HC Deb 14 July 1992 vol 211 cc1001-7

'After section 4A of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 there shall be inserted— "Regulations supplementary to sections 4 and 4A.

4B.—(1) The Ministers may by regulations make provision as to—

  1. (a) the manner in which a licence under section 4 or 4A of this Act is to be granted, or a variation, revocation or suspension effected, and
  2. (b) the time when a licence, or a variation, suspension or revocation, shall have effect.

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) above, regulations under this section may include provision—

  1. (a) for documents to be delivered, or notices given, to the nominees of person to whom licences are granted;
  2. (b) for documents or notices to be treated as delivered or given if they are posted or otherwise communicated in accordance with the regulations;
  3. (c) for notices to be given by publication in newspapers;
  4. (d) as to the transitional effects of variations.

(3) Regulations under this section may make different provision for different cases.

(4) Regulations under this section shall be made by statutory instrument, which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.".'—[Sir Hector Monro]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With that it will be convenient to take the following amendments

No. 14, in clause 1 page 1, line 19, at end insert— '(4A) After subsection (7A) there shall be inserted— (7B) In any proceedings in Scotland commenced on or after the coming into force of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1992 for an offence under this section, any—

  1. (a) entry in any logbook kept, under an enforceable Community obligation relating to fishing activities, by the master of a vessel;
  2. 1002
  3. (b) declaration made, under such an obligation—
    1. (i) by the master of a vessel or by an agent, as to fish landed; or
    2. (ii) by the master of a vessel, as to trans-shipment;
  4. (c) information required to be provided under—
    1. (i) any condition imposed under subsection (6) above, by the master, owner or charterer (if any) of a vessel, or by an agent;
    2. (ii) subsection (7) above, by the master, owner, or charterer (if any) of a vessel, shall be received in evidence without being produced or sworn to by any witness and shall be sufficient evidence of the matters stated therein.".'.
No. 15, in clause 2, page 1, line 29, at end insert— '(2A) After subsection (8) there shall be inserted— (8A) In any proceedings in Scotland commenced on or after the coming into force of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1992 for an offence under this section, any—
  1. (a) declaration made, under an enforceable Community obligation relating to fishing activities, by the master of a vessel;
  2. (b) information required to be provided under—
    1. (i) any condition imposed under subsection (6) above;
    2. (ii) subsection (7) above, by the master, owner or charterer (if any) of a vessel, shall be received in evidence without being produced or sworn to by any witness and shall be sufficient evidence of the matters stated therein.".'.

5.15 pm
Sir Hector Monro

New clause 5 is a measure to reinforce the workings of the licensing system, which is necessary as we are to rely on that system for administering days at sea limits.

The issue of a licence, the variation of that licence and, if necessary, suspension or revocation are functions undertaken to apply conservation measures. At present, fishermen sometimes deploy the argument that because they were at sea when a licence variation was delivered to their address, they cannot be bound by its terms. Towards the end of last year, when fishermen became aware that the closure of the haddock fishery was imminent, a large portion of the fleet went to sea and stayed out as long as possible, thus maximising their catches before they had to admit that they knew that the fishery was closed. Such behaviour is unfair on law-abiding fishermen who stop fishing as soon as they hear on the radio that the fishery is closed. It is unfair and cannot be allowed to continue.

The new clause will enable us to overcome the problem. The Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 empowers Ministers to grant licences but does not specify how they should be granted. The new clause will enable Ministers to spell out in regulations how a licence or a notice of its variation, suspension or revocation will be granted, whom it should be delivered to and when it will take effect. We intend to specify that a licence will have been granted, and therefore take effect, once it is delivered.

We also intend to require licence holders to nominate a person with a United Kingdom address to whom the licence should be delivered and to specify that as far as the law is concerned, delivery to that nominee's address will be regarded as the same as delivery into the hands of the licence holder. That will overcome the problem of the licence holder being at sea at the time of delivery. It will also ensure that vessels that spend much of their time operating from foreign ports are on a par with those from United Kingdom ports. It will be up to the licence holder to make suitable arrangements for ensuring that the nominee passes the information contained in the licence on to him if he is at sea. Obviously, one must be flexible because it may take a day or so for that to happen, particularly if a boat is in foreign waters.

Regulations will also be able to provide for notices of licence variation, revocation or suspension to be given by means of publication in newspapers where necessary.

Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 provide that, in any proceedings for an offence under sections 4 and 4(A) of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967, it will be unnecessary for a witness to speak to the documents listed or for those documents to be corroborated by other witnesses. They will accordingly be admissible as proof of what they say, unless and until the contrary is proved.

The House may find it helpful if I describe how fishermen record their activities, the additional information that will be required to monitor days at sea, and how that leads to the need for the two amendments. On each trip, a fisherman is required to keep a record of his activities in his EC logbook and, on returning to port, send a copy to my Department, keeping a copy for himself. The logbook records when the vessel left port, when it fished, what it caught, when and where it returned to port and various other details.

Dr. Godman

The Minister is now talking about the logbook and said "when the vessel was fishing". If the vessel cannot fish for a day or two because of bad weather, would that be taken into consideration in terms of days spent at sea? When a vessel is on the fishing grounds but the gear is fastened down because of severe weather, will allowances be made?

Sir Hector Monro

All those matters are part of a vessel's track record. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said on the previous amendment, all those matters are taken into account when days at sea are accounted for. What the skipper puts in the logbook will be important information.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to the Minister for showing his characteristic courtesy. Does he agree that, in winter, there could be a pronounced distinction between days spent at sea and days fishing?

Sir Hector Monro

I am well aware of that. As a fellow Scot, I know the hostile conditions that many of our fishermen face in the north, particularly in the far north.

Similarly, a landing declaration is required to confirm the quantities of various species caught once they have been measured accurately in the course of landing and selling the fish.

Mr. Salmond

The Minister will remember that, under the iniquitous eight-day continuous tie-up regulations in Scotland, when it was days in port that were being counted, provision had to be made for when a boat was caught in a storm and could not return to its home port. Will provision be made in this legislation to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), when a boat cannot fish because of the prevailing weather conditions at sea? The Minister will appreciate that the issue of fishing safety arises if boats are forced to fish in all conditions, about which people from fishing communities feel strongly.

Sir Hector Monro

I accept that fishermen feel strongly about that, as they did about the tie-up rule. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that he is pushing me pretty far towards saying that, if the weather is bad, it does not count as a day at sea. One must be cautious about that, because it is particularly difficult to say when and at what time the weather turns so perverse that the nets have to be brought in and fishing cease. All the information on the log must be taken into account when drawing up the track record.

To monitor days at sea, we shall need additional information so that records are available for time spent at sea on trips which did not involve fishing and fishing trips where the EC does not require a logbook to be completed—for example, trips of less than 24 hours in duration where the vessel is less than 17 m in overall length. Both my Department and the fishermen will keep copies of the log book, landing declarations and returns on long fishing trips. We shall thus be able to monitor how many days at sea a vessel has done in a year.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State has described how procedures followed by Departments plus an independent appeals tribunal will ensure that the allocation of days is fair. So that the whole system is fair, we must ensure that we can prevent people from going to sea for more days than those to which they are entitled. The amendments are required to ensure that offences under the Bill can be effectively prosecuted in Scotland. They will ensure that crucial documents such as logbooks and landing declarations are admissible in Scottish ports as proof of what they say without the need for any witnesses to speak for them.

It will be open to fishermen to bring evidence before the court if they dispute the provenance or content of a log sheet, and in such instances the Crown will have to lead its own evidence of the authenticity of the documents. It is in everybody's interests that, if a case involves 50 or more log sheets which are not disputed by the fisherman, those can be introduced into evidence as simply as possible.

Fishing is unusual in that it is an activity which is necessarily tightly controlled by the law in order to conserve fish stocks, yet it takes place in remote places where, despite all the efforts of our protection services, there is usually little evidence beyond the documents that the fisherman himself provides. It is therefore entirely reasonable that, unless there is evidence to the contrary, the fisherman's own records of his activities should be accepted.

Amendment No. 14 introduces the arrangements that I have described for the generality of documents kept by fishermen, and amendment No. 15 does the same thing for documents relating to the transhipment of fish from one vessel to another. The amendments address issues that arise in Scottish courts, and I commend them and new clause 5 to the House.

Mr. Salmond

I cannot help feeling that the Minister's introduction of the new clause and the amendments reinforces the view that many of us have that we are seeing the addition of a new layer of bureaucracy on to an already complex position within the industry.

The Minister may recall that on Second Reading I detailed at some length the hugely variant and different standings for which boats within the white fish fleet could be fishing, depending on where they were fishing and what their historical track record had been, whether they were on tied-up days or what their mesh size was. There are already five different standings for the white fish fleet. In pursuance of the Bill, the Minister seems to be adding another maze of regulations.

Having heard the Minister, I can well understand why the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, could not give an estimate of the duration or even the number of sittings of the tribunal which the Government are proposing to establish. The Government have not taken on board the full complexity of the regulations that they are trying to enforce.

Members of Parliament representing fishing communities would like to know whether safety at sea and bad weather conditions will be taken into account and be a significant factor in adjudicating whether a boat has been fishing at sea or has merely been at sea sheltering from bad weather. The Minister may consider it almost impossible to make such a distinction, but what he has already outlined seems to be impossible in bureaucratic terms.

Dr. Godman

I want to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on amendment No. 14 and logbook entries. The Minister opened up a chink of light in terms of the need to be concerned with our fishermen's safety with his responses to my interventions and to one made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan.

The Minister will recall that I gave an example from my brother's experience of a vessel having to sail into wind during severe weather conditions off the west coast of Greenland, far outside the province of the Bill. That vessel was on the fishing grounds but unable to fish for almost eight days. I do not envisage such a problem arising in Shetland waters, the Pentland firth, off the west coast of Scotland, in the channel or off the east coast of England, but it is essential that the appeal tribunals recognise, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said, the need to pay due cognisance to the safety requirements of fishermen and fishing vessels.

We should be aiming by way of the logbook entries and the appeal tribunals for a position where the skipper of a vessel on the fishing grounds can say, "Hey, lads, the weather is worsening. We are now coming up to a force 8 and we should not be shooting the gear, so we shall bring it in or tie it up and go in for a bit of dodging. We won't suffer because we have had to dodge for one or two days." During a severe winter, those one or two days could add up to a number of days lost as a result of the severity of the fishing conditions.

I shall be looking to the appeal tribunal to take serious notice of weather conditions if skippers make appeals on that basis. They may have been unable to fish for as many as 20 days in a period of two or three months, despite the fact that they were on the fishing ground, because of the severity of the weather. Had they shot the gear they might have endangered the lives of the crew. That must be taken into account by the regulations and, perhaps more importantly, by the appeal tribunals.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

I welcome the establishment of the appeal tribunals, but will a skipper be required to provide evidence that, for example, his boat suffered engine trouble when applying to the Department for a longer licence, or would he apply direct to the appeal tribunal for a licence to be granted?

5.30 pm
Mr. John D. Taylor

The amendments relate specifically to Scotland and to its separate legal system, and it was difficult to follow the Minister's explanation. If they are approved, will they create a situation similar to that which currently obtains in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—or will they offer some advantage to fishermen in Scotland that will not be enjoyed elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

A brave and hardworking group of my constituents earn their living out of Shoreham harbour, by fishing in the English channel. The life of a fishermen is dangerous enough, and I would not wish any regulations or legal powers in the Bill to make it even more dangerous. In exercising any powers that Parliament may see fit to give the Department, I hope that it will give paramount consideration to the safety of our fishermen.

Mr. Morley

No one could disagree with any measure concerning licence variations that is designed to apply fairly and equally to the whole fleet. The Minister mentioned boats operating from foreign ports. On occasions, our own vessels do that for all sorts of reasons. However, a number of foreign boats that fly under a British flag operate exclusively from foreign ports, and fish on British quota. How will the regulations be enforced in the case of boats that spend most of their time outside this country, who will enforce them, and what will be the cost?

Sir Hector Monro

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) spoke of the "bureaucracy" of the new arrangements, but he must accept that, throughout agriculture and fishing, anything to do with Europe involves a great deal of bureaucracy. When the regulations for the new common agricultural policy are introduced in the not-too-distant future, the hon. Gentleman will see how much additional administration will fall on farmers. As we all know from our daily postbag, there is noticeably more administration involved in keeping up with the modern world.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) related bad weather conditions to the work of tribunals. The track record will be based on the year 1991, when many boats fished in bad weather or had to hove to and bring up their gear. That will be allowed for when licences are considered.

On the good side, fishermen may find that the Department is able to offer even more days at sea than they expect. It is wrong to imagine that everyone is on the starting blocks, waiting to run to a tribunal. We must wait to see how the Department operates the arrangements throughout the United Kingdom. I do not believe that they will prove to be as complicated or as severe as hon. Members suggest.

In the examples cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason), the skipper would apply first to the Department. It wants to be as helpful and as flexible as possible. A fisherman would refer to a tribunal only if he felt that the Department's decision was unacceptable. I am certain that the Department will be able to resolve problems such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend.

The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) asked about the provision's implications for Northern Ireland fishermen. New clause 5 covers the whole of the United Kingdom, but amendments Nos. 14 and 15 specifically ensure that Scottish law is covered. They will not affect Northern Ireland. New clause 5 and the amendments will prove helpful in effectively implementing the regulations, and I commend them to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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

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