HC Deb 01 March 2000 vol 345 cc527-32

Postponed proceedings on Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, resumed.

10.10 pm
Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives, North)

It is surprising that a matter that was not considered sufficiently important for the annual report at the time is now considered important enough for primary legislation. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber do so quickly and quietly, so that we may proceed with the Second Reading debate?

Mr. George

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The question that I raised earlier was whether it was appropriate for a public body to behave as the Sea Fish Industry Authority had done in not referring to the concern about the grants issue in the annual report. It was considered not important enough for the annual report, yet the Government consider it important enough for primary legislation.

This is a narrow issue, and the House should move on as quickly as possible so that at a later stage we shall have the opportunity to examine the legal advice that the Government receive. We must not put the future of the SFIA, it charges or its grants in jeopardy, as it is important, especially for sea safety, that we get the matter right.

In view of recent tragedies at sea and the fact that the Wolfson report has raised questions about the stability of beam trawlers, those issues need to be properly investigated. Concerns have been raised about single-handed fishermen and about whether it is appropriate for single-handed fishing boats to go to sea without those fishermen wearing life jackets. There are still questions pertaining to the Government bringing forward a code for under-12 m vessels.

Liberal Democrats will support the Government if the House divides on Second Reading, and we hope that our questions relating to a narrow and retrospective Bill will be addressed.

10.15 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I do not think that the Minister did full justice to the Bill when he introduced it. Although he took great pains to explain the details and the technicalities, I was disappointed that he did not refer at any length or in any depth—indeed, he may have mentioned it hardly at all—to the element of retrospection that is hidden in the Bill.

In fact, it is not all that hidden. In a written reply on 5 November 1998, the Minister himself said: The Government intend when the legislative programme allows, to introduce legislation to provide retrospective statutory authority for technical charges levied.—[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 660W.] The Minister, then, has told us that the Bill has retrospective effect—and, indeed, clause 1(1) says that The Sea Fish Authority shall be taken to have had power to make … charges. This is an explicitly retrospective measure—a Bill that looks backwards, in which the Government are saying, "We want to ensure that what has been happening is now legitimised."

I believe that, in normal circumstances, that principle would deserve a considerable airing, but on this occasion I simply cite it as an element that I think may have to be explored during the Bill's subsequent stages. I am putting down a marker: I am saying that I do not think that that element should be allowed to pass unmentioned or unnoticed, or, indeed, unjustified.

Traditionally, retrospective legislation is frowned on in the House. When I first came here, not all that many years ago, I was told that in parliamentary terms it was taboo, or forbidden. Here it is, however, sliding into the practices of the House—and certainly those of the Government—without so much as a by your leave, and with barely an explanation.

Paragraph 17 of the explanatory notes states: By ensuring that these charges were validly levied the Bill will secure a possible saving in public expenditure— which I would normally support— in avoiding any obligation that might otherwise arise to fund repayments. In fairness to the Minister, he made some reference to that, but I think we may want to explore—perhaps in Committee, or perhaps later—the question of what the Government are trying to slide away from in that seemingly innocuous phrase. It is not in itself a sufficient justification; it is a statement avoiding any obligation—which makes me rather nervous in any event—and I feel that it requires a much fuller explanation.

I was surprised by one aspect of the Bill. I shall not dwell on it unnecessarily now, but I want to make the point. As far as I can tell, the Bill's legislative origins date back to at least the Sea Fish Industry Act 1951 and its successor Acts: I think that there have been seven or eight.

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


Mr. Forth

I should appreciate a brief explanation from the Minister of why that is not the case.

Section 15 of the 1951 Act explicitly refers to the charging of "fees for services rendered". I should have thought that it would be at least possible that—given the way in which the measures have appeared over the years, one succeeding another, setting up a succession of authorities—authority for charging might have been carried forward from the explicit reference to fees in 1951 to current legislation. In our short debate, some doubt has been expressed about whether the problem described by the Minister really exists to that extent, and, consequent to that, whether the Bill would solve the problems.

A number of questions have arisen which the House will want to examine properly and in detail. It is perhaps not appropriate to air them at great length now, but there is more to the Bill than the Minister wanted to reveal in his opening remarks. The Minister understandably wanted to portray the Bill as a technical measure, which blocks a loophole. My view is different. The Bill raises important issues of principle, which will require more careful examination. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with those matters subsequently, if not now, and to satisfy the House for the purposes of Second Reading. We can then consider these matters in much more detail in Committee and on Report.

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

I want to answer some of the points that were made about a narrow and technical Bill. The hon. Members for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), for St. Ives (Mr. George), my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) dealt with the thrust of the Bill and understood the purpose of the measure.

The Bill will make legal charges that were levied under the previous Administration. The main period of time that the Bill covers is 1981 to 1996. It includes the Herring Industry Board, but that is inevitable in a catch-all Bill that applies retrospectively. I accept that retrospective legislation is not desirable, but the Bill applies retrospectively to tackle a problem that we inherited from the previous Administration.

Questions were asked about the White Fish Authority and whether it had the authority to make charges. The White Fish Authority had that ability, but it was the predecessor of the Sea Fish Industry Authority. There is no problem with the charges that were levied before 1972.

I was also asked about the ability of the White Fish Authority and the SFIA to make charges. They were deemed to have made charges on behalf of Ministers. I dealt with that point in my opening speech. Ministers may require charges to be made on their behalf, but if they give an agency the authority to levy charges, they must initially have the authority to grant the agencies power to do that. We have been advised that there was some doubt about whether Ministers had the authority to do that in the case that we are considering.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

As someone who does not expect to be invited to serve on the Standing Committee, I remind my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] He is nodding at me; he has me worried. However, we are considering a serious matter and I remind my hon. Friend that the White Fish Authority distributed millions of pounds in grants to Humber trawler companies to enable them to build vessels. Those companies treated their men abysmally when they lost their jobs.

Mr. Morley

Those comments stray wide of the Bill, but my hon. Friend makes a pertinent point, which the National Audit Office has picked up.

The Fisheries Act 1981 has been mentioned. The power to charge, for which section 3(3) of that Act provides, was subject to detailed consideration. The power to charge was covered in part I of the Act, but some schemes were established under part II. Advice suggests that it was doubtful that part II provided for the power to make charges.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Section 3 of the 1981 Act refers to charging for any services; it does not specify services under part I, part II or part III of the measure.

Mr. Morley

I understand that. However, Ministers must grant the power to make charges, and they must initially have authority that they can pass on to agencies that subsequently make the charges.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked about legal advice and whether the Ministry would publish it. According to precedent, no Government have ever published the legal advice that they received on legislation. However, having said that he may want to raise that issue during consideration of the Freedom of Information Bill.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I was a member of the Freedom of Information Bill Committee and I pressed the Minister's colleagues strongly for that to be included. It was, of course, resisted by the Home Department. Can he provide as much clarity as possible? All that we seek—in much more explicit terms than he has been able to use in either the explanatory notes or the debate—are the outlines of the advice that was given. That would satisfy all Members that the Bill is necessary. We are not satisfied simply because we have not received the outlines.

Mr. Morley

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and will consult my officials to see whether there is any scope for providing more information, although he must bear in mind what I said about the accepted precedent on legal advice.

I was asked about the HIB' s role in inspecting vessels and deciding whether they were seaworthy. I understand that it could refer a boat that it thought to be unseaworthy to the relevant authority, which was the Department of Transport. That is the case for its successor—the Sea Fish Industry Authority—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde rightly said, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is now the relevant authority. I understand his point about survival suits. He has great experience of the fishing industry and has made his case before. I was also asked whether Scotland has been consulted. The Scottish Executive are content to support the Bill being passed as United Kingdom legislation and it might be useful to remember that the charges are a pre-devolution measure.

Safety grants have also been mentioned and I say to my hon. Friend that the Bill deals with them and with past inspections. Safety and a safety culture in the fishing industry are of paramount importance and, although it is easy to make political points about the safety grants situation, these are serious issues. Incidentally, the old safety grants scheme did not apply to all fishing vessels and the majority of the smaller ones were completely exempt. There are questions to ask, such as why, despite the scheme, the fishing industry's safety record is so bad compared with that of the Merchant Navy, whose record has improved.

The Government have to address those issues and we in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are doing so. We are considering the possibility of establishing a successor scheme to the safety grants system or a safety scheme system under European Union structural funds. The old system was financed under structural funds, but I do not think that it delivered its objectives. We need a better scheme.

My hon. Friend referred to lifejackets, survival suits and training. We must consider those issues.

Mr. Moss

Can the Minister tell the House unequivocally whether he is giving a commitment to reintroduce safety grants for fishing vessels?

Mr. Morley

The debate is very narrow and we are not dealing with that. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that we take safety seriously.

We are considering the Government's role in working in partnership with the industry, which also has to take responsibility, and ways of improving the safety culture.

Mr. Moss


Mr. Morley

I am about to conclude.

The measure is narrow and technical, but we have to take safety seriously. I was asked why we have to introduce it if no one has taken legal action against the Ministry. No one has taken action, but I must point out what happened when the previous Government introduced the Merchant Shipping Act 1988.

The Factortame judgment followed. It was illegal legislation that was poorly thought through. It means that the taxpayer is liable for large sums of money, which will have to be paid in compensation. Those are issues that the Government have inherited, are addressing, will resolve and sort out properly.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).