Amendment 94

Part of Fisheries Bill [HL] - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 9th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Worthington Baroness Worthington Crossbench 6:45 pm, 9th March 2020

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 105 in my name. We are getting to the heart of the Bill in this discussion and amendment grouping. The advice I sought when seeking to amend Clause 25 was: “Don’t bother; rewrite it.” It has been hastily drafted and gives little clarity to legislators, hence the desire to present a different Clause 25. At the heart of that lies the insertion of the basic principle that the right to fish is held in public trust, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said.

To clarify, in coming out of the CFP we are establishing a new legal system in the UK. That is a tiered approach which takes back control of our waters, and creates a clear process which establishes the concept of a legal fishing right, held in trust for the public. We are dispensing with business as usual, carrying on as we were, and tinkering at the edges. We are fundamentally trying to make it clear that the Secretary of State holds in trust for the public the right to give out the property right to fish.

The reason we need this in the heart of the Bill is that, by being silent on this issue and not clarifying it, we are in danger of allowing the courts to continue to make precedent that will determine how these rights are viewed. In one case, the Association of Fish Producer Organisations took the Government to court over an attempted reallocation of the FQA. Mr Justice Cranston at the time found in favour, essentially conferring a property right on a representative body of private interests to the detriment of the public interest. It is crucial the Bill addresses this, and Amendment 105 is my best attempt, with the assistance of expert legal advisers, to redraft this clause to be crystal clear.

As drafted, Clause 25 is confusing. I urge the Minister to ask his officials why the clause starts with reference back to something that we are leaving. We are supposed to be writing fit-for-purpose legislation to determine our own future, yet here we are, referencing the common fisheries policy. The clause as drafted is therefore unclear, obscure and hard to follow.

The proposed new clause tries to introduce the very important principle that this is

“public property held on trust for the people”.

That must be the basis on which we go forward. The criteria we use for the transferal of this publicly held trust into private hands must be completely transparent and objective. The Minister will, I am sure, point me towards Clause 1, which sets out a lot of lovely objectives. Those objectives are fantastic, but what links them to the fundamental process of the allocation of rights and of fishing opportunities? There is no link, except in the plans, which we have yet to see and will not be able to scrutinise. This proposed new clause would require that we set out transparent objective criteria for the process of moving the allocation from public to private ownership.

Proposed new subsection (5) sets out that we should have the ability to reward selective fishing gear and the use of techniques that reduce environmental impact. I am not in any way saying that it is perfect to include this here, but it is an important principle that when allocating these rights we should attach conditions, as we have done in the agricultural debate, to something that is being transferred from public trust to private ownership. It is simply not good enough to say that they employ people and make a small contribution to GDP; they have to be responsible for helping restore our natural environment to the point at which it can be fished sustainably and we can see a more vibrant industry as a result.

I was reflecting on the Minister’s comment on the previous group that we cannot be overly onerous or restrictive in our rights-giving, because others will not do that, so there is no point. I am afraid that is a bit of a weak argument, and I hope I have misunderstood the Minister. The field I am most experienced in is climate change; another tragedy of the commons. Exactly the same argument was played back to us by various parts of government when we were trying to pass the Climate Change Act, which restricts the UK’s emissions of greenhouse gases: “What’s the point in the UK going further? If others are going to cheat the system, we need to be allowed to cheat too.” Clearly, that is a race to the bottom; we need to inspire a race to the top. The only way to trigger such a race is to grasp this opportunity and set out world-class legislation. If we say that we have to cheat because others are cheating, we will not get anywhere; it will be a continuation of where we are today. And where we are today is dismal for everyone, fishers included.

I encourage the Minister to question his officials, even further than he already does, on the principle of our not going further than the perceived lack of action overseas. We are taking back control and it is incumbent on us to use it wisely and not, in the passing of the Bill, tie our hands by stating in any way that we will continue with the system of handing out quota according to current perceived property rights. We must start with a fresh slate.

I do not want to rehearse arguments we have had before on the devolution issues, but it ought to be crystal clear that we are taking back the ability to set our own fishing management plans. That is of course subject to negotiation, but we go into those negotiations in the spirit of levelling up and inspiring better behaviour, not of descending to the level we have seen in the past through the CFP. With the UK Secretary of State conducting those negotiations on behalf of the four devolved nations, the outcomes should be clearly passed through to them. I do not believe that anything in the proposed new clause goes against the devolution settlements. Devolved matters can be respected but, at the same time, we need to be really clear about how UK negotiations on allocations will go out to the four devolved countries.

I would hate to think that some sort of deal has been negotiated, outside the scrutiny of Parliament, in which an agreement has been reached and the allocation of the pie already settled, and that all we are doing now is arguing over what we might get more of through the repatriation of quota currently used by foreign vessels. If that is all we are doing, we have missed a massive opportunity. We must start from the basis of making fishing more sustainable across the piece. That requires us to have conversations with the devolved nations about whether the effort is correct at the moment, or whether there needs to be a redistribution.

I note the other amendments in the group on redistribution to the under-10-metre fleets and on allowing new entrants. Those are hugely important measures, but if all we are doing is squabbling about the imagined repatriation of some small extra quota, we are missing the opportunity to look again at whether we are distributing in the right way what is essentially a public asset.

I apologise for getting rather out of breath, but I am very passionate about this. I will allow other noble Lords to come in on these issues, but I will say this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, noted, this is complex, and as we get into the details it gets ever more complex. But Clause 25 as drafted does not help us and does not offer clarity. We need to link the objectives set out at the start of the Bill with the mechanics of the Bill in a much more rigorous way. We need the ability to question and review, and to come forward with a transition—no one is saying that there will be a revolution overnight. We cannot tie our hands legally by accidentally continuing the status quo: that must be our guiding principle as we scrutinise this legislation. I am delighted to take part in this debate.