Tuesday 31 January 2017
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Agriculture and Fisheries Council
I represented the United Kingdom at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, alongside my colleagues Fergus Ewing MSP, Lesley Griffiths AM and Michelle McIlveen MLA, on 12 and 13 December in Brussels.
EU quota negotiations, involving decisions on fishing opportunities for the next year for quota stocks in the North sea, Atlantic, channel, Irish and Celtic seas, were first on the agenda, and were ongoing for the entire duration of the Council. This was the third annual Council at which fishing opportunities were set under the rules of the reformed common fisheries policy, which aims to have all stocks fished at sustainable levels by 2020 at the latest.
The UK secured a number of crucial changes to the Commission’s original proposals including, where science supports it, quota increases for fishermen around all parts of the UK. This is due to stocks recovering after years of the UK’s insistence on limiting catches with sustainable scientific limits. Quotas secured include:
North sea: cod +16.5%, whiting +17%, anglerfish + 20% saithe +53% sole +22%
Irish sea: haddock +25% and nephrops +8.6%
Western channel: haddock +7% and sole +20%
North sea hake +12% and western hake +9%
The quota settlement for 2017 is worth just over £705 million to the UK, around £34 million more than in 2016.
The agreement means that for 2017, 29 stocks of interest to the UK will be fished at or below their maximum sustainable yield rate (MSY), an increase on 2016, out of 45 such stocks for which MSY assessments have been made. At the EU level, 44 stocks are fished at or below MSY, as announced by Commissioner Vella at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/2014-2019/vella/announcements/agrifish-council_en.
Where the latest scientific evidence supported it, the UK Government argued against unnecessary quota cuts proposed by the European Commission, securing the same quota as in 2016 for many species, including cod and sole in the Irish sea, anglerfish in the Celtic sea and whiting in west of Scotland.
There were some challenges especially on stocks like bass, cod, and megrim in the south west and sole in the eastern channel, where action is necessary to cut fishing mortality in order to allow these stocks to recover. However, we worked hard to secure an agreement that strikes the right balance for both our marine environment and coastal communities.
For 2017, sea bass catch limits from vessels using fixed gill nets were set at 250kg per month for unavoidable by-catch—a reduction of around 80% from 2016—while hook and line commercial fishermen saw their potential catch cut by around 23%. The restrictions on recreational angling will remain the same as in 2016.
Proportionate quota uplifts were agreed for demersal stocks subject to the landing obligation in 2017. As in 2016, the Government will continue to support the English inshore fleet to adapt to the landing obligation, by allocating to them the first 100 tonnes of quota uplift of a species and 10% thereafter. There will be additional quota uplift in 2017 for new species such as North sea cod and north western waters pollack.
A paper was presented on climate change effort share regulation and land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), discussed alongside the “any other business” item on agroecology. Many member states, including the United Kingdom, were broadly satisfied with the proposals outlined in the paper. The UK intervened to argue that a methodology should be found to ensure a fairer distribution of credits between member states.
After this, the Council agreed conclusions on tackling unfair trading practices in the farming supply chain. The UK managed to secure a wording change that lessens the chance in 2017 of burdensome EU legislation that could hinder our current work in this area, as undertaken by the groceries code adjudicator.
There then followed a political discussion on new regulation for organic produce, which will continue into the upcoming Maltese presidency.
Several other items were discussed under “any other business”:
Austria lodged a request to maintain the current level of support for first generation biofuels, supported by other member states. While noting this remains the responsibility of Commissioner Canete, Commissioner Hogan informed Council that the reduction of support was very modest, pertaining to a very small part of the biofuel sector.
France debriefed the Council on a conference of Mediterranean countries that took place in Tirana, Albania, where agricultural and rural development and migrations in the Mediterranean zone was discussed.
Commissioner Andriukaitis informed the Council about the first meeting of the food waste platform.
Commissioner Andriukaitis also updated Ministers on the work of the expert group on accelerating sustainable plant protection products. The advisory group recommended speeding up approvals of low-risk active substances, measures to stimulate businesses to apply for authorisations and the identification of low-risk products already on the market.
Commissioner Andriukaitis announced that the new regulation on plant pests was now in force. The Commission sees this new legislation as allowing a much more proactive approach to the prevention of the entry of new pests into the EU. Malta, as incoming presidency, mentioned plans to establish fora to take forward further discussion on identifying further action.
The Slovak presidency explained that the Commission had issued a guidance note expressing a preference for the use of the plant breeders’ rights framework, rather than the patent legislation to register new strains. This was welcomed by a range of other member states.
On 23 June, the EU referendum took place and the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Until exit negotiations are concluded, the UK remains a full member of the European Union and all the rights and obligations of EU membership remain in force. During this period the Government will continue to negotiate, implement and apply EU legislation. Leaving the EU will present us with opportunities to better manage fisheries in our waters and become global champions for sustainable fishing, while protecting the marine environment.
Courts and Tribunals
The Government are committed to making sure people from all backgrounds can access justice.
Since fees were introduced, record numbers of working people have sought to resolve employment disputes either through tribunals or conciliation.
In 2015-16 there were more than 92,000 workplace disputes bought forward for resolution—the highest number since ET fees were introduced.
We believe we can improve on this, so today I am launching a consultation on proposals to extend support available to people on low incomes through the Help with Fees scheme.
Under our proposals, the monthly threshold for a full fee remission would be increased from £1,085 to £1,250—broadly the equivalent of someone earning the national living wage. There are additional allowances for people living as couples and those with children.
We will bring forward further measures to improve legal support in a Green Paper by early 2018 and the Prison and Courts Bill, due to be published shortly, which will enable more people to bring cases online, making it simpler and easier to access justice.
Under the extension to Help with Fees scheme, more people would not pay a fee at tribunal and others would contribute less than under current arrangements.
In particular the extended scheme would benefit women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, disabled people and younger people, who all feature disproportionately among low income groups.
These proposals would apply not only to people bringing ET proceedings, but also to those bringing proceedings in the civil and family courts and most other tribunals.
We have also decided to exempt from fees a small number of proceedings related to payments made from the national insurance fund. Unlike most proceedings before the ETs, in most cases the applicant is unable to conciliate, and they are unlikely to be able to recover the fee from an employer which in many cases will be insolvent.
We have decided to take this action following the findings of the post implementation review of the introduction of fees in the employment tribunals (ETs), which I am also publishing today.
The review has undertaken a very detailed and thorough analysis of the evidence, and we have concluded that fees have been generally successful in meeting the original objectives.
The Government believe it is important that those who can afford to pay for ETs continue to do so. An extra £9 million a year is raised through ET fees.
The review concludes that fees have been successful in promoting conciliation as an alternative way to resolve workplace disputes.
The review states that
“there is no conclusive evidence that ET fees have prevented people from bringing claims”
and that higher numbers turning to ACAS is a “positive outcome”.
This indicates the current system is generally working effectively and is operating lawfully.
This does not mean there is no room for improvement and where we have identified issues, we have not been afraid to address them.
In particular there is evidence that some people have found the fees off-putting—even if they were affordable or they may have qualified for fees to be waived.
This has been addressed with a campaign to raise awareness of the scheme and a new online application form to make it easier for people to apply.