HC Deb 16 November 1998 vol 319 cc662-7

Lords amendment: No. 153, in page 46, leave out lines 12 and 13 and insert

("or in connection with the conservation, management and exploitation of salmon, trout, eels and freshwater fish in the Border rivers.

(1A) An Order under subsection (1) may—

  1. (a) exclude the application of section 49 in relation to any Border rivers function,
  2. (b) confer power to make subordinate legislation.

(1B) In particular, provision may be made by such an Order—

  1. (a) conferring any function on a Minister of the Crown, the Scottish Ministers or a public body in relation to the Border rivers,
  2. (b) for any Border rivers function exercisable by any person to be exercisable instead by a person (or another person) mentioned in paragraph (a),
  3. 663
  4. (c) for any Border rivers function exercisable by any person to be exercisable concurrently or jointly with, or with the agreement of or after consultation with, a person (or another person) mentioned in paragraph (a).")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. McLeish.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 154 to 156, 192, 195 and 209.

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

I shall deal first with amendments Nos. 153 to 156, which cover ground that was debated hastily, under urgent timetable pressure, earlier in the proceedings. We now have from the Lords a much expanded definition compared with the original. However, it is quite complex and I hope that the Minister will explain it a little further.

The essential principle that concerns my constituents and me is that what happens in England should not be decided merely by the Scottish Parliament without reference to my constituents' representations, which will be made through this House. [Interruption.] Those who suggest that adjusting the boundary could solve the problem had better have another look at the atlas, because it would be a fairly substantial boundary adjustment.

If the Scottish Parliament decided to allow Sunday fishing on the River Till—a considerable distance south of the border—which would add to pressure on river stocks, current UK legislation would preclude it. However, if the Scottish Parliament became enthusiastic for such a change, or for such a change on the entire Tweed river system, my constituents would have a legitimate interest in resisting that change.

One could imagine other changes, especially as the clause includes environmental aspects that could be significant. If legislation passed in the Scottish Parliament required the removal of various kinds of cauld that exist on the river system now, landowners would be involved in significant expense. We therefore need to be clear that there would then be an effective process of representation through this Parliament, and that any orders made would have regard to that.

What will be the position on commencement day? Will we have to wait some time for an order under clause 100? If so, what will be the position in the mean time? Will the legislation be accompanied by an immediate order under clause 100, or will there be a significant period in which all those matters will be dealt with by Westminster? I do not understand what happens in that interim period. I should be grateful for the Minister's reassurance on both those points, which affect the property and livelihood of a number of my constituents.

Amendments Nos. 192, 195 and 209 define the "Scottish zone" and an order will subsequently amplify the definition. Will that be done immediately, or will we wait for a long time before we have a definition? What happens if we wait for a long time? Will the order introduced under clause 112(2), to which amendment No. 195 refers, create a new definition of the "Scottish zone" and the boundary between Scotland and England out to sea? That is an intriguing prospect, as nobody has produced a satisfactory definition thus far and there are sharp differences of view as to where that boundary should lie.

Of more immediate significance to my constituents are the references to Scottish fishing boats because many boats fishing from ports in my constituency are registered in Scotland. The effect of these amendments appears to be that the fishing activities of a Scottish-registered boat fishing in the English zone would be regulated by the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. McLeish

indicated assent.

Mr. Beith

The Minister agrees that that is the correct interpretation. It is easy to understand the logic that, if a vessel is registered in Scotland and its owner fishes in Scottish waters, he has accepted obligations to Scotland which make it appropriate that he should be regulated by Scotland. It is slightly more questionable when, for historical or other reasons, a vessel is registered in Scotland and its owner fishes off Seahouses or Amble and is nevertheless regulated wholly by the Scottish Parliament. Has the Minister thought about that; and will he clarify the position?

Dr. Fox

The question of the River Esk was raised in the other place on several occasions. Will the Minister give us some quick clarifications? As the House knows, the management of the River Esk and the right to its source has been claimed by the North West Water authority, the National Rivers Authority, and now the Environment Agency. When it comes to the question of management, exactly how will joint authorities work together, and what will their relative responsibilities be? If the Minister cannot answer now, I should be grateful if he wrote to me explaining exactly how that will be worked out. I hope that the details of this specific example, as opposed to the generic one that we discussed under the previous group of amendments, have been sorted out because it is a very practical issue that has caused many problems.

May I make a plea for anglers? What is the current position in the Bill regarding rod licensing? That matter was raised in the other place and we did not quite get an answer then.

It may be appropriate to finish discussion of this group of amendments and the Bill by asking about a fixed boundary in the Solway Firth. Given that the centre of the channel moves, how will that come about? Are we to attempt to restrict and fix in legislation something that is wholly flexible and movable in nature? Let us hope that our attempt to do that is better than our attempts in some other parts of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus)

I do not want to oppose the amendments, but I should like to congratulate the Minister on his efficient and, as ever, competent dispatch of business.

It is appropriate that consideration of the Bill is ending with amendments relating to the River Sark and the River Tweed. This whole saga started in 1974—that long saga is coming to an end as far as the House is concerned, but for Scotland a new story is beginning.

7 pm

Mr. McLeish

I shall be brief, and I think that I can satisfy all the points that hon. Members have raised. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred to the Tweed and the Esk. Clearly, these will be matters for both Parliaments, so I cannot predict when decisions will be made. There will be no change to the status quo in the interim, and it will be up to the Parliament, along with Westminster, to define its priorities and what changes will be put in place.

In providing for fisheries to be devolved, the Government have always recognised that special arrangements would be required in respect of the two border river systems which straddle the boundary between England and Scotland. It is universally accepted that fisheries management needs to be approached on a whole-river basis. In doing so, however, anyone responsible for fisheries management for a river system which lies in England and Scotland would have to operate under the law of both England and Scotland. It is necessary, therefore, that the laws for regulating fisheries should be same on both sides of the border.

Our task in respect of the Bill, therefore, is to enable both Parliaments to approve such laws, but in a way that ensures that they both approve the same laws. The Government amendments to clause 100 are intended to allow much the same approach to be taken for the two border rivers between Scotland and England. In effect, we are providing for the legal framework for each of those rivers to be established by Orders in Council—which would be prepared by the Fisheries Departments in both countries in co-operation—and for such Orders in Council to be capable of addressing the wide range of tasks involved in fisheries management.

Such Orders in Council should also be flexible enough to offer a wide range of legal mechanisms for fisheries management, much as would be open for each Parliament if it were acting independently. We have to get it right on both sides of the river, and we have established in the Bill a framework for making sure that that is the case.

On sea fisheries, Government amendments Nos. 29, 192, 195, 209 and 252 relate to the devolution of functions in respect of the regulation of sea fishing. In the White Paper "Scotland's Parliament", the Government made clear their intention to devolve functions relating to sea fisheries, subject to suitable co-ordination arrangements to ensure effective discharge of United Kingdom obligations. The devolution of functions exercised at sea has raised for the Bill particular questions which have required careful thought, and the amendments are the product of that further thought. They are intended to ensure effective devolution.

As hon Members will understand, the exercise of ministerial and other functions in relation to the regulation of sea fishing will often mean that functions are being exercised outside Scotland. I should remind the House that, for the purposes of the Bill, Scotland includes the 12-mile territorial seas around Scotland, as provided in clause 112.

When such regulatory functions are exercised outside Scotland, there will need to be clear connections to Scotland to justify action being taken by the Scottish Ministers, and for Scottish courts to recognise jurisdiction in trying offences under Scots law. At sea, however, it is possible to envisage various possible connections to Scotland that might be thought to satisfy the condition "as regards Scotland".

I am conscious that the requirement to implement devolution for sea fisheries has raised a number of problems for legal advisers and, indeed, for United Kingdom Fisheries Ministers, who remain determined to ensure that United Kingdom obligations to manage fisheries under the common fisheries policy are implemented effectively.

Scottish Ministers will be responsible for managing fisheries within the Scottish zone, and for managing Scottish boats. Ministry of Agriculture Ministers will be responsible for managing fisheries within the waters adjacent to England and for managing English boats. The responsibilities of the Welsh and Northern Ireland Ministers and Assemblies will be a matter for their own legislation.

That overlapping set of responsibilities, which arise because of the need to regulate in respect of sea area and fishing boats which may operate in various areas, opens up a possibility that United Kingdom fishing boats may have to operate under the authority of separate licences issued by the fisheries administration. That is not on the horizon at present. The question of the zone is being considered and discussed, and that consideration will be published when that point is reached. Again, decisions on that will be taken by the new Parliament.

Mr. Beith

Do I understand the Minister to have expressed concern at the confusion that could arise if two boats fishing in the same part of English waters happened to be registered one in Scotland and one in England—even though they were both operating out of the same English port—and that the discussions have some time to go to find a satisfactory resolution?

Mr. McLeish

I can confirm that that is the case. This is an area of regulation that we want to get right, and it will be dealt with.

I hope that this is the last time that the Bill is considered by the House. I should respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Woodspring, which showed the spirit in which the Bill has been considered—it has been a highly technical discussion. He referred to the definition of freshwater fisheries management in the Solway firth.

Under the current legal definition of the Esk, the estuarial limit is drawn to include all the inner Solway firth. There are significant salmon fisheries in that part of the firth, and there are distinctive practices and regulations governing those salmon fisheries in England and Scotland. The relevant management bodies have drawn to our attention the fact that significant difficulties arise for enforcement of salmon fisheries regulations as a result of the fluid nature of the boundary between England and Scotland in the Solway firth. That is at the heart of the point that has been made.

The boundary in the Solway firth has, for many purposes, been taken to be the medium filum of the Esk, and then the combined Esk and Eden rivers at low tide. Things are not getting much simpler as we move through the Bill. The topography of the inner Solway firth is such that that channel can move considerably, and it is difficult to demonstrate to the satisfaction of a court where the channel may have been at any point in time. That has been a frustration for enforcement agencies in that area—not for many years, but for many generations. The good news is that the Government are considering that issue to come up with some final legal resolution to that on-going conundrum.

Dr. Fox

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As this may be the final time that we discuss the Bill, may I, on behalf of the Opposition, thank you, the other Deputy Speakers and, through you, Madam Speaker, for the way in which procedures have been conducted, especially the long stages in the middle of our consideration?

May I also, through the Minister, thank his civil servants for the information with which we were supplied during consideration of the Bill? Without that, it would have been impossible to come forward with constructive opposition. The Bill is much improved, although, as the Minister noted, we have finished with a debate which has been as clear as mud.

Mr. Wallace

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I associate the Liberal Democrats with the remarks of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)? We thank you, your fellow Deputy Speakers and Madam Speaker, as well as Ministers and officials.

If the Minister and his colleagues show flexibility on the one matter that we have referred back to the other place, this may indeed be the last time that we have to debate the Bill on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

There is no need for me to comment on those kind points of order.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 154 to 214, 221 to 236, and 279 to 285 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 286 and Government amendment (a) thereto agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 287 to 297, and 298 to 302 agreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments: Mr. Desmond Browne, Mr. Stephen Day, Mr. Oliver Letwin, Mrs. Anne McGuire and Mr. Henry McLeish; Mr. Henry McLeish to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.