The UK’s seafood businesses have had enough. On Monday freight lorries blocked the central London route for ministerial cars to the Palace of Westminster in an orderly demonstration. No wonder. The livelihoods of businesses and people are in jeopardy. They work across Scotland and other UK coastal communities. Devon and Cornwall’s seafood businesses face the same enormous challenge of exporting into Europe as those from north of the border. Scottish seafood has further to travel down the M6 but the increased Brexit paperwork is the same whether you are in Peterhead or Penzance.
Seafood is consumed across the UK. European markets matter every bit as much. Salmon producing companies in Scotland augment their UK sales with exports. More than £300 million worth of salmon is exported annually to Europe. The French, Spanish, Germans and Swiss love Scottish salmon and pay more for its superior quality.
This sector employs 12,000 people directly and indirectly across Scotland. Salmon is an export business success story – the UK’s No 1 food export – and we want to hold on to that. It is not just people who farm our fish. In the past 12 months of Covid-19, marine engineering businesses have been grateful that producing food – harvesting fish – and catching protein by Scotland’s inshore and demersal fishing fleets, have remained open across the UK. Boats, fish pens and engines need spare parts, repairs and skilled staff. The knock-on effects of the Brexit trade problems hit the seafood supply chain and the jobs there too.
Yet our sector is now embroiled in a UK wide bourach. On Christmas Eve the Prime Minister signed the UK-EU trade deal bringing to an end the seamless transport of goods across the Channel. The European referendum is now many years past. But through 2020 business knew that a different trading arrangement would at some point, be in place. The inevitable disruption to export businesses from Shetland to Land’s End meant good planning and testing of new systems would be needed.
That is why for months, salmon companies, export businesses and business representative bodies across the UK have been asking the Government for a six-month trading grace period. That would and should have kicked in from the date of the agreement between Brussels and London – Christmas Eve. It would have meant time and space to test new IT systems, paperwork and ensure that salmon and seafood from Scotland could reach France without delay while Seville oranges and fresh vegetables could come into the UK.
But this request fell on deaf ears. Since Hogmanay salmon and other seafood export businesses have struggled. Trucks have been held up or not departed at all. The French and UK IT customs systems were meant to talk to each other. The inevitable happened. They did not. This past weekend the IT system again failed. Salmon destined for Paris dinner plates was again held up. Paperwork systems are complex, prone to error and inevitably cumbersome. Export is in effect running a completely new system as live. No sensible country would allow that to happen.
The Prime Minister says £23 million is now available to compensate seafood businesses for a shambles that was avoidable. Had the government allowed six months to fully test the new export system that might have been money and time well spent. But such a period would have avoided the loss of businesses, jobs and customers across the Channel.
Huge pressure is on haulage firms. European based drivers are now reluctant to cross the Channel into the UK. That affects both imports and exports. This export crisis may only hit home when supermarket shelves start to run empty. If Polish and Spanish drivers decline the journey into the UK there will be an import crisis.
So, a sensible government would say enough is enough. A grace period is needed. It would allow a robust system covering customs, health and other checks to be implemented.
A compensation package may help some, but it does not alter the fundamental issues that are now and approaching. January is a relatively quiet trade period post the holidays, which is further depressed by the impact of the pandemic on the European economy. But as people are immunised and life starts to pick up, so too will the economies of Europe. Or at least they will if we can sell without the trade disruption that is currently the reality.
At this stage, salmon farming companies want to trade, not look for government handouts. We want the ability to sell Scottish salmon – healthy, nutritious protein valued by our European customers. We ask the government to step in and help us all do that. We have had three weeks of teething problems. Enough is enough.