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Session 2007 - 08
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European Standing Committee Debates

Fisheries: Control, Inspection and Sanction Systems

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Illsley
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Dobbin, Jim (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
MacNeil, Mr. Angus (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
Shaw, Jonathan (Minister for the South East)
Southworth, Helen (Warrington, South) (Lab)
Strang, Dr. Gavin (Edinburgh, East) (Lab)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton, North) (Lab)

European Committee

Monday 31 March 2008

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Fisheries: Control, Inspection and Sanction Systems

4.30 pm
The Chairman: I call a member of the European Scrutiny Committee to make a short statement about the reasons the document has been referred to the Committee.
Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): This is the second Committee under the new format to which I have had to come to do this. It is a pleasure to make this statement under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley.
We thought that it might help the Committee if I made a very short statement to explain the background to this document and the reasons that the European Scrutiny Committee recommended it for debate. Conservation has been at the heart of the common fisheries policy since it was agreed in 1983 and there is widespread agreement that if it is to succeed, it is crucial that there be proper control and enforcement and that any transgressions be dealt with by a penalty that recognises the seriousness of events.
At the same time, there have been long-standing and genuine concerns, not least in our fishing industry, about whether member states have discharged their responsibilities in this area conscientiously, and about the way in which they are supervised by the Commission. The report by the European Court of Auditors, based on an examination of the information available from the Commission, and from spot checks in six member states, including the UK, is topical and timely. It is notable also for its detailed analysis of the position and for its recommendations for improvements. Interestingly, it also makes a number of specific criticisms of the arrangements in the UK and is accompanied by observations from the Commission that broadly endorse its conclusions. The Government’s explanatory memorandum addresses UK’s position. For those reasons, the European Scrutiny Committee felt that the document raised a number of important issues that the House would wish to consider further in Committee.
4.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton for his opening remarks as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee. That provides a useful linkage to ensure a joined-up approach between his Committee and those of us who debate such matters.
I preface my remarks by reminding the Committee of the 13,000 full and part-time fishermen in the UK, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding and understand the need to support and manage fisheries sustainably. We owe it to those law-abiding fishermen to ensure that enforcement activity is proportionate, effective, consistent and carried out in a way that causes minimum disturbance, while providing a sufficient deterrent to those tempted to breach the rules.
Hon. Members will be aware that the report does not make particularly comfortable reading. It is critical of the procedures in place in all six member states that the Court visited, including the UK. It also criticises the Commission for failing adequately to ensure that member states perform their enforcement responsibilities to an acceptable level. I do not necessarily accept all the report’s criticisms of procedures in the UK. Most importantly, I would like to remind the Committee that the report is based on visits to England in August and November 2006. It is therefore, to some extent, backward looking, and takes no account of the considerable improvements in procedures or new technologies that the Marine Fisheries Agency has introduced since then. However, we must not be complacent, and there are clear, valuable lessons to be learned from the report.
I will be actively supporting the Commission over the coming months, as it strives to put in place a new control regime that addresses the details in the report. That will answer the calls that we have been making for some time, for more consistent enforcement throughout the UK—the elusive level playing field—which is essential if we are to establish a more effective framework and better compliance across member states. We will therefore be seeking to influence the outcome, driving forward the agenda to make sure that it achieves what we want and is beneficial to those operating legally within the industry.
Having said that, we need to be careful not to overreact to the findings of the report. Overall, the existing control regulation and the associated legislation provide a generally sound enforcement framework, with which fishermen and enforcement agencies are familiar. Nevertheless, the present control framework has been in place since 1993 and, over time, has become far too complicated and cumbersome for both industry and Administrations. We therefore see the forthcoming review as an opportunity to look for improvements and simplification, rather than for a wholesale rewrite of the rules.
Turning to the conclusions of the report, the ECA makes some general criticisms of the procedures in all member states that it visited. These are: catch data are incomplete and unreliable; inspection systems do not guarantee that infringements are effectively prevented and detected; and, when found, infringements are not penalised sufficiently to provide an effective deterrent. To counter those shortcomings, the report recommends that member states should improve the quality of their catch data, develop more effective means of measuring the effectiveness of inspection activities and ensure that the sanctioning authorities are aware of the need to impose deterrent sanctions. At the same time, the report says that the Commission should introduce electronic recording systems as soon as possible and that the Council should specify in regulations the elements essential to an effective inspection and sanctions system and should reinforce the Commission’s ability to put pressure on defaulting member states.
To its credit, the Commission has accepted those criticisms and recommendations and, with the full support of all member states, has set out a strategy to deliver those required improvements. The Commission has a clear objective to develop a control system that is more effective, simplified and less expensive, and that delivers compliance. Much of what it wants to achieve can be taken forward through the review of the control regulation. A process of consultation with stakeholders has already begun, with a view to publishing proposals in October this year for adoption by the Council in 2009 and coming into force in 2010.
However, the Commission feels that matters raised by the ECA are important enough to warrant additional action by member states in the shorter term. Such action includes: improvements in vessel monitoring systems; implementation of electronic logbooks; improving member states’ and Commission databases; better cross-checking methods; and an increased level of sanction. I would agree with those priorities, and the UK is well placed to deliver them. I will say no more at this stage, but am happy to go into detail if Committee members wish.
The Commission has set itself an ambitious timetable both for the short-term decisions and actions and for the review of the control regulation. However, we are committed to modernising and strengthening the regulatory framework to protect and preserve our marine resources. We will do everything that we can to support the Commission in delivering on this challenging project.
I have tried to keep my opening remarks brief and general in nature. I am sure that hon. Members will have lots of questions, and I will do my best to answer them.
The Chairman: We now have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister, which, I remind Committee members, should be brief. It is open to any Member, subject to my discretion, to ask a series of related questions, one after the other, but if doing so I hope that Members will bear in mind the interests of others, who may also wish to pursue a sustained line of questioning.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the recommendations made by the Public Accounts Committee five years ago regarding fisheries enforcement in England, which followed a National Audit Office report? It recommended that the Department should use its records of past infringements to identify patterns of offending behaviour to better inform the targeting of its enforcement activities. Why has the recommendation apparently not been acted upon and why are the systemic checks that the Minister mentions in the explanatory memorandum not in place already?
Jonathan Shaw: We have ensured that we have adopted a more targeted approach to identify the offending fishermen or those people who are buying black fish. We now have a vessel monitoring system, which tells us the location of vessels over 24 m and 15m. We now register buyers and sellers, which means that we require not just the name of the person selling the fish but also the documentation and inventory of the fish that is bought. Increasingly, people who buy fish do not want to be associated with black fish. Therefore, a cross-compliance mechanism is required, listing the people who sell and buy, and a vessel monitoring system. In addition, we have the River class in England, as well as vessels in Scotland and aerial surveillance.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend accept that this report clearly demonstrates that the common fisheries policy has been an unmitigated disaster, especially with regard to the fishing industry?
Jonathan Shaw: I do not accept that. I do not know why my hon. Friend believes that the policy has been an unmitigated disaster. Over the years it has ensured that we have prevented stocks from being wiped out. As the policy has developed, the relationship between Government, science and fishermen has improved so that we have a sustainable fisheries industry. Our fisheries policy compares favourably with other policies and programmes relating to fisheries management across the world. While it is not everything that we would want it to be, the regime requires the agreement of 27 member states to ensure good fisheries management. Fish do not recognise national borders. It is important, therefore, that we have the science-based mechanisms in place to ensure that stocks are sustainable; that we have something for the fishermen to catch for their livelihoods, and for the industry; and that the important, sensitive and fragile organisms that are in our marine environment are sustained.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I caution the Minister against rushing too quickly to defend the common fisheries policy as it has altered over the years. The operation of the policy has always left a great deal to be desired. However, he is right to point out the importance of the registration of suppliers and the impact that that has had, particularly with regard to black fish. He will no doubt have heard, as I have, that there is virtually no black fish to be found. What discussions has he had with the various representative organisations such as the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation regarding the proposals, and what views have they expressed?
Jonathan Shaw: We meet industry representatives and the devolved Administrations on a regular basis. They say that it is in the fishing industry’s interests to ensure that there is a proper working compliance system, and that the thousands of the decent and honest fishermen who want to see sustainable stocks are not undermined by those who seek to break the law. When people break the law, we should introduce tough sanctions that set examples to others.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I think that the Minister will agree that discards—fish caught out of quota that are thrown back into the water— arise from the common fisheries policy. The report points out that the Norwegian Government do not allow fish caught out of quota to be tossed back into the sea. That is a wasteful aspect of the CFP. Will the Minister comment on that, and whether we could learn something from the Norwegian situation?
Jonathan Shaw: My right hon. Friend refers to paragraph 26 of the report, and I thank him for drawing attention to it. People find discards abhorrent, and we saw pictures on our television screens last year of good-quality fish being thrown away. In Norway, fishermen may not throw fish away. They receive a sum of money for the fish sold on the market, and the remaining money goes into the public purse. The UK is different in as much as our coast has vastly more species, particularly in south-west England, where there are 30 or 40 different species. Many species, if caught, have no market value, so we are not comparing like with like. If they have no value, clearly they will not be sold, and they will become a burden in shipping vessels’ holds.
A strict regime would require many observers. The Commission is considering particular species discards, and Commissioner Borg will bring proposals to Council meetings. We do not want discards, but around UK shores we need a ban or a reduction on a species basis. The industry is working hard on different gear types, which we will trial in the North sea later this year. For example, the eliminator net, which was trialled in the North sea last year, showed a considerable reduction in discards, particularly for cod and haddock. My right hon. Friend will know that haddock and cod are often caught up in the same gear. The eliminator net allows the cod to go up and the haddock to go down—I believe that that is correct—and thereby to escape. New, innovative gear types are helping, but there is not just one solution, and we are conscious that a range of measures is needed. The Commission will introduce proposals, which we want to support.
Bill Wiggin: Will the UK face any penalties from the Commission as a result of the criticism picked up by the Court of Auditors? Will additional resources be required to implement any changes as a result of the report?
Jonathan Shaw: No, we are confident that we will not face infraction penalties. However, if the Commission alerts us to concerns for which we will be fined, I shall provide the hon. Gentleman and the House with details. At the moment, however, we do not believe that that will be the case.
Kelvin Hopkins: Fish do not recognise national boundaries, and can swim from one set of waters to another. But is it not the case that Norway has looked after its fish stocks and preserved them despite being close to European Union fishing waters, because it is outside the common fisheries policy and more able to husband its stocks effectively? Does my hon. Friend accept that if we were fish, we would probably do better to swim into Norwegian waters because we would have less chance of being caught?
Jonathan Shaw: I am not sure that there is any evidence for what my hon. Friend says. He attends these Committees and makes the charge that anything that is subject to a collective decision by the 20 member states must be bad for the United Kingdom. I do not accept that point of view. He has not advanced any detail as to why he thinks that Norway has a better record of preserving sustainable stocks than the UK, other than that it is outside the European Union. Every year, the European Union and Norway negotiate in the run-up to the December Council meeting and discuss the quantities of different species that we will take from the North sea, whether in Norwegian waters or those of member states. Together we consider the balance that must be struck between conservation and the needs of industry and, as consumers who enjoy fish, our own needs. We must find that balance, and the relationship between the European Union and Norway is one that, I think, works well.
Mr. Carmichael: I want to take the Minister back to discards. The best way to end discards is to have taxing quotas that meet the health of the fish stocks, rather than there being a disparity between those two things. Does he agree that a centralisation of power in the hands of the Commission, rather than regional management councils, would be exceptionally unhelpful? Does he share my concern that there is little reference to regional management councils in the papers under discussion? If we acquire the extra data with regard to enforcement in this country, will he ensure that the information will be used to inform the work of the regional management councils?
Jonathan Shaw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s thrust: the future of the common fisheries management policy must be based on a regional system, rather than being centralised from Brussels. Such a system is beginning to evolve. As we have shown in the UK this year, we can bring forward proposals for cod avoidance programmes or reference fleets that will reduce discards to about 10 per cent. We need to bring forth more proposals to enable industry, science and member states to come up with solutions and police such proposals themselves. That is the way forward, and the regional advisory councils have a key role to play in that. As we look forward to 2012 and the reform of the common fisheries policy, management and enforcement must belong more to the ranks. That is the future.
Bill Wiggin: Paragraph 28(d) on page 29 of the Court’s report criticises the UK for introducing obligatory recording and sales notes only in 2006. In his explanatory memorandum, the Minister stated that that is not correct, and that the system introduced in 2005 simply formalised who should submit sales notes—something that has been taking place since 1994. In its response, why does the Commission appear to disagree with the Government at paragraph 28(d), and say that it had identified shortcomings in the UK’s control and enforcement system, and that infringement proceedings were being undertaken? What are those proceedings and shortcomings, why are they not mentioned in the Minister’s submission, and can the Minister confirm whether the Commission has accepted his explanation?
Jonathan Shaw: I really did not get all that. If the hon. Gentleman will ask a few questions each time, I will answer them. Firing a salvo of about 12 makes it very difficult. Perhaps he will start again and accommodate me by being a little slower.
Bill Wiggin: I will help the Minister by doing that.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Do it slowly.
Bill Wiggin: I will do my best and go through this briefly for the Committee. In paragraph 28(d), the Court’s report criticises the UK for introducing obligatory sale notes only in 2006. The Minister says that that is not correct and that they were brought in 1994 and technically introduced by the Government in 2005. The Commission’s response appears to disagree with the Government, and the Commission has identified shortcomings and is proceeding with infringements against us. Why have those proceedings and shortcomings not been mentioned in the Minister’s submission? Why is the EU doing this, and will the Minister confirm whether the Commission has accepted his explanation?
Jonathan Shaw: We have said that it is not correct that sales notes have been compulsory since 1994.
Bill Wiggin: You said that they were.
Jonathan Shaw: No; we have said that they have not been compulsory since 1994. The system of registration for buyers and sellers and the distinction of auction markets were introduced in 2005. That simply formalised who should submit sales notes. Before 2005, it was not clear who should submit sales notes, but we now accept them from fishermen and their agents. The legal responsibility for the submission of that information clearly lies with the auction trader or with the buyer, if the fish is sold directly from the fishing vessel.
The Commission’s response refers to infraction proceedings initiated against the UK, so what is the status of those proceedings? The answer is that the Commission initiated those infraction proceedings in 2002 for several reasons, including ensuring that there is adequate inspection of the verity of the quantities of fish landed, enforcement of obligations regarding satellite monitoring, adequate cross-checking of information, effective transport control and adequate follow-up. In 2005, the Commission issued its reasoned opinion against the UK. We have vigorously refuted all the criticisms, and the matter now lies with the Commission, which will consider further possible action. For the reasons that I have given, we are confident that proceedings will not be brought against us. Obviously, however, we will wait to hear what the Commission says. As I said to the hon. Member for Leominster earlier, if proceedings are brought against us, I shall notify him and the House about what we intend to do.
The Chairman: Does the hon. Gentleman wish to pursue that line of questioning further, or shall we move to a new subject?
Bill Wiggin: I should be delighted to, if I may. The Court’s report highlights, at paragraph 29, the lack of systemic cross-checks on VMS data in several countries, including the UK. On page 70, the Commission states that it is aware of problems with the UK, and that this issue is
“part of ongoing infringement proceedings.”
If, as the Minister claims on page 90, the UK now has that cross-check system in place, and it was not operational in November 2006 when the auditors visited, why is the Commission still pursuing those infraction proceedings?
Jonathan Shaw: As I have said, we have vigorously defended our position, and we now have cross-check proceedings. We have the vessel monitoring system, and it is cross-checked against the register of buyers and sellers, which ensures that we know where fish are being landed and who is buying them. Where concerns arise about disparity within that system, we use our systematic and risk-based investigation system to target fishermen or people who are purchasing what we believe to be black fish.
Dr. Strang: The fixing of total allowable catches and the allocation of quotas is supposed to be at the core of the common fisheries policy. The Minister will know that the Commission introduced the days-at-sea limitation in the 1990s. Presumably, its objective was to reduce the amount of fish that were landed out of quota throughout the European Union; how does the Minister think it is working?
Jonathan Shaw: Things are moving on. At the December Council meeting, we secured a deal whereby there would be a pot of kilowatt days for Scotland in particular; it is then for the administration to distribute the amount of effort amongst the fleet. That has been welcomed in Scotland, and a smaller pilot programme is being instituted in England. Such programmes allow the administration flexibility in allocating effort. Some vessels need to steam for a long time to get to the waters where they want to drop or shoot their nets, and that can be taken into account. Equally, the weather is another factor within the regime that must be taken into account. We believe that the report heralds a new approach, whereby the industry and the Government will work much more closely together and in everyone’s interest. If flexibility is to be maintained, there needs to be strict compliance, because the Commission could easily reduce the pot of kilowatt days, the distribution of which would be felt by the industry as the pot would be that much smaller. We believe that the system will work well.
The days-at-sea regime was introduced as a necessary part of the common fisheries policy to ensure that we have sustainable stocks. There are now other approaches, such as building partnerships between the Government, industry and science, so that we maximise potential for the industry while ensuring that there are sustainable stocks.
Mr. Carmichael: May I draw the Minister’s attention to page 38 of the Council document, particularly paragraph 86, which relates to the Community Fisheries Control Agency in Vigo? It states:
“Contrary to what its name might suggest, the Agency has no powers of its own in relation to fisheries control.”
Will the Minister give me an assurance that he will do everything within his power to ensure that that remains the case? The last thing that we require is a centralised fisheries control agency, and if we were to centralise it, doing so in Vigo would probably be the final nail in the coffin of the British fishing industries.
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman will know that in his area the fishing industry has done well over the past two years. The landing prices have been high and I know that the industry wants that to continue. It is in all of our interests to ensure compliance.
On his remark about the Community Fisheries Control Agency, I do not think, as I have said, that a centralised regime is the future. We will bring forward our arguments, which we will be consulting on throughout the UK, to ensure that we have a more de-centralised system, which is in all our interests. The fishing industry in the Shetlands has done well, and we want to ensure that it continues to do well. That means that we must all comply with the necessary safeguards to ensure that fish are not landed illegally, and that we must respect the total allowable catches set at each Council meeting and at the December Council meeting.
Kelvin Hopkins: I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to paragraph 1.7 on page 3, which lists a series of very serious problems in monitoring the common fisheries policy and quota data. Is it not clear from the report, and from that paragraph in particular, that after 35 years those problems are inherent—they invite dishonesty—and that the system will not work in the end?
Jonathan Shaw: I do not agree. As I have said, we accept some of the criticism but not all of it. The inspections took place between April and November. There were only two visits, to Newlyn in Cornwall and to Milford Haven. Reports were requested from fishery areas throughout the UK and we think that we have made important progress since then. However, all the industry must work towards ensuring that we have proper compliance throughout the European Union, so that we have a level playing field. We are confident that we can improve our system and that we have improved our system. We are by no means complacent, but I do not accept my hon. Friend’s wholesale criticism of the system; yes, it has flaws and can be improved, but it is not completely and utterly broken—far from it; I think that it is improving.
Bill Wiggin: How did the auditors make so many mistakes in the report? According to the explanatory memorandum, many mistakes were made when assessing the UK’s work in this area. Was the Minister’s Department given any opportunity to correct the record prior to the report being published? I see nodding.
Jonathan Shaw: Yes, I am nodding. We were able to comment about particular aspects of the report, as I have set out in the explanatory memorandum, and I understand that we were able to make some corrections.
Kelvin Hopkins: Before the CFP was inflicted upon Britain, Britain’s fishing waters were among the largest in the European Union—they were possibly the largest. Is it not a fact that we have lost millions of tonnes of fish worth billions of pounds to the British economy over the past 35 years, and we have also seen our fish stocks depleted simply by overfishing by foreign vessels?
Jonathan Shaw: It is always convenient to blame everything on foreigners, is it not? The fact is that we have had to reduce our fishing effort because, believe it or not, British vessels fish in foreign waters, too. I explained to my hon. Friend earlier that negotiations take place every year between the European Union and Norway.
The number of fish in our seas has reduced significantly. In 1987, we took about 170,000 tonnes of cod from the North sea, but last year we took less than 20,000 tonnes. Most of the cod taken out of the North sea is taken out, I believe, by UK vessels. So, we have had to learn the lessons ourselves. We could not continue fishing for ever and a day, taking out as many fish as we would like, because there would have been nothing left. In Newfoundland, not so long ago, the fishermen found that out to their cost. That was not a case of foreign vessels being at work, because local vessels were fishing those waters. So, I do not accept what my hon. Friend has said.
Mr. Carmichael: The Minister’s own memorandum observes that it has been prepared in consultation with the devolved Administrations. Will he tell the Committee whether his memorandum also represents the views of the Scottish Government, or are there differences in policy in relation to this sector?
Jonathan Shaw: We have a UK-agreed position. Officials discussed that position and clearly, if there are issues that require further discussion, that discussion will involve Ministers from all the devolved Administrations. This is the UK position and there is no difference between us at all on this subject, I am glad to say.
Bill Wiggin: Will any of the UK’s European fisheries fund money be spent on improving control and inspection systems?
Jonathan Shaw: Regarding the European fisheries fund, we will introduce the operational programme soon, and we hope that we will receive a final decision on it in May. It may well include matters related to control and inspection systems.
Kelvin Hopkins: I say to the Minister that I make my points not out of simple national interest. The point that I am trying to make is that, where nations look after their own fish stocks in their original fishing areas, they are much more likely to be concerned with protecting them than they are if there is a free-for-all and they can fish in other waters. I say to him that the system is inherently flawed, because people do not feel a sense of responsibility towards fish stocks in the North sea.
Jonathan Shaw: I do not accept what my hon. Friend has said.
Mr. Carmichael: The Minister’s memorandum, in the final bullet point on page 85, observes that
“the Commission and Member States should adopt active measures to reduce structural overcapacity in the fishing industry”.
For those of us who have been through a programme of decommissioning within our own communities in recent years, that is a somewhat surprising statement. Would the Minister care to elucidate exactly which structural overcapacities he intends to address?
Jonathan Shaw: I am aware of the structural changes that have happened over recent years, and that they have been felt by communities across the UK, including the hon. Gentleman’s. I announced earlier this year some changes that I intend to introduce. For example, I hope to reduce the under 10 m fleet in England. A small number of craft are taking a large proportion of the inshore quota that is managed by the Marine Fisheries Agency. Some £5 million will be set aside for a decommissioning programme, and we believe that that will make a contribution. That is some of the restructuring that will occur in the UK.
Bill Wiggin: Aerial surveillance plays an important part in monitoring our fisheries. Since 1997, the amount of coverage has fallen from 2,500 to 1,000 hours. Will the Minister let us know whether there will be aerial surveillance after the current contract expires next year, and, if so, what the coverage will be?
Mr. Gray: He does not know.
Jonathan Shaw: I do know. The hon. Member for Leominster will be aware that the 1997 contract, which included 2,500 hours, was drawn up before the vessel monitoring system came into being. The situation was that there would be aerial observation, but that it would be done very much on a random basis, whereas now monitoring is done from the shore, from aeroplanes and from River class vessels in England and Wales and vessels in Scotland. We know where vessels are, where they have been and whether they are in closure areas, for example. It is a case of making more efficient and more effective use of our resources and bringing together technology as well as aerial observation, which is important, because it ensures that we know whether someone is fishing—it is sometimes difficult to tell that from vessel monitoring systems, which may give some indication but not enough to prosecute. In order to prosecute, a vessel must have been seen committing the offence.
Kelvin Hopkins: On page 56 of the report, there is a table that shows the differences between scientific opinion as to how much fish might be caught, and the total allowable catch figures from the Council of Ministers. In every case, the European Union figures are substantially higher than the scientific figures, and the picture was worse in 2007 than it was in 2006. Does my hon. Friend accept that, according to the scientists, we are riding towards a future disaster?
Jonathan Shaw: No, I do not accept that. The advice that the European Commission receives every year from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea answers the question how many fish should we take out of the sea if we are to have recoverable stocks next year. It is a foolish question, because we have recovery programmes, and they operate in a sustainable way. For example, our cod recovery programme covers several years rather than one year.
I welcome the fact that last year we saw a recovery in cod, because of several good year classes. That allowed us to take out, not a huge amount, but a bit more cod from the North sea in line with our sustainable cod recovery programme. Information is provided by us and by UK scientists run by the administrations in Scotland and England, and it is confirmed and supported by the Commission’s scientists.
Mr. Carmichael: I have already identified for the Minister several areas in which the proposals in the document could lead to centralisation. In the event of centralisation of control to the Commission, rather than the devolution that we all want, and in the event of ratification of the treaty of Lisbon, which, of course, provides for formalisation of the conservation of marine biological resources as the exclusive competence of the EU, what does he think the impact will be on these measures?
Jonathan Shaw: Specifically from the Lisbon treaty?
Mr. Carmichael: Yes.
Jonathan Shaw: The Lisbon treaty makes no changes to the role or powers of either member state with regards to fishery. Community competence over fisheries is shared, except for conservation measures, where it is the exclusive competence of the Community since the UK’s treaty of accession came into force in 1979. The treaty merely codified the previous case law.
Bill Wiggin: The Minister did not manage to tell us how much aerial surveillance will take place in the future, but I am sure that he will do so as soon as he can. He said it is important that fishermen who are fishing illegally are caught. He can imagine my concern that the number of Royal Navy protection squadron patrol days is to be cut from 12,000 in 1997 to what could be as few as 600. Has the Commission expressed any criticism of that reduction? If the number of patrol days prove to be inadequate, can the Commission pursue infringement proceedings?
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman is prefacing his remarks about England and Wales?
Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is simply asking a question. Tell us how many aerial days there will be.
Bill Wiggin: Zodiac
Jonathan Shaw: Yes, Zodiac. So, we can have up to four fisheries inspections officers now.
We have better vessels built by Vosper Thornycroft in Portsmouth. They are highly manoeuvrable—the Royal Navy was involved in the design work—and they can stay at sea for longer. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that because he has asked me questions about it—although he chose not the comment on that point. The vessels are much more flexible, manoeuvrable and competent for the task in hand. It is also important to remember that inspection at sea leads to quite a small percentage of prosecutions for failing to comply.
Bill Wiggin: No, it does not. In 2003 the National Audit Office report on fisheries enforcement in England found that a higher percentage of inspections at sea by the Fishery Protection Squadron recorded infringements than those conducted on land. Between 10 and 13 per cent. of infringements were recorded as a result of sea-based inspections compared with just 2 and 4 per cent. for land-based. Those figures are from 2000 and 2001. Are there more recent figures or have those figures changed? Does that not prove the importance of having patrol vessels out there enforcing fisheries, rather than cutting back on patrol days?
Jonathan Shaw: New figures are available, and I will mention them shortly. Certainly, we know—and the Commission has stated—that it is necessary to have an effective, efficient and broad approach by using aerial, sea and land surveillance. The Commission advised that it was essential for fisheries inspectors around the coast, of which there are some 165 in the UK, to have access to the vessel monitoring system, and that has actually made us far more efficient. I shall find the details that the hon. Gentleman has referred to in the debate, because it is important that I put them on the record for him.
Bill Wiggin: I am afraid so. I am grateful to the Minister for finding the figures—when he can. If he cannot do so today, I am sure that he will drop me a note.
On the way in which we are moving forward, the Commission, in its response, is optimistic that the introduction of the electronic logbook and reporting will alleviate some of the problems with surveillance and cross-referencing, which the Court of Auditors highlighted. However, when the matter was debated in Committee in 2006, concerns were raised about the compatibility of the different software that member states might use, creating problems when exchanging information. Have those issues been resolved, and is there a standard format for use?
Jonathan Shaw: We want to improve our systems’ standards, and we are introducing the electronic logbook, which will be instigated for vessels over 24 m in 2010, and over 15 m six months later.
Bill Wiggin: So when will we be able to use remote sensing technology on foreign vessels to detect whether they are in compliance with fishing control systems?
Jonathan Shaw: I shall check and write to the hon. Gentleman.
Kelvin Hopkins: This is the last in my long line of questions to my hon. Friend. Does not the report, logic and common sense lead one to the inevitable conclusion that the only way in which we will recover fish stocks and rebuild the fishing industry around our shores, and indeed around the rest of Europe, will be to re-establish the previous system of national waters, where our fishermen fish in our waters, and where we as a country husband our own stocks and other countries do the same?
Jonathan Shaw: That would require us to leave the European Union. That policy of leaving the common fisheries policy was proposed at the previous election by the Conservative party. I do not know whether the policy has changed since.
Bill Wiggin: It has.
Jonathan Shaw: It has changed. But it obviously slipped through the net. I did not hear about it.
Mr. Carmichael: May I bring the Minister’s attention to page 42 of the document? Paragraph 97 reads:
“Furthermore, proceedings for failure in the implementation of control, inspection or sanctions procedures require a significant volume of inspection work on the part of the Commission. Due to the absence of easily verifiable assessment criteria, the Commission has to increase the volume of evidence in order to demonstrate that the failure is both general and permanent.”
Will the Minister assure me that he will resist any move to reduce the amount of evidence required for such proceedings? Does he not accept that the general thrust of that section of the Commission’s document is based on a misapprehension that the only pressure that can be brought to bear on member states is through the legal system? The legal system is the last resort, and over the years the political pressure that has been brought to bear on member states has been much more effective.
As I said in my opening remarks, significant changes have been made in recent years. Our cross-compliance mechanisms have not allowed things to slip through the net—unlike the Conservative policy, which did slip through the net—but have closed the net. People no longer want to be seen to be purchasing illegally-landed fish, because they could now be subject to prosecution. Consumers no longer want to be associated with that. Furthermore, some of our supermarkets and processors have taken a lead—Young’s of Grimsby, for example, has taken a very proactive approach.
Bill Wiggin: Why did paragraph 72 of the report deem the rate of attendance by inspectors to be “definitely inadequate”? The Minister dismissed that criticism on page 93, but it would helpful to know why the auditors might have thought that and whether they are aware of the targeted approach being taken. Will he reassure us that the arrangements for attendance by inspectors are fit for purpose?
Jonathan Shaw: As I said earlier, we have 160 inspectors around the coast and we think that our risk-based approach is the right one. Thanks to our vessel monitoring systems, we know where vessels have been, and if a picture emerges in which landings and purchases differ, we use that targeted approach to investigate. We have brought prosecutions, some of which have resulted in very large fines.
Bill Wiggin: Paragraph 81 of the report slams the UK for not targeting inspections relevantly or efficiently and states that inspectors increased inspections of vessels where no infringements were found, but did not undertake inspections on other larger vessels. That makes it very difficult to believe that the targeted approach is being used properly. On page 94, the Minister conceded that
“more systemic checks on previous activity could assist in targeting.”
What action is he taking to ensure that that happens?
Jonathan Shaw: As I said, we take a targeted approach. If a larger vessel showed no cause for concern and if the data from the register of buyers and sellers were satisfactory—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but we only target vessels that we are concerned about. If the vessel monitoring system, aerial surveillance and every cross-check available show that a vessel is complying, what is the point of inspecting it?
Bill Wiggin: Then why does paragraph 72 of the report state that the inspections were “definitely inadequate”?
Jonathan Shaw: As I have said to the hon. Gentleman and the Committee throughout, we are happy to enter the debate about the auditor’s conclusions, but do not accept all of their criticisms, including that one. Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should inspect vessels that are clearly complying with the register of buyers and sellers, and which we know, from the vessel monitoring system, have not entered any closed areas? Should we inspect such vessels when there is no need and when there is no indication of a failure of compliance? This is how all inspection regimes across public policy should be run. For example, if a school is doing particularly well, we do not need so many Ofsted inspections, but if we are concerned about a school’s examination results, we need to concentrate on it. It is the same with the common agricultural policy. Where there is an infringement and where there is not cross-compliance, we need more inspections, but where people perform well, we take a light touch.
Bill Wiggin: But this inspection report that says that the Government’s performance is—I say it again—“definitely inadequate”. I sympathise with the Minister’s robust defence, but he cannot complain about the nature of the report when it states that what he is doing is “definitely inadequate”. Would he like to comment?
Jonathan Shaw: We have our risk-based approach. We have read the Court of Auditors’ criticism, but we do not accept it. We are happy to discuss and debate the issue, but we know why we do what we do in the way that we do it: it is done on a risk basis. If concerns are not shown in respect of vessels, either we do not inspect them or we inspect them in a light-touch way.
The Chairman: Order. We have come to the end of the hour allotted for questions, but I am happy to extend it if the hon. Member for Leominster still has questions to ask, bearing in mind that the extra time will come from the time allowed for debate. The sitting will finish at exactly the same time.
Bill Wiggin: I have only a couple more pages to go, Mr. Illsley.
The Court of Auditors’ report criticised the UK for not having a centralised system for recording inspection reports when it visited. However, the Minister has stated that that is incorrect because the MCSS—the UK monitoring control and surveillance system—which records the information, has been in place since June 2006, as is mentioned on page 93. Why were the auditors unaware of the measures that were in place at the time? Is that indicative of a breakdown of communications between the auditors and officials?
Jonathan Shaw: No, I do not think that it is a breakdown. There are areas in the auditors’ report about which we did not agree, and the hon. Gentleman has highlighted another one.
Bill Wiggin: I know that the Minister has to do what his Whip says and that he had to say no to that question. However, it is odd, given that the Minister told me a little while ago that he had an opportunity to comment on the report and that corrections were made, that there are all these extraordinary disagreements.
As a consequence of the auditors’ report, is the Commission looking to implement a more micro-management approach to fisheries control or will the Minister press it to be more targeted and effective in its actions?
Jonathan Shaw: Everything that I have said talks about a less centralised system. It is better to approach fisheries management on a regional and localised basis, with buy-in from the industry, the Government and scientists. We took that approach last December and we will take it again as we move into the discussions about common fisheries policy reform. We have taken that approach in our response to the auditors’ report.
We were able to comment and provide some clarification on the auditors’ report before it went to the Commission. Auditors will always take the worst-case scenario—for example, if a vessel is not being inspected, people must be getting away with something—but that is not the nature of fisheries management. The hon. Gentleman understands that, so he supports either our view or that of the auditors.
Bill Wiggin: I am very disappointed to hear that there should be a difference or two.
When does the Minister expect to complete and submit his Department’s 2007 report, pursuant to Council regulation 2847/93 on the monitoring and application of the CFP? Will that report address the concerns expressed by the Court of Auditors and reassure the Commission that the level of infringements against the UK suggested in the auditors’ report may not be accurate—as the Minister has done in his explanatory memorandum?
Jonathan Shaw: We will continue to make our case. We are more than happy for the Commission to explore how we are enforcing the common fisheries policy; we believe that we are doing it effectively. We will publish all necessary reports to ensure that we are compliant with the policy. However, overall, there has been good advancement since the auditors’ report, as I have set out, and that has broad support from the different Administrations in the UK and from the industry.
Bill Wiggin: Paragraph 70 of the Court of Auditors’ report comments on cases in England and Wales and four other member states,
“where infringements had been found but the follow-up action provided for in the procedures had not been taken, and the reasons for this decision had not been documented.”
That is in the Minister’s document bundle at page 43. This is not the first time that the UK has been criticised for its reporting of infringements and action taken. The 2003 National Audit Office report criticised fisheries enforcement in England and found that few infringements warranted further action. Although all infringements at sea were recorded with the Department by the Royal Navy, minor transgressions identified shoreside were not. Five years after that NAO report, do these inconsistencies in reporting remain? Does the Minister intend to introduce any procedures so that the reasons for not pursuing infringement actions are actually noted?
Jonathan Shaw: There are criticisms about enforcement, but we have an approach to enforcement and prosecution that we think is proportionate. For example, we give verbal warnings to fishermen when they submit a logbook after more than 48 hours, if there are minor omissions in the logbook, or if a few fish in the catch are marginally below the minimum landing size. We build up that picture to the point where we take people to court. Serious, large fines have been imposed on those who have clearly flouted the law. I can give the hon. Gentleman examples, if he wishes, but he is probably aware of the Kilkeel case in Liverpool, and others in which assets totalling more than £1.9 million were seized. That conveys how seriously we take the issue, and sends a signal to those who want to transgress the law.
Bill Wiggin: I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but it does not even begin to deal with the issue that concerned the auditors, which is that when no action is taken in response to an infringement, the reason must at least be noted. That has not happened, and that is what is being criticised. What is going to change?
Jonathan Shaw: This is a matter of the different types of infringement. We think that the approach should be proportional. At one level, for a minor offence, there will be a verbal warning.
Bill Wiggin indicated dissent.
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head; perhaps he thinks that we should not give warnings for minor matters. Moving on from that level, we give official warnings. Then there are letters, and then administrative penalties. Just the other week, I signed off a statutory instrument about a new regime of penalties that we are bringing in. Also, we proceed with serious prosecutions. There is a range of approaches, and I do not think that we should take legal action against a fisherman for a minor infringement. The matter is one of the relationship with the district inspectors, who know the fishermen. They develop those relationships, and they take a tough stand. They give warnings for minor infringements, but will up the ante according to the nature of the infringement, and fishermen know that.
Mr. Carmichael: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I am sure that Committee members have found the flexibility as to time that you have allowed immensely helpful. I should like to raise general points relevant to what is being said in a speech rather than in a question, and it would be of immense assistance to me if you could suggest how much flexibility you are going to demonstrate.
The Chairman: I am allowed to give an extension of 30 minutes, but in view of the fact that we are now reduced to an exchange between the Government and Opposition Front Benches, perhaps I should bring questions to a close in the next few minutes, so that we can, in fairness to all hon. Members, move on to a debate.
Bill Wiggin: Thank you, Mr. Illsley. I do not intend to delay the Committee, but I think that the Minister has fundamentally misunderstood the essential criticism in the Court of Auditors’ report, which is not about punishing fishermen; it is about the failure to log the reason for not punishing them. It is about the audit trail. In answering my questions, the Minister has twice failed to grasp that what the auditors are criticising is the fact that they are unable to go through the reasons for letting fishermen off.
Jonathan Shaw: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the report dates from 2006, and it looked back. We now follow up all procedures, and they are now recorded on the MFA’s database. I hope that that gives him some comfort and relief with respect to the criticism that he has made.
Bill Wiggin: Does the Minister agree with the Court of Auditors that member states need to improve the quality of their catch data and have the information certified by an independent body?
Jonathan Shaw: Of course we want to improve. We have improved since that European Court of Auditors’ report was delivered to the Commission. We always keep such things under review and look to improve. However, that improvement comes from partnership with the fishing industry.
Bill Wiggin: With reference to the criticism in paragraph 30 of the report—on page 30—relating to the deadline to collect data by 15 February, delays in collecting and validating the data and the UK’s late submission adjusting the data, the Minister has expressed concern that that deadline is too early for the reporting of quota uptake. He stated on page 90 that it is
“really a criticism of EU procedures”.
Is he disappointed that, in the Commission’s response on page 71, no indication is given that the deadline date may be moved back? Is that something he is pressing for?
Jonathan Shaw: Yes, that is what I wrote in the explanatory memorandum; the dates are rather inflexible. That is something we want to take forward. It is probably of concern to a number of other member states as well.
The Chairman: Order. We should now move to debating the order itself.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 16071/07, European Court of Auditors Special Report No. 7/2007 on the control, inspection and sanction systems relating to the rules on conservation of Community fisheries resources; and supports the Government’s aim of contributing positively to discussions for further improvements in fisheries management and control, thereby contributing to the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.—[Jonathan Shaw.]
5.41 pm
Bill Wiggin: The report from the European Court of Auditors has brought forward a range of important issues. In the light of the recent media coverage on discards, it also once again drew to the public attention the failures and flaws with current fisheries policy and the need for proper reform. These are important matters, because no fishery can have any chance of being sustainably managed if the enforcement and protection regimes are inadequate.
It is concerning to see the apparent inconsistencies between the report and the response of the Commission on the one hand, and the response of the Government on the other. From the Government’s response, it appears as though there are few problems with the UK’s control, inspection and sanction systems. The Minister has sought to reassure us that some of the Court of Auditors’ analysis is incorrect and that the systems are better than the report appears to suggest. That may be the case to an extent, and improvements have been made since the auditors visited the UK. The report is, essentially, a snapshot of the past, although after 10 years in Government, that conclusion does not reflect well on the Minister’s predecessors. However, it is alarming to see that despite the Minister’s claims—which, taken at face value, suggest that our systems are working well—the Commission has highlighted a number of areas in which infringement action is being taken against the UK, such as on the action of inspectors and the use of sale notes. If the changes made, particularly through the registration of buyers and sellers, are making the improvements to enforcement that we think that they are, I wonder why the Commission appears to be pursuing infringement proceedings against the UK in those areas and not instead focusing its resources on trying to get other member states to comply with their obligations—for instance, on the reporting of discards.
While I welcome the report, given the discrepancies highlighted, it is unclear how fairly or accurately it has reflected systems in the UK and, therefore, the action and contribution that the Government can make to further discussions on the matter. This discussion is principally on the auditors’ report, but it could just as easily be a debate on the performance of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Marine Fisheries Agency, which are responsible for managing and controlling our fisheries. It is also difficult to see the contribution that the Government can make on such an important matter when the support that they offer to control regimes is being eroded. If the auditors were to return, I wonder what they would make of the apparent cuts being made, the impact that those cuts would have and whether they would compromise our control systems. I have already raised in the House and in written questions—
Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Bill Wiggin: I will give way, although I should probably finish my point—but the Minister has been very courteous.
Jonathan Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman expand on his concern about cuts and how they impinge on operational matters?
Bill Wiggin: I probably should have finished my point before giving way, as I said.
I have already raised in the House and in written questions the cuts to the Fishery Protection Squadron and to aerial surveillance under the current Government. Those appear to be among the first victims of the Government’s 26 per cent. cut to the MFA budget. Perhaps the MFA is having its budget cut to make up any shortfall in the European fisheries fund money that the EU may withhold from the UK as a result of the seemingly never-ending delays in submitting to the Commission the UK operational programme.
But what of the future of the other, vital functions carried out by the Marine Fisheries Agency, which are essential to fisheries enforcement, control and inspection? This year, the electronic recording and reporting system will be coming into operation. The MFA has to manage the registration of buyers and make quota swaps to support the 10 m and under fleet. We know that the MFA is struggling to reach its target of inputting 90 per cent. of fisheries data on the 10 m and over fleet. In 2005, 95 per cent. of the data were entered within just five days, but that had fallen to 90 per cent. by 2006, which was just within the target. Moreover, the average delay in processing sales notes for the 10 m and under fleet—particularly since the requirement to register buyers and sellers was introduced—jumped from 1.9 days in 2004 to 11.3 days in 2006.
The Minister has reassured us, saying:
“New procedures have been introduced and resources within the MFA have been reallocated to help deal with this increased workload while ensuring that the key performance target continues to be met.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 514W.]
However, the MFA budget has been slashed, fisheries protection squadron patrol days and aerial surveillance days are being axed, and the Court of Auditors has been critical of our control, inspection and sanction regimes. Opposition Members have had no guarantees from the Minister that our fisheries are being adequately protected and enforced. If they are not, however, we cannot fish sustainably or reach our 2015 target of sourcing from maximum sustainable yields. I hope that that answers the Minister’s question.
Jonathan Shaw: No.
Bill Wiggin: Well, I am sure that he will make a speech in a moment and say his bit.
I turn now to the criticisms by the Court of Auditors. When asked about the report in a written answer, the Minister declined to provide his assessment; instead, he proceeded to pat the European Commission on the back. Under the Lisbon constitutional treaty, the Government have handed over exclusive competence for fisheries to the European Commission without any attempt at changes, but I did not realise that that meant praising the Commission at every opportunity, even when it might prosecute us.
In a written answer, the Minister stated that he welcomed the Commission’s response to the report and the fact that the Commission was introducing short-term measures to improve
“the vessel monitoring system, introducing electronic logbooks and sales notes, improving member states’ and the Commission’s databases, enhanced cross-checking of data and the application of more effective and consistent sanctions throughout the Community.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 2279-80W.]
However, we know from experience that the application of effective and consistent sanctions across all member states simply does not happen.
On consistency, the common fisheries policy may never have been enforced consistently and fairly. For example, British fishermen have been penalised by the Commission for overfishing herring and mackerel, and have had to spend five years paying back the extra catch, but the French got away with overfishing an endangered species—bluefin tuna—by a massive 40 per cent. in 2005 and by 30 per cent. in 2006. Instead of taking consistent action, the Commission took the easy option of waiving fines and negotiating an amnesty.
The Minister appears keen to applaud the Commission’s response to the European Court of Auditors’ criticisms. In the explanatory memorandum, he states that the Government
“applauds the positive stance taken by the Commission in looking at the criticism of their management.”
However, the sad fact remains that the Commission has a terrible track record on managing and enforcing fisheries, and it is difficult to trust the recent sentiments.
With the Commission’s full knowledge, the CFP’s credibility is being undermined by the failure of some countries, including France and Spain, to produce the requested discard information. Since 2002, for instance, EU member states have been required under Council regulation 1543/2000 to collect discard data, but data have not been systematically compiled six years on. France, Portugal and Spain have declined to provide discard data for between the period between 2003 and 2006. Similarly, Spain has not provided landings data for 2003 to 2006, as it was required to do. Equally, France has not provided landings data for divisions 8c to 9a of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea areas. What we need is effective, fair and consistent action to be taken across the EU; we do not want our fishermen being the only ones who are punished and pursued.
Despite the Government’s warm comments about the report, the Minster’s explanatory memorandum is very critical of its robustness and accuracy. It is disappointing that the motion makes no reference to his response to the specific criticisms of the UK. Paragraph 11 of the explanatory memorandum states:
“There are about 20 specific issues mentioned in the final report where the UK is criticised. It would seem that some of these criticisms are based on misunderstandings on the part of the auditors...or on, in our view, a too simplistic view of the effective deployment of resources”.
Despite the auditors visits to port offices in Newlyn and Milford Haven, as well as to the MFA headquarters in London, the Court, the Commission and the Minister appear to disagree on a number of points. It would have been helpful in these discussions if there were an update from the Commission and the Court on their assessment of the changes that the Government have put in place. That would have reduced some of the confusion about the apparent inconsistencies in these documents. Any UK Government must be at the forefront of developing sustainable fisheries management systems. The weaknesses that have been identified need to be resolved, and I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to advance this process as quickly as possible.
5.50 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton is not currently in his place. It should be placed on record that the House has been very well served by his Committee in bringing these documents before us for our consideration today. There is a great deal about them that causes me substantial unease.
In passing, I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar is not present. My party was invited to give up one of its places in Committee in order that he might have representation, and we did so without any quibble. It may be that he is somewhere in terminal 5 waiting for his luggage.
The Minister commented on the general health of the industry, which I want to touch on briefly. He was right when he said that landing prices are up significantly and that there is a general mood of optimism in the industry that, frankly, was not to be found a few years ago. I caution his enthusiasm, however, because there remain a few significant challenges for the industry, not least the cost of fuel, which is eating significantly into the increased landing prices.
As ever, we must remind ourselves that there is no such thing as “the fishing industry”; there are a number of fishing industries. Things are going better these days for the white fish fleet, but in my constituency I detect a degree of anxiety among the pelagic fleet regarding the prospects for that part of the industry. Ministers need to be eternally vigilant in relation to that issue.
I have some concerns about the thrust of the report. To those who do not have an intimate knowledge of it, the management of fisheries is not always easy to observe or understand from the outside. That shines through a number of observations that the auditors made with regard to the operation of enforcement, particularly as it relates to the United Kingdom. The registration of processors and the introduction of VMS for vessels of 10 m and over has revolutionised fisheries enforcement.
I think back to my days as a solicitor in the sheriff court dealing with fisheries infringement cases. I remember the way in which the evidence was gathered in the first place, the way in which it was dealt with by the prosecuting authorities and the approach that was taken by the industry. Those things have been turned completely on their heads. That should be the subject of some satisfaction for the Minister, his officials and Ministers in the devolved Administrations.
In my view, the next logical extension would be greater use of on-board observers, particularly if we are to address public concerns about the prevalence of discards. That move would make a significant difference, because it would improve the quality of the information available to those who decide on the total allowable catches and quotas at the end of each year. I touched on that point earlier in a question to the Minister. The signs surrounding fisheries and the construction of total allowable catches can be a little on the sketchy side. That is a reflection of the difficulties in acquiring accurate data, and the situation is always exacerbated by the prevalence of discards. Discards are a consequence of a mismatch between stocks and tax, which results in a vicious, downward spiral.
Much of what has been done has gone towards arresting that downward spiral. It is unfortunate that that is not reflected in the report of the auditors. It is also unfortunate that the report does not try to place fisheries enforcement in context by saying say that it must be looked at in the totality of fisheries management, which involves looking at how the tax and the quotas are then to be saved. That returns me to my point to the Minister about the importance of devolving control away from the Commission and not centralising it, as many of the proposals in this report seek to do. In particular, we need to move towards greater powers for the regional advisory councils, which is the only way to achieve effective marrying between stocks and tax and, ultimately, less rigorous enforcement.
5.57 pm
Jonathan Shaw: May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton, who is no longer in his place, for coming today? It is helpful to have that connection between his Committee and our deliberations here—it is rather odd if a Committee decides that the House should debate a matter, but no one from that Committee can listen to or participate in the debate.
The hon. Member for Leominster is a fine chap. He came with a prepared speech and did not want to have any regard for the changes. He was not gracious enough to accept that the new River class vessels are far more effective, far more flexible and have been welcomed by the Royal Navy. Those vessels can stay at sea for longer and are helping with the better regime that we are instigating.
Bill Wiggin: I have never criticised those vessels. I have tabled early-day motions, which the Minister was not able to sign, praising the work of HMS Severn in particular. However, he cannot get away from that fact that the number of vessels has been reduced. I am glad that the vessels are more effective, but my written questions, which he has answered, have been about efficiency. At the end of the day, one can only control fishing if one is there. If there are only three vessels, it is inescapable that that is a reduction. There is also a reduction in the number of patrol days.
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. We have a much more flexible vessel now which can stay out longer at sea and can accommodate much fiercer storms than its predecessor. Those vessels make a considerable contribution to joining up our targeted approach. In addition, we have been able to reduce the amount of flying time because of our investment in technology and because of the registration of buyers and sellers. We have put all those elements together to provide a more efficient and more effective system that makes better use of public money, which I would have thought that he would support. [ Interruption. ] We are spending £24 million a year on enforcement. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks were about England, but this is obviously a UK matter. He did not refer to the four vessels in Scotland at all.
Bill Wiggin: Will the Minister give way?
Jonathan Shaw: No.
Bill Wiggin: But the auditors did not go to Scotland.
Jonathan Shaw: They did not go to most of the ports around the United Kingdom, and they did not go to Northern Ireland. However, the matter concerns all the home nations, and all the home nations had to provide information. The hon. Gentleman then talked about enforcement, but his remarks related purely to England. He must understand that there are four vessels and two airplanes in Scotland as well, and that 160 inspectors cover the different countries. It is important that we look at the matter from a UK perspective rather than just an English one, which was at the centre of his remarks.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who spoke about observers and the need for further confidence on discards. One of the programmes proposed at the December Council by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and the UK Government was a reference fleet that could have observers at short notice. That is something that the NFFO is willing to do. Other advances have also been made using video cameras to ensure compliance. The new types of gear, the better partnerships and the enforcement regime create a much better picture than has been painted by the auditors. Auditors, as he has said, take the worst-case scenario. We think that the report is a salutary document: it reminds us that we should not rest on our laurels. By its nature, it concentrates on weaknesses in procedure, which need to be addressed, but we do not think that the system is fundamentally wrong. Significant improvements have been made recently in the UK—I have attempted to articulate them—and, of course, there is always further room for improvement.
The changes have had a profound effect on how enforcement is carried out. We has discussed VMS data. The system was an investment paid for by the UK Government in all Administrations. It was developed in the UK, and it is one of the most effective VMS systems. The Commission agreed that we have one of the most compliant regimes. We have River class vessels; we will have electronic sales notes; and further electronic logbooks will extend the compliance process. Taken together, those developments give us a far better picture of fishing activity than we had even five years ago. We are using that to maximise the effectiveness of our enforcement activity to tighten the net around the small minority of fishermen who continue to flout the rules.
We agree with the Commission’s proposed response to the report and the four objectives of simplification, harmonisation, improved cost-effectiveness and improved compliance. We will work positively with the Commission to put those improvements into place.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 16071/07, European Court of Auditors Special Report No. 7/2007 on the control, inspection and sanction systems relating to the rules on conservation of Community fisheries resources; and supports the Government’s aim of contributing positively to discussions for further improvements in fisheries management and control, thereby contributing to the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.
Committee rose at three minutes past Six o’clock.

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