£23m exports support scheme opens – but struggling catchers not eligible
The £23m compensation fund for exporters who have been hit by the severe problems affecting seafood exports is open for applications, reports Tim Oliver.
The UK-wide Seafood Disruption Support Scheme, announced on 19 January, will provide up to £23m of financial assistance 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 2021. The fund will be paid retrospectively to cover losses incurred between 1 January and 31 January, 2021.
Fishermen are not specifically excluded from support, but the eligibility clauses effectively exclude them – for example, applicants must have owned seafood consignments where losses have been sustained.
The fund applies throughout the UK, and the MMO will administer it on behalf of DEFRA. It offers financial assistance based on a proportion of losses that can be verified up to a maximum of £100,000 per business.
To qualify, businesses must be registered at Companies House or have evidence that they are a sole trader, partnership or other legal entity. They must have fewer than 250 employees, an annual turnover of under £36m and less than £18m on their balance sheet.
Applicants must have documentation to prove they were the owner of the fresh or live seafood at the point of loss, and must provide evidence of the expected value of the consignment. Shipments affected by export rules that prevent the movement of goods to the EU, such as live bivalve molluscs, will be outside the scope of the scheme.
The call for applications closes on 28 February, and payments for successful applicants are expected to be issued during March.
Fisheries minister Victoria Prentis said the scheme reflected ‘the unique challenges’ faced by the sector. “We will continue to work closely with the fisheries and seafood industry through our seafood exports working group to troubleshoot any issues that cause delays to the export of these highly perishable goods,” said the minister.
UK government minister for Scotland David Duguid said that despite ‘huge efforts’ that were made to prepare for the Brexit changes, many businesses had incurred losses ‘through no fault of their own’ and the government was ‘stepping up’ with the support scheme.
“I have been engaging with the industry for many months and continue to work with all sections of the seafood sector in Scotland as we move to maximise future opportunities and adapt to new rules,” he said.
Secretary of state for Wales Simon Hart said the scheme highlights ‘the UK government’s commitment to Welsh exporters who are currently facing a uniquely challenging period’, and encouraged all who are eligible to apply for support.
The fishing and seafood sector is also set to benefit from a £100m fund to help modernise and rejuvenate the industry, but Fishing News understands that this will not become available until the new financial year in April. DEFRA said it was currently developing proposals and would make a further announcement in due course.
A further £32m will replace EU funding this year.
Disappointment at limited scheme
Industry reaction to the support scheme was disappointment that fishermen are excluded, and the view that the fund does not address the scale of the problems the industry is facing.
Simon Macdonald, chairman of the West Coast Regional Inshore Fisheries Group, who has written to Boris Johnson to highlight the industry’s problems and suggesting ways forward, said the support fund was a ‘feeble sticking plaster’ that was ‘too little, too late’.
He said that even exporters would have difficulty accessing the money because the criteria for eligibility are so difficult to fulfil.
“There is a cap of £100,000, but some people are losing that daily – a lot of people will be unhappy with this scheme,” he told Fishing News.
“There will be no payments made until March, and we don’t know when – the beginning, the middle or the end of March? It’s too little, too late.
“I’ve had many phone calls from fishermen who are desperate for help. One was from a man in the outer isles who was in tears, saying he couldn’t put food on the table for his family – the industry is in turmoil.”
He said, however, that he was ‘delighted’ with the new Scottish fund for fishermen, with the first payments expected to be made this week.
Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland, said: “The initial industry feedback today is one of disappointment, with many companies instantly realising they will be ineligible for support.”
She said seafood exports have ‘slowed to a trickle as companies struggle to navigate systems that are not fit for purpose’ and are creating ‘an intractable barrier to trade’.
“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,” she said.
Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael said limited support was better than no support, but he suspected that most businesses will be disappointed by the scheme’s many limitations.
“Until there is a meaningful effort from DEFRA to reset trust and deal with the long-term structural problems they have created, fishermen are going to suspect that they have been fobbed off by a government that has no more use for them.”
For further information on the scheme and eligibility, go to: bit.ly/3aR7TCv
Ewing: ‘Irrational that fund won’t help boats’
Scottish fisheries minister Fergus Ewing said the scheme was ‘disappointing’, and that it was ‘beyond any rational explanation’ that it will not help the vast majority of fishing vessels hit by the ‘botched Brexit deal’.
He pointed out that the scheme excluded crab claws, even though the UK government had wrongly told companies they could not export, and had cost the industry a month in lost exports.
“This is not good enough, and the UK government must urgently identify how it will support these businesses, and others who are caught up in the ongoing mess that Brexit has created.”
He said the new trading relationship with the EU was having ‘a catastrophic impact’ on Scotland’s food and drink export industry, but the UK government still insisted that the disruption was ‘merely teething problems’. This was demonstrated by the scheme only covering January, ‘when the reality is that access to markets in the EU will be permanently more difficult and more costly’.
“We now have the worst of all worlds,” said Fergus Ewing, “no dynamic alignment, no agreement on equivalence, no single market and no customs union, in addition to third-country status, where it is being demonstrated daily how badly UK businesses have been let down.”
He said the Scottish government has stepped in with its own £7.75m package of support for fishers, aquaculture businesses and ports and harbours hardest hit by Brexit and the continuing impacts of Covid-19.