HL Deb 10 April 1984 vol 450 cc1064-8

4.38 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, the Fish Farming (Financial Assistance) Scheme 1984 provides the back-up grants which are necessary before fish farming projects can qualify for aid under the 1983 FEOGA measures for aquaculture, contained in Council Regulation (European Economic Community) No. 2908/83.

The 1983 FEOGA measures were adopted following settlement of the revised Common Fisheries Policy and followed the earlier interim aid schemes, first introduced in 1978 and renewed each year since then. The 1983 FEOGA measures provide, as did the interim aid schemes, grants of 25 per cent. of capital costs approved by the European Commission for fish and shellfish farming projects. The 1984 scheme also makes provision for the first time for back-up grants for projects approved under the final interim aid scheme. For convenience the 1984 scheme extends to projects approved in earlier years as well, and we have therefore revoked the Marine Fish Farming (Financial Assistance) Scheme 1981.

The rules of the 1983 FEOGA regulation are largely similar to those of the interim aid schemes. However, there have been two important improvements. First, the council regulation provides for a longer-term scheme; and, secondly, it allows the Commission, for the first time, to provide funds for aquaculture projects in fresh water, in addition to salt or brackish waters, as in the interim aid schemes, if appropriate projects come forward.

Perhaps I may say a few words about the details of the scheme. Its scope is limited to providing back-up grants for FEOGA aid. In consequence, grant will be paid only in respect of expenditure approved by the Commission. The rate of back-up grant will be 5 per cent. of approved expenditure, paid in addition to the 25 per cent. FEOGA grant, except where the project is also being grant-aided by other public funds, if that takes it above the 5 per cent. in which case there is always a cut-off point at 5 per cent.

Back-up grant will generally be paid to applicants at the same time as the FEOGA aid is paid. This will help to ensure that the grant is paid properly. As is customary in such schemes administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, the 1984 scheme contains provisions for revoking approval of grant and recovering grant paid.

FEOGA awards made since 1980 for fish and shellfish projects under the interim aid schemes have totalled £223,466 in England, £49,145 in Wales and £818,251 in Scotland. That is the level at which this kind of aid for fish and shellfish farming has been running. I hope that this measure will be welcome and will ensure that British fish and shellfish farmers are able to benefit from Community aid. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the scheme laid before the House on 14th March be approved— (Lord Belstead)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for explaining the scheme. One thing that must be said about any of these schemes is that there is never a lack of paper on the subject. It is a good thing that now, as the noble Lord has told us, fresh water fish farming comes under the last scheme. I remember that when it was brought in I asked a question. The grant was to relate to salt or brackish waters (I think they were called) and I asked whether or not the grant would be made where someone pumped brackish water up into an inland lake or reservoir. As far as I recall, I did not receive a reply to that question, but now I do not need a reply because fresh water fish come under the scheme.

However, I wish to raise one or two points. This is a scheme which "tops up" (I think that is the expression) the FEOGA scheme by not more than 5 per cent. Regardless of whether or not the scheme is completely separate—this is a separate instrument, anyway—it states that the expenditure (of 5 per cent., one presumes) has to be approved. Does that mean that there have to be two approvals, which would seem to be a waste of time? I hope that the noble Lord has some information for us that that is not to be the case.

Also, if the total is 5 per cent.—of course, it could involve quite a sum of money on a big scheme—to suggest that the overall 30 per cent. should be paid in instalments seems slightly ridiculous. But if the schemes go together and the approvals are handled together, then the points that I am raising would not arise. However, I should be glad if the noble Lord would clear up those queries. We are pleased that there is to be further assistance under the scheme, because there is no doubt that, though it does not add tremendously to the overall supply of fish, fish farming provides a lot of work, particularly in areas such as the Highlands, and we welcome it very much indeed.

Lord Tryon

My Lords, before we pass this measure—and I am certainly not opposing it—I should like to sound a word of warning about the possibility of the overdevelopment of fish farming in fresh water and in river valleys, in particular in the south of England, where it is most prevalent. Many of the water authorities and millions of people who fish for pleasure are becoming increasingly worried about the relatively uncontrolled development of table fish farms, which often take out a large part of the water from a river and put it back at a different point, as well as about some of the pollution that is caused below them in some cases. I spoke about all of this during the Second Reading of the Diseases of Fish Bill last year, and I shall not go over it again.

I should like to confine myself to five brief questions, which cover the main points that seem to worry the water authorities and the fishermen in the rivers. I see that under paragraph 3(6) of the scheme the Minister has wide powers to seek information from any applicant for a grant, and therefore I should like to ask the Minister, if I may, whether the applicant will be asked to satisfy the Minister on the following points.

First, has the fish farmer, or potential fish farmer, consulted his water authority to be advised of the problems that his development may cause downstream? At the moment this does not seem to happen very often. Secondly, is he fully aware of the proper use of chemicals in the treatment of his fish if they contract disease? Again, there are worries that the use of certain antibiotics and such like on the fish may go down into the main river systems and cause trouble.

Thirdly, can the applicant assure the Minister that the abstraction involved will not affect the ecology of the main river system on which the farm is situated? This covers the point I mentioned earlier, where the water may be taken out at one point, put through to a fish farm and put back at another point, leaving the river virtually dry—to be absurd—in between those two points.

Fourthly, has the fish farmer taken the fullest precautions so as not to interrupt the movement upstream or downstream of migrating fish? This causes considerable worry to fishermen, with the grids that are put in above and below fish farms. Lastly, has the fish farmer taken proper precautions to ensure that the fish cannot escape from his farm and infest the waters below it? This is not always welcome to other people in the river systems.

I think that if the Minister can ask questions of that kind of fish farmers, or potential fish farmers, applying for grants, it would go some little way to alleviate some of the worries that water authorities and fishermen have, though we may well hear more about this on another occasion.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of this statutory instrument, though I must say that the noble Lord, Lord Tryon, has asked me some rather searching questions. I wonder whether I may first answer the two questions that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, asked of me. The first question the noble Lord asked was: does the fact that there is a back-up grant as well as the FEOGA 25 per cent. grant mean that there will have to be two approvals? The answer to that question is: no, it is not necessary. Grant will be paid only in respect of projects that have been approved in advance by the Community. But when the fish farmer has completed the work, he will apply to the appropriate fisheries department for his grants. If his application is satisfactory, it will be forwarded to the Commission for approval of the FEOGA grant payment, and that payment will be made through the fisheries department. Further, as I think I said in my opening remarks, the back-up grant will be paid simulta-neously and automatically through the United Kingdom authorities. Therefore, there is in fact only one approval involved.

The noble Lord's second question was: does paragraph 3 of the instrument mean that small instalments will be paid on what is, after all, a very modest back-up grant of 5 per cent.? I think that where there is a project which is particularly large, payments may be made as and when self-contained parts of the project are completed; and that is why that provision is included in the statutory instrument.

The noble Lord, Lord Tryon, asked me about pollution and the dangers of pollution from fish farms. Responsible fish farmers can and do adopt sensible procedures to prevent problems, and the water authorities may use their powers over discharges to control fish farm effluents. In response to the Government's consultation paper on the review of inland and coastal fisheries in England and Wales, a joint working group on the avoidance of pollution from fish farms was established by the National Farmers' Union and the water industry, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment were represented. The group considered guidelines on good husbandry practices for, and the safe use of chemicals by, fish farmers, and standard discharge consent conditions for water authorities. Those documents are now being produced. If I may say so, the reply which I have just given to the noble Lord, Lord Tryon, does deal with the question which the noble Lord asked me about the proper use of chemicals in the treatment of disease.

The noble Lord, Lord Tryon, also asked me about the extraction of water in order to feed the fish farm and whether proper powers are available and being used to safeguard the ecology of river systems. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for saying that that really is a question for the Department of the Environment, and although I am answering on behalf of the Government, I think that I must take advice on that matter.

Indeed, I must also take advice as regards the other three detailed points which the noble Lord raised. The noble Lord asked: when information is needed so far as grant-aid is concerned, will all the right questions have to be asked? The answer clearly is, yes; but I would like to put something down on paper for the noble Lord. The second question which the noble Lord asked me, and which I cannot answer, concerned consultation for the fish farmer with the water authority. The third and fourth questions which the noble Lord asked me, and which I find difficulty in answering, concerned, first, leaving the river clear for migration purposes—which again, of course, is a water authority question—and, secondly, proper precautions against escape. I know that there have to be licences against the escape of exotic species which are being fish farmed. But I must admit that the noble Lord has bowled me out as regards giving him an answer in respect of the escape of fish which are native but which are in fish farms.

I hope the noble Lord will not feel that my reply is too unsatisfactory when I ask if I can write to him on the four questions that I have been unable to answer. If the noble Lord will allow me to write to him on those questions, then I shall now ask that this statutory instrument be agreed.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, does he appreciate how unsatisfactory his replies are to the noble Lord, Lord Tryon? It is a fact that all kinds of circumstances arise from intensive farming whether it be as regards fish or agriculture. I can give a very good example from agriculture. The growers of winter barley take great precautions aginst mildew, but if they did not grow winter barley in the same district as those who have been growing spring barley for years, the spring barley growers would not be forced to take the enormously expensive measures that they have to take simply because other people are in intensive practice as regards winter barley.

The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Tryon, must be very relevant. If there are fish farmers on a river carrying out intensive care and chemical control of disease—which they must do if they have very large number of fish in small areas of water—and they then release downriver the water the fish live in, which again they must do, it raises very large questions as to the future viability of that river for angling, which in most cases is worth far, far more to the area than the fish farming in pure commercial terms.

I hope that the noble Lord will take very careful note of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tryon, because they appear to me to be vital to very large areas of Scotland and to the tourist industy; whereas the actual sale of a few tonnes of fish might mean very little.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I apologise for being unable to reply to several of the questions which were asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tryon. But it does so happen that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, who is always very fair in all that he says, on this particular occasion has been uncharacteristically rather unfair by picking the particular question to which I had in fact given an answer. I had made it quite clear to the House that a joint working group on the avoidance of pollution from fish farms was recently established by the National Farmers' Union and the water industry, and both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment were represented. The group considered guidelines on good husbandry practices for, and the safe use of chemicals by, fish farmers and standard discharge consent conditions for water authorities. If I may say so, I think that that does answer the question, the importance of which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, is underlining.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I think the noble Lord did say that the documents were still to be issued?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is true. However, those, I am afraid, are circumstances over which I have no control.

Lord Tryon

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to thank him for answering two of my six questions. I am sorry that I bowled him over as regards the other four. I suspect that one of the problems here is that this is one of those matters that fall between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment. However, I will be happy to talk to the Minister about this matter outside the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.