Power to grant licences in respect of foreign fishing boats

Fisheries Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 11 December 2018.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 4:15, 11 December 2018

I beg to move amendment 33, in clause 12, page 7, line 32, at end insert—

“(1A) The Secretary of State must publish each year a report on—

(a) the number of licenses granted, and

(b) the country of origin of the boat to which each license is granted.”

To ensure transparency and accountability over the granting of licenses to foreign fishing boats by each relevant national authority.

Clause 12 centres on the power to grant licences in respect of foreign fishing boats. There is concern in the industry—principally on the part of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations—that there is a need for greater transparency in the way and the extent to which that is done. For that reason, my amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish each year a report on the number of licences granted and the country of origin of the boat to which each licence is granted.

Currently, the Bill allows only the political representatives of each of the relevant national authorities to grant licences to foreign fishing boats. The purpose of the amendment is to bring in an element of transparency and accountability. It should not be particularly onerous—I would have thought the administrative procedure would be fairly straightforward—but it would allow the industry to have confidence in the way the system works and prevent, or at least highlight, any abuse of the system, ensuring fair and appropriate use of the powers.

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

I hope I can reassure right the hon. Gentleman that, in common with a number of similar amendments, the amendment is not necessary but we have nothing to hide in this regard. I anticipate that we would indeed publish the number of licences granted where we were able to, probably as part of the Marine Management Organisation’s annual report, which covers a wide range of issues. I am happy to explore with officials whether a section could be added to the report to include such data.

There is one potential technical flaw with that approach. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the granting of licences is a devolved matter. We have been working with the devolved Administrations on a sensible and pragmatic approach. In all likelihood, there will be one issue of a licence to foreign vessels granted access to our waters. It will be issued by the Marine Management Organisation, but only with the consent of each devolved Administration. The purpose of that is to remove the pointless duplication of having to issue four separate licences covering each part of the UK for an internationally agreed arrangement to grant a particular cohort of vessels access to our waters.

If that administrative approach holds—the devolved Administrations show no appetite at the moment for issuing lots of separate licences for foreign access—the Marine Management Organisation would indeed have access to that information. If at some point one of the devolved Administrations decided to grant their own licence, the right hon. Gentleman might have to ask his colleagues in other devolved legislatures to table parliamentary questions to seek the answers that he is interested in.

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point of principle, and I will seek to update the Committee on Report about whether we can include what he asks for as a convention to be included in the annual Marine Management Organisation report. I hope he will not see the need to make it a statutory requirement.

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

We strike a recurring theme here: the Minister is determined to legislate for happy times. We all hope that happy times will last. By definition, to be a Liberal Democrat is to be an optimist, so I hope more than anybody else that happy times might last. However, the purpose of the legislation is to deal with occasions when there are differences, tensions and disagreements. I do not doubt that the Minister will continue to publish the information in the way that he describes, but it is just about conceivable that the day will come when the Minister is not the Minister and there might be another Minister who will do things very differently. That is why we put these things in statute rather than leaving them to the discretion of individual Ministers.

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

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that in such circumstances, there would be many other mechanisms available, not least simply tabling a parliamentary question. If the Marine Management Organisation had access to the information since it had issued the said licences, it would be inconceivable that it could avoid answering such a question were it tabled as a parliamentary question.

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

That is undoubtedly the case, but I said right at the start that the issue is one of transparency and accountability. Such things are best hard-wired into the Bill, rather than being left to the vagaries of the written parliamentary question system. The Minister says he will take the matter away and report back to the Committee at a later stage, so I will not press the amendment to a Division, but, as a caveat to that, I reserve the position with regard to later procedure. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 63, in clause 12, page 8, line 10, at end insert—

‘(3A) No licence may be granted under this section unless conditions are attached to that licence so as to require the foreign fishing boat to comply with any standards in relation to environmental protection and marine safety that would apply to the same boat if it were a British fishing boat.”

This amendment would require licences granted to require foreign fishing boats to comply with the same environmental protection and marine safety standards as British fishing boats.

Amendment 63 seeks to put into the Bill a common and very serious concern of many of our fishing communities around the country, which is that the regime that might exist after we leave the EU will see one set of rules for UK fishers and potentially another set of rules for EU fishers, because access to our waters will still be on the basis of fixed quota allocations and many foreign boats will still own quota to access UK waters after we leave the UK, and a drawdown period, if one exists, will take a while to achieve. The amendment seeks to create in the Bill the very clear, in stark plain English, description that says that foreign fishing boats should obey the same rules as British fishing boats. It is a principle to which there is huge agreement across the country from Plymouth and Cornwall right up to the north of Scotland. It would not create extra burdens for our EU friends entering UK waters. It would create the same burdens—the same regulatory requirements—to which any UK fisher must adapt.

In particular, the amendment deals with environmental protections and marine safety. It is vital, when it comes to safety, that we do not inadvertently create incentives for foreign boats to cut corners and take risks with their crews that we would not allow on our own boats. We already know from anecdotal evidence that safety standards on different EU countries’ boats are very different. There are different levels of enforcement and compliance with existing regulations.

If we say—rightly, and as the Minister did in the earlier discussion on marine safety—that we want high levels of marine safety for UK boats, we should require the same high levels of marine safety for foreign boats. If we do not, there will be a regulatory gap, potentially, between UK and foreign fishing boats. There will be an efficiency in having lower marine standards, in relation to the cost of compliance for UK and EU fishers. Potentially, a situation could be created where our EU friends might, while fishing in our waters, get into trouble more often because of the lower levels of protection.

The amendment is simple, and would put into the Bill something that fishers across the country want—a clear prescription that EU fishers will obey the same regulations as UK fishers. It is essential to the Bill, and I am surprised that it has not been included. There would, I think, be support for it on both sides of the Committee. I suspect that the Minister will oppose it, and I should be grateful if he set out his reasons for doing so, and explain how the same thing can be achieved by other means. There is concern in fishing organisations because the detail in the Bill includes no such clarity about the same regulatory standards applying to EU and UK fishers.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I support the amendment. Coming from a shipbuilding background with, perhaps, issues not entirely dissimilar to those affecting fisheries, I know the frustration in many industries about having a level playing field and the opportunity to compete on the same basis. That is the reality facing many fishermen in the UK.

Many boats adhere to onerous constraints, such as the environmental standards and safety requirements that govern their operation. That is right, and respects the way we do business. It is therefore only right that all fishing boats operating in British territorial waters should adhere to the same conditions. Not only does that reduce risk to our maritime patrol agencies that would have to intervene in certain scenarios, if people’s safety was at risk; it also improves the environmental situation—and environmental damage would cause damage to many stakeholders in the industry and the country.

For those reasons it is critical that the Minister should include the measure in the Bill. Not only would that safeguard the UK fishing industry and its interests, including in the Western Isles, Fraserburgh, Peterhead and the big commercial areas, but it would ensure that other stakeholders, many of them around the UK coastline, would be protected from the negative effects of incursions by boats that did not adhere to the same standards within UK territorial waters. That would be a very worthwhile thing to do.

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

I hope that I can persuade the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport that the amendment is unnecessary, because of provisions that already exist. The amendment has two objectives—to get foreign vessels to abide by the same environmental standards as British fishing vessels would need to, and to get them to abide by the same safety standards.

To begin with the first objective, paragraph 1(2)(d) of schedule 2 allows conditions to be imposed

“for the purposes of conserving or enhancing the marine and aquatic environment”.

The Bill therefore includes the power to impose such conditions, detailed in schedule 2. It is absolutely our intention, as we make clear in our White Paper, that any vessel seeking to access UK waters would have to abide by the environmental standards that we set out. However, I caution against saying that they must abide by the same standards as us, because there may be circumstances where we would not want to grant them access to the areas where our fishing vessels can go, or where we might not allow foreign vessels to use particular types of gear where we might allow our own vessels to do so.

The licensing regime should not be looked at in a glass half-empty perspective, in which we need to ensure that they abide by the same standards as us. There certainly will be cases where we will not grant them access to parts of our waters, because we are reserving those parts of our waters for our own UK fishermen. The licensing regime enables us to differentiate in such a way.

The second issue is around marine safety. A vessel cannot be licensed at all for fishing unless the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has issued a certificate of seaworthiness. Seaworthiness is already a registration requirement and a vessel could not even get as far as applying for a licence to fish, if it had not already satisfied those safety requirements of seaworthiness and have a certificate of seaworthiness to accompany its application for a fishing licence.

For foreign vessels, safety at sea is equally important. That is why we have the Fishing Vessels (Codes of Practice) Regulations 2017, which set out the regime that a non-UK fishing vessel must abide by. In short, no foreign vessel is allowed to enter UK waters unless, in the case of a vessel that is 24 metres or over, it has been certified by its flag state as complying with the requirements of the Torremolinos protocol, or in the case of a vessel that is under 24 metres, it has been certified by its flag status as complying with the requirements of that state that apply to vessels of that length. There are requirements for both British and foreign vessels to be seaworthy before they can even reach the stage of applying for a licence. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman that we have robust procedures in place to protect safety at sea.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 4:30, 11 December 2018

I have to say to the Minister that I am not reassured by that, and neither are fishing communities up and down the country. They are looking for wording in the Bill that says that EU fishing boats will have the same standards as UK fishing boats because of the widespread perception and reality that, at present, they do not have the same standards. Although I appreciate the Minister’s efforts to explain why there is an existing equivalence, that is not the lived experience of fishers across the UK today.

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

The cause of that is European law, and the fact that we have to abide by it and sometimes accept certain practices in our waters that we would otherwise choose not to. The premise of the Bill is that when we take control of these matters and have a proper licensing regime, it is for us, and us alone, to determine the conditions that we place on vessels that want to enter our waters. That is not the case now. That is why fishermen feel aggrieved.

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

Indeed they are. Those are fine words, which I wish I had used in my opening remarks, because that is exactly the point of this amendment. As we are now taking back control of our waters, it is up to us to set the standards that we wish the fishers in our community to be governed by. That is why it is important that we include in the Bill a clear set of words that say that EU fishers must abide by the same regulations as UK fishers, because the sense of betrayal, which I spoke about earlier, is not just about giving away access to waters, but about having different rules that they play by. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East was exactly right about the requirement for a level playing field. There is a real concern among fishers that a level playing field will not be achieved by this Bill. The refusal to put into the Bill clear wording that says that EU fishers must obey the same rules as UK fishers will worry an awful lot of our fishing communities up and down the country. I will therefore not withdraw the amendment, but will press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 8, Noes 9.

Division number 5 Fisheries Bill — Power to grant licences in respect of foreign fishing boats

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Iain Stewart.)

Adjourned till Thursday 13 December at half-past Eleven o’clock.