HC Deb 01 December 1983 vol 49 cc1099-106

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Major.]

11.30 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

It is most unusual for an Adjournment debate on the same subject to take place twice in the same week. Nevertheless, it has certain advantages. It enables various aspects of a certain subject to be better ventilated, and one can, to some extent, in the second debate, benefit from what has been said in reply to the first. On Tuesday, considering the Isle of Man fisheries, the attention of the House was directed primarily to the importance of those fisheries for certain English and Scottish fisheries. Tonight I speak from the point of view of the fisheries of Northern Ireland, and especially County Down.

How important those waters are for them can be illustrated by the fact that, taking the prawn fishery, which is the most valuable single fishery, it is estimated that the waters to which this debate relates represent about 30 per cent. of the landings in Kilkeel, and up to 60 or 70 per cent. of the landings in Arglass. Putting it another way, and more generally, 50 per cent. of the Kilkeel fleet and 75 per cent. of the Portavogie fleet depend for their livelihood upon those waters.

The waters in question are those which a recent report of the Manx Government has suggested should be taken over and added to the fishery control area of the Isle of Man authorities. That report appeared in May, and the Isle of Man Examiner, looking forward on 30 September to the Home Secretary's recent visit, under the title "November Visitor", said: Extension of our fishery limits to 12 miles has been agreed in principle"— that means, with Her Majesty's Government or the Home Secretary— but implementation is a complex matter which we alone are unlikely to be able to advance. Indeed, it is impossible for them to "advance" it alone.

That was what the fishermen of Northern Ireland were hearing in September. Today the Home Secretary answered a question of mine. I asked what consideration the Manx authorities have offered Her Majesty's Government in return for any agreement to extend the Manx fishery control limits in the way suggested? He replied: Discussions are not yet sufficiently advanced for such a possibility to be considered. However, our anxieties are far from allayed by being told that discussions are in progress and consideration is going on; for we have been gravely alarmed by the type of assurance that we have been receiving. For example, the Minister of State, Home Office, on 16 November wrote to me saying: I can assure you that Ministers would not countenance the introduction of any substantive change … without widespread consultation among the relevant UK interests. When Ministers get to writing to interested parties to the effect that they will not countenance substantive change without consultation among the relevant interests, one knows that something is afoot behind the scenes.

Nothing has been said so far to allay our anxiety. Indeed, the effort that was made by the Under-Secretary in the debate on Tuesday proved counter-productive. He brought back, as good news from the visit of the Home Secretary to the Isle of Man, the fact that the Isle of Man authorities gave an assurance that, if any new measure were agreed, they would not attempt to discriminate." [Official Report, 29 November 1983; Vol 49, c. 865.] That made us more suspicious than ever, because what is the point of the Isle of Man wanting to take over control of a zone nine miles wide—between the three and the 12 mile-limits—if it is not to give the Isle of Man any advantage over the present position? There is only one answer that the fishermen of Northern Ireland would return, although they would mean no disrespect to the Under-Secretary of State for his opinion. They would say, "We do not believe it."

We have indeed a reason for disbelieving that proposition: it is fact that during the past three years the licensing system for these waters has been applied to British vessels through the agency of the Isle of Man authorities. That is to say that although the licensing powers are those of the United Kingdom Ministers, the licences are issued by the Manx authorities as their agents. That is politically inept and unfair, and also unlawful. When I pronounce the word "unlawful", my attention will be directed to the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 as amended by section 4(11) of the Fishery Limits Act 1976, which runs as follows: The Ministers may make arrangements for any of their licensing powers under this section … to be exercised by other persons on their behalf. I do not believe that when Parliament writes into a statute that Ministers of the Crown in the United Kingdom can use "other persons" as their agents the "other persons" would include the authorities of countries outside the United Kingdom. If that is what the Minister might, by any chance, be intending to say, he is arguing that the licensing could be entrusted to President Reagan, and still that could be within the contemplation of Parliament.

The natural and constitutional meaning of subsection (11) is that it refers to other persons within the realm and potentially under the control of Her Majesty's Ministers, that it means bodies, boards and so on within the realm, over which Ministers can, in the last resort, exercise authority. It does not mean that Ministers can transfer outside the realm powers conferred on them by an Act of Parliament.

The fact that this has been attempted in the past three years is not only a constitutional and legal outrage. The fishermen have been very wise to protect themselves by returning the Isle of Man licences and insisting on getting licences from their own Ministers in the United Kingdom. It is also extraordinarily inept for the Fisheries Department in Northern Ireland to use as a licensing authority, in the very waters which are concerned, authorities which are responsible to those in competition with fishermen from the United Kingdom and whose encroachment and incursion are threatened by the proposals under examination.

The Home Secretary is in a special position in this matter. When he went to the Isle of Man to discuss with the Isle of Man authorities their preposterous suggestion that their fishery control limits should be extended from three to 12 miles or to the median line from the Isle of Man coasts, he was in a dual if not a paradoxical position. Constitutionally the Isle of Man is a possession of the Crown of the United Kingdom; but it is not part of the United Kingdom, and in the Government of the Isle of Man the Crown is advised by the Privy Council through the mouth of, as it so happens, the Home Secretary, though the Home Secretary is only in a position to offer that advice to the Crown in respect of the affairs of the Isle of Man because, as Home Secretary and a member of the Administration, he enjoys the support and confidence of this House, this Parliament of the United Kingdom.

There is an anomaly, a duality, in the constitutional position. The Home Secretary is in the absurd position of being required, in one of his aspects, to consult the interests of the Isle of Man, and yet in his other capacity to be responsible for the interests of the United Kingdom.

One thing is in my view certain; that is that no such arrangement could be made or agreed without the authority of this House. The fishery waters of the United Kingdom have been declared by the House in the Fishery Limits Act 1976. They are our waters. They are United Kingdom waters. I will not for this purpose enter into the question whether those waters do, as I believe they do, wash the coasts of the Isle of Man itself; but beyond all dispute, outside the three-mile territorial waters of the Isle of Man these waters are our sovereign fishery waters and have been declared to be such by this Parliament.

I am here to say that the Secretary of State and the Government have no power to give away the property of the United Kingdom to a territory outside the United Kingdom unless they can persuade the House expressly to authorise them to do so. It will need a good deal to persuade the House, I believe; it will certainly need a good deal to persuade the people and fishermen of Northern Ireland of the expediency of doing so.

I have this warning to give to the Home Secretary and to the Government. If they tamper with the present fishery limits which are conceded to the Isle of Man, the three-mile limit, they will start something which will not finish until the anomalous constitutional position of the Isle of Man has been dealt with altogether.

This House is not particularly enamoured of tax havens maintained at the United Kingdom's expense. A constitutional anomaly of historic proportions is one thing. It can be tolerated provided that it is not a nuisance; but if it is to be the occasion of the interests of the people represented in this House being transferred and surrendered to those who are not represented in this House, then that anomaly becomes indefensible. Sooner of later the Isle of Man will find itself embark upon a course the result of which will be that the island is amalgamated into the United Kingdom and will have the privilege of returning half a Member, according to my calculations, to sit in this House.

I am not jesting; nor are the people whose interests are concerned jesting; nor are the people who have gained their livelihoods in waters which are the sovereign waters of the United Kingdom to which they have hitherto had the right of access as British citizens. They will not allow those rights and that livelihood to be taken away from them, to be transferred outwith this realm, without serious consequences for those who were the origin of such a thing happening.

Let not the people of the Isle of Man, who have been left to enjoy the advantages of their double status unmolested for so long, carry their privilege too far or tempt the resentment of this House.

11.43 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

It is a real privilege to be responding to a debate initiated by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who is one of the foremost parliamentarians of our age. I say that in all humility. To hear him in full cry makes one realise what a tremendous parliamentary orator he is.

I shall try to deal with the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, because, as I said on Tuesday, undoubtedly they are points that touch and concern a number of communities within the United Kingdom. It is perfectly proper that this matter should have been raised, not once but twice. It is a sign of the importance that attaches to this subject that the House is better attended this evening—as happened on Tuesday—than is customary for Adjournment debates. The right hon. Gentleman has his Northern Ireland colleagues with him, and to show the importance that the Government attach to this issue I have with me my hon. Friend the Minister of State who has special responsibility for fishery matters, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I shall build on what I said on Tuesday in the hope that I shall give the right hon. Gentleman more satisfaction than I achieved on that occasion.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Home Secretary is charged with particular responsibility for matters relating to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The right hon. Gentleman also knows that, in pursuance of those responsibilities, my right hon. and learned Friend visited the Isle of Man last week to meet its Government. During his meeting with the Isle of Man Executive Council there was a useful and valuable discussion on fisheries in the waters around the Isle of Man, a matter which is at the heart of the right hon. Gentleman's concern.

The right hon. Gentleman listened attentively to the Adjournment debate two days ago, and he heard me state what I believe is a most significant development—that the Isle of Man Government have made a significant change in their position, which previously had been to advocate introducing some element of discrimination into the licensing system that is applied in the waters up to 12 miles from the island. The Manx Government acknowledged at the meeting that such a concept was untenable and that they had dropped it. I repeat what I said on Tuesday, that in view of their assurance, this matter of discrimination need no longer concern us. As a consequence, a real fear has rightly been lifted from United Kingdom fishermen.

Another significant issue remains to be dealt with, and that is, as I said on Tuesday, the discussion of the conservation of fish stock in the waters around the island—a matter of real importance to all who fish there. I believe that it is right for this subject to be examined, and it should be discussed on the merits of a proper scientific examination, which so far has not taken place.

The main burden of the right hon. Gentleman's formidable address tonight was the constitutional position of the Isle of Man. I enter the realms of the constitution with some trepidation when I find myself opposed to the right hon. Gentleman. However, it may be helpful for me to say something of my understanding of the relationship between the Isle of Man and the United Kingdom and between the Tynwald and the United Kingdom Parliament, and to say how that relationship has developed.

For over 1,000 years, Manx law as been made by the island's Parliament, the Tynwald, which is probably the oldest continuing legislature in the world. The legitimacy and validity of Acts of the Tynwald are not based on any grant of competence from the United Kingdom Parliament. Parliament has always recognised their existence and validity, and that recognition can be found in a number of our own statutes, which refer explicitly to Isle of Man legislation. So there is no doubt about the competence of the Tynwald to make law domestic to the Isle of Man. However, one important aspect of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man is the consideration of defence and foreign affairs. The United Kingdom Government are responsible for those matters and the ultimate responsibility for the good government of the Isle of Man. That rests on the right of Parliament to legislate for the island in the last resort. However, I need hardly say that we are not talking about any breakdown of good government or a situation of last resort. The essence of the relationship has been, and continues to be, that the Tynwald legislates in matters domestic to the island, subject to its statutes receiving Royal Assent, that appropriate United Kingdom legislation may be extended to the Isle of Man by Order in Council and that in some contexts United Kingdom legislation may apply to the island diirectly when it deals with matters for which the United Kingdom is responsible on the island's behalf.

In all these contexts, however, there has traditionally been the closest consultations between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Isle of Man. A relationship of warmth has existed which I know the house would wish to continue. Indeed, we have no reason to think that this relationship wil not continue even though, of course, ripples pass across the face of the water, literally in this case, as there are bound to be even in the longest running relationships.

It is within this framework that the arrangements for commercial fishing round the Isle of Man have to be seen.

As the right hon. Gentleman made clear, fishing within three miles of the island's coast is administered locally under arrangements which have developed since the passing of the Sea Fisheries Act 1894 of Tynwald. Today under the 1971 and 1983 Acts of the same name and derivation the Isle of Man board of agriculture and fisheries makes byelaws for the regulation of fishing in that three-mile area.

The point at the heart of this is the question of fishing in the waters between three and 12 miles of the island which is administered under United Kingdom legislation. As the right hon. Gentleman has properly pointed out, the principal Act of this House is the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967, as amended, and reproduced in the Act of 1976. This Act gives my hon. Friend, as the United Kingdom Fisheries Minister, the power to establish rules for the control of fishing by means of statutory instruments and to establish a licensing system in respect of fishing vessels.

I come now to the point that I know represents something of a problem between successive Governments and the right hon. Gentleman. Under that Act provision has been made since 1977 for the Isle of Man Board of Agriculture and Fisheries to issue the requisite licences which allow British fishing boats to work the waters in the three to 12-mile zone round the island.

The island board's function in this regard is carried out in close consultation and in full agreement with my right hon. Friends the Ministers responsible within Her Majesty's Government for fisheries. This regime was established to promote the most efficient management of the fisheries in the waters round the Isle of Man. There is a good practical reason for that which the House should consider. The principal fishery involved is that for herring, although there are also important white fisheries. I know of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents' interest in prawns and I believe that they share the interest of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), who raised the matter on Tuesday, in the shellfish known as queenies.

We believe that members of the Isle of Man board are in by far the best position to advise on and implement agreed changes in weekly catch quotas because they are on the spot. It is, therefore, sensible that the island board should exercise the function of issuing the licences for what is in the context of the herring fishing particularly a short, local rapidly changing fishery. In the context of good and harmonious relationships which have subsisted between the Government of the Isle of Man and my hon. Friend the Fisheries Minister and his predecessors in title, I have no reason to believe that that remains other than a very good idea.

The Isle of Man Government have drawn back from the proposal to introduce discriminatory licensing procedures. But they still wish Her Majesty's Government to consider the possibility of an extension of the area over which their own legislation applies from a three-mile limit to one of 12 miles. The right hon. Gentleman has asked—it is a very fair question—what they hope to gain from such an extension. As I said to the right hon. Gentleman on Tuesday, it may not be for me to speculate on those matters as they are matters for the Isle of Man Government. I can only reiterate our determination that the arrangements should not involve and detriment to fishermen from the United Kingdom who have traditionally and properly plied their trade in the waters around the island.

It appeared from my right hon. and learned Friend's experience on his visit last week that the principal anxiety is to ensure stronger control over conservation. Nondiscriminatory conservation is not a principle that any of us would want to argue against in terms of the Isle of Man or the other extensive fisheries around the United Kingdom.

I have no wish that the right hon. Gentleman's constituents should be under any misapprehension. If any extension—I stress "if" because there is no question of the extension having been agreed to— of jurisdiction were to be contemplated, it would be crucial to ensure that it was compatible with the principles which underlie the existing rules on fishing in the zone in question, which safeguard the interests of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents. It would also have to be compatible with Her Majesty's Government's obligations under the European common fisheries policy and the London convention on fisheries of 1964. There can be no question of the importance that we attach to that. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make these points clear to his constituents, who are concerned about the matter, as they are bound to be. I am aware of that concern and I recognise that the fishing industry is a troubled and difficult one to be in. It should not have its problems added to gratuitously by any misunderstanding on this issue.

The issue which would need to be examined would be whether there was practical advantage to be gained from changing the existing arrangements, given the nature of the fisheries in question and Her Majesty's Government's several responsibilities, especially to the Isle of Man and to the interests of United Kingdom fishermen. There may be a case for a local hand on the tiller, given the particular characteristics of the fisheries and the fishing around the Isle of Man. But these are factors which will have to be considered when the conservation issues are clearer then our current state of knowledge permits us to be this evening.

I hope that my explanation has gone some way towards allaying the concern of the right hon. Gentleman. I can assure him and the House that it is no part of Her Majesty's Government's policies to act unconstitutionally or to fail to have proper and appropriate regard to their responsibilities to the people of the United Kingdom; but neither can we disregard their duties and historic responsibilities to the Government and people of the Isle of Man.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Home Secretary's door is always open to him and that he will never get anything other than a warm welcome in the Home Office when he is pursuing vigorously and properly the interests of his constituents. It was in no sense of regret that I came to the Dispatch Box this evening, and I hope that in doing so I have improved understanding of the issue and done something to reassure the right hon. Gentleman rather than add to the fears that he and his constituents might feel on this important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.