COASTAL communities could “face the same devastation” done by Thatcher to Scotland’s industrial heartlands in the 80s, MPs have heard.
The claim came as MPs from across the UK and the political spectrum relayed the chaos caused to their constituencies by Brexit bureaucracy, labour shortages, cost hikes, quote confusion and more. Sales to the EU were worth £600 million to Scotland in 2019 alone but January’s trade disruption cost £1m a day.
Tory fisheries minister Victoria Prentis insisted “there is a bright future ahead of us”.
But in a question relayed by his MP, 19-year-old Whalsay fisherman Magnus asked: “Why is the fishing industry having to fight their own government for survival?”
And the SNP‘s Deidre Brock said fishing had taken “a huge skelping” and the “sea of opportunity” promised by the Tories has “turned to sludge” as MPs from around the UK repeatedly raised the sense of “betrayal” felt by the fishing sector: “When damage is done to the industry, it affects not just the crews on the boats but the communities back on land, many of which, certainly in Scotland, are sustained by fishing.
“Removing the industry will remove the lifeblood from those communities. Scotland’s coastal communities could be facing the same devastation in the 2020s that Thatcher’s governments visited upon the industrial towns of Scotland’s central belt.”
Seafood firms have seen the cost of exporting fresh goods to the continent rise treble since the transition period ended in January, MPs heard, while a lack of workers and haulage drivers bring more problems. Lochfyne Langoustines in Argyll and Bute have seen daily paperwork cost rise to £500 and Oban’s Easdale Seafoods has been left with “thousands of euros tied up with the French VAT authorities” and no idea when it will get them back as a consequence of new regulations.
In a comment relayed by her MP Brendan O’Hara, Fiona MacFarlane of Islay Crab Exports said: “If people had all the information and knowledge of what Brexit really meant, they would have voted differently. Someone should be held accountable to the country for misleading the people.”
The Westminster Hall debate was brought by Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, who raised his young constituent’s question. The LibDem MP said fishermen “feel let down and used and they want answers”.
On the promise of compensation for the export chaos seen in January, Carmichael said one business in Shetland had managed to reduce a likely £50,000 sales loss to £20,000 by selling at a cut price to the domestic market – only to be told that this meant “there will be no assistance for him”. Carmichael said: “If, when the minister promised in January to help exporters, she had meant that to qualify for that help, they would have to leave their fish to rot, she should have said so.”
Angus MacNeil spoke up for producers on Barra and urged the government to deliver the promised support to firms for the “incompetence that was rained upon those selling fish produce to continental Europe as a result of Brexit and the deal that was struck”.
Tory MP Neil Parish said the sector’s troubles are “not all the minister’s fault,” adding: “The European Commission could have been, and needs to be, much more amenable to get this to work. We must not be held up as an example to others that may leave the European Union.”
However, the debate heard how it’s still not known how in-year quota swaps will work and, from Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone, of clashes between Scots boats and “aggressive” French vessels and “sadly some boats flying the British flag” over access to trawling grounds.
O’Hara said the Brexit deal – struck at the eleventh hour in December – had created “an industry struggling with falling prices and loss of markets, an industry drowning in bureaucracy and red tape, and one struggling to cope with labour shortages and facing huge transport and logistical problems”, adding: “That is an existential threat to the industry in the west coast of Scotland.”
Prentis said the last 18 months had been “very difficult” for the industry, but details on an interim quota-swapping scheme have been agreed with the EU and will be announced next week. She also said the government has an “effective and intelligence-led enforcement system” for policing UK waters and highlighted the £23million in compensation provided to the industry and the £100m fund to “modernise and develop the seafood sector”.
However, Brock said: “Fishing is, of course, a far more important industry for Scotland than it is for England, so it was a prime candidate for the flinging-under-the-bus treatment during the Brexit negotiations, and that is what happened.
“Now, there is no sea of opportunity, no easy access to the EU markets and no help from government. They will say that there is £100m available, but where is it, how is it being distributed and how come we are not getting any details? Even more importantly, do the Brexit government think that that is enough to compensate for the damage that is being done to the industry?”