Scottish seafood companies only have “weeks” to survive without action to ease EU export delays, an industry leader has warned – as the environment secretary blamed “teething problems” due to Brexit.
Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland, told Sky News the sector was “on its knees” after being hit by delays in getting exports to the EU.
“We’ve dealt with COVID since March, the border delays at Christmas – the whole sector is on its knees and the resilience has gone,” she said.
An “overwhelming amount” of paperwork and bureaucracy – following the end of the Brexit transition period – has left seafood exporters struggling to get to grips with new systems that only went live at the end of last month, Ms Fordyce said.
She described problems on both the UK and EU side, but said that “initially it’s actually trying to get the product out of the UK”.
Ms Fordyce said there was no shortage of demand for Scottish seafood from across Europe – with the French market “desperate for our product” – as she called for “breathing space” to be given to firms during a grace period in which the new systems can be improved.
“The companies haven’t got months and months to survive, we’re talking weeks,” she added, as she said there was confusion over whether compensation would be provided by the UK government to firms.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told senior MPs that ministers would “compensate those fishing businesses” suffering from delays.
However, answering an urgent question in the House of Commons on Thursday, Environment Secretary George Eustice failed to provide any more details on a financial offer – despite being asked multiple times – and only offered to “look closely at this issue”.
SNP MP Deidre Brock asked whether she should share Mr Eustice’s telephone number with businesses in order for them to apply for compensation directly over the “chaos”.
Mr Eustice had earlier told MPs that ministers have been having twice a week meetings with key stakeholders, as well as holding talks with Dutch, French and Irish officials.
“They are only teething problems, once people get used to using the paperwork goods will flow normally,” Mr Eustice added.
“Of course, it would have been open to the EU to offer us a grace period just as we have done – had a grace period for their goods coming to us.
“For reasons known only to the EU and the way that they approach particular regulations, that wasn’t something they were willing to do – so we’ve had to work with these arrangements from a standing start and that clearly causes certain issues.”
Mr Eustice denied that fisheries minister Victoria Prentis had not read the Brexit trade deal, after she told a parliamentary committee she had been “very busy on Christmas Eve” organising a local nativity event when the agreement was announced.
The environment secretary said: “I think the record will show that she did not say she didn’t have time to read the agreement, what she actually said is that her jaw did not drop when she was told what was in the agreement.
“Now there may be a reason for that which is that she knew what was likely to be in the agreement for at least a week since I’d been discussing it with her and we were both in regular contact with our negotiators.”
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Outside of the Commons, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government owed Scottish fishing communities an apology.
“It’s been mishandled,” he said on a visit to a COVID vaccination centre on Thursday.
“There hasn’t been the preparations and I have a lot of sympathy for the fishing communities in Scotland and elsewhere because they’ve been left high and dry.
“The government left the signing of the agreement to the 11th hour.”
Jamie McMillan, managing director of Lochfyne Langoustine, said companies like his had been left in an “unbelievable” situation.
“It’s 13 January and we can get any product to the EU market whatsoever,” he said.
“We’ve been made a fool of, the fishing industry has been made a fool of by the Westminster government.
“I’m dismayed, I’m angry, my blood is boiling. There’s boats tied up, there’s families’ fishing boats tied up.
“We can’t get our product to the EU market because of red tape, extra paperwork, it’s an absolute disgrace what we’ve had to go through.”