HL Deb 13 March 1992 vol 536 cc1556-8

3 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This was a Private Member's Bill in another place promoted by Mr. Phillip Oppenheim and it had full support across all parties. Although it is short and simple, it has important consequences. This simple Bill would remedy a deficiency in existing fisheries legislation and would provide Ministers with parallel responsibilities to those that currently exist for agriculture.

Under the present legislation MAFF and the agriculture and fisheries department of the Scottish Office and local sea fisheries committees in England and Wales are responsible for commercial fish stocks. However, they have no statutory responsibility for the conservation of the wider marine environment. Fisheries affect the wider environment, sometimes through the incidental catch of sea birds, porpoises, dolphins and other marine wildlife in nets. Fishing can damage the sea-bed and remove important prey such as sand eels from the wildlife food chain. The ecological damage in such cases is difficult to assess. It is clear, nonetheless, that the fisheries authorities are in the best position to make this assessment. As matters stand they can legitimately claim to have no responsibility for the consequences of fishing other than those that directly affect commercial fish stocks.

The areas of sea surrounding the United Kingdom support an abundance of marine wildlife. There are 17 species of sea bird in our waters that exist in internationally important numbers. We have national and international responsibilities to protect this wildlife resource. As a signatory to the RAMSAR Convention, the United Kingdom has an international obligation to protect our estuaries and near-shore marine sites—that is to say, marine waters of less than six metres depth at low tide—from ecological damage. The United Kingdom also has an obligation to protect marine habitats that hold internationally important numbers of sea birds through the designation of special protection areas defined in terms of the European Community's directive on the conservation of wild birds.

As I said at the start, this Bill enjoys full government support and cross-party support. It is supported by the National Federation of Sea Anglers, the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, the Association of Sea Fisheries Committees of England and Wales and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. If passed, the Bill will not allow wildlife conservation interests to dictate fisheries policy. The wording of the Bill is carefully modelled on provisions that already exist in relation to the functions of Ministers responsible for agriculture.

The Bill is designed to put in place a statutory mechanism whereby a balance can be formed between a sustainable fishing industry and the conservation of the marine environment. This Bill has become especially important in the light of the proposals for marine consultation areas which were put forward by the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office at the end of last month. The system of marine consultation areas that has been proposed is intended to operate as follows.

Sites of marine conservation interest will be formally identified and listed. All bodies taking decisions on proposals that might affect that interest are asked to consult the conservation agencies, which will include English Nature, at the earliest feasible stage. All bodies giving formal approvals to such proposals are asked to check that consultation has taken place. Any advice offered by the conservation agencies is to be given due weight by the decision makers.

The responsibilities of Ministers and of sea fisheries committees within the marine consultation area system will become clear, but this Bill will reaffirm the statutory position of Ministers and sea fisheries committees in relation to those responsibilities. It will also encourage all concerned to take the same integrated approach to the utilisation of marine resources for sustainable use throughout the wider marine environment. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

Lord Carter

My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for introducing the Bill. It is a small Bill with only two clauses, but it is an important measure. As is the convention when I speak from this Dispatch Box, I express my personal view, but the noble Earl is correct to say that the Bill is widely supported. Indeed, everyone who spoke in the other place supported it. I shall be extremely brief because we wish to take the Bill through all its stages today, and it consists of only two clauses.

As I said, it is a thoroughly welcome measure and a useful piece of legislation. It is concerned with achieving the balance we need between a sustainable level of fish stocks and the conservation of the marine environment, as the noble Earl said. Your Lordships may know that Sub-Committee D of the European Communities Committee has just completed the taking of evidence on the report it is preparing on the common fisheries policy. Everyone on that committee has become extremely well aware of the environmental and conservation aspects of fisheries policy.

It is a little surprising that the lacuna in existing fisheries legislation was not remedied sooner, particularly as the Agriculture Act 1986 gives the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food a specific conservation responsibility for the flora and fauna of the countryside. As we know, the marine flora and fauna are just as important and just as threatened.

In that connection I am pleased to see from the news release which I received only today from the ministry that plans for preventing the introduction and spread of fish and shellfish disease in Great Britain are to be implemented from 1st January next year in connection with the relevant European Community directive.

As I said, this is a sensible and welcome piece of legislation and it gives me great pleasure to support it.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I, too, should like to support the Bill. It is a sensible Bill. It enjoins the Ministers responsible to look at the whole picture. Failure to do so has been the problem in many conservation issues involving farming and fisheries. The case of the sand eel is particularly important and has shown that everything hangs together.

The Bill enjoins the Minister to have regard to those important considerations but does not say that they must take precedence over commercial fisheries. It simply points out that those issues hang together. I am happy to commend the Bill.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to say that the Government welcome and support the Bill. The Government are committed to taking account of environmental considerations in all government activities, as our White Paper on the environment of 1990 made clear.

It is right, therefore, that in carrying out their functions fisheries Ministers and sea fisheries committees in England and Wales should he required to take into account the environmental implications of their decisions. The Government congratulate my noble friend Lord Cranbrook on his efforts to ensure that this useful Bill can be enacted before the Dissolution.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I welcome everything that has been said on all sides of the House. I look forward very much to reading the report of Sub-Committee D in due course. The work which is done by the sub-committees of your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities is extremely valuable and influential. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, for his remarks and I welcome the remarks of my noble friend on the Front Bench. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order 44 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 12th March), Bill read a third time, and passed.

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