Preparation and coming into effect of fisheries statements

Fisheries Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 11 December 2018.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 2:45, 11 December 2018

I beg to move amendment 51, in clause 3, page 3, line 38, at end insert—

“(5) The Secretary of State must by regulations establish a system to resolve disputes between fisheries policy authorities that result in no joint fisheries statement being published.

(6) In establishing the system under subsection (5), the Secretary of State must in particular ensure that the dispute resolution system makes provision to require the fisheries policy authorities to make use of the system if it appears that no JFS will be published by 1 January 2021 due to disputes between the fisheries policy authorities.”.

This amendment would provide for the Secretary of State to establish a system for resolving a dispute between the fisheries policy authorities which could otherwise result in no joint fisheries statement being published.

Amendment 51 seeks to establish a dispute resolution mechanism, should there not be agreement between the partners on a joint fisheries statement. This week is a perfect example of how dispute resolution mechanisms are actually quite useful and should be put in place before the dispute that needs to be resolved has arisen, and that is what the amendment seeks to do.

Of course, we hope that all fisheries policy authorities representing each part of the UK will be able to agree their joint fisheries statement without problems or roadblocks emerging in the discussions—the parties involved may even go into those discussions fully intending to reach agreement as swiftly as possible—but we know that in real life these things can sometimes turn out rather differently to what everyone intended.

The amendment, which has been suggested by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and the Blue Marine Foundation, therefore seeks to discover what the Government think should happen in the event that reaching an agreement on the joint fisheries statement proves to be a more difficult and protracted process than expected, or in the event that one or more of the authorities wishes to have fishing opportunities distributed on a very different basis to the others, where there is a conflict between that distribution method and the methods of their neighbours.

We need to bear it in mind that in many cases the stock of fish will be passing between shared waters and around our islands. In that respect, what happens in one jurisdiction has an impact on what happens in another jurisdiction. Therefore, the amendment seeks to place duties—

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy) 3:00, 11 December 2018

Will the hon. Gentleman outline how he sees this system being set up and how it will actually operate, because right now the amendment is structured so that the Secretary of State sets the system up, which clearly indicates that there will be no input from the devolved Administrations into how the system will operate? He highlighted the example of a situation where one Administration might want to allocate in a way that is vastly different from the other Administrations, but the Secretary of State might have too much control through the way they have set it up. Is that not a risk with regard to the devolution settlement?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion. In this amendment, we have not attempted to prescribe exactly how the dispute resolution should operate nor how it should be established; we have merely said that there should be one. Given that the powers flow from this Bill into the hands of the Secretary of State, it seemed logical that the Secretary of State—whoever that may be—should have the initial responsibility of establishing that mechanism, obviously in conjunction with the other parties involved.

We feel that a firm deadline should be set in the Bill so that these matters are not allowed simply to drift. Therefore, the amendment proposes that the fisheries authority should be required to use the system set out by the Secretary of State in regulations, as soon as it becomes apparent that it will not be possible to have an agreed fisheries statement published by—in this case—1 January 2021. Equally, the date could be set 12 months after the commencement of the Act.

The Minister may try to persuade us that we are perhaps being too gloomy and that the scenarios that we are trying to prepare for are remote possibilities. If he is not inclined to accept this amendment, as I suspect he may not be, it would be beneficial if the Minister explained to the Committee what plans he expects to be put in place if there is a situation where the fisheries authorities are unable to reach an agreement, and that in itself causes a—

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society)

Further to that point, the Minister said previously that he would be, in effect, the English Fisheries Minister and the Secretary of State. Does the hon. Gentleman have concerns that the English Fisheries Minister is also the arbiter in such a scheme? How would that work out? Would there not be a complete conflict of interests if we were to put the Minister in that situation?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is a valid one, and it relates to the difficulty of having a UK role and English role simultaneously. The importance of creating a dispute resolution system ahead of any dispute happening is that the rules of engagement are already set out if those conflicts and the issues that may arise from people being double-hatted come about. That assumes that the English Fisheries Minister is indeed an English MP and there is not a Welsh or Scottish MP in that role, because that would create opportunities for other types of conflict within that scenario.

We need to get that settled from the outset and that is effectively what the amendment seeks to do. The amendment says, “In the event of there being a problem, how will it be addressed?” It would be good if the Minister set out his Department’s thinking. If there is a scenario in which conflict happens, we need to be clear about how it will be resolved, because fisheries is a very political issue. We know from the Fisheries Councils that there is an awful lot of national bravado, national posturing and national importance in respect of the deal, and the agreement that emerges is a really important one. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister set out how he would address that in responding to the amendment.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

We used to say that strong fences make for good neighbours, and the same is true when applied to the principles of constitutional law. The effective working of an emerging asymmetric system of devolution within our government requires strong systems to be put in place. Yes, as the Minister suggested this morning, it is all fine and well while everybody is happy, stocks are plentiful and there is no real disagreement. One of the difficulties with the operation of the devolution settlement between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom was that such concordats as were put in place were put in place with little consideration of how they might work with Governments of different colours in Edinburgh and London. As a consequence, these areas have become fractious, and occasionally friction has ensued. We risk missing an opportunity, because there will be times when some sort of friction will occur.

To anticipate the question from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, such arrangements would have to be put in place after full agreement with the different devolved Administrations. It would be wrong of the UK Government—because they are the UK Government and the English Government at the same time—simply to go ahead. That is the essence of the conflict the Minister faces.

No one should have a veto in these matters, but that should mean that no one has a final say in defiance of everyone else either. A veto can block an arrangement, but a final say can force through an arrangement that does not suit and is not agreed by everyone in the different Administrations concerned. At the end of the day, we may need to come to something that looks much like a system of qualified majority voting. Heaven help us, but some mechanism must be found to resolve these matters.

The point the Minister hears from our discussion of this amendment, and from his hon. Friend the Member for Waveney on the previous amendment, is that once we have brought the powers back from the European Union, the status quo will no longer be fit for purpose.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I rise to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I do so as a former special adviser in the Wales Office and the Northern Ireland Office and as a former shadow Secretary of State for Wales and for Northern Ireland.

My experience and my observation is that even when Ministers in all corners of the UK have the best intentions of avoiding them, disputes regularly arise. As the Minister indicated, such disputes are normally dealt with on a pretty ad hoc basis, with an evolving series of concordats and memorandums of understanding. The memorable way in which the hon. Member for Waveney put it was that such matters are “the West Lothian question for fish”. Whenever such problems inevitably emerge, we traditionally kick the can, or the fish, down the road, rather than try to resolve them.

The Minister highlighted some of the thorny issues we have wrestled with over generations on both sides of the House in respect of devolution and the evolving devolution settlement. I put it to him that it is better, especially in an enabling framework Bill such as this, to try to shape future discussions and mitigate the emergence of problems and disputes, because one thing we can be certain of is that they will emerge in relation to fishing.

One simply need consider clause 3 in respect of the Secretary of State setting out his fisheries statement—the SSFS—and the joint fisheries statement being agreed between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government, to see that there is an immediate problem. It is not clear to me from reading the Bill which of those statements has precedence. I assume that the hierarchy is that, just as each succeeding SSFS supersedes the preceding one, the SSFS would also have precedence over the JFS, but if the JFS were legally deemed to be the more important document, given that it had arguably reached by a more important means of negotiation between the different parts of the UK, it would be good if the Minister were to clarify that.

What happens if there is a significant difference of opinion between the UK Secretary of State, who is also the English Fisheries Minister, and Fisheries Ministers for the devolved Administrations about their priorities for their respective fishing areas? That seems an obvious problem, although this is not the area of the Bill in which that problem becomes most obvious: it is in clauses 18 and 19, which deal with the setting of quotas, that the potential for discord between the UK Minister and the devolved Administrations Ministers becomes most acute and most commercially problematic. In respect of the fisheries statements and the setting of quotas, it is perfectly possible that in future, for example, the UK Minister may wish to set quotas for shellfish that we do not currently have, which may be seen as unfair to fishers in Scotland or Wales in particular.

I think we all recognise that there are myriad potential problems here, and that it would be better if the Minister were able to come up with some more concrete means of assuring people that the Government have an idea of how they would resolve those problems. That might be through a dispute resolution mechanism as recommended by our Front Benchers, or through some other means, but I do not think kicking the can down the road is the right approach.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I call the Minister—sorry, I call Mr Sweeney. I keep thinking you are a Front Bencher, but you are actually a Back Bencher.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

Technically, yes. Perhaps I am moonlighting as a Front Bencher. As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I rise in support of this amendment. It reflects that devolution is a process, rather than an event, and if I were to do a risk profile of the Bill, this omission by the Government would be a red flag. It is important that this is addressed as a matter of urgency; it is critical, because as we have seen at instances throughout the discussions about the EU withdrawal process, impasses occur quite frequently between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government about how to proceed and how best to resolve issues. It is clear that in fisheries, there is a high risk of those issues emerging, so as a matter of prudence it is incumbent on the Government to make provision for issues to be resolved through a system and process defined in the Bill.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy)

I rise to ask the hon. Gentleman the same question I put to the shadow Minister: how does he see this mechanism being set up? If it is set up with the Secretary of State, how does he see it as being a panacea that will resolve any dispute if it does not have the input of the Administrations?

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I think it should be an inclusive process; I am not prescribing any particular definition for that, but I do not think the Secretary of State should have untrammelled power over the ultimate decisions. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland suggested, it should be something that is equitable and democratic in nature. That would be the way to proceed.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that now is the time to be make these arrangements? If we wait until there is a problem, then the creation of the resolution system itself will inevitably become contentious. This is the time for building strong bridges.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I agree. It would be intelligent to set up this mechanism now, rather than when there is a heated dispute, which will inevitably emerge at some point in the course of history. It would be seen as enlightened to do that at this stage, and I urge the Minister to consider taking it forward as a matter of precaution, because we all share an interest in this legislation functioning as efficiently as possible and reflecting the realities of 20 years of devolution. As we have mentioned before, some of these provisions can form a blind spot in how the UK Government form their policies, and we have to be cognisant of the realities of how devolution functions.

This mechanism should not be monopolised by the devolved Administrations plus the UK Government; it could perhaps involve regional elements from all the devolved nations, which would be able to make submissions for dispute resolutions as well. It should proceed in an innovative and intelligent way. It would allow us to have properly functioning devolution, rather than simply devolving an issue and forgetting that it exists—throwing it over the wall and saying, “It is now branded with a saltire or a red dragon, and it is no longer our problem.” It should be an iterative process that everybody is involved with, because ultimately, fisheries are an common asset for all parts of the UK.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:15, 11 December 2018

I hope to be able to reassure hon. Members that we are all one big happy family in this United Kingdom. The challenges that hon. Members have identified are not new; they date right back to the formation of the devolution settlement in the late 1990s. We have developed ways of managing these tensions.

As I said this morning on a previous group of amendments, the Bill seeks to resolve quite a difficult tension that has existed for at least the past 20 years: on one level, fisheries is about international agreements and negotiations, which are reserved, but on another level, issues such as enforcement, licensing and marine management have been devolved. That is the nature of our devolution settlement, and we have to use sensible, pragmatic and creative ways to bridge the tensions inherent in it.

The December Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting will be held next week. More than any other Department, DEFRA has developed quite a good way of working with all the devolved Administrations, so the annual December negotiations are attended not just by Ministers in the UK Government but by Ministers from each part of the United Kingdom. We go as a UK delegation led by the UK Minister, but when we enter trilateral discussions with the presidency and the Commission, for instance, my Scottish counterpart Fergus Ewing will speak on issues pertinent to Scotland, Lesley Griffiths will speak for the Welsh Government on issues pertinent to Wales, and the lead official John Speers will talk about issues pertinent to Northern Ireland.

We already attend as an integrated UK delegation, although we represent several Governments. In those difficult moments on Tuesday when we have to pick priorities by deciding which issues we will get no movement on from the Commission, or giving certain issues up to prioritise others, we will have to go through discussions to work out, collectively and by consensus, the correct approach for the UK. We have a very good track record of doing so, even though virtually every political party imaginable is in the delegation.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

The Minister outlines a de facto process that may function adequately, but would it not be helpful to define it in the Bill and give certainty about how it will function in the future?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I was going to come on to how we define other working relationships. I have set out the approach for annual fisheries negotiations, and I envisage that approach continuing in the future as we become an independent coastal state, but there are additional measures in place.

We have a series of concordats, which date back to 2012 and are regularly updated, setting out how we work together on issues such as vessel licensing that have implications for different parts of the UK. There is an overarching memorandum of understanding with all the devolved Administrations that includes a process for the Joint Ministerial Committee to act as a dispute resolution mechanism. We are currently developing a fisheries memorandum of understanding with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations, which is likely to include a chapter on dispute resolution as part of a wider UK frameworks process led by the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office is doing detailed, cross-Government work on the future of the JMC, on how its processes can be improved and on how issues such as dispute resolution can be addressed. I hope on Report to be able to explain more fully the thinking that is emerging.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

The Minister outlines a series of points about the functioning of de facto dispute resolutions that perform adequately, but anyone who has followed the events of the past few months with regard to EU withdrawal issues and the functioning of the JMC would agree that because it is not on a statutory footing, it has failed to perform adequately—I think that that is a fair assessment from the Opposition. Perhaps he ought to take cognisance of our need to get this stuff defined in statute so that it can function and work under pressure.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I said, the Cabinet Office is leading a wider review of the memorandums of understanding and the JMC processes to see whether they can be improved. It obviously affects many other Departments as well. It is probably not right for me to go beyond that. I can explain what we currently do on fisheries.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

Does the Minister not acknowledge that part of the reason that the Cabinet Office is undertaking that review is the widespread dissatisfaction over many years in the devolved Administrations with the working of the Joint Ministerial Committee? For example, I cannot think of a single substantive issue that has been properly resolved at the JMC in recent times. If the Minister can think of one, perhaps he could inform the Committee.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

At DEFRA, we have many discussions with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations. We have highly constructive dialogue and reach a consensus. That brings me to another point I want to make. In this context, let us be clear that we are talking about the formation of a joint fisheries statement. By its very nature, we are not talking about an argument over the implementation of any kind of agreement. We are talking about what it is collectively we are doing by way of policy to deliver the legally binding objective set out in clause 1.

If we as politicians cannot work through our differences and work towards achieving a consensus on a legally binding requirement here, who can? Are we seriously saying that having a judge come in to arbitrate, or to have some sort of arbitration process or panel, is going to cut it if, for instance, the Scottish Government have a particular concern about Orkney crabs and what is said about that in the joint fisheries statement? I put it to hon. Members that that is not the case.

We politicians cannot abdicate our responsibility and role. Part of that role is to work through our differences to achieve consensus where it is required to get an agreed policy statement that is legally binding on all of us equally and severally. I believe that because we have that legal commitment enshrined in clause 5(1) and because we have a very strong track record in DEFRA of successful concordats and memorandums of understanding, and because the Cabinet Office is doing a wider piece of work in this area, this amendment is unnecessary. It is ultimately for us, as elected politicians, at the very least, to agree what we are going to do by way of policy.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

Mr Pollard, Mr Gray. We look nothing alike; one of us has a beard.

At some point in the future, the Hansard report of this Committee will be dug out by an industrious journalist and politicians, and they will inquire why a dispute mechanism was not put in place when the Bill was formed. They will look at the debate and see a Government that did not want to do so because they either failed to predict a problem or were so opposed to accepting amendments to the Bill that they knowingly proceeded with a hole in it. That is what we have here.

This is an enabling Bill, designed to create a system and framework for the proper governance of our fisheries in future. We should be taking the opportunity to look into every aspect, to ensure it will work in all circumstances and scenarios. There will be a problem in future in the event of one of the devolved Administrations or the UK deciding not to agree with the others on what is, as we all know, the most political part of DEFRA’s responsibility around fishing. Be that a manufactured concern or a valid concern on stock assessment or different elements of science conflicting, there will be a point of conflict in future.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

My hon. Friend is right. Is it not entirely predictable when that moment will come? It will be when the Secretary of State has the first opportunity to distribute fishing opportunities across the new UK waters and there is a dispute between the Administrations as to the fairness of that distribution, when those other Administrations are only consulted but do not have to consent to those changes. Is that not precisely when the rubber will hit the road?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

My hon. Friend is right that is a possible scenario. There could be a multitude of other scenarios where that is a real risk.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being very generous.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East said he was looking for a situation that was equitable and democratic. That is motherhood and apple pie to a place such as this, but he was lacking any details of what was being proposed and guarantees that it would not impinge on the devolved Administration, and something that takes into account—as we have talked about before—the asymmetrical constitutional set up that currently exists in the United Kingdom. Yes, we would love to see something that was democratic, accountable and equitable, but at the moment there is nothing on which to hang any of that.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but I disagree. We do not know what the cause of that dispute will be or what form that dispute will take, but we can predict that there will be a dispute of some form in and around the formation of these joint fisheries statements in the future. We also know that at a time when climate change is changing the stock levels in our seas, when there is a real concern about how fishing quota is distributed—between ourselves within the UK, and with our EU neighbours and Norway—disputes will arise. It is inevitable that that will take place.

The summary of the debate we have had so far is that there is a hole in the Bill, which needs to be fixed. Ministers need to be seriously concerned about the fact that there will be a problem here and the relevant Hansard will be dug out. Whether the Minister is still in his place or not at that point—I suspect, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd says, it may come sooner rather than later—we need to resolve this. As a result, we will push this amendment to a division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division number 4 Fisheries Bill — Preparation and coming into effect of fisheries statements

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss:

Clause 4 stand part.

That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

In the last group of amendments we covered many aspects of clause 3, which sets out the procedures that the four fisheries administrations would need to follow when preparing and adopting the joint fisheries statement. It also sets out the procedures for the Secretary of State to adopt a Secretary of State fisheries statement for England. This clause makes it clear that maintaining sustainable fisheries is a joint effort and requires the involvement of all four fisheries administrations. It requires all four to jointly prepare and adopt the joint fisheries statement for the statement to come into effect. The precise mechanism for preparing and publishing both the JFS and the SSFS are contained in schedule 1, which must be followed for the statements to come into effect. This sets out the provisions for consultation with industry and other interested parties. This clause is integral to both the joint fisheries statement and the Secretary of State fisheries statement.

Clause 4 makes it clear that any amendment to the joint fisheries statement can only be made by the fisheries administrations acting together. This clause is important in allowing the statements to be amendable, as a changing environment may require. For instance, there may be a change of Administration, Government, approach or circumstances, which would mean that it would be necessary, where possible, to amend and adapt the joint fisheries statement and the Secretary of State fisheries statement.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

I am grateful to the Minister. The Opposition has no issue with clause 4 and we are happy that it should stand part.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 5