Fishing Activities (Monitoring)

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Mr. Carmichael: I shall make just a few brief comments. Given that the November Council has already dealt with the matter, as the Minister observed, it is interesting that the Scrutiny Committee should have recommended it for today’s debate. However, we are where we are. An expression about stable doors and horses springs to mind, but I say to the Minister that if we are not to have wasted our time completely this afternoon, he must listen to and bear in mind the representations that have been made when he draws up the statutory instruments that bring the regulations into force. It is on that point that I shall focus.
As I indicated to the Minister in my question, the workability and the fairness of the regulations require some recognition that sometimes computers fail. I wonder whether it may be necessary to keep alive the old crafts of pen and paper and, in the event of a failure of the reporting technology, keeping a log book of the sort with which we are all so painfully familiar. The Minister knows that the penalties are quite severe for a skipper who is guilty of misreporting. My recollection is that at least five and a half years ago, when I dealt with such matters in Banff sheriff court, one rarely saw a fine of less than £1,000, and that was generally for a charge of negligent misreporting. When the misreporting was found to be wilful, the penalties were rarely less than £5,000. On present margins, that is a significant chunk out of any fishing boat’s take.
In recent times we have made great progress in controlling fish merchants. As the Minister and I have observed already, we can rejoice in the ending of a practice that we always denied really happened: the landing of black fish. In that context, the point that the hon. Member for Leominster made about the cost-benefit analysis—who bears the cost and who receives the benefit—becomes particularly pertinent. If the fisheries protection agencies are to become the main beneficiaries of this exercise, there should be some recognition of that fact by the way in which the regulations are implemented or funded. That will be particularly important when the Minister reviews their application to vessels that are 15 m or over, because they operate on different margins from vessels of 24 m or more. The type of sums that have been mentioned, although not in themselves massive, are problematic from time to time, and sensitivity will be required.
The hon. Member for Leominster also raised questions about the sharing of information with other member states. That is pertinent, particularly when one considers the way in which the pelagic industry fishes throughout different fisheries and lands in Shetland, the north-east of Scotland or Denmark. If the proper policing of that industry is to continue, information sharing will be important. I recollect spending many afternoons in this room serving on the Standing Committee on the Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003. I presume that that Act gives the Minister and other member states the necessary power to share information but, if the regulations are to be operated effectively, it might be as well for the Minister to ensure that he has those powers before introducing statutory instruments.
5.5 pm
Mr. Bradshaw: We have had a constructive debate. In my concluding remarks I shall address the points that were raised by the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland and for Leominster.
A fair reading of the motion makes it clear thatthe proposal is not simply intended to make it easierto enforce fishing rules. It mentions improved management, from which fishermen will benefit, and the importance of good management and enforcement for the long-term sustainability of fish stocks. I hope that we all share that objective, particularly the fishermen, because we are discussing their future and that of their sons and grandsons.
As has been acknowledged in the debate, enforcement has improved in the past 18 months or so, through the requirement for the registration of first buyers and sellers. We debated that measure at great length and put it through in the face of stiff opposition from some sectors of the fishing industry, but it is now welcomed by virtually everyone in the industry as one of the best things to have happened to them for years. It has squeezed out the black fish and raised prices, and it has led to good times in many fishing ports upand down the country. The proposal is a further improvement on that.
Cost was mentioned by both hon. Gentlemen. Of course there is potential for financial instrument for fisheries guidance grants to be made available for some of the technology. However, I must sound a note of caution in that respect, because when we introduced compulsory tamper-proof VMS, the requirement applied to every vessel. In the present case, most vessels already have the hardware. It could strike people as a bit unfair if help were made available to those who had not bothered to get it. We must consider that carefully.
Bill Wiggin: What is not universally available is the software. Will the Minister consider that instead?
Mr. Bradshaw: Again, that has not been ruled out. The costs are relatively low and benefits will accrue not just to the inspection regime, but to the fishermen themselves. They will be freed from laborious paper-based log and registration systems.
Mr. Goodwill: If the Minister remembers, I made a point about trying to incentivise early adoption. It would be difficult to justify giving grants for something that is compulsory, but the Minister might like to even out the introduction of the system and help equipment manufacturers to meet the delivery timetable, to encourage fishermen to be ahead of the game.
Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely sensible suggestion, and I will be happy to consider it. It will have to be considered alongside the other demands on financial instrument for fisheries guidance funds, but the point about incentivisation is good and I will consider it.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked during the question and answer session what will happen if something goes wrong with the computer. A paper back-up will be needed, but if something were to go wrong with the transmission there is no reason why records could not be kept on the computer on board and then downloaded when the ship docked.
We have had a good debate, and I am pleased with the widespread support for the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
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.
Committee rose at nine minutes past Five o’clock.
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Prepared 13 December 2006