This amendment extends the deadline for publishing the first joint fisheries statement. Under the Bill as it stands the deadline is 18 months after the Bill is passed; the amendment alters it to two years after the Bill is passed.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Government amendment 2 extends the timeframe for publication of the joint fisheries statement from 18 months after Royal Assent to 24 months. That is to ensure sufficient time for drafting and sign-off by all the fisheries administrations, as well as for public and parliamentary scrutiny of the proposed policies. The change is unfortunately necessary because of the slippage in proceedings on the Bill, most latterly as a result of the pandemic. That has resulted in key stages of the joint fisheries statement drafting process, including parliamentary scrutiny, falling within the purdah or pre-election and, indeed, election periods for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments in the spring of next year and the Northern Ireland Assembly in spring 2022. The devolved Administrations have raised the matter with us and, in our view, are rightly concerned that these election processes could significantly delay the ministerial clearances that will be required ahead of public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. We are concerned that there is a high risk that the deadline will not be met. It would not be appropriate to make potentially new policy decisions during any pre-election period.
This amendment will support the development of a robust joint fisheries statement on the implementation of policies to meet the fisheries objectives that have been subject to appropriately rigorous scrutiny. I therefore ask the Committee to support the amendment.
The fisheries administrations are required to publish a joint fisheries statement setting out the policies that will achieve or contribute to the achievement of the objectives listed in clause 1, which we discussed this morning. A common UK framework should be ambitious in scope and aspiration. The recovery of our fish stocks and sustainable management of our fisheries will impact generations to come. We will no doubt agree that the establishment of the first joint fisheries statement is an important moment for the UK fishing industry. I have met representatives from across the fishing industry in recent months, as I am sure the Minister has, and I am sure that the Minister will have heard as much as I have their concerns that the process of the UK leaving the common fisheries policy and becoming an independent coastal state has felt prolonged. Many fishers are keen to make progress on this as quickly as possible—something that I am sure the Minister and I will share. I understand the reasons that the Minister has outlined for the unfortunate but necessary delay, but can she also assure us that any delays in publishing the joint fisheries statements will not impact on the fisheries objectives that we have already discussed and, in particular, on the sustainability objective, albeit we would have preferred it to be stronger?
I agree with almost all of what the hon. Lady has to say. We share her disappointment that the amendment is necessary, but we regretfully say that it is.
“(5A) 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.
(5B) In establishing the system under subsection (5A), 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 2022 due to disputes between the fisheries policy authorities.”
This amendment would require 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.
As I am sure many members of the Committee will remember, the Second Reading debate on the Bill got quite heated in parts. Fisheries management decisions and approaches can be contentious, and it is clear that disagreements can easily arise. We have only to look at what is happening in Brussels at the moment to see evidence for that. This amendment is therefore designed to ensure that a dispute resolution process is formally established. Such a process would ensure that any disagreements over fisheries management policies could be resolved through a clear framework and in a timely manner before discussions became deadlocked to the point that a joint fisheries statement could not be produced. This provision is supported by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which regards it as essential.
The NFFO also said that it would like this provision to be implemented in consultation with each devolved Administration before policies are set out in a Secretary of State’s statement. It is my understanding that the Government are developing a memorandum of understanding with the devolved Administrations that
“aims to ensure co-operative ways of working and a mechanism for escalating and resolving disputes should they arise.”
I would like to probe the Minister further on how this mechanism would work in practice, how it would respect devolution settlements while ensuring an efficient process and how it would ensure that the joint fisheries statements were the product of an equitable and democratic process.
This amendment would provide important certainty to the industry across the UK that, should any disputes arise, a clear and fair dispute resolution process would be in place. I believe that this does have and would have the support of the wider industry.
It is a pleasure to see you in your place this afternoon, Sir Charles. As much as I can see what the hon. Member for Barnsley East is trying to do in proposing this amendment —seeking to establish a dispute resolution mechanism—and while I of course understand that it would be better for the four nations of the United Kingdom to enter into discussions in good faith and to work collaboratively to seek that joint fisheries statement, I cannot accept that this is the best way to take this forward. There should be, I agree, a mechanism to resolve any conflict that might arise between the four nations of the UK, but we do not think that giving power to the Secretary of State to establish such a mechanism is the way forward.
There has been nothing in the last few years, particularly around fishing and agriculture, to suggest that the interests of the devolved nations would be protected if the UK Secretary of State—particularly from the current Administration—was asked to establish a system in which to resolve disputes. Quite simply, we do not trust the Government to produce a mechanism that would not centralise power and decision making at Westminster. We do not think that the needs of the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish fishing industries would be adequately protected if a Secretary of State based in Whitehall was given the power to establish that dispute mechanism.
Immediately, questions would arise. What would the system to resolve these disputes look like? How independent of Government would this be? Who would appoint the members of that committee, if it were independent of Government? Would its membership be based on the nation’s fishing industry, percentage share of coastline or the size of its population? Who would ultimately decide which side was right and which was wrong, and what criteria would they use to decide that?
I struggle to see how it would be possible for the four nations of the United Kingdom to be put on a fair and equitable footing, and for a transparent dispute mechanism to be put in place, when to all intents and purposes in these matters Westminster acts as the English Parliament, and when George Eustice doubles as the UK Secretary of State and also the person in political charge of English fisheries.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman. That has taken an awful lot longer than I imagined it would. I was primed for that one at 9.35 am morning. Obviously, clearly not, but I appreciate his sentiment.
Given the circumstances in which these resolution mechanisms have been put in place, there is a massive potential conflict of interest if the UK Secretary of State, who is also in charge of English fisheries, is the person we charge to found that dispute resolution mechanism. Rather than the Secretary of State having this power, surely any dispute resolution mechanism would have to be created by all four nations, which would be bound by it. It should be something that all four nations and Administrations can agree to. I do not think anything else would work practically or politically.
The reason why we discussed this mechanism in the previous iteration of the Fisheries Bill Committee was the very real fear that a dispute might arise between the Westminster Government and a devolved Administration in the preparation of the annual fisheries statement. Let me take the Westminster Government and Holyrood as an example, although it could be one of the others. A dispute could become a political game. So the purpose of this mechanism was to say, “What happens in that scenario?” It is not out of the question that there could be a disagreement between the fisheries approaches of the devolved Administrations and the United Kingdom.
This amendment was proposed in the previous iteration of the Committee to challenge the Minister, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East has done here, to say what would happen in the event of a dispute. The answers that were given in the previous Fisheries Bill Committee were very weak, and there is still no solution to what would happen if a devolved Administration took issue with the Secretary of State’s fisheries statement, or if the fisheries management plans, as detailed in the joint fisheries statement, were not compliant with the obligations set under the Secretary of State’s joint fisheries statement but were compliant with the devolved Administration’s approach. That is an important issue.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept the premise that the Secretary of State is also the person who is politically in charge of English fishing, and that there would be a potential conflict of interest if that individual was charged with setting up the dispute resolution mechanism? We absolutely agree that there should be a dispute resolution mechanism, but it should not be for the Secretary of State alone to decide what it should be.
I am afraid that the remit of the Fisheries Bill affords us only the ability to give certain responsibilities to certain people, and the Secretary of State is responsible for the Secretary of State’s fisheries statement, so he seems to be the logical person to look at in that respect. I am pleased that the SNP wants to see a dispute resolution system in place. I say to the Minister that there is a good argument for having a plan before a dispute arises. Given that fishing is so political and important to the livelihoods of our coastal communities, as the shadow Minister said, having a dispute resolution system in place makes good sense, and it is better to design one when the Administrations are not in dispute than to cobble one together when they are.
We do not think this amendment is necessary. As the hon. Member for Barnsley East said, the Bill places a statutory obligation on the Administrations to produce a joint fisheries statement. When it is possible to set out joint policies in the JFS, we will do so. Equally, it is perfectly possible for each Administration to have separate and different policies within the JFS. That is part of devolution, and it is not something that I am resisting. The policies in the JFS do not have to be the same ones. For instance, we were talking about bycatch earlier, and it would be perfectly possible for each Administration to put in place a different policy to achieve the same bycatch objective, as appropriate for the industries in the different parts of the UK, but we would still be working towards the same goal. That means that there should not really be a circumstance in which a JFS cannot be agreed if we are working towards the same goal.
Processes are in place to resolve disputes between the Administrations. They will be strengthened. I accept some of what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said about the need for a memorandum of understanding between the Administrations. In fact, contrary to some of what the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said, the fisheries administrations have a strong track record of working together for the common good to develop fisheries management policy—as demonstrated by the close working on this Bill—while respecting the individual circumstances of each Administration. Most fisheries issues can be resolved through a strong working relationship at ministerial and official level, because we share an aspiration to maintain sustainable fisheries, as well as the vibrant and profitable fishing industry that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
The fisheries concordat currently sets out how the Administrations work together on fisheries management and sits alongside a UK MOU on general devolution. The UK MOU has an intergovernmental dispute resolution process that applies to fisheries issues. In the future, the fisheries administrations have agreed to work collaboratively on developing a new UK fisheries framework, which includes this Bill, jointly drafting the joint fisheries statement and fisheries management plans, where appropriate, and developing a new fisheries specific MOU. That MOU will replace the existing concordat, enshrine existing co-operative ways of working and include a clear dispute resolution mechanism.
These mechanisms will ensure that disputes are resolved at the right level and as quickly as possible, while respecting the devolution settlements. Existing governance structures and agreements, including the overarching UK MOU, will continue to apply. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Barnsley East to withdraw the amendment.