Registration of Fish Buyers and Sellers and Designation of Fish Auction Sites Regulations 2005

– in the House of Lords at 10:17 pm on 20th July 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Spokespersons In the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 10:17 pm, 20th July 2005

rose to move to resolve, That this House regrets that Her Majesty's Government have not considered that the Registration of Fish Buyers and Sellers and Designation of Fish Auction Sites Regulations 2005 inappropriately implement European legislation (SI 2005/1605) [5th Report from Merits Committee.]

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Spokespersons In the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee has stated that:

"These Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the grounds that they give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House, and that they may inappropriately implement European legislation".

I am particularly grateful to the Minister and to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, who so kindly waited to be able to take this piece of business through tonight. In all fairness, this business should have come before the private Bills that have just had their Second Reading, but I am doubly grateful that they have been willing to hang on.

The committee has produced a report which, at two full pages with a one and a half page index, is longer than normal and contains some concerns. The regulations are intended to implement fully the EU regulations of 1993 and the extensions of 2002. Those provisions cover the registration of those involved in the sale or purchase of first sale fish and the designation of auction sites. As drafted, the regulations allow a derogation for direct sales of less than 25 kilograms of first sale fish, provided that it is intended for personal consumption. In effect, the regulations extend to vessels of less than 10 metres the requirements to provide sales notes in respect of all sales over 25 kilograms and non-personal sales under that limit.

The sales notes are to be supplied to the relevant authority within 48 hours of the sale taking place. The explanatory information in the appendix states that the time limit and the contents of the sales notes are laid down by the EU. Will the Minister confirm that the EU demands that sales notes are to be submitted within 48 hours of the completion of the sale? The wording of the statutory instrument suggests that the true requirement is 28 days. I refer the Minister to Section 5(5)(b). I wonder whether we are not over bureaucratically interpreting the system.

Will the Minister also confirm that sales notes relating to customers who purchase first sale fish daily and are invoiced weekly or monthly will be considered to cover the same period? I am thinking of seaside hotels and bed-and-breakfasts supplied to a standing order from harbour stalls run by local fishermen.

The Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee report also details the effect of these new demands. In 2004 there were about 73,000 recorded landings of fish from small boats. These landings may have been grouped on some occasions; on others they may have gone to several outlets. Calculating the total of sales notes generated is largely guesswork but is thought to number about 100,000 at a cost of at least £400,000.

I find that figure a little low and would like to ask the Minister whether his department has revisited those costs since the RIA was done and, if so, whether they hold to the original published figures because the committee refers to significant costs in its report.

I would also like to ask the Minister whether the Government have made any attempt to obtain an exemption from these requirements on the grounds, as stated by the committee, that,

"the obligation creates a disproportionate burden compared to the economic importance of the activity".

The committee also questions what the fisheries department will do with 100,000 or more sales notes every year. Will that be a reason further to increase the number of civil servants? Will the notes be transposed to a computer record and, if so, why is there no requirement for them to be typed, or is that yet another job to be created?

I should like to ask how the regulations will impinge on the fisherman who sells his catch from a stall in or near the harbour? Are these regulations designed to force him out of business, particularly as they operate above 25 kilograms when the consultation related originally to 50 kilograms and to all non-personal purchases? What will happen about one-off sales, for example, for a charity function or family celebration that needs more than 25 kilograms?

I hope that the noble Lord will respond to two further questions. Christopher Booker's column in the Sunday Telegraph last week referred to a report—I believe that a noble Lord may be laughing slightly about that but it is a serious issue on which I seek clarification—in the Western Morning News. Mr Booker states:

"The paper had plucked from a report by Mr Bradshaw a proposal that small inshore fishermen should pay £1,000-a-year for a licence, as a contribution to the ever-growing cost of regulating their activities".

If that is true, it is, indeed, worrying. Presumably, that would be over and above the demands already being made through the statutory instrument. The article claims that Mr Bradshaw's ministry maintained that,

"It is currently Defra's policy to charge for regulatory services; that it would therefore be appropriate to apply this to the inshore fishermen and that this could raise around £2.5 million a year".

I would be grateful for the comments of the Minister on that.

Finally, because it is so topical and relates again to statutory instruments, I refer the Minister to the recent publication by the European Union Committee, which considered the European fisheries legislation. In the report of 11 July—it is very current—the committee talks about improving the scrutiny of EU fisheries policy. Item 9 in the report says:

"Currently therefore, there is a two week window in which both the Governmental and Parliamentary scrutiny can take place between the publication of formal Commission proposals and the Council meeting".

I shall not go on to quote the next part, but it is there to be read. It goes on in recommendation 10:

"The Committee accepts that the United Kingdom Government are placed in a difficult situation regarding fisheries scrutiny. However, it would be unacceptable for the current situation to continue".

I then jump to recommendation 14, which states:

"We therefore urge the Government to take forward the improvement of the decision-making process for fisheries management as a matter of urgency under their Presidency".

I would be grateful if the Minister would touch on both those points. I realise that they are slightly wider than the original statutory instrument, but they obviously have a direct bearing on the cost to our inshore fishermen.

Moved to resolve, That this House regrets that Her Majesty's Government have not considered that the Registration of Fish Buyers and Sellers and Designation of Fish Auction Sites Regulations 2005 inappropriately implement European legislation (S.I. 2005/1605). [5th Report from Merits Committee.]—(Baroness Byford.)

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for bringing this to the attention of the House and for giving us the opportunity to debate the comments of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee on it. I was really struck by the strength of its language. It is not a committee that is known for using strong language when it comes to passing comments. That the committee used such language and went on to explain the queries about the regulation in such detail suggests that it is very concerned.

I believe that the committee is concerned that this seems to be a bureaucrat's answer to what is undoubtedly a problem. Underpinning the problem that the regulation was trying to address is the issue of tackling the trade in black fish and getting some idea of what is being landed where and whether that tallies with the selling notes. I referred to the excellent report, Net Benefits, produced by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit last year, which talked about a light-touch data collection approach to the under-10 metre fleet and emphasised that the inshore fisheries fleet should not be seen as a vehicle for trying to implement a marine management system. Indeed, that is exactly what the regulation as it has been interpreted for implementation in the UK is trying to do.

Is the Minister satisfied with the public consultation that has taken place? Although I note in the memorandum that came round with it that some 50 responses have been received, I say to him that, for example, the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee has just received itand will discuss it at next Friday's meeting. Of course, that response has not been received, but I can imagine some of the things that they might say when they came to discuss it. Rick Stein's restaurant in Padstow is generally regarded to have underpinned a lot of the regeneration of Padstow. There is also Damien Hirst's restaurant in Ilfracombe. No doubt, the Minister will say when he comes to reply that the restaurants would have to do the paperwork anyway, so it will not lay an extra burden on them. However, they have not had an opportunity to comment because, as I said, the comments from Devon simply are not in.

There are no obvious environmental benefits to be gained by implementing the regulation in this way; but there are possible economic disbenefits because it adds another layer of bureaucracy—perhaps not for restaurants of that scale but certainly for smaller buyers. Perhaps the Minister will remind the House exactly what will be the penalty if they do not fulfil the regulations. That undermines much of the effort of those involved in regeneration through fresh local food tying in with tourism in areas such as Devon and Cornwall, which is an objective 1 area in great need of such regeneration.

Why does the Minister think that such a bureaucratic approach will tackle what is fundamentally an environmental problem? Once again, I say how grateful I am to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. In this instance, it was a pleasure, rather than a burden, for me to stay on to debate it, because I was so pleased for the opportunity to speak about it.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy) 10:30 pm, 20th July 2005

My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Baronesses who have contributed to this short debate. It has highlighted some important points, which I shall do my best to answer.

First, it is important for the House to understand the background to the introduction of this statutory instrument. European Council Regulation 2847/93—the control regulation—sets out the detailed rules on the first sale of fish, including the provision of sales notes. The control regulation applies directly in the UK, and the regulations that we are considering make provision for its enforcement and administration.

The House has great respect for the Merits Committee; I do also. Of course, we are concerned when it expresses concern about the impact of any measure. Here, it is concerned about the impact that the measure will have upon buyers of direct sale fish from smaller fishing vessels. The committee also notes that EU legislation envisages that exemptions from compliance obligations may be considered if those obligations create a disproportionate burden compared to the economic importance of the activity. That is certainly true, but such exemptions cannot be adopted at national level; they have to be agreed by the Community.

It is difficult to see how that could be achieved in this case, as many other member states have routinely required sales notes in respect of landings from vessels of under 10 metres for a number of years. It would also be difficult to justify in terms of stock conservation, as it would seriously weaken the controls —not referred to in the previous two speeches—that are necessary to ensure the effective conservation of fish stocks. It has been said that under 10-metre vessels account only for 5 per cent of catches of quota stocks. That is true, but I remind the House that there are notable exceptions. They account, for instance, for over a quarter of the catch of Channel cod, a stock currently subject to stock recovery measures.

As has been noted, the regulations, in line with the control regulation, provide an exemption from compliance for purchases of less than 25 kilogrammes direct from fishing vessels by individuals for personal consumption. The noble Baroness asked why that limit was not 50 kilogrammes. The proposal for a 50 kilogramme limit was reduced to 25 kilogrammes at the request of the fishing industry. Therefore, the practice of individuals wanting to buy fish directly from vessels is in no way altered, providing that it is not for onward commercial sale.

I remind the House that, in November 2003, the UK received a letter starting infraction proceedings against it for shortcomings in fisheries control arrangements. The letter specifically refers to the need to ensure that independent information regarding fish landings is available from sales notes. The UK's response refers to the new arrangements to be introduced under the regulations which we are now considering. During recent visits to the UK, Commission inspectors asked about progress in the area, noted that the requirements were not yet in place, and were assured that that was imminent. We are aware that Commission officials are currently considering the legal arguments for taking the proceedings forward to the next stage.

Noble Lords will no doubt be aware that last week France was fined a lump sum of €20 million for failing to comply with its obligations under the common fisheries policy, with a periodic penalty of almost €58 million for each subsequent six-month period over which the failure continues. Although the process of infraction against the UK has some way to go before it reaches the stage of the French case, the recent fines illustrate the levels of potential penalties for non-compliance.

If it ended there, that might be one thing. However, the arguments in favour of this statutory instrument do not simply relate to legalistic questions and the risk of infraction proceedings, however serious, against this country. The requirements will bring real practical benefits in relation to the control of illegal landings of fish. As the House knows, such "black fish" landings threaten the long-term future of the fishing industry and are detrimental to those who operate within the law. As the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report on a sustainable and profitable fishing industry said:

"The current levels of non-compliance are a problem because they disrupt efforts to recover stocks, undermine trust in the system and corrupt incentives within the industry . . . Fishermen cite the illegal landings by other fishermen as the most important reason for their own illegal actions. Such perceptions and attitudes are deeply corrosive".

The Strategy Unit goes on to recommend the introduction of a high transparency system where all catches and landings are traced through markets and processors, with enforcement focusing more on forensic accounting. The regulations provide the foundation for such an approach. As the report of our European Union Committee on European Union fisheries legislation—House of Lords Paper 24—concluded,

"it is vital that mechanisms for compliance with EU regulations are improved".

The Merits Committee and this debate have raised important points about the regulations, particularly in respect of proportionality as regards the burden placed on buyers purchasing directly from smaller boats. I recognise that that is a new requirement for such purchasers, and we have been aware of the need to minimise its impact. Registration as a buyer is a one-off process for which no charge is made, and some restaurants and pubs may even find advantage in being able to tell their clients that they are registered to buy fish fresh from the boat. As regards the practicalities, there is no reason why fishermen cannot complete the detail of sales notes for their customers, with the customer simply checking and vouching for its accuracy. In the longer term, Defra is working to develop a system which will allow for the electronic submission of sales notes, reducing costs and enabling automatic cross-checking of information from different sources.

There remains the question of whether landings from boats of under 10 metres are significant enough to justify imposing the same requirements as on larger boats. The fleet of boats of under 10 metres numbers 5,000, and in some respects they are more lightly regulated than other fishing vessels. Because of that, over the past decade there has been a significant increase in the catching capability of those boats, as the Strategy Unit pointed out.

Let me tell the House briefly what the position was and what it will be. At the moment for boats of over 10 metres, fishermen need to complete log sheets of catches on board and submit landing declarations to the department. For boats of under 10 metres, fishermen have no such duties but some submit sales notes, and fisheries officers carry out sampling of merchants' records to estimate landings for boats of under 10 metres. The new arrangements will provide, first, for independent cross-checks of over 10 metre landing information—that is crucial—secondly, a new duty on buyers purchasing directly from fishermen to provide sales notes and, thirdly, better information about under 10 metre landings.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked about the submission of sales notes within 28 days. Section 5(5)(b) of the regulations, to which she drew the attention of the House, relates not to sales notes, but to records kept by buyers, which fisheries departments may ask to see.

She also asked what the department would do with sales notes. They are recorded in fishing databases within two years and we hope to have an automatic cross-checking of information. She asked how the regulations would impinge on fishermen who sold their catches from stalls. The answer is that fishermen selling their own catches on their own stalls to members of the public for personal consumption will not be affected by the regulations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about public consultation. There were two full rounds of consultation with stakeholders before the regulations were made, including with the sea fisheries committees.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, raised two other issues. She asked, first, about an article in the Sunday Telegraph, which was followed up in the Western Morning News. There is no plan to slap a £1,000 charge on inshore fishermen or anyone else. Frankly, many misleading reports have been published in the press about that and I welcome the opportunity that she has given me to set the record straight. A report published last year on marine fisheries and environmental enforcement, the Bradley review, suggested a £1,000 charge on inshore fishermen and the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report, to which I have referred, published last year, recommended charging the industry more generally. In our response, Securing the Benefits, we recognised that arrangements for recovering government costs exist in many areas and, in principle, that that should be the case for fisheries. However, we recognise that there are complex questions to consider, including the impact on competitiveness. For that reason, charging would be considered only alongside the steps that were set out in Securing the Benefits to make the sector more sustainable and profitable. We are not planning to impose, at this stage, a charge of £1,000, or any other sum.

The noble Baroness also asked me about the European Union Committee report of 11 July. We are, indeed, giving priority during our presidency to improving the decision-making process for fisheries management—for example, in relation to the decisions currently taken, as the noble Baroness knows so well, every December in the Fisheries Council.

In conclusion, I know that the House shares our concern to ensure that fisheries activities are properly controlled and, particularly, that illegal fishing is prevented, because such activity threatens the long-term future of this industry and is detrimental to those who operate within the law. The regulations will make such illegal practices more difficult and will provide the ability to verify information on landings from other sources. The under 10 metre boats are an important component of our fishing fleet and EU requirements in this area apply to them directly. As I have said, the UK cannot unilaterally exempt those vessels from the new requirements, so I do not believe that the regulations, which are a central plank of our efforts to secure the sustainability and profitability of the fishing industry, inappropriately implement European legislation.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Spokespersons In the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for so carefully going through the queries that we have raised. It would seem churlish of me to challenge him, particularly with regard to the article in the Daily Telegraph. But the issue was taken up, because it was copied from the Ministry website of Mr Bradshaw. Clearly, something is amiss, but it is too late in the night and I do not wish to follow that line. However, I should be grateful if, at some stage, the Minister might check that, because either it was on Mr Bradshaw's website or it was not. That is a question of fact.

The second issue that the Minister covered was the illegal landing of fish. I share the deep concern expressed by him and other noble Lords about that. How much illegal landing of that sort of fish is done through very small boats of 10 metres and under? I do not expect him to answer me tonight, but I presume that the department makes some estimates of from whence this illegal fish is being landed, whether from the bigger fishing fleets, foreign fishing fleets or small fishing fleets. If the Minister could come back to me with clarification, I would be grateful.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for her kind words and for being willing to be here to raise this important issue. Those who fish from smaller inshore boats have been through difficult times, as I am sure the Minister is aware. It would seem to us unfortunate if extra responsibilities and regulations were placed upon them that would make them even less competitive and less profitable in the future.

The time is late. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at fourteen minutes before eleven o'clock.