Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill

– in the House of Lords at 11:16 am on 23rd June 2000.

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Photo of Lord Burlison Lord Burlison Labour 11:16 am, 23rd June 2000

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Hayman, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill fulfils a government commitment to introduce legislation as soon as the legislative programme permits in order to give statutory authority to charges made by the Sea Fish Industry Authority for handling applications for fishing vessel grants. Those charges were discontinued in May 1996. The Bill is short and straightforward but, as with many legal issues, the background is complex. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will find helpful my introduction to the issues which required the Bill to be introduced.

First, I should make it clear that the Bill is not a vehicle for introducing financial assistance to the fisheries industry. It is intended solely to deal with charges levied in the past. The Bill's purpose is to ensure the validity of charges levied by the Sea Fish Industry Authority between 1st October 1981 and 3rd May 1996 in connection with its administration of grant schemes made under the Fisheries Act 1981. It also ensures the validity of charges made by the Sea Fish Industry Authority's predecessor, the Herring Industry Board, between March 1972 and October 1981. The Herring Industry Board was abolished in 1981 but its liabilities were transferred to the SFIA.

The first charges which the Bill intends to validate are those known as "technical charges". They were levied by the Sea Fish Industry Authority to cover the costs of various checks and inspections during the period from 1st October 1981 to 3rd May 1996 under five different fishing vessel grant schemes.

Under a succession of schemes made under Section 15 of the Fisheries Act 1981, grants have been made available to fishermen in the UK for the construction, improvement and safety of vessels. They have all been administered by the Sea Fish Industry Authority on behalf of Ministers, as provided for by Section 16 of the Fisheries Act 1981. The SFIA is a non-departmental public body established under the Fisheries Act 1981 to promote the interests of the fishing industry.

The SFIA's technical charge covered the costs incurred by SFIA marine surveyors in inspecting a vessel at the application stage to check on what work was needed, including the examination of technical specifications and plans, and an inspection on the completion of the work so that the surveyor could satisfy himself that it had been carried out properly. The charge was calculated on a sliding scale, but was roughly 4 per cent. of the work, although a maximum ceiling was set to limit the charge applied to larger applications. The charge was eligible for grant aid and the SFIA deducted the total charge from the amount of grant paid to the beneficiary.

When material that the SFIA produced to implement a fishing vessel grant scheme in 1995 was examined, questions were raised within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about whether the charging powers given to the authority under Section 3(2) of the Fisheries Act were sufficient to cover the technical charges. A key consideration was that the SFIA was administering the schemes under Section 16 of the 1981 Act as the agent of Ministers. In that role, the authority could have no powers which the Ministers themselves lacked. Ministers did not have the statutory power to levy the technical charges if they had administered the schemes themselves, so it was considered most unlikely that the authority had that power. However, I must make it absolutely clear that at all times the SFIA acted in good faith, believing that it had the power to levy the charges.

This was an extremely complex legal issue to unravel. To help noble Lords who are interested in these legal arguments, we have placed a note on the legal background to the Bill in the Library of the House. As soon as lawyers concluded that, in all probability, the technical charge did not have a statutory basis, the SFIA was told and stopped. MAFF wrote to the SFIA on 3rd May 1996 confirming the instruction given over the telephone that day to cease levying the charge immediately.

It was subsequently decided that the charge should not be reintroduced, as the nature of the grant scheme had changed and much less technical work was involved in processing applications. The Bill does not give authority to any charges made after 3rd May 1996, so it gives no authority for their reintroduction.

Noble Lords may also be concerned about whether the Bill has human rights implications. That has been looked at very carefully. It is considered that, if challenged, the provisions of the Bill would be likely to be held compatible with Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which relates to the protection of property, in particular by virtue of the public interest defence in that article.

The charges concerned were reasonable and were never challenged or questioned by those making the payments. The cost of repaying them would be disproportionate to the benefits that such repayment would confer on those to whom it was made. On those grounds, the usual statement has been made that the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the convention rights. That is why the Government always made it clear that they did not intend to meet any claims that were brought before the legislation was in place.

There are precedents for the provision of retrospective statutory authority for similar charges. The Birds (Registration Charges) Act 1997 validated charges levied under Sections 6 and 7 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for the registration of the selling of certain dead wild birds. Similar legislation was also agreed for fees that the Department of the Environment levied in respect of local planning authorities and the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1954 gave authority to past payments made to the Postmaster General for wireless transmission and receiving licences.

Background work for the introduction of the Bill raised the possibility that similar charges levied by a predecessor body of the SFIA--the Herring Industry Board--in connection with the schemes of financial assistance made under the Sea Fish Industry Act 1970 and earlier legislation consolidated in that Act might also have been ultra vires. After careful consideration, it was concluded that the HIB also had no power to levy those charges. Consistent with the treatment of the SFIA charges, it was decided to extend the coverage of the Bill to the HIB.

A total of £7.3 million in charges covering 13,000 cases was levied over a period of about 30 years. That amounts to an average of no more than £560 per case. A small part of many of the charges was levied for technical advice--such as assisting applicants to choose the appropriate equipment--that was not directly connected with handling the grant application. The SFIA has powers under the Fisheries Act 1981 to charge for such advice, but it would be extremely difficult to separate that now from charges for the work that has necessitated the Bill.

Because of the time delay, it is difficult to be more precise about the exact amount of the charge. Many of the boats that were subject to the charge in the early days of its application may no longer exist and their owners may, sadly, have passed away. Boats will also have changed hands, and because they may have had multiple owners it would be extremely difficult to follow up each case. The Government carefully considered all those factors before deciding to legislate.

The Bill's first main operative provision in Clause 1(1) is to ensure the validity of the charges levied by the Sea Fish Industry Authority between 1st October 1981 and 3rd May 1996 in connection with its administration of the five fishing vessel grant schemes made under Section 15 of the Fisheries Act 1981 and specified in subsection (2)(a) to (e).

Clause 2(1) makes provision to ensure the validity of the same technical charges levied by the Herring Industry Board between March 1972 and October 1981 in connection with its administration of the two fishing vessel grant schemes specified in subsection (2)(a) and (b).

Clause 3(1) cites the full name of the Bill. On legal advice, the SFIA ceased to levy charges for this administration work from 3rd May 1996 onwards. Clause 3(2) is necessary to make it clear that the Bill does not facilitate their reintroduction after that date. Clause 3(3) is necessary to establish that the Bill extends to the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Burlison.)

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 11:27 am, 23rd June 2000

My Lords, given the Minister's full explanation of this retrospective and technical Bill and given that there was no opposition from the industry to it, we have no points to make.

Photo of Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, first of all, perhaps I should thank the Government for the Bill. For three years, between 1990 and 1993, I was the chairman of the Sea Fish Industry Authority. Suddenly I discover that we were levying charges illegally. On behalf of my predecessor and my successor, I thank the Government for clearing up the issue.

If this debate had taken place while I was the chairman, I would not have been able to speak in it, because my interpretation of the Addison rules is that I should not speak on issues to do with a non-departmental public body that I chaired. I detect that that view is not observed in quite the same strict way as I observed it in the early 1990s.

Had the Minister been here, I might have chosen to make a slightly longer speech on the problems of the fishing industry and the role that the Sea Fish Industry Authority plays in it. I want to say, however, that the work done over many years by the marine surveyors employed by that authority was of huge importance. Some of the schemes mentioned in Clause 1 were very important in modernising the British fishing fleet and building new vessels.

I do not expect the Minister to answer this point but I want to put it on the record. One of the worries that we had in the early 1990s--and it is of even greater concern today--is that our fleet is an ageing one. New vessels are still coming in because, despite the problems, many parts of the industry are still quite vibrant and economically successfully. But new vessels are not coming in at the same rate as they were in the 1980s and early 1990s when those schemes were available to give grants to help fishermen build new boats. That problem is increasing. Although I am not entirely sure of the statistics now, they were certainly beginning to be rather worrying in the early 1990s.

Of course, the problem with an ageing fleet is that fishing is not carried out so efficiently. That may not be a bad thing when we consider the pressures on fishing stocks. But the more worrying problem of an ageing fleet is safety and concern that vessels were often not built to the same modern safety standards we should expect today.

That is a worry. But I do not suggest for a moment that the Government should reintroduce the grants. It would be slightly odd if the Government were paying out for a new build at the same time as paying out for decommissioning. I find it rather strange that some of our European Union friends are happily going on helping and encouraging new build while at the same time trying to pretend that they are obeying the MAGP targets for the size of the fleet.

I have described part of the work of the Sea Fish Industry Authority. The marine surveyor staff has been reduced markedly. One of the difficult tasks I had to do as chairman was to make quite significant redundancies in that department simply because the grant schemes for the new build were coming to an end for all the reasons I have outlined.

The two grant schemes which continued while I was chairman and which have now ceased are those contained in Clause 1(2)(d) and (e). They relate to safety. The Government have stopped the safety grants. I understand why they have done so. They feel that if there are mandatory requirements to obey safety rules, then the industry should pay for them. I understand that.

But one of the problems in the fishing industry is not just safety equipment; it is the way fishermen behave and how they treat and deal with safety. That involves training. The authority fulfilled that role. I wonder whether the noble Lord will convey to his noble friend the Minister the need to look seriously at some form of help for training in the fishing industry.

After coalmining--and with the reduction in deep mining, it may now well not be after coalmining--fishing is one of the most dangerous industries in which to work. Your Lordships will know that every winter and, indeed, sometimes in the summer, fishermen's lives are lost at sea. So it is an industry where training and safety measures are of the utmost importance. It would be of benefit to the industry if the Government were to reintroduce grants for safety operations, even if they only helped with training. It would not cost very much and the fishing industry receives little help from the Government compared with, for example, agriculture. It would be help which the industry would certainly welcome.

I have said all I need to say. I welcome the Bill. As the Minister said, absolutely nobody has complained about the charges because the fishermen all greatly appreciated the work, help and advice they received from the marine surveyors. In so far as anybody is ever happy to pay charges, they were happy to pay for the services they received.

Photo of Lord Burlison Lord Burlison Labour 11:34 am, 23rd June 2000

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments made on the Bill. In particular, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. He is well qualified to judge the Bill legally. His experience of the sea fish industry perhaps exceeds that of any other noble Lord here today.

In relation to the point which the noble Lord made about ageing vessels, we agree that fleet renewal needs to take place. But we want that to happen on a sustainable basis, using the industry's own assets and earnings potential. There can be no justification for using public money to subsidise the investment which would not otherwise take place or which risks creating capacity beyond what the stocks will bear.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, mentioned safety grants. Indeed, safety at sea is an important issue. The Government are concerned for the fishing industry to improve its record. The Government believe that the old scheme, which grant-aided mandatory safety equipment, was not effective in reducing the number of accidents. The Government are looking to change the safety culture of the industry, perhaps with an emphasis on the very point the noble Lord made in relation to training and in particular in the context of any funding available for the new programme of structural measures.

The question of training for fishermen is entirely outside the scope of the Bill. But the noble Lord's comments are perfectly acceptable in view of his experience of the industry. We recognise that the fishing industry is one of the most dangerous and that the level of accidents is unacceptable. The Government are keen to promote safety in the industry. Under the 2000-2006 EU grants programme, the Government are considering with the industry whether those funds could be directed towards the training of fishermen in safety matters in order to change the safety culture in the industry and encourage more safety consciousness. The funding priorities for the grants programme have not yet been agreed by Ministers and I shall keep the noble Lord informed of developments in that area. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.