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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Greg Pope
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
McKechin, Ann (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 2 July 2009


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords]

Clause 141

Exceptions to offences under section 139 or 140
Amendment proposed (this day): 35, in clause 141, page 96, line 11, at end insert—
‘(c) the act occurred on the seaward side of the 0-6 nautical mile fisheries zone in a location where European vessels have fishing rights.’.—(Nick Ainger.)
1 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I was saying this morning that the debate goes to the heart of how we manage not only our fisheries but our marine environment. It is undoubtedly true that the Government’s thrust is to stop keeping those two entities in the silos that have held them for so long—one being the common fisheries policy and the other being our marine conservation efforts. Part of the long-term thrust will be achieved through our existing proposals. I led the way in a recent debate in the European Union, and the argument was partly about bringing together the marine environment and fisheries and removing them from those silos. Ultimately, of course, that was the focus of much of this morning’s debate.
Today’s debate was good. As I said, the subject was discussed by several Members on Second Reading and by seven members of the Committee this morning, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire. The hon. Member for Newbury, who leads for the Opposition, said that it is right to reflect on the fact that many parts of our fishing fleet operate sustainably and take an increasingly responsible approach, so we should not target them all for fishing recklessly or without due care.
One point touched upon this morning was that we must ensure that the rules apply equally to fishermen from the UK and from elsewhere; and—a point that I shall return to in a moment—to fishermen working in different zones. We do not want rules for those who fish out to 6 or 12 miles and another for those who fish beyond that limit. Let me explain why.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West on his ingenious amendment. It is an attempt to deal with the question of UK fisheries and others, but it produces another complication. The amendment would limit the defence set out in clause 141(4) to those areas of interest to other EU member states. Let me turn that on its head. In effect, we would remove a defence for some of our fishermen, but those fishing on the other side of the line would be treated differently. Vessels from other member states would have a special status; they would always benefit from a defence that many UK fishermen could not.
I firmly believe that we should do all that we can to protect our marine conservation zones, but that is not an equitable way of going about it. As was said this morning, we should not penalise our inshore fleet while larger offshore vessels remain unaffected. Fishermen need clarity about what they can and cannot do right across the boundaries. That is one reason for including the sea fishing defence.
More important, however, the amendment will not achieve what is sought. Through inshore fisheries and conservation authority byelaws, we are able to regulate fishing in the area between 0 and 6 nautical miles when necessary. Similarly, we can introduce fisheries orders under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967, under which only UK fishermen have fishing rights without reference to Brussels. We intend to use both types of instrument when there is good evidence that it is necessary to protect MCZs. If fishing practices are likely to cause significant harm to MCZs, we will regulate them; and we will be able to prosecute offenders.
The sea fisheries defence does not have to be the complete disaster that many suggest. It is available only to those who can show that damage was done in the course of or in connection with sea fishing—and, as important, that the effect of the fishing could not reasonably have been avoided. That is the key. Why is the condition that the effect of the act, the damage, could not have reasonably been avoided so important? It is important because if the damage could have reasonably been avoided, the defence does not apply.
Let me give an example. A person cannot rely on this defence if he is fishing using illegal gear. We talked earlier about the advances that have been made in the Scottish and English fleets and in other parts of the UK; much better gear is being used to avoid certain stocks and so on. However, if a fisherman was using illegal gear and as a result the damage was greater, he could not rely on this defence.
I understand the motivation behind the argument; we will take into the negotiations on reform of the CFP later this year. We have to make real changes there if we are going to take a step change forward. As I said at the outset, this is to do with integrating marine management with fisheries management. Having them in separate silos with different rules and regulations applying is complete anathema. We have to resolve this, but we need to do so in a way that does not disadvantage one part of the fleet, particularly inshore fishermen.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): We are talking about the six-mile zone limit particularly in relation to fisheries management. The Minister will be aware that in my part of the world inshore crabbers lay their pots along the six-mile zone, sometimes beyond it or well within it. As a result they often have their gear towed away by foreign vessels that are sweeping within the six-mile zone. It is an area of conflict, and the relationship with fishing states that are operating very much on the limits of that zone should be taken into consideration.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree entirely. The motivation behind the amendment is right, but we need to act in a way that is equitable and proportionate. It is an intelligent and ingenious amendment that tries to avoid the situation where only UK fishermen are affected by the removal of the sea fisheries defence and our European neighbours do not have to comply. The amendment finesses that, but it would mean that our fleet out to a certain range would be disadvantaged, compared with those who fish slightly beyond it. That seems inequitable.
Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his kind words and I apologise for my absence this morning. I accept that the amendment is a probing amendment. Can he tell us what he proposes to do to persuade us not to press it to a Division, rather than just telling us that it will be swept up in a general reform of the common fisheries policy?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I see the strength of feeling in the Committee and the recognition that this issue will need to be resolved, but it needs to be resolved in a clear and equitable way. I hope the Committee recognises that the Government share the ambition to get the necessary reform that will apply not only to our own fleet but to everybody who fishes in common seas, as well. I want to make it absolutely clear that removing the sea fisheries defence as a whole would leave us in clear breach of our EU obligations. There are no ifs or buts about that. It would be illegal for the UK Government to legislate in that way; it would be wide open to infraction proceedings.
However, I listened carefully to the debate this morning and to the interventions. Powerful points have been made and I can see that concern is deeply felt right across the Committee. On reflection, therefore, I am prepared to consider what more we can do to address the position, which I myself find less than ideal. I should like to find a way to get rid of the sea fisheries defence in an equitable way that is consistent with EU obligations as soon as possible. I cannot make any promises at the moment, because I need to talk to colleagues in Whitehall and, importantly, in the devolved Administrations. I hope to be able to return on Report with a helpful way forward.
Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): I listened carefully to the Minister, and he seems to accept that the Bill does not address the issue correctly, that the blanket defence is too widely drawn and that something needs to be done about it. He argues that we cannot get rid of a whole part of the clause, because he would face infraction proceedings from the Commission. I understand that argument. He also argues that we have to be equitable. The amendment’s phrasing recognises that there is already a difference beyond the six-mile limit, as well as beyond the 12-mile limit. In other words, as the hon. Member for St. Ives has identified, no EU-flagged vessel should fish within the six-mile limit, but they do. There is inequity, because we have different rules in relation to the six-mile and 12-mile limits, so that is an issue.
Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend’s comments are valid, because people want some certainty that the issue can be addressed through byelaws or through wider reform of the CFP. We have made clear our views on the way in which the CFP should be reformed, and I have made it clear today that the issue under discussion must form part of that. On the time scale for CFP reform, which we have already begun—I led the way in the May Council with radical suggestions for reform—we hope that it will be completed in the period up to 2011. Reform would therefore happen before the period in which we have a duty to introduce the ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones.
If, after further discussion with Committee members and colleagues in the devolved Administrations and Whitehall, it is possible to return at a later stage with something we can agree on that would insert in the Bill a power for the Minister to remove the sea fisheries defence in a way that allows us to avoid infraction—in other words, in a way parallel to what we are doing with CFP reform—that might deliver on the issue before the whole network of marine conservation zones is up and running. In the broad scheme of things, that could be a relatively short-term process, bearing it in mind that the issue has been around for some time.
That is my line of thinking, and I think we will be able to return with something constructive. I am happy to discuss with Committee members what that might be and what would be workable. On that basis, I ask my hon. Friend to consider withdrawing the amendment so that we can address the issue further over the coming weeks.
Martin Salter: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. May I seek your guidance? Even though I was not here to move the amendment, it stands in my name and it is for me to ask for the Committee’s permission.
The Chairman: Actually, it is down to the hon. Gentleman who moved the motion to seek permission if he wishes to do so.
Martin Salter: In that case, may I intervene on the Minister?
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot make an intervention because the Minister has sat down. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to speak, I will call him.
1.15 pm
Martin Salter: I shall make a speech in that case—a very short speech; almost an intervention. I will be comforted by the Minister’s reassurance, if he gives it to the Committee loudly and clearly, about something being brought back on Report.
Huw Irranca-Davies indicated assent.
Martin Salter: I am pleased by the Minister’s response.
I have just one more point. The Government’s advisor on the marine environment out to the 12-mile nautical limit is Natural England, which has said quite clearly that it wants improvements—strengthening, as it describes it—to be made to the Bill. It would like to see the
“inclusion of damage caused by disturbance to the offence of damaging a marine conservation zone. We would also like to see removal of the blanket defence of sea fishing.”
The consensus view of the Committee is clearly in line with the Government’s marine and conservation advisors. In that regard, we are probably all in the right place.
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