Support package for Welsh fishermen
Sliding scale payments to a maximum £10,000
Welsh fishermen are to get grant support from the Welsh government during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, reports Tim Oliver.
The grants, described as ‘a massive boost and very welcome’, are targeted at vessel-owning fishing businesses and will help to cover fixed costs associated with owning a fishing vessel. They will be based on the size of the vessel, with a maximum payment of £10,000, in line with the economic resilience fund.
Vessels up to 10m will get one-off grants of £2,966, from 10.01m to 11.99m £8,700, and from 12m to 40m £10,000. The grant will be open to all active seafood businesses with Welsh-licensed vessels and recorded sales of £10,000 or more in 2019.
All the devolved administrations have now implemented support schemes for their fishermen, but there is still no package for fishermen in England, who have only the general self-employed package for support, which will not pay out until June, and welfare and charity payments. The NFFO is continuing to ramp up political pressure on MPs and the government for a package for England (see below).
The Welsh government pointed out that existing support for the wider business sector is often based on factors such as the rateable value of fixed premises, or the number of staff employed – but these often don’t apply to fishing businesses.
Announcing the grants, Welsh fisheries minister Lesley Griffiths said: “We know that Covid-19 and the storms earlier this year have caused significant difficulties for the fisheries sector. Fishing is a hugely important part of the Welsh food and drink sector, and it sustains livelihoods and communities across our coasts.
“But the Covid-19 pandemic has hit exports and internal markets incredibly hard, leading to many in the sector facing the loss of their livelihoods, and the permanent closure of their businesses.
“This will be a period of uncertainty for many in the sector, and that’s why we want to ensure we could support them as they face unavoidable costs. Action is now required to protect the future of the Welsh fishing businesses and the social fabric of our fishing communities which, due to the immediate and devastating impacts on markets, is now under threat.
“The support provided will help those eligible to cover their costs during this difficult time, and ensure Wales has a competitive fishing sector once this crisis has passed.”
Jim Evans, chairman of the Welsh Fishermen’s Association, said that the announcement was very welcome for those in urgent need.
“We’ve had the most prolonged period of poor weather for 20 years, so there has been very limited income, and guys are keen to hit the ground running and work their way out of that trough,” he told Fishing News.
“We’ve lost the normal outlets, so apart from a limited amount of direct selling going on – and that has to be developed – there are few other opportunities to earn the money to pay the bills people have accumulated in the first quarter of the year.
“It’s a massive boost and very welcome. There’s more work to do, but the initial response has been quite positive. We’re waiting now for the details, and to make sure that as many as possible benefit from the scheme.
“The key thing is it’s been announced, so it’s got over all the procedural things now.”
He said that grants needed to address the whole supply chain, from catching to merchants and suppliers, but that it was important to get something out quickly.
“It’s up to us to keep an eye on events now, and make sure that anyone who may have fallen through the gaps gets the help and support they need, and to keep working with the government,” he said.
“We can’t predict how long this will last and what the impacts are going to be, and, of course, when we come out the other side of this, we’ve got Brexit and related issues that could have an impact on the market.
“But, for the moment, survivability is the key. We have to make sure we can maintain the fleet in the short term while we ride out this storm.
“The worry when you come out with a scheme is always who may fall through the gaps. We have to work with officials to make sure that everyone who needs help gets it.”
He said that the Welsh fleet comprised around 420 vessels, from 5m open boats up to 15m trawlers and beyond, which meant a big range of different needs.
He hoped that the Welsh announcement would be ‘a shot in the arm’, and give weight to the NFFO case as it pushes for a similar announcement for the English industry.
Further details on the application process will be announced shortly. Eligible fishers should first register online with Rural Payments Wales (RPW). Once the applications are open, fishers may then apply online through RPW.
NFFO ramps up pressure for package for England
As Wales became the last of the devolved administrations to announce a support package for its fishing industry, the NFFO said that it has continued to ratchet up political pressure on the government for a financial support package for the English fleet.
Hundreds of MPs, including coastal MPs and government ministers, including those in the Treasury, have received briefing notes and been urged to intervene.
Cornish FPO chief executive Paul Trebilcock has also written to DEFRA secretary of state George Eustice to stress the urgency of the situation (see opposite).
NFFO chief executive Barrie Deas, who took part in a video-link stakeholder conference last week with UK fisheries minister Victoria Prentis and DEFRA officials, said that the federation’s telephone lines had been ‘red hot’ as Scotland, Northern Ireland and then Wales announced support for their fleets. But, he said, the Treasury has so far stalled on a support package for England, apparently because it fears setting a precedent for other sectors of the economy which fall through the financial support measures already announced.
He said: “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.”
He said that as the economic consequences of the coronavirus and emergency measures 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.”
The NFFO chief said that fishing businesses are ‘uniquely exposed’ in the crisis – they are 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, whether it is a beach-launched punt or a 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 available, because fishing vessels don’t pay rates and this has been made the defining criteria. And loans, even with preferential conditions, are too weighted with risk in these uncertain times. All this represents an impending crisis.”
He said that this had been understood in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, which had all rapidly put in place support packages to help fishing businesses to stay afloat financially.
“It has also been understood in Whitehall, where 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,” said Barrie Deas.
“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.”
He said that the absence of a tailored package of support for the English fleets, parallel to those that have been made available in the devolved administrations, raised 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 they make?
- 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,” said Barrie Deas.
“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.”