In a letter received before the announcement of the General Election, Fisheries Minister,…
NFFO Concordat Response
We have been deeply troubled about the way that the fisheries concordat between the four fisheries administrations has evolved since 2012. Despite the significance of the agreement for the many fishing business affected by its provisions, its successive iterations have been developed in secrecy, contravening the normal rules of transparent and open governance. The convoluted language in which the concordat has been deliberately couched, has been defended as creative ambiguity. But on each new version, we have found that, without exception, the concordat has subsequently been interpreted in ways that work to the systematic disadvantage of the UK fishing industry outside the Scotland.
Driven by Politics
The bottom line is that the concordat is only at the margins about effective fisheries management. It is primarily about managing the consequences of fisheries as a sphere of devolved responsibility. In general terms we agree with the principle of devolving responsibility to the lowest level that makes practical sense. However, this approach breaks down when, as in the case of the current government in Scotland, decentralised management is hijacked and corrupted by an aggressive nationalist agenda. Even where powers are clearly reserved, for example in international negotiations, there is constant unrelenting pressure for Scottish interests to be pushed centre stage. This is working to the detriment of the industry outside Scotland, which in terms of numbers of fishermen and value of catch, is at least as important as Scotland, although at present lacking a champion.
The concordat is shaped on the one hand by that aggressive nationalist agenda; and on the other by an administration in London willing to make concessions to Scotland, eager to dilute the conditions that would favour a second referendum on Scottish independence.
It is the Scottish administration’s absolute right to make the case for independence and to advance the case for the Scottish fishing industry. The problem for us, in the fishing industry outside Scotland, is the willingness of our ministers to make repeated and damaging concessions to Scotland at our expense. The UK minister has UK responsibilities and the devolved administrations have their champions but in this dual responsibility, who is promoting the English industry’s interests?
The evidence points to a catalogue of concessions to placate Scottish demands but the current political logic in the UK is that Scotland could be handed the keys of the Garden of Eden but they still wouldn’t be happy. The pressure is relentless and a push-back is overdue.
The most egregious provisions in the current draft concordat relate to the sections on Licensing and Vessel Nationality.
Contrary to assurances by officials and ministers, the important right for our vessels to operate anywhere in the waters around the UK and to land at any port in the UK or abroad, where it makes economic or operational sense to do so, has been progressively eroded by the devolution and successive concordats. This is wrong in principle and damaging practice.
Currently it is economically and operationally expedient for our North Sea fleets to land most of our whitefish into Peterhead. The concordat, as currently drafted would introduce a requirement to land over 50% of its catch (by volume) if our vessels are to retain their English “nationality” and therefore administration by their home country.
The provisions on licencing and nationality mean that if our vessels land more that 50% by volume of their catch into Scotland, they will be oblige to re-register as Scottish vessels and be administered by Scotland. Fixed Quota Allocations would follow the vessel and licence to Scotland. The only alternative open to vessels would be to follow a wholly artificial and economically disadvantageous course of landing 51% of their catch into the next least worst option, probably a port in Denmark.
The weakening of Article 3d, which in the previous concordat provides some level of explicit assurance that vessels that have a material and significant link to an administration may continue to be administered by their home administration, regardless of fishing patterns, is fundamental to our concerns over the concordat’s direction of travel. It is imperative that that assurance is retained in the new concordat.
Another case in point lies with the example of a pelagic vessel currently registered in England or Northern Ireland but following economic or operational logic, landing its catch into Norway. If the vessel lands only one tonne into Scotland under the terms of this concordat, it is obliged to change its administration to Scotland. The example is absurd but it highlights the pernicious imbalance that lies at the heart of this concordat.
If the concordat is adopted as proposed and our vessels are forced to re-register in Scotland:
1. This would amount to the biggest quota grab in history; what guarantees are there that the administration in Scotland would not in due course find a way to strip of all or some of the quota entitlements that have accrued over time to our vessels either through track record or purchase?
2. The Scottish administration would owe no duty of care to the English vessels, forced against their will into their administration
3. This is not an economic link requirement. Scotland already benefits from the landings of our vessels into ports like Peterhead; accepting such an arrangement would put our fleets at an operational disadvantage by comparison with other EU member state fleets; it would rightly be regarded as discriminatory and illegal if it was imposed on the vessels other member states
4. There is such a thing as the UK single market and the concordat deliberately works to artificially distort and undermine it
5. The current concordat draft is a convoluted and inadequate response to purely political manoeuvring; the Scottish administration’s political agenda is to create constant frictions to keep Westminster under pressure and wring concessions that advantage Scotland;
6. There is absolutely no evidence that the changes contained in the concordat would change lead to better administration of fisheries; in fact the opposite. By contrast with the Scottish fleet, all of the English whitefish fleet remain in the Fully Documented Fishery programme in which their catches and activities are verified by CCTV
7. The identity of our fleet, in terms of ownership; political links, trade association affiliations, cultural ties and domestic arrangements lies in England.
8. If the provisions of the current draft concordat are accepted, our own ministers will have created the conditions for the demise of a distinctive English whitefish fleet operating in the North Sea, with roots going back over 100 years.
It is outrageous that we even have to defend ourselves in this way from a predatory Scottish administration and our own supine ministers. It is not surprising that the Scottish Fisheries Minister has already presented the document as a fait accompli; it is wholly slanted to accommodate Scotland’s wish list; it is an asymmetrical document which gives away far too much; contains no safeguards; and remains unhealthily ambiguous.
If a concordat is necessary and, given the realities of devolution, we suppose that it is, it should provide clarity, fairness and symmetry. This concordat provides none of these.
We will fight this concordat because it is fundamentally inimical to our interests. We will fight it politically; we will fight it in the court of public opinion; and if necessary we will fight it in the courts.