HL Deb 10 June 1980 vol 410 cc252-61

7.6 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, SCOTTISH OFFICE (The Earl of Mansfield)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is a short and uncomplicated measure which seeks to extend the powers of the White Fish Authority to collect the general levy by which it finances its administrative expenditure. The Sea Fish Industry Act 1970 prescribes these powers and as they stand they extend only to fish physically landed in the United Kingdom. The Bill will enable the Authority to collect levy also on the increasing tonnage of fish, mainly mackerel, which is transhipped within British fishery limits; that is to say transferred direct from British catchers to carrier vessels for export.

The Bill has two basic objectives. First, it will rectify the omission in the 1970 Act, thereby ensuring that the responsibilities for financing the White Fish Authority are spread equitably across the fishing industry as was the clear intention of the Act. The second objective of the Bill is to raise revenue of approximately £300,000 per annum for the Authority, although the exact figure of course depends on the fluctuations in the mackerel catch.

The Authority has managed by rigorous internal economies to survive on an almost fixed levy income since 1974, but spiralling costs last year brought it to the point of acute financial difficulty. The Authority then sought ministerial approval for a 100 per cent. increase in the general levy to 1.6p per stone, in order to maintain financial solvency until 1982. The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in another place examined the application and concluded that an increase was justified, but added that if legislation could be enacted speedily to close the trans-shipment loophole, the Authority could manage with a smaller increase in the general levy than the doubling which they had sought. In anticipation, therefore, of the additional revenue which this Bill will enable the Authority to collect, and mindful of the Opposition's undertaking to facilitate the Bill's passage, the Government confirmed an increase in the general levy of only half, to 1.2p per stone. This took effect on the 8th of May.

The Authority is therefore depending on the Bill to balance its finances. If the Bill should not reach the statute book, the present anomaly of transhipments not being leviable will be exacerbated, as the Authority will either be obliged to seek a further increase in the general levy, or cut its services to the industry so drastically as to prejudice the forthcoming consultations on functions appropriate to the new body which we trust, in due course, will replace the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board.

The exclusion of transhipment from the 1970 Act was not a deliberate move. It was simply due to the fact that the particular circumstances which have recently given rise to the practice did not then obtain. Large scale transhipments within the white fish and particularly the mackerel industry did not develop until 1977. That year saw the extension of British fishery limits out to 200 miles or the median line. This closed off the mackerel grounds off the South-West coast to Soviet and Eastern bloc catchers. In order to maintain supplies for their large and mainly human consumption market, these countries despatched factory ships to the mackerel grounds. These provided a ready market, offering prices higher than our domestic fishmeal industry could, thus stimulating the United Kingdom catchers into prosecuting the mackerel fishery as a timely alternative to the declining herring fishery. Transshipment has subsequently developed to the extent that last year, of the United Kingdom catch of around 350,000 tonnes, about 67 per cent. was transhipped. It is interesting to note that transhipment of herring, which until the recent sad depletion of the stocks was very common, has always been subject to the Herring Industry Board levy.

Originally the authority considered, in good faith, that the 1970 Act empowered them to collect levy on transhipments. About £300,000 was collected before their interpretation was queried and they then ceased such collections. Effectively this was the final factor which forced the authority last year to seek the rise in the general levy. I think the Bill is sufficiently self-explanatory as not to need a detailed exposition, except to point out the safeguard which is included to ensure that levy will not be collected twice in respect of fish or fish products which are, for example, transhipped twice or transhipped and subsequently landed in the United Kingdom.

I should like finally to turn to a matter over which much concern was expressed in another place; namely, enforcement and collection of the levy. The authority's present system for the general levy depends on a statutory requirement that persons in the industry keep accurate records of transactions over which the authority has powers of inspection. Where transhipments are arranged via onshore agents, the position will be no different. In framing the regulations which are needed to make the levy operable on transhipments, the authority will be considering what special requirements on record-keeping and so on might be desirable. The authority are confident that they will be able to handle satisfactorily the problem of collection of the levy, even if the actual transhipments take place out of sight of land.

The importance of the Bill is, I trust, clear. The urgency of its timetable is dictated by the fact that, assuming Royal Assent, the detailed regulations which I have already referred to must be provided by statutory instrument, all if possible in time for the commencement of the intensive Minch mackerel fishery around mid-August. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. (The Earl of Mansfield.)

7.12 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Bill, which is a practical step to improve the finances of the White Fish Authority. That body has a tremendous amount of work to do if its to he of any value in rescuing the fishing industry from the appallingly low state into which it has sunk. I will not go into the reasons for that, in view of the fact that in another place they dealt with those matters to a considerable extent, but I hope the Minister will tell us in a little detail how the White Fish Authority proposes to monitor the catch and collect the levy.

I understand that off Cornwall in the mackerel season last year there were 40 freezer ships collecting fish from Cornish boats—some were Cornish boats but mainly they were boats from the hard-stricken ports of Hull, Grimbsy, Aberdeen and elsewhere. Some of these transhipments take place at night and it is immensely important that we know what the catch is and how much fish is being shipped out of this country. That is important not only from the point of view of the finances of the White Fish Authority but very much because of the need to know how stocks are being depleted. Indeed, if we go on at the present rate it seems clear that the mackerel stocks will go the way of the herring in five or six years' time. That is certainly the view of the Members representing Cornwall. Therefore, the monitoring of the catch is enormously important, and I should like the Minister to give the details of how that is to be done. Will people be put on board the boats or will a patrol boat actually monitor the transhipments?

Everybody will welcome the news that it has been firmly decided to amalgamate the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board into a new body. That will save some money and give the advantage of scale. The main point to remember, however, is the general concern in the industry that stocks will not disappear as has been the case with herring.

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, this is a small but very important Bill for the industry concerned. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, said about the need for information concerning monitoring. He rightly referred to the trawlers which operate in the south-west, coming from Hull, Grimsby and Aberdeen, obviously fishing there because there is mackerel, with the Russian ships just outside the limit of course; and this has been going on for a long time. I have referred to this on previous occasions in your Lordships' House, especially about the importance of our mackerel stocks. That has been dealt with in another way and I am sure that the Ministry, who have it in hand, know what is happening.

This short Bill is designed to extend the White Fish Authority's powers to collect its general levy from the fishing industry. I understand that at present the authority can raise a levy on fish which is landed in the United Kingdom; the Bill will enable it to collect levy also on fish caught by United Kingdom fishermen in our own waters but which is then transhipped direct to an exporting vessel without being landed. That is really the basis of it. The Bill will not increase public expenditure or affect public service manpower requirements. It is a simple and straightforward Bill and it is needed. I am sure noble Lords hope that one day we shall have a full-scale debate on the fishing industry. In the short time that I have been in your Lordships' House, even when I was a Minister here, I cannot remember our having the sort of annual get-together they have in the Commons to discuss the fishing industry.

I read carefully the Official Report of the debate in the Commons on the Bill and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, said, they extended their discussion into many other problems. I do not propose to do that tonight; only a short time is allowed for this debate. However, I should like the Minister to explain what is to be done about monitoring. Perhaps he could give an estimation of costs because that is a very important aspect of the matter.

The Bill is right and proper, although the tragedy is that it will take a long time before Aberdeen, Hull and Grimsby are able to build up another fishing industry. There are of course other factors concerning the industry which are affected by other things, but I will not go into those tonight. I hope the Bill will be useful and will enable our fishermen to fish satisfactorily in this area.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Peart, if he would agree that it is very important not only that regulations are laid down about quotas to preserve the mackerel catch, which is what I think he was referring to, but that they should be enforced? Half the fishermen's complaint is that the regulations and quotas are not being kept by fishermen from other EEC countries. The monitoring of the catch is, therefore, extremely important.


I entirely agree with the noble Lord, my Lords. We spoke together earlier about this and he knows that I completely agree with him about the need for proper monitoring. There can be no doubt about that.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Mansfield will be glad to know that from these Benches there is a great measure of support for this excellent Bill. I have really nothing to add to what the noble Lords, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord Peart, have said, except perhaps to ask my noble friend when he replies to assure us that he has adequate craft to handle this problem in the seas this autumn.


My Lords, perhaps I may be permitted to intervene to say that I hope tribute will be paid to the work of the White Fish Authority and the Herring Industry Board. We shall wait with interest to see what happens when we have the amalgamation. I hope the standards which have been maintained to date by those bodies, and which have done so much for the fishing industry, will remain at the same high level.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to endorse all that has been said about the Bill and I fully support the principle of it. I have an interest in Sutton Harbour, Plymouth. Reference has been made to the fishermen who sell direct to the factory ships, and we suffer them not only in Cornwall, as has been mentioned, but very much so in Devon as well. We are concerned about the monitoring question. We know that already there is evasion. If someone has had an extremely good run of catches and gets a chance of a bountiful catch which he can sell by a call to shore and a location with a boat, he will sell it. It is extraordinarily difficult to prove whether such a person has made a correct return of his catch to the White Fish Authority in regard to the sums that he was receiving. On the other hand, inshore fishermen who land their catches on the harbour have to pay landing charges, which help the port authority to maintain the port, whereas charges are not paid by those who sell direct to factory ships and revenue is lost.

In our case, the South-West White Fish Authority has its offices on the fishing harbour, and officials are on the spot to see that all the landings are duly accredited. However, I should like to think that there was some assurance that sales offshore to foreign ships could be monitored more adequately than seems possible at present. Not only might they be cheating in regard to landing charges, but, much more importantly, they might be reducing the stocks of fish, whereas, by and large those who return their catches to the docks and land them under the eye of officialdom are honouring the quotas. These fishermen feel very strongly that there is much sneaking over the quota, sometimes at night, as the noble Lord has suggested, when it is extraordinarily difficult to monitor the activity from the shore or the offices on shore.

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to thank noble Lords and my noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith for their general welcome of the Bill. With regard to the White Fish Authority, I concur with what was in effect said by the noble Lords, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord Peart, in praise of this body which has done, and continues to do, a great job. We in Government feel, particularly in view of the absence of herring—which unfortunately has been all too obvious for some years now, though one hopes that the position will be improved before very long—that a new body which will take the place of the two existing bodies is ripe for emergence. We have been in active consultation with the industry—and here I include such parts of the industry as the processors, the boat builders and other people who are one point or two points removed from the actual fishermen. I think I can say, without exceeding my brief, that the present position is that, having regard to the pressures of the parliamentary timetable, attention is being paid, and paid urgently, to a new successor body. But I should not want to go farther than that, and I hope that noble Lords will not press me.

The area of anxiety so far as your Lordships are concerned appears to have been the monitoring of transhipments with regard to levies, and the whole question was somewhat broadened by my noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith into an anxiety (if that is the right word) that a considerable amount of cheating has been going on over the catching and landings, which goes rather farther than transhipment.

So far as the collection of the levy is concerned, mackerel pose problems which are rather different from, and slightly more profound than, those proposed by herring. As I think has been said, while herring transhipments usually took place on piers or in close proximity to piers, and herring were in any event sold at auction, mackerel very often are caught at night. A large proportion does not go through auction channels, and can quite frequently be transhipped out at sea, where the "Klondykers" are wont to congregate. There is no requirement for a shore-based agent where fish is sold for trans-shipment, and therefore the levy will in fact have to be payable by the catchers.

The White Fish Authority is also aware of the difficulties, and noble Lords who are interested in the matter may have seen the authority's evidence as given to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in the other place. That Select Committee cross-examined the authority and myself on the subject, and noble Lords can see what the WFA had to say.

The details of the levy collection will be specified in regulations which are even now being prepared by the WFA, because, as I have said, they will need to be presented without delay. The WFA will be responsible for monitoring and enforcing the collection of their levy, with some powers of inspection, together with a requirement that all first-hand fish salesmen maintain accurate books and records. But of course the matter has to go much farther than that, and the Government have been giving anxious consideration to the question of how we can more efficiently and certainly more accurately monitor the catching and transhipment of mackerel.

The position in Scotland is slightly different from that in England, in that, first, the Minch, where the Scottish mackerel fishery takes place, is not perhaps an enclosed area, but is a small area of sea, which I have myself been in during the fishing, and it is comparatively easy to police. Having said that, I may add that we have already arranged that there will be an increased use of fishery protection vessels, which are owned and run by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland. Apart from that, there is to be a greater use of fast launches, and much more deployment of people to maintain a round-the-clock watch, and a quite comprehensive and sophisticated system of mobile radios is to be set up. I believe that with all these preparations and precautions one can be reasonably confident that a proper monitoring system will be maintained, at least in the Minch fishery.

Quite apart from this transhipment, the Government are anxious to keep an accurate watch on what goes on. We are extremely worried about the total allowable catch and the share of it so far as the Minch is concerned. There are of course the ICES recommendations which have to be put into effect and, not least, we have now agreed a system of catch reporting in the Community.

With regard to the South Western fishery, which is the one which my noble friend is most worried about, the English do not have fishery protection vessels and they have to hire (if that is the right way to describe this form of contract) the Navy and indeed the Air Force. I have visited the headquarters of the Fishery Protection Service in Pitreavie and talked to officials about all these matters, and my honourable friends in another place have also been exercising their minds on this question. Suffice it to say they are well aware of the difficulties and of the fact that the standard of monitoring must be very much higher this year than it has been in the past. Therefore, extra efforts are to be made and extra resources deployed to ensure that so far as is humanly possible an accurate and satisfactory record of all that goes on will be kept.

I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Peart, has said about our not having had a fisheries debate since he became a Member of your Lordships' House, and that I think is the position. Who better than the noble Lord to use up an Opposition Wednesday to initiate such a debate—if I may make that suggestion. My noble friend Lord Ferrers or I should be delighted to reply to such a debate, and I believe that your Lordships' House would be a very good forum in which to discuss some of the very difficult fishery questions to be ventilated in due course. I repeat my thanks for the welcome which this modest measure has gained in your Lordships' House. We hope that it will reach the statute book without amendment very quickly.

Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

[The sitting was suspended from 7.30 p.m to 8 p.m.]