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David Mundell: I hope to suggest a set of proposals that will commend themselves not just to the Minister but to the Environment Agency, as he tells me that he cannot tell the Environment Agency what to do. Again, the hon. Gentleman highlights an important point that has arisen recently: the Environment Agencys capacity to prosecute those who do not have rod licences through the Scottish courts, when its framework is geared for England and Wales. I will refer to that later. There have been some recent instances of prosecutions that have not been proceeded with, and although the Environment Agency claims that it has the right and ability to proceed with those prosecutions, the suggestion is that it has drawn back because the law may be over-complex. Again, that reinforces in my mind the need for a solution that can commend itself to all interested parties.
I cannot accept, however, that is it equitable that a rod licensing regime should apply to the Esk when one is not applied to any other river in Scotland and, as I have just indicated, there is no plan to introduce any. None of the issues that have been raised by the Environment Agency justify the introduction of the licensing regime. Indeed, I find the issue of the costs and recovery of costs a particularly ironic one, since so much money must have been spent on dealing with the local dispute and the questions and correspondence from myself and others, that the sum raised through the licences cannot come even close to the cost of introducing them.
My preference today would be for the Minister to announce that the Environment Agency has indicated that it has thought again and will not now continue to proceed with the rod licensing regime on the Esk.
However, having received his letter and the Environment Agency briefing, and having pursued this matter over many years, I am realistic enough to know that that is not likely to happen. As was the case when I met the Minister, I am genuinely seeking a solution within the legislation that will allow the Environment Agency to meet what I consider to be its tick-box requirements, but which will also allow my constituents to fish on the River Esk without making the payments that others in Scotland do not have to make, without individual rod licence payments and without fear of prosecution.
The solution that I suggest is one that I raised during my meeting with the Minister on 12 October. It has been the subject of discussions in the Esk and Liddle Improvement Association. It would allow a form of general licence to be granted to the association. That provision is allowed under section 25 of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975. That could allow any angler, including a child or pensioner, with a valid Esk and Liddle Improvement Association fishing permit to be covered by the general licence granted to the association. Of course, any angler who does not have a valid fishing permit from the association would not be covered by the exemption and would have to have a rod licence. I accept that if we are going to have rod licences, that would be the case.
The Environment Agency briefing anticipates that request by pointing out that a general licence is not usually an alternative to a charging scheme, and fees are based on the number of people who would wish to fish under the licence. However, the Act also makes it
clear, as a special provision, that the Environment Agency has the power to waive rod licence duty when it deems that there is a special case. What more special case could there be than a river that is physically in another jurisdiction and is the only one flowing outwith England and Wales within the remit of the Environment Agency? The Border Esk is like no other river under the control of the Environment Agency and so I believe that it falls within the definition of a special case in the legislation. That would allow the general licence to be granted without the payment of a fee.
The Environment Agency is very keen on the letter of the law, and there can be no doubt that the legislation makes provision to enable it to waive the fee for a general rod licence for the Esk and Liddle Improvement Association. That would provide a solution that would meet the Environment Agencys stated requirement that the rod licensing regime should apply on the river, but it would also ensure that local anglers on the River Esk were treated the same as other anglers in Scotland in relation to the payment of rod licensing fees.
I would have hoped that the Minister and the Environment Agency would welcome the associations efforts to encourage fishing among young people by a favourable licensing policy for that group, and for retired people too, to allow them to continue to participate in angling. Those initiatives are to be welcomed, not stifled by petty bureaucracy. Only last week, the Environment Agency said how important fishing was in diverting young people from antisocial behaviour. Apparently, the agency hopes to attract 200,000 extra young people to the sport by 2015. According to the statement to the media on the matter, all those extra 200,000 people are to be in England and Wales. If one reads Environment Agency documents, one realises that they generally make no recognition of the Border Esk. Clearly, that reflects the reality that the Border Esk is an anomaly in the Environment Agency. That is another reason why it is a special case and should be treated differently.
One thing that must come out of the situation is a review of the way in which the Environment Agency has conducted itself. It has been a public relations disaster, which surely has been to no ones benefit. I was a little surprised that the Ministers letter of 3 November 2005 to Baroness Young stated:
We (and no doubt you) would regard approaches to the press on the lines of Mundell gets DEFRA/EA to back off over rod licence duties on the Border Esk as entirely inappropriate.
For me, the issue has been about getting not headlines, but a fair and equitable situation on the Esk. No one is more disappointed than I am that headlines have been easy to obtain. Adverse headlines have appeared about the Environment Agency, such as the latest in the Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser of 27 April, which read: Esk Fishing Licence Cases Are Dropped. I would prefer to move towards a solution to the problem.
I am at an absolute loss to understand how the Environment Agency believes that it has benefited from not carrying out effective communication with stakeholders on the Scottish part of the Border Esk and why it thought that a brusque and unrelentingly strident line would achieve its goals. Even in the letter that was faxed to me from the Minister this morning,
the Environment Agency says that it wants undertakings about the way in which it will be portrayed in any future discussions on the matter. I am sure that those undertakings can and will be given, but the requirement seems to strike at the heart of the issue. The agency has been more worried about the way in which it is perceived than about fishing on the Esk. At the same time, its stock, rather than the fishing stock, has plummeted. That is why I hope that the agency can now move forward without any baggage and discuss the proposal that I have put on the table this evening of a general licence for the Esk and Liddle Improvement Association with no fee under the special case provision.
Whether or not I get the response for which my constituents would hope, it has been extremely important to put the issue and their concerns once again on public record. I express my gratitude for the opportunity to do so, and await with interest what the Minister has to say.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): May I start by apologising to the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell)? Despite my writing to him back at the end of November, following our October meeting, to promise that I would contact him again when I had heard from the Environment Agency, that did not happen until earlier today. Following our meeting, I did, as promised, write to Barbara Young, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, to ask her to consider the hon. Gentlemans request about the possibility of granting a general licence to fishers on the Scottish side of the Esk. She replied on 21 February with an offer from the Environment Agency to meet him and representatives of the Border Esks fisheries interests to discuss the possibility of a general licence. I apologise that the letter got lost in the system and was not sent to the hon. Gentleman. He alluded in his speech to the fact that it came to my attention only when I met officials yesterday to discuss the debate, so I am extremely sorry.
As the hon. Gentleman will have seen from the letterI hope that he has had a little time to digest itits offer is not without conditions. The agency requires an assurance that the fisheries interests will not try to portray its willingness to meet and discuss the matter as indicative of any change to its position that the Border Esk and its Scottish tributaries are managed under English law and thus subject to the agencys licensing regime. However, if any of the Esk fishery associations applied for a general licence, the agency would look into the possibility. Nevertheless, the fisheries associations must be sure that their members have exclusive rights, as the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 requires, and that a suitable administrative system is put in place so that the agency can be sure that people who fish are licensed and can collect the associated catch statistics to assist
management. While a general licence could be the way forward, our position on the question of who should manage the Esk and the legal entitlement of the Environment Agency to collect licence fees remains the same.
The hon. Gentleman raised the matter in the Scottish Parliament in February 2005 as an MSP and was told that under section 25 of the 1975 Act the Environment Agency has no option but to regulate fishing on the Scottish side of the Border Esk with a rod licensing scheme. He has raised the issue on a number of occasions, but I am afraid that the answer remains the same. Now, however, he has the offer of talks with the Environment Agency. The Government, the Scottish Executive and the agency have adopted a consistent position. Under the provisions of the law, the agency is obliged to regulate fishing by rod and line licence in all the areas for which it has responsibility and to collect rod licence duties from people wishing to fish by rod and line in those areas.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has learned in our debate, the whole Border Esk has been regulated for the purpose of fisheries under English law since the 1860s. Section 6(7) of the Environment Act 1995 requires the Environment Agency to carry out its functions in regard to fisheries on all of the river Esk in Scotland, including its banks and tributary streams, up to their sources. Although it may seem an anomaly that English law covers the Scottish part of a cross-border river, the Tweedanother cross-border riverfalls under Scottish law, as my hon. Friend reminded the House. Tweed anglers on the English side may benefit from not having to pay for a rod licence, but funding is generated for the operation of the fisheries by the payment of permit fees to the owners, who pay a levy to the River Tweed council. It is worth bearing in mind, as my hon. Friend said, that rivers are managed according to their catchment areas, not according to administrative boundaries. The House will acknowledge that that makes obvious sense.
As I have said, the Environment Agency is willing to discuss the arrangements that must be in place for a general licence to Scottish fishers on the Border Esk, and I urge the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and his constituents to take up that offer as soon as possible. As I have already cautioned, however, if the necessary conditions cannot be met, there is no alternative to the standard rod licence scheme. The resolution of outstanding issues is properly a matter for the agency and the fishery interests without, I hope, the need for further involvement from the House.