Let me begin by wishing everyone a Happy New Year. Whilst I am sure we are all aware that we have some huge challenges to get through in the coming months, with the rollout of the new vaccine we know that we can see an end to the current situation. I have every faith that as we emerge from this crisis, we will see a return to more normal times in the coming months and we can begin to rebuild from the effects we have all felt from this pandemic. In the meantime, it is vital everyone plays their part and keeps to the restrictions in place.
Of course, we began this year with the historic deal with the EU as we left the transition phase of Brexit on 1st January. This new arrangement sets our future relationship on trade and cooperation with the EU for the years ahead.
Against all the odds, and despite being told by political opponents it could not be achieved, the Prime Minister was able to reach an agreement on Christmas Eve and the legislation required was then passed by Parliament on 30th December. It was always likely that these negotiations would be pushed to the wire and so it proved. Huge credit must go to Boris Johnson for sticking to the deadline and not extending the transition period as many were calling for him to do. I had always stated I thought a deal would be agreed but we needed to be prepared to go to the deadline with a willingness to walk away in order to get a deal that was acceptable.
Of course, the deal we reached isn’t perfect. Compromises had to be made by both sides. But crucially the agreement recognises the UK as an independent country, free from the jurisdiction of the EU courts and regulations and re-establishes our sovereignty. Our laws will now once again be made by the UK Parliament, directly elected by the people of this country who can be held to account for their decisions. This was always in my view the heart of the vote to leave the EU and I am delighted, after four and half years of struggle, to deliver on this democratic decision.
Even the most ardent Eurosceptics have accepted that this agreement delivers on the key elements needed to restore our national sovereignty. I was pleased to vote to pass this deal in Parliament in order for us to be able to leave the single market, customs union and all EU regulation from 1st January. We can now make decisions on our own laws and regulations that suit our own country rather than 27 other nations.
It is pleasing to see that the government has already used this new freedom to implement decisions we have been held back from taking by EU laws. We immediately scrapped VAT on female sanitary products, the so called Tampon Tax. This is something we have wanted to do for more than two years and while the EU were discussing allowing this they hadn’t taken action to do so. It is good to see the government implement this decision at the first opportunity.
One area where I acknowledge we did not get everything we had hoped for was on fisheries. I share the disappointment of many of our local fishermen with the immediate changes to fishing quotas and access to our 12 mile waters.
It is clear that fisheries was one of the main areas of contention in reaching agreement with the EU. Although compromises had to be made, I am pleased that the Prime Minister held out on the unreasonable demands of the EU for us to continue to allow EU vessels unrestricted access to our waters indefinitely. We are now out of the Common Fisheries Policy and have control of our waters.
What was agreed is a big step in the right directions in a 25% uplift in quota for our fleet while laying out a clear path after a 5 ½ year adjustment period for us to take back more quota. Additionally, the government has agreed to an initial £100m fund to invest in our fishing industry to enable them to gear up to be ready to handle more quota in the future.
It is important to consider in this that we will now control access to waters out to our 12 mile limit. While we have agreed to allow EU boats some access it will be on our terms. It will be by way of license which we will issue and we will be able to set the regulations and restrictions on these vessels. So although ideally we would not have allowed EU boats access at all, it is important to understand the access allowed is under our terms.
The first sign of this is that we have immediately banned pulse fishing (a method of fishing that uses electric pulses to stun fish to make them easier to catch). This is again something we have wanted to ban for some time, but was not allowed under current EU regulations. From 1st January we have taken steps to prevent EU boats from using pulse fishing in our waters. This is an important step and shows this government is prepared to use the new powers we have.