This UK Government Bill contains UK-wide clauses, the majority of which relate to devolved matters. It also contains a small number of provisions that are specific to Northern Ireland. It is for this reason that I am seeking the Assembly's legislative consent to the Bill extending to Northern Ireland. However, before I get into the detail of these provisions, I would like to emphasise the importance of the Bill.
The Bill will ensure that a legal framework is in place so that the UK is able to operate as an independent coastal state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 after the UK has left the common fisheries policy at the end of the year. In addition and no less importantly, it will allow us to create common approaches to fisheries management within the rest of the UK. This can only be good for the future of sustainable fishing, an objective that I am sure that we can we can all support and which I will return to later. The Bill as amended at Committee Stage in the House of Commons contains provisions of interest to Northern Ireland on fisheries objectives, fisheries statements and fisheries management plans; access to UK waters; fishing boat licensing; fishing opportunities; grants and charges; financial assistance; and the powers to amend UK law related to fisheries and aquatic animal health.
I turn now to the detail of the Bill and specifically to those clauses that are UK-wide and touch on devolved matters. Clause 1 defines UK fisheries objectives and is one of the Bill's key elements. There are eight objectives.
A sustainability objective will ensure that fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable in the long term and managed in a way that is consistent with the objectives of achieving economic, social and employment benefits.
A precautionary objective will apply a precautionary approach to fisheries management and ensure that marine stocks are maintained above levels that are capable of producing maximum sustainable yield.
An ecosystem objective will implement an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. This will ensure that negative impacts of fishing activities on the ecosystem are minimised and also that incidental catches are minimised and, where possible, eliminated.
A scientific evidence objective will contribute to the collection of scientific data. It will also require the UK's fisheries administrations to work together, share data and make use of that data to inform our fisheries management policies.
A by-catch objective will seek to avoid or reduce catches of unwanted by-catch. It will also include undersized fish and the need to record and account for all catches so that they are not discarded at sea, but without incentivising the catching of undersized fish.
An equal access objective will ensure that the access of UK fishing boats to any area within British fishery limits is not affected by the fishing boat's home port or any other connection of the fishing boat or any of its owners to any place in the UK.
A national benefit objective will ensure that the activities of UK fishing boats bring social or economic benefits to the UK or part of the UK.
A climate change objective will seek to minimise the adverse effect of fishing and aquaculture activities on climate change and ensure that those activities adapt to climate change.
Before I leave these objectives, I would like to mention an amendment that was passed in the House of Lords but subsequently overturned by the UK Government in the House of Commons at Committee Stage. I mention it specifically because I know that it has been of interest to some Members and indeed others outside the House. This was the insertion of a new subsection into clause 1 so that the sustainability objective would become the primary fisheries objective. It would have required future policies to give priority to environmental sustainability over economic and social sustainability. In fact, it would have been prioritised over the other seven fisheries objectives. The UK Government's response was that there should be no hierarchy of objectives and that the place for applying these objectives to the policies in each jurisdiction should be the joint fisheries statement. That is a position that I support.
That takes me neatly on to clauses 2 and 3, which relate to the joint fisheries statement. Clause 2 places a duty on the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved Administrations to set out their policies for achieving the fisheries objectives in clause 1 and how they intend to make use of fisheries management plans in order to achieve those objectives. It recognises that a joined-up approach is needed on the coordination of fisheries policies once the UK has left the common fisheries policy. The Bill as amended at Committee Stage in the House of Commons requires that the statement is published not later than two years from the date of Royal Assent. Clause 3 sets out the procedures that should follow in the preparation and publication of the statement and of any replacement of or amendment to it.
Clauses 6 to 11 relate to fisheries management plans. Clause 6 places a duty on the relevant fisheries authorities to prepare and publish the proposed fisheries management plans in the joint fisheries statement and sets out what should be specified in each plan, including whether there is sufficient scientific evidence to make an assessment of a stock's maximum sustainable yield.
Clause 7 sets out the requirements for preparing and publishing replacement plans or amendments to existing plans, while clause 8 sets out the procedure that should be followed. Clause 9 permits a fisheries authority to prepare and publish a fisheries management plan before a joint fisheries statement has been agreed and published. Clause 10 permits each fisheries authority to pursue the policies outlined in the joint fisheries statement or fisheries management plans that are applicable to them. That is to provide for some flexibility in decision-making. Clause 11 places a requirement on the fisheries authorities to report on the effectiveness of the policies in the joint fisheries statement and the fisheries management plans and to lay those in the respective legislatures.
I move to clauses 12 and 13, which cover access to British fisheries by foreign fishing boats and the regulation of foreign fishing boats. Clause 12 sets out when foreign fishing boats may enter British fishery limits, when they must leave and the offence for failing to comply. Clause 13 introduces schedule 2, which contains amendments to subordinate legislation and ensures that foreign fishing vessels are subject to the same regulations as British fishing boats when fishing in UK waters.
Clauses 14 to 18 deal with the licensing of fishing boats. Clause 14 sets out the circumstances in which a licence is required for British fishing boats, subject to certain exemptions. That maintains the status quo and ensures that a licence will be effective throughout UK waters. The clause also provides the DEFRA Secretary of State with the power to amend the section by regulations but only with the consent of the devolved Administrations. That respects the devolution settlements.
Clause 15 provides a power for devolved Administrations and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to grant licences to British fishing boats. Clause 16 prohibits fishing by foreign fishing boats unless they have a licence issued by a fisheries administration. The clause reflects the fact that, once the UK has left the common fisheries policy, access for foreign vessels to fish in UK waters is subject to negotiations. Members will be aware that that issue is key to ongoing negotiations between the UK Government and the European Union.
Clause 17 provides a power for the devolved Administrations and the Marine Management Organisation to grant licences to foreign fishing boats but with respect only to the area of UK waters for which they have competence. For us, that means the Northern Ireland zone.
Clause 18 defines "sea fishing licence" and introduces schedule 3, which makes further provision about sea fishing licences.
Clauses 19 to 22 set out the penalties for offences in relation to access and licensing, the jurisdiction of a court to try offences, and consequential amendments. Included in that are the circumstances in which the officer of a body corporate as well as the body corporate may be found guilty of committing a relevant offence.
That takes me to clauses 25 and 26, which relate to fishing opportunities. Clause 25 sets out the criteria for the distribution of fishing opportunities, according to transparent and objective criteria, including those of an environmental, social and economic nature. Clause 26 places a duty on fisheries authorities to ensure that fishing opportunities are not exceeded.
Clauses 33 to 35 relate to grants and charges. Clause 33 introduces schedule 6, which confers power on the Northern Ireland Department to give financial assistance or to arrange for financial assistance to be given to any person for a range of specified purposes. It must be given in accordance with a scheme established by regulations made by the Northern Ireland Department.
Clause 34 introduces schedule 7, which confers powers on the Northern Ireland Department, corresponding to those conferred on the Secretary of State by the clause. Those relate to the imposition of charges for carrying out specific marine functions. Members will wish to note that the regulation-making powers in schedules 6 and 7 would be subject to the Assembly's affirmation resolution and negative resolution procedures respectively.
Clause 35 amends the Fisheries Act 1981 in order to extend a requirement that the Sea Fish Industry Authority, which is perhaps better known as Seafish, must recover the full cost of any service that it provides to persons in other countries. That is a technical amendment that will enable Seafish to recover all its costs from persons in the EU regardless of what it charges those in the UK.
Clauses 36 to 41 relate to the power to make further provisions about fisheries, aquaculture, aquatic animal diseases and scope. Clause 42 introduces schedule 8, which provides the Northern Ireland Department with the power to make provisions about fisheries and aquaculture etc and aquatic animal diseases corresponding to those that are conferred on the Secretary of State by clauses 36 and 38. Those provisions relate to technical matters that are currently regulated by the EU under the common fisheries policy and will allow us to make changes to amend UK fisheries law.
Clause 44 introduces schedule 9, which contains amendments to the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and in connection with prohibiting the killing, injuring or taking of seals. The current position in the UK is that permission can be granted, albeit under licence, to shoot seals in order to protect fisheries' interests, particularly salmon farms. However, countries that wish to export fish and fish products to the United States of America from 1 January 2020 must have obtained what is known as a comparability finding. That means that their fisheries' regimes and regulatory frameworks must comply with the United States's Marine Mammal Protection Act, which gives a very high level of protection to marine mammals and includes a prohibition on international killing. This amendment will enable us to meet those requirements.
Clause 46 introduces schedule 11, which makes minor and consequential amendments to retained direct EU legislation. Clauses 47 to 51 make final provisions. Those provide for amendments to certain provisions of subordinate legislation to ensure that any such provisions can be further amended by subordinate legislation in the future provided that regulations that are made under the Bill make:
"consequential, supplementary, incidental, transitional, or saving" provisions etc. They define commonly used terms in the Bill, set out the territorial extent of the Bill, explain when the Bill's provisions will come into effect and provide the short title, which, when the Bill becomes an Act, will be the Fisheries Act 2020.
Finally, I will turn to the schedules that apply to Northern Ireland. Schedule 1 sets out the procedures that will apply to the preparation, adoption and publication of the joint fisheries statement. Schedule 2 amends secondary legislation that will ensure that foreign fishing vessels that are licensed to fish in UK waters will be subject to the same requirements and restrictions as UK fishing vessels that are operating in those waters. Schedule 3 makes further provision in relation to sea fishing licences, and schedule 4 makes minor and consequential amendments to access to UK waters and licensing. Schedules 6 to 9 and schedule 11, which has been covered, also apply to Northern Ireland.
Before I finish, I will bring Members' attention to three amendments that will be tabled by the UK Government at Report Stage in the House of Commons. I am mentioning them here simply in the interests of transparency and completeness. The Bill as introduced amends the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 in order to provide powers for Scottish and Welsh Ministers to regulate fishing for marine conservation purposes in their respective offshore regions. First, the UK Government are being asked to table an amendment at Report Stage in the House of Commons that will provide DAERA with similar powers to regulate fishing in the Northern Ireland offshore region.
Secondly, schedule 2, to which I referred, includes amendments to subordinate legislation that was made to address local issues that, because of EU law, could be applied only to UK vessels. The UK Government have been asked to table an amendment to that schedule at Report Stage in the House of Commons in order to include six Northern Ireland statutory rules so that the restrictions and requirements that are provided by them will apply equally to all fishing vessels that are licensed to fish in the Northern Ireland zone.
Thirdly, a new provision should be tabled at Report Stage in the House of Commons to provide Scottish and Welsh Ministers and DAERA with a power to enter into arrangements with, for example, other devolved Administrations and their marine management organisations. That amendment would provide the legislative basis for putting in place those joint working arrangements.
As we have heard from the Minister, this is a Westminster Bill that aims to provide for a new legal framework to replace the common fisheries policy (CFP). It will make provision for fisheries, aquaculture, marine conservation and the functions of the Marine Management Organisation, and in doing so will revoke the EU legislation that currently exists.
There are a number of clauses within the Bill that extend to this jurisdiction for which legislative consent is being sought and they have been outlined in the LCM. The Committee has reported on those and a copy of our report was provided by email to all MLAs on 7 July. A supplementary LCM has since been tabled to take account of further amendments that affect here. The Committee took evidence on that last week and I will refer to those amendments later.
I want to make it clear today that, as a Committee, we had a very short timeframe in which to consider the Bill. Not only was the Committee considering the Fisheries Bill, but it also had the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Bill, all within weeks of one another. That caused much concern amongst Committee members. We were finishing our consideration of the evidence when the COVID-19 crisis hit in March and that also had an impact on our scrutiny. This type of rushed scrutiny is not how we like to do business.
The Committee wishes it to be clearly understood that due to the lack of information on the Fisheries Bill and the subsequent amendments, and the limited time that it has had to consider them, it has been unable to fully explore and understand the potential impacts and implications for this jurisdiction. Furthermore, the Committee’s consideration of the amendments has been further compounded by the fact that it is being asked to do so in the context of the legal uncertainties around the Internal Market Bill and the withdrawal agreement.
Our fishing produce is world-renowned and much value is placed on our exported produce. Nevertheless, many will know that the fishing industry is a dangerous occupation and it is a living that is hard-earned. Therefore, we must not merely nod through legislation which could create further complexities for our fishing industry, including financial, technical and territorial problems. Many coastal families and communities have seen fishing handed down from generation to generation and have no desire to see further hardship or regulation for the sake of it. For that reason, and many others that I will outline shortly, the Committee decided not to take a position on the legislative consent motion.
I will now look briefly at how the Committee undertook its scrutiny of the Bill in the short time that it had to do so. We took oral and written evidence on one day only — 5 March 2020 — from a number of stakeholders. Ideally, we would have preferred to have heard from many more, but as I have already said, time was against us.
The Committee commissioned a research paper from the Assembly’s Research and Information Service (RaISe) on the Fisheries Bill and received a written submission from Brexit and Environment, which is a network of impartial academic experts who analyse the implications of Brexit for government.
From the evidence gathered by the Committee and analysis of the Bill in the time that we had, the Committee identified a number of issues that I share with you today.
The first issue that I want to draw Members attention to is the hierarchy of fishing objectives that the Bill revolves around, which will lead to a joint fisheries statement underpinned by fish management plans. There are eight objectives and they are sustainability, precautionary, eco-system, scientific evidence, by-catch, equal access, national benefit and climate change.
Stakeholders expressed some concern around the definition of eco-system and stated that they would like to see the definition expanded to include the sustainability of the fleet and the communities that they support, in order to allow for a holistic approach. Others considered that they should be underpinned by a clear legal duty on relevant authorities to achieve them, alongside a level of consistency between the devolved Administrations to ensure that the objectives are achieved.
There were numerous issues identified in the RaISe briefing which the Committee considered in relation to the objectives, such as the role for Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) with regard to the scientific evidence objectives etc. These are outlined on page 9 of the Committee report.
Although some of the stakeholders broadly welcomed the objectives and the joint fisheries statement and the fish management plans, we as a Committee felt that there is a distinct lack of clarity and detail around those particular clauses, making it very difficult to assess what the impact will be on the fishing industry. Again, the lack of time and resources afforded to the Committee has prevented the full and rigorous scrutiny that the Bill required.
Access and licensing is another feature of the Bill, which will revoke and replace all current powers for licensing authorities to license for fishing in British waters.
Throughout the Bill there are references to "foreign fishing vessels", which some members of the Committee objected to when used in connection with vessels from the South of Ireland. Clarification was sought from the Department on the use of that terminology. <BR/>Officials advised the Committee that the term is a recognised one, which is used worldwide to define vessels that are not registered in the country that is being referred to. They further advised that the term is used 53 times in the Bill. For the purposes of the Committee report, it was agreed to replace the term "foreign fishing vessel" with "non-UK fishing vessels or boats".
The Bill requires such non-UK vessels to have a UK-issued licence to fish in UK waters. That requirement will revoke the current arrangements, which automatically provide rights to such vessels. In addition, the Bill will revoke provisions in the Fishery Limits Act 1976 and will introduce a new requirement that non-UK vessels must be licensed by the Marine Management Organisation or by one of the fisheries administrations to fish in UK waters.
Clause 17 empowers the relevant fisheries authority to issue licences to non-UK vessels to fish inside their zone. Stakeholders raised the issue of such licensing and of potential governance gaps. Concern was expressed about the potential for a non-UK vessel to access Isle of Man waters post-Brexit. To do so would be entirely legal but the potential exists for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and claims that fish that were caught in one area were caught elsewhere.
The Committee is concerned that uncertainty exists around moving from fishing waters of a European jurisdiction to Scotland, Wales, England or here, including the Isle of Man and the South of Ireland and further guidance on that aspect is required. Stakeholders also raised the issue of remote electronic monitoring (REM) as a fishing management tool. Further information on REM can be found in the Committee's report at page 12. The Committee raised that matter with departmental officials.
The Department advised that it has a sea fisheries inspectorate which has an enforcement and control remit. However, that role will change on 31 December 2020 and the risks and resource requirement for that was being considered. That is another area that the Committee was unable to explore in any great detail with the Department or stakeholders. Questions remain over the resource implications for the sea fisheries inspectorate to enable it to ensure compliance with licensing requirements, as well as what its role and remit will be on 1 January 2021 and how it will manage the requirements that are contained in the Fisheries Bill.
Members will be aware that fishing quotas have always been the subject of heated debate and have long been one of the main criticisms of the common fisheries policy. Clause 23 of the Bill provides that the Secretary of State will determine, in a calendar year, the fishing quota for the UK, which will take international obligations into account. The Bill states that the Secretary of State must consult with the four fisheries administrations.
The Committee was keen to explore with the Department if any assessment had been undertaken of the potential for an increase in fishing opportunities for our local fleet. Officials advised the Committee that an assessment of the benefits arising out of Brexit had been mapped. However, the main fishing opportunities for fleets here are mostly in the Irish Sea for prawns and no major change to quotas are anticipated.
Stakeholders advised the Committee that while they envisage that the current method of allocating quotas will be continued, they have concerns about the distribution of any additional quotas that will come their way following exit from the EU. They expressed concern that the fishing zone here is small and does not accurately reflect the fishing activity of our fleet. If the decision is made to divide up fishing waters by square miles of territorial waters, then the consequences would be disastrous. Other stakeholder concerns, such as those relating to the Hague Preference and the infrastructure constraints of our fishing ports, have been outlined in the Committee's report.
Previously, under the CFP, financial assistance was available under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). That allowed the fish and aquaculture industries to improve the marine and aquatic environment and to develop areas in which fish or aquacultural activities are carried out. Our fishing harbours also used that funding for capital and infrastructural works. The Committee was keen to hear about what the Department was considering as a replacement for that funding, as the UK Government had advised that each devolved Administration will lead on their own replacement funding schemes.
The Committee heard that while there had been discussions on the matter with the British Government, nothing has yet been guaranteed. However, the Department indicated that it was hopeful that any such funding would be similar to what had been available through EMFF but that it would be subject to the spending review. Stakeholders welcomed the assurance that a replacement scheme for EMFF was being considered. Nevertheless, the Committee has highlighted a number of concerns in relation to that in its report.
One of the concerns is whether the new scheme would be compatible with the state aid considerations contained in article 10 of the protocol. That is very significant, given what the Internal Market Bill states regarding state aid. Members will be glad to know that I do not intend to outline all our concerns here; instead, I will refer them to page 18 of our report.
The Committee report also draws attention to a number of factors outside the Bill that will impact on the implementation of its provision. Those include the implementation of the protocol, trade agreements, the voisinage agreement, migrant labour and marine conservation. While the detail of that is on pages 18 to 24 of the report, I want to touch on some of the key points.
It remains unclear to the Committee what the interface between the Fisheries Bill and the protocol will be. That uncertainty is further compounded by the Internal Market Bill. For example, there are many unanswered questions, including potential issues around the minimum landing size, the marketing of seafood produce, the risk of regulatory divergence and whether the annex 2 commitments will have an adverse financial cost on the fishing industry. The Committee is aware that there is uncertainty about where fish can be sold. Currently, any fish landed here are sold to the EU and are subject to free market access. How that may change after Brexit is unclear.
I will now quickly mention the voisinage agreement, which allows reciprocal access to fish in the nought- to six-nautical-mile zone between the territorial waters of North and South. It had operated successfully until 2016 when the legality of the agreement was challenged by a number of Irish anglers. That led to a court case that then banned boats from the North in Irish waters, despite the previously agreed limit. However, the Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Act was introduced by the Irish Government in April 2019, and the previous arrangement was reinstated. The Committee explored the issue with officials, who advised that they are keen to keep the voisinage agreement separate from the general fisheries agreement with the EU. The Committee has stated that it would like to see all efforts made to maintain that and the good relations that currently exist between the fishing industries across the island of Ireland.
The importance of migrant labour in the fishing industry cannot be overstated. There has been a reliance on workers from overseas labour markets for many years, and the fishing industry would not be able to cope without them.
On the issue of marine conservation, the Committee noted that we do not have fully devolved competency in that area. The Minister has written to his DEFRA counterpart to raise that issue. We had an update on that at our meeting on 24 September, and we will continue to follow it up as time goes on.
Furthermore, the Committee noted that there will be considerable implications for marine conservation arising out of the Environment Bill and a crossover with the Agriculture Bill, but it was unable to explore that further due to the time constraints placed upon it.
The Committee is concerned that many of the provisions in the Bill will be enacted by secondary legislation that provides less of a scrutiny role or opportunity for amendment than that which is provided through primary legislation.
The Committee heard from departmental officials on 24 September that there have been a number of amendments to the Bill, as well as a number of anticipated amendments that will be tabled at Report stage. The amendments that have been made include the following: extending the time frame in which the joint fisheries statement is to be published; ability to publish information on financial assistance; amendments to the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 and the Wildlife Order to allow for trade to the USA; a technical amendment to the definition of minimum conservation reference size; and the electronic communication of the granting of temporary licences.
Officials further advised that the amendments to be tabled at Report stage that will impact on this jurisdiction are the following: powers for the Department to regulate fishing for marine conservation in our offshore regions; amendments to six statutory rules to ensure that the restrictions and requirements in them will apply equally to all fishing vessels to fish in the NI zone; and powers for the devolved Administrations to enter into arrangements with other organisations, including marine management.
The Committee discussed that update with the officials in the short time that it had and agreed that, due to the lack of information and the limited time that it had to consider the amendments, it had been unable to fully explore and understand the potential impacts and implications for the jurisdiction. That difficulty has been further compounded by the fact that it is being asked to do so in the context of the legal uncertainties around the Internal Market Bill and the withdrawal agreement. That is all that I want to say as Chair of the AERA Committee.
I welcome the opportunity to comment today. As Members will be aware, deep-sea fishing and fishing rights for our trawler crews have been a constant concern over many years, with highly charged debates over fishing stocks, quotas, sustainability, rights and access to waters. At the heart of the discontent is EU policy that has been detrimental to our indigenous trawler crews. Ask any of our trawler crews in Northern Ireland and they will agree that EU policies, over the years, have had a truly negative and damaging effect on industry in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I welcome the legislative consent motion before the House today and the fact that fishermen across the United Kingdom will, in my view, be in a much better position fishing in UK waters post-transition than has been the case for many years.
The Bill is vital because after the UK leaves the common fisheries policy, the Bill will provide a legal framework for the United Kingdom to go forward as an independent coastal state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982. It is essential to provide important continuity and a seamless transition from EU fishing law to administration and protection under UK-wide and specific devolved nations' regulations. The Bill is a combination of elements from the common fisheries policy and other objectives that have been tailored to best help and sustain our fishing industry in the United Kingdom. That is only to be expected, given the opportunity that is presented by leaving the European Union. It will be absolute folly if Westminster, the Assembly and other devolved regions did not make the very best of this opportunity to ensure that our fishermen are offered the greatest opportunity of establishing a thriving industry, post-transition, given that control can be regained over UK waters. It is also important to understand that control does not mean preventing access to our waters, but rather access to waters can be much more effectively controlled and monitored. This is a key element of sustainability and growth.
Sustainability has been one of the biggest debating points and, of course, it is the most vital part of the new arrangements. I believe that it will be adequately addressed as all stakeholders realise that sustainability of fishing stock is vital for their long-term survival as an industry. Our seas are a hugely important resource, both for food and our priceless marine environment. Our seas must be treated with the respect required to preserve the balance in marine environment and to ensure that a high-quality food resource is sustained for many more years to come. The Bill provides the opportunity to ensure that those important elements are protected by a protocol that is better suited to our coastal resources and not a quagmire of legislation that is untimely.
The Hague preference has an impact on Northern Ireland, and it is important that these types of straitjackets can be cast off as part of the new arrangements and be replaced with much more reasonable and tailored regulations. I have listened, in Committee, to much anxiety from some parties around the table on this issue. However, they must see the opportunity that exists with this important opportunity to right many EU legislative wrongs. There will be further opportunities ahead through the joint fisheries statement process, and I know that the industry, the Minister and the Committee will have more input in the finer detail. That will be an important process. I support the motion.
I thank the Minister for presenting the legislative consent motion today. From the SDLP's point of view, we welcome the opportunity to debate the legislative consent motion on the Fisheries Bill. As the Chairman said, I raised the issue at the Committee on Thursday around the lack of information on the legislative consent motion and the limited time that the Committee had to consider it. It has been unable to fully explore and understand the potential impacts and implications for this jurisdiction. This difficulty has been further compounded by the fact that I and other legislatures are being asked to do so in the context of the legal uncertainties around the UK Internal Market Bill and the withdrawal agreement.
The legislative consent motion is required to provide for a new legal framework to replace the common fisheries policy because of Brexit. There is concern that the legislative consent, although delayed, may still be sought for prematurely. The COVID-19 pandemic and Westminster parliamentary procedures have severely restricted the Assembly's ability to properly scrutinise this and, indeed, other elements of legislation needed for the end of the transition period. Questions remain about provisions for aquaculture and marine conservation, the impact of climate change and the details of the proposals for legally binding fisheries management plans. There may also be significant changes in circumstances due to the ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU for a future agreement on fisheries. Fisheries access remains a key focus of attention of any future UK/EU trade agreement and both sides appear to be still some distance apart from those separate objectives.
Fisheries is a sector that has been impacted by the British Government's unilaterally declared intention to break with the terms of the Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement. Some Members may imagine that breaking that protocol will make life easier for the fisheries sector, but I suspect that they may be mistaken.
The UK Government's negotiating tactics on this issue have merely increased the large degree of uncertainty that was already there for the fisheries sector, and indeed, a multiplicity of other sectors. The good relations that currently exist between and with the fishing industries across the entire island of Ireland are also not addressed by the Bill. Such good relations depend heavily on trust and that trust has been severely tested by the British Government's negotiating tactics.
I have listened to the Committee Chair and the Member talking about the great relationships that have existed between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, it was only in 2019 that they were forced to put into law something that had been in place since the 1960s, providing access for boats from Northern Ireland to fish off the limits of the Irish Republic. I have to say that it took them a long time to catch on, excuse the pun. Clearly, that proves that they wanted the benefit of our waters, and we were unable to get the benefit of theirs.
In addition, there are areas of the Bill where clarification is still needed. The Bill grants the UK Secretary of State at DEFRA the power to set fisheries objectives and fishing opportunities for the local fleet. There is little detail yet of what those objectives will mean or how they will be delivered. We will, in effect, be told where the fleet can fish and how much it can catch, as calculated by a yet-to-be-determined method.
In the latest amendments to the Bill — I heard the Minister said that there are further later amendments to it — the Secretary of State will be given more time to come to a decision on those matters before publishing the joint fisheries statement. It might have been better to seek an extension to that transition period, which would have allowed more time for detailed scrutiny of the Bill. We may have been touching upon that in Committee, too.
The sector is also heavily reliant on capital grants to maintain and improve its infrastructure. In the absence of the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, the Minister's Department will be responsible for future financial assistance for the fisheries sector. To date, the Department has been unable to secure — this was touched upon earlier, and the Chair referred to it too — any commitment from the UK Government to provide funding for those schemes.
The key focus of this Bill should have been the future sustainability of the fisheries sector. To that end, it would have been better if sustainability was the prime objective of the Bill and all fisheries management decisions assessed on that basis. There is lack of clarity, for example, on how fish stocks, particularly shared stocks, will be monitored and managed through the proposed fisheries management plans. It is essential that fish stocks are not finished above independently-recommended scientific levels. We have a poor record on environmental protection and weak governance in certain areas. It is far from clear, at this point, what the impact of the Bill, and other Brexit-related crossover Bills, will have on the conservation of the marine ecosystem.
In summary, there remains a great deal of uncertainty around the provisions of the Bill and how they are to be implemented.
The fishing industry was one part of our economy that always appeared to have a strained relationship with the European Union. The common fisheries policy was, of course, the structure that regulated and controlled our fishing industry. Indeed, it has been claimed that this same policy ended many a family fishing business in Northern Ireland and livelihood in the industry.
Many in the House will recall the sector eagerly awaiting the announcement from the EU Fisheries Council each December to see what further changes in the fishing quota would be implemented in the following year.
One of the criticisms of the common fisheries policy by the fishing industry is that other EU fishing boats land more fish from UK waters than UK boats. A House of Lords Library briefing on the Fisheries Bill noted:
"On average, between 2012 and 2016, other EU member states’ vessels annually landed in the region of 749,000 tonnes of fish ... caught in UK waters.6 UK vessels landed approximately 96,000 tonnes ... caught in other member states’ waters per year in the same period."
As 31 December approaches, there is an expectation that, when the UK exits the EU, the UK, including Northern Ireland, will be able to regulate fishing in its offshore regions again. The EU has stated that its position is to maintain as far as is possible the existing traditional arrangements for EU boats to access the fish in UK waters. However, the UK position is that it will control its own waters and that fishing opportunities will primarily be for British boats. There is considerable speculation that there could be trade-offs between EU access to UK fishing waters and access by UK financial services to EU markets.
There are a number of government amendments to the Bill at this stage that are general practical amendments. Other amendments were agreed in the Lords but were removed by the House of Commons. Those initial amendments were supported by the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force but opposed by fishing industry bodies.
While the Fisheries Bill is a legislative framework, it is very necessary to put practical and administrative aspects in place following the UK's decision to leave the European Union. It also has the environmental sustainability of the fishing industry at its core, which will deliver a positive future for fishing and conservation. The sector, over the years, has been key to environmental sustainability in our waters; indeed, if it had not been for its management in conjunction with the authorities, the marine environment would be in a much worse place. With the framework outlined in the Fisheries Bill, I urge Members to support the legislative consent motion.
On behalf of Alliance, I support the legislative consent motion, although I see it as a holding position — an interim measure —and a framework on which to build a Bill and policies that are bespoke to Northern Ireland's unique circumstances. The Fisheries Bill goes some way towards addressing the conservation governance gaps that our exit from the European Union exposes. However, issues remain that need to be addressed.
I express my disappointment that some key amendments were removed by the UK Government at the Public Bill Committee stage. Those amendments would have addressed sustainability as the prime objective of the Bill and provided for the introduction of remote electronic equipment and cameras on vessels. The removal of those amendments undermines the primary objective of the Bill, which is to make:
"a legal commitment to fish sustainably".
Regarding Brexit and Northern Ireland's unique position, the local fish processing sector, whilst small in comparison with that in other parts of the UK, makes a significant contribution to the areas in which it is based and not just in economic terms. The sea that surrounds this island supports daily lives, provides multiple resources and services, including food, renewable energy sources, tourism, leisure opportunities, physical and mental health benefits and, of course, cultural heritage. While the sea-fishing industry in Northern Ireland makes a significant contribution to our economy and culture, it is heavily reliant on accessing markets outside the region. The value of landings outside Northern Ireland waters is greater than that of local landings, which could present challenges following the transition period.
The urgency of the EU exit timetable was mentioned, as was the additional pressure of limited capacity and time for the AERA Committee to give full and proper consideration to forthcoming Bills and procedures. That is of the utmost concern when we consider the importance of the forthcoming and now delayed joint fisheries statement.
Whatever the outcome of the current process, the challenges of balancing the needs of the sector with environmental issues will remain and will be real. Human activities threaten the health of our oceans. It is estimated that over 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based activities, such as pesticides and nutrients used in agriculture ending up in coastal waters, resulting in oxygen depletion that kills marine plants and shellfish. Overfishing is, of course, also a threat to sustainability.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) estimates that 31·4% of fish stocks are either already fished to capacity or overfished. That is counterintuitive, considering that sustainable fisheries management and more abundant fish stocks can provide the fishing industry with greater long-term security. It is estimated that recovering fish stocks to healthy levels would result in a 37% rise, which is the equivalent of £241 million per year in the value of fish landings UK-wide. It would, of course, create many more jobs as well.
Now, more than ever, it is crucial that primary legislation enshrine sustainability in law, and, as a framework Bill, the Fisheries Bill provides an opportunity to do that. However, the Bill should have been changed to address a more delicate marine environment and depleted fish stocks. The Fisheries Bill presents us with an opportunity to create bespoke policies that are relevant to Northern Ireland and our unique position and to achieve lasting change for the better. Therefore, with a view to future solutions and improvements, which, I hope, the Minister can reflect on, I am content to support the LCM and do so in the knowledge that we need to avoid further confusion and delays at this stage.
I am pleased to see the motion, as it represents another step in the journey towards taking back control of our fishing industry. I believe that, working collectively with those in the sector — the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation Ltd (NIFPO) and the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation (ANIFPO) — and the other devolved regions, we now have the opportunity to herald a new dawn for UK fishing. Whilst the Bill will never satisfy everyone fully, it represents a practical framework and will provide certainty for the sector at this time. As my party colleague at Westminster, Jim Shannon, the MP for Strangford, said at Second Reading, the Bill is workable, fair and fit for purpose.
Flexibility is key for the industry and, therefore, key in respect of the Bill. , the Secretary of State must have sufficient capability to adapt policy decisions to meet the needs of the industry, working alongside the devolved Governments. Furthermore, flexibility is needed in order for us to set future total allowable catches (TACs) that are fair and practical, whilst ensuring that we have sufficient environmental protections to ensure long-term sustainable fish stocks.
There is a balance to be struck that works for the industry, and, with the cooperation of the industry, this practical and pragmatic approach represents a significant departure from the common fisheries policy. Proportionally speaking, Northern Ireland has the smallest sea area of any of the UK regions, and the local industry relies heavily on its ability to operate beyond local waters. I am therefore pleased that the Bill protects the rights of all UK fishermen to operate the length and breadth of our territorial waters. Such equal access will be of benefit to local fishing vessels operating further afield.
In relation to the role of DAERA, I note that the Secretary of State's remit extends to offshore waters of Northern Ireland only. That should be devolved, in keeping with other regions, and I encourage the Minister to make representations on that point.
Briefly and in conclusion, should the NI protocol be enacted, it must not be allowed to place any additional burdens on our fishing industry. As with other sectors, our fish suppliers must have unfettered access to the GB market if they are to compete and if we are to have an economically viable industry. As a Strangford representative, I can speak about the decades of damage that have been inflicted by the shackles of EU bureaucracy on the fishing industry. Under the Fisheries Bill, our fishermen will be able to fish in their own waters, land their catches in our own ports, create economic growth and rekindle an industry that has been all but denied by Europe. I wish the Bill well as it moves to Report and Third Reading in the coming days.
We have had enough debates in the Chamber to establish that there is little, if anything, positive resulting from Brexit. We have also had enough evidence to suggest that the current British Government are not exactly trustworthy, and that is particularly the case where the interests of the island of Ireland are concerned. Giving consent via the LCM with that knowledge and experience of Boris Johnson and the Tories and in the context of no overall agreement with the EU on fisheries is akin to watching the film, 'Salem's Lot' from behind the sofa and hoping that everyone in the town remains safe. Never mind their duplicity in the Internal Market Bill, they are also trying to untangle the commitment contained in the political declaration that fishing would be linked to the overall trade negotiations. That fact undermines the trade negotiations, which are vital to the future economy of this island. It would not be particularly prudent for the Assembly to give carte blanche to the Westminster Parliament until we know what kind of deal, if any, is worked out with the EU on fishing rights. I note that that position is shared by the Scottish and Welsh representatives who attempted to stall the Bill at Second Reading in Westminster until or if an agreement was reached with EU negotiators.
Over and above the clear political danger of allowing the British Government to proceed with the Bill, as a member of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, I obviously share the concerns on the details or lack of details outlined by the Committee Chair and other Committee members. In particular, I note the comments of officials about the potential increase in opportunities for the local fishing fleet. The officials said that the main fishing opportunities are mostly in the Irish Sea and no major change to the quota is anticipated.
The Committee has not been afforded the time to properly explore the impact of the Bill on the North. There is no certainty about how or if the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund will be replaced. The EMFF is an important fund for the local fishing fleet. The Bill does not mention the post-Brexit impact on the migrant workers who currently make up 50% of those employed on trawlers in the North. As with all things, the fishing industry is heavily integrated North and South. Whether it is buyers, producers, processors or landings North and South, they are all interdependent, and the Bill does not take that into account. It remains unclear how the Bill will interact with the Irish protocol, and the uncertainty is complicated and compounded by the Internal Market Bill.
I have concerns that are, again, shared by representatives in other devolved Parliaments in Scotland and Wales that aspects of the policy that should be devolved can be overridden by clause 12, which gives power of decision to the British Government. Indeed, responsibility for the designation and management of marine protected areas in the North's waters will lie not with the Assembly, as it should, but with the British Secretary of State. The British Government will be responsible for deciding quotas.
Over and above that and with all the other aspects about amendments being taken out and the concerns shared by members of the AERA Committee, I do not think that we can allow the LCM to proceed.
I welcome the opportunity to air my views on the Bill. Simply put, the Bill is not fit for purpose. It is riddled with loopholes, contradictions and vague language. The British Government may claim that they are taking back their waters, but the Bill is being sold on the same false premise as Brexit was. If the British Government fail to reach an agreement with the EU by the end of this year, it will mean that control of the waters around these islands will be governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires cooperation on efforts to agree rules and access to waters as well as setting catch limits and standards on the conservation and management of marine resources. As my colleague and Chair of the AERA Committee, Declan McAleer, mentioned, there is no detail in the Bill of what will happen to migrant workers or of how the vital EU funding that the North's fishing industry receives will be replaced or how much.
As has been pointed out by the Welsh and Scottish Governments, Westminster has used every opportunity since Brexit to scale back devolution. Responsibility for the designation and management of marine protected areas in the North's offshore waters will not lie with the Assembly but with the Secretary of State. Clause 12 states that, although devolved Administrations will control their own fisheries, they will be subject to the terms and conditions of any trade agreements that the British Government make with other countries. We can develop all the regulations and rules that we like around access, environmental protection and sustainability, but it all counts for nothing once the British Government sign a deal with another trading bloc.
The British Government will be responsible for deciding how quotas are distributed between England, Scotland, Wales and the North. That is a huge conflict of interest given that the Tories have everything to gain from favouring fishermen in England and nothing to lose by dealing a bad hand to fishermen in Scotland, Wales and here in the North. Does anyone think that a Government who boasted only recently about breaking international law will see any issue with acting as poacher and gamekeeper when it comes to quotas?
No, I will not. Thank you.
The Bill makes multiple references to how devolved Administrations will be consulted about various issues, such as landing requirements, but it does not make clear what the actual power of devolved Administrations will be on those issues. We know all too well here that being consulted by the British Government means nothing. We were consulted about our views on Brexit, and, on providing them, those views were promptly ignored. The Government have shown that they cannot be trusted. We require definitive language that cannot be misinterpreted or abused.
Other powers that should be in the hands of devolved institutions but are being reserved by Whitehall include provisions about fisheries and aquaculture and powers to impose quotas; limit time at sea; mandate processing procedures; determining what gear can be used and how; deciding how fisheries products can be marketed; imposing regulations over landings; and setting targets on marine stock and rules around enforcement. The Bill has little to say of substance about boats under 10 metres, which make up the majority of our fleet and are vital for the sustainability of our oceans and our coastal communities.
There is so much about the Bill that is unknown, ranging from how annex 2 of the protocol will affect fishermen and tariffs, to issues around migrant workers, abandoned vessels and boats owned in one jurisdiction but docked in another. How are we supposed to consent to something when we do not even fully know what we are supposed to be consenting to? The Bill is an attempt to shoehorn us into a framework that suits England. It is not cognisant of the interconnectedness and all-island nature of our local fishing industry.
There are specific and general concerns about the Bill to which we are being asked to give consent today. The provisions that establish an alternative to the common fisheries policy are necessary to regulate fishing in the UK following the end of the transition period. There is no denying that we need something to replace the provisions in retained EU law and the common fisheries policy. However, I put on record my frustration; the Bill is yet another example of rushed-through Brexit legislation that touches on a devolved competence that we are being asked to consent to with minimal opportunity for scrutiny and without information about what it means for local fisheries in the long term.
The Chair of the Committee mentioned earlier that his Committee had been able to take just one day of evidence. The Committee was also explicit in raising several concerns about the Bill in its reports. It noted that, due to the limited time to scrutinise the Bill, it has been unable to fully explore and understand the potential effects and implications for the local fishing industry and the associated processing industry, which are myriad, as we have discussed today.
In effect, we are being asked to give consent to a Bill and powers that we do not fully understand. That was the case yesterday, and I am afraid that it will be the case, probably, in the weeks and months to come. We are not being given sufficient time to debate and scrutinise the myriad legislation, both primary and secondary, that relates to Brexit.
I thank the Member for giving way. As a Member for the South Down constituency, I am fully aware of the many households that depend on the fishing industry for their main source of income. Is it true to say that the discussion here today has silenced those voices? There has not been an opportunity for those who are deeply invested in the welfare of the industry to give an opinion the Bill going through the House today.
As someone who grew up a few miles from Ardglass, I think that you are right. It is definitely clear that we need to hear from the local fishing industry in detail, albeit it is true that it also wants to see support.
It is also true, as people have mentioned on the other side of the Chamber, that large parts of the fishing industry have been sceptical about the common fisheries policy and other aspects of EU membership over the years. It is worth saying, however, that the majority of Northern Ireland's catch goes to the EU market. It is true that parts of our industry have disliked the quota system that has operated for several decades, but, having caught the fish, they recognise that they need a market in which to sell it.
I will go back to a couple of specific concerns. First, there are question marks, as others have said, over how the provisions interact with the protocol and, indeed, over whether they will comply with the commitments made to abide by EU regulation on things such as safety at sea, marine pollution, and fishing limits for species conservation in marine ecosystems. Another specific example that the Bill touches on is aquaculture. The Bill is silent on the aquaculture industries that are in cross-border bodies of water. It does not say anything about the trout in Lough Melvin or the oysters in Carlingford lough. I am afraid that it is a fact that we in Northern Ireland share bodies of water with the rest of Ireland, and we need to understand what DAERA is doing to reflect that.
Secondly, I agree with those who raised concerns about the fact that the attempt by the House of Lords to promote sustainability as the primary criterion for fishing stocks was removed from the Bill. That is regrettable. I ask the Minister to clarify his position on sustainability as it relates to Northern Ireland and its quotas.
Thirdly, there is an issue around the access that our fishing industry — trawlers and the fish and seafood processing industry — has to migrant labour. Frankly, both rely on it. It is a huge issue for them. Although the legislation does not reflect on immigration, it is the case that this is another sector in which a Northern Ireland industry is being negatively impacted on by the immigration policy being pursued by the Home Office. This should not be a question of your view on the protocol but a question of whether the UK Government will finally listen to Northern Ireland about how migration policy can be adjusted locally. I ask the Minister to take that matter up with his colleague in the Economy Department. As I said, it would be useful to hear from DAERA about how it plans to mitigate the negative impact that the new UK immigration policy would have on our skills base.
A couple of Members talked about the voisinage arrangement. Mr Storey mentioned it, the differential arrangements and the different approach taken by trawlers from the South. He is right that those are ongoing issues. No one hides away from them, but they are something that we need the Department to establish, and this legislation does not establish how the interaction will work between trawlers that move North/South.
Let us be absolutely clear: a lot of the fishing industry that has been most vocal about wanting Brexit and massively increased quotas is made up of fishing organisations in the north of Scotland. There is a simple reason for that. They get a hell of a lot more water to fish from. Much more fishing happens in the North Sea, which is much bigger, and they have much greater access to it. Fair enough. The UK waters in which Northern Ireland trawlers largely fish are in the Irish Sea. As others have mentioned, it is not clear that there is going to be a particular increase in quotas in the Irish Sea. Nor is it clear what is going to happen to Northern Ireland trawlers' access if they sail a few miles offshore from Kilkeel and into Irish waters. We therefore need to hear from the Department on how the Bill is going to affect that. If that involves bilateral working with Dublin, I am absolutely happy with that. I am glad that the Minister is willing —.
Thank you very much for raising an interesting point about our Northern Ireland fishing fleet. Of course, however, some of our fleet has the opportunity to fish in other United Kingdom waters, particularly down in the Celtic Sea. One of the biggest issues that we have in the Celtic Sea is that the French fishing fleet takes about 84% of the quota of cod. Perhaps with the changes that are likely to come out of this new fishing legislation, there will be greater opportunity for Northern Ireland fishing vessels to fish around our waters.
That is possibly the case. I do not know if the Member has spoken to many trawlers from Ardglass and Kilkeel who sail all the way down there. That is fine; they have to go through a lot of the Irish Sea to get to the Celtic Sea. That is fair enough. As I said, once they catch it, they need a market to sell it to. That is a critical point. It is clear that a lot of the fishing industry is frustrated with the way in which the common fisheries policy operated. No one disputes that, but it is also true that we need to have a market to sell the fish to. A large part of the market for fish from Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and, indeed, the island of Ireland, has been in other parts of the UK. Unless we have a comprehensive deal that includes fisheries, we are going to have a severe market access problem. Do Members have a strategy for us comprehensively changing the fish that we consume here, because a lot of the fish that is landed here is not popular in our domestic market?
I move now to the question of the joint fisheries statement and the NI zone, which the Minister talked about in his introduction. It would be good to get clarity on the role of the Assembly and DAERA in the development of that new joint fisheries statement. As the Bill stands, it is unclear how that will operate. Members have talked about the new opportunities for trawlers, but the new opportunities for trawlers from Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie are a little bit smaller than those for trawlers fishing out of Peterhead or Fraserburgh. If these are new opportunities, be explicit about what they are and how the joint fisheries statement will deliver on them. As the Bill stands, it is unclear how that will operate. In part, to be blunt, that is because Northern Ireland has smaller territorial waters than Scotland, for example.
The fact of the matter is that the UK, including Northern Ireland, exports a large proportion of the fish that we catch. Indeed, we import the majority of what is consumed domestically. Between 2014 and 2016, the EU made up 94% of Northern Ireland's international fish exports and 82% of its international fish imports. In 2016, the Northern Ireland fishing industry sold around £12·8 million to the local market and £28 million — well over double — to the EU market. Those are hard facts when it comes to market access. I respect what Members have said about people's objections to the common fisheries policy, and, yes, there needs to be a legal replacement for it, but let us be clear about market access and how that works. Access to EU markets will be critical for our fishing industry, going forward, but, unfortunately, we have little clarity on that.
Members have talked about the importance of the negotiations between the UK and the EU. The Minister mentioned that when he talked about clause 16 and reciprocal access. He and I have talked about the protocol. It is fair to say that we feel slightly differently, to put it diplomatically, about the delivery of the Ireland protocol. First, I gently remind him that he is duty-bound to deliver on it. Secondly, given what he said about clause 16, I hope that he agrees that it would be in the interests of our fishing industry and, more broadly, our economy, if the UK and EU could agree a deal, and that that should be something that is deliverable upon, because that would make everyone's life much easier. However, unfortunately in relation to the Bill, from what we have seen from the UK Government's approach to the negotiations, delivering on the protocol and, more broadly, protecting Northern Ireland, we have much to fear.
In conclusion, I understand the necessity for bringing the LCM to the House and the need for something to replace the common fisheries policy, but I have significant concerns which have yet to be answered about the specifics in relation to much in the Bill and how it will affect our fishing industry in Northern Ireland.
The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the House, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be questions to the Minister for the Economy. This debate will resume immediately after Question Time, and the first Member who is scheduled to speak is Steve Aiken.
The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair) —