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Sixth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 10 April 2003
[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]
Sea Fisheries (Restriction on Days at Sea)
Andrew George (St. Ives): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Sea Fisheries (Restriction on Days at Sea) Order (S.I. 2003, No. 229).
I am pleased to have an opportunity to debate the order. My right hon. Friends and I prayed against it on 10 February for several reasons that will become clear.
First, I query the procedure, which allows insufficient opportunity for debate, especially on an order that is so significant to the fishing industry. I note that it applies to England and Wales, and that separate provisions are being made in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I also recognise that it relates to a temporary fishing effort regime, which I understand will be in place until 31 December, or, as the European Commission press release of 3 April states,
''until a definitive cod recovery plan, to be proposed by the Commission in a few weeks' time, is adopted later on in the year.''
I accept that improvements to the regime have been negotiated this week, and no doubt the Minister will explain what has been achieved in relation to a more flexible definition on what constitutes a day, the right of innocent passage through the restricted zone to unrestricted grounds, greater flexibility in the transfer of days from small to larger vessels based on the concept of kilowatt days, the provision of force majeur to include bad weather as well as breakdowns and allowing member states to continue using their designated landing ports.
The debate's purpose is to emphasise the need for Parliament to debate fully and properly a legislative change that is being smuggled through by statutory instrument. According to the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, the order is
''one of the most significant changes to the CFP to affect the UK fleet in over 20 years.''
We also seek reassurance from the Government that the timetable for a recovery plan will not be subject to delays that are characteristic of the Home Office, and that the Minister and his Department have taken on board, and can answer, the concerns about and objections to the order raised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in its 14th report of this Session, which was published on 18 March. I shall return to that, because it raises significant questions whether the Committee should be asked to allow an order that the Department accepts is demonstrably flawed to proceed.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): On a point of order, Miss Widdecombe. Is it proper for the Committee to consider the order when the Joint
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Committee on Statutory Instruments has ruled that it might be ultra vires?
The Chairman: This is the order that the Government laid, so it is the only order that we can debate. However, I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Joint Committee's comments and I hope that he will address them. He may want to respond to the point of order now.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): Further to that point of order, Miss Widdecombe. For the Committee's benefit, I point out that the only part of the order that is ultra vires relates to the fact that the EU regulation came into force on 1 February, although the English legislation was laid on 8 February. Therefore, the period from 1 to 8 February is ultra vires. We would not seek to use that provision, but the rest of the measure is in order. In fact, case law makes that absolutely clear, so we can debate and act on the order. We will amend it in due course, because we negotiated changes at the April Council. When we do so, we will rectify that small mistake.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Further to that point of order, Miss Widdecombe. It is acknowledged that the period from 1 to 8 February is ultra vires, so presumably any days that fishing boats clocked up then are also ultra vires, as are any prosecutions or infringements that follow. This is rather more complex than the Minister says.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Further to that point of order, Miss Widdecombe. I am a little uncertain as to why the problem arose in the first place. I wonder whether you know the reason or whether the Minister can explain it. This seems to be an avoidable situation. The Government must have been aware of the circumstances of the directive and its implications for a timetable. I am mystified, as I am sure other members of the Committee are, as to why we got into this mess in the first place.
The Chairman: As far as the Chair is concerned, the order that we must debate is the order before us. However, I agree that it is unsatisfactory when such questions arise, but cannot be resolved before the Committee sits. I am sure that the Minister will take note of those comments and ensure as far as possible that this regrettable situation does not arise again. I call Mr. George, who has been very patient.
Andrew George: Thank you, Miss Widdecombe. The Minister was not entirely accurate. He referred to one of two reasons why the Joint Committee thinks the order inadequate, which relates to the period between 1 and 8 February. The second reason, as the report makes clear, relates to words that the Department added to article 12, but which it now says should be deleted. We may have an opportunity to debate that later.
The points of order properly raise the question whether members of the Committee, across all parties—after all, the Joint Committee is a cross-party Committee—are prepared simply to stand aside and debate the order as if it were correct, rather than
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debating it and taking into account the fact that it is seriously flawed. Should that bear on our judgment? Having listened to the debate, and we hope that Labour Members will take part, we may decide that it is appropriate to divide the Committee. That judgment needs to be made, and I look forward to the Minister's explanation of those matters.
If the Minister feels beleaguered, he may be reassured that when the matter was debated in the Scottish Parliament, my Liberal Democrat colleague, the Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Ross Finnie, MSP, was offered the portfolio. That is proof that the issue is the thankless poisoned challis that the Minister probably believes it to be. Labour seems to be keen to palm off the job, which, in Scotland and in Wales, appears to be the harbinger of ''unburiable'' bad news. He will therefore understand why we have some sympathy for him in the difficulties that he has to face.
Mr. Salmond: I promise the hon. Gentleman that this is the only time that I will make the point, as there are more substantial issues to debate. Will he explain to the Committee how the Liberal party can vote for the order in the Scottish Parliament and against it at Westminster?
Andrew George: I am coming to that issue. There are important matters to consider in relation to the days at sea order, but my concern, which will ultimately tip the balance, is whether in this Parliament we are being asked to vote for a flawed statutory instrument. That is why we need to have the debate and to consider the Minister's response. If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully, he would have understood that that is the issue on which we are likely to divide the Committee.
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): As the hon. Gentleman's contention is that the order is flawed, he will have noted, as I did, the Public Accounts Committee's recent consideration of enforcement measures. The fishermen on the Yorkshire coast will certainly have noted it. How do the PAC's deliberations sit in terms of the hon. Gentleman's argument on the need to strengthen the enforcement regime in the fisheries policy?
Andrew George: I will come to the issue of enforcement in a moment. As politicians, we have lessons to learn in ensuring that the regulations are both appropriate and enforceable. Regulatory bodies governing scientists and the industry should work together, rather than the industry feeling that it is being treated as guilty of breaking the law until it proves itself innocent. By using the belt-and-braces approach, which underlies the need for the order, my concern is that we are creating an environment in which fishermen perhaps have less regard, less sympathy and less sense of partnership with the Government and regulators than should be the case if we are genuinely to achieve stock recovery. That is the only way forward.
Lawrie Quinn: Fundamental to that must be the issue of sustainability throughout, whatever the measures provide for in the context of the partnership that the hon. Gentleman describes.
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Andrew George: That intervention helps me in making my point. We have to make a political judgment. My judgment, and that of my party, is that it is better to establish regimes that involve regulators and the industry working in partnership, rather than adopting more draconian approaches.
Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is making his case in his usual measured way. Whatever regime is adopted must be sustainable, and the people who know that best are the fishermen. Their future is at stake if the regime is not sustainable, and they have no interest in depleting fish stocks. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), who is a doughty defender of those interests, will acknowledge that that is why a partnership such as the one described is so vital.
Andrew George: Perhaps I should not say that that goes without saying, but I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says: if fishermen want their industry to have a future, it is in their interest to ensure that there are the stocks to maintain that industry.
I will clarify the point that I made earlier about my colleague in the Scottish Parliament. He said:
''I am on record as saying that I am far from happy with the content of annexe 17, which I believe has a significant number of flaws. In particular, it does not allow sufficient commercial and economic flexibility and might have insufficient regard for safety.''—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 19 February 2003; Vol. 4, c. 18284.]
I believe that, despite the changes made at the Council meeting this week, those flaws still exist.
There are a number of concerns. Many Members who consistently represent fishing interests will recognise that the primary concerns are economic and financial. The order will squeeze rather than decommission the industry. The decommissioning package is only £5 million in England, and fishermen therefore will be surrounded with a belt-and-braces regime, which controls the amount of cod that they can catch and land, and, through the order, imposes a further control on days spent at sea. That raises the question why the order is needed. The industry's view is that the order will enable the Government to put it out of business, rather than buying it out through a decommissioning scheme.
The Committee needs to take on board that lack of economic sustainability, which the Government are placing on the industry. The Sea Fish Industry Authority report published before the December Council estimates that 35 per cent. of the white fish fleet is making either a loss or no profit. If that is the case, and given the restrictions that the statutory instrument will place on the industry, a sizeable proportion of the fleet will no longer be economically sustainable.
If the measures are aimed at conserving stocks, the bodies that are concerned about marine wildlife and stock levels would have endorsed them. An interesting letter was published in The Times on 24 February 2003, which was jointly signed by the director of policy at English Nature, Tim Gray of Newcastle university's politics department, the campaign director of WWF UK, the illustrious chairman of the all-party
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parliamentary fisheries group, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and others. It states:
''No wildlife conservation initiative for developing countries would be considered sound or realistic if it did not take into account the economic circumstances of the local human population.''
The fact that people in such posts are signing a letter with the president of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations to argue that the order contributes little or nothing to the conservation of marine wildlife—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the Minister dismisses that, but he should take note of such people as the director of policy at English Nature, who is concerned that these measures will not have the impact on conservation that the Government claim.