UK-French Trading Dispute

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Thursday 28th October 2021

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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(Urgent Question): Brexit-induced exporting changes have resulted in an escalating trading dispute with France that, if not resolved, may result in British boats being banned from French ports and Scottish salmon removed from French menus. France may go further and cut—

None Portrait Hon. Members
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Ask the question.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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The hon. Lady has only to ask the basic urgent question; I will come back to her for a supplementary question after the Secretary of State has answered.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Excuse me, Madam Deputy Speaker; this is my first urgent question.

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, if he will make a statement on how the UK will work with French officials to mitigate a trading dispute.

George Eustice Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice)
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The UK’s and the Crown dependencies’ approach throughout this year has been to implement the new access requirements of the trade and co-operation agreement in good faith and in a reasonable and evidence-based way, recognising some of the sensitivities and the importance of the arrangements for both parties. Since 31 December last year, the UK has issued licences to fish in our exclusive economic zone to 1,673 EU vessels, including 736 French vessels. One hundred and twenty-one vessels have been licensed to fish in the UK six-to-12-nautical-mile zone, of which 103 are French, and 18 of those vessels are under 12 metres. The UK has licensed 98% of the EU vessels that applied for access.

Constructive discussions continue with the Commission on a methodology for allowing vessels to be replaced; once that is finalised, more vessels will be licensed. Over the past two weeks, the Government have issued four further licences, after the Commission was able to provide new and additional evidence. We remain committed and willing to consider new information. Following the receipt of more information over the past couple of weeks, we have been able to issue more licences. As I have said repeatedly to the French and to the European Commission, our door remains ever open.

In that context, it was disappointing to see the comments from France yesterday. We believe they are disappointing, disproportionate and not what we would expect from a close ally and partner. The measures that are being threatened do not appear to be compatible with the trade and co-operation agreement or wider international law and, if they are carried through, will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response.

Yesterday, I spoke to Commissioner Sinkevičius regarding the comments that French officials had made. The UK stands by its commitments in the trade and co-operation agreement and, as I have said, has already granted 98% of licence applications from EU vessels to fish in our waters. All our decisions have been fully in line with that commitment. We support Jersey and Guernsey’s handling of the fisheries licensing decisions and have remained in close contact with them throughout. Their approach has also been entirely in line with the provisions of the trade and co-operation agreement.

Finally, I am aware of reports of enforcement activity being undertaken by the French authorities in respect of two vessels and we are looking into those matters urgently.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I apologise again, Madam Deputy Speaker, for my over-enthusiastic start.

Brexit-induced exporting changes have, as we have heard, resulted in an escalating trading dispute with France that, if not resolved, may result in British boats being banned from French ports and Scottish salmon being removed from French menus. France may go further and cut electricity supplies to the Channel Islands and delay French customs checks on goods arriving from the UK, thereby further disrupting our economy.

I have to say that there is a considerable difference between the number of licences that the Secretary of State just mentioned and the number that the French claim have been issued. French officials claim that the process for obtaining a licence to fish in UK waters is too slow and laborious, while Lord Frost has said that these are only teething issues. France says that, under the Brexit agreement, 175 French fishing vessels have the right to fish between six and 12 nautical miles from the British coast, but that the UK has delivered only 100 licences. Paris also says that only 105 licences to fish off Jersey have been delivered, when French trawlermen have a right to 216.

Today, as we have heard, French authorities are to announce a sanction regime that will come into effect on 2 November. This follows news this morning of a Scottish trawler detained for fishing without a licence in French waters, according to France’s Sea Minister, Annick Girardin, who announced this overnight. Can the Secretary of State confirm what consular assistance the Government have been offering to the British fishing vessel crew currently arrested and detained by the French authorities? What support is his Department giving to the vessel and its owners?

In response to a topical question from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), the Minister mentioned that the UK Government could not confirm whether an external waters licence was issued by the Marine Management Organisation. Why does it not appear on the list? It is too early to know what has happened. It appears that it may have been on the list. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has had 12 hours to get to the bottom of this. We have a skipper of a Scottish scalloping vessel due in court in Le Havre this morning. It is simply not good enough that the Secretary of State does not have answers to those questions.

What assurances can the Secretary of State give the House that appropriate documents were in place for the vessel that has now been seized, such as whether the vessel was issued with a licence to fish in French waters by the MMO? If so, when? If other UK vessels encounter French authorities, what is his advice? What is the permitted time that French authorities are allowed to take to inspect seafood goods arriving from the UK via HGV? What advice would he offer to seafood exporters who are concerned about more stringent and additional checks the French are permitted to make? They have stated that they will, from 2 November, take longer to clear HGVs, while still keeping to permitted inspection rules, which could create significant delays.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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It is important to note that, although the hon. Lady refers to this being a trade dispute over trading arrangements, what is actually happening is that the French are threatening to take a particular approach to trade, but linked to, as they see it, issues that they have over the issuing of fishing licences. I am afraid that we completely reject that caricature. The hon. Lady says that France has claimed that this has been too slow. That is not true. Indeed, the vast majority of those 1,700 or so vessels that we have already licensed received their licence on 31 December. The only vessels that did not have a licence immediately were those that struggled to marshal the data to support their application, but as soon as data has been provided, those vessels have been granted their access. As I said earlier, many of those vessels are indeed French vessels.

The hon. Lady mentioned the issue of the two vessels that have been initially detained. We understand that one of them may still be detained. She raised the issue about whether a licence had been issued. What I have been able to establish so far is that, in respect of that vessel, it was on the list that was provided by the MMO initially to the European Union. The European Union therefore did grant a licence. We are seeing some reports that, for some reason, it was subsequently withdrawn from the list. It is unclear at the moment why that might have been.

The hon. Lady asked why I have not been able to establish this morning in the course of events why that has not been the case. I can say that the relevant data for this is held by Marine Scotland. I have been asking my officials to get to the bottom of this issue. We have been told that Marine Scotland hopes to get back to us within the next hour or so. My officials will work very constructively with the Scottish Government and with their agencies, such as Marine Scotland, to understand what happened in the case of this particular vessel.