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Common Fisheries Policy: EUC Report

12.6 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Union Committee on Progress of Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (25th Report, HL Paper 109).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is tempting to sum up the report quickly by saying, "Too slow; too little; too late". I thank those who have helped the committee to produce the report: our specialist adviser, Professor Shepherd; our clerk, Tom Radice; and our tireless research assistant, Pamela Strigo. We were very well served. It is a great regret that the late Lord Perry of Walton, a co-opted member of the committee, is not with us today. We shall miss his contribution.

Perhaps I may detain your Lordships for a moment. To measure the progress of reform it is necessary to review the past few years. I chaired an inquiry by Sub-Committee D on the mid-term review over 10 years ago. Then it was clear that the failures were already self-evident. That was 10 years into the common fisheries policy. There was too much capacity—too many ships—trying to catch declining stocks. There were multi-annual guidance programmes which were designed to try to deal with the situation, but in a perverse way they achieved an increase in capacity by subsidising modernisation. That takes some achieving—to end up with a policy that results in the opposite of what was intended. There was also an inability to control effort; a lack of enforcement; a failure to adhere to the scientific advice; and total allowable catches were invariably fixed at or beyond the safe limits. There was also what is called technology creep, which means that industry becomes ever-more efficient with modern equipment; and a failure to measure environmental impacts.

All of that produced a sorry story and it compared unfavourably, to say the least, with our neighbours in Europe such as Iceland, Greenland, Norway and the like. Admittedly they have a more simple administration—they administer their own fisheries—but nevertheless they proved that they were more flexible and able to act with great immediacy. That is not to say that they were entirely successful—they were not. But they made the approach of the CFP bureaucratic, slow and ineffective by comparison.

The outcome of the mid-term review 10 years ago or more was that there was clear agreement that a completely different policy would be needed by December 2002, if not before. There was a long period of wide consultation—three years running up to March 2001—and much agreement from everywhere that something quite different would be needed in the second common fisheries policy. Sub-Committee D produced another report. In it we were a little stronger than we were the first time around. We were pleased when the Green Paper from the Commission was published in March 2001 because we reached the same conclusions on the need for a radical reform. We need to cut capacity. That is so obvious. If there are too many vessels in Europe with declining stocks, however

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one tries to persuade people not to go to sea or to have various technical measure to make life a little harder, such as mesh sizes and so on, the size of the fleet must ultimately be controlled. That is expensive. One has to decommission and do so effectively. It had not been done.

One also has to work with other EU programmes. The EU, from Rio onwards, has had commendable programmes on sustainable development and environmental framework programmes. Yet the common fisheries policy, which, after all, addresses a very large part of the environment, fails to have any obvious linkages to those programmes. Such issues were recognised in the Green Paper. By December 2001 the first proposals for long-term recovery programmes—particularly for cod and hake, which are the two most susceptible stocks with which we are concerned in the United Kingdom—were published for discussion.

I should remind noble Lords—I am sure they do not need reminding—that while the common fisheries policy has totally failed on stocks such as cod and hake, it is not all bad. Herring and mackerel, which went through an appalling period 20 or more years ago, have achieved a sustainable level of catch. The take is usually about 25 per cent of the biomass spawn. I am sorry to use the jargon, but noble Lords will get the drift of what I am saying. That compares with something like a 150 per cent take from the 1970s onwards for cod. Noble Lords can see why we have trouble with cod and hake: if one consistently takes 150 per cent of the biomass spawn, over a period one will run into trouble. Again I compare that figure with Iceland which sets its total allowable catches at 25 per cent of the assessed spawning stock biomass.

We have always failed to grapple with these issues, although of course every December at the Fisheries Council we have had to impose more and more draconian cuts on total allowable catches (TACs), simply because of past failure to address the issues. A long-term management recovery programme is needed. It needs to be supported by socio-economic programmes which recognise the harsh impact and the adverse consequences on European communities, which, after all, are the ultimate losers of the policy's failure.

I move on to May 2002. The Commission produced what were called the road map proposals. Again they were very welcome but not to everyone. The so-called "Friends of Fishing" countries—we refer to those in paragraph 6—were in denial. They continued to be very critical of what were seen to be extremely uncomfortable proposals.

The road map programme tried to move away from the highly political yearly negotiations on catch limits and to take greater account of eco-systems. It sought to put in place long-term management systems, which are not dependent on last-minute decisions on total allowable catches at the December Council meeting. However, inevitably, last December's Council meeting was a highly political and highly charged debate and the outcome was unsatisfactory for those of us,

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including Her Majesty's Government, who recognise the wisdom of the Commission's proposals. We state in paragraph 7:

    "The reformed CFP is the result of over four years of analysis and consultation, but it has in our view been emasculated by the back-sliding compromises made by the Council".

Box 2 on page 9 sets out the three new regulations which were agreed at that December Council meeting, the most important of which was the new basic regulation. It is described more fully in Box 3 on page 10. That basic regulation, so far as it goes and so far as it has been enacted, is very commendable. It seeks a strong commitment to the protection of the marine environment and a simpler fleet policy that puts responsibility for matching fishing capacity to fishing possibilities on member states. It proposes the establishment of regional advisory councils, which we very much welcome. It also suggests that where stocks are falling below safe biological limits, they must be managed by recovery programmes. All that is needed, and what we and others have asked for, is simple, transparent and bold measures which at last address these fundamental issues.

Since then progress has not been impressive. On the recovery programmes, which are perhaps the brunt of the issues arising from that new basic regulation, proposals for cod and then hake were published in May this year. That is listed in Box 1 on page 6. They are very complicated—a bureaucratic nightmare—and certainly will not win the hearts and minds of the fishing industry.

The proposals were discussed at the July Council meeting. Perhaps not surprisingly they were noted and it was decided that more discussions were needed. At the September Council meeting last month fisheries did not even get a mention. So noble Lords can see that we are not moving very fast.

I am clear in my own mind—perhaps I am naive, but I am sure your Lordships will understand—that what is needed is a very simple solution which people can understand and which is transparent. Therefore, people will recognise that however sharp or draconian the proposals might appear, at least there will be rough justice. Why not, for example, just halve everyone's effort of 2002? We know, after all, what the fishing effort was in the year 2002. Just cut it all by half in each area for all gears and vessel types. At least people would understand that. It may not be possible, but that is the issue that one addresses. Should noble Lords think that the ratcheting up of total allowable catches every year is having the desired effect, I just report from the compliance report on cod and hake stocks, which came with the bundle of documents referring to their recovery programmes. It states:

    "Despite the TACs for these species being reduced by 40% from 2000 to 2001 the services of the Commission concluded on the basis of an analysis made by its inspectors that fishing effort or the catch rates in the fisheries concerned had not been significantly reduced in 2001".

In other words, the Ministers sit there making all these brave decisions about cutting TACs and doing this and that, while on the ground, or rather in the sea, it

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does not have the slightest effect. People continue to catch because of economic pressure. If one has a ship and is trying to make a return and one thinks that the enforcement is uneven, which it clearly is, to say the least, then one will catch beyond the quota or non-targeted species.

The most shabby compromise of all made at that December Council meeting—it was forced on the Council by the blocking minority of six countries, the so-called "Friends of Fishing"—was the concession to continue to give subsidies for the renewal of fishing vessels under conditions set out in Box 6 on page 18 of our report. These subsidies can be paid up to the end of 2004. Just think about that: we recognise that we have a chronic problem and we are still subsidising people to modernise their fishing vessels. No wonder our neighbours around the European Union do not take us seriously. It is unbelievable that we should still be subsidising the modernisation of fishing vessels in some member states—and I hasten to say that our own fishing industry does not benefit from that. We stated in our report:

    "We regard this as further evidence of the continuing lack of political will by the majority of the Council of Ministers to support genuine reform of the CFP".

Regional management is seen widely as crucial to solving some of the fundamental problems of the common fisheries policy. We were encouraged by the proposal to have regional advisory councils. That is of vital importance because it will bring fishermen into a degree of involvement in the management of fishery stock. It is urgently needed, but, alas, we can detect no sense of urgency in the setting up of these regional advisory councils or in determining their powers, who will appoint them and so on. It is deeply depressing.

We hoped that the establishment of regional advisory councils would enable the Council of Ministers to focus on medium and long-term strategy, rather than getting bogged down in yearly, highly political negotiations on total allowable catches and quotas. If we consider Australia, New Zealand or the United States, the depoliticising of fisheries management has been a key factor in achieving more sustainable fishing practice. If any management system needs depoliticising, it is that of the European Union.

In Chapter 3, we refer to the economics of fisheries and suggest—this is perhaps a statement of the obvious—that until we address the fundamental economics of fisheries, we will never move away from over-exploitation of a common resource from which each individual fisherman is trying to extract an economic return. Property rights are being used elsewhere and, in the long term, will be an ideal solution. Such property rights could be territorial rights, individual catch quotas or community fishing rights.

However, there is no prospect of agreeing the allocation of such property rights within the European Union—I suspect, even between Scotland and England—at present. To do that, we need much more data than are available. In the Government's response to our report, they agree that there is a dire shortage of economic data. So the first thing we must do is to

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supplement the rather meagre information provided on a haphazard and voluntary basis to the Sea Fish Industry Authority. Something inexpensive but much more authoritative must be produced.

Incidentally, in the long term, we need much more research on what we mean by ecosystem management. We have to think only of the permanent debates about the predation of seals or the influence of the taking of sand eels to recognise that we know little about the basic facts of what impacts on fish stocks and how fishing impacts on other forms of biodiversity. In the short term, we will not be able to agree on property rights; in the long term we simply must.

The Scottish Executive hopes to remove about 70 vessels under its present decommissioning scheme costing #40 million, to which it is adding another #10 million in transitional support. It remains to be seen whether that will be sufficient in Scotland to make an impact on recovery of cod stocks and, of course, that does not affect the rest of the United Kingdom. The consequences, whether in Scotland or England, of those overdue measures as a result of the failure of the common fisheries policy to reduce capacity are dire for the fishing industry. Whatever euphemism we use about reducing capacity, we are actually talking about removing jobs. The impact is of course on fishing communities around the coast.

That returns me to the EU structural funds. We recognise what a low priority fisheries or coastal society have at present in the distribution of structural funds. We strongly support the Commission's proposals to explore the possibility of decoupling the financial instrument for fisheries guidance from fishing activity in favour of investment in coastal communities. If we are to tackle that problem, there will be considerable European-scale funding implications for those communities.

About two or three years ago, the Commission realised that the common fisheries policy was a failure and came up with far-reaching proposals. A blocking minority of member states, in denial about the scale of that failure, has sought compromises and delays. That is what is happening. Recent Council meetings give me no confidence that there is any sense of urgency. The fishing industry deserves better from its Council representatives, from the Council of Ministers. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on Progress of Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (25th Report, HL Paper 109).—(The Earl of Selborne.)

12.24 p.m.

Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in congratulating my noble friend Lord Selbourne and his Committee on the interesting report that they have submitted for our consideration. They have done important work in highlighting a vast range of problems. The content of the report makes rather depressing reading. My noble friend and his Committee produced an earlier report on the subject. I know that the Government had also

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been hoping for much more advanced action on this front than has been possible. I think that all noble Lords will deeply regret the action of what my noble friend referred to as the blocking minority, which has prevented what should have happened by now.

I want to focus on what may seem to be a somewhat narrow aspect of the Committee's work, but one that is none the less important: the effects of by-catch, especially on cetaceans. The European Commission and the member states have a legal and political obligation to protect cetaceans. Article 11 of the Habitats Directive requires:

    "Member States shall undertake surveillance of the conservation status of cetaceans".

Article 12 stipulates:

    "Member States shall take the requisite measures to establish a system of strict protection"

of those animals, including a system to monitor their incidental capture or killing, so as to ascertain what further research and conservation measures are needed.

On 20th December last year, three new regulations were agreed by the Fisheries Council. Regulation 2371 sets obligations to minimise the impact of fishing on marine ecosystems. Article 3 of COM185 states clearly that fisheries management shall be based on the principle that,

    "absence of adequate scientific information should not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take measures to conserve target species, associated or dependent species and non-target species and their environment".

As box 2 on page 9 of the report, to which my noble friend has already drawn our attention, shows, the Commission has proposed an action plan. It states:

    "As part of this Action Plan, in the Summer 2003, the Commission will propose measures to minimise by-catches of cetaceans in fishing-gear".

Those Council regulations have been welcomed, but effective action has been frankly disappointing. As the Joint Nature Conservation Committee made clear in its valuable written submission and evidence to the Select Committee, there is a weakness in the regulations in the,

    "lack of explicit tie-in to many other relevant EU marine initiatives, including the Biodiversity Action Plan for Fisheries, the 6th Environment Action Plan, the European Marine Strategy and objectives on issues such as cetacean bycatch (regulations on this have been promised for some time)".

An early draft of regulations on reduction of small cetacean—dolphin and porpoise—by-catch was available last December. However, small cetacean by-catch remains unsustainable in a number of fisheries. It is estimated that tens of thousands of cetaceans are dying in fishing nets in European waters each year.

I am indebted to Liz Sandeman, the energetic co-founder of The Marine Connection, a charity dedicated to the protection of whales and dolphins in the United Kingdom and worldwide, for informing me of the alarming and increasing scale of the slaughter of cetacean animals.

It became apparent earlier this year that small cetacean deaths, nearly all of them common dolphins, in Cornwall and Devon alone were up approximately 33 per cent on the previous year. Nearly 7,000 harbour

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porpoises are caught annually in Danish North Sea gillnet fisheries and 1,000 in the United Kingdom. Many of the porpoises, whales and dolphins are killed in trawl nets. Up to 50 dolphins may be taken in a single tow. The most destructive of all the pelagic—that is to say, mid-water—trawlers are the pair trawlers. Scottish, English, French and Dutch pair trawlers fishing for sea bass in the Western Approaches tow nets of gigantic proportions. As many as 10 jumbo jets could easily fit inside one net.

The extent of that indiscriminate slaughter is, I know, fully recognised by the Minister for Fisheries, Water and Nature Protection, Mr Elliot Morley MP. In his foreword to the Government's excellent consultation paper, UK Small Cetacean Bycatch Response Strategy, published in March this year, he stated that he had been concerned,

    "for a number of years about the numbers of dolphin and porpoise casualties".

He acknowledged that there is,

    "a commitment on behalf of the European Commission to bring forward measures to reduce cetacean bycatch but"—

this is the depressing part—

    "it may be some time before this is translated into action".

That gloomy conclusion is now reinforced by the findings of your Lordships' committee.

It is regrettably the case that the Commission's proposals were fiercely opposed by some EU countries. As my noble friend has already pointed out, paragraph 6 of his committee's report described how:

    "The six so-called 'Friends of Fishing' countries—Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Ireland—decried the measures as draconian".

No wonder the Minister found it all "agonising".

To their credit, it appears that the Government are not prepared to wait on the EU but will press ahead with interim measures of their own. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, told me recently in answer to a Written Question that I had tabled, the consultation period on the Government's White Paper concluded on 13th June, and Ministers are analysing the responses with a view to taking decisions on the way forward later this year. Already there are research trials into the use of separator grids and other net modifications. The Government also recommend further trials on the use of acoustic deterrents in pelagic trawl fisheries. I suggest that that needs to be done with some care.

I am sure that the noble Lord will have seen the report in The Times yesterday, headlined:

    "Fatal trauma of whales deceived by navy sonar".

The effect of low-frequency activated sonar on cetaceans has been known for some time—certainly since 1996. Dr Caroline Lucas, a Member of the European Parliament, has done valuable work to draw the attention of the public, the European Parliament and the Commission to the appalling damage that low-frequency activated sonar appears to cause. That certainly could be one of the main causes of cetacean death. I know that low-frequency activated sonar (LFAS), as it is known, is of great importance in our

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defence. It is used for submarine detection. But there is every indication that much more powerful LFASs are being brought into action. That is very dangerous.

However, I readily acknowledge what the Government are doing. They seem to recognise that there is now a need for urgent further action. It is clearly advisable that action should be based upon reliable scientific knowledge and evidence. However, the pursuit of statistics must not become an end in itself. The need for continuing research, which is important, should not become the excuse for inaction. I take some comfort from section 5 of the Government's consultation paper. While accepting the need to support the planned survey to provide updated abundance estimates of those small cetaceans believed to be subject to high levels of bycatch, they recommend,

    "that methods to identify trends in populations of harbour porpoises, common dolphin and bottlenose dolphin be identified and set up as a matter of urgency".

I am less sanguine, however, about the suggestions on monitoring. Too much faith is being placed in voluntary action. More robust action is needed. In particular, legal measures should be introduced immediately to require a much higher percentage of the fishing effort to be covered by onboard observers, with penalties imposed where there is obstruction or intimidation.

In conclusion, let me repeat the words that I quoted at the beginning. Article 12 of the habitat directive calls on member states,

    "to establish a system of strict protection"

of these animals. Since, as the Select Committee found, there is regrettably too much evidence of the lack of any real political will to address the major problems of fisheries management in Europe as a whole, will the British Government now press ahead and do as much as they possibly can, as a matter of urgency, on their own? The cruel and needless slaughter of these fascinating, sensitive and magnificent animals must stop.

12.37 p.m.

Baroness Billingham: My Lords, today's debate is entitled "Report of the European Union Committee on Progress of Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy". A cynic might assert that progress is, at best, slow and reform negligible. But common sense tells us that, despite what can only be described as disappointing progress to date, there is potential to avert a real disaster—but only if common sense and a common purpose hold sway.

The problems surrounding the European fishing industry are certainly not new. They are well laid out in the report published in May this year. In brief, there is too much capacity in the European fishing fleet, set against too small and dwindling fish stocks. There is very low profitability within the industry, with meagre income levels, usually in areas of poor employment opportunity. Add to that the traditional pattern of family-based fishing activity and the cycle of deprivation becomes accentuated. The product, fish, is

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relatively cheap, with low profit margins to fishermen, and appeals only in a very narrow range to the consumer—mainly, in this case, cod and hake.

All in all, it is an equation of decline. To an objective outsider, all that adds up to an impoverished future with little prospect of optimism. In reality, fishermen, in order to make a decent living, are forced to overexploit the fish stocks, even against their better judgment.

Our report says:

    "When many fishermen have access to the same fish stock, each has a reason to grab as large a share of the potential yield as possible lest the other fishermen reap all the benefit".

The outcome of this strategy is that the more aggressive fishermen plunge heedlessly for a quick return and quick profit, ignoring all the warning signs. They are frequently aided and abetted by irresponsible media reporting which throws into doubt scientific and expert witness, with a large slice of xenophobia thrown in for good measure.

Unless the existing pattern of over-fishing is heeded, the inevitable outcome will be the reduction or even collapse of fish stocks, little or no net economic benefit and the eventual implosion of the European fishing industry. Yet that doomsday scenario is set against the clearest warning, not only from scientific evidence, but actual examples such as that of the Canadian fishing industry.

For centuries, the Canadian Grand Banks were prime fishing grounds. Atlantic cod fed entire communities. The factory trawlers that moved into the area exacted a dreadful toll. Stocks collapsed and in 1992 the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed the fishery. In November 2002, all the remaining cod fisheries were closed down as the stocks showed no sign of recovery. That is still the case today. All the wide-ranging scientific evidence that we took as a committee underlined the growing threat to cod and hake, in both the short and long term. The Minister, Elliot Morley, could not have been more explicit or realistic:

    "If you look at the actual figures in relation to cod stocks, you can see a very clear decline over the past 20 years, and a trend that goes straight down. The recommended safe level or minimum level is about 60,000 tonnes of biomass and scientists would ideally like to achieve 150,000 tonnes of biomass, so you can see how far away we are from that, and how the stocks are very much on the brink. It was an agonising Council—"

he was referring to the council of December 2002—

    "with very difficult choices to make. In the end, however, I thought that they were choices that I could not duck in relation to the scientific evidence".

The Minister was perfectly correct. The final outcome of the negotiations proved, as has already been said today, extremely disappointing.

If we add to the equation of decline the fact that we currently have a common fisheries policy which subsidises fleet modernisation and even the building of bigger and better fishing vessels, then we are right to blink in disbelief. Thus the Gordian knot grows even more complex. It is a ludicrous situation with member states vying with each other to pressurise the Commission to relax its constraints. The Commission

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and, indeed, Commissioner Fischler, take an entirely sensible line with this problem. The terms set out by them are realistic and sound. They endorse, indeed promote, the long-term prognosis of decline in the fish stocks, proposing very stern measures to curb over-fishing.

What really disappointed our committee and what is clearly stated in our report is how the Commission was hobbled and seriously compromised when the Council of Ministers bowed to the special pleading by member states. Of course, such poor performance leads to criticism of the EU as a whole and the Commission in particular—an open goal for Eurosceptics. However, just imagine the mayhem of individual countries going it alone. The Commission may not yet have delivered the hoped-for outcome, but without its mediation I suspect that there would be no prospect of a sensible outcome.

Other factors affect the industry. Our Committee deplored the level of allowable catches—TACs—that have been set far too high to achieve stock recovery. Bizarrely, funds will continue to be made available for new and more efficient fishing vessels until the end of 2004. Unless we see a move towards the Commission's original proposals, which, for example, see allowable catches on a multi-annual basis rather than year by year, and unless we institute effort controls—allocation to each member state of kilowatt days measured by the multiplication of engine power by days spent fishing—the outcome will prove disastrous. We must also have the certainty of enforcement, satellite scrutiny and rigorous inspection, which have also been mentioned, in order to underpin the recommendations of the Commission.

It was no surprise when the six so-called friends of fishing countries—France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Ireland—cried, "Foul", against the Commission's proposals, but what was quite shocking was the inability of the council to see beyond the sectorial interest being used to emasculate the proposals. We were heartened by Elliot Morley's responses both orally and in written evidence to the committee. The Minister made plain his support for the Commission's strategy. We also welcomed his support for the strengthening of scientific evidence on marine ecosystems as a basis for advice and action.

During the gathering of evidence for our report, some members of the committee visited the Scottish fisheries to hear the arguments first hand. As a result of their findings, our report stresses the need for transitional aid to the fishing industry as part of the recovery programme. We emphasise that compensation should be time-limited for those fishermen who are forced not to exercise their access rights.

We have some cause for optimism in this area. The European Parliament voted in February 2003 to set up a special 150 million ecus emergency fund to support the white fish sector. The proposal would allocate 50 million ecus to transitional aid for forced tie-up schemes in 2003, and a further 100 million ecus in 2004 for golden handshakes, early retirement and retraining grants.

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In our conclusion, we welcome the strong commitment in the new basic regulations. However, we deplore the fact that no firm recovery plans for the key stocks of cod and hake are yet in place. We are pessimistic, thinking that the Commission's strong line will continue to be thwarted by some member states, deaf to the evidence before them. We regret the missed opportunity to downsize the European fishing fleet yet again. A summary of our conclusions on pages 28 and 29 of our report makes uncomfortable reading. The prognosis is clear. Unless we take action now, we will see a repeat of the Canadian experience around our own shores.

This is the second report on the common fisheries policy undertaken by Sub-Committee D. Veterans of the first report, of which I am not one, tell me that very little progress has been made in the interim. I very much hope that if I am part of the next report in a few years' time, we will be able to bring back to the House a more positive picture than the one that we offer noble Lords today. If not, it may well prove to be too late.

Before sitting down, I add my thanks to the people who helped us to produce this report. It was well organised and a very rich experience for someone serving on that committee and dealing with this report for the first time. I also thank all the people who came to us to give evidence. Lastly, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for the way in which he chaired the committee with such skill. He had an adept way of dealing with everything.

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