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House of Lords

Tuesday, 31st March 1998.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Lord Butler of Brockwell

Sir Frederick Edward Robin Butler, GCB, CVO, having been created Baron Butler of Brockwell, of Herne Hill in the London Borough of Lambeth, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Hunt of Tanworth and the Lord Armstrong of Ilminster.

Fish Catch: Discards Policy

2.46 p.m.

Lord Gisborough asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will recommend to the European Union that action be taken to reduce the tonnage of sea fish that is wastefully discarded.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, the Government strongly support new measures being introduced to reduce wasteful discarding of fish.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Will he study the way in which Norway manages this aspect of its fishing industry, where there are no discards and where large areas of sea containing juvenile fish are closed down from time to time; and Iceland, where they are managing actually to increase their total allowable catch? Does he agree with the Icelandic statement that jurisdiction of territorial waters is the cornerstone of fishing management?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, it is true that Norway operates a ban on discarding in some of her waters. But in those waters the fish are relatively separated by species and age group and they are nearly all of the same type. I agree with the noble Lord that that allows cleaner catches to be taken and under those conditions a discard ban becomes practical. That is quite different from the position in our own waters. We have very mixed fisheries around our shores. Because of that a discard ban is not a practical proposition. The noble Lord referred to Iceland. Iceland is an individual state. We are part of the common fisheries policy. We believe that a policy is required. We need to co-operate with other member states because of the overcapacity of fishing fleets and the fact that fish do not respect national boundaries. We also agree that the present policy does not conserve stocks sufficiently and we are pursuing a number of desirable changes in the arrangements for the CFP.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is my noble friend aware--

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the original common fisheries policy

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was conceived in deceit, that Parliament was not informed even of its existence let alone of the particulars, and that the only realistic action that we can now take, in view of the fact that all proposals to the Council have to come from the Commission, is for this country, after making due compensation to those who may have lost money in the whole wretched set-up, unilaterally to restore the 200-mile limit and, if necessary, to back its enforcement by the use of the British fleet?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I am sure that if my noble friend were in charge things would be quite different! We were not the government to which the noble Lord referred. He was going back to the early 1970s. We cannot turn back the clock to the situation as it then was. As I say, we need to co-operate with other member states and we need a common fisheries policy.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, can the Minister say whether adequate reform of the common fisheries policy, to which he has referred, can be achieved only by unanimity or by a qualified majority vote in the Council? If the latter, can the noble Lord give the House any idea how those votes stack up at the moment?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord the information he requires on how the votes stack up at the moment. We have several proposals for improving the CFP. We want to integrate environmental considerations more fully and improve the effectiveness of enforcement measures. We also want to introduce a greater regional dimension and strengthen the economic benefit that countries derive from the quotas. Furthermore, we wish to improve the way in which quotas are managed and to apply effective control. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that if we can achieve all that, it will be a far better policy.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, my noble friend said that fish do not respect national boundaries. Is he aware that the fish caught in British waters do in fact like it here? They are not Little Englanders, but they like it here because the waters are conducive to their growth and breeding, largely because of the incidence of the Gulf Stream. So in fact the best fishing waters are around our coasts. Therefore, does the Minister agree that it would be best for the British Government to manage the fish stocks, as was suggested by my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington, who is right about most things? Will the Government consider this matter very seriously and put an end to the absurd common fisheries policy?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, there are many things that we all like, but circumstances change. We are a long way from the situation in 1972 to which my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington referred. Whether or not fish like it around our shores, from time to time they swim away from them. We have to co-operate with other member states. We need a common fisheries policy.

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I am sure that my noble friend will agree that if we can improve that policy in the way I have described, it will be nearer the one that he would prefer.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the simple world of fish politics. Perhaps I may advise him that the answer to my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch is that the vote has to be unanimous. Equally, I advise him that his answer to his noble friend Lord Stoddart should have been that the Gulf Stream does not, as I understand it, affect the North Sea. Beyond that, and being slightly less helpful, does the Minister agree that it would be sensible for us to pursue a policy inside the common fisheries policy against discarding small, undersized fish which are dead and which do not contribute any further to stocks; and, even worse, against discarding above minimum landing-sized fish which are above quota and which are equally dead? Would it not be far wiser to persuade our colleagues who participate in the common fisheries policy that we should follow a "no discards" policy and that all fish should be counted in a common currency of cod equivalents?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his assistance with regard to my noble friend and his noble friend. However, I must give a constructive answer as to what has happened. As regards the noble Lord's question about banning discarding, that would require fishermen to land all the fish they catch. They then could not be penalised for landing under-sized fish or fish for which the quota was exhausted. The incentives to conserve through the use of larger mesh sizes would be removed. The noble Lord may disagree, but quotas would be effectively unenforceable and stocks of the more valuable species would rapidly become depleted.

Privatised Utilities: Assessment

2.53 p.m.

Lord Peston: My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government how many public utilities privatised between 1979 and 1997 have been subjected to examination by the Audit Commission and the National Audit Office and with what result.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the National Audit Office has examined and reported on all the sales of public utilities between 1979 and 1997. The Northern Ireland Audit Office reported on the sale of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland. The National Audit Office has also carried out a number of examinations of the work of the regulators. This

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Government levied a windfall tax on privatised utilities immediately on coming into office as they believed that they were sold too cheaply by the previous government.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reassuring Answer. Is not the problem that while my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the windfall tax would be once and for all, the propensity of the privatised utilities to abuse their market position and consumers goes on unabated? What are the Government going to do about that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My noble friend may have seen that last week the President of the Board of Trade published a Green Paper on the regulation of the utilities in which for the first time it is proposed to place a primary statutory duty on the regulators that the consumer interest will be put at the heart of the regulatory system. I believe that that very fundamental change will go a considerable way to answering my noble friend's question.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that the consumer has done well out of privatisation? Telephone bills have come down by 35 per cent; gas bills by 25 per cent. and electricity bills by 13 per cent. Admittedly, the cost of water has risen but, as we all know, that is explained by the huge environmental costs and the need.

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