Mature and responsible fisheries management frequently requires necessary trade-offs…
Political Pressure for Support Package Ratcheted Up
The NFFO has continued to ratchet up political pressure on the Government for a financial support package for the English fleets. Hundreds of MPs, including coastal MPs and government ministers, including those in the Treasury, have received briefing notes and urged to intervene. The telephone lines have been red hot as Scotland, Northern Ireland and then Wales announced support for their schemes. So far, the Treasury has stalled on English support, apparently fearful of setting a precedent for other sectors of the economy which fall through the financial support measures already announced.
It is inconceivable that English fishermen alone will be abandoned in this crisis and so we will maintain the political pressure until there is a change of mind. It is politically unsustainable to allow fishing businesses to fail, whilst over the border the devolved administrations show solidarity with their fishing fleets.
As the economic consequences of the coronavirus and emergency measures to contain it roll on, the resilience of fishing businesses across the UK will vary considerably.
Some will be exposed at the bank more than others. Some will have been impacted by the endless winter storms more than others. Some have seen their markets disappear overnight and have tied up. Others can continue to operate, albeit in a fragile market, barely covering costs.
Despite these differences, one factor more than any other will determine whether they will survive this crisis and go on to thrive once again, providing food, employment and taxes for the nation. That factor is the degree to which they have access to financial support.
Many crewmen, though not all, will receive temporary support through the government support for the self-employed or furlough arrangements. At the top and bottom, some self-employed fishermen will lose out because of the criteria used and because of the way their earnings have been recorded in the past. And June, when the support payments will be made is a long way off.
But fishing businesses are uniquely exposed in this crisis: primary producers who cannot access the grants that have been made available to businesses in the restaurant and hospitality trade at the other end of the supply chain.
Irrespective of the scale of operation, beach-launched punt, or considerable fishing business, fishing vessels face fixed costs which continue to build, with no or low income to cover them. Very few fishing businesses can take advantage of the £10,000 business grants that have been made available because fishing vessels don’t pay rates and this has been made the defining criteria.
Loans, even with preferential conditions, are too weighted with risk in these uncertain times.
The impending crisis which this represents has been understood in Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales. It has also been understood in Whitehall. The difference is that in the devolved administrations, have rapidly put in place a support package that will help these busnesses to stay afloat financially.
We know that Defra and the MMO understand the seriousness of the current situation because we have had almost daily conversations with senior officials and ministers. We also know that a support package for the English fleets has been submitted to the Treasury with a raft of statistics which demonstrate the seriousness of the situation.
Perhaps the lack of a response is inertia at the top because of the ravages of the virus. Perhaps it is work overload in the Treasury. Perhaps it is fear of setting a precedent. Perhaps it is a bit of all three.
The absence of a tailored package of support for the English fleets, parallel to those that have been made available in the devolved administrations raises profound questions:
- Are English fishing businesses valued less than in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
- Does the nation value its fishermen and the contribution to food security that it makes?
- Will there be fishing businesses left for crews to return to, once the crisis is over?
- The government and politicians have been willing to use fishing as the poster-boy for Brexit – will they stand aside and let those businesses fail?
- Has the fact that only England has no dedicated fishing minister to champion its cause harmed our interests?
Our case has been laid out clearly. Without access to financial support, fishing businesses will fail. Fishing businesses fall between the gaps in the otherwise generous financial support measures already announced. On fishing, devolution has led to an uneven approach across the country. We now await the Government’s response but will not be sitting on our hands. The Federation will continue to maximise political pressure - because the consequences - economically, socially and politically - of a failure to intervene allows us no alternative.