Fishing Activities (Monitoring)

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Mr. Bradshaw: They would be monitored exactly as EU vessels would be; there is exactly the same requirement on Norwegian vessels. Indeed, since the first rules on the vessel monitoring system were introduced, the measures on boats have been tightened up with new, tamper-proof vessel monitoring systems. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, some fishermen back then were still getting around the rules by switching off their machines or tampering with them. One of the reasons why there is that extra provision for member states to use satellite monitoring is that it will be an extra tool for that sort of situation.
Bill Wiggin: I am grateful for the Minister’s offer of a letter in response to my previous question.
I should like to take the issue a bit further. Using remote sensing technology, will one member state be able to track vessels from another? If it suspected them of fishing illegally, in what circumstances could it intervene?
Mr. Bradshaw: We will certainly have the capacity to intervene—we already do with satellite-based vessel monitoring. If a problem arose in our own waters, we could intervene; outside our waters, we could do so in collaboration with a neighbouring member state.
Mr. Williams: Britain has a good record of enforcing against illegal fishing. A number of high-profile cases have been reported recently. The Minister says that our fishing fleet already has the technology, or is on the way to getting it, for the regulations. How confident is he that other nations’ fishing fleets are as well prepared?
Mr. Bradshaw: I cannot speak on behalf of other member states. I imagine that, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he has had much to do with the fishing industry in his part of the world, the technology on fishing boats is pretty impressive these days. That holds true wherever boats are in the EU. Although the hon. Gentleman is right to say that our compliance now is good we should not be complacent. We were under threat of infraction proceedings from the European Commission for a considerable period. France was subjected to those proceedings and, as a result, incurred record fines from the European Union—a record for any country for any non-compliance with EU rules. We have done well, but it has involved a lot of work and it has taken a while. However, we must not be complacent as there is still more that we can do.
Mr. Bradshaw: I certainly undertake to speak to my Scottish colleagues to ensure that that is the case. I am aware that there have been problems in the past in Scotland with the requirement for a higher burden of proof for some fisheries offences. That is certainly something we need to be aware of.
Bill Wiggin: Will there be any extra costs to the fisheries monitoring centre of the Marine Fisheries Agency and how will those costs be met—through an existing budget or by new money?
Mr. Bradshaw: There will, we estimate, be an up-front cost of approximately £200,000 to the Marine Fisheries Agency to develop the mainframe computer system. However, in the long-term, costs will be saved because of the reduction in paperwork for fishermen.It should also save time and costs in many of our inspection ports around the country, because inspectors who at the moment spend a long time filling out forms will be able to do everything by the touch of a button.
Bill Wiggin: The Marine Fisheries Agency has recently had £1.722 million of its budget cut by DEFRA. That is a 6 per cent. reduction. Are there any more cuts planned and how will they affect fisheries enforcement?
Mr. Bradshaw: I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s figures are correct, but I will check and write to him.
Bill Wiggin: To implement article 4 on page 50 of the document bundle, what improvements will the UK’s fisheries monitoring centres have to make and at what cost?
Mr. Bradshaw: I think that I answered that in the question before last. An investment of £200,000 will be made in the mainframe computer.
Bill Wiggin: When does the Minister expect the detailed implementation rules from the Commission to be produced?
Mr. Bradshaw: I have already answered that question: sometime in the next 12 months.
Bill Wiggin: I keep asking the questions because I still do not get the answers, but I am grateful to the Minister for trying.
We have had a positive answer to the question whether our fisheries management centre would beable to use the technology to track non-UK vessels. However, regarding the exemption for remote sensing in article 4 of the regulation, can the Minister confirm whether he has any plans to introduce remote sensing or make use of the exemption?
Mr. Bradshaw: We will make that decision on a case-by-case basis. Such technology is quite expensive, but in a very serious case where we expect some potentially criminal behaviour, we may decide that it is cost-effective to use the technology. However, it is good that we have the exemption and that this new development is only voluntary and not obligatory, because if we can introduce remote sensing more cheaply, we would prefer to do so.
Bill Wiggin: I am grateful for that answer, but can I press a little further? Article 4 says that member states will be obliged to introduce remote sensing if there is “a cost benefit”. Who will decide when a cost benefit exists?
Mr. Bradshaw: The member state.
Bill Wiggin: Will that be the Minister, then?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes.
Bill Wiggin: Will there be any EU-wide guidelines on what actually constitutes a cost benefit under article 4?
Mr. Bradshaw: Not that I am aware of. It will be up to the member state.
Bill Wiggin: Does the Minister know which member states, if any, will adopt the remote sensing provisions?
Mr. Bradshaw: No, I cannot speak on behalf of other member states.
Bill Wiggin: Article 5(6) of the regulation—we are getting better at knowing all about it—states that detailed rules will be drawn up relating to exemptions to “submit electronic landing declarations”. Does the Minister have any idea what those exemptions will be?
Mr. Bradshaw: Not at this stage, I am afraid, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman as they are drawn up.
Bill Wiggin: In what circumstances does the Minister envisage that information obtained by one member state will be exchanged with another, and what safeguards will protect that information?
Mr. Bradshaw: Again, that will depend on each member state, but we have extremely good levels of co-operation on enforcement with other EU member states. It is in the interests of all our fishermen that, to put it crudely, one member state’s fishermen should not get one over on another’s.
Bill Wiggin: How frequently does the Minister anticipate that software and hardware will need to be upgraded?
Mr. Bradshaw: I do not anticipate that it will need to be upgraded soon, because the system will be new, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will write to him with a bit more detail after the debate.
Bill Wiggin: Four letters so far. I am most grateful to the Minister. He is being very kind and helpful. I am not pulling his leg—I am genuinely grateful. If a member state is free to determine individually the format for the transmission of data used by vessels carrying its flag, as detailed in paragraph (6b), can he explain whether different systems operating in different countries will make it difficult for member states to share information?
Mr. Bradshaw: It will make sense for member states to format the information so that it is easily shareable with other member states. That is what happens at the moment.
The Chairman: If no more Members wish to ask questions, we will proceed to debate the motion. I call the Minister.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 14181/04, Draft Council Regulation on electronic recording and reporting of fishing activities and on means of remote sensing; and supports the Government's objective of ensuring that this proposal delivers improved management and control, thereby contributing to the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.—[Mr. Bradshaw.]
4.52 pm
Bill Wiggin: For more than two years, the draft regulations have been in circulation. Only now, after they have been agreed in Brussels, can we finally debate them here. The Minister himself admits in the bundle that his Department’s record on ensuring that scrutiny is carried out needs improvement. It would be helpful if he could enlighten us on his planned changes to internal procedures to prevent that delay from happening again.
I understand that at its November meeting, the Council decided that it would finalise the text and adopt the regulation at a future meeting. Although the Minister may now be able to do little to change the regulation, I hope that he will consider the comments made today, especially those about the costs to British fishermen, when he deals with requests for funding.
Turning to the motion, the electronic recording and reporting of fishing activities ought in principle to be beneficial to fisheries management. Good-quality information depends on what is put into the system, whether by fishermen at sea or by a fisheries manager typing out figures from a handwritten piece of paper. I should be grateful if the Minister told us what actions he will be taking to ensure that the information is of good quality in the first place. What safety checks will apply? What steps will he take to enforce the new rules? I hope that he has some powerful points to make and that the regulations will work for us as a deterrent to those planning to fish illegally.
Although the measures are broadly welcome, some issues still need to be addressed. The regulation was devised to improve management, control, enforcement and sustainability of fish stocks, but that presumes an improvement in the fishing industry’s profitability. The regulation may not deliver a corresponding increase in returns relative to the set-up costs. Consequently, the regulation has many practical implications that need to be considered, most of which relate to the cost.
The costs of implementation have been estimated at between €1,500 and €2,000 per vessel for hardware, €1,000 for software and between €425 and €750 for transmission costs each year. As things stand, the fishing industry is concerned that it will bear the brunt of the costs. It would be helpful if the Minister could offer the industry some sort of reassurance. I know that he has had some success in delaying the phasing in of the electronic recording and transmitting obligations, but considering that the real beneficiaries of the proposals will be fisheries managers, enforcers andthe EU, surely they should be paying rather than the fishermen.
The regulations will primarily make enforcement easier and the fact that the fishing industry does not get a mention in the Minister’s motion seems to support that point. Fishermen are already likely to suffer cuts in cod quotas—I am sure that hon. Members will discuss that in the forthcoming annual fisheries debate—and we must therefore be certain of the benefits before adding the regulatory costs; otherwise the measures will not help to sustain the fishing industry.
The costs to the fisheries management centre must also be considered. Perhaps the Minister should consider lobbying for EU funds to cover them. A huge amount of the €1.3 billion EU fisheries budget goes to Spain, whereas the UK gets less than 5 per cent. of that money. We are an island surrounded by fishing grounds and we are one of the EU’s largest net contributors; we clearly deserve a better deal. We should not forget that fishermen from other EU countries have a far worse record on illegal fishing than we do.
Mr. Carmichael: Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten the Committee about the operation of the Fontainebleau agreement in relation to any money that comes in the way that he seeks?
Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and that might well be the sticking point. I hope he agrees, however, that that does not mean that the Minister should not try to get that money. He will probably remember that when we had the difficulty with bird flu, the EU offered money for our poultry industry but unfortunately DEFRA did not claim any. I hope that that will not be the case in this instance. I am sure that he will agree that a little extra EU money to assist with the implementation of the regulation would not go unnoticed.
I am concerned that the measures may not be as effective as envisaged, especially if there is a lack of co-ordination between member states in implementing and enforcing the regulation. The regulation is about using technology and information to manage, control and enforce fisheries but it does not make that exchange of information easy. On one hand it gives member states the freedom to determine
“the formats for transmission of data used by vessels flying its flag”,
and on the other it stipulates:
“The formats which national competent authorities will use to exchange information for control and inspection purposes should be defined in detailed implementing rules.”
So while individual member states can use theirown formats for transmitting information, there willbe rules to determine the format for exchanging information between states. Would not it be more sensible to have one format for everyone?
Given the Government’s terrible track record in introducing computer systems and the problems that have been created in the past, despite the SHEEL and IMPAST— improving fisheries monitoring through integrating passive and active satellite-based technologies—trials, I cannot be confident in their ability to deliver. Failure to deliver will be all the more likely if we end up using a variety of different formats to transmit and exchange the information.
Moreover, the regulations will be most effective only if the member states whose vessels are predominantly responsible for illegal practices sign up to the full package. With that in mind, I draw to the Committee’s attention article 4 of the regulation, which provides for the use of remote sensing where there is evidence of a cost benefit. The implementation of remote sensing seems to be discretionary. As the Government are one of the most enthusiastic in Europe when it comes to adopting new legislation and often introduce it before other member states, I am concerned that while we may fully implement article 4, other member states—perhaps those whose vessels are largely responsible for illegal fishing—may not. Furthermore, I am still not certain as to what will constitute a cost benefit. The Minister is going to write to me about that. If there is a cost benefit to enforcers, fisheries managers and fish stocks in implementing remote sensing, that adds weight to my earlier argument that fishermen should not foot the bill for introducing the regulation. Will the Minister clarify that?
There are also uncertainties and concerns about article 5 and the detailed rules that will be laid down at some point. There are no clues in the document bundle to what we can expect in the detailed rules. All we know is that they relate to the content and formatting of the information that will be exchanged between competent authorities, the extension of the electronic reporting obligation to smaller vessels, and the exemptions to reduce administrative burdens on operators. Other than that, the real details are missing, without which we may find that costs will be higher than expected. It would also have been useful to be able to scrutinise the detail of the rules with this regulation because we are left guessing what might be in them and about their possible impact on fisheries managers and the industry.
The motion states that the Government’s objective is to ensure that
“this proposal delivers improved management and control, thereby contributing to the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.”
While the proposal is not counter-productive, I suspect that no significant long-term progress can ever be achieved until the practice of discarding is stopped. Until that day, the changes that we are discussing can only improve the data on fishing grounds and fish that are landed, leaving the true catch wide open to speculation.
5 pm
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