Boris Johnson’s promise to “compensate” the Scottish seafood sector, which has been battered by border delays, has been thrown into doubt by the Environment Secretary.
The prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that the UK Government “will compensate” Scottish fishing firms, which have reported multimillion-pound losses since the Brexit transition ended on December 31.
The commitment was initially welcomed, but many in the industry are now uncertain whether such a compensation scheme even exists, after ministers repeatedly dodged pleas for more information.
Environment Secretary George Eustice was asked on seven occasions to confirm that there was a scheme and on seven occasions he failed to respond.
Mr Eustice, in response to an urgent question from Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, would only say that the government “remains open to considering compensation for sectors that might have been affected through no fault of their own”.
He added: “We will look closely at this issue, but in the meantime, we’re going to work very closely with the industry to make sure we can iron out these difficulties.”
Mr Eustice went on to describe the chaos being endured by the industry as “teething problems”, adding: “Once people get used to using the paperwork goods will flow normally.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross later tried to press the minister for more details, telling him a compensation scheme “is clearly needed by our fishermen right across the country.”
He added: “I’ve been contacted by many fishermen here in Moray and across Scotland, raising their serious concerns and frustrations about the current situation.
“Both here in Scotland with the Scottish Government element at Larkhall and indeed with the losses they are currently experiencing.”
Mr Ross shared the story of a local skipper whose catch is currently worth “half of what he needs to cover his costs”, adding: “So can the Secretary of State outline the discussions that he’s having with the Scottish Government regarding the problems at Larkhall and with the compensation scheme that is clearly needed by our fishermen right across the country?”
Mr Eustice said he was having “numerous conversations” to resolve the border delays, before adding: “I would say that January is always the slowest month in the fish trade and the coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of problems on the export market generally.
“The export market is quite weak and that is why the price of some fish has been lower.”
‘Total lack of engagement’
Following the Commons exchanges, Mr Carmichael accused the minister of “breath-taking complacency”.
He said: “The prime minister and Victoria Prentis set the bar yesterday pretty low but George Eustice brought it clattering down today with a performance of breath-taking complacency.
“Repeating the prime minister’s blithe assertion that all the disruption for fishermen is just “teething problems” suggests a total lack of engagement with the real issues, which are growing day by day.
“Continuing to boast about increased quota shares when fishermen know that much of this is “paper fish” that we will never catch adds insult to injury.
“Of course it is important that we have tariff-free access but that only matters when you get your fish into someone else’s market. At the moment Scottish fishermen cannot get their product past Larkhall.”
The row come a day after Mr Eustice’s junior minister, Victoria Prentis, who is responsible for fisheries, admitted to not reading the post-Brexit trade deal with Brussels when it was agreed because she was busy organising a nativity trail.
Downing Street dismissed calls to sack Ms Prentis this afternoon, telling journalists: “The prime minister, the cabinet and all ministerial colleagues are fully aware of the (Brexit) deal that we agreed with the EU.”
‘Temporary administrative issues’
Pressed on the issue of compensation for fishermen, Number 10 could also provide no further detail.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “We’re working with the fishing industry on this to alleviate and compensate them for some of the short-term issues faced.”
He added: “We recognise that there has been some temporary administrative issues following the transition period, with specific regard to fishermen.
“The PM has already announced £100 million investment in the UK fishing industry to support them through this adjustment period and we’ve given the Scottish Government nearly £200 million to minimise disruption.”