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Scottish Government calls for Brexit seafood red-tape derogation

New Brexit-related administrative burdens on Scotland’s fish and animal product exporters are being tackled through a programme of action led by the Scottish Government and Food Standards Scotland.

The Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing has written to the UK Government reiterating the financial and administrative burden the anticipated increase in demand for Export Health Certificates (EHCs) will place on exporters of Products of Animal Origin (POAO), and called once again on the UK Government to ask the EU for a derogation from the requirement.

In the absence of a UK Government commitment to seek this exemption, Mr Ewing confirmed the work being undertaken by Scottish Government, Food Standards Scotland and Scottish Local Authorities to deal with the anticipated massive spike in demand for these essential certificates. This includes developing a risk-based approach to certification, and working with logistics companies responsible for transporting large volumes of Scottish seafood to the EU to provide an EHC service at logistics hubs in central Scotland.

Mr Ewing also reiterated the Scottish Government’s call for the UK Government to offer compensation and support schemes to businesses affected by the new requirement. He also repeated the ask from the Scottish Government Finance Secretary for further funding from the UK Government to help alleviate the pressures of EU Exit preparations, with funding received in 2020-21 falling short of what the Scottish Government is required to deal with.

Full text of the letter below:

The issue of Export Health Certificates (EHCs) for Products of Animal Origin (POAO) exports to the EU, and the capacity of Scottish Local Authorities to meet the anticipated massive increase in demand for EHCs for Scottish seafood exports, has been raised by UK Government ministers in recent meetings and public fora. By doing so, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the UK Government is seeking to attribute ‘blame’ to the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities for some perceived lack of preparedness. As I made absolutely clear in the most recent meeting of the Defra/Devolved Administration Inter-Ministerial Group, any such suggestion is simply untrue and warrants a full rebuttal.

For many months now, my officials and I have been underlining to UK Government counterparts that the requirement for all UK POAO exports to the EU to be accompanied by a signed EHC represents a significant administrative and financial burden on exporters. Coming at a time when many of these exporting businesses are already struggling to deal with the impacts arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, these additional burdens could lead some businesses to the brink of collapse. Once again, I would remind you that this could be avoided if the UK Government agreed to ask the EU for a derogation from the requirement, or if the approach of dynamic alignment had been pursued.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) estimated in 2018 that the likely demand for EHCs for exports of POAO to the EU from Scotland would be approximately 150,000 per year. The vast majority of these would be for seafood exports, and thus fall to LAs to sign. This estimate was made in advance of the UK Government announcement that EHCs would also be required for POAO trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and we are still waiting to receive the repeatedly-requested clarity from the UK Government on how the issue of EHCs for that trade will be addressed), meaning that the 150,000 figure is likely to be an underestimate. Let us be clear – that is an increase from zero to 150,000 for no discernible benefit.

Although the data on Scottish demand was shared with Defra last year, our recent discussions with Defra would suggest that it has only very recently been taken into account in their modelling of likely demand.

As any responsible government should, the Scottish Government has been working intensively to mitigate the worst impacts of this unwelcome requirement. The Scottish Government and FSS worked with LAs in Scotland to develop an alternative, risk-based approach which would be more manageable given the timescales and practicalities involved. We are pleased to see that this risk-based approach is now intended to be used across the UK.

Furthermore, the Scottish Government and FSS officials have been working with three logistics companies with hubs in central Scotland. By inserting an EHC signing service into these hubs – with Certifying Officers and Certifying Support Officers provided by FSS – EHCs can be signed for the grouped consignment at the hub, rather than having to be requested from the LA for each smaller consignment by the food exporting business in the area where they are based.

This will reduce the burden on LAs and businesses. Nevertheless, a significant challenge remains for LAs to meet the demand for those exporting businesses who cannot, or choose not to, use the hubs. I understand that Defra is looking to APHA to free up some of their suitably-qualified staff to provide “surge” capacity across the UK. Given the seriousness of the situation in Scotland, I expect that some of that capacity will be directed to alleviating pinch-points here, and I welcome the discussions officials are having on this.

Since taking all of the previously contracted Official Veterinary Staff in house in 2019, FSS has ensured that all are trained and designated by APHA as export Certifying Official Veterinarians, and has also commenced training for a number of Meat Hygiene Inspectors to provide Certification Support Officers to not only the fish hubs but also the meat approved premises. Where possible they will provide certification services to food businesses within existing arrangements for attendance. To further assist industry, FSS has developed specialised internal movement documents to assist with movement of products to market.

The Scottish Government has also provided funding of £100,000 to LAs to carry-out an emergency programme of vessel hygiene inspections before the end of the Transition Period. More than 1000 of the 1200 registered vessels have been inspected to date.

Aberdeenshire is likely to see the highest share of EHC demand in Scotland, with only some of that being handled through the central Scotland hubs. My officials have been in regular contact with Aberdeenshire Council about the arrangements they are putting in place to help deal with this challenge, and I’m pleased to report that the Council has indicated confidence they could meet the demand.

Environmental Health Officer (EHO) resource in Scottish LAs is already being stretched in dealing with Covid-19 responsibilities. As you know, it takes between 3 to 5 years to be fully trained as an EHO, and pathways to a career in this field are limited. This means there is a very small pool of EHOs available across the UK, for which there are multiple competing demands.

To put simply, there is just not enough trained resource – across the UK as a whole – to meet this new requirement. With that in mind, I was disappointed to see your recent comments to the Scottish Parliament about a shortfall in EHO provision in Scotland interpreted as criticism of the Scottish Government. Given your awareness of the UK-wide situation, and the leading role the Scottish Government has played in mitigating the worst impacts of the EHC issue, I am sure it was not your intention to give that impression.

Nevertheless, it does underline the importance of taking care when making such statements. I know you will take the earliest opportunity to make clear that no criticism of the Scottish Government was intended, or could in any way be warranted.

Regardless of whether a deal with the EU is reached or not, the work required in this area is clearly significant. On current planning assumptions, the funding that the Scottish Government has received in 2020-21 for EU Exit preparations falls far short of what is required to deal with the consequences. Therefore, and to reflect the scale of work required, I repeat the ask of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance in her letter to the Chief Secretary of the Treasury on 28 September that the UK Government provides further funding to help alleviate these pressures.

The UK Government should also consider compensation or support schemes for the businesses that can’t get an EHC or meet the additional costs that arise as a result of EU exit. In line with clear and unambiguous commitments made by the UK Government during the referendum and thereafter, we expect the UK Government to meet, in full, any costs arising from EU Exit to ensure that there is no detriment to the Scottish budget.

I am copying this letter to Lesley Griffiths, Edwin Poots and Michael Gove.