Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 521

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 10 July 2012

Members present:

Miss Anne McIntosh (Chair)

George Eustice

Barry Gardiner

Iain McKenzie

Neil Parish

Ms Margaret Ritchie

Dan Rogerson

Amber Rudd

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Richard Benyon MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Natural Environment and Fisheries, John Robbs, Director, Marine and Fisheries, and Andrew Clayton, Head of CFP Reform Policy, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Good morning and welcome. Thank you very much indeed, Minister, for agreeing to participate in our discussion of your response from the Government to the Committee report on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. For the record, would you just like to introduce your team?

Richard Benyon: Thank you, Chairman. It is a great pleasure to be back here. John Robbs is the Director of Marine at Defra, and Andrew Clayton is the Head of CFP Reform at Defra.

Q2 Chair: When you presented the conclusions following the last Luxembourg meeting, Minister, what you had reached seemed almost too good to be true. Would you say that what you achieved on regionalisation is everything that the Government had hoped for?

Richard Benyon: I would just temper any enthusiasm I or the Committee has or had with the clear proviso that we have a long way to go on this. What we achieved in June was the result of a lot of hard work by my officials, by UKREP officials, at ministerial level, to try to move things on to our agenda. That means moving other countries, in some cases, to take issues like regionalisation much more seriously, and I think we achieved that, but I do think we have the opportunity of now getting something clear and concrete. What was staring us in the face, at 2 o’clock in the morning, was the possibility of not having a general approach. Just in the space of an hour and a half in the small hours of the morning, we actually managed to get a workable solution. It is not as ambitious in some areas as we would like, but it will constitute a major reform, if it is taken forward.

Q3 Chair: What has changed so that suddenly these dramatic developments seemed to occur almost overnight?

Richard Benyon: The only way to answer that question, Chairman, is to take us through the key issues. On discards, there were serious attempts to-water down is too light-wreck the Commission’s proposals and ones that we were keen to support on moving to landall requirements for our fishing industry. There were figures of de minimis levels that were completely unacceptable and time scales that were completely unacceptable. We now have some dates, albeit in square brackets. You will of course know, and others who closely watch the workings of the Commission know, the difference between square and round brackets, or even no brackets at all. That was a major achievement. Again, it was not as ambitious as we thought it could be.

On regionalisation, we have to accept that there are some countries that do not hunger as we do for complete decentralisation of fisheries management, but we got a really good way forward. I start all these conversations by saying we would not start from here and we are where we are, but I think this is a major step forward. Fishermen in your constituency will be able to influence much closer to where they live the technical measures they use to catch fish, as opposed to the system that exists at the moment, where those decisions are made in Brussels.

Q4 Chair: To a certain extent, it is already happening between, say, Sweden and Denmark, where technical measures are agreed in the waters that they fish, but how easy is it going to be to sell to the Mediterranean countries?

Richard Benyon: This is the big issue. I feel schizophrenic about it because, in one sense, I want to drag every country into the 21st century, with a modern decentralised system of fisheries management, where everything is recorded, where we have a complete ecosystems approach to fisheries management, but the other side of me just wants us to get our own house in order. I want to see the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea, the Western Channel and the Eastern Channel-all those areas-managed effectively under a system that has British fishermen at the heart of decision making. That has been my absolute total priority. We have to carry everyone with us, because that is the system we are in, but the real concentration of my time and our efforts has been on trying to get some local management so that we in the United Kingdom and our stakeholders are closer to the management of our marine resources.

Q5 Chair: When you presented the package to the House, you did express caution regarding the codecision making in the European Parliament. How do you propose to progress matters with our allies in the European Parliament?

Richard Benyon: We have done a lot on this, and I am grateful to people from all parties, actually, for the work that has been done through members of your Committee and Members of the House. They have done noble work in encouraging our MEPs to share our ambitions. That work will continue. There has been close working with the Environment Committee and, of course, importantly, close working with members of the Fisheries Committee and other wider involvement in the European Parliament. Over a year ago, I wrote an article for the MEPs’ magazine. We have engaged through UKREP; we have engaged through links that we have between this Parliament and that. We will continue to work extremely closely with them.

It is in their hands now. I regret that it is going to take until November at least before we have the European Parliament’s view on the reforms, and then we will engage again through the Council to make sure that we are carrying this forward. There is a tight time schedule, because we will be making decisions roughly this time next year, God willing, with a view to those decisions being in place for January 2014, which is when the first date for part of our discards policy kicks in, on the pelagic stock. It is tight, but it is possible.

Q6 Chair: Is there anything else you would like to see in the package that is not there?

Richard Benyon: I remain very determined to continue to push for greater local management. I recognise now, having spent two years in hard negotiation with my fellow Fisheries Ministers, that you have to be in the room talking within, as I think I described to you last time I was here, a bandwidth of credibility. If you go in with something that nobody else is interested in and nobody else is talking about, without having done the groundwork, you get nowhere. That does not mean to say you cannot still retain those ambitions.

I am actually optimistic. If you look at the end product, I am optimistic in the long term for the fishing industry. Fishermen roll their eyes when you say this but, if you look at it in every context, if we can get our seas back to being fished sustainably, we are going to see more fish; we are going to see rising fish stocks and increased biomass. We are going to see fishermen able to catch more fish, run proper businesses and borrow money in a grownup way, as any other business would be expected to do. They cannot do that at the moment, because there is no guarantee that their businesses will be viable in the future. Food security and a healthy diet-everything should be on fishermen’s side. It is not at the moment, and I think that if we get this right over the next decade, you will see young fishermen starting to see that it is a business where they can make a proper living and do something they feel proud about. That is where we can get to.

Q7 Chair: In your response, you rejected the Committee’s recommended route of regionalisation. What are the main differences between what you say has been agreed and what we were proposing?

Richard Benyon: I think "reject" is a harsh word. I am with you in spirit. I would like to see that particular idea fly. What you are asking, I understand, is for a qualification of EU competence. We looked at that. We got legal advice, and our advice was different-not dramatically so, but it was different. If I had gone to Luxembourg saying that I was effectively going to declare a 12 nautical mile UDI-that is a flippant way of putting it-there would be absolutely no interest from other countries in achieving that.

Q8 Chair: How does it differ? What do you think you have achieved? How does it differ from what we were proposing, which was decentralisation?

Richard Benyon: What you were proposing, if I get this right, was that there was a lacuna in the legal framework that would allow the United Kingdom to say that our fisheries could be managed outside the constraints of the Common Fisheries Policy. That is the position most of us would like to have started from, but it is not the interpretation of the texts that our legal advisers said was right. One can keep pushing back at legal opinions, and I frequently do in this job, but at some point you have to go with what you think is credible. What it ultimately comes down to is: when you are negotiating with other Ministers, are you on your own? Are you arguing from a position that has no traction with other countries or are you making a difference? The regionalisation route we have gone down is certainly not perfect, but it is a major change and it is one that can create the paradigm shift that people are looking for.

Q9 Ms Ritchie: Minister, the new provisions state that as an alternative to joint recommendations for a multiannual plan, regional co-operation could be achieved by a member state adopting national measures that have been agreed with the other member states concerned. Do you believe that alternative approach would be easier to achieve and implement?

Richard Benyon: What we have is a system that addressed the great problem with the regionalisation plans that were set to fail-that they were going to put more power in the hands of the Commission if countries fishing in a particular sea basin could not agree. What the clever people sitting either side of me came up with was a way round that, which addressed the situation when not all countries fishing a sea basin could agree, but still kept a local decisionmaking process. Do you want to put flesh on those bones?

John Robbs: Yes. To build up a fraction in answering the direct question and to make it easier to explain, the model that we developed has the member states in a regional fishery, for example the North Sea or the Baltic, working together with the advice of the Advisory Committee to develop thinking when shaping the multiannual plan, which is agreed by codecision between the Council and the Parliament, and is the highlevel shape determining the overall approach to what is to be achieved in a regional fishery. Then building on that, and possibly while it is still being negotiated, the member states work together regionally, with the advice of the Advisory Committee, on how to implement those highlevel principles. The original idea we had was that if they all agree unanimously, then, bearing in mind the constraints within the treaty, something can go to the Commission, and the Commission can introduce it under its implementing powers. You have a single common regulation that we all apply.

The variant, which you have raised, is something that was added late in the day. As well as that option, if all the member states agree, and the Commission is satisfied that what an individual member state wants to do is compatible with the basic regulations, an individual member state can introduce a national measure. Instead of having a Commission power, where we all apply exactly the same regulation, you introduce individual national measures if everybody is agreed. We still have to get everybody to agree, so the question of whether it is easier or more difficult rather depends on whether everybody will agree. There is a slight question, if we go down that route, in that, if different countries introduce national measures, they will not be quite the same, because we have different forms of legal instrument, so you have to make absolutely sure they are comparable. It is a bit more complicated, if we do go down that route.

Q10 Ms Ritchie: Do you believe, Minister, that the new regionalisation proposals are just a form of enhanced consultation, rather than genuine decentralisation of decision making? I am coming to this having two fishing ports, as you are well aware.

Richard Benyon: Let us take those fishing ports. You showed me a net on the quay at Kilkeel, where they were prevented from putting an eliminator panel in a part of the net where it would have been effective in excluding cod, or diverting cod from the end of the net. That was because of a complicated system, where decisions are taken by a Commission, which rarely, if ever, comes to see and talk to your fishermen. Most of your fishermen fish in the Irish Sea, and the Irish Sea Advisory Council will now, if these proposals go ahead, be the body that decides the detail of regulations. The EU will still set overarching determinants- fishing to maximum sustainable yield (MSY), policies such as discards and other high ambitions. The detail will be dealt with at the local level.

Will your fishermen always agree with what is decided? My experience is that fishermen sometimes disagree with each other, and they will certainly disagree with certain regulations, but at least they will feel part of the decisionmaking process rather than excluded from it. This may be ambitious, but I hope we can go from the kind of absurdity that I saw there-which has been raised with me at very high levels, including by our next monarch, who saw it as well and said, "How absurd is this?"-to a situation where these matters are actually influenced and decided by fishermen.

Q11 Chair: I shall press you, Mr Robbs, because you said that the Commission would retain the power to implement by regulation. That is the current situation. What we were proposing was to take the Commission out of the picture; the Commission would actually only set the overarching aims, but the direct technical features would be set by the national member states. If I heard you correctly, under what the Government has agreed, the Commission would still retain the right to draft the technical regulations.

John Robbs: The Commission has the right to make proposals for anything under the treaty and that has not been altered.

Q12 Chair: So nothing has changed.

John Robbs: Yes, it has. I will carry on, if I may. First of all, it is the Council and Parliament, as colegislators, that set the overall framework within which the rules will be set, rather than the Commission. They make the proposals and the colegislators agree. Under the regionalisation model, if all the member states in a regional fishery agree-so that you have unanimous agreement among the member state in the region-as a means of putting it into legal effect, the model is that you go to the Commission. Assuming the Commission is happy that what you have agreed is compatible with the treaty and so on, under its powers it gives the thing regional effect. It is a doublelock: the member states all have to agree and the Commission has to be satisfied that it is legal. It has to be anyway, because they will send in community auditors to check it later. Then and only then would the Commission introduce the powers.

The new option, which is an alternative added, is that rather than doing it through a single legal instrument that comes under Commission powers, all the member states having agreed it in the region, member states could introduce national measures, if all member states were agreed and, again, if the Commission is happy. If you do something that is unlawful under the treaties, the Commission has a duty to come and sort you out later.

Chair: I am not sure I am any the wiser.

Q13 Amber Rudd: Under the new regionalisation model, would the multi-annual plans have a different role to play? Do you think that they would be more effective in adapting to the changes in scientific evidence about fish stocks, etc?

Richard Benyon: Yes, I hope they would. Multi-annual plans are good because they set very clear criteria, scientific evidence and such like, but there are bad multi-annual plans. There is a bad multiannual plan at the moment called the Cod Recovery Plan. We want to make sure they are good and workable plans. There are plenty of people in the industry who tell me that they foresaw the problems with the Cod Recovery Plan because they understood what it was like to fish in a mixed fishery. Nobody listened to them at the time and now all these problems are coming home to roost. What I really hope is that for the multi-annual plans, there will be fishermen from all sectors involved in the decisionmaking process and able to input into that process what it actually means for them, in terms of the fish stocks they target and the impacts the regulation has on the complexity of a mixed fishery. Having them closer to the decisionmaking process will mean that we will have better longterm plans.

Q14 Ms Ritchie: Minister, what role do you envisage for the advisory councils under the new arrangements?

Richard Benyon: They will clearly be more influential. It may be determined that "advisory" is the wrong name for them. They will be more effective and more executive in what they can decide. They will be, as they currently are, representing sea basins and all those who fish in them. They will have a clear commitment towards scientific data and, again, this is another issue that I hope will make it better for the fishing industry, because they often claim that the decision making behind scientific research is remote from what they experience on the fishing grounds. A good advisory council will look at every fisherman fishing that sea basin as a scientific platform from which they can get data and better inform the information that goes to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and influences total allowable catches. I think they are going to have a considerably enhanced role; whether all of them around EU waters are ready for that and have the capacity to do it is something that we are going to have to watch closely.

Whatever system we develop for fisheries management and wherever we started or finish, working on a seabasin basis-and there is a particular sea basin that will concern your constituency-and making sure that we see proper recovery of stocks there, the advisory Council is going to be absolutely key to delivering what we now have, which will be a legal requirement to fish to sustainable levels, to fishing MSY. At the moment, we just operate under it as a political aspiration, which is really all it is, agreed by people in Johannesburg who probably were quite looking forward to going home at the time they made it. Now we will have locked this into a legal text, which is a hell of a requirement. If we get it right, it will mean a better future for fishermen fishing that basin.

Q15 Iain McKenzie: On the point about the advisory councils, I am rather confused. You seem to be describing them as that-purely an advisory body-yet you seem to suggest that they are more than that in some ways. They certainly come across as simply advisory bodies. Are they that or do you envisage them as more than that? Do you wish that they could offer more than just advice?

Richard Benyon: I think they are going to be taking more decisions about technical matters, so they will be closer. Obviously it all has to be within a framework, which is set from the EU, but this regionalisation proposal is going to mean that they are more than advisory councils.

Q16 Iain McKenzie: So they should not really be "advisory". The term is misleading altogether.

John Robbs: We are all speculating. We are trying to translate something in a regulation into something in practice, but the key to how effective an advisory council is in the future will depend on the relationship between it and member states in a regional fishery. Where there is a really good relationship, then a lot of the work can be done in the advisory council, which will then enable the member states, which have the role of reaching agreement within the regional fishery, to take all the work that has been done in the advisory council and reach agreement between themselves. If the relationship is not good, of course the advisory councils will just be tendering advice to member states. They will say, "Oh, that’s very interesting, but what we think is this and we are going to proffer this by way of our agreement." It will depend on how they work with the member states concerned, I think.

Q17 Neil Parish: Minister, I congratulate you for, so far, getting the Commission and Council to move forward. I think there is quite a lot more to deliver to make sure that they do actually devolve powers, because they are not very good at it, in practice, but I welcome what you have done. I want to talk to you a bit about scientific advice, because you talked a little bit there about it. There is always a gap between what the fishermen believe the stocks to be and what the scientists believe them to be. Very often, the Council actually allows a much higher amount of fishing than does the scientific advice. How do you see the scientific advice and data being worked in the future? Do you see a role for the regional advisory councils? You talked about mixed fisheries and, in a way, that is where the scientific advice is probably the most difficult, as to what the stocks are when you have a truly mixed fishery.

Richard Benyon: There are so many aspects to that question. Firstly, last December, we faced the possibility of 25% cuts to stocks where there was a deficiency of data. In many cases, they were not justified and we managed to get that changed, but there is a real demand. That created a real consciousness in my mind that we need to be better at finding data where it is deficient. This becomes ever more important as we go down this reform route. I think, as I was saying to Ms Ritchie, that the possibility of closer working between scientists and fishermen exists with better local management. There are already some really good examples of that, and fisheries science partnerships, particularly in your area, have been very successful. I want to see that being built on. What I always say with caution, when I am told that people can walk across certain parts of the sea on the backs of fish and that the levels of stock reduction are simply not believed locally-

Neil Parish: You haven’t tried it yet?

Richard Benyon: I have not tried it yet, but we have to recognise that across the whole ecosystem, you can get a very different story. That is where you have to be cautious. We did see a 150% increase in Western Channel cod last December. That is really exciting and there is some good news on stocks, but I think it is right that the Commission, and then whatever process follows, take a cautious line, and they will be required to do so. The MSY commitment will require caution. It will require some tough decisions, but they will be required under a legal framework.

Q18 Neil Parish: Can I press you? If you are going to have greater local knowledge, you are going to need greater local collection of data. We have had, and we do have, scientists on the boats. Are you going to seek additional funding to make sure those scientists are out on the boats in the mixed fishing areas, so that you can make that decision from a real scientific base and a practical base? You talked about scientists sitting in Johannesburg, who probably do not even know where Cornwall, Devon or anywhere is. They might just about know where the British Isles are, if we are lucky, but seriously, how do they know what is going on? How are you going to be sure that, in the future, you have local data so you can make the right decision on stocks?

Richard Benyon: We will have fully recorded fisheries. The knowledge on discards is pretty unclear in many areas. In other areas, it is absolutely clear. From what we have done through catch quotas, we know precisely that there will be 0.2% discards of cod from vessels in the catch quota scheme. That is why I want to extend that scheme; it is a simple solution for dealing with discards. Other fisheries are less recorded. We have records of landings, but we will have much clearer information about precisely what fishermen are finding. This is not a criticism of fishermen; it is just the system within which they have to operate. Fully recorded fisheries are where we want to get to.

Q19 Neil Parish: You are confident that you can get to that position?

Richard Benyon: I am confident that we can get to a much better position. In this business, every nuance you give can cause concerns in Fishing News on one day, or some NGO newsletter on another. The clear message is that we will have a position where we have fully documented fisheries. We will have a legal commitment to fish those stocks sustainably. We will have the ability to manage those stocks in a mixed fishery locally, with real knowledge of the impact of technical measures and how they can be improved or changed. That is the direction we should be going in, and it offers cause for optimism.

Q20 Iain McKenzie: Maximum sustainable yield, gentlemen: I wonder if you could confirm whether the commitment to achieving maximum sustainable yield relates to the spawning stock biomass, consistent with MSY, or fishing mortality rate. Could you also confirm that the Government considers the commitment to achieve MSY achievable?

Richard Benyon: We currently have a commitment to achieve maximum sustainable yield in our oceans, where possible, by 2015. That is a political aspiration, or statement, if you like. What we have agreed in this general approach is a legal requirement to fish to maximum sustainable yield, FMSY, by 2015, where possible. Again, the suspicions relate to those last two words. John, do you want to add to that?

John Robbs: We have moved from a political ambition at Johannesburg, repeated since, to a legal text, which is quite a tricky step. What you can regulate for is the level of fishing effort-fishing mortality-that will be set by Ministers. The legal obligation here is to fish, in the jargon, at FMSY, which is the exploitation rate such that under the prevailing environmental conditions the scientists say you have a reasonable chance of getting stock-the biomass-to hit the biomass level of MSY. The requirement is to do this by 2015 where possible and, failing that, by 2020. There are also clauses concerning mixed fisheries or lack of scientific evidence to make it clear that, in those circumstances, again there can be exceptions if they are fully justified.

Richard Benyon: I received a number of e-mails, tweets and things over the course of that period, saying we should be doing this to BMSY-biomass MSY. We really need to understand what impact that would have. In a mixed fishery, let us say you have 30 stocks; 29 of them are being fished sustainably and one of them, for a whole range of reasons, is not in a sustainable state. That could be because of predation; it is a highly predatory environment out there. We would then have to stop fishing across all those stocks until that one stock had recovered and, in doing so, one could create a whole range of different effects that could result in other stock numbers reducing. It was a totally unworkable possibility. The FMSY is the one we were right to aim for. It is one that offers the ability to practically manage a mixed fishery stock in an effective way.

Q21 Iain McKenzie: Is the Government’s attitude "maybe and depends" then? On the question of whether you consider the commitment achievable, I seem to have got the response, "maybe and depends".

Richard Benyon: I think it is achievable and, in fact, it has to be achievable. It is going to be a legal requirement. We will be working hard to make sure that the 2015 date, which frankly is very soon, is achieved. That will require some difficult negotiations, but we have flexibility in the system if it is not. There is reason to believe that we can start moving stocks into the column that denotes they are being fished sustainably in a reasonable period of time. Ultimately, if this goes through, we will be required to do that and so will our European partners.

Q22 George Eustice: Can I add to what Neil Parish said and congratulate you on the progress made? If we can get it through, it is a really significant breakthrough. The idea of having, in the legal text, a commitment to MSY is really encouraging as well. Will it be, just to clarify, the Commission that still sets the goals for improved sustainability, or will they make recommendations, which will then be signed off by codecision of the Council and Parliament? How do you see that working in terms of who is responsible for setting MSY?

Richard Benyon: We are not losing the overall competence. Yes, they will be the guardians of that competence, but what we are achieving is a structure whereby multiannual plans and technical measures will be decided locally, working towards that overarching aim. The legality point will become apparent as we go through future December round negotiations. That is when there will be a commitment. Currently, there is a lot of wriggle room. As Mr Parish says, frankly, politicians are allowed too much influence over issues that are best dealt with in multiannual plans on the basis of sound evidence. Now with a legal sword hanging over us, we will be required to do things differently.

Q23 George Eustice: Are you saying you have not decided yet whether it will be the Commission or the Council that makes the ultimate decision on what MSY is?

Richard Benyon: I have to be careful with my words here.

George Eustice: Will it literally be the scientific evidence? That becomes king and no one will be able to question it?

John Robbs: Maximum sustainable yield is a very simple concept, but it is not always very easy to define exactly what it is for a given stock. The best people to define what it is for a given stock are undoubtedly the scientists, so they will provide the advice on what is maximum sustainable yield for a given stock. That is a role for scientists. The multiannual plans for each fishery, which will be agreed by codecision, will make the commitment to deliver MSY over a period in the given fishery. That is the legal framework, which I think answers your question.

Q24 Barry Gardiner: First of all, my apologies for coming late to the Committee. I was at the Energy and Climate Change Committee. It is this "where possible", isn’t it? There is an alternative way of phrasing this because you, Minister, rightly said that politics played a very considerable role here. If one takes up what Mr Robbs has just said about scientists being the people who should define this, then instead of saying "where possible", which could mean where socially possible, where socially acceptable, where economically feasible, or where politically possible given the constraints and the vagaries of the political system that happen with electoral advantage, one could simply say "where scientifically achievable". Why is there reluctance to adopt that phraseology instead of this much broader political mush of "where possible"?

Richard Benyon: I think what you said is where I am.

Q25 Barry Gardiner: I think it is where you are, Minister, but I do not think it is where your colleagues in the rest of Europe are.

Richard Benyon: That may be the case for some of them, which is why I suspect we are where we are. It is a question of which end of the telescope you look down. "Where possible" is looked at with great suspicion by a lot of people concerned about the sustainability of our oceans. They think it is a copout, frankly. If you look down the other end of the telescope, you can say that "where possible" means precisely what it says: where it is possible to achieve that, we must achieve it and we will achieve it. There is not only a process determinant in that, but there is also a political will as well, from us.

Let us be absolutely clear: not everybody around the Council of Ministers table shares our overarching ambitions for reform or even our specific ambitions for reform. We saw many attempts by various delegations to change them, and even to make them-in terms of our electorate’s wishes-more or less unchanged from what we have now. This is now in the hands of the European Parliament, where I think there is probably a majority in favour of meaningful reform, but we must not take that for granted. There are many people in the European Parliament who will try to kill this off. I have actually been really impressed by the input I have received from some fishing organisations that have worked with us on this, which recognise that actually what we are talking about is not just today’s generation of fishermen; it is about making sure they have an industry in the future. There is some really progressive thinking among some fishing organisations, which I think is to be applauded.

Q26 Barry Gardiner: I just want to follow up briefly. You will know of the Eastern Baltic cod situation, where instead of adopting FMSY, they actually cut the percentage of catch way below that, I think to about 15% or 25% of FMSY. Then the stock of Baltic cod recovered so dramatically that it went way beyond FMSY to BMSY, and now you are operating a much better scenario. Can you give the Committee, because I do not think we have had it, a clear definition of what the Department’s understanding of FMSY and BMSY is? It would be very helpful for the Committee to have that in writing.

Richard Benyon: I have one in my head, which I will get wrong, so I am going to revert, with your permission, Chair, to John, to try to make sure we get something in the text that is both what I know it to be, and one that will stand the test.

Q27 Chair: Could we ask for it in writing, because we only have you for an hour?

Richard Benyon: Okay, we will provide you with the definitive text.

Q28 Ms Ritchie: Minister, if we could move on to discards, perhaps in your answer to me, you could provide us with your definition, or a definition, of a discard. We know that different fish species have different survival rates when they are returned to the sea, with flatfish species, such as plaice, considered to have a much higher survival rate than round fish species, such as cod or haddock. How will such factors be taken into consideration in applying a discard, and do the revised proposals for the elimination of discards take account of those differential survival rates for different fish species? Could we link that into regionalisation and the whole area of what role the Commission has in terms of vetoes?

Richard Benyon: There was real agreement in the UK delegation among all my fellow Fisheries Ministers that you cannot actually deliver what you want on discards unless you have proper regionalisation. We do not think you can get one without the other. You can get some of one under the current system, because we are proving that you can with catch quota schemes and suchlike. We want to make sure we have an end to discards-an elimination of discards from our fisheries-but that it is done in a practical way. That is why I am pleased that we have achieved, frankly, a change in what the Commission’s original proposal was, and it is done on a fisherybyfishery basis. That is why you are seeing the implementation of pelagic discards very soon, because it is relatively easy to achieve-they are relatively clean fisheries-and that can come in from 2014.

From 2015, we will start to see measures for landall provisions on white fish stocks. This requires some clever local solutions to be incorporated into that proposal. You are right; there are some species that have a high level of survivability. Just because they end up on the vessel and are thrown back to swim away, I do not count that, in my mind, as a discard. I count as a discard the affront to fishermen, consumers and to all of us and our constituents that is the throwing away of perfectly healthy food-those that do not survive and are dead in the water. That is what we are seeking to tackle from 2015. I think that we can be effective in doing that through local delivery.

Q29 Dan Rogerson: In coming to this very welcome agreement, did the Council consider the practical difficulties-you referred to this a little, I think-in terms of bringing in a discard ban and did it also look at the issue of unintended or perverse consequences?

Richard Benyon: Yes, there were many discussions about the practicalities. That is why it was useful having a range of different people to call on for advice throughout the process and when we were in Luxembourg talking about it. There will be some sort of de minimis provision. At the moment, I think it is in square brackets at 5%. At the moment, the proposal is 5%. Is that actually an end to discards or not? There has to be a practical element. I can tell you that I heard conversations about trying to set de minimis levels at around 20%, which is of course absurd. I think that we have the makings of something that will address the concerns of constituents like mine, who are many miles away from the sea, and yours, who are closer to it. It really does matter to people. I think we have a solution that will satisfy most people.

Q30 Dan Rogerson: Very briefly, did some of those unintended consequences come up in discussion, and what might be the risks involved in doing it too quickly and in not having that de minimis level?

Richard Benyon: Throughout, I have been mindful of what actually happens in a fish room, on a small fishing vessel, on a high sea, where at the moment they can create space for fish they want to sell by discarding fish for which they do not have quota or a market. What we have proved is that you can help fishermen create a market through things like Fishing for the Markets, which is a Defra project, or by really incentivising fishermen to fish in different ways. That will have the effect of still keeping space in the fish room for fish they can market.

Q31 Amber Rudd: Minister, can I ask about TFCs-transferrable fishing concessions? Could you tell me how you envisage the proposals relating to TFCs being applied in the UK, and particularly how they might be applied to the over10metres as opposed to the under10metres?

Richard Benyon: As you know, because we have discussed this before, I remain interested in the concept of TFCs, because I think they offer a market mechanism to deal with overcapacity. What you also know is that I do not believe that they are a tool that can be used across the whole range of fishing interests, and I recognise the great concerns that exist in some quarters. I am pleased that, in this proposal, TFCs are now being dealt with such that they can be introduced on a more local basis, through local management, as a local management tool, but not imposed on us as the panacea for your fishermen in Hastings, just as they would be for a big vessel in Peterhead.

Q32 Amber Rudd: It is encouraging that it is going to be voluntary. The Government response to our report did not really look into the consideration in our proposal for a mechanism to discourage the leasing of quota and to redirect unused quota towards more environmentally and socially sustainable fishing operators. This is obviously a very sensitive issue for the under10metres; they are very short of quota, but there is unused quota that is not reallocated. Does the Government intend to ensure unused quota is available in future for fishing?

Richard Benyon: I am trying to do that at the moment, with varying degrees of success, but my intention is the right one. Where quota has not been used for a consistent period, I have an obligation to make sure that this national resource is managed as well as possible and, therefore, I am, in a modest way, attempting to assist the inshore sector, which I think is in need of more fishing opportunity. We will see how that goes with the pilot operating in Ramsgate.

On the wider question, we will only get to where we want to on this when we know precisely who holds quota. It seems extraordinary that we are having this discussion-I know that your report raised it when you looked into this, and rightly so-and that is why we are setting about the register, which will be a clear and transparent register of who holds fishing opportunity in this country. The concordat we have now agreed with the countries of the United Kingdom will allow us to do that.

Q33 Chair: We seem to have been talking about this register for an awfully long time. You just said we are "setting about the register". The Secretary of State said it possibly would not be ready before next year at the earliest. For those honest, hardworking fishermen, it is a bit hard to take that the register is not yet in place. What is the reason for the delay?

Richard Benyon: Transfers of fishing opportunity have taken place between fishermen, through entities such as producer organisations, and Government has had no direct involvement in a great many of the transactions that have taken place, for a great many years. Regarding rewinding that clock and trying to find out where that is, John, can you give us some more details about the practicalities and the resource implications?

John Robbs: It is a commitment now being clearly made that we will, with the co-operation of the three devolved Administrations, develop and publish a fishing register next year. That is something that I am sure you will record and be talking to us about towards the end of next year, if we are not on target to do so; so there is now a clear time frame. It has been difficult because producer organisations have quota allocated to them and then they manage it. Indeed, some of the chief executives of producer organisations say that, within their own producer organisation, they do not know and cannot tell us quite where the quota is moving around in the course of a year. So we do have to go through really quite a complicated process to track down a lot of different quotas, which are administered by four different Administrations within the United Kingdom-that is the relevance of the concordat-if we are going to produce something reliable and thorough. We know a lot, but the bits that we do not know are going to require quite a lot of work to enable us to give the comprehensive picture we want to give.

Q34 Chair: One last question: on the timetable that you admitted, Minister, is very tight, we now have the Cypriot presidency, then the Irish presidency, then the Lithuanian presidency. I met a fellow Committee Chair, who speaks good Russian but not a lot of English, but is a very charming person. If there was no agreement by the end of 2013, in the worstcase scenario, what would the position be? Would you still be visiting Luxembourg in the dead of night to agree?

Richard Benyon: You will be asking the same question of my colleagues, Caroline Spelman and Jim Paice, about CAP reform, which we all suspect will roll over.

Q35 Chair: The CAP reform is slightly different, because that will depend upon the MFF-the multiannual financial framework-but what would be the worstcase scenario if no agreement was reached?

Richard Benyon: The worstcase scenario, if we could not get agreement, is that we would be stuck with the status quo; but that would require a legal mechanism to roll over the existing provisions, wouldn’t it?

John Robbs: The great bulk of the CFP stays in place until we change it. The only bit that expires, if we do not introduce a new regulation, is the restrictions within 6 and 12mile limits. For that, the Commission has already tabled a proposal to roll over the current derogations within the 6 and 12mile limits, so that has been foreseen as necessary.

Q36 Chair: That is very helpful. I am sure we will have other opportunities to revisit but, gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us and submitting yourselves to our questions. We are very grateful.

Richard Benyon: I have just come back from Costa Rica, where a great many people told me how much they enjoyed Members of your Committee coming, and very much hope they will return.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 17th April 2013