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House of Lords

Thursday, 24 January 2008.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.

Scottish Sovereignty

The Earl of Mar and Kellie asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Davidson of Glen Clova): My Lords, under the Treaty of Union of 1707 both England and Scotland ceded sovereignty to form the basis for the United Kingdom. The Government have no intention of discussing the break-up of the union. Public support for the union in Scotland is shown to be overwhelming both in opinion polls and elections.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his Answer, which I suspect disappoints me. Community development officers are tasked with meeting local communities, helping them to decide what they would like to do and then discovering how to do it. Since I believe that sovereignty and dependency are issues for the residents of Scotland, I hope that the United Kingdom Government will approach these issues with an open mind and an even hand. If so, was the Secretary of State for Scotland correct in setting up a Scottish constitutional commission with a unionist, devolution-only remit? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that that is unfair to those seeking political independence or, indeed, a return to direct rule? Is the—

Noble Lords: Order.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the noble Earl has had a good shot at asking his question. I think that we are ready for the answer.

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, I am delighted to answer the various points. The commission or the Scottish parliamentary review is an initiative led by the Holyrood leaders of the three pro-union parties. It is both cross-party and cross-border. I hope that provides at least some answer to the noble Earl.

Lord Maxton: My Lords, as a member of the constitutional convention in the 1990s, I remind the House and the noble Earl that the SNP was invited to join that convention to discuss the constitutional future of Scotland but refused to take part in it. I also remind the noble Earl that there was no overwhelming demand

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for independence at the general election. In fact, Alex Salmond is First Minister on the basis of 48 votes in one constituency.

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, possibly I did not require to be reminded of some of this. I have noticed that there has been a small alteration in the Administration of Scotland, where there is apparently a minority, separatist flavour in power.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, since the Question refers to community, does the noble and learned Lord agree that Scotland is less likely to move towards independence because of the policies of the SNP than, perhaps, because of the lack of interest shown by the community in England?

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, the strength lies within the union, and that union is made up of the respective communities. Developing the communities in Scotland only adds to the strength of the union.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I recognise that the Government do not intend at this time to engage in any discussion of sovereignty but what consideration is being given to the enhancement of the powers of the Scottish Parliament? What method of reporting does the noble and learned Lord think appropriate, considering that this matter is one for the Westminster Parliament?

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, it appears that the area in which this is being developed is through the Scottish parliamentary review. At this stage, the Prime Minister has made his position quite clear; namely, that it is a good thing that the respective parties in Scotland are having a debate about the devolution issue. He will await the outcome of those discussions before commenting further. I respectfully share that position.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, although the Question refers to Scotland, does the noble and learned Lord accept that Wales and Scotland are not mere adjuncts to England but are countries and nations in their own right? Whatever the relationship between them and the United Kingdom, reality should start from the bedrock basis that they are nations and countries.

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, of course, as a Scot, I could find it very difficult to disagree with the noble Lord in any shape or form. Both Wales and Scotland have contributed enormously to the union. We are all stronger for it, and so is the United Kingdom.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend accept that the devolution settlement established by the Scotland Act 1998 puts in place a settlement that is good for Scotland, good for the United Kingdom and provides the best of all possible worlds?

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Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, again, I find some difficulty to cavil with the language chosen there. Devolution strengthens the union and allows diversity within it.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, will the Minister have an open mind when he has this review, remembering that a nation such as Slovenia, which is part of the old Yugoslavia, with only 2 million people, now holds the presidency of the European Union? Wales and Scotland might also be able to follow that role model.

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, I have always found a lack of attraction in a closed mind. Therefore, I entirely endorse the noble Lord’s suggestion. The way in which the review proceeds is not under this Minister but by the Scottish parties at Holyrood.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the Scottish Independence Convention is this morning launching a petition to the Scottish Parliament for a referendum on political independence?

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, until a few minutes ago that question fell to be answered in the negative. However, I am now aware. On the way in which the petition comes before the Scottish Parliament, it will, initially at least in Scotland, be a question of whether it falls within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord learn from my noble kinsman’s and my joint ancestor, who failed in the 1715 rebellion? Perhaps our family is not the one to take advice from.

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: My Lords, I will note that suggestion.

Transport: Boatmasters’ Licence

11.14 am

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, in order to properly address the concerns of many small seasonal operators who consider the current training requirements an unreasonable burden, the Government are minded to introduce a new level to tier 2 licences for use in specific tidal areas. Such a decision will be made with due consideration given to the responses to formal consultation.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I am incredibly grateful to my noble friend for that really positive Answer. It is good that pressure from regional ferry operators, particularly in Cornwall, has had this wonderful effect. I am particularly pleased because the Marine and Coastguard Agency, to which I originally wrote, does not seem to answer letters, even after nearly two

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months; I am glad that she has responded. Does she agree that the existing regulation that would require skippers of these small seasonal ferries to have 360 days’ training over five years is more appropriate for a cross-channel ferry than for a small ferry carrying 15 or 20 people across an estuary?

Baroness Crawley: Yes, my Lords. In answer to the noble Lord’s first observation, I am sure that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will read the report in Hansard of this Question and will take due note of his criticism. On his latter question: yes, the boatmen of small ferries and boats that operate, usually very regularly, in restricted tidal waters near the coast or in estuaries have tried out the new regulations for its first season and have talked to us about the difficulties. They feel that the requirements are excessive, disproportionate and represent an unreasonable burden. We have listened.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, by not replying to letters from Members of this House for two months and saying that it does not have any appointments, is stepping well beyond the bounds of proper regulation? In her correspondence with the agency, will she make it clear that when Members of this House raise matters with regulatory agencies, they expect a prompt answer?

Baroness Crawley: Yes, my Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and I shall raise that matter.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I declare an interest as secretary of the House of Lords Yacht Club. How many small passenger vessels are there in the United Kingdom and are they all British-flagged?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, as I understand it, 720 vessels fall into the relevant category. Some will work on tidal waters and some on non-tidal waters. I shall write to the noble Lord on the second part of his question, about flags.

Lord Greenway: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, in thanking the Minister for that positive response. What is the position of craft that go further offshore, which has been the case over the years? Does she have in her brief details of any changes to the law following the disaster to a small boat called “Darlwin”, which got into difficulties and foundered off the Cornish coast many years ago, with the loss of a number of lives?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I do not have details in my brief of that tragic incident. I will correspond with the noble Lord about that. These regulations, as laid down in the new boatmasters’ licence regime, deal with inland waterways and coastal areas that are restricted to three miles off coast or 15 miles from point.

Lord Elton: My Lords, three miles is quite a long way. What do holders of tier 2 licences not have to know that holders of tier 1 licences do have to know? What is their relevance to the fourth mile off the coast?

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Baroness Crawley: My Lords, with regard to three or four miles, a line must be drawn somewhere, as the noble Lord knows. The tier 1 licence covers mainly freight operators, but it can cover passenger operators, too. It covers skippers who want to operate right around the UK, so they will want a real variety of experiences and their knowledge would have to underpin those experiences. They will have to ensure that they can meet all those requirements around the UK, so we are talking about a nationally based qualification.

The tier 2 licences are more local. One of the letters I received was from a skipper who talked about the four-minute crossing of Fowey Harbour by the Polruan ferry. A regular four-minute crossing, be it seasonal or part time, would be a very different experience from that of a national freight operator.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, having been a passenger on that ferry, will the Minister confirm that generally these vessels, and the routes mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, have an exemplary safety record, and that, in terms of risk analysis, it would be safe to have some deregulation in this area, as the Minister suggested?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, any operator taking passengers would be required to have a rigorous knowledge of their local conditions, excellent boat handling skills and good general seamanship. On the issue of an excellent safety record, there would be anecdotal evidence to that effect. However, there is no central collation of water-related accident statistics at present; they are all held by the separate emergency organisations—police, fire, ambulance and coast guard agency—but the department is helping to fund a project currently being undertaken by the National Water Safety Forum to do just that—to collate all those numbers.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I apologise to the House, but I forgot to declare that I am a harbour commissioner in the port of Fowey.

Fishing: Common Fisheries Policy

11.22 am

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, no estimates exist for the overall amount of discards in European Union fisheries. However, there is a general recognition that this problem needs to be accurately addressed. We are working with the fishing industry, as well as with the Commission and other member states, to find appropriate solutions that affect the particular circumstances of individual fisheries.

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Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. Let us hope that this proposed reform, like others before it, does not end up in the long seaweed.

When the Minister says that there are no official estimates, is he aware that Fisheries Commissioner Borg has estimated that 880,000 tonnes of fish are thrown back dead every year? If the Government accept that an articulated lorry holds 42 tonnes of fish, do they agree that the EU’s dead fish amount to 20,000 articulated lorries, which would fill the Palace of Westminster, and Whitehall, several times over? Will the noble Lord tell us precisely who has been blocking reform of this policy for so many years, and how?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says about estimates of discards, and they are to be regretted. I cannot confirm his figures, but the figures that we have indicate that the level of discards is unacceptably high. In terms of percentage of the catch, in certain areas, that can be as high as 60 or 70 per cent. Clearly, that issue needs to be confronted.

Who is blocking reform? No one is doing so. The problem is acute and difficult. Fishermen cannot control the fish they catch, but they are allowed to land only certain fish for the market. Consequently, they discard those fish that are not marketable; they also discard fish that are less profitable than those that might be caught subsequently on the fishing trip. All these processes build up the possibility of discard. The issue for the European Commission, the community as a whole, and everyone concerned with the welfare of the fishing industry, is how we control this waste, when it is clear that fishermen have a perverse incentive to indulge in it.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, is it not quite clearly the case that New Zealand and Norway have quota systems, like the European Union, which do not allow discards? It is quite possible to do that through the trading of quotas at the end of fishing periods. Is not the real answer to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, that qualified majority voting is needed to make real progress in the European Union on the common fisheries policy; and does not the European reform treaty, at last, do that?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I thought we might broaden the debate to issues concerned with European policy makers, but let me stay with the fishing industry. It is not easy to control discards. I hear what the noble Lord says about Norway and New Zealand being successful. Iceland also has a strong policy in this area. However, there is a great deal of doubt about whether those policies work effectively. We are not sure that banning discards, which the European Commission is looking at very seriously, is the solution to the problem. The British Government’s approach is rather one of encouraging fishermen to employ the appropriate gear for the catch that they intend to take so that they do not, inadvertently, catch other fish that are then subject to discard.

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