Scotland Office minister David Duguid has promised to move quickly to solve post-Brexit export problems.

Task force chief promises quick fix for export issues

A new task force formed to solve seafood export problems resulting from Brexit will deliver rapid results, Scotland Office minister David Duguid has promised.

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The Scottish salmon industry estimates it lost business worth £3 million in the first week of January alone, which it said was primarily because of the 11th-hour post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. The agreement, reached on Christmas Eve, didn’t allow time for businesses or governments to prepare for a huge increase in bureaucracy introduced from January 1.  

Exporters selling wild-caught shellfish to European customers were hit even harder, and a lack of demand has led to many fishing boats being tied up because it isn’t worth their owners taking them out.

Fergus Ewing: Task force requires "full engagement of UK departments".

Consistent approach

The task force, chaired by Duguid, met online for the first time today. The meeting was attended by Scottish Government rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing and UK environment secretary George Eustice, along with Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) chief executive Tavish Scott and industry representatives drawn from the catching, processing and exporting sectors.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Ewing said the task force’s focus must be on: 

  • ensuring a more consistent approach and understanding of customs arrangements, including providing clarity to EU vessels landing in the UK
  • simplifying the system used for Export Health Certificates (EHCs) to make it easier for businesses and certifiers to make changes to their paperwork
  • aligning HMRC and Defra systems to cut down on errors and make them more user-friendly

Relentless bureaucracy

“The seafood sector has faced six weeks of relentless bureaucracy and barriers to trading with the EU which have been imposed by a damaging and last-minute Brexit deal,” said Ewing.

“While I’m pleased the UK Government has listened to our calls for a task force to look at the challenges, I am disappointed that several leading people who are directly involved in the sector and have first-hand experience of handling and dealing with the problems have not been included in the task force as I had suggested.”

He added if the task force is to be effective, “it will need the full engagement of UK departments whose systems and processes are the source of much of the frustration encountered by fishermen and processors in all parts of the UK”.

Practical solutions

During the meeting, the movement of mixed loads of small consignments, known as groupage, and the variation in time taken for loads to be cleared, were discussed, with constructive talks on how practical solutions could be arrived at to ease the flow of goods, said the Scotland Office.

Eustice said other UK Government working groups to tackle immediate problems would continue to operate and support businesses to adjust to the new requirements and troubleshoot where problems occur such as issues with Export Health Certificates and customs declarations.  

Spirit of co-operation

Duguid said after the meeting: “The spirit of co-operation between all parties was good to see and my officials will now drill down to identify areas for rapid action.

“The next task force meeting is in a fortnight but our engagement with industry continues on a daily basis, as does our work to speed world-class Scottish seafood from port to plate as smoothly as possible.”

Scott said: “The SSPO were pleased this morning to attend the first seafood task force meeting and we welcome the UK and Scottish Governments working together to find solutions to the ongoing export challenges being experienced by our sector.”

The task force has a core body of representatives from stakeholders and UK Government departments but also has the ability to invite in other industry representative and experts on an ad hoc basis.

Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and the UK Government Border Delivery & Protocol Group were represented.

Donna Fordyce: Many companies "will never be fully compensated for what they have lost and are still losing".

Financial help

This week the UK Government’s £23 million Seafood Disruption Support Scheme opened for applications to businesses that suffered a financial loss because of delays related to the export of fresh or live fish and shellfish to the EU during January, but it has not been well received by Seafood Scotland, which represents much of the caught seafood industry.

chief executive Donna Fordyce said seafood exports had slowed to a trickle as companies struggled to navigate systems that were not fit for purpose.

“Some companies have even given up trying and have put their businesses on ice for the time being, at great financial suffering to their owners, staff, families, and communities,” said Fordyce.

Ineligible for support

“We hoped the £23m would go some way to alleviating the pressure, while the existing problems could be resolved. However, the initial industry feedback is one of disappointment, with many companies instantly realising they will be ineligible for support.

“This includes companies that have simply had to stop trying because their product has not been getting through. Or, seafood businesses whose long-standing orders from customers in the EU have dried up because of the export crisis.

“Companies cannot produce health certificates and other documentation for orders never made because of a lack of customer confidence that product would reach the EU on time, and in peak condition.

“It’s probable that these companies will never be fully compensated for what they have lost and are still losing, but the damage could still be limited if the systems were workable and export gets back on track quickly.”

Last week the Scottish Government announced a new £6.45m scheme for shellfish catchers and producers and trout farmers.