HL Deb 25 June 1992 vol 538 cc540-3

3.5 p.m.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the fisheries protection fleet is to be privatised; and, if so, how protection vessels will distinguish between British vessels and Spanish or Dutch vessels flying the British flag.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the White Paper Competing for Quality identifies the fishery protection task carried out by the Royal Navy on behalf of the Ministry as a possible candidate for market testing. No decisions have yet been taken, but officials from interested departments are considering the way forward and will be reporting to Ministers.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, is the noble Earl happy about the fact that our so-called fisheries protection fleet C will take on the protection of other countries' property—vessels which fly the British flag, a flag of convenience—especially as those vessels undermine our own sea fishing industry and the supporting ancillary industries?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord's analysis. The judgment of the European Court in the Factortame case means that nationals of other member states are entitled to register their fishing vessels here and thus fly the British flag. It is important therefore to distinguish between British vessels licensed to fish and British vessels without licences, and, more generally, between vessels that are entitled to fish within British fishery limits and vessels without such rights. It would be for MAFF inspectors aboard private contractors' vessels to perform this role, and they should be able to do it as competently as the Navy.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, in the context of this Question, will my noble friend take into account the notable contribution to European unity that was reported in the press today as having been made by three large French trawlers sailing apparently very close to Lundy?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am aware of the alleged incident to which my noble and learned friend refers. My honourable friend Mr. Curry has taken up the matter vigorously with the French authorities today and has received a very constructive response. The Royal Navy fisheries protection vessel HMS "Brecon" is on site and and we understand that all is now quiet.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, will the Government give up this crazy idea of privatising the fisheries protection service? Is it to be armed? Is it to be competitive? Are the Government aware that it seems that they will now interfere in practically everything? They spread their tentacles throughout the whole of our lives, but are rapidly abandoning their three chief purposes—the first of which is to maintain order; the second, to enforce the law; and the third, to protect the currency.

Earl Howe

My Lords, we have obtained informal quotations from possible contractors which suggest that we might save approximately £1 million a year if private vessels were used to deliver the Ministry's enforcement effort. We also believe that contractorisation would deliver a service more precisely tailored to our requirements, as borne out by a short-term civilian charter in 1990.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is it inevitable that the lowest tender will be accepted? And will that always be the most efficient?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the equation is complicated. It is not just a matter of choosing the lower of two figures. The Royal Navy vessels in the squadron have other roles to fulfil besides fisheries protection, and other departments are involved. It will be some time before we are able to take decisions.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the abuse known as "quota-hopping" is a matter of great concern both to the United Kingdom and to other countries, such as Ireland? Will he ensure that the question is properly addressed in the present negotiations on the common fisheries policy?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I take note of my noble friend's comments and assure him that the issue is uppermost in our minds. Access to quotas has been explored in a series of cases at the European Court of Justice. The position is that we cannot prevent registration of, say, Spanish or Dutch-owned vessels, but they must be managed, directed and controlled from this country. They cannot fish without a licence, which includes conditions to ensure an economic link with UK fishing communities.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that all the indications are that enforcement of the common fisheries policy and in particular of total allowable catches will become progressively much more difficult for whichever authority is in charge? Does he not consider that if yesterday's incident off the Cornish coast had involved on the British side a civilian protection vessel rather than one from the Royal Navy the situation would not be so easily dismissed as the noble Earl appeared to dismiss it today? What would be the effect on the resources of the Royal Navy and in particular its naval capacity if this work were to be taken from it?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the vast majority of policing work carried out by the fisheries protection squadron consists of routine inspections. MAFF officials would be well up to the task of the normal policing role, but in particularly severe incidents the Royal Navy could still be brought in.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, have the Government taken account of the points made by the Select Committee on Defence in another place on Options for Change? The Select Committee commented on the fine record of the fisheries protection fleet, pointed out that its role was likely to increase in the future and recommended, not that it should be privatised, but that it should be strengthened.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I readily acknowledge that the Royal Navy does an excellent job. However, aerial surveillance is already handled very satisfactorily by a private contractor. It is clearly in taxpayers' interest for us to consider whether the process could be carried further. Any contractor would be required to meet standards of reliability and other specifications which MAFF would lay down.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, can the Minister say what guidance has been given to the fisheries protection fleet in the light of the attack this morning by French fishing vessels on British fishing vessels off the Cornish coast, as reported by the media?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I believe that I covered that incident in answer to my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham. The Ministry's inspectorate will be asking for full details from the British skippers and will consider in the light of that information how to proceed in our discussions with the French.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware—I am sure he is—that a section of the Metropolitan Police carries out protection work of one kind or another on the River Thames? Is that the next target for privatisation; and if so, what about the police force itself?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I feel that that does fall a little outside the scope of the Question.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, does the noble Earl appreciate that his replies will be read with surprise and worry by the 190,000 people involved in the sea fisheries industry in the British Isles?

Noble Lords: Reading!

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

I am sorry, my Lords, but I would find it difficult otherwise. I shall continue. Should the fisheries protection fleet tasks be privatised, will the fishing fleet be afforded the equivalent protection, money, men and materials as were given in the Middle East last year?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we are some way yet from taking any decision at all. In deciding whether or not to contractorise, we would take many factors into account. Standards of reliability would be chief among them.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether there is one rule for one side of the House and another rule for the other side? I have noticed over the past few weeks that when noble Lords on this side of the House happen to refer to notes they are accused of reading whereas when noble Lords on the other side of the House read from notes not a peep is heard.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, I am not sure that I know the answer to the noble Countess's question. I understand that there are some rules and conventions about it but copious use of notes has always been allowed—in some places anyway.