Wednesday 8 September 2004
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Establishment of a Community Fisheries Control Agency
[Relevant Documents: European Union Document No. 9149/04 and ADD 1; and amending Regulation (EC) No. 2847/93.]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): As colleagues may recall from the debate a year ago, the proposals before the Committee originate in a discussion held more than two years ago on the need for reform of the common fisheries policy. During consultation on those reforms, it was clear that Governments, industry and non-governmental organisations shared a common belief that the quality and consistency of fisheries enforcement throughout the European Union was seriously flawed.
The British Government, of course, support any move to improve the quality of fisheries enforcement and to create a level playing field. That is imperative if our fishermen are to have confidence that the rules are being applied fairly. Perhaps even more important, it is vital if we are to achieve sustainable management of our fish stocks and, in particular, successful recovery of currently seriously depleted stocks. We therefore support in principle the proposal to establish a Community fisheries enforcement agency, although we still have considerable concerns about some of the details of the proposals and the lack of detail and clarity in some cases. Those concerns are expressed in the motion before the Committee and they will continue to be expressed in discussions with our EU partners and the Commission as the proposals develop.
The Chairman: We have until 3 o'clock for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time, but they may ask more than one question. I am fairly sure that there will be plenty of opportunity for all hon. Members to ask their questions.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Welcome to the Chair, Miss Begg. It is good to see you here. My first question for the Minister is why was Vigo chosen to be the headquarters of the Community fisheries control agency?
Mr. Bradshaw: My understanding is that no final decision has been made on the location. I am aware that Vigo was suggested at some stage, but it has not been confirmed. The hon. Gentleman might recall that the decision to go ahead with the agency emerged from the Heads of Government Council meeting on 13 December, when the location for a number of new EU agencies was decided. The United Kingdom will host the European police college.
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Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): In his opening comments, the Minister gave a conditional welcome to the agency's establishment. Paragraph 11 of his Department's memorandum this year states that the Department
''supports the establishment of the Agency as part of a wider programme of action to improve standards of control and strengthen co-operation between enforcement authorities.''
Will the Minister elaborate on what measures other than the establishment of the agency are being taken to achieve those improvements?
Mr. Bradshaw: We already undertake collaborative work with other EU countries with which we share fisheries and a common interest in enforcing those fisheries. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who follows these issues closely, is aware that we are taking a number of unilateral measures to improve the quality of our own enforcement: for example, from the beginning of January next year, we are introducing compulsory tamper-proof satellite monitoring for boats of more than 15 m; the Government are funding that. We are also introducing a system whereby fish must be registered at the first point of sale, which will be extremely important in ensuring proper traceability of fish in this country, which is something for which many people have been calling for a long time. We are still considering whether to introduce a system of administrative penalties, instead of the current system whereby fisheries offences are dealt with only through the courts, which can be cumbersome and time-consuming and which—particularly in Scotland—makes it difficult to achieve convictions.
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): I take this opportunity as a permanent member of the Committee to welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg. It is also good to see the Minister here.
Enforcement by such an agency requires proper training of inspectors and awareness on the part of the communities that will be affected by the enforcement regime. How does my hon. Friend envisage that being achieved? Does not this country have a special role to play in ensuring that other fisheries nations and communities in the Community benefit from our expertise?
Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most, if not all, members of this Committee would agree that the quality of UK fisheries inspectors is second to none. He will have noted, having read the papers, that one of the proposed roles of the agency is to co-ordinate training, not least to help those countries that do not have such a good record on training their inspectors. He might be interested to know that later this year the UK will hold the first of a series of training sessions for inspectors for other EU countries.
Mr. Paterson: I am intrigued to hear that there is doubt about Vigo, because Mr. Harry Koster, the head of the European fisheries inspectorate, is quoted in Charles Clover's recent book saying that the agency would be Vigo. Will the Minister confirm that it will definitely be in Spain? I think that that is confirmed in the documents.
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Mr. Bradshaw: That is the proposal.
Lawrie Quinn: Will my hon. Friend advise the Committee what liaison and discussion there have been with fisheries organisations in this country, including the Scottish fishing organisations and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations?
Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend will have seen in the papers that, as part of the process of developing the proposals on the agency, a feasibility study has been undertaken by a firm of consultants, who have toured all the EU countries and taken soundings from my Department and organisations representing the fishing industry in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. My understanding, which is drawn from conversations that I have had with the fishing industry, is that although it shares some of our concerns about the details of the proposals, the overarching principle of an agency that can ensure a level playing field—something that the industry has long complained does not exist—is warmly welcomed.
Andrew George: I understand that the Commission has commissioned its own feasibility study and that the report will not be available until October. Why have decisions been made not only to go ahead with establishing an agency, but on its location, before the completion of a feasibility study that proves that such an agency is needed?
Mr. Bradshaw: The feasibility study is not of the overall need for an agency, but of how the agency will be configured, to what extent it will be funded and the details of its constitution. My understanding is that the decision in principle to set up the agency was taken at the Council last December alongside decisions to set up a number of other agencies—I can list them if the hon. Gentleman would like, or I can send him details—and it made sense to make those decisions at the same time, not least because, as he will know, there is a tradition in the European Union of sharing out the locations of the agencies. It was Spain's turn to have an agency located there.
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): I read on page 4 of the bundle all the things that the agency is going to do, but further on I read that it is to cost only 5 million. It seems to me that the things listed cannot be done for that sum. Will the Minister comment?
Mr. Bradshaw: I am not sure that I can, as I am not an accountant. One of our concerns is about how robust the original costings are. That is one of the things that the feasibility study looked into—incidentally, my understanding is that it will report this month, rather than in October. If my hon. Friend looks more deeply into the document he will find that the costings are outlined in more detail and broken down. Off the top of my head, I have no reason to challenge them, but cost is certainly an area that I have asked my officials to look at very carefully. The Government's position has always been that the agency should not involve any extra cost to the UK and should be budget neutral as far as the Commission is concerned.
Mr. Paterson: On page 12 of the bundle is part of the Minister's explanatory memorandum. The second
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sentence of paragraph 12 dies after the word ''and''—it states:
''During those discussions the UK will be seeking to ensure that the role of the Agency does not undermine the responsibilities of individual Member States for control and''.
Will the Minister complete the sentence and explain how he thinks the role of the agency will not undermine those responsibilities for control and—whatever the exciting next word may be?
Mr. Bradshaw: The Committee will have to forgive me, because exactly the same page is missing from both my bundle and the hon. Gentleman's. I hazard a guess that the word was ''enforcement'', but I might be wrong.
Lawrie Quinn: One of the good examples of working practice in our system, which has fisheries committees along the coast, is stakeholder involvement—stakeholders are elected to advisory committees and can participate in those forums. Does the Minister envisage some pan-European regionalisation of stakeholder committees, or a link with existing national models?
Mr. Bradshaw: The role of stakeholder involvement is changing, not least because of the establishment of the regional advisory councils, which were an important part of the reform of the CFP two years ago. The first of those councils will—we hope—be established this autumn, and it will cover the North sea. I am sure that as one who represents a constituency with a North sea interest, my hon. Friend will welcome that and the fact that the fishing industry will be well represented on those councils. In the proposals for the Europe-wide agency, places on the governing board are allocated to representatives of the industry. I share his concern that the industry needs to be represented. We all agree that for the industry to buy in to the need to fish sustainably, it needs to take part in the decision-making process.