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Mr. Austin Mitchell:
I want to help the hon. Gentleman, because he is fishing for flounders at the moment. It is interesting to hear such a staunch defence of the CFP
from the Opposition Front Bench, given that we have rightly heard nothing good about it before now. If he does not earn the trust of fishermen, because they have inflicted on them the consequences of accidental damage in MCZs, and if he will not allow for the fishing defence that my amendment proposes, he will not have a working co-operation with them by which to enforce the rules that he wants to enforce.
Mr. Benyon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me this opportunity to say that I have not at any stage supported or praised the CFP. Indeed, I have nothing but contempt for it, because it has failed to conserve fish or enhance the fishing industry. I want a very different policy to emerge from this process. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should read the Bill. If I may say so, for someone who is so experienced in these matters, he betrays an ignorance about what the Bill is intended to achieve.
As I have said, I am not in the game of demonising fishermen, and I believe that they have an important role to play in marine conservation. However, I am concerned about the irresponsible, dishonest few who do not understand the damage that unsustainable fishing practices are doing to our planet. It is the activities of those individuals that the Bill must address, not those of law-abiding people or of people who, through no fault of their own-perhaps because of the weather-find themselves fishing in an MCZ. There should be measures in the Bill to protect them, and I urge the Minister to read the relevant clause. I would prefer to see this matter addressed as part of the CFP reforms in 2012. That seemed to be the direction of travel that the Minister was taking in Committee, and I seek his reassurance that that is still the case.
On Government amendment 5, I note that we raised concerns in Committee about the sea fishing defence. The amendment gives reassurance that the Minister will address the loophole. We are glad that the loophole is being addressed, so we support the amendment.
We agree with the sentiment of amendment 42, but we also have concerns. Foreign vessels should be subject to the same rules as UK vessels. We are bound by the CFP in this area. This is an important issue, and there are legal issues to consider. We need to push this matter in relation to CFP reform. If the conservation measures in the Bill are to be truly effective, we must ensure that they are respected by all vessels operating in this area, whether foreign or UK.
I support the sentiment behind the hon. Member for Great Grimsby's amendment 17, which is very similar to one that we had tried to introduce, regarding the fascinating White Herring Fisheries Act 1771. In the interests of rationalising legislation, the Bill will repeal that law along with a number of others. He has rightly referred to Hastings. I was in Hastings all day on Thursday to hear about the level of crisis in the community, and about how people are clinging on by their fingernails. Hastings has the largest beach-launched fishery in Europe, and those people want to know that the Bill provides for them. The 1771 Act provides British fishermen with the legal right to use all UK ports and harbours, allows
fishermen to draw their boats up on the beaches and provides fishing vessels with the legal right to use wasteland for storage purposes. For the sake of rationalising legislation, it is not appropriate to repeal the 1771 Act, given the rights that it affords to maintain access to fisheries around the coast. Furthermore, maintaining that legislation is not contrary to any other measure in the Bill. No other part of the Bill extends the statutory rights that would be lost, so the proposed repeal should be withdrawn.
The hon. Gentleman's amendment 15 and our amendment 36 try to achieve the same thing, so although we might disagree on some things, we agree on others. At this late stage in the Bill's passage, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has suggested that clause 66(1) would apply to fishing activity. This issue is an important concern for fishing communities. The right to fish in the UK is a public right, and its exercise should not require, constitutionally, a licence. If it does not require a licence, it cannot subsequently be exempted under subsection (3). To avoid any doubt, the non-application of this measure to a fishing activity must appear in primary legislation. If anyone is worried that I am asking for a completely de-regulated fishing industry, that is not what I am saying. In any event, the ability to deploy fishing gear is strictly controllable through other legislation. To apply this measure to it as well would mean that fishing boats having to comply with two licensing regimes, which would complicate, rather than streamline, licensing for fishing.
Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): Now that I am rising to speak, I think that we are to hear a full set of office-bearers from the all-party fisheries group, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) will probably speak later.
For those of us who represent fishing communities, it is important that we protect and argue for our industry, and we must make it clear-I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) takes the same view-that we welcome the Bill. It is important to get it right, but we must also take account of all the stakeholders, the key stakeholders being those in the fishing industry. I was interested to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who tends to put a lot of vitality into all the campaigns that he fights. I appreciate that. However, Reading is a long way from having a fishing industry and a real understanding of how it operates.
I was interested, too, to hear the measured approach taken by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), which is a welcome relief from what we are used to hearing from Conservative Front Benchers in any debate involving the fishing industry: basically, a call for UDI-a unilateral declaration of independence from Europe. I think that we all share the same view on the CFP, which has not been good for the industry anywhere in Europe, and far less here in the UK. However, their previous position was not sensible, and I am pleased that they are moving towards a much more appropriate one.
I wish to speak principally in support of amendment 41, which I tabled, and amendment 17, which I signed, but also in support, more or less, of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby. I do not foam at the mouth when the CFP is mentioned, as I hope to make clear.
I would like to speak in support of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and against the CFP. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned
the CFP a couple of times. He refers to its shortcomings, yet I understand that he is supportive of it. What does he want to do to limit its effects on fishermen? Would he support an extension of national control up to 199 miles, thereby rendering the CFP effectively useless? What is his approach to tackling the problems and injustices of the CFP, or does he just complain about it and leave it exactly as it is?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will resist the temptation to lead us into a full-scale debate on the CFP, which would take us very much off-centre as regards this group of amendments.
Mr. Doran: I appreciate your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I would just point out that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) has only just arrived in the debate and that I did not say anything suggesting that I supported the CFP, which has failed the British industry. The Government, now with the support of the Opposition, are well on the way to dealing with the issues. Negotiations in Europe are the way forward.
In speaking in support of amendment 41, I want generally to try to ensure that the interests of the fishing industry are properly taken account of. My amendment links the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 with the Bill to underline the fact that the industry already has its own licensing system. There is a huge amount of bureaucracy. I get the Scottish Fishermen's Federation diary every year, and the first few hundred pages are taken up with the rules-all the legislation-that the fishing industry has to comply with. It is a very complex area, and one that I would have been reluctant to tackle in my own days as a legal practitioner. The industry has its own licensing system, it is heavily policed and controlled, and it is subject not only to UK legislation but to EU directives under the CFP.
Clause 66 looks as though it will impose another layer of licensing on top of that which already exists. I do not know whether it is possible to find some compatibility with the 1967 Act, or how the problem could be mitigated beyond excluding the fishing industry in the way that I and others have suggested. For centuries, fishing has been seen as an essential public right. Now that the industry is so heavily policed and controlled under our own UK licensing regime and European law, there is a heavy weight of regulation, and in these difficult times it does not need any more. The industry is important to the economy, particularly to rural communities around the country where fishing and fish processing are vital to the stability of the community. It needs more certainty, not less, and that is what it is looking for.
I hope that the Minister, and those of my colleagues who are on the other side of this argument, will understand that, certainly in Scotland, where my main experience lies, there has been a huge shift in the attitude of the fishing industry towards more sustainable methods of fishing and an industry-wide recognition that protecting the environment is crucial to the maintenance of fish stocks. There is strong support from the industry for the Bill and for the equivalent legislation that will be produced in the Scottish Parliament. The industry wants to be part of the process that protects the marine environment,
which will be strengthened by the Bill. I hope that the Minister can spell out exactly how industry interests will be met in the operation of marine conservation zones.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned my legal background in referring to clause 229, which is a standard repeal clause. As a lawyer, I will be pedantic and dig into it a little. At first sight, the repeal of any Act from the 18th century would appear to be a necessary tidying up. However, the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, having taken legal advice, has come to the strong view that the White Herring Fisheries Act 1771 should be retained. In its view, it gives fundamental rights to fishermen: the right to fish and various others. I got myself a copy of the statute, or the bits of it that are still in force, and-this is where I get pedantic-compared it with an Act of the old Scottish Parliament: the Fisheries Act 1705. The old Scottish Acts were fascinating in the way they linked in with the ordinary workers and common people. In the 15th and 16th centuries, those that related to the masses started off with the wonderful expression: "For the safety and favour of the puir folks that labours the ground". The 1705 Act does not use those words, but it is interesting to read the first sentence:
"Our Sovereign Lady and the Estates of Parliament taking to consideration the great and many advantages that may arise to this Nation by encouraging the Salmond White and Herring fishings they being not only a natural and certain fund to advance the trade and increase the wealth thereof but also a true and ready way to breed seamen and set many poor and idle to work".
That sounds like a piece of legislation from the 1980s. [ Laughter. ] Interestingly, the same justification, using different language, appears in the 1771 UK statute, but it is limited to the white herring fisheries. I checked, as far as I could, to see whether the 1705 Act was still in force, and I was told by the Library-the information also appears on the UK statute law database-that it is.
I am not sure whether that complicates matters or makes things easier. However, as there is to be Scottish legislation, it may be appropriate for the Scottish Parliament, if it so chooses, to repeal the 1705 Act. The old Scottish Acts have rules that do not apply in the UK. For example, an Act that is obsolete can be put through a process called desuetude, which effectively repeals it. That needs the authority of the courts, but it can be done. I suspect that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation is making the same appeal to the Scottish Parliament that it is making to me and to others, but it is unlikely that the Scottish Parliament will want to repeal the 1705 Act. That may lead to a situation whereby fishermen north of the border have a statutory right to fish, to land their boats on the shore and all the other rights that the Act gives to fishermen, whereas fishermen in the rest of the UK will not have that right because the 1771 Act has been repealed. That may be a bit more of a grievance for the fishermen in Hastings, for example, than to those north of the border.
I hope that the Secretary of State will try to clarify the situation. Those two Acts are still in force, and because his legislation does not attempt to repeal the 1705 Act we will be left with a different set of rules on either side of the border.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman does not have to move them. It is only if he wishes to press them at the end of the debate or at the appropriate time that he will be called upon to move them.
Andrew George: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your advice. I did not want to miss the opportunity and later find out that I should have moved them at this point. It was a belt and braces approach.
As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), I am keen to ensure that there is a common thread-a golden thread-of balance between social, economic and environmental factors in the Bill. The Minister keeps coming back to that balance. That theme should run through the Bill from start to finish.
Some of the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks and some of his exchanges with other Labour Members presupposed that fishing and marine conservation must necessarily be in conflict, but I do not think that needs to be the case. I do not know whether he is perhaps seeking conflict where there need not be any. Part of the problem in the past has been that the fishing industry has been seen as something of a macho trade and marine conservation as rather effeminate and quite different. However, it is interesting and significant that over the past 10 to 15 years, the fishing industry and the environmental movement, for want of a better expression, have come together. Scientists and fishermen have worked together to understand each other a great deal more, help each other and find a way forward that is good for both marine conservation and sustainable fishing.
Mr. Austin Mitchell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that last point. The fishing industry and conservation groups have come much closer together, which is why the fishing industry feels a bit let down by the obsession with controlling fishing in marine conservation zones.
In response to some of my hon. Friends, I am not saying that fishing is not about marine conservation. Of course it is-it is the industry with the most interest in conservation. However, the patchwork quilts of marine conservation zones are not an appropriate way of controlling fishing effort or catches.
Andrew George: That is an important point, but there is a shared interest in ensuring that there are controls on activities in certain marine areas. On some occasions there may be a shared interest in protecting both the marine environment and the future sustainability of the fishing industry. I often give the classic case in point of the Trevose ground, off the north coast of Cornwall and Devon, which is closed each year in the spawning season between January and April. That initiative was driven by the fishing industry, which effectively said, "Please save us from ourselves. If we do not collectively agree that we must not plunder the stocks, we won't have many stocks in years to come." Increasingly, fishermen are engaging much more constructively with marine conservationists and scientists to find means by which medium and long-term sustainability goals can be pursued.
Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman mentions MCZs. Can he envisage a time when fish are protected from creatures such as seals, and when some limitation by whatever method might be put on seal numbers in some areas?
Andrew George: There will increasingly be an opportunity, particularly under the IFCAs, to recognise that there is a balance between the range of predators and the stocks in any area. That balance may well involve some difficult questions, and perhaps unpalatable answers, about creatures that are in too great abundance and are predating upon vulnerable stocks.
Before I turn to the amendments that I have tabled, I wish to speak to amendment 17, which I have signed. I remind the Minister that, in Committee, I urged him to review the decision to annul the White Herring Fisheries Act 1771. As a result, we entered into correspondence. He wrote to me on 8 July, I responded on 31 July and he wrote again on 4 September, giving further explanations of the background to annulling the Act.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), as a lawyer who has obviously studied the Act in great detail, articulated his arguments far better than I possibly could. All I say to the Minister is that, quite apart from the clear technical arguments that the hon. Gentleman advanced very well, erasing the Act does not pass the "what harm" test-what harm is there in leaving it in place? Nor does it pass the "what hurry" test-what is the hurry to get this done now? The correspondence that I have had with those in the fishing industry who are keen to keep the 1771 Act extant suggests that they believe that elements of that rather ancient-sounding Act are relevant today. The Minister denies that, but I say to him that in any case it is doing no harm and there is no hurry to remove it.
I turn now to the amendments in my name. The purpose of amendment 18, to clause 124, is to establish the balance that the Minister has said he wants to achieve. Subsection 2(e) and (f) state that the regular report that the MMO will produce must refer to
"the extent to which, in the opinion of the authority, the conservation objectives stated for each MCZ which it has designated have been achieved"
"any further steps which, in the opinion of the authority, are required to be taken in relation to any MCZ in order to achieve the conservation objectives stated for it."
To balance the conservation objectives with socio-economic considerations, which are after all to be acknowledged at the point of designation, it seems appropriate for some attempt to be made to assess in the report the impact of policies in MCZs on the socio-economic vitality of the coastal communities affected. The amendment would dovetail with the rest of what is proposed for the report by adding that it must mention
"the extent to which, in the opinion of the authority, the operation of the MCZs have had an impact upon the marine economy in general and the commercial and recreational fishing industry in particular".
I think that that would be a reasonable amendment. It would simply establish a balance that the Minister told the Public Bill Committee that he wishes to achieve, and that I believe we all wish to achieve. There is an opportunity for the Minister to accept the amendment.
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