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Amendment 22

Part of Fisheries Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:45 pm, 24th June 2020

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her amendment, because it has provided the opportunity to debate the important subject of ensuring that the UK benefits from the valuable natural resource within our seas, a resource that is a vital source of food for our nation. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh spoke powerfully of the really great communities along our coasts; we need to support them. I reassure the noble Baroness that this Government strongly agree with the sentiment behind the amendment. This is precisely why the Bill already accounts for both the amendment’s aim, as I understand it, and the means needed to achieve that aim.

Throughout the drafting of the Bill, the Government have been scrupulous in their respect for the devolution settlements. The Bill legislates for the UK as a whole only where the matter is reserved, or at the request of, and with the full agreement of, the devolved Administrations. For example, the fisheries objectives have been the result of a fruitful collaborative effort with the devolved Administrations, who have all laid positive legislative consent memoranda to begin the process set out in the Sewel convention. Accepting this amendment would mean legislating in areas of devolved competence. It would impose fisheries management policies on the devolved Administrations without their consent. Officials have engaged with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations and while they too recognise the intention behind the amendment, it has caused them great concern. I address this particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and I think the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, also touched on it, but, for instance, owing to the particular circumstances on the island of Ireland, at times it may need to take a different approach to the rest of the UK if necessary. This amendment would prohibit that, and we simply could not accept that.

I now address a concern raised by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, but also by my noble friends Lord Blencathra, Lord Naseby and Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell. Of course, I recognise what the noble Baroness said about the consultation provision, but it is unclear what would happen as a result of the consultation if a devolved Minister did not want to agree to this landing requirement, as the Secretary of State is still bound to bring forward UK-wide regulations even without devolved Administration consent.

Turning to how I believe the amendment’s aim is met in the Bill, in Clause 1 the national benefit objective acknowledges that all UK boats fishing against the UK’s fishing opportunities should bring benefits to the United Kingdom. Under this objective, each fisheries policy authority is required to have policies in place to achieve it, while allowing each the flexibility to do so in its own way and in a manner which respects the devolved status of fisheries management.

That policy is currently achieved through licence conditions which ensure that all UK fishing vessels fishing against UK quota demonstrate a link to the UK economy. This condition can be met in a number of ways, each of which brings different benefits to the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned a number of them, but I think it is important that I put on the record exactly the range of them. Those ways include landing at least 50% of their quota stock catch into UK ports; employing a crew at least 50% of whom are normally resident in the UK; spending at least 50% of operating expenditure in UK coastal areas; or by demonstrating an economic link in another way, usually through the donation of quota to the under-10-metre pool. That was a point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra also remarked—saying it much better than I shall—that Schedule 3 to the Bill provides each fisheries licensing authority with the power to attach conditions to the licences that it issues, and reproduces and clarifies existing powers in the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967. This includes conditions that explicitly relate to where fish caught by UK vessels must be landed, as in the existing economic link condition. The Government fully intend to continue using these powers in the future and, as committed to in the fisheries White Paper, are reviewing the economic link and will look to increase the impact and effectiveness of the condition in England.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised the issue of foreign companies. Foreign-owned and UK flag vessels will be allowed to fish in UK waters. The economic link criteria will ensure that the UK accrues benefit from fish caught in UK waters by UK boats, which is what these boats are. The national benefit objective in the Bill also demonstrates our commitment to ensure that a benefit is felt in the UK from foreign companies that own British fishing vessels. As I say, we are reviewing the economic link condition and associated practices as part of our development of future fisheries management arrangements.

I was interested in the fact—this is really for the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—that in 2018 there were 2,923 fishing vessels registered in England. Of these, only 27 failed to meet the economic link 50% landing requirement. Of those 27, 22 donated quota worth £2.5 million to the English under-10-metre pool to be fished by the inshore fleet, and five employed a crew a majority of whom were resident in England.

One of the problems that we have with the amendment is that it would move away from the existing approach of using licence conditions. Making regulations to operate the economic link instead of using licence conditions would significantly limit the ability of the fisheries administrations to respond to changing circumstances. Under the current approach we have the ability to adjust licence conditions at short notice—indeed, within a few weeks if necessary—which can be essential for responding effectively to events. The time required to adjust legislation is inevitably considerably longer.

We have long been frustrated by the inflexibility of the common fisheries policy and do not want to impose further inflexibility through our domestic legislation. A number of Peers have raised this issue. We recognise the importance of the economic link, which is why we have committed to consult on it and why we do not think it appropriate to prescribe the outcome of that consultation before it is finished, as I think is the premise of the amendment. The amendment seeks the economic link to be based solely on a percentage landing requirement rather than the full variety of ways that I have outlined through which vessel owners can demonstrate an economic link. Clearly, this would reduce flexibility in the system. For example—I say this particularly to my noble friends Lord Naseby and Lord Holmes of Richmond and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick—it would prevent UK vessels landing in a foreign port if it was the best market for their catch, while enabling them to demonstrate an economic link to the UK in another way. Furthermore, in accepting the amendment I believe we would lose the other benefits of the existing system; I have already spoken of the quota available for the English under-10-metre pool.

My final point concerns the scope of the amendment. It would extend this landing requirement to any foreign vessels that may be licensed to fish in UK waters in future. Access for foreign fishing vessels will be a matter for negotiation and, from 11 pm on 31 December this year, will be permissible only on the UK’s terms. It is through these negotiations that the Government will ensure that the UK benefits from the fishing activity of any foreign vessels in UK waters. Should any access arrangements be agreed, the Bill enables the Government to attach conditions to any licences issued to foreign vessels as necessary. We believe that imposing requirements of this kind on foreign vessels in a manner separate from negotiations would be impractical, and I think my noble and learned friend suggested that it would be unwise. Many foreign boats will already be required to demonstrate an economic link with their flag states; furthermore, this would risk UK vessels facing similar reciprocal measures.

In summary, the Bill already sets out the objective that fishing activity by UK vessels should benefit the UK, and provides the power necessary to place landing requirements on vessels, as is currently done with the economic link licence condition. Furthermore, it does so in a way that is compatible with the devolution settlements and, in our view, allows for a wider range of benefits to the UK than would be provided by a uniform landing requirement.

I give the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, some assurance: the new grant-making power in the Bill, which gives powers to the Secretary of State and devolved Ministers, will allow funding to be given to support infrastructure development, but of course it will be up to the devolved Administrations to design their schemes.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering raised bycatch. Clause 1(6)(c) seeks to ensure the landing of bycatch where appropriate. I assure my noble friend that we can impose and enforce licence conditions through statutory instruments and by-laws, and we have further powers in Clause 36 to introduce statutory instruments on monitoring and enforcement.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, referred to British fishing boats. The definitions of UK fishing boats and British fishing boats have remained the same in this and previous versions of the Bill. The term “British-owned” is defined in Clause 48 but, although I have a long note on it, I think I will not go into that definition. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that 98% of Scottish vessels are domestically owned and land most of their catch in Scotland, as an example.

This has been an interesting debate. I think we are all united in wanting more vibrant seafaring and coastal communities across the UK. Like many noble Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Blencathra that we need to rebuild those communities, and we want to use the opportunities that are in the Bill. It is only a framework Bill but much more work on this issue will come before noble Lords for scrutiny, so there is further work to do.

However, I am concerned—I say this in honesty because, as I have said, I understand the aim of the noble Baroness’s amendment—because I and the Government think that the licence is better than regulation, and that flexibility is better than inflexibility. I agree with my noble and learned friend: I would question the wisdom of doing it at this particular time, not just in terms of our EU negotiations but because of our very good relationship in seeking to, yes, have a United Kingdom Bill at the request of the devolved Administrations, the complications of that and the fact that the amendment would require regulations from a UK Secretary of State, even if there may be a consultation element to it.

For those reasons, I could not recommend the amendment to your Lordships. I sense that the noble Baroness may well want to test the opinion of the House, but I say in all honesty that we see complications and difficulties with this amendment. Therefore, as is normal, I ask the noble Baroness if she would feel able to withdraw her amendment.