HL Deb 07 November 2003 vol 654 cc1051-7

12.13 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

rose to move, That the scheme laid before the House on 16th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The purpose of the instrument is to provide grant-aid to assist owners of English fishing boats to decommission their vessels. It will contribute to efforts to bring the size of the fleet into better balance with the available stocks. In turn, that will help with the recovery of those stocks. What is more, a smaller fleet will also be a more viable one. I will return to that issue in a moment.

The grant scheme works in a way similar to those we have run before in this country. Fishermen wishing to avail themselves of the scheme make a financial bid, representing the amount for which they will agree permanently to remove their vessel from the fishing fleet. Bids that offer the best value for money are accepted. The vessel owner arranges for the boat to be scrapped, and the grant is paid. In scrapping his vessel, the owner gives up the fishing licences that he holds for it. Those licences are cancelled. We do not issue any new licences under our fisheries management system, so the grant scheme makes a permanent cut in the tonnage of the fleet.

The scheme is targeted at the part of the fleet that catches cod. It is part of our strategy to reduce the pressure of fishing on the cod stocks in the North Sea and the west of Scotland. The EU has established recovery measures for those stocks, which this year include limits on the amount of time that fishing boats can spend at sea. By taking out some boats altogether, it is possible to give the remaining boats more time to spend at sea, so the grant scheme helps to keep the rest of the fleet more profitable by enabling it to fish more than would otherwise be allowed.

This scheme applies to England. The devolved Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland run their own schemes, which are designed to have a parallel effect to ours. The scheme has needed to have approval from the European Commission under the EU state aid rules. We asked the Commission for authority to pay more grant to individual vessels than its standard maximum rates, to ensure that we could provide a suitable incentive for fishermen. The Commission did not agree to that, so there are ceilings on the rates that can be paid. The maximum rate depends on the age and size of the vessel. Under the English scheme, we had 63 applications, though many wanted a rate of payment higher than the EU ceiling and have since withdrawn from the scheme. So far, 12 have accepted our offers of payment under the scheme, and we await the decisions of 21 more.

We originally announced that we would pay £5 million in grant under the scheme in England, but, in the light of the bids that have been made, I have made it clear that we will pay more, if necessary, to meet the target for reduction. We will approve payment to all those who have applied, if the withdrawal of the vessel will make a significant contribution to reducing fishing for cod in the North Sea and the west of Scotland.

As I said, the scheme is part of our strategy to restore fish stocks in the North Sea and west of Scotland. We are entering the period leading up to the December European Council of Ministers meeting, when decisions on future stocks management will be taken. We will consider the latest scientific advice on the stocks and will consult the fishing industry on the way forward. We will, of course, talk to other member states and the Commission.

This is an important time for our fisheries. I commend the scheme to the House.

Moved, That the scheme laid before the House on 16th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the statutory instrument and outlining the process for applications, their approval and eligibility, and the method of decommissioning under the grant system. However, before I ask the Minister some direct questions, I remind her—I am sure that she needs no reminding—that it is less than a month since we debated the Select Committee's report on progress on the common fisheries policy. The Minister and other noble Lords will remember that we had an extremely depressing three hours. The progress made was very small, and speakers in all parts of the House bemoaned the lack of progress made in the conservation of fish stocks, particularly, as the Minister said again today, cod and, on that occasion, haddock.

The Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme 2003 will result in the scrapping of some English vessels. The noble Baroness rightly said that the scheme applied only to English vessels. No new licences will be awarded, and the scheme will make a permanent cut in the tonnage of the fleet of English vessels. Do other EU countries use exactly the same scheme? In the past, some countries have had decommissioning schemes but have allowed that money to be used to improve other fishing vessels, often creating even more fishing capacity than before.

The noble Baroness will remember that my noble friend Lady Wilcox spoke about her great concern at the way in which fishing authorities dealt with controls on their particular fishing practices. As the noble Baroness said, 63 applications were made originally. But I am confused because while she said that only 12 vessels have accepted the offers of grant, in the Commons, Ben Bradshaw said that the number of acceptances is 16. Perhaps the Minister could clarify why the number has decreased by four in the past two days. Responses are awaited from a further 16 vessels.

I also understand that the Government originally put aside £5 million in grant, but in another place Ben Bradshaw made it clear that the Government would pay more, if necessary. From where is the original allocated £5 million coming? Is it new money? Would additional money come from the same source or is it EU money which requires matched Treasury funding?

I turn now to the detail of the order. Paragraph 4(4), entitled, "Applications" states: The Secretary of State shall publish in such manner as she considers appropriate". I hope that it will not be published just on the web, but also in the written word. It is not specified, so perhaps that can be clarified.

Paragraph 5(2)(a), entitled, "Consideration of applications", states that bids are to be, made in respect of a vessel which is less than 10 years old". But on 5th November, in Committee, the Minister said: There is no discrimination based on, or targeting relevant to, the age of vessels".—[Official Report, Commons Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation; 5/11/03; col. 16.] It may be my misunderstanding or misreading, but, again, I should be grateful for clarification. Obviously, the two statements do not add up.

Paragraph 5(5) states: The Secretary of State shall select for approval the highest ranking application on the reserve list". Will the Minister explain that? In the light of the Government's intention to pay more, if necessary, does that, in line with the statutory instrument, become invalid?

Paragraph 8(1), entitled, Decommissioning of the vessel", refers to: "At least two weeks prior to the decommission". Is the Minister confident that two weeks is sufficient time in which to expect the application to reach the Secretary of State? Recently we experienced a postal strike; we all know that mail is not coming through very quickly. Why was two weeks chosen? That is a fairly tight turnaround if there are any difficulties in the wider world.

As regards paragraph 12(1), entitled, "Method of payment", is it right that payments may be made, "by such instalments at such intervals or times"?

Is that normal? It seems unfair that people who are decommissioning their vessels should have to wait for payment, which may be made in dribs and drabs. I do not understand that and seek clarification.

Paragraph 14(3) refers to entry to a "dwelling house". The Minister may reflect that in the many debates on legislation going through this House— particularly on the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and animal health legislation—the power to go into a person's dwelling house has not normally been included. Why does this statutory instrument not follow the same line as previous legislation? Is this an extension of normal entry powers? It seems slightly confusing.

I have two further brief points. As regards paragraph 15(4)(b), is that supposed to be the appeals system? There does not seem to be an appeals system built into this statutory instrument. If so, presumably the appeals system for fishing vessel owners does not have an independent authority. That may be deliberate, but I could not determine it.

Finally, paragraph 16(1), entitled "Interest", refers to, recover interest on that amount on a daily basis at a rate of 1 per cent above LIBOR". Will that also apply to any late payments made by the Government? Otherwise, I support the statutory instrument.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, in addressing the statutory instrument, the noble Baroness has asked some very pertinent questions. I shall be interested to hear the answers. Page 5, paragraph 5(4)(a) of the statutory instrument refers to, the benefit likely to be derived from, and value for money represented by, the bid". How is that determined? What is the interpretation?

I declare that I am a member of the House of Lords European Union Committee D, which produced the report on the common fisheries policy debated about three weeks ago. I understand that the statutory instrument is related to decommissioning of boats in England specifically. It beholds me to quote from the report. Paragraph 31 states: One of the most fundamental and enduring problems of the Common Fisheries Policy has been the failure to tackle chronic overcapacity of the EU fleet". Clearly, that is being tackled in the United Kingdom by the introduction of the statutory instrument.

After the Council of Ministers met about this, our conclusion was that: Another opportunity to legislate for a serious downsizing of the European fleet has been missed. We urge the Government to press the fundamental need for capacity reduction, as well as effective measures to deal with 'technology creep', in future negotiations over recovery and management plans". I am particularly concerned about technology creep, which it is right to bring out into the open. There are still EU grants for new boats, which will be granted throughout 2004 and will not terminate until the end of that year. At the same time, we will be having grants to decommission boats. That is the law of the jungle.

I am a great supporter of the European Union, but that kind of legislation and agreement brings it into disrepute. Indeed, this is an extraordinary situation. What are the Minister's views? There is a fair reduction all round in all of the maritime nations of the Community. What support will be available for coastal fishing communities in England? In Scotland, provision is being made by the Scottish Executive. In Cornwall, I know that there is great concern about objective 1 money, which is provided for development in Cornwall because its GDP is particularly low. Is any of that money being siphoned off into the fund for the decommissioning of boats? I hope that that is not the case and that the noble Baroness is able to reassure us on that point.

It is clear that the fishing-out of stocks is not in the interests of our fishing communities. There needs to be greater acceleration and will by the whole of the European Community. In particular, those countries which tend to ignore this kind of legislation must grasp the nettle in the interests of us conserving our fish stocks so that we actually have some fish for which to fish.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I wish to follow the contributions made by the two noble Lords on this side of the House and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. We are all well aware that fishing is a very hard-pressed industry. The total allowable catch has been set far too high, the gear has improved and vessels are now much larger. One appreciates that for far too long a great deal of over-fishing has been going on in European waters. As a former fisheries Minister, I endured many all-night sittings in Brussels trying to sort it out; I know just how difficult that is to do.

The order presents good news and bad news. It is good news that the Government have brought forward this decommissioning scheme, but it is bad news that we have to do it at all. On balance, we must go along with the scheme, but I hope that the Government fisheries Ministers will do all they can to try to improve the situation in the months and years ahead. As the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, pointed out, the fishing ports around our coasts are now becoming totally redundant, facing huge job losses and suffering from a general depression in an industry that flourished not so many years ago.

The noble Baroness gave some figures with regard to applications for decommissioning and those that have been accepted. 1 wish to ask about two further points: first, how long does it take to come to a decision from receipt of an application? Secondly, can she give us an approximated average figure for what the owner of a decommissioned vessel is receiving? The noble Baroness said that 12 applications have been dealt with so far, although others have mentioned the figure of 16. If she divides that figure into the amount of money already spent, we shall have an average figure. Noble Lords would like to know the sum, because it must be balanced against the long-term income and work of a fisherman and his crew, and what is to happen when the boat comes out of use.

I repeat a point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. Can the Minister explain where the money is coming from? Is it all European Union money, or is it in part or in total from the UK Treasury? Can the noble Baroness also give further details on the decisions reached about the break-up of the vessels? It is an awful tragedy to take a good, sea-going boat and then break it up. What is to happen to the salvage? Who will take the gear, engines and so forth, all of which could be used again? Is the owner to retain the right to sell the salvage after break-up?

Having read this extremely detailed order, I believe it is most important to ensure that the bureaucracy and red tape surrounding the entire scheme is reduced as much as possible. I hope that the noble Baroness can tell us that the process from application for decommissioning to acceptance is completed in the shortest period of time and that no great problems are encountered. Obviously it is important that all eligible vessels are brought into the scheme, and I am glad that the Government have retained the escape clause that will allow a few boats to go to museums and other forms of preservation. These vessels are beautiful and it causes great sadness to see them go.

The most vital point to come out of this debate is the fact that the fishing industry is in such a serious plight. We hope that fish stocks will improve and that the industry itself can face a more certain future, not only for fishermen, but also for consumers.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I begin by apologising to the House. I have been given the updated figures to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred, although the position has changed again since this update. Some 20 vessels have now accepted our offers of grant and we await responses from a further 12, possibly by this time next week. Were I to use these figures then, I would again be out of date. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, also asked for the most recent statistics.

In response to the questions put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, 50 per cent of the funds will be met by the European Union and all vessels, whether they are over or under 10 years old, have been included. We are looking to remove effort as soon as possible, but I accept the point made by the noble Baroness about having to be flexible in the light of the postal strike. Payments will be made as soon as possible after decommissioning has taken place. Further, while there is no independent statutory authority, if vessel owners were to express concerns and be unhappy with the position, we would be happy to consider the issue again.

Owners may do what they like with their vessels once they have been scrapped, subject of course to environmental considerations. I say that in answer to the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Monro. We share his enthusiasm for retaining the museum option for the reasons he gave in his remarks.

Boats are averaging around £1,000 per vessel capacity unit, but it is very difficult to calculate the averages. Not all vessels are equal and therefore any average figures could be misleading simply on the grounds that not all fishing vessels are in the same position when it comes to the contribution they would make to the overall effort. Value for money is perceived in those terms as a part of the equation. All vessels capable of catching cod in the North Sea and off the west coast of Scotland are subject to the same restrictions on days, not only the vessels of the UK.

There were two rounds of applications and limits on maximum payments set because the Commission was not content that we should pay more than the standard EU grant limits for scrapping vessels. We had expected that we could pay more because the Commission had allowed for that in a previous scheme. Once we were aware of the position, we realised that we had to go back to the applicants to let them know. The basis, as I have said, for selecting the best-value applications to approve the grant is the level of the bid and the amount of fishing time spent on cod fishing in the reference period.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, about the need to provide socio-economic help for fishing communities. Funds are available at the regional level to tackle local issues and the regional development agencies are alert to the necessity to identify needs. The finance available to adjust fleet size, promote a viable fishing industry and restore stocks in 2001-02 was £36 million, rising up to £50 million this year. As noble Lords have recognised, we are prepared to look at the finance again in the light of experience.

All noble Lords taking part in this debate were present and took part in the discussions on the excellent report to which the noble Baroness referred. Through the Strategy Unit we are undertaking studies to identify the long-term way forward for the fishing industry. The consultation I referred to earlier is an important part of that process. We support better contact between the industry and the scientists and this year have set aside almost £ 1 million for precisely that purpose. We have given top priority to achieving a better balance between fishing capacity and fish stocks through permanent adjustment.

I am conscious that certain other questions were put to me to which at this stage I do not have the accurate and detailed answers. I will write to all noble Lords who have taken part and provide those detailed responses—such as, for example, to the question put by the noble Baroness about rates of interest on both payments and late payments.

On Question, Motion agreed to.