Effect of statements

Fisheries Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 11 December 2018.

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Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 3:45, 11 December 2018

I beg to move amendment 89, in clause 6, page 4, line 29, leave out from “authority” to end of line 34.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 90, in clause 6, page 4, line 37, leave out from “authority” to end of line 42.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Amendments 81 and 82, which come next, also relate to this clause, and the points that I make now apply to those changes as well.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I think it is better to discuss those separately because they are grouped separately. We will stick to amendments 89 and 90 for now.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Thank you, Mr Gray.

I will highlight two points on which I hope to gain clarification from the Minister. First, it is important for all public bodies involved in fisheries management to adhere to the principle of the fisheries statements. The amendments therefore seek to expand the scope of the list of those authorities to which the statements apply. I have also sought to ensure that the list is not exhaustive.

Secondly, the amendments would reduce those authorities’ discretion not to comply with the obligation. They would provide a legally binding commitment on the public authorities to achieve the fisheries objective. I am concerned about what appears to be some wriggle room for authorities not to comply with the statements. I would be grateful if the Minister allayed my concerns.

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

Although this might be the kiss of death for the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, the Opposition are minded to support it, because it seeks to improve the duties in the Bill.

The Bill’s wording gives significant powers for a relevant national authority to amend policies contained within the joint fisheries statement with little scrutiny or challenge. The amendment would remove the vague and meaningless “relevant considerations”, a term that appears to be a get-out clause to allow authorities to act as they please when it suits them.

Earlier, the Minister said that the power would enable reaction to a huge surprise event, but how can we be sure that it would not be abused? The clause is not specific enough, and no safeguards are in place to stop it being used as a “Get out of jail” card. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd did, I ask the Minister what “relevant considerations” mean in this context. That is the nub of the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Waveney.

In the evidence session last week, Tom Appleby from the Blue Marine Foundation criticised the clause as it stands:

“Our fisheries statements are a bit woolly. I notice that there is a bit in here that says that they do not have to adhere if relevant considerations are taken into account. What is a relevant consideration? I could not find a definition of that.

We have not nailed the Secretary of State to the floor in this Bill, and that could be done.”––[Official Report, Fisheries Public Bill Committee, 4 December 2018; c. 56, Q120.]

I am not, of course, advocating nailing the Secretary of State to any floors—[Interruption.] Indeed. Government Members might like to go there, but not Opposition Members. Debbie Crockard of the Marine Conservation Society said something similar at another of our evidence sessions:

“the problem with the joint fisheries statement is that, under clause 6(2), if a national authority takes the decision to act other than in accordance with the JFS, it simply has to state the reason why. There is no binding duty to follow that JFS. If it goes against the JFS and sets fishing limits that are not legally bound, there is nothing to hold it to account in that situation.”––[Official Report, Fisheries Public Bill Committee, 6 December 2018; c. 77, Q152.]

Both the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Waveney, and that concern about the lack of any dispute resolution, go to the heart of the weakness of the joint fisheries statement that he rightly highlighted.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney for tabling the amendments and highlighting an important issue. I understand why some might be concerned about the inclusion of the provision, because they judge that it to be a “Get out of jail” card which means that people would not have to follow the statement at all.

As with earlier amendments, I will explain the genesis of the language chosen for the clause. Again, I am afraid, I have to pray in aid the Marine and Coastal Access Act. Section 58(1) states:

“A public authority must take any authorisation or enforcement decision in accordance with the appropriate marine policy documents, unless relevant considerations indicate otherwise.”

The claim by some that the language in the Bill is random, new language that has never been used in legislation before is therefore not true. It is a form of words that was used in the most recent piece of marine management legislation available, which was introduced by the Labour Government.

The reason we have the provision is to ensure that in instances where we have a sudden change in circumstances, which might put us outside a joint fisheries statement, there is, in a sort of force majeure—

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

I just want to understand what the Minister is talking about. Exceptional circumstances may arise that need swift action. Therefore, is there not a way to improve the language in the Bill, even though this serves as a precedent, rather than the amendment, which would delete it completely? Is that something the Government would consider for the next stage?

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

I was going to return to that point. As I said at the outset, while I think it is wrong to delete that flexibility for a force majeure event all together, I am certainly willing to look on Report at whether we could refine or narrow the scope and the circumstances in which such a measure could be used.

Let me give an example. If there were a sudden change in the health of a particular stock, we might have it as part of the plan that a stock could be exploited at a particular level. We might not want to do that anymore and might therefore step outside the plan—not to overexploit a stock but to stop exploiting it all together. It might also be the case that in order to reach an agreement with, say, Norway, which uses maximum sustainable yield as well as other environmental measurements and metrics, we might have to move slightly outside the scope of our own plan. Then a question has to be asked: as I put to Dr Carl O’Brien, is it better to get an agreement so that everyone is working within agreed limits and to an agreed plan with our neighbours—say, Norway—or is it better for everyone to just kick the table over, walk away and unilaterally set their own total allowable catch? I would say it is always the former. There will be times when we may have to step slightly outside the joint fisheries statement in the interests of getting a fisheries agreement at all, which is ultimately for the benefit of the stock.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has highlighted an important issue. I hope he understands that, because we need that flexibility both for force majeure events and for other sudden developments, we need some sort of provision for those circumstances. Therefore, deleting the wording all together is wrong. However, in view of the points that he and others have raised, I will give this further consideration as we approach Report to see whether we can narrow that power so it can be used only in prescribed circumstances.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

The Minister is offering some comfort to those of us who have expressed concerns about how loosely the clause seems to be drawn. I put it to the Minister that if what he is envisaging here are very exceptional circumstances—he keeps using the phrase “force majeure circumstances”—why is the language so loosely drawn? It says:

“unless relevant considerations indicate otherwise” and this seems to be a fairly broadly drawn set of circumstances. Crucially, subsection (4) says:

“If a relevant national authority within subsection (5)(a) or (b) takes any decision”.

That is an extraordinarily broad set of circumstances. If it is intended to be so limited, why is it so broad?

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

I explained the genesis of that choice of words earlier. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 also uses the term

“unless relevant considerations indicate otherwise”,

so it is not a new form of words in our legislation and it was used in our most recent piece of legislation dealing with the marine environment. As I said, I accept that we should go away and consider whether we can narrow the scope within which such a power could be used, and I have undertaken to give that further consideration by the time the Bill is on Report.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

I do not think anybody is suggesting that the problem is that the language is new. It is the fact that the language is so poorly and so broadly drawn.

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

Well, I blame the last Labour Government for the drafting of the legislation. We have reached a convenient conclusion and I have made an open offer to give this further consideration to see if we can narrow the scope so that it is closer to its intended use, rather than it becoming a simple get out of jail card in all circumstances. I look forward to updating my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney on Report.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 4:00, 11 December 2018

It has been a useful short debate. I was not happy with the clause as it is drafted; there needs to be a balance between flexibility—that is needed—and not too much flexibility that gives the get-out-of-jail card. I thank the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun for his suggestion that we look at this in a bit more detail, and the Minister for taking up that offer. I look forward to looking at this matter more closely in redrafted clauses on Report. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8