HL Deb 26 October 1992 vol 539 cc911-29

3.31 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Today we are debating two fisheries matters, the Second Reading of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill and the report of the European Communities Committee inquiry into the common fisheries policy. Our consideration of the Bill will undoubtedly be assisted by taking it together with a review of the common fisheries policy. The CFP, as it is known, has provided the framework for the development of UK fisheries conservation policy for the past nine years and a number of issues in the committee's report have a direct bearing on the Bill and associated policies.

The common fisheries policy has three broad aims: to regulate trade in fish and fish products through the common organisation of the market; to conserve and manage the common fisheries resource by controlling fishing activity; and to improve and adapt the structure of the fisheries sector. But the CFP—unlike the CAP (common agricultural policy)—leaves member states with considerable freedom to devise their own detailed policies. That is why my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was able to announce a national package of fisheries conservation measures on 27th February which was aimed at the special problems of the UK industry and which included the measures contained in the Bill.

The problem which this package and indeed measures emerging from Brussels seek to address is that of declining fish stocks. Fishing is a traditional industry in this country and many coastal communities depend on it for their livelihoods. But its survival is absolutely dependent on the availability of fish. Scientific advice indicates that many important stocks are seriously over-exploited; for example, North Sea cod, haddock and whiting, and some stocks have reached critical levels. Although TACs and quotas are a useful management tool they have not prevented excessive fishing because they encourage discarding of both immature fish and over-quota fish in mixed catches which depresses stock levels while not counting against quota. Action is needed now to secure a long-term future for our fishing industry.

To put the Second Reading of the Bill in context, I should like briefly to describe the main elements of UK fisheries conservation policy. I shall start by describing what we are doing on technical conservation. I shall then go on to describe each part of the February conservation package and show how each part will contribute to achieving the targets which we are negotiating with the Commission under our multi-annual guidance programme (or MAGP) for reducing fishing effort and capacity during the period 1993– 1996. I hope that that will demonstrate that what we have is a package of related and interdependent measures of which the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill forms a vital part. As I describe each measure I shall respond to any issues that have been raised in the European Communities Committee report. After I have explained the provisions of the Bill in more detail, I should like to finish by addressing the wider aspects of the CFP covered in that report.

Fisheries conservation is being addressed through so-called technical measures where minimum mesh sizes and types of gear are laid down to ensure that juvenile fish escape capture and survive to maturity. We have agreed significant new Community measures, including different minimum mesh sizes for different areas, and the UK has taken its own unilateral measures following consultation with the industry to supplement the Community measures. The UK's national measures include the compulsory use of square mesh panels in the nephrops fisheries. The Government have noted the concern of the committee about the one-net rule and are aware that it may bear harder on certain sections of the industry than others. We will keep that, and all conservation measures, under review. I should nevertheless remind committee members and other noble Lords that the rule was introduced to stop the cheating and heavy discarding prevalent in certain sections of the industry. Fisheries departments are following with great concern the indications that these problems are worsening.

I should also like to remind your Lordships that technical measures cannot provide a complete answer in mixed species fishing grounds. For example, net sizes which allow juvenile haddock to escape will still catch immature cod. We nevertheless acknowledge that those measures can make an important contribution to fish conservation; that is why we will be continuing discussions with the industry next year to look for further improvements. I must stress however that they will not substitute for measures in the Bill.

Turning to the February conservation package, the first measure is to extend the licensing system to all vessels fishing for profit. Until now vessels of 10 metres overall length or less have not been licensed. But that sector of the fleet has expanded significantly and is having a marked impact on some stocks. We need to limit that if we are to achieve our MAGP targets. We. are particularly keen to halt the development of the "metre beater" vessels whose dimensions are designed specifically to avoid the restrictions currently applying to larger vessels. We are pleased that the committee welcomes that move. We have also noted the committee's suggestion that licence charges should be introduced to cover the cost of administration. We shall bear that suggestion in mind but the Government have no plans to charge at present.

Secondly, we are considering measures which will allow producer organisations flexibility to take their own steps to help rationalise the fleet and thus meet our MAGP targets. We propose that in future producer organisations will be free to make whatever quota swaps they think are in their members' interests. The rules which restricted such swaps to quantities of different fish of the same notional value would be abolished. We have also consulted the industry about other ideas for further rationalisation through increased flexibility, such as buying and selling quotas. That has brought a mixed reaction and fisheries departments are still considering the way forward.

The third plank of our capacity and effort reduction policy addresses the fact that, quite simply, the fleet is too large for the amount of fish that can be taken if stocks are to be maintained. The Government plan to make up to £25 million available for a cash limited decommissioning scheme to help industry bring effort and capacity into balance with fish stocks. We do not agree with the committee, however, that this is too little too late. Decommissioning cannot be effective on its own because it would leave those vessels remaining in the fleet free to increase their fishing effort either by increasing the time they spend at sea or through the technological improvements which are made year by year.

This is why, before we introduce a decommissioning scheme, we are taking powers in the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill to limit the time that fishermen may spend at sea. This is the only part of the package of measures announced in February that requires primary legislation and it will enable us to restrict fishing effort to the level necessary to conserve fish stocks, taking into account the effects of the other measures in the package.

We do not agree with the committee that tie-ups should be simply an interim measure until effective decommissioning schemes are in place. For the reasons I have already given, decommissioning on its own does not prevent the remainder of the fleet from increasing its effort. We already have powers to control fishing activity but, as noble Lords will realize, it is quite impractical to control the activities of some 4,000 vessels fishing across thousands of square miles of sea. What the Bill does is to refine the powers we already have in the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 to enable us to control fishing effort in the only practicable and enforceable way—by limiting time vessels may spend at sea.

I know that there is widespread and deep concern in the fishing industry about the Bill and, before I deal with its provisions in detail, there are two specific points that I would like to address. First, it is said that days at sea restrictions will ruin the livelihoods of many fishermen. That is simply not true. Our aim is to start by freezing effort at last year's levels. This should not seriously affect levels of profitability and we believe that all fishermen will be able to take up their full entitlement of fish. Moreover, fishermen will continue to be permitted to transfer licences and will therefore have the opportunity to acquire additional days at sea if they wish.

In future years we cannot rule out the possibility of having to make reductions in some sectors of the fleet to meet our MAGP targets. But the figure of 30 per cent. that has been widely reported by representatives of the industry is a considerable exaggeration. We are still negotiating in Brussels but it is already clear that member states regard that figure as too high and want the Commission to reduce it. In any event, there will be different rates of reduction for different sectors of the fleet. Moreover, the scale of days at sea reduction also depends on the extent to which the industry plays its part in reducing capacity by taking up the other parts of the package, including decommissioning. It is clear that the other measures I have described will together make a substantial contribution towards the targets set by Brussels. Noble Lords will also be pleased to know that I intend to introduce an amendment to the Bill at a later stage which will require the Government to make an affirmative resolution order each time they intend to make overall reductions in days at sea allocations. Parliament will therefore have an opportunity to consider the size of the reductions.

Secondly, I know a great deal of concern has been expressed on the question of whether other member states are intending to impose similar controls on their fleets and also whether we can enforce our restrictions in respect of the quota hopper vessels. I would like to repeat to noble Lords the assurance that my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food made in another place in July. He said: We should not introduce such a resolution [to reduce days at sea] unless we are satisfied that member states which share our fishery stocks are taking effective steps to meet their multi-annual guidance programme targets".—[Official Report, Commons,14/7/92; col.1027.] The Government will stand by that commitment. We are aware of the concern about quota hoppers. As UK-registered vessels they will of course be subject to days at sea restrictions and it may be possible to use satellite technology to monitor their compliance more closely. That would be in line with the Commission's recent proposals for a new control regulation. I hope to table an amendment concerning the use of this type of information for control and enforcement at a later stage.

I should now like to explain the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 enables Ministers to restrict the time that licensed vessels spend at sea by imposing a new condition in sea fishing licences. It will also enable them to determine, by way of licence conditions, what time at sea will mean in practice. Our intention is to restrict the days that fishermen may spend at sea and to use licence conditions to set down precisely how they will be defined, notified and controlled. We intend to allow as much flexibility as possible in operating the scheme including leaving fishermen free to choose when to fish and when not to. This should allow them flexibility to observe any religious or other traditions and to avoid putting to sea in bad weather.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Earl for interrupting so early in his speech. I thank him very much for giving way. There is a very important point. Are the restrictions on putting to sea to be levied vessel by vessel, by classes of vessel, by ports or how?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the intention is to impose them vessel by vessel. Clause I also gives Ministers a broader power to require information from fishermen by enabling them to require the provision of non-statistical information and to specify the form it should be provided in. This provision will ensure that fisheries departments have all the information necessary to enforce the new time at sea restriction. Subsection (5) amends the evidential status of certain documents under Scots law. The documents affected are all vital to the successful prosecution of breaches of licence conditions and in each case the author is under a legal obligation to complete them and to complete them accurately.

Finally, Clause 1 enables Ministers to revoke or suspend licences when licence conditions or prohibitions, including time at sea restrictions, have been breached. All sea fishing licences are issued at the discretion of the Minister. Furthermore, Ministers already have and exercise powers to revoke and suspend licences for the purposes of regulating fishing. This provision simply extends those powers to individual licences whose owners have breached licence rules. The main purpose of this amendment is to enable Ministers to take action in the case of persistent offenders who, by blatantly disregarding the law, are putting not only fish stocks but also the livelihoods of law-abiding fishermen at risk. We all know that there is widespread disregard for fishing rules by some fishermen: we intend to do everything we can to put a stop to it.

Clause 2 establishes the Sea Fish Licence Tribunal to hear appeals from fishermen against their initial time at sea allocation. It also provides for regulations to be made on the principles on which time at sea allocations will be based, on how appeals should be made and on the procedural arrangements for the tribunal. Ministers will appoint the members of the tribunal and will make provision for their remuneration and expenses and for the staff, accommodation and expenses of the tribunal. Clause 6 brings the tribunal under the supervision of the Council on Tribunals.

Clause 3 applies the provisions of the Bill concerning information, evidence status in Scots law and licence revocation and suspension to fish transhipment licences.

Clause 4 enables Ministers to make regulations concerning how fishing and transhipment licences will be granted and how licence variations, revocations and suspensions will take effect. The regulations will also cover the persons to whom such documents must be delivered and the time when they will be effective. The purpose of these regulations will be to clarify how and when licences take effect so that fishermen cannot avoid being bound by their terms by claiming that they had not received a licence because they were at sea.

Clause 5 increases the maximum penalty on summary conviction for breach of a licence condition from £5,000 to £50,000. This increase will bring the penalty for breaching a days at sea restriction into line with other similar fishing offences, such as fishing without a licence, which already attracts a maximum fine of £50,000.

Clause 7 deals with commencement. The provisions relating to the Sea Fish Licence Tribunal and to the regulations on the granting of licences will come into effect immediately on Royal Assent. The remaining provision will come into effect one month after Royal Assent. However, because time at sea restrictions will not apply initially to vessels of 10 metres or less in length, Ministers will be required to specify a commencement date for the introduction of such restrictions for this sector in an affirmative resolution order. This will provide Parliament with an opportunity of debating the extension of the time at sea policy to smaller fishing vessels.

We must take action to ensure that we take no more fish from the sea than can be replaced by remaining stocks. The February package of measures will go a long way to achieving that goal but the measures will not work unless Ministers have the powers contained in this Bill. They are essential to the long-term future of the fishing industry in this country and I commend the Bill to the House today.

Turning to the wider issues I am grateful to the European Communities Committee for its report on the common fisheries policy. I have already addressed the important questions of fleet structure and capacity addressed in that report but there are a number of other important recommendations which it makes to which I feel I should respond now. The Government have also submitted a memorandum.

Noble Lords, I know, share the Government's view that relative stability is one of the cornerstones of this policy. It ensures that the fishing industry in each member state is guaranteed annually the same percentage share of total allowable catches. The shares are based on historic track records and account is taken of lost long-distant water fisheries and communities highly dependent on fisheries for their livelihoods. In this way the system safeguards traditional fishing patterns. Any reopening of the basis for these national allocations, except as may be necessary to deal with further enlargement of the Community, could upset this complex balance.

We know that the application of Hague Preference in the Irish Sea is felt to be unfair, but the Hague Preference is inextricably woven into the fabric of relative stability and overall it brings substantial benefit to the United Kingdom. Any changes to it would probably have far-reaching and unwelcome consequences for our industry. Recognising the real concerns expressed, however, the Government will continue to seek to reduce any disadvantages to Northern Ireland and Wales, for example, by utilising the system of quota exchanges with other member states which has traditionally enabled the United Kingdom to obtain additional quantities in the Irish Sea.

I fully endorse the committee's view that the weaknesses in the system of total allowable catches and quotas are not fatal. I agree that the system and its enforcement can and should be improved. Total allowable catches serve two important functions; first, ensuring management of the amount of fish stocks which should be caught and, secondly, enabling fishing opportunities to be divided between member states and third countries on an equitable basis. Total allowable catches—alongside effort control—as the quantitative controls on fishing are reinforced by qualitative controls such as the prescription of minimum mesh sizes and minimum fish sizes. But all of these controls need to be developed or improved further. Changes to the system of total allowable catches need to be considered very carefully as it would make no sense to introduce changes where these would exacerbate the problem of discarding. The Community is now looking at ideas for rolling multi-annual total allowable catches and multi-species total allowable catches to see if these might have advantages over the present system of annual single-species total allowable catches. We will play a full part in those discussions.

The Government are very aware of the concerns of noble Lords and the public in general about the possible adverse effects of industrial fishing. We want to ensure that constraints applied to industrial fishing are every bit as stringent as those which apply to fisheries for human consumption and that in any event the latter type of fishery must always take precedence over the former. Only last week we pressed the Commission to produce the much awaited report on industrial fishing in the North Sea which, we hope, will provide us with a means to take matters forward during our presidency.

The Government also share the Commission's deep objections to discards. Indeed, that is why we have been taking the lead in the EC both in monitoring them, in pressing for more selective gear and in adopting national measures, including square mesh panels in the nephrops fisheries, over and above what the EC requires. We are less sanguine about the scope for a discard ban as suggested by the committee. Any system we set up to encourage fishermen to keep undersize fish may end up actually encouraging them to catch it: this is the dilemma. They will not necessarily encourage fishermen to move to other areas to avoid high catches of small fish; hence the importance we attach to technical conservation measures.

Turning further afield, the committee's report supported fisheries agreements with third countries. Noble Lords may know how much our distant water fleet depends on reciprocal fisheries agreements with third countries in the north Atlantic. These provide valuable opportunities additional to those available in Community waters. But we arc concerned that other agreements with third countries, which involve fishing rights in exchange for financial compensation or the establishment of joint ventures, should always provide value for money and that there should be clearer reports on the uptake of such agreements by the Community fleet. Tariff reductions on imports are likely to be an increasing feature of these agreements and the trend in international negotiations generally is towards long-term tariff reductions.

The committee also addressed regional socioeconomic problems. The Government have an open mind on the Commission's proposal for the creation of a new Objective 6, as an addition to the present system for targeting the Community's structural funds, to address the socio-economic problems arising specifically from the fishing cutbacks. We note the committee's support for these proposals. However, it is not yet clear what measures the Commission has in mind, nor has it been clearly demonstrated that there is a need to set up a new objective rather than using the existing objective suitably amended to cater for fisheries-dependent areas.

Finally, enforcement is an important key to the success of the common fisheries policy. Strict enforcement of the rules is essential wherever Community vessels operate and improved surveillance and enforcement must be a priority for the Community. Measures to improve control are now being addressed on the basis of a newly proposed control regulation, issued earlier this month, and also a specific proposal relating to waters covered by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation. We very much share the committee's views that, wherever possible, rules should be simplified to assist enforcement and we note the committee's wish for harsher penalties. We hope to take discussion forward on these issues during our presidency.

In the next few weeks as we discuss the future of the common fisheries policy we shall be taking on board as far as possible the various views expressed. We shall be seeking to emerge with an improved common fisheries policy with practical and enforceable management tools and with the correct balance of responsibility between member states, the Council and the Commission. But the key elements of the CFP, the key planks of Community policy, must remain—namely, relative stability between member states, TACs and quotas, and access within Community waters. That framework has served us well over the years. Within that framework, the Government and UK fishermen must play their part in fostering and maintaining the long-term viability of our fishing industry. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

4 p.m.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for introducing the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill with his customary clarity. I take this opportunity to express our appreciation of the fact that the noble Lords, Lord Amherst of Hackney and Lord Moyne, are to make their maiden speeches on this important subject this afternoon. I should like to say briefly to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, how much we on this side of the House appreciate the excellent report on this topic which the sub-committee has produced at a very important time. I hope that, by taking the Bill and the report in tandem, so to speak, we shall derive benefit from the wisdom contained in the report.

We are all agreed on the need for accepting advice from scientists on areas and species for conservation purposes. I hope, in view of the high price of acceptance of that advice, that the advice is correct and sound. Fishermen also accept conservation advice yet they see the Bill as basically a scheme for decommissioning. They do not like either its financial provisions, which they regard as inadequate, or the powers it gives to Ministers regarding licence conditions, especially days at sea, which we are told could be both oppressive and, in certain respects, as matters now stand, unworkable.

Past generosity in granting licences has caught up with Her Majesty's Government as total allowable catches of certain fish have recently decreased sharply; for example, in 1988 haddock had a TAC of 128,500 tonnes which, by 1992, had decreased to 45,000 tonnes; in 1988 the figure for cod was 71,490 tonnes, which has now decreased to 43,320 tonnes. The severity of reduced quotas has affected the livelihood of fishers. It has led also to alleged scams—another word for evasions—about which I hope to say something later.

Her Majesty's Government's decision to decommission contrasts with refusals when the industry requested such a scheme. On 21st January 1991 I asked a supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who then had responsibility for Scottish affairs. I asked him: in view of the major and continuing reduction in Great Britain's total allowable catches under the common fisheries policy … Will the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food consider the introduction of a decommissioning scheme to allow fishermen over middle age and operating older vessels to give up fishing, subject to Community and government assistance towards the funding of such a scheme"? The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, replied: We have always made plain the fact that the decommissioning scheme is not a good use of taxpayers' money. It would be expensive and would not help to reduce the overall capacity. Against that background is the fact that white fish prices have increased by 15 per cent. during the past 12 months".—[Official Report,21/1/91; col.2.] Yet in February 1992, as the noble Earl told us, the Government announced their decommissioning plans. February 1992 was close to certain events in April 1992 and it may be that the Minister's intentions were something of an electoral gambit. If so, the hostility of the industry to the Bill is yet further evidence of the Government's error at that time.

How much of a reduction in the size of a fleet will a £25 million decommissioning scheme produce? Paragraph 106 of the Select Committee report calls for four or five times that sum. Whatever scale of reductions the Bill achieves, will quota hopping increase? That too is discussed by the Select Committee at page 55.

At col.200 on 19th October 1992 in the other place, Her Majesty's Government announced that 57 Spanish,21 Dutch and two Danish fishing vessels were registered in the UK. Will those increase under the Bill's provisions? Do the Government consider that quota hopping is compatible with conservation? Will the satellite technology which the Government are proposing as an amendment to the Bill really meet the case of dealing with quota hoppers.

Clause 1(2) gives Ministers powers to specify the time—that is, the number of days—which a licence holder may spend at sea. That power is compounded by the power giving Ministers authority in Clause 1(3) to say what is a day at sea. That definition is a vital issue as regards fishermen.

In some ways those provisions are at the heart of the Bill. As the noble Earl recognised, fishermen are rightly apprehensive about them, not least because United Kingdom fishing practices differ by areas. Other speakers will doubtless have queries, but for now questions about pre-consultation, flexibility and enforcement of days at sea are provisions fundamental to the operation of the Bill.

Present ministerial powers to regulate fishing by suspension or revocation of licences are to be extended by the Bill so that those powers become penalties for breaching licence limitations. That extension of use will enable fisheries departments to take enforcement action administratively and is to complement existing arrangements for summary conviction through the courts. Such administrative action, even for breach, is a heavy hand. Will there be any appeal system when it is used?

The Sea Fish Licence Tribunal is a quango-like creation, reminiscent of the machinery quickly devised to deal with milk quotas. Fishers would like to be as well treated under the Bill as farmers expect to be under the new CAP rules for set aside. However, the tribunal is necessarily an adjudication body to hear appeals against initial time at sea allocation. It was created following all-party pressure in Committee in another place. As the noble Earl said, the tribunal will be supervised by the Council on Tribunals. Is there any place in that for the European Court of Justice to intervene in continuing and unresolved disputes? It may be necessary to table a probing amendment to determine that question.

Financial penalties are heavily increased by the Bill from £5,000 to £50,000 for a licence breach. That emphasises the importance of days at sea restrictions. As has been said, the Bill is not to apply initially to vessels of 10 metres or less in length. The date of commencement for that category is to require an administrative order. We shall want to discuss that restriction when it is introduced, not least because of the apprehension concerning it. Can the Minister say when Her Majesty's Government expect to implement Clause 7(2)?

The administrative costs of the Bill's provisions are significant when added to present costs. Yet one wonders whether the enforcement proposed, including licence fines and deterrents, will be adequate if limitations on catches increase, as seems likely.

Discussions began in the Fisheries Council in Brussels on 19th October on draft regulations to replace the basic common fisheries policy regulations and control legislation. That is likely to be a lengthy process. In the course of discussions, will Her Majesty's Government seek to make quotas truly national? If tougher rules lie ahead, should we not think about landing white fish only at designated ports where inspectors are on duty?

The Select Committee report rejects on grounds of prohibitive cost the idea of licensing fish buyers. However, there is a view that such a system is necessary so that licences can be withdrawn if there is evidence of illegal dealings. Have the Government considered the position of fish buyers in a conservation exercise? Further, is the idea that fishermen should sell their fish only at public auctions too onerous to be practical either now or in the future?

If total allowable catches are further reduced, pressures to fish illegally may increase, so protection for legal fishing must be strengthened. Failure to ensure that will disadvantage those who observe the rules, as well as reducing the conservation value of the Bill.

No one should underestimate both current and future problems of fishermen. Letters from all parts of the United Kingdom show the realities of present difficulties as well as fears about the effect of further limitations on families and small communities. If home fishermen are not allowed to fish often enough to make a living, how are they to be compensated, especially under the share fishing system which now applies widely in the industry?

As it stands, the Bill is still capable of amendment. Despite a prolonged Committee stage in another place, Her Majesty's Government resisted changes. In view of the interval between the Third Reading there and the introduction of the Bill here, will the Minister say whether the Government have had any second thoughts, apart from those to which he referred in his speech, particularly of an amelioratory kind, following discussions with fishermen's organisations? We shall seek amendments but it would be helpful to know whether the Government will listen sympathetically to at least some of those.

We recognise that the Bill is necessary. Nevertheless, we express anxiety about the aspects of the Bill to which I have referred in this brief speech. During the passage of the Bill, both in Committee and on Report, we hope that there will be some disposition on the part of the Government to look at some of the problems which have been bought to our notice since the Bill received a Third Reading elsewhere. I am not without hope that, apart from what has been said regarding an affirmative order to amend the reductions for clays at sea and the use of satellite technology to restrict quota hoppers, that there are other aspects of the Bill to which intelligent amendments, vigorously pursued, will produce a sympathetic response from the noble Earl.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, in thanking the Minister for his explanation of the Bill and in saying how much we look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Amherst and Lord Moyne. I hope it is in order to ask the Minister whether at the end of the debate we can be told anything about the explosion or fire which I understand has swept through Sullom Voe and possibly be assured that there has been no loss of life. That may be out of order, but if the Minister has any information I am sure the House would like to have it.

I am slightly out of date over fishing. It is some years now since I was out in a fishing boat. The industry is changing but there are certain things which I think are still common to all fishing communities and differentiate them from other communities. Fishing communities have a very specialised type of life. The most extreme example is probably a little community, Out Skerries, in Shetland. Skerries, as they are known, are a few rocks in the North Sea yet they have the same population as they had in the middle of the last century. Over the same period the agricultural communities have shrunk almost out of sight. The reason they have maintained their population is that the people fish.

There are two or three fishing boats on Skerries and they have been there for a hundred years. Boys on Skerries want to fish and the whole population of Skerries depends on fishing. There is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. There is no land. With regard to other occupations it is said,"Give people compensation and they can find other employment". One cannot do that in Skerries. It would finish the whole Skerries community. That is an extreme case but it is only an extreme case of what is true of many fishing communities. The communities are as specialised as mining communities. In fact they are more specialised. In Cornwall, Northern Ireland and Wales there are communities which have depended on fishing for generation upon generation. The boys want to go to fish. If there is no fishing, a way of life will be ended.

The other feature of these communities is that fishing is a gamble. To my mind, sociologists have grossly neglected the fishing industry. Fishing suits many human beings. It is far less dull than agriculture. It gets the men out of the house—that is extremely important—and enables different forms of life to be carried on across the sea, amicably and without problems. But it is above all a gamble. Therefore, it is peculiarly resistant to bureaucratic control.

I do not understand much about the report, excellent though it is, but I should like to ask noble Lords to look at pages 43 and 44. Another feature of fishing is the extreme difficulty of collecting statistics or knowing how to interpret them. On page 43 noble Lords will find a list of the top 12 ports in the United Kingdom. The top port is Lerwick. More fish were landed at Lerwick than anywhere else. It is only 20 years since I was told that the Shetland fishing industry would probably be finished, that the big trawlers would be landing in Hull—Hull is not on the list—that North Sea fishing would be badly affected by oil and that the outlook for Shetland was poor. Shetland is now the chief port in Britain. Third on the list is Ullapool. That might lead one to suppose that suddenly in the west of Scotland there is a very large local fishery, but I suspect that nearly all the fish in Ullapool are landed by east coast boats. Therefore one has to be very careful how one interprets these statistics.

On page 44 there is a list of the numbers of people employed in fishing. I am extremely surprised to find that more people are employed in fishing in the Western Isles than in Orkney and Shetland put together. Indeed, almost one-third as many people are employed in Orkney as in Shetland. I do not mind betting that that is strictly right but wholly misleading. I simply do not believe that there are all those numbers of people in the Western Isles toiling away at fishing. One may notice that Stornoway does not appear on the previous list of the 12 major ports in Britain. That is not to say that people do not go to sea or that they do not have boats but to suggest that it is a major fishing port in the Western Isles—as big as Shetland—would be wrong.

Another point I wish to mention is the Shetland box, to which reference is made on page 297 of the report. The Shetland box is an area off the north of Shetland which is being protected by licensing with the idea of protecting the breeding stocks. During the passage of the Bill through the House of Commons the Government said they intended to maintain the box. However, as the Government will see from pages 295 to 297 of the report, the Shetland fishermen think that the box should be extended. Have the Government any further information about the box? Do they intend to maintain it or even to extend it?

One feature of the fishing industry, as the Minister rightly said, is the great increase in catching power arising from industrial fishing, which I wholly agree should be looked on with some suspicion. I know that a large and well-equipped boat has appeared in Orkney. I wonder where it is going to fish. It may be going to fish in the southern Atlantic. It may be going to look for all the kinds of little fish which make up industrial catches. I take it that there will be a subsidy. In addition to the subsidy I understand that it is eligible for a grant of £280,000 from the local authority. I should like to be reassured that our policy of trying to restrict catching power, particularly of edible fish, is not at loggerheads with our policy of subsidising very large vessels for purposes of which I am ignorant. It may be, as I say, that they are outside the range of this Bill and are intended for the south Atlantic. I do not know.

I now come to the Bill. The first thing that struck me about the Bill is that it will be extremely dictatorial. As far as I understand it, the Minister is saying that if necessary the Government will bring in regulations which will enable someone simply to tell a particular boat—not a class of boat—that it cannot go to sea. I understand that if this regulation is passed by Parliament someone will be able to go along to a small port in Cornwall or in the Shetlands, name a particular boat and say,"You cannot go to sea". I suggest to the House that that is an extremely dictatorial act and requires a great deal of justification. I should like to know on what evidence this decision will be made. Will it be made on the basis that a particular boat has caught too many fish, or will it be made on the basis that it can best afford not to go to sea? How will the decision be made? I am told that the general curfew will be dated 1991 but it is the future with which I am concerned. Next year, or the year after, decisions may be made forbidding boats to go to sea. Who will make them? There will be an appeal system but it cannot possibly work quickly enough to save any boat that is affected.

Further, fishermen have to plan ahead. A fisherman from Cornwall wrote to me. He has a mortgage to pay. If he has hanging over his head a threat that an official can come along and say "No, you cannot go to sea", it will make life impossible. I do not know the answer to that problem. However, the alternative of restriction class by class is even worse.

The Minister in another place made a very curious statement: We face the possibility of multinational guidance programme targets". Legal libraries in fishing ports are rather scant and one can envisage the fishermen anxiously going along and saying, "Are we the target of a multinational programme?" However, I gather that there are no plans for multinational guidance programmes and that at least is something to be thankful for. However, we are left with an extremely unsatisfactory method and I cannot see how it will be applied.

What power will Parliament have? There will be an affirmative resolution entitling the Minister to choose the boats that cannot go to sea. That is the end of Parliamentary control.

What is the bureaucratic aspect of the matter? The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill states: Restricting days at sea for some 3,800 vessels over 10 metres in length will require a significant increase in enforcement posts". My God, I should say that it would. Is the length confined to over 10 metres or does it refer to all boats, in which case the figure is much more than that? It could be 6– 7,000 vessels. The Memorandum continues: Provisional estimates suggest that the Sea Fisheries Inspectorates will require an increase in man years of around 30 in England and Wales, over 25 in Scotland and around 5 in Northern Ireland-. Why does the Bill refer to man years? Does that not simply mean employees? Will the whole staff be sacked every year and then re-engaged? Perhaps we can have further information on that matter.

Who will interpret what is the time spent at sea? The Bill contains a very curious phrase in Section 1 (3): A licence containing a condition restricting the time which a vessel may spend at sea may make provision as to the circumstances in which time is, or is not, to count as time spent at sea". There is no restriction on time. According to the Bill, time spent in port may be reconciled with time spent at sea. That is another example of misuse of the English language. It is extremely misleading. Who will decide what is the time spent at sea, and what does the phrase mean?

The alternative is the decommissioning scheme. It is true that that may not be the entire answer, but it is a better answer. I should like to know whether the Government can do more to improve it.

The total amount set aside is £25 million. That is an extremely small amount. Every day in the papers one sees that top executives who are sacked for incompetence receive anything from half a million pounds to £2 million by way of a golden handshake; and that is for incompetence! The wretched fishermen will have to share £25 million among 6–7,000 people, or those among them who are stopped from going to sea. That is a very odd of example of treatment of the poor compared with the treatment of the rich. The sum should be greatly increased. I understand that the EC offered to increase that amount and I should like an assurance from the Minister that that is not the case because I cannot believe that the Government would have been so foolish as to refuse it.

The decommissioning scheme should be improved. As it stands it will not solve the difficulties of the fishing communities and it may not solve difficulties of conservation. I do not say that survival of the fishing communities and the inshore communities is more or less important, but it is important and it was not mentioned in the objectives with which the Minister commenced his speech. It can be achieved in various ways. It is an important matter and requires very special thought because the communities cannot be dealt with by bureaucratic methods. Those communities differ all over the land with the different kinds of fishing that they undertake.

I do not as yet wholly oppose the Bill because the Minister may be able to convince me on how it will be enforced. However, I beg the Minister to look again at the decommissioning scheme, which I believe is a better method. It is extremely difficult to understand how on earth the Bill will be administered.

4.25 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the Minister for the way in which he introduced the debate. I am particularly pleased that we have had the opportunity to debate not only the Second Reading of the Bill but also our committee's report. The two work well together in debate. We are looking at the wider review of the common fisheries policy. As the Minister has explained, he is bringing to us today just one part of a multi-prong strategy to deal with a problem that is recognised to be very serious.

The committee, faced with a technical matter such as this with many different and obscure aspects, was enormously grateful for a specialist adviser, Mr. Boyd Gordon. I should like to thank him and our clerk, Mrs. Mary Bloor, for all the help that they have given


Other members of the sub-committee will be speaking today and I am sure that they will address a number of the issues which by force of time I cannot address. I regret that my noble friend Lady Carnegy appears to have been omitted from the list due to some misunderstanding. I hope, however, that she finds an opportunity to intervene in the debate.

The report from the Commission forms the basis of our investigation and is what one might call a half-term report. After 10 years it was written into the common fisheries policy that there should be a review. The report was initiated in 1983, so this year we are approaching the Council of Ministers' deliberations. I hope that our report has helped to put the recommendations and the report itself into context.

The review does not pull any punches. It is quite damning in its indictment of the failure of its own common fisheries policy to achieve what it set out to do. As the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, stated, the first and most important objective was to secure a livelihood for fishing communities which are so much at risk if that one source of livelihood fails them.

Fishing stocks are failing. One has only to look at the statistics—which I hope are more readily understandable than those referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond—that deal with the decline of cod and haddock stocks in the North Sea. Those are two of the most significantly economic stocks and they are declining. The fish stocks are in danger of collapse. With their demise go the fishing communities. The two are inextricably linked. What the Bill seeks to achieve, what we commend and what the review of the common fisheries policy tries to achieve is a balance between capacity, effort and stock.

The evidence of the failure is not just declining stocks and increasing pressure on fishing communities. There is also evidence of grievance from other countries, which is not unjustified. They are addressing the same problems. Norway, Iceland and Canada share fisheries with us and they have all had to address very real problems. Sometimes they have been more effective. At times they have introduced draconian measures, but they have faced up to the problems.

There is the environmental impact which is dealt with at some length in the report. There is evidence that there is damage to the food chain going well beyond the fisheries stocks, themselves caused by the take, and there is damage to the marine environment as a whole.

What are the causes of such failure? One has to say, fairly and squarely, that it has been the inability of successive Councils of Ministers to tackle the problem. They have had scientific evidence, year after year, which has demonstrated that stocks are at risk. There has been the usual fudge and compromise which there always is on these occasions where one national government compromises with another and we end up with figures which are not supported by the scientists. There has then been the failure to allow for the implementation of new technology which means that we become ever more efficient. Some clever measures have been taken to avoid the rules. There is a whole new fleet of ships called the "rulebreakers". They are either 10 metres long or marginally less. They do not have to be licensed and are therefore not taken into account when the total allowable catches are fixed. They represent a significant proportion of the capacity. We welcome the measures the Government propose to take to license them, but nevertheless they represent a large contributory factor in the failure to control the common fisheries policy and the stocks.

There are then the illegal landings. The Minister was right when he said that that represents an enormous problem which is worsening. As legislators, we should be worried. We are trying to legislate in a way which we believe will address the problem but there is a whole sector which feels that it can no longer abide by the rules and, quite frankly, breaks them and acts illegally. It seems to be an accepted way of life in a large part of the fishing community."Black fish" is a widespread phenomenon.

The last reason one must list is the lack of Community-wide enforcement. Some countries, notably the United Kingdom, do more than others. The fact that other countries do less causes grievances and no doubt adds to people's unwillingness to abide by laws which they feel are enforced unevenly.

I turn now to the measures which the committee recommends to achieve stability of the stock. We recognise—we are at one with the Minister here—that the principle of relative stability between nations is an important concept. We accept that it cannot be put at risk. I say that because the memorandum which the ministry has published seems to imply that the committee wants to make some radical changes to the allocation. There is one aspect to which the Minister referred about which we agree with him. It is that the Hague preference which sought to protect fishing communities in the extremities of Europe—that includes the northern part of the United Kingdom—gave a degree of preference to those communities, but it seems to have borne unfairly on Northern Ireland as compared to the Republic of Ireland. Without opening the Pandora's Box about which the Minister is so worried, we hope that that issue can be addressed in the context of the review that is to take place at the half-term stage.

The multi-annual guidance policy has not been conspicuously successful in the past. It set unrealistically low targets. The United Kingdom has not sought to participate and the policy has not sought to make adjustments relating to improvements in efficiency. We recognise that "tie-up" as part of the package is essential at this stage of the game. It is described in our report as a necessary interim measure because it is economically inefficient. After all, some member states have spent a great deal of their taxpayers' money grant-aiding new capacity as part of the deal under the multi-annual guidance policy. What on earth is the point of the taxpayer spending that money on new capacity if we then say that there must be tie-up and it is no longer used? It is clearly a waste of resources.

Ultimately, we hope to be able to balance fleet capacity with stock. When we achieve that happy state, tie-up will not be necessary. That should he the Government's objective. We should not accept that tie-up will be a necessary part of the policy for ever and a day, although it will be for the time being. We welcomed the flexibility to which the Minister referred which suggests that the tie-up proposals can be tailored to individual circumstances. That will be important, although, like the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, I do not envy the man who has to do the tailoring.

We suggested that licences should be charged for and should apply to ships under 10 metres in length. Clearly it is not possible to have a decommissioning proposal if people spend their money on the small rulebreakers. We achieve nothing, and so we welcome the proposal to license ships of under 10 metres. If, as is clearly the case, the Government believe that they cannot afford anything more generous than £25 million for decommissioning, which comes in next year we hope, then the Government might have to study the proposal for charging for licences as a further source of funds. We do not make such a proposal in our report. We merely suggest that licences should be charged for in order to cover administrative costs.

Such licences, which are issued free, change hands for enormous sums of money. We were told that it might be up to £1 million. It therefore seems not unreasonable that if the taxpayer is to fund part of the cost then there is an effective opportunity to levy tax when those valuable properties change hands. That is a suggestion which should be examined. Incidentally, one of the witnesses who gave evidence to us, Mr. Holden, who used to work for the conservation department of DG14, advanced the theory, which we did not pursue very far, that licences should be used as a control measure.

The Minister referred to industrial fishing. We were worried as to whether we could justify taking 2 million tonnes each year of sand eels, Norway pout and sprats. Those organisms are rather modest forms of life, but they are the bottom of the food chain. Although research is still in progress, instinct told us that that considerable effort was bound to have an effect on larger fish, seabirds and mammals. As it did not seem to be an industry which needed to be carried out in fishery areas as exploited as those around the United Kingdom, we felt that there may be an opportunity to trade elsewhere where fisheries were less under pressure and might be keener to produce this type of low-use product than we are.

Again—we agree with the Minister on this point, or perhaps I should say that the Minister agrees with us in this case—we believe that the common fisheries policy's environmental objectives should be strengthened. In the Single European Act we have seen the hope expressed that all the legislation should take on board the environmental effect. This is a policy in which the environmental objectives form an important part. We should like therefore to see them listed as a fifth objective in the Commission's review.

I shall not deal with technical matters because they become complicated and I do not believe that I have time to do so. I should like however to deal with socio-economic measures. I was a little saddened to hear that the Minister felt that the case for Objective 6 of the Structural Fund has not yet been made out. When the message is understood that capacity will have to be reduced in relation to available fish stocks and that that will inevitably mean that there will be fewer jobs and some of the vulnerable communities will be at risk, it will be some small palliative at least to know that that has been recognised in Objective 6 of the Structural Fund. I urge the Minister to reconsider that point.

I shall end by saying, as the Minister did when he finished his speech, that unless we can achieve consistent monitoring and enforcement of the fishing effort there will continue to be grievances and it will be difficult to make people who earn their living from fishing in the United Kingdom understand the justification for the half measures that will be necessary.

We would certainly not suggest that the principle of subsidiarity should be breached. That is a matter for national enforcement but national enforcement must he carried out in an even fashion and the Commission must be prepared to take infraction proceedings before the European Court of Justice where national enforcement of Community rules is deficient. The Minister's evidence in the committee's report makes it clear that many national governments were far from conscientious in fulfilling their responsibilities.

However, the failure of the common fisheries policy cannot be attributed just to other countries in Europe. We must all share in that failure. In many ways we have been no more successful than other countries in this regard. I for one welcome the Bill as only part of the Government's commitment to address the fundamental issues. I commend the committee's report as a contribution to an informed debate on a difficult but urgent problem.

Back to