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Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I beg to move
The Bill would allow DARD and DCAL to fully meet EU obligations and commitments, therefore avoiding the threat of sanction, and ensure adequate and proportionate protection for marine and inland aquatic environments.
The Bill amends three pieces of fisheries legislation: the Fisheries Act 1966, the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 and the Fisheries Act 1981.
In the case of the 1966 Fisheries Act, the Bill makes changes on behalf of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Both Departments currently have powers under that Act. As the majority of the amendments contained in the Bill as introduced relate to powers for my Department, it was agreed that my Department would take the lead in bringing a single Bill to the Assembly on behalf of both Departments, rather than each Department bringing a separate Bill. Broadly speaking, my Department has responsibility for sea fisheries, and DCAL is responsible for inland fishing and salmon fisheries.
Sea fishing for the main commercially exploited species is regulated through the common fisheries policy (CFP). The CFP is directly enforceable here under the Fisheries Act 1981 or, in some cases, is implemented and enforced here using powers conferred by the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967.
While the EU legislates for most sea-fishing activities, the 1966 Fisheries Act regulates inshore fishing, which covers fishing vessels that mainly target shellfish by potting. Under the 1966 Act, my Department can make regulations for the management of sea fisheries in the area closest to our coastline. As noted, the Act also covers inland fishing and salmon fishing, both currently the responsibility of DCAL.
Sea fisheries legislation is required to ensure the protection of finite resources and to protect sensitive aquatic environments. The nature of sea fishing, and the difficulty regulating much of an activity that takes place at sea, means that there is a requirement for a lot of regulatory and enforcement activity. Robust legislation is required to ensure the protection of vulnerable fish stocks. Therefore, the industry accepts the need for strong enforcement powers. That is the only way to ensure that law-abiding fishermen and businesses can compete, as well as to ensure the sustainability of the stocks.
Changing the existing legislation is considered necessary to ensure that the regulatory framework remains fit for purpose and, crucially, to ensure that we can meet various EU requirements and other statutory obligations.
I will begin by briefly discussing Part 1, which relates to sea fishery powers. Clause 1 extends existing sea fishery regulatory powers specifically to allow regulations to prohibit or restrict fishing for sea fish without a permit issued by the Department. Specifically allowing for sea-fishing permit schemes would help to protect fisheries in the inshore area by ensuring that fishing could continue where environmental protections, for example, might otherwise curtail it.
Clause 2 amends existing order-making powers, which allow the Department to regulate for the catching and selling of undersized sea fish, by extending them to cover fish-over-maximum-size limits. That could allow larger shellfish to be returned to the sea to breed, should evidence come to light that that might improve stocks in any given area.
Clause 3 amends sea-fishing licensing powers on protection of the environment. My Department currently has the power to prohibit fishing by boats in any specified area without a licence. Such licences are subject to certain conditions relating to the protection of fish quotas and stocks. The clause will extend the conditions that can be included on licences in order to protect environmental features, as well as fish stocks, and could ensure that fishing continues in protected areas.
Clauses 4 and 5 seek to ensure that enforcement powers are both adequate and proportionate by affording DARD fisheries officers the same powers as their counterparts in Britain. In the main, the powers in the Bill are already enjoyed by fisheries officers here but are otherwise tailored to the piece of separate legislation to which they apply. The clauses provide clarity to industry and enforcers alike by providing consistent powers across all sea fisheries legislation.
In a technical yet vital amendment to the Fisheries Act 1981, clause 6 ensures that all EU common fisheries policy rules are directly enforceable without the need for additional legislation. Given that such EU measures are directly applicable here, there is little or no discretion available in the implementation by the Department, bound as we are to operate in a way that is fully compatible with EU law. However, recent EU audits have questioned why such EU legislation is not directly enforceable, as the Commission would expect it to be. Without that change, my Department will find it challenging to implement EU legislation by required deadlines. The Commission is already threatening to take action as a result of our inability to enforce legislation directly, and thus the change is essential at this point.
Clauses 7 and 8 provide considerable increases in the maximum penalties available to the courts for sea fisheries offences. Increasing maximum available penalties reflects the potential damage that can be done to fish stocks and sensitive environments and provides a more adequate deterrent to wrongdoing.
Clause 9 amends the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 to make it clear that, where an offence is committed by a company, the representatives of that company will be guilty if the offence occurs as a result of neglect as well as of consent.
Clauses 10 to 13 relate to DCAL inland fisheries powers. Clause 10 seeks to ensure that the 1966 Act complies with the EU services directive by removing a barrier for service providers to trade across borders. The clause removes the need for an application for a fish dealer's licence to be accompanied by an authorisation from a justice of the peace.
Clauses 11, 12 and 13 amend the 1966 Act to strengthen compliance with the water framework directive and the habitats directive by enhancing free passage for protected fish species. The Bill includes a series of measures to further protect fish within their freshwater range so that they can migrate both up and down rivers and so that juveniles can reach the sea safely.
Clauses 14 and 15 include powers on fixed administrative penalties for fisheries offences. Fixed penalties are widely used across all areas of enforcement and are generally accepted to improve overall compliance and to reduce the administrative burden and costs of legal representation. Importantly, acceptance of a fixed penalty will also mean that an individual can avoid the stigma of a criminal record.
Clause 16 sets out interpretations of the terms used in the Bill. Clause 17 provides a power to make consequential amendments. Clause 18 makes provision for the commencement of provisions in the Bill. It also makes provision for regulations regarding transitional, transitory or saving provisions. Clause 19 is the short title.
Given that the Bill was only introduced on 7 December 2015, I recognise that there is limited time for the Assembly to consider all the clauses in detail. For that reason, I have agreed with the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee to take forward to Final Stage only those clauses that the Committee is content that it has had time to consider fully and is content with. It is my wish that any matters not taken forward at that time be brought forward in a future mandate.
I ask the Assembly to support the Second Stage motion to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage. Go raibh míle maith agat.
As Members will be aware, although it is a Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Bill, clauses 10 to 13 refer to inland fisheries, which currently fall under the Culture, Arts and Leisure remit. Following the introduction of the Bill on 7 December 2015, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development sought to delegate scrutiny of those clauses to the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. The Committee provisionally agreed to that, subject to the outcome of a Bill consultation jointly sponsored by the two Committees.
At its meeting on 7 January 2015, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure considered correspondence from the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, research papers and consultee submissions relating to clauses 10 to 13 of the Fisheries Bill. From the outset, the Committee shared the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee's concerns regarding the extremely short timescale for completing the Committee Stage of the Bill to allow sufficient time for the Bill to complete its other stages. The Committee also shared the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee's concern that rushed scrutiny of the Bill could result in poor legislation.
Therefore, at its meeting on 7 January, the Committee reviewed the responses that it had received from stakeholders with respect to the joint consultation on the Bill with the ARD Committee. Those responses highlighted significant concerns about some of the proposals in the Bill. Members also received a briefing from Assembly researchers that echoed those concerns and raised further questions. Additionally, the Committee considered a research paper that examined the potential cost of implementing the Bill. Following discussion of those issues, the Committee agreed that there is neither sufficient time for members to bottom out those issues or to answer the questions that have been raised, nor is there time to develop and consider any potentially necessary amendments.
It is not that the Committee is unsupportive of the Bill. Members believe that the issues that it contains could and should be dealt with, possibly as part of a new and more focused consultation. However, the Committee does not believe that there is adequate time in this mandate to take forward all the clauses in the Bill in full confidence that they will make good legislation. As a result, the Committee has agreed that it will not undertake scrutiny of clauses 10 to 13.
It is the Committee's understanding that Minister O'Neill has indicated to the ARD Committee that, at Consideration Stage, she will take forward only those clauses on which it is content that there has been enough time for thorough scrutiny. Therefore, the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee has asked the ARD Committee to include clauses 10 to 13 with those with which it has concerns. Members agreed with the ARD Committee's view that the deferral of most of the provisions in the Bill to the next mandate would allow for better legislation that is of benefit to all stakeholder groups.
I will be very brief, and I do not intend to go through the clauses. The Bill will protect inland fisheries and the aquatic environment; it will protect threatened species of fish and crustaceans such as lobster, crab and shrimp. Protecting those species will help fish stocks to grow and will help to guarantee the livelihood of our fishing industry.
I thank the Minister for the way in which she has worked with the ARD Committee, especially on clause 6. I hope that the Assembly looks at the Bill and lets it go through, because it is something that we need. The industry is crying out for change, and a lot of the changes that it seeks are in the Bill. The Bill will bring legislation here in line with legislation in others parts of these islands.
I agree with everything that is in the Bill and hope that it has a safe passage.
I speak as the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and will reflect the various discussions that the Committee has had on the Bill.
The Minister sent a draft copy of the Bill and its associated documents to the Committee in early December. At that stage, she indicated that it had been cleared by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, using the urgent procedure for introduction to the Assembly on 7 December. The Bill was introduced very late in the parliamentary session and, as such, from the very beginning, the time frame for the completion of all its legislative stages, including Committee Stage, has been extremely tight.
The Bill falls into two distinct remits, namely inland fisheries and sea fisheries. Four clauses are specific to inland fisheries. This is a technically complex Bill in that it seeks to build upon and update a number of existing pieces of primary legislation, including the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967, the Sea Fisheries Act 1968, and the Fisheries Act 1981. In other words, this is primarily an amendment Bill. It will amend four other Acts, all of which are complex and technical in their own right.
As Members will be aware, Standing Orders allow the Committee 30 working days from the date of referral to consider and take evidence on the provisions of the Bill. At the end of the 30 days, a Committee must report its opinion, including proposals for amendments, to the Assembly. The Committee and indeed the Minister are allowed, by way of a motion to the Assembly, to extend the date for the Committee Stage. However, in this instance, 30 working days would have meant that the Committee would report on 22 February. In doing so, there would not be sufficient time for the Fisheries Bill to complete all its legislative stages. Final Stage would not be reached before Easter recess and the subsequent dissolution for Assembly elections. The Bill would, therefore, be likely to fall. To allow the Bill a reasonable chance to complete its passage to Final Stage before Easter recess, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development would need to complete its scrutiny and report by 15 February; that is, in fewer than 25 working days.
As I mentioned earlier, a section of the Bill deals with issues around inland fisheries. These are matters that currently fall to the remit of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, therefore, requested that Committee to consider and report on those sections as per Standing Order 64A. However, in order that the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development would receive any such report from the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure in time for consideration and incorporation into its report, it had to ask that Committee to report in a much shorter time frame. The Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure would be required to report in fewer than 20 working days. Even with this time frame, there is no guarantee that the Bill would complete its legislative passage before Easter recess and dissolution.
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development discussed this in some detail at its meeting on 1 December. Given that this is a complex and technical Bill, the Committee expressed concerns that it would be able to undertake effective and proper scrutiny of the Fisheries Bill within 30 working days let alone 25 days. The Committee had, therefore, real concerns that rushing its scrutiny of the Bill would result in poor legislation and that, ultimately, this would not be in the interests of the fishing industry or those communities that rely on that industry. The Committee is aware that, some time ago, there was a departmental consultation on the policy proposals of the Bill. However, the Department has not formally consulted with the relevant stakeholders on the actual draft Bill.
From previous work undertaken by the Committee on departmental Bills, it is aware that there is often a substantial gap in stakeholder awareness and knowledge of a policy proposal and how that translates into a draft Bill. The Committee points out, therefore, that rushed scrutiny is no substitute for proper and full consultation on the Bill by the Department with key stakeholders and the fishing industry in particular. This could result in a disservice to that industry.
The Committee also considered and discussed the urgency of the Bill. It wished to understand why the Minister was seeking to introduce this Bill given the high risk that it would fail due to lack of time. The Committee was well aware that the Bill could be introduced in the next mandate. Indeed, that would make more sense, as all the provisions, including the inland fisheries provision, would fall to the one Committee. Additionally, the section that relates to aquaculture, which was omitted by the Minister in an attempt to allow the Bill a smoother passage, could also be included in any Fisheries Bill introduced in the new mandate. There would also be the opportunity for the new Department to ensure that the fishing industry and other relevant stakeholders would have ample and proper consultation on the provisions in the Bill.
The Committee wrote to the Minister expressing these concerns and asking for an urgent reply. In her response, the Minister indicated that the most urgent provision in the Bill is clause 6. This clause concerns an amendment to section 30 of the Fisheries Act 1981 to allow the direct application of enforceable EU obligations as well as enforceable EU restrictions. This would allow the Department to enforce most EU fisheries legislation as soon as an EU regulation came into operation. This is apparently something that the EU Commission is insisting upon following inspection visits to Northern Ireland.
A letter from the Minister indicated that there had been an inspection in January 2015 of procedures to enforce the EU fisheries control system. As a result, EU inspectors reported that there was no legislative provision to apply the EU fisheries control regulation directly. DARD officials provided an explanation that the Fisheries Bill was being developed and that it would have the effect of directly applying most EU fisheries regulations as soon as it came into operation. DARD indicated that the Bill, subject to various approvals, might be passed by April 2016. Nevertheless, the EU Commission opened a pilot case on the issue. That was the first time that the Committee had been made aware that the EU had opened a pilot case against Northern Ireland and there was a risk of infraction proceedings. The Committee immediately expressed concern and serious reservations that, despite numerous briefings by DARD fisheries officials, it had never been made clear that a pilot case had been opened against Northern Ireland. That is a serious breach of protocol in providing important information to the Committee in a timely manner, but it allowed the Committee to identify what is urgent in the Bill: in other words, what really needed to be done, what was essential and what could wait until the next mandate. The Committee questioned DARD and DCAL officials on that and on other policy issues in the Bill at its meeting on 8 December.
The Committee asked officials whether the urgent matter of clause 6 could be dealt with by means of subordinate legislation or in other ways. The Committee noted that DARD appeared to be relying on the Bill completing its legislative passage to address the EU Commission's concerns and thus to address the potential for infraction. The Committee agreed to write to the Minister to ask her to consider other options for dealing with this urgent matter. The letter suggested that the use of subordinate legislation be considered. The letter also suggested that alternatives be explored by the Minister, including procedural solutions such as an alternative Bill focusing narrowly on clause 6 matters and moving only clause 6 at Consideration Stage. The Committee met on Monday 14 December to hear from DARD and DCAL officials on the Minister's position on the Committee's concerns, including alternative methods for dealing with the EU pilot case.
The response from the Minister noted that she had given consideration to the issue. The use of subordinate legislation had been ruled out because of the EU Commission's concerns that DARD could not directly enforce all EU fisheries legislation immediately. Furthermore, the size of the subordinate legislation required would create difficulties in bringing it forward in a timetable that would satisfy the EU Commission. The Minister also ruled out, for various reasons, not moving the Bill at Second Stage and looking to have an alternative Bill dealing only with the content of clause 6 and moving that by accelerated passage. Instead, the Minister proposed, with the consent of the Committee, to take forward at Consideration Stage only the clauses that the Committee was content that it had had time to consider thoroughly. The Minister stated that, if that were only the provision contained in clause 6, she would be grateful for the Committee having assisted in removing the threat of infraction.
At the meeting on 14 December, the Committee agreed that it would consider only clause 6 and the associated general clauses. It arranged its work programme on the Bill accordingly. The Committee also wrote to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure informing it of that decision and asking whether it still wished to undertake scrutiny of the clauses relating to inland fisheries. That Committee met on Thursday 7 January and decided that it would be unfair to the inland fisheries stakeholders to attempt to rush its scrutiny of the relevant clauses.
I conclude by putting it on record formally that, as per our correspondence with the Minister, it is the intention of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development to focus its scrutiny on clause 6 and the necessary general provisions such as interpretation, the commencement clauses and the short title. The Committee stands ready to work with the Minister at Consideration Stage with regard to notices of intention to give effect to that decision.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Second Stage of the Fisheries Bill. The Bill is important because our fishing industry is a major player in our agrifood economy. The licensed fish sector in Northern Ireland is primarily concentrated on the three eastern ports of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel, the latter two of which are in my constituency, not to mention the significant number of small vessels that operate from other harbours around the north coast and our skiff fishing industry.
The Bill, as the House knows, is a joint effort between the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The purpose of the Bill is to amend fisheries legislation, mainly the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 and the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967, to modernise fisheries enforcement powers and aquaculture licensing in one swoop. Additionally, provisions are made to amend the Foyle Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1952 to allow for the introduction of a system of fixed penalties for inland fishery offences. Hopefully, the modernisation of sea enforcement powers will secure a more coherent approach. I have heard arguments from stakeholders that powers conferred by this legislation have already existed in some shape or form since before the creation of the Bill. However, new enforcement powers are granted in the Bill for the protection of fisheries.
We cannot press forward without proper consideration of the possible restrictive effect that more stringent enforcement powers will have on our sea fisheries. It is well known that there is a great decline in the area. I think that we are all aware of the additional pressures that our fishermen have been under over the past number of years, whether it is quotas or discharges. The House must make sure that the regulatory framework around fishing is robust but not so robust as to discourage our fishing activity. Above all, it must not lead to a greater bureaucratic nightmare. We must find the balance between proper enforcement and measures that become laborious and overpunitive for those who wish to operate in this water.
Clause 3 concerns the granting of licences subject to conditions imposed for environmental purposes. It amends section 4 of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967, which provides powers to prohibit fishing by boats in any specified area without a licence. The aim of the proposal is to ensure the necessary protection for environmental features, but we must be careful. I caution: there must be a balance between protecting our fishing stocks and protecting our industry.
Some have expressed concern over the fines proposed. There is a unique case to be made for those who fish out of Northern Ireland ports, given the current state of the industry and the lack of profitability. If that train of thought is to be followed, the level of fine may need to be lower so that we do not price our fisheries out of business for relatively small infractions, although the Department's view is that the deterrent needs to be high, as proposed, given the potential gain and the damage that there could be in the most extreme cases. The Department has increased penalties in line with amendments made in Britain in 2009. The question for the House, as the legislation progresses, is whether it is appropriate to set penalties at the same rate as Britain. Surely, the unique situation in Northern Ireland merits a different rate.
There are many other issues that we need to focus on as the Bill progresses, including aquaculture licences and fixed penalty notices. In the cases of Carlingford lough and Lough Foyle, where we share a common waterway, it is important that there is a common approach, north and south, to ensure that the aquaculture industry is not negatively impacted on.
The SDLP broadly supports the Bill. Joe Byrne did significant work in this area during his time on the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. The coordination of different pieces of older legislation such as the Fisheries Act and the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act can only be a positive step in providing clarification of the law on ensuring greater protection of our natural habitat for those in the fishing industry. Furthermore, the fact remains that we need to modernise legislation to keep up with EU legislation. I support the passing of the Second Stage of the Fisheries Bill.
We, too, would have supported some of the key principles in the Bill, but, having done considerable work regarding the future of salmon fishing in Northern Ireland at the start of the mandate and given the continual reference to the legislation entailed in the 1966 Act, it was clear and evident a few months ago, when the Bill came in front of the Agriculture Committee, that neither the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee or the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee had time to go through the full scrutiny of what was needed in a modern fisheries Bill for Northern Ireland. It is to that extent that I am glad and welcome the fact that we are moving only clause 6. It is not that I do not stand for or support a number of the other clauses; it is that they need to be done and done right, with proper consultation.
The consultation on the Bill was completed in December 2014, so I ask why it took 13 months to bring forward this draft Bill, which would have covered a number of good pieces of work that would have looked to the future of fishing conservation and fishing activities in Northern Ireland.
The question really is this: why did we have to rush it at the end? The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has taken the right decision to bring forward only the clause that needs to be brought forward, which is clause 6, to prevent the Northern Ireland Executive again facing infraction fines from Europe that have been brought either by mismanagement or possibly neglect by the Department of Agriculture. To that end, I ask the Minister to provide clarity on the correspondence that she has received to date from the European Commission that requires the legislation to be brought forward now. She mentioned that the pilot case has been opened, but I think that the Assembly should investigate the exact detail and cause of that pilot case's having been opened.
It is often said here that rushed legislation brings about bad legislation. Of the 19 clauses that would stand part of the Bill, the Ulster Unionist Party, through the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, will, at this Stage, support only that we take forward scrutiny of clause 6. We believe that we do not have the time or adequate provision to scrutinise the rest of the Bill that would bring forward legislation that would adequately protect, support and enhance the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.
As a member of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and on behalf of Alliance Party, I am happy to support the Fisheries Bill. However, important as the Bill is, one has to ask why it has taken so long to reach Second Stage, given that consultation on it was carried out from 18 August 2014 and closed on 10 November 2014. My colleague Robin Swann has just referred to that. The Executive agreed to proceed only on 26 March 2015. We are now in 2016 and, indeed, in the last phase of the present mandate. I, like others, certainly hope that all implications of the Fisheries Bill will be properly scrutinised and that no shortcuts will be taken simply to see it through before the end of March 2016.
The fishing industry has been in the doldrums for quite some time — indeed for many years. It must be the ambition of us all in the Chamber to raise the profile of that very important industry and to get it back to prosperity and to providing a just and decent return for all the people who are engaged in what is a very difficult life. I pay tribute to all those hardy individuals who are out on the high seas at all hours of the day and night and indeed in all weathers, sometimes risking their lives, simply to earn and living and provide for their families. Perhaps, at this Stage, we can offer our thanks and appreciation to the present agriculture and fisheries Minister and her staff for a fairly successful or, at least, better outcome from the December EC annual stocktake and quota meeting, which was held in Brussels just before Christmas. Let us hope that, as we move forward, we can continue to make progress in the years ahead, sooner rather than later.
Earlier, I referred to the consultation that was carried out. It appears that there is support for the new updated Fisheries Bill to modernise the outgoing legislation, which, as Dick James of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers' Organisation said in his response, has generally stood the test of time and would remain in place subject to the amendment of the present Bill. In respect of sea fisheries, the effect would be relatively minor with an update of penalty direct application of EU legislation and the introduction of a permanent scheme to manage inshore fisheries, which, if used appropriately, is probably the best option. I have to say that with Mr James's vast experience of these matters — and indeed that of his organisation — and his superb knowledge of all things fishing, I am extremely confident that we are on the right road. Although, having listened to the contributions of the Chair of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and indeed the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, perhaps we will take longer to get to the end of that road. Also in support is the marine task force, which, again, has a vast amount of experience. I am happy to go along with its observations. The marine task force has stated that implementing clause 6, among other things, will put Northern Ireland on a par with Scotland, England and Wales.
I must express some sadness around the changes envisaged in clause 10 to fish dealers' licences in that there will be no need for a certificate from a justice of the peace. My disappointment comes from the fact that clause 10 will leave me, as a justice of the peace in Northern Ireland for 25 years, along with so many other JPs, with less work to do in future and fewer opportunities to meet and serve local people who require a fish dealer's licence. However, being the progressive individual that I am, I acknowledge this change, which should make life easier for those who require such a licence in future. In conclusion, given the Bill's critical importance and with limited time available, on behalf of my party I am happy to see the Bill move forward to the next stage.
I wish to speak on the clauses of the Bill that relate to sea fisheries. Sea fisheries in Northern Ireland sadly, in recent decades, have been devastated when you compare them with the bustling growth industries that manifested themselves in Portavogie, Kilkeel and Ardglass. It really is a depressing and sad story. There was a time when, in the huge harbour in Kilkeel, you could walk from one harbour wall to the other simply by going from deck to deck on all the boats. Today, the harbour is a mere shadow of itself.
The elephant in the room, which virtually no one has referred to, is, of course, the EU. It is because of our membership of the European Union that our fishing industry has been devastated. It is EU regulation that has strangled it and which decides when you can fish, where you can fish, how you can fish and how much you can fish. All of that comes from the diktats of Brussels. It is that which has strangled and squeezed the lifeblood out of our fishing industry. Now, clause 6 in this Bill wants to tighten the noose a bit further. It wants to put it beyond doubt that all EU provisions that pertain to fishing are directly applicable and can and will be enforced directly on the already devastated industry in Northern Ireland.
I have heard some people say that we should wait. Yes, we should, because there may well be salvation coming for the fishing industry of Northern Ireland, and that would be Britain's exit from the EU. I trust that the day will soon come when this Bill, in its folly of tightening the noose, will not be necessary and that we will no longer have our industry devastated by and controlled from Brussels. I trust that we will have an industry that is liberated to rediscover, and be reinvigorated in plotting its own future rather than be mercilessly controlled by the bureaucrats of Brussels who divide up the fishing rights of these United Kingdom waters among nations far, far away.
There is hope that this Bill will be rendered unnecessary in terms of sea fisheries and there is hope for the sea fishing industry, and it lies in this nation, the United Kingdom, reasserting control over its own affairs.
If ever there was an industry that cried out for that, it is the fishing industry. I trust that the British people, in their wisdom, will have the strength, courage, conviction and foresight to do that in the referendum, whether it comes this June or whenever. Then, this Bill will be largely redundant, like EU regulation itself.
From listening to colleagues, it seems to me that we have managed to bring to the Assembly not only this Bill but almost a raft of legislation in the dying weeks and months of the mandate. That is not a particularly satisfactory way of doing our business. I have the privilege to represent a constituency where sea fishing, quite rightly, has a major impact. It is a major employer and a major contributor to the economy of South Down, with two of the three key sea fishing ports, Kilkeel and Ardglass, in the constituency. Any changes made or decisions taken will have a major impact. I welcome the fact that 2015 was an improved year for the fishing industry, and I welcome the fact that, at the December Fisheries Council, a higher quota and catch were permitted by the EU.
We seem to have got to the stage of examining only one clause. That leads to the question of whether this would have been better left until after an election and the start of a new mandate. Would five or six months make that much difference to it? I fear that, if the Committee looks only at clause 6, some of the good things that we might like to see in other parts of the Bill will be lost, in that a second fisheries Bill will not be tabled later in the year. Will those other things be included in the Bill or will it become very tightly focused?
One of the big challenges was raised by Mr Allister. If we were to leave the EU, that would mean that the House and the Executive had to come up with their own policy on fishing. That might be a frightening thought. I am not sure that I see the Minister as one of the great liberators of fishing and farming. Who knows? We shall see what later this year brings. It would be a huge challenge if we had to start to think about what a policy should look like. What would we do? What would we want to be done? I would like Europe to give more autonomy to this House and Executive when looking solely at fishing policy so that we did not have to pass legislation that, effectively, only reflects demands made on us by others and makes sure that we stay on the right side of infraction proceedings.
That said, if we are now set to look at only one clause, the Bill becomes much narrower. I will wait to hear what the Minister's response is. I apologise to the Minister for missing her opening remarks. I am minded to support Second Stage, but with the comments made by others, particularly the Chair of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, in mind.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am very grateful to Members for their contributions to today's debate. I think that it is fair to say that all were valuable and informative. Some even widened the debate by moving into the Brexit conversation, and I am very happy to have that debate. Obviously, I have my own views. I think that we need to be in a reformed Europe, but I think of the advantages that we have. We cannot just pick and choose what we want out of Europe. We cannot pick and choose based on our assessment of the impact on the fishing industry or the agriculture industry. We also need to take into consideration the environment and our rural economies. That is certainly a debate for another day. Today, we are talking about the impact of the Bill.
Some of the issues raised today very much reflect comments made by stakeholders throughout the consultation on the policy proposals underpinning the Bill. I will try to respond to the key points. I will read Hansard afterwards and, if appropriate, follow up in writing to individual Members if I have missed anything.
The key issues of scrutiny and timing are valid considerations, and those points were raised today. There was a question about why the legislation came to the Assembly so late in the day. The legislation has been in the planning for some time. Consultation on the policy proposals took place in late 2014, and, following consideration of the outcome of that process, the Executive agreed the policy in March 2015. However, drafting of the Bill and getting all the necessary clearances took longer than could have been expected. However, with the support of all concerned, including and in particular the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, I hope that this important legislation, at least in some form, can come into law in this mandate, with the rest to follow at a later date.
On the matter of potential infraction on direct enforcement of EU rules, my Department was aware of the issue in 2014, and, for that reason, a proposal to amend the relevant legislation was included in the consultation that ended in November of that year. The Commission noted the position during an audit in January 2015, when my officials set out the timetable to deal with the matter, which would see the Bill come in by the end of the current mandate. At that time, there was no reason to think that the Department's proposal to fix the matter would not be acceptable to the Commission. My officials referred to the risk of Commission action when they presented to the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee in April 2015, and the Commission commented on the matter in its report on the January audit, which was published in July 2015. In the end, if the Bill had been introduced earlier in the mandate, it is likely that, because of all those delays, it would not be enacted until March this year.
Some have expressed concern about the potential lack of scrutiny as a result of the change in clause 6. I take on board the concerns raised, and I absolutely want to abide by democracy and make sure that there is proper scrutiny of the entire Bill. I just want to say that most EU measures are directly applicable, with little discretion available to the Assembly, or to the Department in its implementation, as the Department is bound to operate in a way that is compatible with EU law, whether we like it or not. I know that some Members have picked up on that. The Department has always sought to provide the industry with guidance on its regulatory obligations, and it is not proposed to change that approach.
It has been very helpful to have the debate. I thank Members for their contributions and the questions that they raised. As I said, if I have missed anything substantive, I will write to Members.
The issue of penalties was raised, and I will comment briefly on that. The Bill as introduced increases the deterrent to offending by increasing the maximum penalties available to the courts. Fixed penalties deter low-level offending or repeat offending, reducing the resources required to bring forward a prosecution and thus leaving additional resources for other enforcement activities. The steep increase in fixed penalties will deter repeat offending. Reducing the resources needed to bring forward certain EU legislation will release the resources necessary to introduce the necessary subordinate legislation for the protection of inshore fisheries that some have called for. Regarding penalties, fishermen who do not breach the legislation have nothing to fear from the proposal.
I want to say again that, although existing legislation provides a framework for the management of our fisheries, both inland and at sea, the package of new measures contained in the Bill will, if enacted, ensure that legislation remains fit for purpose and that we continue to protect fish stocks and sensitive aquatic environments. Any risk to fisheries or aquatic environments as a result of inadequate powers or insufficient deterrents has a corresponding risk to livelihoods or, as the case may be, to the potential enjoyment of anglers. I do, however, recognise the time constraints that are upon us. Although I am disappointed that many of the good things in the Bill may not now make it into law, I accept the proposal that I bring forward in the final legislation only those clauses that the Committee signals in its report that it is content it has had time to consider properly and fully.
I, along with my officials, look forward to working closely with the Committee as it begins its detailed and important scrutiny of whatever elements of the Bill it is able to deal with. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved: