HC Deb 04 March 1981 vol 1000 cc356-8


Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I beg to move amendment No. 24, in page 18, line 33, leave out from beginning to 'search' in line 34 and insert— (bb) take copies of any such document; and, is he has reason to suspect that an offence under this Act has been committed, he may also—'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we are to take Government amendment No. 25.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The amendment relates to an important matter. In Committee my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) and Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie) pressed me regarding the powers that British sea fishery officers would have to search premises. They felt that the powers were too wide and could encroach upon the liberty of the individual. I undertook at that time to see whether a way could be found to limit the powers. This amendment is by way of response to the very reasonable and fair point that my hon. Friends made in Committee.

It was apparent in Committee that the real concern was about the power to search premises, as distinct from the power to make routine inspections. I make that distinction. I have considered the matter carefully, and I feel that some limitation on the absolute power to search premises is desirable. As a result, the purpose of the amendment is to limit that power to those occasions when a British sea fishery officer has reason to suspect that an offence has been committed.

I appreciate that my two hon. Friends were seeking to protect the rights of the individual. I am equally concerned in the amendment to protect those rights. But it should be remembered that we have a responsibility as well for the conservation of fish stocks. After all, the future livelihood of fishermen depends on an effective conservation of fish stocks and on how effective we are in ensuring that catch quotas are observed. The effectiveness of catch quotas and any accompanying quota management measures must entail a lot of checking of documentary evidence. Thus, in considering the powers that were needed to ensure effective levels of enforcement, I have had to strike a balance between the need to protect the rights of the individual and the need to protect the future fishing opportunities for United Kingdom fishermen.

I believe that we have struck the proper balance in the amendment I appreciate that my hon. Friends would have liked me to go further, but I ask them to bear in mind the other considerations that are involved, and I hope that they will consider that we have struck the correct balance.

Mr. Donald Stewart

A small point arises in connection with these excellent amendments, which I shall support. It concerns the general application of the powers. I take the point that was raised about individual freedom, and so on. The general manager of the Stornoway Pier and Harbour Commission has asked me to discover whether the commission's premises are covered by any premises (other than a dwelling house)". Will the Minister say whether harbour authorities and similar undertakings would be liable to searches of this kind?

Mr. Sproat

I rise to thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for responding in this way to the arguments that we advanced in Committee. It is certainly true that without these amendments the powers would be extremely wide. A sea fisheries officer could apparently enter premises covered by the clause and could compel not only the master of the business, but his wife, his child and anyone else to do what that officer wished. It is good that the powers have been clarified and narrowed in this way, so that it is now a question only of the officer's seeing documents and copying them, if necessary.

My hon. Friend has not gone as far down the road as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie) and I would wish, but we believe that half a loaf is better than no bread. We should still like search warrants that are obtained for the purposes of this clause to be signed by justices of the peace. Nevertheless, we appreciate that my hon. Friend has at least met us half way, and if experience shows that these powers are being abused no doubt our constituents will contact us quickly and we shall look at the matter again. In the meantime I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State and express my support for the amendment.

Mr. McQuarrie

I associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat). The point raised by the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) was the very point that worried us—the fact that sea fisheries officers would have the right to enter any premises other than a dwelling house. We saw that as an erosion of freedom for a business person whose premises would be entered as of right by a sea fisheries officer.

In Committee the Minister was kind enough to indicate that the reason for the clause and for clause 23, and the reason he has now altered paragraphs (c) and (d), is that if there were to be routine inspections they could be carried out as normal, but if it were suspected that a fishing business were acting contrary to the Act the officers would be able to enter the premises and obtain the necessary information.

I am pleased with the Minister's careful drafting in paragraphs (c) and (d) because by his draftsmanship he has answered half our fears. He has removed the problems created by paragraphs (a) and (b).

May I urge my hon. Friend carefully to monitor these provisions once the Bill becomes law so that if there is any suggestion of abuse of those powers under paragraphs (a) and (b) he will look at the matter again? I thank him for reconsidering the matter and bringing forward the amendments, which remove most of the fears that my hon. Friend and I had expressed.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful for the welcome that the amendments have received. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie) that the powers and the way in which they are exercised will be monitored in the normal course of events. If there are any abuses we shall seek to deal with them.

The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) asked whether the harbour offices at Stornoway would be covered by this provision. I refer him to clause 22 where the proposed new subsection (2A) says: Any such officer may— (a) enter at any reasonable time any premises (other than a dwelling-house) used for carrying on any business in connection with the operation of fishing boats or activities connected therewith or ancillary' thereto or with the treatment, storage or sale of sea fish; The premises that can be entered are defined in that subsection.

9.45 pm

I have been in the harbour office at Stornoway on occasions, perhaps even with the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot say whether any of the activities described are carried out at that office. If they are, the office will be covered by the legislation. I shall look more closely at the matter and let him know whether the office will be covered.

A limitation is provided, which means that each case must be judged on its merits. If any of those activities take place at certain premises, the power to enter applies. I hope that that provides some clarification for the right hon. Gentleman.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 25, in page 18, line 39, leave out from beginning to 'seize' in line 41.

No. 26, in page 19, line 14, after 'on', insert 'and the equipment of, the vessel'.—[Mr. Buchanan-Smith.]

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