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House of Lords

Wednesday, 27th March 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

Fishing: ECJ Judgment

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the worst effects of the recent European Court of Justice decision regarding compensation to foreign owners of British fishing vessels could be overcome by a suitable amendment to the vessel licensing arrangements.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Statement that I made to the House on 6th March explained in detail that the European Court of Justice's recent judgment in the Factortame case confirms the principle that those adversely affected by national legislation in breach of Community law are, if the breach is sufficiently serious, entitled to seek compensation through national courts. The ECJ judgment is now for national courts to consider. It cannot be undone by any future amendment to vessel licensing arrangements by fisheries departments.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and also for the extremely helpful letter that he sent me earlier this week on the subject. Will the Minister confirm that, if we look to the future, the fisheries Commissioner, Mrs. Emma Bonino, has suggested that there are ways to deal with the problem of quota hopping in the future within Community and national law? Might that include: the payment of social taxes--for example, national insurance--to the country of registration; a condition that the skipper and mate of the British registered vessels should hold UK issued tickets; and a requirement to land a proportion of the catch at a restricted number of nominated ports?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, we are greatly encouraged by the attitude that Mrs. Bonino is taking. On the best advice we have, we do not believe that any of the routes which she proposes will work but we are nevertheless examining them with a will. Nothing would please us more than to discover that we were wrong and that there is a quick way round the problems. The noble Lord mentioned the possibility that the skipper and mate might be British. Many other countries try that regulation and the Spanish have a highly practised route around it. They merely install in a cabin on the boat an equivalent of Captain Haddock and his bottle of whisky, and the mate Alan, who is Spanish, runs the boat. So far as we know, there is no way round the problem that works, either in practice or legally.

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Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as the Court's judgments have been based on a principle of non-discrimination between nationalities and as the fishing quota system is operated, in contradiction, entirely on separating nationalities, will the United Kingdom Government insist on changes in the common fisheries policy? Can my noble friend say any more about Signora Bonino's suggestion that there could be regional arrangements for the south west of England or off Scotland? Might it be another way of solving the quota hopping aberration?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, we will consider all ways round quota hopping. We are committed to pursuing it at the IGC if that is the only way forward, as looks like being the case at present.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, have Her Majesty's Government thought of consulting the French Government? They know the way round most of the European regulations.

Lord Lucas: Yes, my Lords, we have. We have researched what happens in France where people are suffering as we are, although not to the same extent. They have about 20 Spaniards quota hopping on them and the French are among the most active of the European countries in the process of becoming distressed at what is going on.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that he said that the Court of Justice had clearly established that there was a right of compensation where national governments breached Community law and damaged the interests of Community citizens? Can he say whether that right also applies in a case where the Commission is in breach of the law? For example, there is the flagrant breach of law by the Commission today in banning exports of British beef to third countries outside the European Community. Will the British Government now support British beef producers in suing the Commission for compensation?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I cannot answer that legal technicality. The noble Lord may know what the Commission has decided but I have not yet received the news. If what it has done is to support what its veterinary committee said, we would find it an extremely distressing, unwelcome and unreasonable development. It will doubtless have repercussions for a long time to come.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the noble Lord give the House an undertaking--

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I have been cut out on two occasions recently so I am standing my ground. Is the British Government's view about our ability to secede from the common fisheries policy the same as that of Commissioner Bonino? She told fishermen in the South West that whether we did secede from the common fisheries policy was a matter for the British Government and the British Parliament--something that has been denied on several occasions in this House.

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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not believe that I have said anything other than that it is a matter for the British Government and the British Parliament. I have merely pointed out that the negotiations that would be involved with our other 14 partners in bringing an end to that part of the treaty would be likely to be so expensive and so burdensome on us in their result as to make the whole exercise supremely not worth while.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the Minister give the House an undertaking that at the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference the role of the European Court of Justice will be thoroughly reconsidered with a view to its political role being separated from its legal role, where that becomes possible to determine?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, that is rather drifting away from the Question. I refer the noble Lord to our White Paper. I am very satisfied with what is said in it.

Lord Carter: My Lords, is the Minister aware of a recent report which revealed that, of 371 infringements of the common fisheries policy notified in 1994, 119 involved British vessels; 73 French vessels; 62 Irish vessels; and only 22 involved Spanish vessels. How many of the 119 so-called British vessels were registered here, but were in fact Spanish?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, regarding the rate of infringement by Spanish vessels, according to our records--I cannot comment on the European report, of which we have not formally received a copy or had a chance to review--generally last year, I believe there were 117 or 119 infringements in total. Of those, two involved Spanish-registered vessels and seven involved British-registered vessels landing in Spain. At those kinds of levels it does not seem possible to prove, or indeed perhaps likely, that the Spanish are worse than the rest of us.

"Sea Empress" Inquiry

2.45 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will take steps to reconstitute the Donaldson Committee in order to inquire into the wider ramifications of the accident involving the "Sea Empress" in February 1996, in addition to the investigation being undertaken by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch into the causes of the accident; and, if not, why not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, completed less than two years ago, set the broad framework for the Government's policy towards marine pollution from ships. Until the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch has completed its investigation into the cause of the "Sea Empress" grounding and the conduct of the subsequent salvage

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operations, it would be premature to examine whether its findings justify reconsideration of the report's recommendations.

Viscount St. Davids: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, although I think that it will bring little joy to Wales. I declare an interest as vice-president of the Welsh Wildlife Trust. Is my noble friend aware that it has been widely reported that the two-page interim report by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch contains a number of errors of fact? Will he assure the House, and thus place on record, that the report contains no such errors?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I understand that the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents has written to the honourable Member in another place who made these allegations defending and explaining the accuracy of the original bulletin. I therefore believe that bulletin to be accurate.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest: My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that at an appropriate time, given the quality of the Donaldson Report, the noble and learned Lord will be invited to review the application of his report generally and at that stage take into account subsequent developments, including the consequences of the grounding of the "Sea Empress"? In relation to one particular recommendation of the Donaldson Report, can the Minister confirm or deny statements that the Government intend, for the sake of saving a little money, to cease stationing strong tugs at the Minch and off the Straits of Dover from the end of April at least until the beginning of October? Given the fact that those are key areas where dangers to shipping are particularly strong, if that is a true statement of intention, will the Government review their decision?

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