New Clause 8 - Agency arrangements between sea fish licensing authorities

Part of Fisheries Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 13th October 2020.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 7:15 pm, 13th October 2020

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My experience of Government is that there are issues that sometimes just dot around the civil service waiting for a Minister who is prepared to pick them up and give them a go. This issue is not new. I know that the Minister’s predecessor, Mr Goodwill, faced a similar dilemma and reached a very different conclusion. I strongly suspect that this has been slipped in at the last minute because officials somewhere wanted to advance it. The Minister should have resisted this. I say to her gently that this will not just be nodded through when the Bill gets to the other place. It will require and get more substantial scrutiny there.

As Deidre Brock, who spoke for the Scottish nationalists, said at the start of her speech, there is a lot of uncertainty around the fishing industry at the moment, and that uncertainty is very damaging. It is worth reminding the House that the reason for that uncertainty was the decision by the former Prime Minister, and the current Prime Minister, to enter into a withdrawal agreement that put an agreement on fishing into the political declaration. When that decision was made by the former Prime Minister, I remember that the hon. Members for South East Cornwall and for Moray (Douglas Ross), and others, were rather unhappy about it, as was I, and we are now reaping the whirlwind of that somewhat ill-advised decision.

I will now turn to new clauses 11 and 12. One of the things that still delights me about speaking in this place is the opportunity to make the Chair feel very uneasy when we discuss matters to which the sub judice rule might apply. I know that the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers would get very excited, and if I were to do that they would be jumping up and down as if there were springs in their shoes. You may sit easy, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I will not be speaking tonight about something that is sub judice, although it absolutely should be. Indeed, if we had right the balance between law and justice, it certainly would be sub judice, and the skipper of the Pesorsa Dos, a Spanish gillnetter that was operating 30 miles to the west of Shetland in June, would be awaiting trial for an offence such as the one that I have put before the House in new clause 12.

Constituents of mine were crewing the Alison Kay, and they were operating in grounds that have long been used as fishing grounds for the Shetland fleet, close to an area where the skipper of the Spanish trawler had just shot his gillnets. Gillnets run to several miles long and are left in for a long time, and they are a particularly unsustainable mode of fishing. The skipper of the Pesorsa Dos saw the Alison Kay trawling nearby, and because it is a much bigger vessel, he essentially tried to muscle the Alison Kay out of those fishing grounds. That was bad enough in itself, but what followed was utterly culpable and reckless. The skipper shot a rope into the water in a deliberate attempt to foul the propeller of the Alison Kay. Goodness only knows what might have happened to that boat and its crew if he had been successful.

That was not the first instance of that sort—there had been tension in those fishing grounds for a long time—but it was the first time that it got videoed, and those videos were then posted online, and people were able to see it for themselves. I suggest that all right hon. and hon. Members look at that video, because it is absolutely chilling.

As the local Member of Parliament I raised the issue with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which said, “This is dreadful, this is dangerous, but we can do nothing about it. It happened outside our jurisdiction, which stops at the 12-mile limit.” The case was then passed to the German Government, because the Spanish trawler was flagged in Germany.

I have a letter from 1 January from the Dienststelle Schiffssicherheit in the German Government, and as an exercise in legal adjudication, it fails some of the most basic tests. It gives the other side of an argument, but the German Government enforcement authorities have looked only at the case put to them by the owners and operators of Pesorsa Dos, and they made no effort to hear the case from the Alison Kay. As far as they are concerned, the matter is closed. The Minister said that the Department had been in correspondence with the German Government, but the letter I have is from 1 July. If the Minister would be prepared to, I invite her to publish the correspondence between our Government and the German Government, because I think that a bit of transparency and daylight is needed.

These vessels are commercial operations. It goes without saying there is a lot of money involved, and I am pretty sure that the answer to the question, “How is this allowed to happen?” is a simple one: the skipper of the Pesorsa Dos did what he did because he knew that he could and that he could get off with it. When he tried the same thing—or something similar; I do not know exactly what the case was—in Irish waters, they detained the vessel, took it into court, and it was tied up. That is what really concentrates the mind, because if the ship is tied up in the harbour it is not out on the sea earning money for its owners. That is the sort of power and control that we need to have and to exercise on behalf of our fishermen and our fleet in our exclusive economic zone.

That is why I hope the Minister will have something more positive to say when she comes to reply to this debate. We know that this is a problem. It has been a problem for a long time, it will continue to be a problem and it will get worse. Eventually, a Government Minister will stand at that Dispatch Box to table a clause of the sort that I have tabled tonight, but he or she will be doing that because there has been loss of life or serious loss of property, because the things that we know can happen will have happened. Let us not wait until that point. We know what the problem is. Let us act on it and let us sort it now.