UK Government ‘in denial’ about issues facing fish exporters

James Withers, chief executive at Scottish Food and Drink, told MPs that it had been a 'dreadful first few weeks'.

UK Government ‘in denial’ about issues facing fish exporters Getty Images

Representatives from Scotland’s fishing and seafood industry have accused the UK Government of being “in denial” about the scale of the problem facing businesses exporting to the European Union.

James Withers, chief executive at Scottish Food and Drink, told MPs that it had been a “dreadful first few weeks” due to problems with paperwork and IT systems crashing.

Giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, he said “pleas” to the UK Government for a grace period on post-Brexit trading arrangements “fell on deaf ears”.

During the same committee session, the Scottish Seafood Association’s chief executive said that every day was an “improving situation” with exporting seafood, adding: “But it’s far from being perfect.”

The introduction of new checks and paperwork since the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 has caused disruption to exports of fresh fish and seafood to the EU.

Producers have expressed frustration at the lack of Government action, while last month seafood hauliers protested against the Brexit fishing deal by stacking lorries in central London.

“We’ve had a dreadful first few weeks of trading in a post-Brexit world, there’s no way of sugar-coating it,” Mr Withers told the committee on Thursday.

“And the question is how do we try and piece together the most important trading relationship we have internationally going forward?

“I actually think the biggest challenge, and I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, I don’t think it’s just the sheer weight of paperwork, I don’t think it’s been IT systems crashing in the UK and in France, I don’t think it’s been the missing commodity codes and HMRC systems failing, I don’t even think it’s been the loads held up due to forms being filled out in the wrong colour of ink.

“I think the biggest single challenge we have just now is denial.

“I think it is denial, from the UK Government in particular, of the scale of the problem.”

Mr Withers warned of further disruption in April due to the delayed introduction of UK border controls and said that the “clock is ticking” on engaging with the EU.

“The mood music I pick up from Government officials is that there is a reluctance to engage with the EU now until April,” he told the committee.

“In other words, they need to feel some of the pain that we are feeling before they will come to the table.”

Following the disruption, the UK Government announced it was putting in place a £23m compensation package for firms exporting fish and shellfish to the EU who can show they have suffered genuine loss.

But while Mr Withers welcomed this and another £7.75m funding package from the Scottish Government, he called it a “sticking plaster”.

Meanwhile, Elaine Whyte, executive secretary at Clyde Fishermen’s Association, said that fishermen had questioned how they would prove they had suffered a loss.

“Although their loss is very genuine, they have no sales docket, they have nothing to show,” she added.

Ms Whyte told the committee that EU markets that had taken 40 years to build up were being lost to Norway and Ireland.

Jimmy Buchan, chief executive at the Scottish Seafood Association, said the issues were “not teething problems” as he urged for the UK Government to meet with industry representatives.

Referring to the members he represents, Mr Buchan said: “I’m not going to say that they’re not moving any seafood, seafood is beginning to flow, and each day is an improving situation.

“But it’s far from being perfect.

“The Government, to a degree, is still in denial.

“This is not teething problems, these are issues that we need to sit down with the Government, and they need to sit down with the EU Commission, and sort these things out.”

A UK Government spokesman said: “We recognise the temporary issues the fishing industry is facing, and know businesses involved in the export of highly perishable goods, such as fish, will be more affected by delays at the border.

“That’s why we are working with the Scottish Government to set up a new taskforce to understand the key issues facing the Scottish seafood sector, in particular.

“This taskforce will complement our existing Seafood Exports Working Group which is also troubleshooting export issues for the sector.”

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