The government has faced sustained criticism in parliament from Conservative MPs representing fishing areas, including in Scotland, over red tape and delays caused by the introduction of the post-Brexit fishing regime.
With some Scottish seafood exporters warning they face possible bankruptcy amid a suspension of road deliveries due to border delays, the environment secretary, George Eustice, conceded the sector faced “teething issues” and “some additional administration”.
However, when asked several times by MPs about Boris Johnson’s promise during an appearance before the Commons liaison committee to compensate businesses affected by the new regime, Eustice ignored the questions.
Instead, Eustice indicated many of the delays were due to seafood firms exporting to the EU not correctly filling in paperwork, saying this had been less of an issue for firms with experience of selling goods outside the bloc.
“The key thing is to get this process working more smoothly, and that requires traders to familiarise themselves with that,” he said, adding that the paperwork had been designed by the EU and could be improved.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, later went on to argue that the fish were now happier being British. “The key is that we’ve got our fish back. They’re British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it,” he told parliament.
However, Downing Street later confirmed there would be compensation for affected businesses, and said it did not believe the companies were to blame for delays or losses.
“We have said that we are looking to compensate the fishing industry given they face temporary issues, and we accept that this may have been through no fault of their own,” Johnson’s spokesman said. “That’s why the prime minister said what he said yesterday.”
It is understood officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are looking at a compensation scheme whereby seafood exporters who can prove they lost business because of delays can apply for compensation.
It is not expected to be an industry-wide scheme, said one source. “It’ll be a mechanism for providing support for individual firms who lost out in specific circumstances,” the source said.
During an urgent question on fishing, Eustice heard sustained criticism and concern over the situation from a number of Tories, including Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Ross said he had been contacted by fishing workers in his Moray constituency and around Scotland, “raising their serious concerns and frustrations about the current situation”.
More than half a dozen English Conservative MPs representing coastal areas also expressed worries, with Steve Double, the MP for St Austell and Newquay in Cornwall, saying his local fleets “benefit little from this deal”.
Sheryll Murray, the South East Cornwall MP, quoted a local fishing business owner who said border red tape was “posing a real threat to his business”.
The row is seen as particularly damaging for the Conservatives in Scotland, amid predictions it could erode support for the party in previously pro-Brexit fishing areas at May’s Scottish parliament election.
An opinion poll by Savanta ComRes for the Scotsman on Thursday morning showed a five-point fall for the Tories since December, suggesting they could lose 14 of their 31 seats.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland on Thursday, the Scotland Office minister, David Duguid, the MP for the fishing area of Banff and Buchan, said: “I do not underestimate the problems and the struggles that the industry is going through right now.” He promised urgent action.
One seafood exporter, Jamie McMillan, of Loch Fyne Langoustines, speaking on the same programme, said his firm and many others were on the brink of bankruptcy because of the extra costs and delays, including inspections by vets taking up to five hours, which meant his live seafood was dying before it reached the wholesale market in Boulogne, France.
On Wednesday, DFDS, which manages Scottish seafood and salmon exports by road, said it was suspending all deliveries of live seafood from small firms such as McMillan’s until Monday 18 January to see if the problems could be resolved or reduced.
McMillan said his customers in Europe were switching to other suppliers in Denmark. “This is a very, very serious situation,” he said. “We’ve been screaming for the last six months that we have to get our produce to market within 12 to 24 hours. Any delays in that process, our shellfish will arrive in France dead. It is now harder to export to France than it is to the far east. That can’t be right.”
The urgent question was asked by the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, who complained of fishing boats “tied up in harbour, their propellers fouled with red tape manufactured in Whitehall”.
Carmichael also condemned Victoria Prentis, the fisheries minister, for seemingly saying she had not read the full post-Brexit trade deal when it was agreed on Christmas Eve as she was busy organising a nativity trail.
Eustice said Prentis was only saying “that her jaw did not drop” when she read what was in the agreement, as she knew what it was going to contain.
Nathalie Loiseau, France’s former Europe minister, tweeted on Thursday afternoon: “An MP who says the fish are happier because they are now British, a fisheries minister who admits she hasn’t read the agreement with the EU in her field: happily in Europe, we at least took fishermen seriously.”