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Brexit: Fisheries minister did not read deal as she was ‘very busy organising local Nativity trail’

Boris Johnson’s “sea of opportunity” promise to fishermen has turned into a “nightmare”, with hundreds of thousands of pounds of sales lost due to new red tape, the SNP’s Westminster leader has said.

Ian Blackford told how one shellfish exporter had lost £40,000 in a day, with many more losing out due to bureaucratic hold-ups at the border.

Fishing minister Victoria Prentis, appearing before a House of Lords committee, admitted “things are tricky at the moment” but said her team is “working hard” to resolve issues as they arose.

During her appearance Ms Prentis raised eyebrows by telling peers she did not read the fisheries deal when it was published on Christmas Eve because she was “very busy organising the local Nativity trail”.

She added: “I think the deal is a good one for the UK, in fisheries terms, it’s true to say that we had, as an industry, dreamed some pretty big dreams and in some cases it’s true to say that we didn’t get everything we asked for.”

The minister also caused concern after suggesting one solution to border delays was for Brits to eat more fish.

“We export 70% of what we catch in this country to the EU; we’re ambitious to carry on at that level but we will, I’m sure, also in the future want to eat more of what we catch here.”

‘Every second counts’

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael was left unimpressed by the responses, saying: “It is clear that the fisheries minister was not brought into discussions on the deal until after the event.

“Even so, at that point, getting to grips with it ought to have been her priority – surely she could have taken a little time away from the festivities to look after her own departmental responsibilities?

“When you have only seven days to implement a deal as massive and important as this one every second counts.”

My constituent in Lochaber, a producer and exporter of shellfish, is experiencing his worst nightmare.”

Ian Blackford

Mr Carmichael, who has an urgent Commons question on fisheries on Thursday, added: “I am sure that the minister has good intentions but it is truly worrying that she seems to be thinking about the issues fishing is facing in such superficial terms, talking about the industry’s aspirations as “pretty big dreams” and suggesting that we just ask people to eat more fish in February.”

‘Worst nightmare’

Ms Prentis’ comments came after SNP leader Ian Blackford called on Boris Johnson to step in and support the fishing industry through early Brexit turbulence.

He told the Commons: “My constituent in Lochaber, a producer and exporter of shellfish, is experiencing his worst nightmare. After loading a lorry of fresh local seafood on Monday, as he’s done for 35 years, his driver faced bureaucracy and delays.

Brexit fisheries
Ian Blackford.

Brexit red tape now means that £40,000 of his fresh, high-quality produce is lost, unable to be sold. That £40,000 produce is income for more than 100 local families in many remote and fragile communities.

“Can the prime minister tell my constituent where is the sea of opportunity that he and his Scottish Tories promised?”

‘Hare-brained scheme’

Mr Johnson responded: “Well, we’re putting £100 million into supporting the fishing industry in Scotland and across the whole of the UK.

“It is the policy of the Scottish nationalist party not just to break up the United Kingdom under their hare-brained scheme, but also to take Scotland back into the EU and hand back control of Scottish fisheries to Brussels, thereby throwing away all those opportunities.”

‘Brexit bureaucracy’

Mr Blackford branded the response an “insult” to fishermen, adding: “The reality is, a third of the Scottish fishing fleet is tied up in harbour, some boats are landing in Denmark rather than Scotland to avoid Brexit bureaucracy, Scottish seafood exporters are losing upwards of £1 million in sales a day.”

He added: “The European Union have put in place a £5 billion fund to support businesses with the cost of Brexit and last night it was revealed that Ireland is receiving £1 billion of it.

SNP demand Boris Johnson ‘pays Brexit compensation to Scotland’

“Can the prime minister tell Scottish business when they will be getting the same level of support?”.

Mr Johnson responded: “Mr Blackford continually advocates the break up of the union with the United Kingdom and he continually advocates going back into the European Union, even though that would be immensely destructive to the Scottish economy, to jobs, to livelihoods, to pensions, to the currency.

“As far as I understand it, they’re already spending money in Scotland on indyref2, when they should be getting on with fighting the pandemic, that, I think, is what the people of Scotland want to see.

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