Session 2010-11
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General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Fishing Boats (Electronic Transmission Of Fishing Activities Data) (England) Scheme 2010

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr Charles Walker 

Benyon, Richard (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)  

Bottomley, Peter (Worthing West) (Con) 

Burley, Mr Aidan (Cannock Chase) (Con) 

Cairns, Alun (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con) 

Carmichael, Neil (Stroud) (Con) 

Carswell, Mr Douglas (Clacton) (Con) 

Dugher, Michael (Barnsley East) (Lab) 

George, Andrew (St Ives) (LD) 

Harris, Mr Tom (Glasgow South) (Lab) 

Irranca-Davies, Huw (Ogmore) (Lab) 

Kwarteng, Kwasi (Spelthorne) (Con) 

MacShane, Mr Denis (Rotherham) (Lab) 

Mactaggart, Fiona (Slough) (Lab) 

Newmark, Mr Brooks (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)  

Paisley, Ian (North Antrim) (DUP) 

Russell, Bob (Colchester) (LD) 

Wicks, Malcolm (Croydon North) (Lab) 

Wright, David (Telford) (Lab) 

Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):

Simmonds, Mark (Boston and Skegness) (Con) 

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First Delegated Legislation Committee 

Monday 19 July 2010  

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair] 

Fishing Boats (Electronic Transmission of Fishing Activities Data) (England) Scheme 2010 

4.30 pm 

The Chair:  Gentlemen and ladies—no, there are no ladies on the Committee—[ Interruption. ] I do apologise. 

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab):  I am not sure whether I could claim to be a lady. 

The Chair:  You can see that I am new to the job. Gentlemen and lady, please feel free to remove your jackets. 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon):  I beg to move, 

That the Committee has considered the Fishing Boats (Electronic Transmission of Fishing Activities Data) (England) Scheme 2010 (S.I. 2010, No. 1600). 

It is a great pleasure, particularly as one of the 2005 parliamentary intake, to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Walker, and to be under your watchful eye. 

Fiona Mactaggart:  Not that watchful. 

Richard Benyon:  Not that watchful, I agree. I will have to be more careful about what I say. 

I am pleased to present the statutory instrument to the Committee. Logbooks and landing declaration information form an essential element of the means by which we monitor fishing activity data. Under Community law, fishing vessels of more than 10 metres in overall length are required to keep a logbook to record estimates of catch on board vessels. They are also required to submit landing declarations containing accurate figures on the quantities of fish landed. 

Current paper-based logbooks and landing declarations are both cumbersome and time-consuming for fishermen to complete. The input of the data from those paper records on to computerised databases also creates an increased work load for fisheries administrations. In November 2006, European Fisheries Ministers agreed that vessels of more than 15 metres in overall length should in future submit their logbook and landing declarations electronically. 

The new technology will significantly improve the monitoring in real time of fishing activity. Logbook information will be transmitted back to shore on a daily basis, whereas at present there is a need to wait for the vessel to complete its trip. The process will also greatly increase the likelihood of detecting attempts to misrecord catches, so it will contribute positively towards improving compliance. The benefits of the new technology are plain for all to see. 

At the end of the day, electronic logbooks are essentially a control tool. When similar control tools, such as vessel monitoring systems, have been introduced in the

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past, they have been Government-funded. I am therefore pleased to be able to offer financial assistance to fishermen for the purchase of the necessary software. Similar assistance is being provided by other fisheries administrations in the United Kingdom and in other member states. We have aimed to ensure that we get the best value for money by adopting a type approval process under which any software supplier can submit their product for approval, thereby offering fishermen a choice of software to meet their own needs and introducing competition among suppliers. Grant aid will be made available only for approved software systems. I nevertheless recognise that some fishermen may wish to purchase sophisticated software that contains functions beyond those necessary to comply with our European Union obligations, so it is reasonable to place a limit on the amount of financial assistance that we will provide. 

Malcolm Wicks (Croydon North) (Lab):  It would help to inform the Committee if the Minister could tell us whether his Department has carried out a big society impact statement on the proposal. The Prime Minister said today: 

“The Big Society is about a huge culture change…where people, in their everyday lives” 

make decisions and, rather than looking to the state, 

“feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.” 

Has there been a big society impact statement, has it escaped the net, or is the big society just a load of codswallop? 

Richard Benyon:  I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration that there is a new zeitgeist in the country with which he feels somewhat remotely connected. We are talking about a control system for fishermen that will make their lives easier because they will be able to record what they do. 

Malcolm Wicks:  It is the end of the big society. 

Richard Benyon:  I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is making a relevant contribution to the debate. I am happy to go into the details of how the statutory instrument will improve the work of fishermen. If he wants a debate about the big society, however, nobody would be keener to take part than me, because I have been waiting for precisely that sort of debate all my political life. 

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab):  The Minister has mentioned help for fishermen to buy software to allow them to record their catches accurately several times, but he has not mentioned hardware. I suspect that the hardware will cost a great deal more than the software, so will he explain whether the assistance will cover the capital costs for hardware? 

Richard Benyon:  The cost of hardware will not be included because the scheme is for boats of 15 metres and over, the vast majority of which—all of them, I imagine—will have some form of computer equipment on board. A simple laptop will be required. We are talking about the software that will go on to the system to allow fishermen to record their catch daily. If the

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hon. Gentleman wishes, I will be happy to give him more details about how that software can be purchased and implemented, but I assure him that all the over-15-metre boats that I have seen have computer hardware, some of which is very high tech. 

Mr Harris:  Can the Minister therefore unequivocally state that no fishermen will be out of pocket due to the cost of the hardware requirements for the scheme? 

Richard Benyon:  Whether a fisherman purchases the most expensive hardware is entirely in his gift, so I cannot guarantee that. However, if he has a laptop or computer equipment on board, the scheme should not require him to invest in anything other than the software, which we believe will last for at least 10 years and will dramatically improve his ability to manage his business and run a fishing trip. At the moment, he has to fill in a logbook by hand, which is a cumbersome process, and then hand it in at the end of a trip, which is when he wants to get on with ensuring that he gets the best market for his fish. Most fishermen will find this system an improvement. 

Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con):  Would it help if the hon. Member for Glasgow South referred to the details of policy option 1 in the explanatory memorandum? It states that the cost of the e-logbook software is just over £500,000, while the cost to a vessel of purchasing and replacing laptops every two years is set out as about £250 a year. The net gain for fishermen is obvious. 

Richard Benyon:  I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his astute reading of the explanatory memorandum. 

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD):  My hon. Friend said a moment ago that the Government do not intend to fund very sophisticated additional gizmos on top of the basic software that I understand that they will support to a maximum amount of about £2,000 per vessel. In view of that, will the Minister be clear about how the mechanism relates to satellite transponding, which provides the Marine Management Organisation with the means by which it can identify where vessels are at any one time? 

Richard Benyon:  As I was about to say before the flurry of interventions arrived, I intend to limit the funding that will be available to English fishing vessels to £2,000 per vessel, which is obviously of particular interest to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. 

The software will transmit the logbook electronically on a 24-hour basis to a hub at which the information will be held. It can be accessed by the MMO’s technical and enforcement teams, and by other member states on a pull basis if the vessel is fishing in their waters. The one exception to that is Norway, to which the information will be pushed as opposed to pulled. It will be provided with that information because it is a coastal state. 

Information on how those data are managed is being provided to fishermen. It is completely different from the vessel monitoring system, which I believe was the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. The vessel monitoring system identifies a vessel’s location on an

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almost minute-by-minute basis, but this system will record and transmit the logbook, which is currently filled in manually. I have one in front of me, and I know that filling them in is a frustrating process for skippers. The scheme will mean that they can get on with doing what they want to do at the end of their trip: marketing their fish properly. They will not have to submit anything and there will be one less chain of officials recording and passing on information, which is an advantage. 

The overall cost of the funding scheme is not expected to exceed £560,000 for the 280 or so English vessels over 15 metres. Moneys for the scheme will be found from existing budgets, with some £530,000 recoverable from Community funds under the EU aid regime, which provides co-financing for member states’ expenditure on statutory control measures. 

David Wright (Telford) (Lab):  I notice from the documentation that there is to be a post-implementation review plan. Will the Minister tell us how much that will cost? 

Richard Benyon:  I will seek inspiration as to what that cost might be and I will inform the hon. Gentleman if it comes to me before the end of the sitting. However, I can assure him that the implementation of the software requires relatively little time—approximately an hour to train the skipper to use it, and three hours to get the system uploaded. It is expected that the period between the purchase of the software and it being fully operational will be no more than 30 days. Once it is up and running, it should be operational for around 10 years. I hope that that addresses the hon. Gentleman’s point. 

David Wright:  What I am driving at is the Department’s involvement. The documentation indicates that the Department will be involved in a review after three years, so how much will that cost? 

Richard Benyon:  I do not believe we have made an assessment of how the process can be reviewed at this stage, but we will learn from what happens so that the system can be rolled out to the next tranche of vessels—those over 12 metres. If that is successful and popular, we may go further, but that is our present intention. I cannot imagine that the assessment will involve great cost because we work regularly with all skippers, and the MMO will make its assessment of how successful this is. 

Members of the Committee might wonder why it has taken so long to bring the funding scheme into place, given that the original date at which over-24-metre vessels were supposed to have electronic logbooks was 1 January 2010. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that, as with many other IT projects, adopting the new technology turned out to be far more complicated than anyone envisaged. As a result, all member states have been working very hard to get their systems up and running. We now have two approved software systems, with more expected to follow shortly. It is therefore now important that the funding scheme— 

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con):  Is not the truth that no matter what is said or resolved in this room, no one in the House really decides the policy; we

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merely rubber-stamp it? A clutch of EU directives—documents Nos. 1966/2006 and 1077/2008—are behind this. Until we withdraw from the EU and have a British fishing policy that is in the interests of British fishermen, no one elected to the House of Commons will decide such matters. We merely read the script handed to us by civil servants. 

Richard Benyon:  I am desperately grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful and enjoyable intervention and I am glad that I managed to goad him this afternoon. The scheme is wanted by fishermen—whether we are in the EU or not, and regardless of the common fisheries policy. People sometimes have the fanciful belief that if we were outside the common fisheries policy or the EU, there would be a wonderful free-for-all for fishermen, fish would be plentiful and we could just sit back and allow fishermen to fish—[ Interruption. ] That is not the case. I urge my hon. Friend to go to Norway and eat lots of their fish—and our fish in the process—because that would help him to understand that the way in which some countries outside the EU manage their fisheries is even more dirigiste. We now have the technical means to catch many more fish than can be replenished through breeding. We could have a long debate about whether the common fisheries policy or being in the EU causes the problem, but I am concerned about fishermen and making their businesses easier to manage. My view of the common fisheries policy is not quite equivalent to my hon. Friend’s contempt for it, but I do have contempt for a system that has caused great damage, which is why we want reform. 

My primary purpose is to try to help our fishermen stay in business, and one of the ways to do so is by making their lives easier through the regulatory process. That is what the statutory instrument is about. It is popular, and I urge my hon. Friend and others to support us. With that, I will conclude my speech, but if hon. Members have any further points, I will be happy to answer them. 

4.45 pm 

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, albeit on a different side of the Committee Room. I also welcome the Minister to his position. This is the first time that I have served opposite him on such a Committee. 

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that we welcome and—short of any surprises—will support the statutory instrument before us, as it is a piece of work that was carried over from the previous Session. However, we have some questions, which I am sure he will want to help the Committee by answering. Before that, it is worth reflecting on the wise words of the environmentalist Alan M. Eddison, who famously rhymed: 

“Modern technology owes ecology an apology”, 

advancing the case that technological progress is too often made at the cost of the environment. Hopefully, the innovation before us, alongside others that will more accurately monitor the movements and activities of our fishing fleets—themselves part of the delicate ecology of the seas—will assist in maintaining the ecological balance that we are seeking to achieve. 

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Peter Bottomley:  On a point of order, Mr Walker. The hon. Gentleman is known to be an expert in the field. He says that he will put questions to the Minister. Will it be in order for him to give his draft answers at the same time as he asks his questions, so that the Minister can reflect on both of them? 

The Chair:  That is a curve ball of a point of order, to which I do not really have an answer. I shall take advice from the Clerk, who tells me that that is not a question for the Chair. 

Huw Irranca-Davies:  I am sure that my colleagues and I would be happy to swap places and move to the Government Benches so that we could carry out that function. 

Due to the necessity to introduce the measure to comply with the time scales of the European regulations and, as the Minister said, because the situation was more complex than was originally envisioned, it appears that, to date, the supplier base for the technology has not been able to develop as we would have liked it to—a problem that we were aware of. Will the Minister clarify how many suppliers of approved software there are? Do we still have just one, two or three? May we have the details of the suppliers? I am quite happy for the Minister to write to the Committee. 

If the number of suppliers is still highly limited—that was the case when I left my previous post in the Department—what steps are being taken to work with skippers and the supply chain to increase the number of suppliers, and also maintenance operators? I assume that while one aspect is providing the software at the cheapest available price, another aspect is whether people will be tied into those few suppliers for ever or whether they can access other suppliers to bring down the cost of maintenance. What measures will the Minister take to ensure that the lack of competition for suppliers does not lead to skippers facing higher-than-expected prices, and potentially wasting Government grants? 

Have the full details of the suppliers been distributed to producer organisations, the MMO regional offices, skippers and other representative bodies? Additionally, how is the information being communicated to the fleet, recognising, as I am sure the Minister does, that word of mouth and informal communications on the dockside are often more important than e-mails, posters and messages? Although I know that the situation will be kept under review, is the Minister willing, particularly because of the narrowness of the supply chain, to report back to the House within 12 months—not three years—on the progress and roll-out of the technology, and the development of a wider supply chain? 

I have a question regarding the definition, which is simply a request for clarity—I am pretty clear exactly what the definition was when I left office. Will the Minister give us a definition of “English fishing boats” and outline what their eligibility for grants is? Will he also tell us what discussions he or his officials have had with colleagues in the devolved Administrations, and what corresponding arrangements are being put in place within those Administrations? 

In respect of the crucial issue of the sustainable exploitation of fish stocks, to which paragraph 7.2 of the explanatory memorandum refers, will the Minister expand on the way in which the technology will 

“contribute positively to the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fish stocks”? 

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I agree strongly that that is a worthy aim, but can he explain how it will be achieved? Will he also explain how it ties in with the overall vision of using technology to assist sustainability, which the previous Government were taking forward? Will the Minister give us an overview—perhaps he could write to the Committee about this—of the other initiatives related to electronic media, including the use of on-board catch monitoring, which we had previously instigated? It would be great to get an update on that and hear how the scheme ties in with overall technological innovation. 

I applaud the fact that the Government have rightly concluded, as we did, that because the scheme is mandatory for skippers—there is no opt-out—the 

“Government should contribute to the purchase or supply…on English fishing boats,” 

as paragraph 7.4 of the explanatory memorandum sets out. Will the Minister tell us what the Government’s approach in principle will be to cost-sharing with the industry in future? Would they ever expect the industry to share the costs of technical innovation? 

As paragraph 10.2 of the explanatory memorandum says, the MMO will administer the scheme on behalf of the Government “within its existing resources.” Some further detail on cost is included in the impact assessment, but will the Minister give us an update on the funding for the MMO, which is crucial to the scheme and to the overall future of the fishing industry, marine activities and planning? I hope that he can assure us that we will not be bracing ourselves for an announcement in the autumn comprehensive spending review, because the MMO, as we have discussed in various Committees, is at a critical juncture in its development. A signal to the industry—to skippers and others—that the MMO’s future is secure and that it will not have to cut its cloth when it gets to the CSR would be very reassuring. I am looking for an assurance that the MMO’s budget will be protected. 

When a grant is awarded, is there a time limit on offences committed under section 17 of the Fisheries Act 1981, to which article 10 refers, or could they go back to the commencement of that Act? One of the key assumptions, as set out on page 2 of the impact assessment, is that 

“No new vessels will enter the fleet over the time horizon” 

of the measure. Will the Minister confirm that the coalition Government’s general working assumption is that no new vessels will enter the fleet, or do they foresee a time when the fleet will take on additional capacity? Page 2 of the impact assessment also notes that the funding scheme risks giving a competitive advantage to over-15-metre vessels, but suggests rather cryptically that 

“This may be addressed at a later date.” 

The smaller vessels around England will want to know that the risk of disadvantage is minimal, so will the Minister expand on his thinking on that point? Will he also say what further plans he has to address the risk “at a later date”? 

As has been referred to, we note that in the cost-benefit analysis on page 2, the cost falling on skippers—up to £360,000 every two years—compares with an annual admin burden saving of £1.22 million. That is excellent from the point of view of regulatory burden. Will an ongoing assessment of those costs and where the burden

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falls form part of the review? On what basis has the period for the review been set? Drawing the Minister back to the question asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, will he also write to the Committee on the costs of the review and monitoring? 

I have two final questions. One additional concern, which the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has raised, is the potential exposure of vessels over 24 metres in length when they enter Norwegian waters; indeed, it has been observed that other European states may be in a similar or even worse position. How does the Minister react to that concern? Has he met the NFFO to discuss it, and what is his response? How can he reassure the NFFO that fishermen will not be unduly disadvantaged? Finally, has he received any representations recently from industry bodies or individuals on the proposals? If so, what concerns were raised and how will he address them? I look forward to his response to those detailed points, as this is an SI that we shall all be able support if his answers are satisfactory. 

4.55 pm 

Andrew George:  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Ogmore has said. His constructive approach and reasonable questioning on this important issue is entirely appropriate. This is a measure that I strongly support. I certainly welcome the introduction of greater technical means by which catch and vessel movements can be monitored. 

I have a few questions that supplement those raised by the hon. Gentleman. My first question follows on from my intervention, and relates to paragraph 7.1 of the explanatory memorandum and the Minister’s explanation about the need to save time and effort on the part of fisherman and administrative time on the part of the MMO. There is a presupposition that the information recorded in the electronic logbook will be accurate and that the landings will match the references given on them. However, with the best will in the world, the Minister knows that records are often not what they appear to be on pieces of paper, let alone on electronic records, in terms of either the weight of fish caught or the species. Sadly, there are occasions when there is some misrecording. Although I share the Minister’s sense that the new regime will reduce the administrative time, effort and resources going into the management of this important function and will allow fishermen to get on with the process of marketing their fish, is he aware that many of the landings will still need to be inspected and matched against the electronic logbook records? 

Article 10(1), which the hon. Member for Ogmore highlighted, states: 

“The Secretary of State may revoke the approval of an application,” 

in circumstances where 

“the applicant has committed or may have committed an offence under section 17 of the Fisheries Act 1981.” 

How far back is the Minister prepared to go? Would any offence at any time, particularly in more recent years, by the vessel’s current or previous master make it ineligible for such grant aid? 

Article 9(2) states that the Secretary of State can reject an application 

“if of the opinion that the port of administration of the fishing boat has been changed to England for the primary purpose” 

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of netting the £2,000 grant, which seems rather unlikely, given the cost of relocating a vessel—that is, the investment required to secure and then register a boat in an English port. I just wondered whether that is indeed the intention of the sub-paragraph; that is, that the Secretary of State must interpret the primary purpose of the application as a ruse to get what, for a vessel of more than 15 metres, is a relatively small amount of money—£2,000—which is certainly far less than the value of what one would expect to catch in one day, let alone over all the times such vessels set out to sea. 

Article 7(2) deals with where the invitation will be published. The hon. Member for Ogmore implied this, but I wanted to make certain that it will be disseminated through the producer organisations. Clearly, Fishing News is well read within the community of 280 boats that are eligible, so those concerned will receive the information. 

I want to cover two broader points, one of which was raised by the hon. Gentleman. Where does the scheme sit in the Government’s general policy trend towards greater use of electronic and technical measures? I am sure that the Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore and I would agree that that is the future direction of fishing policy—the increasing use of vessel movement recognition facilities and electronic logbook mechanisms, such as those that we have described today, as a means of tracking and providing more sophisticated mapping of what is happening at sea, allowing more fishing activity, but also preventing vessels from going to where stocks are under greatest pressure. 

Finally, to what extent will the electronic recording measure contribute to achieving what the Minister and I desire, which is to ensure that we can negotiate a more satisfactory settlement with our European counterparts and, perhaps, an extension of the 6-mile limit to a 12-mile limit for UK-registered vessels? Will the scheme make any contribution to that, given that it applies only to over-15-metre vessels? Is it likely that electronic logbooks will be applied increasingly down through the fleet, to smaller vessels? Will that assist in circumstances where we have the management regime necessary to expand the UK fisheries limit, from 6 to 12 miles, as I think we want to, under the future direction of the common fisheries policy beyond 2012? 

5.4 pm 

Mr Harris:  I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to serve under your benign and wise chairmanship. 

Without wishing to pre-empt either my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, the shadow spokesman, or my Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, given his relaxed and amiable attitude to other colleagues’ attendance, it looks to me as if we are not really heading towards a vote on the scheme. That is just as well; I would not want the matter to go to a vote, but I wanted to raise several issues with the Minister. I was grateful that he gave way to me during his initial comments, but there are other issues that I want to raise and I felt that it would be more courteous to him simply to leave it until now to do so. This debate has brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “surfing the net”. 

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The Minister can correct me if I am wrong on this, but the fundamental point of the change seems—in his words—to be to streamline the logging process. Given the experience that all elected Members have had with a certain organisation, it concerns me when somebody says that the measure will make things easier, more transparent, and that it will streamline the process. I hope that we will not go down the road of skippers having to log everything online, using a little dongle with which the Minister’s Department will issue everyone. 

A skipper might, for example, spend most of his trip trying to log on, phoning the helpdesk to find out why the log-in details do not work and finally get everything sent off after a 15-hour shift, during which time he will have spent far too much time on the computer and not enough time trying to catch fish. After he gets into port, he then has to get his logbook, which he has to write physically anyway, and take photographs of all the fish he has caught. He then has to put it into a sealed envelope and post it, so that what has been said online and what has been said physically can be measured up. I am assuming that that is not what the Minister has in mind—we can all hope as much. 

The Minister did say that handwriting is cumbersome. Of course, he is right on that. On a more serious point, it must be difficult in current circumstances for skippers to keep that log and keep command of a vessel. However, I have never tried to get a signal on my phone in the middle of the North sea or the English channel. Have the Minister or his officials given any thought to how viable it is for someone to get a general packet radio service signal on a laptop in the middle of the ocean when they are trying to earn a living at the same time? It seems that we are creating some difficulties for these men and women in difficult circumstances. 

I mentioned the hardware costs, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Worthing West for drawing my attention to the piece of paper that was right in front of me. If I had remembered to bring my reading glasses, I would, of course, have read it. He drew my attention to page 7 of the document, which, under the headline “Costs to industry” states that 

“the conservative assumption is made that new laptops will have to be purchased by all vessels”. 

It goes on to state that that will be at a total cost of £140,000. According to the explanatory note, that is a net cost that all skippers will have to meet regardless of what hardware they already have. 

The sum of £500 for a laptop is an interesting figure, because it suggests that fishermen will not be buying Apple Macintosh computers, which in my humble opinion are superior. That is not just a plug for Steve Jobs and the Apple corporation; there is a serious point here. Will the software that the Minister puts so much store by be compatible with Macintosh computers as well as IMB-based computers? I suspect the answer is no. As is often the case with software developers, they fail to think ahead across platforms. If the answer is no, fishermen will be restricted to using IBM-based computer operating systems. It is well known that PC laptops are less durable than Apple Mac computers. The Minister talked about the system being in place for 10 years without further need for capital investment by the skippers, but if fishermen are going to spend £500 on a Windows-based system, it will be considerably less than 10 years before

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they have to put their hands in their pockets for a new computer. Many skippers will just not want to bear that cost. 

The Minister mentioned that e-logbooks will ensure that catches are not misrecorded. Will he explain exactly why that is the case? Why is it more likely that catches will be recorded more accurately using e-logbooks than with the current written system? Does he have evidence that fishermen are already misrecording catches using physical logbooks? If so, what has his Department done about it? What specifically makes him believe that e-recording of catches will be more accurate? 

The Minister said that skipper training on the new software will take about an hour, which answered another of my questions: will the skipper be responsible for e-recording while he is in charge of the boat? Presumably so, because he will be the one doing the training. Given the physical practicalities of operating a laptop in the middle of the sea, perhaps in choppy waters or during a busy catching schedule, it does not seem to be the best use of a captain’s time for him to be sitting at a computer. His priority should be looking after his crew and vessel. Does the Department anticipate that the skipper will delegate the responsibility for training to another crew member? Will he consequently have to hire an extra crew member specifically to provide a range of computer and software expertise with which crews have not had to deal before now? 

Lastly, the hon. Member for Clacton raised a concern, presumably felt by a great number of Conservative MPs, about EU legislation. The Minister said that this is what fishermen want. How does he know that? What evidence does the Department have? Has research been done, have surveys been made or is there anecdotal evidence? Has whatever corporate body represents the industry made representations to the Government on the issue? I do not dispute that it is what fishermen want, but if he is going to say that to one of his colleagues, we need to know exactly what the basis is for his contention that the industry wants the scheme rather than a system that has presumably served it well and accurately for many generations. 

5.12 pm 

Peter Bottomley:  Following those helpful remarks, will the Minister either tell us this afternoon or write to us if necessary on this question? This country is responsible for meeting our EU obligations. The scheme applies to England. I would be grateful to know at some stage whether Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are ahead of us, are in parallel with us or will follow us with similar ways of meeting those obligations. 

The explanatory memorandum on the scheme, as distinct from the explanatory notes, is helpful and well written. I suspect that there may be a typo or an omission on the last page, which is annexe 1 on the post-implementation review. The third section, “Review approach and rationale”, says that 

“proportionate to the cost of implementation (less than £20 present value over 10 years).” 

Is a K or some other figure missing? Only £20 over 10 years sounds like rather a high discount rate if any serious work is needed. 

On the proposals themselves, it has been illustrated that the obligation for a vessel to report its location is

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known. The substitution of electronic for paper-based recording is clearly welcome and will reduce costs overall. I will not say what I might have said—if it is so beneficial to the fishing boat operators, why is public subsidy needed?—as that would seem right-wing, and I am trying not to have that reputation. 

It seems to me that the scheme is generally to be welcomed. I believe that one answer to the Mac question is that most Apple computers that I know of can run Windows; the PC operating system can be used by an Apple. However, if I am wrong, the hon. Member for Glasgow South will help me. 

Mr Harris:  Most Apple Macs can run the Windows operating system, provided that the owner wishes to spend a significant amount on the software necessary to allow the two operating systems to run on the same computer. 

Peter Bottomley:  I am grateful. My last point is easily dealt with and involves vessels of 15 metres. Some 280 such vessels are currently known to the Department, so it is not really a question of deciding how to advertise. A letter would probably suffice, as those vessels presumably send their paper records to the MMO. The issue will become more interesting when we come to the vessels of 12 m or more, and possibly even to those of 10 m or more. 

5.14 pm 

Richard Benyon:  I shall answer as many of the questions as I can. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore—he is an hon. Friend—is much more adept than me, but I am learning fast. We were sat on opposite sides of the Committee Room when we considered previous statutory instruments. 

I am sad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton has been called away elsewhere, because I was keen to point out that, even if we were not in the common fisheries policy and the EU, we would still require our fishermen to have electronic logbooks, which is what they would want. 

Mr Harris:  I do not want to dominate proceedings, but why would fishermen need electronic logbooks without the compulsion of EU legislation? 

Richard Benyon:  Very simply, we would still require them to record their catch and would still have arrangements with other countries. The situation is highly hypothetical and is delaying the Committee; if the hon. Gentleman wants me to describe such a world, I am happy to talk to him later. 

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):  Will the Minister explain to two thirds of the Opposition Members present how the legislation applies to Scotland and Wales? 

Richard Benyon:  I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will come on to the devolved Governments, which were the subject of some questions. 

First, I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore for his kind words. The simple answer to his question is that two software companies have been identified and agreed

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to, and three more are in the process of being approved by the MMO. That offers a fair degree of competition. I am happy to report back within 12 months of the scheme being up and running. That is an important point. 

Coming on to the hon. Gentleman’s question about English and Scottish boats, there is a difference. Eligible English vessels must fish out of English ports, irrespective of where they are registered. Northern Ireland and Wales have a similar approach, but Scotland will fund vessels registered in Scotland and operating out of Scottish ports—there is a slight difference, but that is the decision of the Scottish Government. 

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether more accuracy will be provided. I think it will, which also answers the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow South. The principal reason that more accuracy will be provided is that the system will be simpler to use. Therefore, there will be less chance of making a mistake. One fewer process will be required in providing the information. As things stand, a skipper has to go ashore at the end of his trip and hand in a hand-written logbook sheet, which is then transcribed on to a computer. That process will be removed, and the information will go, almost in real time, to the computer hub that the MMO has up and running. 

The hon. Member for Ogmore asked about how the proposals will work—their direction of travel—in providing better fisheries management, which I think they will do. With vessel monitoring systems and e-logbooks, we are starting to see savings within our approach. Real-time information about where vessels are, and now electronic logbooks on what they are catching, assist in the control and management process. 

That also slightly answers the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. We can see what a boat is logging and sending in as a return, and we can check that information against the sales register. Therefore, we can get an accurate view of the comparison between what they are reporting as a catch and what they are selling ashore. We can also task fisheries protection vessels and aircraft—whatever system is decided on—to keep an eye on those activities. 

There is another aspect that might appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton—he has had to leave because his wife has had an accident, so I am sorry if I was slightly flippant with him—and those who share his views about the European Union. One of the great criticisms of the EU by fishermen, as by farmers, is that they feel that there is not a level playing field. This scheme represents a level playing field. We can see precisely what fishermen from other countries are doing in our waters and, yes, other countries can see what our fishermen are doing in theirs. One criticism that people have made is that we have not been able to police the activities of fishermen from other countries properly, but now we can. 

Peter Bottomley:  This intervention may be slightly outside the scope of the measure, so I will make it very brief. If the Minister can identify which beam trawlers are wrecking the sea bed just off the beach at Worthing, I would be very grateful to know that information. 

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Richard Benyon:  I will bear my hon. Friend’s concern in mind; I am sure that that issue causes great anxiety for his constituency. 

Andrew George:  On the point about UK enforcement authorities being able to inspect what other EU vessels are doing within UK waters, does the Minister mean by that “within UK territorial waters”—within the median line out to 200 miles—or does he mean within the 12 miles, or, for those who have historical entitlement, within the 6 miles? 

Richard Benyon:  Both, really. UK enforcement authorities can detect vessels within our territorial waters. We will be able to pull information from what the vessels are logging about what catches they are making on a 24-hour basis. If they are not providing that information, or if the information that they are providing is completely out of synch with that being provided by other boats in the area, for example, action can be taken to investigate that. I can confirm that the distance involved is out to 200 miles. 

Andrew George:  Let me probe the point a little further to establish that the information that we are obtaining from this particular exercise is clearly catch data and the clear location of that catch within UK territorial waters, and that it is not simply the case that, at any particular point, a record is given. 

Richard Benyon:  Currently, skippers have to record where they are making catches. The information will be more accurate because it will be provided on a 24-hour basis. As things stand, vessels may be out for several days, come back at the end of the trip and then submit a log, which gives pretty loose information as to where they were within that time. Now that information can be more accurately ascertained, which I think is an advantage. 

The hon. Member for Ogmore asked where the measure sits in relation to vessels coming into the fleet and whether we will create more capacity in the near future, from which new skippers will have to implement measures of this type. Well, it would be a nice world in which we felt that there could be more capacity in the fleet. It is certainly our intention to create a regime for fisheries management under which fish stocks return and greater viability is achieved for the industry, but I do not see that happening in the short term. I am sure he agrees with me on that. 

Skippers who were investing in a new vessel that was more than 15 metres in length would probably be talking about a seven-figure sum, or not far off, and acquisition of the computer software necessary for the scheme would form a pretty small percentage of such a purchase. That is the situation. If I find that things are different and they are still able to access the scheme, I will certainly let the hon. Gentleman know. 

I have met the NFFO. I did not specifically discuss this scheme, but officials have done so. I cannot say that there is an enthusiasm across the industry. It has had such a tough time in recent years that “enthusiasm” is not a word that I would apply to it, but I think that the industry sees the merit of the scheme and that it is looking forward to its implementation. 

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Representations from the industry have been inputted to the types of scheme that were offered and the choice from the variety of software, which I have already mentioned to the hon. Gentleman, as well as to the training required and the implementation of the scheme. I am reasonably secure on that issue. 

There is no reason why new vessels cannot enter the fleet, but it is reasonable to expect them to invest in doing so. 

We have had assurances from the Norwegian authorities that they will allow UK vessels to continue fishing in Norwegian waters without e-logbooks, although all UK vessels fishing in Norwegian waters have now been fitted with them. 

On the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for St Ives, he is right to say that the information is only as accurate as the information that is entered. As I have said in reply to other hon. Members, however, I believe that this system of reporting will be more accurate. It will make comparisons with sales notes, and checks on what is caught will be much faster on landing. 

The hon. Gentleman asked how far back we will go in the legislation. There is no intention to catch anyone out. There are a lot of over-15-metre vessels in his constituency, and if people make a genuine attempt to comply and have purchased the equipment already, the retrospective element in the statutory instrument will allow them to access the scheme and get the £2,000. 

The information is advertised on the MMO website. The two providers are up and running and available. Others will be able to access the information. Skippers can download the form and apply. Once the system is logged and up and running, the money is transferred direct to the software provider. 

I think the hon. Gentleman asked how we can achieve a more satisfactory settlement. I think he was referring to— 

Andrew George:  I am happy to intervene to help the Minister. My point was simply about a broader issue. We can now examine the information captured by foreign vessels operating in UK waters, but to what extent will that aid the UK Government’s case for extending the effective UK limit out to the 12-mile limit? 

Richard Benyon:  I share the hon. Gentleman’s view. As part of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, we discussed the need to ensure the effective management of our seas, particularly in light of the fact that we are rolling out the marine conservation zones. I strongly believe that we will be able to achieve adequate protection of inshore waters only if we achieve greater control of them through CFP reform, and I am happy to work with him and Members on both sides of the House to achieve that. 

Huw Irranca-Davies:  I applaud the Minister for trying to deal in detail with a lot of questions. However, in case he does not return to the issue of the devolved Administrations, will he clarify what equivalent schemes they are rolling out? We are considering what I suspect will be the minimal risk of a Welsh or Scottish vessel transferring to us to achieve a small advantage, so it would be helpful to know what funding packages the devolved Administrations are putting in place and whether they use the same time scale. 

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Richard Benyon:  Certainly. I am sorry if I was not clear earlier. The devolved Governments are making the same amount available at the same time in the same way. The only difference is that the Scottish Government are providing the money just for Scottish vessels based in Scotland. An English skipper based in Scotland will not get the money; a Welsh skipper based in England will. That is the difference across the devolved Administrations. In the main, member states are providing a similar figure and similar support for their fishermen. 

Bob Russell:  Is the Minister aware of how many English skippers north of the border might be discriminated against in the way he has just described? 

Richard Benyon:  I am not aware of that, but if the hon. Gentleman allows me, I shall find out and let him know. 

The hon. Member for Glasgow South asked a number of questions. His comparison between the MMO and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was a terrible slur on the new MMO, and I am happy to assure him that the MMO is an efficient and well set up organisation. 

I am conscious of the fact that I did not reply to the point made by the hon. Member for Ogmore about the MMO. I launched the organisation a month ago. It was set up under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, and it incorporates what was the Marine and Fisheries Agency. It is a good organisation, well led and well motivated. I want to ensure that it is a success, and I want people from other countries to come and see how an arm’s length body should be run and how fisheries should be managed. 

However, I cannot guarantee that the organisation will not fall victim in part to the spending review. Every area of Government and every area of our Department is examining its expenditure. The MMO has already found some in-year savings and it is right that it has done so, but I am conscious of the fact that it is a new organisation and that it needs support to build up its important work towards licensing, which it takes responsibility for in April. 

Huw Irranca-Davies:  I thank the Minister for giving way again. I understand his difficulty in trying to square the circle with budgetary cuts, but he will have my strong support in ensuring that the MMO in particular is protected because of the immense time scales that it has already had to meet and because of what is in front of it. I am referring to marine planning, the marine conservation zones, the relationship with inshore fisheries and conservation authorities, and so on. Also, it was set up as a lean organisation. 

I agree with the Minister that the MMO is very well led and staffed; expertise has been driven into it. He would have my support if he argued to the Secretary of State and to the Treasury that it is one example of an organisation that needs protection to assure the fishing industry and the wider marine industry that they are in good hands. 

Richard Benyon:  I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts on the matter. I was aware of them and I am grateful for the support that he gives the organisation. 

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To round off the answers to the technical questions asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow South, let me say that the signal is available—it will work across the open seas. If the software does not work out there, it will not be cleared by the MMO. As I said, a signal is available. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ogmore will be aware that fishermen can send, from very remote parts of our oceans, e-mails stating their displeasure at certain policies, so they will be able to transmit this information. If for any reason they cannot, they can deliver it verbally across the frequency that they all use, or, if that does not work, they can submit it in the old form, on paper, on their return. 

The hon. Member for Glasgow South asked about Apple Macs. I am informed that it is up to software suppliers to decide whether their software can be run on Apple Mac systems. There will be periodic replacement of hardware on the bridge of any normal vessel, and that will have to be done at the expense of the skipper in the usual way. 

The hon. Gentleman asked whether filling in the information was a good use of the skipper’s time when he should be concentrating on the activities of his crew and on fishing. I say that the measure means that he will be spending less time on paperwork. He will be filling things in on a real-time basis on the bridge, which will allow him to manage his vessel better and, on his return to port, he will not be worrying about armfuls of paperwork. He will be able to concentrate on getting the fish out of the boat and on to the quay to be sold for the best price possible. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the measure is what fishermen want. I hope that I answered that question to his satisfaction earlier. 

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West asked about the explanatory memorandum. I can assure him that my officials will check to see whether there is an error in the costs and we will write to him about that. He also asked about devolved Governments. I hope that he is happy with the assurances that I have given him. I hope that I have covered— 

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Huw Irranca-Davies:  The Minister has covered virtually every question. There might be a few to deal with, but I know that he will write to us about them. However, one issue that I would like clarified for the Committee is the risk for the smaller fleet, because the scheme potentially gives larger vessels a competitive advantage. I mention that because we all know how hard-pressed the smaller fleet already is. Does he envisage a time when the scheme might be rolled out to the smaller fleet, either on an EU or a UK unilateral basis? If so, will it follow the same course—funding being given to those vessels to enable them to do it? 

Richard Benyon:  The hon. Gentleman is as aware as I am of the difficulties that face the smaller fleet. I hope that the electronic log books and the system of electronic recording will be rolled out to 12-metre vessels from 1 January 2012. A decision on the extent of funding for 12 to 15-metre vessels will be taken nearer the time, when we see how the system rolls out. After that, we need to consider what to do about other vessels. 

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are a number of under-10-metre vessels that are quite high tech in what they offer and in their fishing capacity. It may well be that a system such as this will be relevant to them, but I have not considered that as yet. None the less, we will consider it when we see the benefits of this scheme. 

With those comments, I urge hon. Members to support the measure. It will be of advantage to fleets of vessels over 15 metres, and it is something we can learn from and extend to other parts of the fleet. It will improve the way skippers manage their businesses and assist us in ensuring that we have proper controls on our fishing fleet. 

Question put and agreed to.  


That the Committee has considered the Fishing Boats (Electronic Transmission of Fishing Activities Data) (England) Scheme 2010 (S.I. 2010, No. 1600). 

5.37 pm 

Committee rose.