Free trade deal could bring prosperity back to Humber, but at what price?
By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 15 Nov 2017
Grimsby and its seafood industry caught international attention last week. Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly looks into why it caused such a stir.
IT IS not every week I get invited onto Radio 4’s PM programme or approached about an interview by German television broadcasters.
But last week’s story about how Grimsby’s seafood processing industry was calling for free trade status to be bestowed upon seafood after Brexit caught the imagination.
Remain-backers openly mocked the suggestion of free trade – something the UK already has with countries in the European Union while a member – from an industry based in a town which voted by 70 per cent to leave the trading bloc.
But as the industry has said over and again – there is no great regret, only a desire to find a pragmatic way of getting past the challenges Brexit presents.
As Simon Dwyer, the spokesman for the Seafood Grimsby & Humber cluster group, said in the initial report, import charges on the produce the industry brings in could have a detrimental effect on the sector – especially given 90 per cent of it comes from overseas.
Seafood processing hubs in Germany and France, such as Bremerhaven and Boulogne-sur-Mer respectively, will be only too happy to undercut and pick-up the extra business should Grimsby businesses be forced to put up their prices after Brexit.
It is for those reasons that the industry is making a concerted effort to lobby ministers so they understand the needs of the Humber’s food processors.
When representatives make their trip to London next Wednesday to meet with Fishing Minister George Eustice, pictured, it will be their third trip to Parliament in the space of a month – and their second meeting with the minister.
Mr Dwyer, (pictured above), has already written to Mr Eustice, a Eurosceptic Cornish MP who formerly stood for Ukip, to outline the industry’s position on their vision for free trade status for seafood at the ports of Immingham and Grimsby after Brexit.
So what could this free trade status – or “exemption” from post-Brexit tariffs – look like?
The Prime Minister has signalled that she intends to pull Britain out of the single market after Brexit, meaning free trade rules between the UK and the remaining 27 member states will no longer be in place.
The fear after Brexit is that, to protect its own fishermen and seafood processing centres, the EU could slap high charges on seafood coming from Grimsby and the UK.
Bestowing free trade status on seafood in the Humber could help eliminate that threat by convincing the EU to mirror the tariff-free stance at its own ports.
It would also making the likes of Immingham, which is already the UK’s largest port by tonnage, an even more attractive landing spot for international fish exporters, thanks to the lack of charges involved in docking in the estuary.
This is all largely hypothetical at the moment as we don’t know what the final trading arrangements between the UK and EU will look like. The negotiations with Brussels have stalled, with trade talks yet to start.
That this is largely theoretical has not stopped the port industry from signalling its support.
Associated British Ports (ABP), the private company which operates the ports on both banks of the Humber, has publicly offered its backing to the concept of creating free ports on the east coast – a move which would extend free trade status beyond just fish.
James Cooper, chief executive of ABP, urged the Government in September to consider establishing free ports on the east coast in order to abolish duties on imported raw materials (which would include seafood) or components used in manufactured exports.
He predicted the policy had the ability to “transform the nation’s ability to trade and export” and keep the Humber’s ports “competitive” in the “global marketplace”.
Rishi Sunak, Conservative MP for Richmond (Yorkshire), has helped author a paper on creating free trade ports – 3,500 of which already exist across the world – and says they could bring prosperity back to northern areas such as the Humber.
Free trade ports already exist in the USA, in the major cities of Boston and Seattle.
Mr Sunak, a backbencher, argues such designation for ports could help boost trade and improve the economies in areas such as Grimsby and Immingham, which are listed in the top 25 per cent of the most deprived areas in the UK.
The MP said: “Long before the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was ever dreamed of, the docks of the Humber were towering symbols of a region whose industrial ingenuity began a revolution that transformed the world.
“As Britain charts a course for Brexit, the government should give our ports the freedom to recapture their proud history as the engines of our economy.”
The lobbying from local MPs has so far focused on the precise ask of the seafood processing industry.
Northern Lincolnshire MPs plan to back up the sector’s call for free trade status during the meeting with Mr Eustice next week. Representatives from Young’s and Icelandic Seachill are expected to join Mr Dwyer and MPs for the sit down.
Melanie Onn, the Labour MP for Great Grimsby, pictured left, said seafood had “a particular need for close consideration” during the trade talks with the EU due to “the perishable nature of the goods”.
The town’s MP said it would be a “backwards step” for the freshness of Grimsby’s fish to be “called into question” due to customs delays.
“We must not see any reduction of produce brought to Grimsby and do everything we can to protect much-needed jobs in the area,” she said.
Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers, pictured right, said he will also be making the case to ministers for free trade status to be considered.
“If the industry think there is a case to be made, I will be very happy to support them,” he said.
“The whole point in this is that we want a specific designation for Grimsby and Immingham which you couldn’t do while you are a part of the EU.
“It is not saying, as some of these people on social media are saying, ‘Oh you wanted to leave but now want to reverse it for the fishing industry’. That is not the case.
“This is something that couldn’t be done while we are in the EU.”
Next week’s meeting with the minister could be vital for establishing the long-term, post-Brexit health of one of the region’s most significant industries.
But with local MPs, free thinking backbenchers and port chiefs behind their free trade idea, they will not be alone in making their demands.