HC Deb 01 March 2000 vol 345 cc460-75

Order for Second Reading read.

5.54 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

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

The Bill fulfils a commitment that I made in a written statement to the House on 5 November 1998 to introduce legislation as soon as the programme permitted. The Bill will give statutory authority to charges made by the Sea Fish Industry Authority for handling applications for fishing vessel grants. These charges were discontinued in May 1996, and the Bill does not allow for their reintroduction.

The Bill is very short and straightforward, but the background, as with many legal issues, is complex. Indeed, the background to the Bill is rather longer than the Bill itself. I hope that the House will find my introduction to the issues that required the introduction of the Bill helpful.

First, I should make it clear that the Bill is not a vehicle for introducing financial assistance to the fisheries industry. It is, intended solely to deal with the charges levied in the past. In that respect, it is a very narrow measure. There will be further opportunities to discuss those issues.

The Bill's purpose is to ensure that the charges levied by the Sea Fish Industry Authority between 1 October 1981 and 3 May 1996 in connection with the administration of certain grant schemes that were made under the Fisheries Act 1981 were proper. It also ensures the validity of the charges made by the Sea Fish Industry Authority's predecessor, the Herring Industry Board between March 1972 and October 1981. The Herring Industry Board was abolished in 1981 but its liabilities were transferred to SFIA.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to expand on the background to the Bill before I take interventions.

The first charges that the Bill is intended to validate are known as technical charges. Those were levied by the Sea Fish Industry Authority to cover the costs of various checks and inspections that the authority carried out during the period from 1 October 1981 to 3 May 1996 in relation to applications under five different fishing vessel grant schemes. No other charges were made by the Sea Fish Industry Authority in administering the schemes during this period.

Under a succession of schemes made under section 15 of the Fisheries Act 1981, grants have been made available to fishermen in the United Kingdom for the construction, improvement or safety of vessels. These have all been administered by the Sea Fish Industry Authority on behalf of Ministers, as provided by section 16 of the Fisheries Act 1981.

The SFIA has surveyors' offices in Hull, Plymouth and Peterhead, but grant payments have always been made from Edinburgh. The technical charges covered the costs incurred by SFIA marine surveyors in inspecting vessels at the application stage. Those inspections checked on what work was needed, including examination of technical specifications and plans, and inspection on completion of work so that the surveyor could satisfy himself that the work, which had been grant-aided, had been carried out properly. The charge was calculated on a sliding scale but on average was around 4 per cent. of the cost of the work, although a maximum ceiling was set to limit the charge applied to larger applications.

The charge was itself eligible for aid under the grant schemes, which meant that vessel owners bore only 70 per cent. of the charge. The SFIA levied its charges by deducting the total charge from the amount of grant paid to the beneficiary.

On Government charging, the guiding principle is that a public body may not generally make a charge for a service without statutory authority or the agreement of the "customer". Questions about the validity of the technical charges were first raised in 1995, when officials were examining material that the SFIA had produced to implement the Fishing Vessels (Safety Improvements) (Grants) Scheme 1995. Although section 3 of the Fisheries Act 1981 gives the SFIA power to charge for certain services, there were doubts as to whether this power extended to the SFIA levying its "technical charges". When the SFIA administers a fishing grant scheme, it does so, under section 16 of the 1981 Act, on behalf of Ministers. Its powers, therefore, are essentially those of the Ministers for whom it acts. Since Ministers had no automatic power to make charges in relation to the schemes, it seemed doubtful whether the authority had the power to charge.

Against this, it was noted that applicants had signed the SFIA' s conditions of approval for the payment of grant, and those referred to the deduction of the technical charge from the overall level of grant. I emphasise that no objections about the deduction of the technical charge were ever received from grant recipients.

The issues were extremely complex and were given thorough consideration. The conclusion reached was that it was doubtful whether the SFIA had legal power to levy its technical charges. In the light of that, the authority was formally instructed to cease levying the charges on 3 May 1996.

It was then decided that the charge should not be reintroduced, because the nature of the grant schemes had changed and much less technical work was involved in processing applications. The Bill, therefore, does not give authority for technical charges to be levied for any period after 3 May 1996; it does not introduce retrospective charges.

My written answer on 5 November 1998, in Hansard, column 660W, announced the Government's commitment to legislate when our programme allowed. That announcement made it clear that MAFF did not intend to meet any claims that were brought before the legislation was in place. There were three reasons for that. First, the charge for administering the grants was reasonable. Secondly, it has never been challenged—no complaints about it have been received. Thirdly, the cost of repaying the charge would be disproportionate to the benefit that such repayment would confer on those who paid it.

There are precedents for the provision of retrospective statutory authority for similar charges. The Birds (Registration Charges) Act 1997 validated charges levied under sections 6 and 7 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for the registration and selling of certain dead birds. The Wireless Telegraphy Act 1954 also gave authority to past payments made to the Postmaster General for wireless transmission and receiving licences.

Background work on the Bill raised the possibility that similar charges levied by the predecessor body to the SFIA—the Herring Industry Board—in connection with the schemes of financial assistance made under the Sea Fish Industry Act 1970 and earlier legislation consolidated in that Act might also have been of doubtful validity. After careful consideration, it was concluded that the HIB also had no power to levy those charges. Consistent with the treatment of the SFIA charges, it was thus decided to extend the coverage of the Bill to the equivalent HIB charges.

Section 6 of the White Fish and Herring Industries Act 1953, as amended, enabled the HIB to make grants to persons engaged, or proposing to become engaged, in the herring industry for acquiring or improving fishing vessels under a certain size limit. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) might understand why I thought I should explain the background before I took interventions.

Acting under section 6 of the 1953 Act, as amended, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland introduced the Fishing Vessels (Acquisition and Improvement) Grants) scheme in 1967, enabling the HIB to make grants. A similar scheme to enable the HIB to make grants was introduced in 1976.

Charges levied by the HIB in relation to those two schemes were on the same sort of fishing vessel grant applications as those made to the SFIA and were calculated using a very similar formula to that later used by the SFIA. The same considerations as to the reasonableness of the charges and the disproportionate cost of any repayments applied to those charges just as they applied to the SFIA charges. Indeed, the difficulties of making any repayments would be even greater, given the longer time that has elapsed. The Government have therefore decided to legislate to validate those charges too, because the charges are equivalent to those levied by the SFIA. The Government would also not intend to meet any claims made before the legislation in respect of them is in place.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In order to ensure that the debate is not intelligible only to those who have participated on previous occasions, will the hon. Gentleman do me the good turn of assisting the House by explaining the formula—in some detail, if necessary—for the elucidation of right hon. and hon. Members?

Mr. Morley

As I said in my introduction, I realise that this is a complex, technical and narrow measure that relates to charges. I am presenting a full explanation to the House. With the leave of the House, I am willing to clarify any points that hon. Members raise in the course of the debate.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

From the hon. Gentleman's description, it sounds as though the charging has come about through custom and practice, rather being made than on a statutory basis. He has traced it back to the HIB. Was it custom and practice then, or did the charging scheme exist before the HIB?

Mr. Morley

No, the charge goes back to the HIB—that is far enough for anyone. It was not based on custom and practice; it came about in relation to the administration of grants. When grants were paid out, the boats were inspected to ensure that the money was being correctly used—that the work had been done properly and that the grant conditions had been upheld. That is right in order to protect public funds, and is normal when any local authority or Government grant is made.

The question was whether the HIB and its successor—the SFIA—actually had the authority to charge for those grants. The Bill makes it clear that they did have that authority, even though it will be applied retrospectively under the measure.

Mr. Forth

The Minister will be aware of the Sea Fish Industry Act 1951. Section 15(2)(a) states that the then authority shall have power … to raise by means of a general levy the moneys necessary. It then refers to voluntary payments.

If I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want to trace the history of the Act from 1951 to the present, because there is a continuum. Does the Minister agree that authority may arise from the 1951 Act—not to mention its successors?

Mr. Morley

In an earlier debate today, we heard of the benefit of engaging the best legal brains to give advice on such issues. I am advised that the matter has been examined carefully to find which provisions are applicable. The feeling was that, in order to ensure that there is no doubt about the situation, a measure could be introduced, because it would make it clear where matters stand—both to the industry and to the Government—and that charges were levied with the proper authority.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

The Minister referred to the legislation on the HIB. Will he tell the House how the White Fish Authority and legislation linked with the HIB are germane to the Bill?

Mr. Morley

It is germane because the HIB was the predecessor to the SFIA. The HIB administered charges that were, in essence, the same as those administered under the SFIA and for the same kind of grant administration. There was thus an element of doubt. If there is doubt as to the legal status of the SFIA in relation to charging, the same doubt must apply to its predecessor.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley

I should like to make progress with my remarks. I realise that this is not one of the most scintillating speeches ever made in the House, but it is important that I explain what is at stake, and the technicalities of the measure.

The total amount of money levied in charges was £7.3 million; it covers 13,000 cases over about 30 years. On average, that amounted to about £560 per case. However, as up to 30 per cent. of the charge was offset by grant, the cost to the applicant was about £390. A small part of many of the charges was for technical advice—such as assisting applicants to choose the appropriate equipment—and was not directly connected with handling the grant application. The SFIA did, and does, have powers under the Fisheries Act 1981 to charge for such of advice, but it would now be extremely difficult to separate that from charges for the work that necessitated the Bill.

Because of the time delay, it is difficult to be more precise about the exact amount of the charge than the figure of £7.3 million. I am sure that the House realises that, even if we wanted to trace the owners of boats on which charges were levied, it would be impossible to do so.

The Bill's first main operative provision is in clause 1(1). It will ensure the validity of the charges levied by the Sea Fish Industry Authority between October 1981 and May 1996 in connection with its administering four fishing vessel grant schemes made under section 15 of the Fisheries Act 1981 and also the 1976 scheme to which I have already referred. Under the 1981 Act, the responsibility for administering the latter scheme passed to the SFIA. The schemes are the five specified in paragraphs (a) to (e) of clause 1(2).

Clause 2(1) makes provision to ensure the validity of the same technical charges levied by the HIB between March 1972 and October 1981 in connection with its administering the two fishing vessel grant schemes specified in subsections 2(a) and (b).

Clause 3 cites the full name of the Bill. No charges were levied for the administration work after 3 May 1996 and clause 3(2) is necessary to make it clear that the Bill does not facilitate the reintroduction of any charges after that date. Clause 3(3) is necessary to establish that the Bill extends to the whole United Kingdom including Northern Ireland.

I appreciate that this is a narrow and technical measure. However, it will protect from any doubt the issue of the payment of public funds. I emphasise that there have not been any complaints from the fishing industry about the charges, which were levied fairly in relation to the services that were provided as part of the administration of grant aid that was claimed at the time.

6.11 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

In the light of the fishing industry's parlous state, it is incredible that, at his first opportunity to speak to the House since the Fisheries Council met in December, the Minister should have chosen to introduce a Bill that is at best obtuse, as he readily agreed: he also said virtually nothing about the industry's problems, and certainly proffered no short or long-term solutions to them.

Although I accept that the Bill is narrowly drawn—and I am sure that the occupant of the Chair will exert his responsibilities in that regard—I have to say that we have very few opportunities to discuss fishing in all its facets on the Floor of the House. The bulk of the legislation is a devolved European matter. At the time of the annual fishing debate in November last year, there was considerable disquiet about the short time afforded for discussion. After the Minister made his contribution, only two Back Benchers were able to speak.

The problem was recognised by the Leader of the House at business questions on 19 January. The right hon. Lady was asked about the loss of this Bill on that day's business and she said: I was not pressed to find more time for the Bill that was debated this evening, I was pressed to find an opportunity to discuss fishing issues. My hon. Friend will know that one of the Bills that has been lost for today's business, as a result of the activities of Opposition Members, would have offered an opportunity to discuss fishing issues.—[Official Report, 19 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 941.] That was her view of the Bill.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend will be aware that the explanatory notes to the Bill refer to the Fisheries Act 1981, which is the key to the whole thing. Section 15 mentions schemes of financial assistance for the purpose of reorganising, developing or promoting the sea fish industry. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the whole point behind the series of Acts—to say nothing of the statutory instruments—that lie behind the Bill was, among other things, to promote the sea fish industry? That should have given the Minister the opportunity to tell us how the Bill contributes to that broad purpose.

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I can help the right hon. Gentleman. The Bill does not provide the platform for the wider-ranging debate for which he had hoped. I cannot allow hon. Members to go down that path.

Mr. Moss

Such is the critical nature of the issues facing the fishing industry that I think that almost every Member representing a fishing constituency will have been lobbied hard about its difficulties. The industry is almost in despair at the increasing level of regulation and cuts. Such are its fears for the future that it has launched a most unprecedented attack on the Minister by demanding his resignation. It has set a six-point plan in front of him, and criticises him on two counts relating to the detail in the Bill.

The criticisms relate to the Government's lack provision of any grants for fleet modernisation, the very points that were made—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am afraid that I have to repeat my advice. Members cannot have a general debate about the state of the fishing industry, however much they crave one. It is a narrow and technical Bill.

Mr. Moss

I bow to your judgment, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I am an honorary president of the Clyde Fishermen's Association and the brother of the skipper of a big freezer trawler. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that no representations have been made to me about the Bill. That is because its focus is narrow.

Mr. Moss

The point that needs emphasising is that the Bill offers the Minister the opportunity to say something about grants and safety grants, which he has pointedly refused to do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is specifically not the case. I ask the hon. Gentleman to desist from pursuing that point.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is not Question Time. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) has not said anything on which the hon. Gentleman can intervene.

Mr. Moss

Let me move to a separate part of my speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Atkinson


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should abide by my previous ruling. Nothing of substance has yet been said on which he can intervene.

Mr. Moss

As the Minister pointed out, the Bill's purpose is to ensure the validity of certain charges levied by the SFIA and by the Herring Industry Board and the White Fish Authority, which had their powers transferred to the SFIA in 1981. I asked the Minister to clarify the position of the White Fish Authority and he pointedly failed to do so. However, along with the HIB, it was a precursor of the SFIA.

At the heart of the matter is the Fisheries Act 1981, which set up the SFIA and, in particular, its role in administering various schemes of financial assistance under part II of that Act. When one delves into that Act, it is not apparent that any glaring oversight was made when it was enacted. The intentions of the original lawmakers were clear and unambiguous.

Mr. Leigh

My hon. Friend says that the Bill may be necessary to ensure that there is no doubt about the validity of the charges, but has there been any legal challenge to them? The Minister shakes his head, so I assume that there has not. That raises a serious question as to why the Bill is necessary. Fishermen, as they see their industry going down the tube, might wonder why the House is debating such a narrow Bill and why the Minister is like Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. The House is wasting its time when it should be discussing the real problems of the industry.

Mr. Moss

My hon. Friend makes a telling point, to which I was going to come later.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Moss

No, I shall not give way just at the moment.

Section 3(2) of the Fisheries Act 1981 states that the SFIA may charge fees for any services which it provides and may accept voluntary contributions to its expenses or to its expenses in respect of any particular matter. The charges that the Bill seeks to validate, which are known as technical charges in the accounts of the SFIA, are those that are levied by the SFIA to cover the costs of various checks and inspections carried out by marine surveyors as part of the administration of the various grant schemes in the statutory instruments referred to in the Bill. Those grant schemes are essentially of two types: one relates to the purchase and/or improvement of fishing vessels, and the other specifically to safety improvements to fishing vessels.

In sections 15 and 16 in part II of the 1981 Act, Ministers were given powers to provide schemes of financial assistance and to delegate the administration of such schemes to the SFIA. For the avoidance of any doubt or confusion regarding those powers, section 15(1) says: The Ministers may, in accordance with a scheme made by them with the approval of the Treasury, make grants or loans for the purpose of re-organising, developing or promoting the sea fish industry or of contributing to the expenses of those engaged in it. It is clear that Ministers can set up schemes to give financial assistance of the type described in the Bill.

To embrace earlier schemes that were already in the pipeline, subsection (5) includes those schemes administered by the White Fish Authority under section 49 of the Sea Fish Industry Act 1970. The interesting point is that the White Fish Authority seems to have had powers both to issue grants and to make charges for administering the schemes, including technical charges—or so it was believed when the White Fish Authority became the SFIA.

Section 16 of the 1981 Act covers the delegation of powers to the SFIA. It states that Ministers may require the Sea Fish Industry Authority to administer for them any scheme made by them under this Part of this Act and where the Authority has been so required it shall administer the scheme accordingly and may exercise any discretion vested under the scheme in the Ministers. The purpose of that section is clear: if a Minister requires the SFIA to administer any scheme of financial assistance for the fishing industry, it is duty bound to do that for the Minister.

If I interpret the Act correctly, the SFIA is also empowered to exercise any discretion that Ministers had vested in themselves, either in the primary legislation or in the various statutory instruments relating to the individual schemes. As I said earlier, those statutory instruments are in two groups. The first includes the Fishing Vessels (Acquisition and Improvement) (Grants) Schemes 1976, 1981 and 1987, and the second includes the Fishing Vessels (Safety Improvements) (Grants) Schemes 1993 and 1995.

Let us examine those statutory instruments more closely: apart from the most obvious changes relating to rates of grant, each one provided an opportunity to tighten up the wording and widen the scope of the legislation. That was confirmed by the Minister in his speech. As the House is aware, neither of the schemes for grant aid is now available—the last to go was the safety improvement grant scheme, which the Minister chopped last May—and the SFIA was instructed not to make any further technical charges after 1995. However, there were and still are schemes being administered from that date and from May 1996, which was the date for the discontinuance of the safety grant scheme.

What were the technical charges composed of? We can obtain some idea of that from the relevant paragraphs of the statutory instruments. Let us consider, for example, the safety improvements grants scheme of 1995. At the beginning there is a simple statement that Ministers—meaning Ministers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland—can exercise powers conferred on them by subsections 15(1) and 15(2) of the 1981 Act and administer the scheme on the safety improvement grants. Applications for grant are made to Ministers under paragraph 3 of the statutory instrument and decided by them under paragraph 6.

Paragraphs 7, 8 and 9 set down eligibility terms for grant payment, pre-work approval and minimum standards. Paragraphs 8 and 9 give the House an indication of the amount of work involved. On pre-work approval, paragraph 8(1) says: Where an applicant whose application has been approved under paragraph 6 intends to enter into a contract with another person for the carrying out of the whole or any part of a relevant improvement to which the approved application relates, the Ministers shall, before the contract is made, approve—

  1. (a) the specification for the improvement to be undertaken;
  2. (b) the tender for expenditure to be incurred; and
  3. (c) the form of contract to be entered into between the applicant and the supplier or other contractor.
Paragraph 9, on minimum standards, says: A relevant vessel to which an application approved under paragraph 6 relates shall conform to any standards laid down by or under the Merchant Shipping Acts 1894 to 1993 and shall be constructed or adapted so as to make such provision for the accommodation of officers and crew as, in the opinion of the Ministers, conforms to the best modern practice, after making due allowance for the age and kind of the vessel, for sleeping and messing accommodation, sanitary accommodation, medical or first-aid facilities, store rooms, catering facilities and other accommodation. That is only part of the range of checks and inspections required to be carried out on each and every grant application, not only in 1995 but long before that, and probably as far back as the White Fish and Herring Industries Act 1953. That is work for experts such as marine engineers and surveyors, who would be drawn in the main from the private sector—certainly post-1981. Those people needed paying for the work done, and the question was, and apparently still is, who should pay them and through which Department or organisation.

Ministers made the schemes, invited applications, vetted and approved those applications and reduced or recovered grant in certain situations. That much is clear. Section 16 of the 1981 Act gave Ministers the power to require the SFIA to do all that necessary work for them. Furthermore, section 16 gives the SFIA the power to exercise any discretion vested in Ministers under the scheme. If Ministers could cover their costs of administering the scheme, why could not the SFIA, to which they had devolved responsibility, do so? Surely section 3(2) of the Act confirms the SFIA' s authority to make charges, when it states clearly: The Authority may charge fees for any services which it provides. Charges were made on the applicants who had to match the criteria and conditions for the grant aid which were set by Ministers. Ministers could hardly countenance grant being given without corroboration from the SFIA that all the conditions had been satisfied. That meant checks and inspections, and payment for expert services.

No one is suggesting or has suggested that the recipient of the grant aid should not be the person eligible for the costs of processing and administering the grant application. Since 1995, when the SFIA was told to stop levying charges, the organisation has had to find the money to pay for those services out of its own budget. I remind the House that the SFIA's income comes from the levy on all persons engaged in the sea fish industry, according to section 4(1) of the 1981 Act. It seems that the many are supporting the grant applications of the few who stand to benefit.

I return to my earlier statement that, on close scrutiny, there does not appear to be any glaring oversight by those who originally drafted the legislation with regard to the responsibilities of Ministers, the SFIA or its predecessors. Certainly, the SFIA interpreted the law as I have attempted to describe it to the House. It clearly believed that it was given full authority to administer the various grant schemes and to make charges for its services.

It should be emphasised that the conduct of the SFIA was impeccable and beyond reproach. I hoped that the Minister would make that point in his opening speech. Perhaps he will emphasise the fact when he winds up. The SFIA inherited the system from its predecessors, the Herring Industry Board and the White Fish Authority, and continued to make technical charges in good faith.

Even the explanatory notes that accompany the Bill, which were no doubt written by the lawyers who drafted the Bill, are less than convincing on the question of who had the real authority. On page 3, paragraph 11, the notes conclude, as justification for the primary legislation: It is considered doubtful that the Authority— that refers to the SFIA— had statutory authority to make these charges. What a monumental understatement—"It is considered doubtful". One is left wondering whether it is considered doubtful that the Bill deals conclusively with the problems that it purports to solve.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. My eye also alighted on that statement in paragraph 11 of the notes. As that doubt is the entire justification for the Bill, would it not have been helpful if the legal advice on which that doubt is based was vouchsafed to the rest of the House, so that we could form our own opinion?

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which should be addressed to the Minister rather than to me. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that important issue when he winds up.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I reinforce the comment of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important that the legal advice should be published, for it is not inconceivable that someone who disagrees with the Government's conclusion might seek to protect himself under the European convention on human rights? It is important that the House should know to what it is giving its approval.

Mr. Moss

I agree with my hon. Friend. No doubt the Minister will have access to the published guidance, which I am sure is at hand, and he could refer to that when he winds up the debate.

One cannot help but feel that the Bill is not the stuff of primary legislation on the Floor of the House, especially as it is taking up valuable parliamentary time, which I and many others believe could be put to more meaningful use.

The total charges levied by the Herring Industry Board and the SFIA since 1972—that is, over 24 years to 1996, when the last technical charges were made—were £7.3 million, covering 13,000 cases. To put that into perspective, the SFIA was approving safety grants alone at the rate of more than £1 million a year up to 1996.

The fishing industry will be dismayed to learn that, of all legislation seeking to help its parlous situation, the Government have produced this Bill. Yes, it purports to block a perceived loophole, but even the Minister was not convinced of the existence of the loophole. Yes, it deals retrospectively with the problem, and yes, ironically, it touches on the vexed and pertinent issue of grant aid to the fishing industry.

Given the content of the Bill and the promises made by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister to reintroduce safety grants for the industry, why did not the Minister do the decent thing this evening and table additional clauses to the Bill to right the wrong and reintroduce safety grants?

The fishing industry will yet again be incredulous about the level of commitment from the Minister and his complete lack of tact and sensitivity in presenting such an inconsequential Bill in a crowded parliamentary timetable. That says much about the Government's priorities and lack of understanding of the real issues.

6.37 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I begin by responding to the closing remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). We have an excellent Minister. There is no way that I can be described as a sycophant—

Mr. Forth


Dr. Godman

I do not have to grovel—not when I am speaking about the fishing industry, about which I know something, as does the hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Townend), even if the Opposition's official fisheries spokesman knows little or nothing about the industry.

The industry has been badly served by both Tory and Labour fisheries Ministers down the years, but my hon. Friend is a good Minister.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

Did I hear the hon. Gentleman correctly? Did he say that I knew little or nothing about the fishing industry?

Dr. Godman

I would not dare say that about the hon. Gentleman. He is one of the few Opposition Members who attends fishing debates. I am sure he will agree that we do not have enough debates about the fishing industry. In no way would I suggest that he knows little or nothing about the industry. I know that he is a committed supporter of fishermen and their families in his constituency. I have offered that compliment to him in the past.

My hon. Friend the Minister rightly said that the Bill is narrowly focused. I acknowledge that, while agreeing with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that the industry deserves a wide-ranging debate in the near future. As I said earlier, I speak as a member of a fishing family. We have served the industry badly in the House until recently, when my hon. Friend assumed responsibility.

I need to ask my hon. Friend a couple of questions, if he will forgive me for making him work. The Herring Industry Board was set up in 1927 or thereabouts, even when the herring industry—I speak as the son of a fisher girl—was in decline. The board had to be wound up many years ago.

According to the Minister, who referred to both the Bill and the explanatory memorandum, the relevant period is from 1981 to 1996. The sum that we are discussing is £7.3 million, relating to 13,000 checks and inspections conducted by officials of the Sea Fish Industry Authority. I have considerable respect for the SFIA' s officials, who, I believe, are located in Young street, Edinburgh. Apparently, the original Herring Industry Board plaque is still on the wall.

I feel that I must comment on the absence of certain political day trippers—members of the Scottish National party who are Members of the Scottish Parliament, and who receive £20,000 over and above their normal salaries. Although the Bill is narrowly focused, it is of more than passing interest to all our fishing communities in Scotland. I need hardly remind hon. Members and others that, in terms of the overall economy, the fishing industry in Scotland is much more important than the industry south of the border. Anyway, the day trippers have gone back to Edinburgh.

What documentary evidence is retained by the Ministry, or by the authority in Edinburgh, concerning the 13,000 inspections? What power did the inspectors have in terms of recommending, say, that a fishing vessel should not be allowed to put to sea? What power was given to inspectors assessing safety equipment? Were they able to say that a vessel was so unseaworthy, or that its safety equipment had been so badly neglected, that it should not be allowed out?

The Minister may say, "Hold on: the arrangements ended in 1996." But who has the power now? I tabled three questions for answer on Monday 13 March, asking how many fishing vessels had been banned from putting out to sea because of inadequate safety gear, or because they were unseaworthy. Questions are now being asked in relation to the dreadful loss of the seven-man crew of the Solway Harvester, a vessel owned by a company in Hull. I believe that the House should be told who now has that power. I believe it is exercised outwith the Ministry, by the Coastguard Agency, but, in the context of safety checks, does the Ministry liaise closely with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions?

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Given his renowned knowledge of these matters, the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the findings of the inquiry into sea fishing by the Agriculture Committee, which were published last year. I was fortunate enough to serve on the Committee during part of the inquiry. It visited Iceland and many other interesting places, but that is neither here nor there: I shall not test your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Committee made two recommendations—recommendations 37 and 38—in regard to prosecutions for fishing infringements. It recommended that the Government commission a review of how the prosecution process for fishing offences could be made more efficient, more speedy and more consistent, and how the penalties for serious breaches of the regulations could be increased. The Committee was referring principally to regulations affecting the taking of fish—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Dr. Godman

Thank you for rescuing me from what seemed to be an interesting speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will make his own speech later, but he will need to hearken to what is said by the Chair in regard to the narrow focus of the Bill.

I thought that the Agriculture Committee produced a very good report, but, although I am not a lawyer, I think I am right in saying that in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, the penalties for fishing infringements—this certainly applies to those who are dragged before the sheriffs courts in Scotland—are much heavier than those imposed on owners for failing to protect their crews in relation to adequate safety measures. There is a hell of a difference between the two, and I think that that is a scandal. I have said it often enough before, but I will say it again.

Mr. Hayes


Dr. Godman

The hon. Gentleman is going to have another try.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) is going wide of what is a very narrow Second Reading debate.

Dr. Godman

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I was carried away. You know what I am like when I start talking about the fishing industry. I need to be more rational and logical.

Let me ask this in relation to the Bill, and in relation to the question of safety checks. Between 1981 and 1996, were the inspectors able to recommend to the SFIA the legitimacy of an application to buy survival suits for the crews of fishing vessels? Life rafts were purchased during that period, along with other essential safety equipment. Some of the provision for that was introduced by Albert McQuarrie, a famous Tory Member and an old friend of mine, in a private Member's Bill concerned with the safety of fishing vessels, which later became an Act. But were the inspectors allowed—in the context of the inspection referred to specifically in the Bill—to sanction the purchase of survival suits?

I remind the Minister, if he needs to be reminded, that in two recent cases men who have gone over the side have survived only because they were wearing survival suits. One lad who fell from an Orkney-based vessel was in the water for 20 minutes. Another fell from a vessel that was burning, and was in the water for the same length of time. He suffered mild hypothermia, but because he was wearing one of the suits he survived. I want to know whether the inspectors were allowed to sanction their acquisition during the earlier period, and I want to know the position now in terms of safety grants.

Let me ask another question in the context of the Bill. I know that the Minister has established a concordat and a very good working relationship with his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament—although things are a bit different with the Northern Ireland Assembly at the moment—but what discussions took place about the Bill with those responsible for the Scottish fishing industry and the Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Hayes

May I intervene, more briefly than last time and on that specific point? In their response to the Agriculture Committee, the Government said: the Sea Fisheries Inspectorate and the Ministry's Legal Department recognise the importance of dealing with suspected infringements promptly and issuing summonses through the Courts in good time. Interestingly, they also noted that Separate legal systems operate in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They made that point quite firmly, suggesting that the problems referred to by the hon. Gentleman did exist.

Dr. Godman

That was a remarkably brief intervention for the hon. Gentleman, who is always courteous. He makes an important point, but I do not want to drift off course, if you will pardon the expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Being the navigator that you are, you would sort me out.

We are considering 1981 to 1996, but our anxieties did not end in 1996. I appreciate that primary responsibility for safety rests with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. My hon. Friend also has a commitment to the safety of fishermen and the well-being of their families and communities. We need a debate during which we can not only discuss the need to make our industry more economically viable for all the fishing communities from the Shetland islands to Cornwall, but consider introducing regulations, which give greater protection to fishermen as they follow the most hazardous occupation in our islands.

6.51 pm
Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

Like other hon. Members, I regret that we have no adequate opportunity to debate fishing matters. However, this debate does not present such an opportunity, because we are considering a narrowly focused Bill. We cannot therefore spend many minutes regretting that.

I appreciate the fact that the Bill is intended to be a tidying-up measure. For the reasons that the Minister outlined, it will clarify the powers of the Sea Fish Industry Authority by giving it the ability to levy administration charges for processing applications for grant aid. The Bill will apply retrospectively, and validate practice since the Fisheries Act 1981 was passed. Despite the comments and explanations of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), it is not appropriate to debate whether the Government's legal advisers were doing their job properly.

Hon. Members have drawn attention to paragraph 11 of the explanatory notes. It states: It is considered doubtful that the Authority had statutory authority to make these charges. We have to take that on trust. Perhaps the Minister will deal with the matter in his winding-up speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly suggested that we should have access to that legal advice at a later stage. Apart from the bald statement that I quoted, we have no further evidence to go on.

Mr. Bercow

I note the hon. Gentleman's last remark. May I infer from his comments that he, as the representative of a fishing constituency, and in the absence of published Government legal advice, would not feel comfortable supporting the Bill in the Lobby for fear of the possibility that, despite the Minister's assurances, it might not be compatible with convention rights?

Mr. George

I am happy to support Second Reading. We will have an opportunity at a later stage to pore over the matter in more detail and perhaps resolve the matter. I do not believe that we shall store up problems simply by supporting the Government this evening. We intend to do that.

As the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) rightly pointed out, I represent a constituency that has a considerable fishing interest. It is appropriate to point out that when I realised that the Bill would be discussed, I attempted to consult the industry as widely as possible, not only in my constituency but nationally and, indeed, internationally in England, Scotland and Cornwall—

Dr. Godman

And Northern Ireland.

Mr. George

Yes, and Northern Ireland. Like the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), I found that the industry had no burning ambition for the measure to be reviewed seriously, or that the House should be detained with matters of detail.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

When the hon. Gentleman consulted the fishing organisations, did he explain that it was possible that they had paid £7 million that they should not have paid? In the current financial climate, £7 million would be most welcome to the fishing industry.

Mr. George

I am grateful for that intervention. The information about the 13,000 cases and £7.3 million was germane to the consultations and the industry knew about it. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) knows that if we examine the matter retrospectively, we must also consider Governments from 1981 who were responsible for overseeing the loss.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire was right to draw attention, within the narrow scope of the Bill, to the need for the Minister to tackle fishing safety grants. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a statement in May last year in which he announced the withdrawal of those grants. Yet in June, on a visit to Cornwall and the south-west amid much fanfare, the Deputy Prime Minister announced that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions had found the money to reinstate the grant. However, in a letter in November, the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations to say that the grants could not simply be restored as he had originally understood.

We have covered that ground before, but the Minister knows that the industry is anxious to restore the grants. On a recent visit to Cornwall, which the Western Morning News reported, the Prime Minister stated we would get some news soon. We anticipate positive news that fishing safety grants will be reinstated soon. We are anxious for confirmation of that.

Mr. Hayes

The hon. Gentleman shared experiences on fishing trawlers with me—[HON. MEMBERS: "Tell us more] I remember that we were linking arms.

Safety grants came within the orbit of the 1981 discussions, with which the hon. Gentleman will be as familiar as I am. The Select Committee on Agriculture, on which we both served specifically referred to safety grants in the context of an ageing fleet. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that in relation to the Select Committee's work and recommendations?

Mr. George

I am grateful for that intervention, which is relevant to the matter that I am considering. The Select Committee made important recommendations on the lines that I am outlining. I ask the Minister to tackle those points in his winding-up speech.

The explanatory notes state that the SFIA was told to stop levying charges on 3 May 1996. However, we can find no public statement on that date, or any reference to the fact in the authority's annual report. We should consider what constitutes appropriate action by a public body. It is surprising that the matter was not considered sufficiently important.

It being Seven o'clock, further proceedings stood postponed.