HC Deb 14 July 1992 vol 211 cc994-1001

1. The Ministers may by order made by statutory instrument appoint up to five licence appeal tribunals for each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

2.—(1) Each tribunal shall consist of a chairman and two assessors, appointed by the appropriate Minister, and shall be supported by a secretary and such other staff as the Minister may appoint.

(2) A chairman shall be an advocate, barrister or solicitor of not less than ten years' standing.

(3) An assessor shall be a person who appears to the appropriate Minister to have practical experience of the catching sector of the fishing industry.

3.—(1) The Ministers may by regulations make provision for the procedure to be followed in appeals to a licence appeal tribunal.

(2) Regulations under this paragraph may include provision—

  1. (a) as to the time within which any proceedings before the committee are to be instituted;
  2. (b) for requiring persons to attend and give evidence and produce documents; and
  3. (c) as to the manner in which any decision of the tribunal is to be implemented.

4. With the leave of a tribunal or of the appropriate Minister, an appeal shall lie from any decision of that tribunal—

  1. (a) in England and Wales, to a Divisional Court;
  2. (b) in Scotland, to the Outer House of the Court of Session; and
  3. (c) in Northern Ireland, to a Judge of the High Court.".'.

Amendment No. 6 in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert— '(6C)(a) The skipper, owner or charterer of a vessel named in a licence may appeal to a licence appeal tribunal on the grounds that a condition imposed under subsection (6)(c), or provision made under subsection (6B) above, is unfair or unduly restrictive, provided that not more than one appeal may be made in respect of any one licence in any period of twelve months. (b) Schedule (Licence Appeal Tribunals) shall have effect.'.

Government amendments Nos. 9 and 11 to 13.

Mr. Curry

In Committee, I undertook to table a Government amendment to introduce a system of statutory tribunals to hear appeals against allocations of days at sea. The new clause establishes a tribunal, which is to be known as the Sea Fish Licence Tribunal. Its purpose will be to consider appeals from fishermen against their initial days at sea allocations. It will not cover licence suspension or revocation.

Ministers will be empowered to make regulations to specify the time during which applications can be made, the principles on which time at sea allocations will be adjudicated and the procedural arrangements for the tribunal—for example, what will constitute a quorum.

The tribunal will be empowered to dismiss appeals that are not valid and to increase or reduce allocations. The tribunal's decisions will be binding on Ministers, who will be required to amend licences in accordance with its findings.

Ministers will appoint the members of the tribunal and make provision for their remuneration and for the reimbursement of expenses. They will also provide staff and accommodation for the tribunal and reimburse expenses.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

It is typical of the haste with which the Bill has been pushed forward that we should be considering a complicated new clause such as this. If the Minister is making provision for the pay of tribunal members, why is he not making provision for compensation for the fishermen who will have to give up fishing to appear before the tribunals, and will waste considerable time at them?

Mr. Curry

If the hon. Gentleman had spent less time talking and more time listening in Committee, he would know the answer to that question. We intend to take the tribunals to the fishermen. We have made it clear that they will meet in the major fishing ports, and we intend to establish a number of fishery tribunals. There might well be a dozen or even 15 tribunals, and their job will be to listen to the cases put to them by the fishermen. They will be modelled on the dairy quota tribunals, which worked extremely well in the dairy sector. We envisage a three-man tribunal—as happened with the dairy quota tribunals—which should be presided over by someone from the legal profession. There should also be a lay member and someone with expert knowledge of fisheries.

The tribunals will be placed under the supervision of the Council of Tribunals, and that is provided for in new clause 4, which is consequent on the measure establishing independent statutory tribunals. I have tabled a new clause which fully honours the commitment that I gave in Committee, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

I had intended just to intervene rather than to make a speech now, but I shall turn that intervention into one.

I welcome the new clause. Will my hon. Friend explain what criteria and rules would lead the tribunal to give an extra allocation to someone who applied to it? I know that my hon. Friend will make the regulations, but can he tell me how they will govern how the tribunal works?

A fisherman in my area might fish for white weed, which was not recorded in the number of days that he spent at sea in 1991. Would the tribunal be asked to take such activity into account before deciding that fisherman's allocation for 1993 and other years?

My hon. Friend will be aware that, in my part of the Thames estuary, when the stocks of sole are low, many fishermen spend a lot of time fishing for white weed, which is a type of white coral. I am not asking my hon. Friend to say whether my fishermen would win in a tribunal, but whether such activity is the type of thing to which the tribunal would be bound to pay attention before deciding on what the allocation should be to individual fishermen.

Mr. Curry

The answer to my right hon. Friend's question is yes. If it was clear that those boats were not seeking fish, but seeking a different product, it would be perfectly possible for the tribunal to adjudicate on that.

Similarly, in other areas, boats may ferry equipment to oil rigs in the North sea or they may take people around a bay. It would be perfectly possible for the tribunal to adjudicate when there is a sharp distinction between fishing and unrelated activities carried out by those boats. However, we intend that that is precisely the type of non-fishing activity that we would take into account when setting the original number of days at sea. We therefore hope that fishermen would not feel obliged to go to a tribunal, because we hope to accommodate such activities at a much earlier stage in the process.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

May I move new clause 2 now?

Madam Deputy Speaker

It is perfectly permissible for the hon. Gentleman to speak to that new clause, but we deal with one new clause at a time.

Dr. Godman

In that case, I shall speak to new clause 2 and offer a couple of comments on new clause 3.

I was pleased to hear the Minister talk about local tribunals, because, as I specify in new clause 2, that is an important factor.

Given the type of decisions that will be taken on whether fishermen should continue fishing or be denied the right to go to sea, where they have traditionally sailed, it is important that the appeals tribunals should form an integral part of the legal systems of our countries. That is why I emphasise in new clause 2(1): The Ministers may by order made by statutory instrument appoint up to five licence appeal tribunals". The Minister proposed between 10 and 15, which goes well

beyond my suggestion.

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman's new clause and mine are similar. We envisage setting up sufficient tribunals to deal with the volume of appeals as expeditiously as possible. There is a legal unbrella for those tribunals—the Council of Tribunals. The most sensible thing to do is to ensure that the licence appeal tribunals fall within the jurisdiction of that supervisory body in the same way as tribunals in other sectors. We have therefore deliberately brought the licence appeal tribunals under that framework, and a separate, consequential new clause has no other purpose but to put those tribunals under the legal umbrella of the Council on Tribunals.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention and for what appeared to be a back-handed compliment to new clause 2.

New clause 4 refers to the Tribunals and Inquiries Bill, which is now going through the House. It makes good sense for the licence tribunal and the appeal tribunals to be covered by that Bill. I am pleased to note what the Minister said about the legal status of the appeal tribunals.

Paragraph (2)(2) of the schedule in new clause 2 states: A chairman shall he an advocate, barrister or solicitor of not less than ten years' standing". I was anxious to ensure that those tribunals follow the

traditional practice adhered to by social security appeal tribunals, medical appeal tribunals and others.

Paragraph (2)(3) states: An assessor shall be a person who appears to the appropriate Minister"— that could be the Minister with responsibility for fisheries in Scotland or Northern Ireland— to have practical experience of the catching sector of the fishing industry. I am pleased that the Minister has acknowledged the importance of such experience, because the decisions reached by those tribunals will have a profound effect upon the lives not just of the fishermen, but of their families and, in some cases, their communities.

Paragraph (4) states: With the leave of a tribunal or of the appropriate Minister, an appeal shall lie from any decision of that tribunal … in Scotland, to the Outer House of the Court of Session". I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland would agree with that. An appeal on a decision taken by a tribunal sitting in Campbelltown or Fraserburgh could finish up in the Outer House of the Court of Session. Perhaps I could be given a judgment on that point later. Similarly, an appeal in Northern Ireland could go before a High Court judge.

It is absolutely essential for our fishermen to know that, notwithstanding the fact that they will receive a fair hearing before a tribunal—composed of the people that the Minister and I have suggested—they have the ability to make a challenge.

Mr. Curry

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will outline the Scottish circumstances, but in England and Wales a fisherman would have recourse to judicial review. If a fisherman is not satisfied with the outcome of a tribunal, he has further legal recourse. If the tribunal was not a statutory one, the fisherman would appeal to me or other Ministers with responsibility for fisheries. However, because it is a statutory tribunal, legal recourse will be sought through a judicial review of the verdict.

Dr. Godman

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for another helpful intervention.

It is essential that the tribunal should be located as near as possible to the fishing ports. It appears that a number will be set up in England, and obviously a similar number, or even more, should be set up in Scotland. In view of the size of the Scottish fishing fleet and the way in which it is scattered around the coastline and islands, it is essential to establish tribunals that are as local as possible to the fishing communities, which are often remote.

5 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I will not lose the opportunity to welcome—it will not happen often this afternoon—a change in the Bill by the Government. We appreciate the Minister moving the new clause in response to a new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) in Committee. Indeed, the Minister said at the time that he found himself in an unusual position and that it was rare for him to be able to invite my hon. Friend to withdraw his proposal because he intended to table a similar provision at a later stage.

If the tribunals are so busy that there is a queue of fishermen wanting their cases to be heard in 12 or 15 ports, that will be a demonstration of how fiercely the Bill is biting into the livelihood of fishermen. While we need an appeals procedure to deal with grievances, we do not want the measure to operate so harshly that it removes the livelihood of fishermen.

My hon. Friends and I would rather the Bill was not brought into effect, or was at least subject to later amendment which ensured that it did not come into effect unless the circumstances changed significantly. Frankly, if the situation develops in the way that I described, the one line of opportunity for fishermen will be to seek places on the tribunals for people with experience of the fishing industry. That will be about the only way to make an honest penny out of one's experience of the industry. There will not be much other chance of using that knowledge.

There is even a danger, from the way in which the new clause is drafted and the regulations are likely to be drawn, that the time spent by fishermen attending tribunals could affect their entitlement to days at sea in subsequent years.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

It could have an effect on a fisherman's track record.

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman is right: having to attend a tribunal could have an effect on one's track record.

The tribunals procedure, necessary and welcome though it is, represents only a tiny alleviation of some of the most unfair consequences of what, in any event, will be disastrous for many people in the fishing industry. We are glad that it is in the Bill, but we would rather it was not needed, or had to be used only rarely.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

This is a bad Bill, which is not made much better by having regional tribunals. I am glad that the Minister has accepted the principle of tribunals and that, even at this late stage, he has introduced the new clause.

I echo what has been said about the need for tribunals to be localised. In the context of Humberside, where does the Minister envisage the tribunal being established? We have the two major ports of Hull and Grimsby. The overwhelming majority of the fishing fleet is in Grimsby. May we have an undertaking that the tribunal will be there?

I fear that the Minister is opening a Pandora's box by establishing tribunals. If milk licensing is anything to go by, the tribunal system will be enormously complicated and time-consuming, so we must have an undertaking that the people who compose the tribunals know the fishing industry. We do not want a legalistic framework with a pedantic formula of rules which will dazzle and baffle the fishermen. We need people on the tribunals who are from the fishing industry and who know how it works and about its problems.

The Minister must also give an undertaking that there will be compensation. The tribunals will not be out on the fishing grounds, which means that fishermen cannot carry on fishing while attending tribunals. Days at sea will be lost appearing before tribunals. The system will not be akin to milk licensing tribunals. The cows are milked while the farmer appears before a tribunal and has his complaint heard. It is not the same with the fishing industry. Fishermen cannot appear before a tribunal and fish at the same time, so there should be compensation for the fishing time lost.

Mr. Morley

While we welcome the tribunal concept, it is sad that, in the context of the Bill, such tribunals are necessary. Once the measure becomes law, there will be a queue of fishermen wanting to attend tribunals to ascertain their track record and see how the Bill applies to them.

One of our main objections to the Bill is that it adds yet another tier of bureaucracy and more expense to fisheries management. That money could be used in more constructive ways, such as for gear options and support of that type. I hope that the Minister will respond to the sensible points that my hon. Friends have made, which were made by us in Committee and featured in Opposition amendments dealing with the concept of tribunals.

Dr. Godman

I had intended to refer to the need for tribunals to hear cases quickly. A common complaint that we receive at our surgeries is about constituents waiting for cases to be heard by, for example, medical and social security tribunals. I hope that fishermen will not have to wait an inordinate time before having their cases heard.

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend makes an important point, especially as people's livelihoods are being threatened because of a reduced number of days fishing at sea. There will be a tremendous initial rush of people wishing to appear before the tribunals. The Minister said that a sufficient number of tribunals will be available in the ports. We need to be assured just where the tribunals will sit and how the Minister will deal with the initial demand. Will there be enough tribunals or some sort of flexible arrangement to meet the undoubted peak? Unless adequate arrangements are made, fishermen will be waiting a long time for tribunal decisions on matters affecting their livelihood.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

I welcome the Minister's positive response in recommending the establishment of tribunals. While they will not overcome the apprehensions of the fishing industry about the Bill, they represent a step forward.

I am reminded of the problems we had when milk quotas were allocated after 1985. There were then separate panels for different parts of the United Kingdom. For example, we had a Northern Ireland panel because quotas were allocated to Scotland, Northern Ireland and the other regions.

For the fishing industry, it seems that there will be one tribunal, or one set of tribunals, dealing with the whole of the United Kingdom. I am not against that in principle, but I trust that there will be consistency in the decisions made by the various tribunals. That will be achieved if only a small number of people are involved, allowing consistency to apply in decision making throughout the United Kingdom. We do not want disparity in such matters.

Where will the tribunals sit? Most fishing ports in Northern Ireland are remote from the main centres of population. Transport facilities are not good, and the public transport system is not favourable in terms of our fishing ports. So I hope that the tribunals will meet in the fishing ports. I hope that, in terms of Northern Ireland, the tribunal will not meet in Belfast. It should meet in the main fishing port of Northern Ireland, which is Portavogie. I do not want my fishermen to have to spend all day travelling on bad roads to and from Belfast. Will the Minister explain his thoughts on the location of the tribunals when they sit to examine applications?

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The fishermen in my part of the world already have to travel considerable distances to find harbours large enough from which to work. I share the hope of other hon. Members that the tribunals will inject at least some justice in to what will otherwise be a position of chaos and considerable injustice.

I am spurred to take part in the debate by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who referred to the membership of the milk quota tribunals. I recall that the chairman of the milk tribunal in Scotland was Mr. David Miles, who was given that job shortly after losing his seat as a Conservative Member of Parliament. I wonder whether Chris Patten or Chris Chope—at least his constituency was on the sea—will end up as chairmen of the tribunal. The mind boggles.

It is important that the tribunals should be manned by people who know what they are talking about.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Surely we can have no fears in that regard after the speech of Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, who seemed to give an absolute assurance that the Government would stop stuffing committees with Conservative placepeople. Has the hon. Gentleman no confidence in that assurance?

Mr. Home Robertson

Precious little.

Dr. Godman

My hon. Friend laughs at the intervention by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) but it is an important point. I am sure that my hon. Friends agree that there must be no political patronage, which is why I emphasised during our discussion of new clause 2 that the chairman should be an advocate or lawyer of 10 years' standing. That might provide work for Lord Fraser.

Mr. Home Robertson

My hon. Friend fills me with even more alarm. We could end up with the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn), who already has two jobs on the Scottish Select Committee and the Defence Select Committee.

The matter is serious. The tribunals must be seen to be credible and fair, and manned by people of standing who have credibility in the fishing industry and the wider community. The Government do not have a good track record in nominating people to run such establishments. I have already cited the example of the milk tribunal. The tribunals have an important job to do and had better do it well.

Mr. Curry

I wish to reassure the House on almost all of those points. I have responded in interventions to the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow and Port Greenock (Dr. Godman). I do not know how many tribunals there will be because we shall institute the tribunals in function of the work load. Therefore, if the work load is heavy we shall have more. I shall not lay down a maximum number of tribunals. It is important that they get off the ground quickly and we intend to bring them into existence at the earliest possible moment, once we have secured the Bill. They will then be in a position to operate immediately and we shall invite them to look at the most severe cases first, so they would prioritise their cases.

They will be three-men tribunals, and the chairman of each tribunal and the overall president of the system would come from the legal profession. I am sure that they would be of sufficient standing to meet hon. Members' concerns.

We shall ensure that the criteria are consistent and the tribunals will be peripatetic. We do not intend to establish them in a particular port and tell them not to move from it. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) is right to say that the tribunals would be United Kingdom-wide. They would go to where they were most useful and meet in the principal fishing ports. We aim to take the tribunals to the fishermen.

The House agrees that this is a sensible move. It fulfils an undertaking that I gave in Committee, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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