PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

DRAFT FISHERIES ACT 1981 (AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS 1989

Wednesday 28 June 1989

LONDON

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Sir John Stradling Thomas

Canavan, Mr. Dennis (Falkirk, West)

Carlisle, Mr. Kenneth (Lincoln)

Godman, Dr. Norman A. (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Hardy, Mr. Peter (Wentworth)

Hill, Mr. James (Southampton, Test)

Home Robertson, Mr. John (East Lothian)

Hughes, Mr. Robert (Aberdeen, North)

Jopling, Mr. Michael (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Kirkhope, Mr. Timothy (Leeds, North-East)

Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)

Macfarlane, Sir Neil (Sutton and Cheam)

Mans, Mr. Keith (Wyre)

Moate, Mr. Roger (Faversham)

Mudd, Mr. David (Falmouth and Camborne)

Neale, Mr. Gerrard (Cornwall, North)

Oakes, Mr. Gordon (Halton)

Thompson, Mr. Donald (Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Wallace, Mr. James (Orkney and Shetland)

Dr. M. R. Jack, Committee Clerk

2
3 Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 28 June 1989

[SIR JOHN STRADLING THOMAS in the Chair]

Draft Fisheries Act 1981 (Amendment) Regulations 1989

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson): I beg to move, "That the Committee has considered the draft Fisheries Act 1981 (Amendment) Regulations 1989." The regulations are necessary to correct a technical breach—albeit an important one—of our Community obligations in relation to a levy imposed by the Sea Fish Industry Authority. The instrument is therefore made under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 and amends the Fisheries Act 1981, which established the Sea Fish Industry Authority. Under the 1981 Act, the authority has a general duty to promote the efficiency of the sea fish industry by carrying out certain activities. They include research and development, giving advice, providing training and promoting the marketing and consumption of sea fish and sea fish products.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): And grants for fishing vessels.

Mr. Thompson: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The grants for fishing vessels are not covered by the Act and are outside the activities which we are discussing. For the purpose of financing those activities, the Act provides for the authority to impose a levy on persons engaged in the sea fish industry. The levy is raised by weight on first-hand sale of sea fish or sea fish products landed in the United Kingdom, including imports, or trans-shipped within British fishery limits. We are obliged to make the amendment because the EC Commission considers that the 1981 Act does not ensure that exporters from other member states who land their catches here, which include fishermen, of course, receive benefits from the SFIA's activities commensurate with the amount of levy which they pay. It appears to the Commission that under the terms of the 1981 Act, the receipts from the levies could be allocated only towards work which was of direct benefit to our indigenous industry. I should stress that the Commission agrees with us that the levy arrangements do not in practice discriminate against other member states which land fish here. That is why I referred to a technical breach in my opening remarks. The amendments proposed are set out in regulation 2 of the draft instrument and concern sections 2, 3 and 14 of the Act. Section 2 is to be 4 amended to provide for the sea fish industries of member states other than the United Kingdom to receive benefit commensurate with any burden borne by them in consequence of the levy—the proposed new regulation 2A. Section 3 is to be amended to ensure that the requirement to recover fees in respect of services provided to persons connected with the sea fish industry other than in the United Kingdom shall not apply to services provided for such persons in other member states. Finally, a slight consequential amendment is required to section 14 concerning the definition of "sea fish industry". The amendments have been cleared with the Sea Fish Industry Authority, which does not anticipate any difficulty in complying with them.

10.33 am

Mr. Home Robertson: The statutory instrument demonstrates that the European Commission reaches parts of the British statute book which other people probably did not know were there, and I do not know whether this is a case of Jacques Delors strikes again! You will appreciate, Sir John, that it is a great pleasure for the serried ranks on the Opposition Benches to talk about any subject connected with the European Community these days. Indeed, the term "our European partners" has a whole new rich ring to it after yesterday's events and the events of 15 June, so it is an especial pleasure to talk about these matters. I do not know whether the work of the Sea Fish Industry Authority is a matter of deep concern in the streets of Calder valley or the other landlocked constituencies which are represented in the Committee, but sadly there is a dwindling band of fishermen operating from the small fishing harbours in East Lothian, and I know that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will regard the future of the industry as a matter of the deepest importance. As the Minister has explained, what we have here is a technical adjustment to the Fisheries Act 1981. Let me say in passing that his references to the Sea Fish Industry Authority levy bring back some happy memories of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee on which I served in January and February of 1980. Looking at the record of that Committee, I find such memorable names as Mr. Peter Fraser—now Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, having lost his parliamentary seat at the last general election—Mr. Barry Henderson, Mr. Albert McQuarrie, Mr. Alexander Pollock, and, would you believe it, Mr. Iain Sproat. How things have changed in Scotland in recent years, Sir John. The point that was being considered by that Committee was the fact that fish, then being transshipped from fishing vessels in United Kingdom waters on to Klondikers, were not subject to the levy under discussion now, which was depriving what was then the White Fish Authority of a great deal of money. That led to an amendment in the law, and the problem was overcome. I suspect that we are now 5 coming back into similar territory by creating these new provisions as they affect other European countries' vessels. In the Select Committee, we established among other things that many of the functions undertaken by what is now the Sea Fish Industry Authority in the United Kingdom, which are now funded by the levy under discussion, were funded entirely by central taxation in a number of other European Community countries. If that is still the case, it is Britain that is out of line again, and this instrument may add to the confusion, because we may be embarking on a different type of discrimination, with central funding for the benefit of other European Community nation fleets, and with funding for Britain having to be provided through a levy on the catches landed in United Kingdom ports. The statutory instrument requires the Sea Fish Industry Authority to provide benefits to fleets of other European Community countries to reflect the levy paid by their vessels on catches landed in United Kingdom ports. The Minister should explain a little more fully how that will be achieved and administered, because I find it difficult to comprehend. For a start, what is the value of the levy paid by such vessels on catches landed in United Kingdom ports at present? How will it be calculated and how can the SFIA be enabled to pay back to those foreign fleets benefits commensurate with the levy which they have paid on their catches landed in the United Kingdom? I understand the principle, but I cannot understand the practicality of what the Minister proposes. What is the volume of imports and what, indeed, about third country vessels, which is probably an even bigger issue? Catches landed by Icelandic and Norwegian vessels in United Kingdom ports are presumably suject to the levy. Will they be eligible for similar recompense? The Minister had better tell us a little more about how he will adminster the new provision. The statutory instrument comes at a time of continuing crisis and uncertainty in the British fishing fleet, with reduced quotas and total allowable catches for various species in various areas. There are the effects of the multi-annual guidance programme and calls for a major decommissioning scheme, and, of course, there are the well-known problems of the fishing boat building industry. Unfortunately, our debate cannot go as widely as that, although it would be useful to have a debate on it, and the sooner the better. However, since our debate covers aspects of the collection and application of the levy, I ask the Minister to take this opportunity to comment on the current proposal to double the rate of the SFIA levy while at the same time doing away with one of the most immediately effective aspects of its marketing work—namely, the generic advertising of fish on television. The Minister is aware, I hope, that British fishermen are not happy about having to pay far more cash for substantially less benefit, and I imagine that the same goes for our EEC partners who will be affected by this instrument.

6

10.39 am

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test): My hon. Friend the Minister has had correspondence from me about an aspect which will affect sea fishing, certainly off the south coast. I wonder whether the new authority will be able to control pollution from the dumping of sludge from Southampton into the middle of the Solent, and whether the regulations, if they do not already cover pollution, will be extended to cover that problem. I should be grateful if the Minister could say a few words about that.

10.40 am

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I would not go as far as to refer to sludge—

The Chairman: Order. I think that we should keep to fisheries rather than sludge.

Mr. Wallace: I will keep to fisheries, Sir John, although I think that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has covered most of the points about this measure which are in order. Nevertheless, the Minister owes the Commitee a little more explanation than he gave in his opening remarks, and I hope that when he replies he will inform us on some important matters. For example, I, too, would be very interested to know about types of benefits the Sea Fish Industry Authority has in mind to confer on fleets of other member states which will be commensurate with the burden borne by them. I should also like to know how much levy is collected from boats from other EEC states and what proportion of the total levy collected that is. One assumes that if benefit has to be applied to the industry in other member states commensurate with that levy, it will be money which is not spent in supporting the British industry. It may be a relatively small amount, but since the rate of levy is to go up, as the hon. Member for East Lothian said, and is causing considerable irritation, it would be useful to know exactly what benefits to the British industry will be lost as a result of this measure.

10.42 am

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham): The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) suggested that almost every hon. Member here represented a land-locked constituency. I do not expect hon. Members with Scottish seats to appreciate the geography of southern England, but may I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that my constituency has considerable interest in the sea and, indeed, fishing? If he cares to visit the north Kent coast, much of which is in my constituency—

Mr. Home Robertson: We will win that seat next time.

Mr. Moate: Well, the Labour party lost the seat nearly 20 years ago, having held it for some years, and it will certainly not regain it in the foreseeable future. The Medway and the Thames estuary represent a large slice of the coastline of my constituency, where 7 we have traditional maritime interests, naval dockyards and a large interest in all matters relating to the sea, particularly fisheries. We do not have deep sea fisheries, but we have a vested interest in fishing as such, and my hon. Friend the Minster knows full well that our fishermen in Queenborough, Sheerness and the Medway generally are very concerned to protect their livelihood. They are struggling to survive, and it is a continuing effort, but they have a very positive approach to fishing. They are fishermen of great enterprise, who need continuous help and protection from the Ministry, and I should not like it to be thought that, because of the general decline in deep sea fishing, our Government are not always on the alert to help the thriving small industries in such areas. In view of my hon. Friend the Minister's explanation of the background, why are we here this morning?

Mr. Home Robertson: Because of Jacques Delors.

Mr. Moate:The hon. Member for East Lothian emphasises the point. We are here because Mr. Delors, sitting on some EEC scrutiny committee which is apparently examining all our legislation, has spotted an anomaly or an apparent defect in our law which conflicts with the supreme law of Brussels. Is my hon. Friend the Minister saying that our law is wrong? Are we gathered here this morning not for the pleasure of sitting under your chairmanship, Sir John, and meeting other distinguished colleagues but simply because Mr. Delors has said, "Change your law, or else"? Could we not throw the measure out this morning and what would be the interesting consequences if we did? I should like to know that from my hon. Friend. If we cannot throw it out, why are we here at all? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could explain what would be the implications of our rejecting this interesting proposal. The hon. Member for East Lothian referred to the European election results on 15 June. The Labour party is proclaiming itself to be much more positively European that the Conservative party or the Liberal party, or whatever it is called these days, and yet there is only one member of the Labour party present, as against eight distinguished members of the Conservative party. Where is the Labour party's great new Europeanism? When he replies, will my hon. Friend the Minister say how great an impact the measure will have? How much money is involved? How will the balance be redressed? How will current mistakes in the collection of the levy be corrected? What effect will the measure have on countries which are not members of the Community, for example, on catches landed by Icelandic or Norwegian vessels in this country? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could answer those questions.

10.46 am

Mr. Donald Thompson: It has been a most interesting brief debate. Let me start with my hon. Friend from Delors—sorry, my hon. Friend the 8 Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). This is not a Delors measure, and I am glad to see two distinguished Labour Members here; we need no more on such occasions than those two hon. Gentleman opposite to discuss these important matters. The fishermen in Orkney and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham, and, indeed, all our fishermen, agreed in 1983 how best to divide the fish so that they could all make a reasonable living, and for the past five years that has been achieved. This year, the total of allowable catches will be 10 per cent. less than the amount caught last year, although up to now things have been going along quite normally, so the whole of the fishing industry welcomes this measure. Let me say to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) that France and Germany also use the levy system to raise money and they, too, will have to comply with these broad EC guidelines. People who use taxation rather than the levy system will also have to have their schemes approved by the EC so that they do not disadvantage other fishermen. Our constituents often accuse other countries of tilting the playing field. On this occasion, we want a level playing field. My hon. Friend for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) implied that the Sea Fish Industry Authority liked to present a wholesome product, so his point, although irrelevant had he gone any further, was bang on the mark. We, the fishermen and the SFIA are sure that healthy food is sent down from Scotland—which is of deep concern to my constituents and others throughout the country—to our great fish auctions in Grimsby, Fleetwood, Billingsgate and elsewhere. National funding of any sort still has to be scrutinised, but, in this case, the amount of money from third countries is about 14 per cent. of the total levy, which comes to about £500,000.

Mr. Home Robertson: Ecus?

Mr. Donald Thompson: No, pounds. One way in which member states benefit is financially on imports valued at £120 million, which includes fish landings. An average of £2 million is returned on levy payments of about £500,000. The SFIA has undertaken work to improve the quality of fish and fish products offered by retailers and processors, regardless of the source of the fish, when it is landed in our ports. Those of us who are interested in fishing know how important it is that other fishermen land their catches in our ports. We welcome other fishermen; we wish that they would all land their catches in our ports. The SFIA is also engaged in joint studies with other member states on various marketing problems. It is difficult to quantify the precise benefits from research and development, on which the SFIA spends about £1.7 million a year. It makes its work known through articles which are available to other members states, and joint projects are frequently undertaken with parallel organisations in the Community. It is at the forefront of aquaculture and marine farming, and reports on that are available throughout the EC. 9 The SFIA also provides training courses for all member states. Fishermen from Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have received training from the SFIA in the past three years, and about 60 foreign fishermen have benefited from the training, compared with about 250 of our own fishermen. The SFIA mobile advisory unit has visited France, Belgium, Italy and Germany in the past three years and trained 500 Community fishermen. The SFIA also makes its statistics and economic surveys available through the European supplies bulletin and trade bulletin. No levy money is used in respect of the grant schemes for the construction of new vessels of the modernisation of existing vessels, not even for the 5,000 vessels which have been modernised in the past year or for the building of more than 100 new vessels, for which £11 million was made available last year. The SFIA administered that, but no levy money was used for the grant schemes. We receive about £1 million a year from third countries, which will receive the benefits only indirectly. They can, I suppose, pick up and read the European supplies bulletin and trades bulletin and all the other information on marine farming, but they receive benefit only indirectly. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham asked why were here. It is because these are common rules, commonly agreed by fishermen for the support of the fisheries regime throughout the EC, especially northern Europe. It is important that the regime works as smoothly as possible for the benefit of fishermen in Scotland, particularly the Orkneys.

Mr. Wallace: It is useful to get an idea of the type of practical benefit which third countries can obtain, but while the measure will change the law and bring it into line with Europe to satisfy the European Commission, it will make no real difference. There will be no practical change.

Mr. Thompson: That is precisley what I am saying. This is a tidying up exercise, because otherwise the situation could fester and lead to some company or nation getting into a tangle. When errors are spotted in the law, it is only right to correct them.

Mr. Home Ŕobertson: The Minister said that there was complete agreement among fishermen on the need for these and other measures. His experience of the fishing industry must be unique. I have had many discussions with fishermen in many parts of Scotland and elsewhere in the country over the years, and one could never describe the fishing industry as being unanimous in its views. Have you, Sir John, Dr Jack, Hansard's representative, all the highly efficient civil servants from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, all the Conservative Members brought in by their Whip, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle), the 100 per cent. turn-out by the Social Liberal Democrats and Alliance, or whatever they are called these days, in the person of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), 10 and I representing the Labour party come along here to achieve precisely nothing? The Government convened the Committee to change the Fisheries Act 1981, and the Minister tells us that the change does not mean anything. That will not do. I should think that it is enough to give the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) apoplexy; he is about to have an attack now, I think.

Mr. Moate: Is it not better that all these very important people—excluding myself, of course—should be gathered together to achieve nothing rather than do what we normally do, which is positively to inflict damage on the British people through some well-meaning piece of legislation?

Mr. Home Robertson: I am most grateful to have it from the hon. Member for Faversham that what the Government have been doing for the past 10 years is inflict damage on the British people. I quite agree with him on this occasion.

Mr. Moate: May I just correct that? I have been a member of the House for more than 19 years, a timespan which includes many periods of Labour Government as well.

Mr. Home Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is upsetting the unanimity which extends throughout not only the fishing fleet but this Committee. However, we are getting somewhere, because among all the fascinating snippets of information which the Minister disseminated to the Committee a few minutes ago, he explained that third country fleets contributed about £1 million in levy but could derive no direct benefit from it, whereas the levy directly affected by this statutory instrument, which is collected on catches landed by European Community vessels at British ports, came to 14 per cent. of the total levy, that being £500,000 a year, presumably. The measure before us will require the Sea Fish Industry Authority to ensure that other Community fleets benefit pro rata from the £500,000 which they pay in levy. The Minister cannot deny it, because it says so in black and white. He had better now tell us how precisely the SFIA proposes to spend that £500,000 directly, pro rata and in the countries from which the fleets come, because presumably it will be divided up.

Mr. David Thompson: I have just told the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Home Robertson: No, the Minister has not. He is protesting too much. He will have £500,000 from all the other European Community fleets—the Spaniards, the Danes, the Germans, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Irish and so on—which will presumably have to be carved up to ensure that they benefit pro rata from the work of the SFIA. We have established how much the money involved is and, whether the Minister likes it or not, at least the hon. Member for Faversham and I agree that the provision means something—namely, that it imposes a new obligation on the SFIA. The Minister, 11 who is supposed to be responsible for these affairs, had better tell us how the SFIA will carry it out.

Mr. David Thompson: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have just outlined many aspects of the SFIA's work—research and development, training and economic and statistical advice to our colleagues in Europe—all of which are supported by levy funds. As I said, the SFIA mobile advisory unit has visited France, Belgium, Italy and Germany in the past three years and has trained 500 Community fishermen. Although the visits were funded by the Community, the development of the concept was funded by the levy. The training was requested. Benefit need not be pro rata. We have to make sure that the Commission is satisfied that other EC countries can have access to the SFIA, nevertheless—

Mr. Home Robertson: Does that mean that the Minister is free to pay out the entire £500,000 to develop the sea fish industry of Luxembourg?

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Mr. Thompson: Luxembourg would make application in the usual way if it needed economic advice on sea fish from the SFIA to feed its 250,000 people. Many Portuguese people work in Luxembourg for part of the year, go home in the winter or summer and work in the fishing industry, and I am sure that it will continue. The Commission has accepted that the present levy arrangements do not discriminate against member states which land fish here, but the present wording of the Sea Fisheries Act 1981 contains the potential for such discrimination. It is that potential with which we are dealing today. My hon. Friend for Faversham has always been far-sighted, and I know that he would rather deal with a potential problem than try to clear a problem up when it has arisen.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, "That the Committee has considered the draft Fisheries Act 1981 (Amendment) Regulations 1989.

Committee rose at one minute past Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Stradling Thomas, Sir John (Chairman)

Carlisle, Mr. Kenneth

Hill, Mr.

Home Robertson, Mr.

Hughes, Mr. Robert

Kirkhope, Mr.

Mans, Mr.

Moate, Mr.

Thompson, Mr. Donald

Wallace, Mr.