These EU documents are politically important because:
4.1Following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and the end to the post-Brexit Transition Period on 31 December 2020, the UK is in the process of negotiating its 2021 fishing opportunities as an independent coastal state based on the parameters agreed in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).
4.2While the proportions of each stock available to the EU and UK respectively were agreed in the TCA, the total volume of the various catches—the Total Allowable Catches (TACs)—is yet to be resolved.
4.3Responding to our of 10 March 2021, the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food (Victoria Prentis MP) has to us, updating us on the progress of negotiations with the EU and other coastal states. Her response is summarised below.
4.4The Minister explains that the UK has now reached agreement with Norway and the EU on TACs for the six trilaterally-managed fish stocks in the North Sea for 2021. This agreement promotes the sustainable management and long-term viability of the relevant stocks, and the Parties established several working groups to this end. For example, a working group to review the management of North Sea herring.
4.5Five of the six TACs have been set in line with or lower than the catch levels advised by scientists, or more conservatively in the case of North Sea haddock. This results in reduced catch limits for North Sea cod (-10%), plaice (-2%), saithe (-25%) and herring (-7.4%) compared with 2020, but increases in haddock (+20%) and whiting (+19%), providing opportunities worth over £184 million to the UK fleet for 2021.
4.6North Sea cod will be subject to a 10% reduction compared to 2020. Whilst this represents a smaller reduction than that recommended by scientists, this catch limit is predicted to achieve recovery of the stock biomass at a similar pace to that set out in the scientific advice, whilst supporting the UK’s industry and reducing choke risk in the North Sea mixed fishery. This, explains the Minister, is supported by the UK’s cod avoidance plan, establishing a variety of technical and spatial measures to support recovery of the stock in UK waters.
4.7It has not proved possible to conclude any access and quota exchange arrangements for 2021 with the Faroe Islands. The Minister considers that this was because it was challenging for the Faroes to move beyond the previous EU arrangements which were heavily imbalanced in the Faroes’ favour. The UK continues to work constructively with the Faroes in various fora including consultations on a renewed mackerel sharing arrangement.
4.8The Minister reports that bilateral negotiations with Norway and the EU are continuing. The UK remains committed to reaching a negotiated outcome with both Norway and the EU as soon as possible and will be working constructively, positively and co-operatively to this end.
4.9In the meantime, the Government extended provisional unilateral 2021 fishing opportunities until 14 April. Since the Minister wrote—and in line with her letter—the Government proceeded on 14 April to set provisional TACs for the remainder of 2021. The provisional TACs reflect the progress made to date in negotiations with the EU and, if an agreement is subsequently reached, then provisional TACs will be updated with the agreed TACs. The Minister indicates that she will write further to provide details of any negotiated deal or provisional TACs set. In the absence of a full negotiated outcome this will include an analysis of the declared catch limits in relation to scientific advice.
4.10Turning to arrangements for next year, as we raised in our letter, the Minister explains that the timetable for 2022 consultations will be recorded in the final written record of this year’s annual consultations. The Government will be working to develop a UK approach to annual fisheries consultations for 2022 as early as possible once scientific advice is received in order to inform an early discussion with the EU as envisaged under the TCA. As usual, this will be informed by extensive engagement with stakeholders. We will continue to provide regular updates to Parliament on progress in these and subsequent annual negotiations, including on plans for 2022 discussions.
4.11On 13 April 2021, a senior European Commission official held a public 90-minute exchange of views with the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee, revealing helpful information on the progress of these negotiations. His appearance was part of a commitment to appear before the Committee on a monthly basis to update the Committee on the progress of the EU-UK fisheries relationship.
4.12The Commission explained that negotiations had intensified since early March and gave the impression that agreement was likely but that it could still take a few weeks and may need political intervention in order to be completed. He estimated that around 90% of the 70–90 TACs had been agreed but noted that outstanding issues included:
4.13A quota is not set for non-quota species, but the TCA requires that the EU and UK allow reciprocal access to fish such species “at a level that at least equates to the average tonnage fished by that Party in the waters of the other Party during the period 2012–16”. The EU and UK are working together on what data to use to establish the track record. The EU has pushed back against a UK proposal to agree a maximum ceiling per species for non-quota species, observing that such an approach is not in line with the TCA. Rather, argues the Commission, management of non-quota species should be discussed in the Specialised Committee once it is up and running, possibly with a view to a multi-annual approach.
4.14In the meantime, the EU took the decision to propose a new set of provisional TACs for a period of four months from 31 March (until end of July) based on the scientific advice and in line with the arrangements set out in the TCA. Four months was chosen, said the Commission, to send a clear message to UK that the EU was serious about continuing negotiations.
4.15The Commission also highlighted that the exchange of fishing opportunities between the UK and EU—an important way of managing shortfalls and excesses of quota—cannot take place until an annual TAC agreement is in place.
4.16The exchange of views extended to other issues salient to implementation of the fisheries chapter, including the Specialised Committee on Fisheries. Both parties had nominated Co-Chairs and the Secretariat but had agreed that establishment should await conclusion of the annual consultations. The Commission considered that the Specialised Committee was likely to be a forum that would facilitate future agreement not only on the annual fishing opportunities but also on developing common approaches to management of the shared resource.
4.17The information that we acquired from the Commission’s appearance at the European Parliament Fisheries Committee stands in stark contrast to the minimal level of information provided by the Minister. We return to this information gap below.
4.18In responding to the Minister, we will put to her a number of points made by the Commission in that session to clarify if they accord with the Government’s interpretation of the negotiation and to seek any further information on the Government’s position.
4.19The Minister’s letter is helpful in summarising the wider set of negotiations with coastal states, but we will seek information on the sticking points encountered in the bilateral negotiations with Norway and will seek clarity on the implications of failure to reach agreement with the Faroes.
4.20Concerning arrangements for 2022, the Minister makes a broad commitment in her letter to engaging with stakeholders and to informing Parliament on progress but she makes no commitment to allowing timely scrutiny by Parliament. Her tone in that regard is extremely disappointing as Parliament expects not only to be informed but also to be actively consulted at an early enough stage in the process to be meaningful.
4.21In terms of regular updates, we will draw attention to the updates provided by the Commission to the European Parliament and ask if the UK Government is willing to provide a similar degree of update to its Parliament and, if not, why not. In the meantime, we will have no other option than to rely on those updates from the European Commission to the European Parliament. Now that the UK has left the European Union, though, we do not think that we should be reliant on the European institutions for information on matters directly relevant to the United Kingdom. This information gap is one of great concern to us and we hope that it is one that the Minister recognises and will take immediate steps to remedy.
4.22We consider that the matters raised are politically important because they relate to UK fishing opportunities during 2021 and beyond. We have written to the Minister as set out below raising the issues identified above.
4.23We report the Minister’s letter to the House and draw this chapter and our letter to the attention of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee.
We considered your letter of 8 April 2021 on documents relating to the negotiation of fishing opportunities for 2021 at our meeting of 21 April.
Since you wrote, we note that the Government has proceeded to set fishing opportunities for the remainder of 2021. We look forward to further information from you on those opportunities and the implications for sustainable fisheries. We wish to be clear that you have set fishing opportunities in line with scientific advice and that you will make any relevant adjustments in the light of opportunities set by other coastal states to ensure that the aggregate opportunities continue to be in line with the advice.
We listened with interest to the exchange of views between the Commission and the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee on 13 April. Helpfully, the Commission provided substantially more information that day than you have done in your correspondence with us. The tone of the Commission’s presentation was positive, suggesting that agreement was likely in the coming weeks but that political intervention might be required to conclude the negotiations. The Commission identified the following sticking points:
Do you agree with the Commission that the above matters are the key sticking points? It would be helpful if you could expand on the difficulties encountered and the position being taken by the Government. We noted from the Commission that there are some particular technical challenges around agreement on the management of non-quota species and that the EU had resisted the UK’s suggestion that ceilings be placed on individual species.
On wider matters relating to implementation of the TCA’s fisheries chapter, the Commission explained that both parties had agreed that establishment of the Specialised Committee should await the conclusion of the annual consultations, although co-chairs and the secretariat have been appointed. The Commission expressed hope that the Specialised Committee would support future agreement on fishing opportunities and on common approaches to management of the shared resource. Is that a hope that you share?
On the wider set of negotiations with coastal states, we would welcome information on the sticking points encountered in the bilateral negotiations with Norway and we also ask you to set out the implications for the UK of the failure to reach agreement with the Faroes.
Turning to arrangements for 2022, including parliamentary scrutiny, we were disappointed that you aspire only to inform Parliament of relevant developments rather than engage with Parliament at a meaningful stage in the process. Your approach stands in marked contrast to that of the European Commission, which has agreed to appear before the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee at monthly intervals to exchange views on the evolution of the EU-UK fisheries relationship. We hope you agree that it is undesirable that the UK Parliament must largely rely on information given by the European Commission to the European Parliament rather than receiving information from the UK Government concerning matters of direct relevance to the UK. Is the UK Government content to provide a similar level of information to the UK Parliament on EU-UK fisheries matters as the European Commission is providing to the European Parliament? We trust that you will take immediate steps to plug the information gap that has developed.
We ask for a response within ten working days.
77 (a) Proposal for a Regulation fixing for 2021 the fishing opportunities for certain fish stocks and groups of fish stocks, applicable in Union waters and, for Union fishing vessels, in certain non-Union waters (b) Commission Communication—Towards more sustainable fishing in the EU: state of play and orientations for 2021; Council and COM number: (a) ,COM(20) 668 (b) , COM(20) 24; Legal base: (a) Article 43(3) TFEU, QMV (b)—; Department: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Devolved Administrations: Consulted; ESC numbers: (a) 41612 (b) 41347.
78 The risk that accidental capture of a species with a low quota causes a vessel to stop fishing even if they still have quota for other species in the same waters.
79 , Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 14 April 2021.
80 of European Parliament Fisheries Committee, 13 April 2021, 14.45–16.15.