HL Deb 03 December 1992 vol 540 cc1460-8

3.37 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Licensing of fishing boats]:

Lord Moran moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 7, at end insert: ("() After subsection (2) there shall be inserted— (2A) Such an order, if it applies to fishing for salmon or migratory trout in any waters which are included in the area which by virtue of section 2 of the Water Resources Act 1991 is the area in relation to which the National Rivers Authority carries out its functions relating to fisheries under the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975, shall have the effect of superseding the powers and duties of the National Rivers Authority to grant licences under section 25 of that Act in relation to the specified area for the description of sea fish, by the method and during the season of the year or other period that are specified in the order." ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I had intended to move the amendment at the Report stage but unfortunately the previous business on that day was completed much faster than expected. When my amendment was called I was in the Library and saw with alarm my name on the enunciator. I failed to get to the Chamber in time. I apologise to the House, and particularly to any noble Lords who were in the House on that occasion wishing to speak on the amendment.

After spending a good deal of time on the Bill discussing problems relating to cod and haddock, it might be a relief to your Lordships to turn briefly to the problems of salmon and sea trout. This is, after all, a sea fish conservation Bill and salmon and sea trout are, as your Lordships know, sea fish for part of their life cycle, and their conservation is extremely important. One aspect of that conservation was discussed by your Lordships in this House on 5th November when we talked about the North East drift nets. There was remarkable unanimity from all sides of the House on the need to phase out those drift nets within five years. The reply that the noble Earl gave us on that occasion was disappointing but I hope that he and his right honourable friend will consider very carefully the view that was expressed by all noble Lords who took part.

This amendment is related not to that specific question but more to the future and to obtaining clarification of the Government's powers to control drift netting for salmon and sea trout. I asked a question about this matter last month, to which I had a Written Answer from the noble Earl on 11th November (at col. WA14). I asked whether the Government's powers which had been stated by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in 1986 were still valid. The noble Earl replied: Under Section 4 of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 the Government may, by order, prohibit in any specified area fishing by fishing boats unless authorised by licence … These powers could, therefore, be used to ban the use of drift nets or to license fishing for salmon and sea trout". But he went on to say: The National Rivers Authority—which has a statutory duty to maintain, develop and improve salmon and freshwater fisheries—has similar powers".

I emphasise that word "similar".

He also said: It has a statutory obligation to license fishing for salmon and sea trout. It also has extensive powers to regulate salmon and sea trout fisheries both in fresh water and at sea". When we had our debate on 5th November, the noble Earl said: Ministers have discretionary powers under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 to regulate sea fisheries, including fishing for salmon and migratory trout. It would be possible to use those heavy handed powers to license and, subsequently, to phase-out the driftnet fishery. However, there would be certain difficulties in that approach".

I would like to ask the noble Earl why he described the Government's powers on that occasion as heavy handed. It seems to me that those powers have existed for a very long time. Whether or not they are heavy handed depends on how they are applied. I do not see any reason why the powers themselves should be regarded as heavy handed. I would also like to ask him what the difficulties were to which he referred.

The noble Earl went on to say: The National Rivers Authority, which was created after the Salmon Act 1986 came into force, has a clear statutory duty to manage salmon fisheries. It also has the statutory powers necessary to implement all the measures proposed by Ministers in their report".—[Official Report, 5/11/92; col. 1591.]

The problem that has arisen is that the powers of the National Rivers Authority in this field, although they were described by the noble Earl as "similar" to the Government's, are in fact severely circumscribed, as was brought out in the debate on 5th November. I do not think that they are anything like as wide or comprehensive as the powers available to the Government under Section 4 of the 1967 Act. With regard to the NRA's obligation to operate a licensing scheme, I believe that some officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have claimed that the very existence of that statutory duty inhibits or constrains the exercise of powers by Ministers under Section 4 in relation to salmon fishing.

This amendment is intended to cure that difficulty and to clear up the situation. It would make it clear that if Ministers wished to make a salmon related order under Section 4 they could do so. They would not be prejudiced by the existence of the NRA's lesser powers and duty to control fishing by licences under the Salmon and Fresh Water Fisheries Act 1975.

I do not believe that there is anything new about this. The 1967 Act has applied to salmon since it came into force. Under Section 5 of that Act drift netting for salmon in Scotland is prohibited. Section 18 of that Act already refers to the NRA giving the authority's bailiffs powers to enforce orders of the sort to which my amendment relates. What I am trying to do is to ensure that the powers of fisheries Ministers to regulate salmon fisheries if they wish to do so—powers given to them by Parliament under this Act—are not artificially constrained or even apparently constrained by the existence of the less comprehensive local powers and duties of the NRA, and that that is so, whatever immediate or future management needs might be.

The amendment essentially clarifies the situation and makes sure that Ministers' powers are not diminished in the way it has been suggested. That is the whole point of my amendment, which seems to be a very simple one. I hope that the Government will be prepared to accept it. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord has drawn attention to the respective powers of the Government and the National Rivers Authority in his justification for this amendment. He suggested that the NRA's duty to regulate fishing for salmon and migratory trout at sea by means of a system of licensing is a constraint on the exercise of Ministers' powers to license under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967.

The suggestion is that Ministers cannot act because of the duty to license placed upon the NRA by statute. Let me make clear that this is not the case. The point is that Parliament has given the NRA the duty to maintain, improve and develop salmon and fresh-water fisheries. It is one of its primary functions. In contrast, Ministers' powers under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act are purely discretionary.

In order to carry out its functions, the NRA has available to it a range of powers. These include the power to restrict the number of licences which may be issued for fishing for salmon and migratory trout and the power to make by-laws prohibiting the use of specified instruments and restricting effort through controls, for example, on net lengths and times during which fishing can take place.

It is true that these powers are not totally unfettered. All are subject to confirmation by Ministers. Ministers must be satisfied that the measures proposed are justified and within the law. These powers have proved sufficient and they certainly cannot be described as being severely circumscribed, as the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said. I know that the noble Lord and other noble Lords may take issue with this, particularly in relation to the north-east coast driftnet fishery. I know that many noble Lords feel that the measures proposed by the NRA to phase this fishery out do not go far enough. But the fact remains that the measures proposed are consistent with government policy. Ministers asked the NRA to consider changes to the regulation of this fishery not because of constraints on their own powers but because the regulation of salmon and freshwater fisheries is the responsibility of the NRA.

The Government see no good case for interfering with the duties and responsibilities of the NRA. That is not to say that Ministers will never use the powers available to them under the 1967 Act. If we considered that there was a need for measures to regulate fishing for salmon and trout at sea which went beyond those which could be introduced by the NRA, we would not hesitate to act. For that reason I hope that the noble Lord will feel somewhat more reassured. I hope also that in the light of my comments he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and I am somewhat reassured. I understand that the Government are free and unconstrained, and if they believe that they need to act under Section 4 of the 1967 Act they can and will do so.

Before I finally decide what to do, perhaps the Minister will answer the two questions that I first put to him. Why did he describe the Government's powers as being heavy-handed and what were the difficulties he saw in using the powers?

Earl Howe

My Lords, in our debate on 5th November I described the Government's powers as heavy-handed because the NRA already has sufficient powers to do what is necessary, and in particular to implement government policy. In that context it would be unnecessary for Ministers to use their powers under the 1967 Act. It is not unreasonable to describe those powers at present as heavy-handed. Circumstances may change, however, and we may face a situation in which it is appropriate to use those powers.

The difficulties to which I alluded on that occasion were several, but perhaps the most obvious is that Ministers exercising their powers under the 1967 Act would imply a dual licensing system. The NRA already licenses fishermen; Ministers have the power to license vessels and not individual fishermen. That would pose obvious complications. If the noble Lord wishes me to elaborate, I should be glad to do so by letter.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. In the light of what he said I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 1, line 9, after ("conditions)") insert: ("(a) after the words "sea fishing" there shall be inserted the words "(including conditions which do not relate directly to fishing)", and (b)").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in response to a question from my noble friend Lord Sanderson, I said at the Report stage that the Government would consider in detail the recent decision made in Banff Sheriff Court and would, if they thought necessary, bring forward an amendment at a later stage to confirm Ministers' powers.

The Government have now completed their consideration of that decision and have concluded that an amendment to Section 4 of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 is needed in order to support the new paragraph (c) of subsection (6). That enables Ministers to restrict time at sea whether or not a vessel is fishing. At the same time the amendment will serve to put the question of the scope of Ministers' powers to impose licence conditions under Section 4 subsection (6) beyond doubt.

The amendment modifies Section 4 subsection (6) of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967. That enables Ministers to impose licence conditions by specifying that licence conditions may cover non-fishing activities, provided that those licence conditions are necessary for the purposes of regulating sea fishing. The amendment serves to remove any argument that might arise in future as a result of the Banff decision that Ministers' powers are limited in the way suggested by that decision and cannot properly include licence conditions about non-fishing activity. It does not and is not intended to extend Ministers' powers to impose licence conditions but simply to confirm that such powers are not limited to the imposition of conditions on a fishing vessel only when it is actually fishing. I beg to move.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing forward the amendment. It puts beyond doubt the powers which Ministers have when vessels are fishing and when they are not fishing. In regard to the four degrees west line, over which the case was raised, the job of fishery protection officers will be made much easier.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Radnor moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 1, line 21, leave out ("In") and insert ("Before").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 vary the amendments which your Lordships accepted on Report. It was brought to my notice by government officials that the amendments contained small technical faults. Amendment No. 3 is important but whether it is a matter of grammar or emphasis I do not know. The amendment pinpoints the exact time at which new subsection (6D) is triggered. The word "in" might be interpreted as "while". The provision is intended to ensure that a scheme of decommissioning is considered before any general scheme of tying up is considered. I am grateful to those who made the suggestion. I beg to move.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, my name is associated with the amendment but I shall not repeat the argument put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Radnor. Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 were tabled after the Ministry had drawn our attention to defects in the amendment carried on Report. Does the request to table the amendments indicate a willingness on the part of the Government to accept the amendment as amended?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Radnor has moved this amendment which would eliminate an unintended practical consequence from the amendment which he successfully moved at the Report stage. As he has said, it has the effect of making that earlier amendment fulfil the purpose which he originally intended and to which this House, by a large majority, gave its approval.

The opinion of this House has been emphatically expressed; and I can tell your Lordships that it is not the Government's intention to seek to override that opinion either here or in another place. The scope for a decommissioning scheme will be kept regularly under review. Accordingly, I am grateful to my noble friend for moving this amendment which the Government—on the strength of the House's view as expressed last week—are entirely happy to accept.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Radnor moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 1, line 21, leave out ("(6) (c)") and insert ("(6C)").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, Amendment No. 4 is slightly more complicated. Again, the error was pointed out to me by government officials and I am most grateful. After the Bill had completed its Report stage it provided that every time an individual vessel was licensed or the licence was reviewed decommis-sioning had to be considered. It was pointed out to me that 4,000 vessels must be dealt with and I imagine that, after my noble friend's assurance that vessels under 10 metres will also be included, there will be even more. That was not my intention or that of other noble Lords who put their names to the amendment.

By inserting (6C) any government are obliged to give due consideration to decommissioning before more general orders are put forward under (6) (c) relating to individual vessels which are dealt with one by one. That is what I intended to put across on Report. I am grateful for the consultations that I have had and to hear that in all probability the amendment will be accepted. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, once again the Government are entirely content to accept the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 5:

After Clause 9, insert the following new clause—

Review of operation of Act ("Within the period of six months beginning with 1st January 1997, and after consulting such persons representing the interests of the fishing industry as the Ministers (within the meaning of section 22(2) (a) of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967) may consider it appropriate to consult, those Ministers shall lay before each House of Parliament a report reviewing the operation of this Act and its effectiveness for the purpose of conserving sea fish.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, at Report stage I undertook to bring forward a modified version of Amendment No. 10 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, and this amendment fulfils that undertak-ing. It requires Ministers, after consultation with those representatives of the fishing industry whom they consider appropriate, to lay a report before Parliament within the first six months of 1997 on the operation of the provisions of the Bill and their effectiveness in conserving sea fish.

The amendment, as your Lordships will see, has been subject to some minor drafting changes. It has not been changed in principle and the only modification of substance to which I would draw attention is that concerning consultation with the industry. The amendment tabled on Report simply required Ministers to consult "with fishing industry organisations". Because the industry comprises a very large number of small interest groups and Ministers could have been challenged if they had failed to consult any one of these, the amendment enables Ministers to select those organisations representing the interests of the fishing industry which they consider it is appropriate to consult. The amendment will not in any way negate the consultation process but is simply intended to make it both practicable and meaningful. It reflects the normal practice of the fisheries Ministers as regards consultation with the industry. I beg to move.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for the amendment which meets in every way the point which I was trying to make on Report. I am happy to see it before the House this afternoon.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. I think it is appropriate for me at this stage to say just a few words about the Bill, and in particular perhaps, to summarise the ways in which it has improved during its passage through your Lordships' House. I would like to thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for the part they have played in bringing about that improvement.

This is a short Bill, with one central theme; namely, to give Ministers powers to restrict the time that fishermen may spend at sea in order to conserve fish stocks. But it is no less important for being brief. It also includes a number of other provisions which are targeted at improving the enforcement of the sea fish licensing system, and, in particular the time at sea restriction.

During the passage of this Bill we have made two broad types of change to it. First, and more importantly, we have expanded considerably the role of parliament in scrutinising the implementation of the effort control policy. Parliament will now have an opportunity, through the affirmative resolution order procedure, to consider the Government's proposals on every occasion that they wish to reduce the number of days at sea allocated to all fishermen or to specified groups of fishermen. And we should not forget that this change to the Bill stands together with a commitment from the Government, made before both Houses, that we will not bring forward orders to reduce time at sea unless we are satisfied that other member states, which share our stocks, are also taking effective steps to meet their MAGP targets.

Parliament will also have greater access to information on the operation of the provisions of the Act. First, the Sea Fish Licence Tribunal will report annually to Ministers on its work and Ministers will lay that report in the Libraries of both Houses for all to see and consider. Secondly, Ministers will be required to review the operation of the entire Act and report the results of that review to Parliament by the middle of 1997. I believe that these provisions will improve markedly the role of Parliament in the scrutiny and implementation of fish conservation policy.

In the context of the package of measures of which this Bill forms a part, we should also not forget that as a result of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Radnor—and modified in detail but not in principle today—the Government must continue to consider decommissioning alongside the other measures for conserving fish stocks.

The second group of changes that we have made will improve significantly our ability to enforce the licensing system and days at sea restrictions. We have clarified what will count as evidence in proceedings before the courts in relation both to documents used in Scottish court proceedings and to data produced by satellite, or automatic recording equipment. The latter will be of particular benefit in monitoring and enforcing the activities of vessels which usually land and tie up abroad. And, today we have approved an amendment which clarifies the Ministers' licensing powers under Section 4(6) of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967. Laws which serve to regulate sea fishing and conserve fish stocks are of little benefit if they are widely disregarded and if they cannot be enforced. The changes that we have made to the Bill will improve significantly our ability to enforce the law in the particularly difficult area of sea fish conservation measures.

The Bill has received very thorough scrutiny in your Lordships' House and I believe it is a better Bill in consequence. I thank your Lordships for that and I would like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in these debates, in particular my noble friends Lord Selborne, Lord Kinnoull and Lord Radnor, the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, the noble Lords, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord Gallacher, (whose courtesy I always appreciate) and the many other noble Lords whose contributions, without exception, have been so useful, and who will, I hope, forgive me for not mentioning them all by name. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Earl Howe.)

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks made by the noble Earl about the Bill. It has been improved in your Lordships' House as a result of a great deal of work, some of it undertaken —I am happy to say—on a joint basis because of the community of interest which arose on the Bill. That community arose from the many representations made to us by the fishermen's organisations. Rightly or wrongly, they saw the Bill as being potentially of great importance to them and saw it also as a Bill which could have a serious effect on their capacity to earn a living in what is a very dangerous occupation.

I hope that the amendments made to the Bill in your Lordships' House have to some extent allayed those fears. I entirely accept what the noble Earl said about the changes that we have made to it. I am grateful to all who have supported us in our attempts to improve the Bill. I believe that it is a better Bill. I sincerely hope that the objectives of the Bill will be fairly accomplished and that when the review, which has now been incorporated in the Bill, takes place some years hence, there will be a feeling that your Lordships' House has played a part in helping the fishing industry to come to terms with the common fisheries policy of the European Community.

I add a special word of thanks to the noble Earl for his courtesy and his ability in dealing with the Bill at all times.

Earl Russell

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie, who is regrettably unable to be present today, I should like to say that my noble friend believes that the Bill has been much improved in this House. He hopes that the amendments will commend themselves to another place. He would like to thank warmly the noble Earl for the care, courtesy and consideration with which he has handled the Bill.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, I echo those brief speeches and add my thanks to my noble friend for his courtesy and for his help. I hope that in the future, by whatever means, we do not run out of fish because then we shall really be in trouble. I am sure that the Bill will help towards conserving fish in what is a very difficult situation.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks made and thank the Minister for the way in which he has handled a difficult Bill, which has been altered to good effect. I also believe that it will strengthen the hand of UK Ministers when they come to review the common fisheries policy next year.

I hope that it will ensure that the Hague preferences are left intact and that relative stability, which is at the base of the original agreements, will also be left intact. Perhaps with satellite monitoring being introduced we shall be able to save some money on fishery protection which may well go to increasing the decommissioning scheme.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

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