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26 Oct 2009 : Column 34

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Will the Minister be kind enough to explain briefly why he has chosen the Environment Agency rather than the Marine Management Organisation for this function?

Huw Irranca-Davies: That is a good point. The Bill is future-proofed, in that the Secretary of State, with the agreement of an IFCA and partners on the ground, could agree in future to delegate to another body. That could be the MMO, another IFCA or the Environment Agency. It could be another body which, at this moment, I cannot imagine. We have future-proofed the Bill, but we have also made it clear that the Secretary of State can waive that delegation power. The purpose of the measures is to give that flexibility, recognising, as has been the focus of the Bill, that there will be local solutions on the ground. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I have no quarrel with or opposition to what is proposed, because it seems a sensible redistribution of functions to bodies best able to perform them. However, I should like my hon. Friend's assurance that fishing, which has been excessively heavily burdened with regulations, will not be burdened with further regulations as a result of this reorganisation.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend, who is a stalwart advocate of the fisheries not only in Grimsby, in his constituency, but throughout the UK, is right to raise the issue of fisheries' regulation, but I assure him that the proposed changes would provide flexibility to ensure that the best organisation had responsibility for forward fisheries management locally and regionally. The proposed changes would not add any bureaucracy or regulation, and he can report those assurances not only to his constituents, but to sea fishermen throughout the UK.

4 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Do the Government's proposed changes risk causing an unintended consequence? Sea fisheries committees already co-operate informally across borders, and they can assist each other, for example, with monitoring and enforcement measures. No formal agreements exist, but would the proposed changes require IFCAs to introduce such agreements?

Huw Irranca-Davies: No. The Bill includes a provision to formalise agreements on working across estuaries or water areas, but existing voluntary arrangements and the ability to work together across areas, including on enforcement and so on, will continue. The proposed changes would not hamper that arrangement, and we would not want that to happen. However, they are designed to respond to the concerns, rightly raised in Committee, that the demarcation of IFCAs and the Environment Agency represented a somewhat rigid approach to who was responsible, not least in upper estuary areas. The sole purpose of the proposed changes is to introduce flexibility; it is certainly not to override the effective existing partnerships with sea fisheries committees and others.

The Bill already provides for MMO functions to be delegated to relevant bodies, including IFCAs, and our proposed changes would provide for a similar model of delegation for IFCA functions. I shall turn to the key
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elements of that delegation. First, the delegation of functions would occur from an IFCA to an "eligible body" in relation to any specified areas of an IFC district. Secondly, any delegation would require the Secretary of State's approval, and it would be carried out only where there was agreement between the IFCA and the relevant body. That is important, because, to take up the hon. Gentleman's point, I should say that through that mechanism we are looking for collaboration and partnership, not an imposed solution. Any delegation would have to be by agreement and on the approval of the Secretary of State.

Thirdly, "eligible bodies" could include any neighbouring IFCA, given the example of working in partnership, and the Environment Agency. Fourthly, the Secretary of State could also, by order, add additional eligible public bodies that had a purpose or function that was connected to the inshore marine area. Finally, the proposed changes include a requirement for the Secretary of State to review all those agreements at least every five years, and to cancel agreements if appropriate in the light of such reviews. None the less, under the terms of the Secretary of State's original approval, it would be possible to waive that requirement.

Let me make it clear, however, that we do not have specific expectations about when the option of delegation will be applied; that is not for us to decide in the Chamber. If the proposed changes are accepted, the issue will be looked at in detail by IFCAs and the Environment Agency. However, the proposed changes would provide useful additional flexibility, as the Committee asked for, and would future-proof the Bill. For example, they would allow one IFCA to exercise management right across an estuary, even if a local authority boundary split the estuary; and, they would allow for the Environment Agency to manage all fisheries in upper estuaries where marine species are insignificant.

I hope that the proposed changes provide reassurance that the Bill will allow fisheries management to be carried out as flexibly and efficiently as possible in inshore areas and, in particular, in estuaries. That issue exercised many Committee members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who are in the Chamber, and others. The proposed changes would benefit the users of the inshore marine area and the regulators.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): If an IFCA delegated a responsibility to another body, such as the Environment Agency, and subsequently wanted to take back that power, would it have to wait for the review that the Minister mentioned, or would it be able to do so with the Secretary of State's permission?

Huw Irranca-Davies: No, we would not want to have to wait five years for a review. It would be within the Secretary of State's power to revisit the decision, and if the arrangement were redundant or were not working, or if there were a local desire for a different configuration of fisheries management, that could be reviewed at that time. That flexibility exists. The five-year review offers the opportunity to consider how all the arrangements are working. With those comments, I commend
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Government new clauses 2 to 6 and Government amendments 6 to 8 to the House, and I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), if he is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a great pleasure to have the Bill back on the Floor of the House. I hope that the constructive relationship that we have established across the House is maintained as we work towards introducing important legislation governing the future of our marine environment.

New clauses 2 to 6 and amendments 6 and 8 relate to the delegation of functions by IFCAs to other eligible bodies. When this issue was raised in Committee, not least by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), the Minister committed to bringing something back on Report. The amendments will ensure that IFCAs are able to delegate elements of inshore fisheries management to other bodies. We believe that power over fisheries management needs to be returned to as local a level as possible. Fishermen, scientists and conservationists who work at the local level know how to manage our marine environment best and should be trusted with managing its future. We therefore see an important role for IFCAs in the future of fisheries management, but it is imperative that they represent the diverse range of interests that often play a role in our fisheries. The old sea fisheries committees that IFCAs will replace have, on occasion, been accused of being unrepresentative, especially of interests such as recreational angling. IFCAs must have a new, more representative membership.

IFCAs will not always be best placed to carry out certain functions, some of which could be managed by other organisations or by agencies that have more relevant knowledge or are simply better placed to perform them. It is important that IFCAs are flexible and are able to delegate their functions where necessary or sensible, and we therefore support the proposed measures. It is crucial that the relationships between the Environment Agency and IFCAs, Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation are clear in the Bill.

In Committee, we spoke about wanting to avoid a turf war. I apologise again for suggesting that it might be a surf war, and I promise not to suggest that IFCAs should be fit for porpoise; I shall try to keep the puns to an absolute minimum. How those organisations relate to each other is vital. Ultimately, it should be up to IFCAs-not, as the Minister says, to the Government or Government agencies-to decide how to devolve relevant powers to as local or relevant a level as possible. It should also be for IFCAs to decide where the correct balance of those powers lies. We are broadly supportive of the measures, and we look forward with interest to hearing what the amendment of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) reflects about the Welsh dimension to this issue.

Andrew George: I am pleased to have this opportunity to reflect on the Committee stage of the Bill. The debate has been very constructive across parties, and I congratulate both the Ministers who served on the Committee on the manner in which they discharged their duties. I look forward to hearing further constructive debate today.

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Turning to the Government amendments, I welcome the Minister's confirmation the establishment of 10 IFCAs. As he knows, I have been campaigning for that for some time to reflect the significant local engagement through the sea fisheries committees. That is such good quality and value that it would have been a great disappointment had the Government decided to go for the original proposal in the Bradley report, which was significantly to reduce the number of IFCAs compared with the current range of sea fisheries committees. I should declare an interest in the sense that two sea fisheries committees operate in my constituency-in west Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly, with the latter having a distinct and important role in protecting not only marine conservation but a sustainable fishing industry in its own area, apart from that around mainland Cornwall.

I would be grateful if the Minister would expand a little more on the make-up of the IFCAs, to which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) referred. Who will sit on them, and how will marine conservation and commercial interests be balanced when they are first established? Given my intervention, the Minister will recognise that there are already good, well-established working relationships, certainly between the sea fisheries committees and, I would argue, between those committees and the Environment Agency. Many of those relationships work well because they are informal. He assured me that the amendments will not in any way curtail or discourage the informal arrangements that have already been established, and would no doubt continue to be established, between the eligible bodies, including the Environment Agency.

However, it is important that the value of those arrangements, particularly in monitoring enforcement, should not be overlooked. For example, the vessel that is used in Cornwall, the Saint Piran, often undertakes work for the Devon sea fisheries committee, and goes to the Isles of Scilly as well. In fact, this summer the Secretary of State joined me on board the Saint Piran and saw its excellent work. The work of that vessel is largely governed by an informal arrangement between the sea fisheries committees. It would be a great pity if those informal agreements and arrangements were undermined by the terms of the amendments. I look forward to further reassurance from the Minister on that.

Broadly speaking, the amendments assume that we are talking about agreements, not disagreements; indeed, they are about aiding and encouraging formal agreements between the eligible bodies. However, they do not foresee the possibility that there may be disagreements between bodies in areas that border each other, such as the upper estuaries, which the Minister described. Can he point me to elements of the amendments that might help to resolve any disagreements that arose? Similarly, he referred to the five-year review and the 20-year length of the agreements as set out in new clause 2. It would be helpful if the Minister explained a little more about why the Government have resolved to use those particular lengths of time. What would happen if a dispute between organisations that had established formal agreement occurred long before the five-year review period was up?

I have asked some probing questions to seek clarification from the Minister on measures that the Government have brought forward entirely properly, the spirit of which I strongly support. I look forward to his response.

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4.15 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I support the Government's new clauses and consequential amendments, and I thank the Minister for responding positively in Committee on 7 July to my amendment 51, which had the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and for St. Ives (Andrew George), and the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), who is sometimes my fishing partner.

It is good that the Government have listened and recognised a clear flaw in the original concept of IFCAs-that they would have had responsibility right up to the tidal limit, even though they are primarily about sea fishery interests for recreational angling and for commercial and conservational purposes. It was always somewhat absurd to suggest that the River Thames at Teddington should be patrolled by the local sea Fisheries committee. We would never have seen a boat from a sea committee or an IFCA on the tidal Thames there, the tidal Severn at Gloucester or, I am sure, the tidal Trent at Collingham, just outside Nottingham. I am pleased that our representations have been listened to.

Mr. Benyon: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on a potential problem, which is defining exactly where estuaries finish and the sea begins or vice versa. Does he have a clear definition in his mind that would identify clearly where all types of estuary start and finish, and where the responsibilities of the organisation in charge of them should therefore lie? Perhaps the Minister should respond to that point.

Martin Salter: I thank the hon. Gentleman, for whose support in Committee on this matter I was grateful. The reason why it is not possible to draw a defined line on the map, and why we must have definitions of the upstream limits of commercial fishing interests, is that those limits vary from estuary to estuary. On the River Humber, for example, the commercial fishing interest is many miles upstream, whereas on many other estuaries, particularly on the south coast, it is barely upstream at all. The decision has to be made on a case-by-case basis. Our debate in Committee was excellent and instructive about how Parliament can apply its collective knowledge to that difficult and not easily surmountable problem.

I obviously support the Government's proposals, as they are based on the points that we raised in Committee. The power to delegate to the Environment Agency is the obvious route forward, and there could be other delegations if appropriate. I say to the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) that it is slightly bonkers to query a delegation to the EA on freshwater fishery management, given that it is the agency responsible for that. We are not likely to delegate the matter to the United Nations or anybody else. That might explain why he is no longer the Opposition spokesman.

Bill Wiggin: It is no good the hon. Gentleman attacking me, because after my intervention I heard the Ministers say, "Good question." Perhaps he should speak to his colleagues on the Front Bench.

Martin Salter: I am happy to attack any Member, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. Far more importantly, I am happy to play my part in ensuring that what started life as an excellent Bill will be an absolutely brilliant one.

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By way of digression, Sam Coates's comments in The Times today suggested that the amount of parliamentary time given over to the Bill was a complete waste, as it was dull and boring. I would suggest that correspondents take another look at Charles Clover's film and book, "The End of the Line". They should consider the fact that 99.4 per cent. of the world's oceans are vulnerable to commercial exploitation and that by 2050, unless action is taken on the conservation measures that are in the new clauses and the Bill, we will see a wholesale collapse of fisheries stocks across the planet. This is groundbreaking legislation and today's debate is one small step to ensuring that this excellent legislation is improved still further, and I am delighted that the Minister has felt able to respond to our concerns.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I shall make only a brief contribution. I have served on the Bill in all its forms for about 18 months and I must say that I am extremely pleased that the Government have introduced new clause 2. In four years of being a Member of Parliament, I have never been so over-excited as I am now about this clause. I agree with the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) that it would be ridiculous if he and I were pike, perch or chub fishing on Teddington weir and a marine fishery officer's boat came sailing past to check our licences. The measure is common sense-we have had an outbreak of common sense in this place-and Sam Coates of The Times, far from criticising it, should be celebrating it in his column tomorrow.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The inshore fleet in the Thames estuary has acted responsibly, building conservation for many decades, and I have been representing their interests and approaching the Minister about this matter for some time. Will he confirm when he sums up that Essex and Kent fisherman will have representation on IFCAs to protect their fishing and conservation interests? Will he also confirm that the fishing interest on IFCAs will be balanced with other interests, not marginalised?

Mr. Roger Williams: I, too, have taken great pleasure in being part of the Bill, because it is hugely important to protect the marine environment on which so many of our people depend for their employment and which makes an important contribution to biodiversity locally, nationally and internationally.

I rise briefly to speak to amendment 27, which is in my name. Having said that, I welcome Government new clauses 2, 3 and 6, which are based on the amendment that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) tabled in Committee. The Minister at that time gave a commitment to look at the aims and purposes of that proposal and to see whether it could be worked into the Bill.

If the new clause had been tabled in the form of the proposal made by the hon. Member for Reading, West, we might have sought to amend it following certain things that have been brought to my attention. The current proposals mention allowing IFCAs to enter into agreements with other bodies to allow the latter to take on some of the duties and powers of the former, but only with the permission and agreement of the
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Secretary of State. The Welsh Assembly Government have made it known that they want to take on the role of the IFCA for Wales, and it seems inappropriate for them to have to seek the permission of the Secretary of State to enter into such agreements.

We are talking about the very important species that live some of their time in the oceans and some of their time in fresh water-diadromous fish. They are particularly vulnerable, because they can be badly affected by over-fishing as they approach our shores. However, they can also be badly affected because their spawning grounds could be detrimentally affected by practices farther up the rivers. Therefore, my amendment goes to the heart of the matter in giving the Welsh Assembly Government the powers to allow Welsh IFCAs to enter into agreements to transfer responsibilities and duties that the Secretary of State has in relation to IFCAs in England. It is a simple amendment, but it would clarify the devolved powers that the Welsh Assembly wishes to take on.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank hon. Members for the spirit in which we have begun this debate. It is reminiscent of the approach that has been taken throughout this Bill-constructive engagement and an attempt to improve the Bill. I welcome the support that we have heard for these amendments, especially from the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). He and others, including the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), made the valid point that IFCAs need to be representative. That will be achieved. IFCAs are a mutation of the role of the sea fisheries committees, and they will have added duties and responsibilities-everyone agrees that that is the right approach-but they will need to be properly representative.

Clause 151 provides that the membership of IFCAs will include the Marine Management Organisation, the Environment Agency and Natural England, which will each have a statutory seat. Those seats will be set out in the order establishing each IFCA, in order to maintain some flexibility. Around a third of seats will be allocated to local authority members, under clause 151(1)(a), and the constituent upper and single-tier local authorities in each IFC district will be set out in the order establishing each individual IFCA. The balance of seats will be appointed by the MMO and will include members

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