‘(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.’.
Under this amendment, licences granted to foreign fishing boats would require those boats to comply with the same environmental protection and marine safety standards as British fishing boats.
‘(5) A licence may not be granted under this section unless the fishing boat meets safety standards that are at least equivalent to those applicable to British fishing boats.’.
This amendment prevents a licence being granted to foreign fishing boats unless the applicant can demonstrate that their vessel meets the standards required of British fishing boats.
The amendments seek to apply the same marine safety standards to foreign boats as to British boats. The Minister will know from our debate on Tuesday how important it is that we have similar and equivalent safety standards for everyone fishing in UK waters. In the previous iteration of the Fisheries Bill Committee we had considerable debates about the minimum standard that should be applied to any boat under whatever flag fishing in our waters.
The premise that many fishers voted for Brexit to ensure that level playing field and access is an important one, because the concern is that the cost of implementing regulations for UK fishers—albeit well-intentioned regulations to save lives—is not carried in the same way by some of our European friends, who enjoy lower costs, albeit with a greater risk from lower standards. Amendments 99 and 103 look at whether there should be a more explicit provision in the Bill to say that foreign fishing boats should have the same level of safety as UK fishing boats. That is about not only saving lives, but the economic cost that goes along with that in terms of the regulatory burden for businesses involved.
“at least equivalent to those applicable to British fishing boats.”
Although we have been governed by the same common fisheries policy as our European friends for many years, and by similar obligations under the International Maritime Organisation, they have implemented their safety standards slightly differently. The amendment would therefore ensure that there is equivalence of safety standards and a similar basis, because any fishing boat going down or getting into trouble should worry us all.
Marine safety is not only about the behaviour of the crew onboard in terms of wearing lifejackets. As the Minister knows, I welcome the support of the Department for Transport and her predecessor in the roll-out of the Plymouth lifejacket scheme, which was pioneered in Plymouth. It includes a personal locator beacon on the lifejacket and moves the clasp from the middle of someone’s chest to being lower, which enables them to use filleting knives more easily on board a boat, so it is easier to operate, do their job and stay safe. That roll-out is important, but it is not compulsory and is not being applied to our European friends in the same way.
It is also important to make sure that stability testing is the same, particularly for small boats. The biggest risk to our small boat fleet is of capsize from the change of gear, where stability tests have not proven that boat to be stable in the way that we would all want it to be. There is no suggestion that they are breaching their licence by doing that but, to borrow a plea from the hon. Member for South Ribble in the last debate, there is cross-party support for a high level of marine safety.
I would be grateful if the Minister could respond as to how fishing licences will ensure that there is an equivalence of marine safety between foreign fishing boats and UK fishing boats, and how that will be checked during the implementation of the new regulations to ensure compliance. There is sometimes a sense among British fishers that the enforcement agencies, which for English fisheries is the Royal Navy, look at UK boats more than foreign boats. Whether that is true or not, I am sure the Minister will have heard that in her conversations with fishers. I would be grateful if she could set out the enforcement side as well as the safety side in her response.
I am concerned about the unhelpful unintended consequences of the amendments. As I mentioned in the debate on amendments 71 and 72, schedule 2 already extends regulations to foreign boats, so the Bill clearly provides powers to deliver the environmental aspects present in amendment 99, as we discussed earlier.
Ensuring compliance with safety regulations is more challenging. I will set out the current regime for foreign vessels and then explain why it might not be desirable to require compliance with our safety regulations. Powers exist to allow foreign boats to be inspected in UK ports by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. If problems are found, the MCA will send a report to the flag state or, if sufficiently serious—to the hon. Gentleman’s enforcement point—detain the vessel until such time as the issues are rectified, which seems reasonable and proportionate.
Regulation 28 of the Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Health and Safety at Work) Regulations 1997, which applies to foreign vessels, sets out in detail that where conditions are
“clearly hazardous to health and safety”,
the inspector may take measures to “rectify those conditions” or to “detain the ship”. However, I should add that inspectors are under duty not to detain the ship unreasonably. Foreign vessels are expected to meet the same standards as UK vessels while in UK waters.
Turning to the desirability of this amendment, we are all concerned for the safety of all fishing crews wherever they come from, but I am not sure that it is right to impose our safety regimes on other states. The flag state should and, indeed, does have responsibility for the health and safety rules for their own industry.
For example, EU and EEA vessels of 24 metres and over must comply with directive 97/70 of the harmonised safety regime. This also requires vessels of 24 metres and over to comply with the International Maritime Organisation Cape Town protocol. There are further EC requirements for vessels of different sizes. There is also the work in fishing convention, which has entered into force internationally. Owners, skippers and crew have a heavy responsibility for safety.
Most of the vessels that may fish in our waters, should we decide to grant access, will be covered by EU law, which we have in our codes and has been implemented through the Fishing Vessels (Codes of Practice) Regulations 2017, so they cover UK vessels as well. The practical impact of this amendment would be to place the onus on the UK for checking compliance of foreign vessels. We would probably need to make changes to the powers of the MCA to be able to inspect foreign vessels under this requirement. It would also be a hugely resource-intensive exercise to check whether foreign vessels complied.
There are other more serious practical concerns, too. Most foreign vessels fishing in our waters will not do so exclusively. They will fish in the waters of many other states, including their own. If our health and safety rules differed from those of their flag state, it would cause a conflict between different requirements. This sort of confusion could cause safety issues that we are trying to avoid. I am also concerned by, though I have not investigated fully, the issues around insurance and licensing for flag states.
In conclusion, though I believe this is a well-intentioned amendment, which covers important issues, I believe that it is unnecessary because of the existing international law.
I am grateful for that explanation, but I want to press the Minister, so that I understand her a bit more on enforcement. I am concerned that it seems that we are setting a higher regulatory cost for UK fishers than we are allowing for foreign fishers fishing in the same waters.
When it comes to enforcement, can the Minister clarify something? The Marine and Coastguard Agency does not inspect boats at sea. She suggested that, therefore, as a corollary, it will only inspect boats when they are on land. Therefore, unless they are landing their fish at UK ports, they will not be inspected. It falls, therefore, upon the safety, search and rescue, the Royal Navy and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, to go to support boats of lower standards that get into trouble, because the regulatory regime that she has just said is sufficient means that they are only inspected at port and not while at sea.
Does the Minister understand fishers’ concerns that this suggests that the regulatory burden on British fishing boats is different from that on foreign fishing boats and, as a result, that there is a different enforcement probability? A UK boat is more likely to be subject to enforcement than a foreign boat, even if it does not adhere to the same standards.
I do believe that, under the laws that regulate the way that vessels fish internationally, it is right that flag states should be responsible for the licensing conditions and health and safety regulations of their own vessels. It may assist the hon. Gentleman to learn that under the Merchant Shipping (Registration of Ships) Regulations 1993, regulation 56(1), a foreign-owned UK flag vessel can be removed from the register like any UK vessel. What we cannot do is interfere in the licensing regimes of other flag states.
I am not only a former Fishing Minister, but a former Shipping Minister. Is it not the case that if a vessel docks in a UK port, it could be subject to a port state control inspection, which would inspect safety equipment, as well as the welfare of staff? Indeed, following on from the point that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport made, if we are going to have to inspect boats at sea for safety equipment, that is going to take pressure away from inspecting them for illegal fishing.
I am grateful to the former Minister for making those points. They are points I had attempted to make earlier, but clearly not as succinctly.
On the basis that the Minister is not setting out a level playing field between UK fishers and foreign fishers, I am concerned that this sends the wrong message to fishers. However, I understand that we will be revisiting the issue of safety a number of times during this process, so I will not be pushing any of these amendments to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.