—interest as a—[Inaudible.]—Fishermen’s Association. What is being done to protect and help the prawn fisheries in the Clyde at this awkward time?

It is a fair question. The prawn sector has faced extreme difficulties, as I am sure Mr Scott is well aware. Therefore, I have set up a task force under Uel Morton to consider what we can do in practice to assist that sector, which even before Brexit was having considerable difficulties in marketing its produce. We have provided financial support, as I alluded earlier, but I fear that that, in itself, that will not be sufficient. Therefore, I am ready and willing to work with Mr Scott and MSPs from all parties who represent the prawn fleet on the west coast of Scotland and elsewhere, to the best of my ability, to find practical ways in which we can tide it through the period of trading difficulties and other problems that it has had to endure.

I apologise to Peter Chapman, whom I meant to call earlier. He has the last question.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. In his statement, the cabinet secretary made much of helping the industry to make the fishing agreement as good as possible for our fishermen. One of the most important things that needs to be reinstated is the seamless exchange of international quota between the UK and other EU nations. Can I have the cabinet secretary’s assurance that he and his officials will start work immediately to put that vital aspect of legislation back in place?

If Mr Chapman is referring to the ability to do quota swaps, that is an ability that the industry has lost as a result of the trade agreement. There is still the possibility that coastal states can agree arrangements at Government level, but that is a poor substitute for the arrangements under which industry makes its own deals on a regular—indeed, day-to-day—basis. My officials tell me that there were around 140 such deals last year. The new system is far more bureaucratic, untried, untested and unfamiliar, and it does not offer the flexibility and opportunity that producer organisations have enjoyed to ensure that fishermen are able to continue to fish in Scotland because they have sufficient quota thereto. That is one of the most problematic provisions of the trade agreement to which the Prime Minister agreed.

Thank you, cabinet secretary and members. Thanks to your co-operation, we managed to squeeze in all the questions.