Rules facing seafood exporters 'still too complex', says Scottish Liberal Democrats' deputy leader
Get the Courier and Groat sent to your inbox every week and swipe through an exact replica of the day's newspaper
Seafood exporters are finding it now takes an extra day to get their products from the Highlands and Islands into vital European markets, the Scottish Liberal Democrats' deputy leader Alistair Carmichael said in Caithness at the weekend.
Many companies in the region were caught up in new export rules at the beginning of the year following the end of the Brexit transition period, and Mr Carmichael – the MP for Orkney and Shetland – insisted on Saturday that the system is “still too complex”.
He called on the UK and Scottish governments to work with the industry on finding a digital solution to the paperwork problems that have led to costly border delays.
Mr Carmichael was speaking in Wick where he was joined by Jamie Stone, the Lib Dem MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and the party's Holyrood hopeful Molly Nolan.
In January the UK environment, food and rural affairs secretary George Eustice told the House of Commons that the post-Brexit difficulties facing seafood exporters amounted to "teething problems". The Lib Dem trio were asked if, more than three months on, they had seen any evidence that these difficulties were being overcome.
“If George Eustice came to Caithness and spoke to the fishermen who land here, and the processors who work here – as they do in Orkney, Shetland and right throughout the Highlands and Islands – he would know that actually what we saw at the beginning of January was an awful lot more than mere ‘teething problems’,” Mr Carmichael said.
“If Mr Eustice spoke to the fish processors and exporters that I speak to, he would hear from them that the changes have made a difference to our ability to export. Basically, it now takes an extra day to get fish from the Highlands and Islands into the markets and customers that they want to supply in France and in Spain.
“The reason is that, with the best will in the world, the system is still too complex.
"There are things that could be done. If the UK and Scottish governments would work together with the industry to digitise that information – instead of heaps and heaps of forms stamped in different colours of ink – you could take the information electronically from the boat to the market as happens at present, and then from the market to the purchaser, to the merchant, to food standards, to export agencies... this is the sort of thing that could be done.
“It frustrates me massively that there is no real will to do it. You should speak to the industry first because they are the experts.”
Mr Stone said: “It’s not as if the government wasn’t warned about this. I was raising the issue – as was Alistair – again and again for the last two years in the run-up to us coming away from the EU. They were told of the dangers.
“We are in danger of losing some of our markets because people in Spain and France can say, ‘Oh well, if it’s so difficult to get it in Scotland, we’ll go somewhere else – some other country.’ That’s really dangerous.
“We need, as Alistair says, to get the two governments to talk to each other – and I think there’s a big chance the next Scottish Government is going to be rather different. They may not have a majority, in which case people like Molly – when she’s elected – can bring influence really to bear and start to knock heads together.
“I think that’s the pressure that needs to be brought in Edinburgh. They need to be pushed really hard on this.”
Ms Nolan, the Scottish Parliament candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, said: “As my colleagues have said, we have a huge problem right now with red tape. In terms of solutions, we need to look at things like Alistair has mentioned about digitisation.
“We also need the two governments to work together. There are very few real solutions coming from our government at the moment – we need them to sit down at the table with industry and actually work out a solution that’s going to take us forward in a sustainable way.”
Earlier this year Mr Eustice said the Westminster government's £23 million scheme for the sector would provide crucial support for fishermen and seafood exporters. He said at that time: "We are continuing to work closely with the fishing and aquaculture sectors to make sure that they are supported, and can continue to fish while contributing to the economies of our coastal communities."