HL Deb 07 April 1989 vol 505 cc1303-5

9.44 a.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in establishing the new register of fishing vessels, required by the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which should disqualify non-British boats from eligibility to catch United Kingdom quotas of fish.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, the new fishing vessel register established under Part II of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 is now in operation. The closing date for applications for free transfer from the old registry was 31st March 1989. Only fishing vessels which comply with the British ownership requirements in Section 14 of the Act are eligible for registration.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. Is he aware that the foreign boats—about 150 in number and mostly Spanish—which have been masquerading as British and making nonsense of the quota system are not approved of by authentic Spanish fishermen in Spain? Is he further aware that the Government will receive widespread support for pursuing their policy of exclusion of those boats from the register?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. The measures which we introduced in the Merchant Shipping Act last year received widespread support from all sides of the House. So far 68 fishing vessels have been refused registration owing to the fact that they could not comply with the ownership requirement.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I welcome the announcement by the Minister. However, can he say more about the legal position? Am I right in thinking that the procedure has been found illegal by the European Council?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we always expected that there would be legal difficulties. The Divisional Court referred certain questions concerning the application of the Treaty of Rome to the European Court. However, the Government remain firmly of the view that the new registration rules are fully in compliance with the terms of the common fisheries policy. The Court of Appeal has ruled that the provisions of the Act should apply unless and until the ECJ holds otherwise. There is now an appeal on that point to the House of Lords which I understand will be heard on 17th April.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it appears that incorrect information was included on the application forms which were sent to owners of fishing vessels wishing to be entered on the new register and that that caused problems in meeting the closing date of 31st March? Are the Government aware of that fact, and what do they intend to do about the problem?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, first, I should like to pay tribute to the staff of the Registrar of Shipping and Seamen at Cardiff, who have had a great deal of work to do in compiling the new register. Thirteen thousand owners were informed that the register opened on 1st December and that the requirements were intended to be met by 31st March. So far 6,000 out of 9,500 applicants have been issued with full certificates and 3,115 have been issued with temporary certificates valid until 30th June to allow further inquiries about the vessels to be completed so that a full certificate can be issued. There may have been some incorrect information on the forms. That is not necessarily the fault of the registrar. It may have been that the fishing vessels have not kept the information up to date over the years. However, as I have said, we have made provision for that problem.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that exclusion from the register is only the first step? Have we sufficient patrol boats to ensure that the vessels in question are excluded from our fishing areas?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, that is a question for my right honourable friend at the Ministry of Agriculture. I understand that vessels will be stopped from fishing if they are not registered and not allowed to fish against our quotas. I understand that MAFF has patrol boats and aircraft which will prevent that happening.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, does the Minister recall that when this matter was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and myself at the Second Reading of the Merchant Shipping Act we were greatly reassured by his reply? Does he appreciate that we also understand his reply today? What action will the Government take in the event of the European Court saying that the action is illegal? Does he agree that that would make complete nonsense of our quota system, particularly as the fish will not even be landed in this country? What firm steps can the Government take to ensure that there is a properly conducted fishing registry in the interests of our fishing quota?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we remain firmly of the view that the new registration rules are firmly in accordance with the common fisheries policy. The common fisheries policy allocates national quotas and I believe is generally regarded as operating fairly satisfactorily. It is therefore totally wrong that vessels of other nations should be allowed to fish against our quota by registering in this country. I understand that no other country allows that either. Therefore we are confident that at the end of the day what we have done will be seen to be right.