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Scallop Fishing: Bay of Seine

Volume 646: debated on Thursday 13 September 2018

I wish to take this opportunity to update the House on recent developments regarding the scallop fishery in the Bay of Seine following altercations that occurred on 27 August. Any violence taking place is unacceptable, and the safety of our fishing fleet is paramount. Subsequent negotiations to resolve the dispute have regrettably not resulted in an agreement.

The scallop fishery is not governed by the quota regime that pertains for most fin-fish species, but instead by the western waters regime, which places limitations on effort for larger vessels over 15 metres. Vessels over 15 metres in size are limited by the number of kilowatt-days they spend at sea, and these units of effort are tradeable between producer organisations in much the same way as quota. Vessels of under 15 metres in length are not subject to the western waters regime and do not require an effort allocation.

The background to the current dispute is that French domestic law requires that French vessels cannot trawl scallops between 15 May and 31 October, at the latest, partly to protect the species during their seeding season and partly to maximise the scallops’ economic value. Preserving the sustainability of our stocks is important, and between May and June, UK fishermen refrain from fishing in the area to avoid the scallop gestation period. Those domestic French rules do not apply to other EU member states.

The French have recognised the UK industry’s legal right to fish in the Bay of Seine. UK fishermen have a smaller allocation of scallop fishing effort under the western waters regime due to historical allocation methodologies, with UK fishermen allocated 3.3 million kilowatt-days and French fishermen allocated 7.4 million kilowatt-days. As a result, since 2013, the fishery in the Bay of Seine has been subject to an industry agreement. The UK 15 metre and over scallop fishing industry has agreed to voluntarily observe this non-trawling season in the English channel, including the Bay of Seine, in exchange for more fishing effort from France. The agreement has never applied to the under-15 metre fleet since it does not benefit from the inward transfer of effort.

The agreement that had been in place for five years broke down this year because the French industry insisted that the under-15 metre fleet be included in the voluntary agreement. The UK industry was unable to carry the under-15 metre fleet regarding such an agreement, since that fleet would receive nothing in return. As a result, no agreement was reached in 2018.

On 27 August, there were altercations between UK and French scallop fishers in the Bay of Seine. Some 35 French boats confronted a smaller number of UK vessels, with reports of rocks and smoke bombs being hurled at UK mariners. The incidents of 27 August occurred as a result of the French industry’s continued frustration at not being able to fish in the Bay of Seine while UK vessels were able to do so, following the failure to reach a voluntary agreement. It must be stressed that the UK vessels were not contravening any French or EU law by fishing in those waters at that time. The UK vessels were operating in an area where they were legally entitled to fish. The area is outside French territorial waters—that is, beyond 12 nautical miles.

Under the common fisheries policy, the vessels of EU member states have the right to fish in each other’s exclusive economic zones—the waters between 12 and 200 nautical miles offshore. It is then the responsibility of each country to control the activities taking place in its waters. We therefore look to the French authorities to protect our fishermen and their vessels if they choose to fish legally in French waters.

Our analysis of vessel monitoring information from 27 August showed that there were 16 vessels in the area from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Since the incidents took place, UK vessels have voluntarily chosen to stay away from the Bay of Seine while discussions to resolve the issue are ongoing. Vessels have tended instead to fish in grounds to the east. The Fishery Protection Squadron has been kept informed of developments. Fisheries protection vessel HMS Mersey has been in the waters off the south coast since the incident took place. Fisheries protection vessels operate within UK waters—that is, the area out to 200 nautical miles from the shore, or the median line. The vessels are unable to enter the waters of another country without invitation, except in very limited circumstances: the protection of life at sea in the event of there being a threat to life; or through the right of innocent passage to enable vessels to transit through an area without interference. As the Bay of Seine is in the French exclusive economic zone, the enforcement and safety of vessels in those waters is the responsibility of the French authorities.

The UK Government have been proactive in supporting the industry to try to secure an acceptable solution for both sides. Immediately after the incidents on 27 August, my officials convened a meeting in London. UK and French officials and UK and French industry representatives met in London on 5 September. There was initial success in the talks. It was decided to renew the previous agreement involving the UK 15 metre and over vessels, as long as the under-15 metre fleet could also be brought into a deal. That was agreed in principle, subject to further discussion about a reasonable compensation package. The agreement was that there could be an inward transfer of quota for other species from the French industry to the UK industry, which could then be leased to create financial compensation for the scallop vessels affected.

The details of that package were discussed, again between UK and French officials and the UK and French industries, in Paris on 7 September. Progress was made on the dates that the fishery could be open. However, the compensation sought by the UK industry for loss of earnings during the period that it was unable to fish in the Bay of Seine was significantly different from the proposal made by the French industry.

Minister Travert and I discussed the progress of the negotiations twice, including on the evening of 7 September. Since our call, UK and French officials have shared their analysis this week and held discussions on Tuesday. There was greater understanding of the UK’s evidence. However, the offer made by the French industry remained unchanged from that discussed in Paris on Friday. The UK industry does not believe that the compensation package proposed by the French fishing industry provides sufficient recompense for its projected loss of earnings and has rejected it on that basis. The French industry is currently unwilling to accept an offer to put back in place the agreement that has applied to the over-15 metre fleet for a number of years. As a result, the talks have broken down and there remains no agreement at all.

I have written today to Minister Stéphane Travert to express my disappointment at not reaching an agreement. The UK Government have offered to assist French enforcement authorities with Marine Management Organisation personnel should they want to consider joint operations, given the risk of further altercations. I have also asked the French Government to consider the alternative options available to them. First, it seems to me that putting back in place the agreement for the over-15 metre fleet, which has stood the test of time over the last five years, would be preferable to no agreement at all, and I hope that the French industry will reconsider its position. Secondly, it is open to the French Government to lift the domestic restrictions they have in place earlier than they normally would in order to address concerns that their industry has expressed about the lack of a level playing field.

The UK industry is legally allowed to fish in the Bay of Seine. It has shown commendable restraint during the negotiations, and I welcome its co-operation and understanding. It is for the industry to decide where it fishes, as long as that is done legally. In my letter to Minister Travert, I emphasised the absolute need for safety to remain paramount. I hope that a mutually beneficial outcome might still be agreed between the two industries but, in the meantime, we stand ready to offer what assistance the French Government may wish to consider.

I thank the Minister for his statement but, before I move on, may I say that I was very disappointed not to receive the statement until 15 minutes after I had arrived in the Chamber? This is a really important matter and the Opposition should be able to expect to receive information in a timely manner. I am sure that there has been a mix-up, but I would like assurances that I will receive information appropriately in the future.

Fishing is essential for coastal communities, and scallop fishing is an important part of that industry. About 60% of the catch is exported, with much of it being bought in France. During the negotiations with France, we know that the smaller boats volunteered in good faith to stay away from the disputed fishing grounds. However, every day that British boats are unable to go fishing, livelihoods and communities are hurt.

We all know that the French navy should have stopped this appalling violence. Now that the negotiations have broken down, what assurances have the French authorities given to make sure that this cannot happen again? We have heard that the Government are looking to the French authorities to protect our fishermen and their vessels, which are fishing quite legally within French waters. Will the Minister clarify what discussions he has had with the French Government to ensure that any future protests do not descend into violence? As we have heard, the UK vessels were not contravening any French or EU law at the time. Will the Minister clarify what progress is being made on compensation for British fishers who have suffered damage to their boats and now face restrictions being imposed on them?

As we await the publication of the fisheries Bill, the industry looks to the Government for some backbone, and to the Minister to fight for them, their livelihoods and their communities. This matters because fishing matters and fishing jobs matter—not just to the coastal communities that rely on fishing and the processing of the catch for employment, but because this tells us a story about how Ministers will stand up for the industry during and after Brexit.

Outside the CFP, we will rely on the same Ministers who have failed to find their voice over the scallop wars to seal an annual deal with the EU over quotas, science and access to waters. Just this week we have seen a damning report by the National Audit Office on the lack of Brexit preparedness in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Serious concerns were raised about marine control and enforcement. Will the Minister outline what urgent measures he is taking to address the concerns outlined in this week’s NAO report?

These conflicts over scallops raise serious questions about the approach that Ministers will take to manage conflicts and access to waters after Brexit. Ministers need to know that we in the Opposition will be following this closely. Should their defence of our fishing industry not be up to scratch, we will be holding them to account.

Our fishermen need defending. The French tested our lines over the scallop wars and now believe that they can get away with it. Our fishermen deserve better, and the Government need to step up.

I am sorry that the shadow Minister feels she did not receive a copy of the statement in a timely fashion. I can say that we got the statement to her as quickly as we could. I understand that it was sent to her by email at about 11 o’clock, with hard copies then brought to the House. I appreciate that she may have thought that proceedings on the statement were going to start slightly earlier, but if she feels that she did not receive it in time, I am sorry to hear that.

The hon. Lady asks for an update on what assurances we have sought from the French authorities. I can confirm that, immediately after the altercation on 27 August, I spoke to my opposite number, Minister Stéphane Travert, and the principal issue we discussed was enforcement. He gave a very clear undertaking at that point that he recognised that UK vessels were fishing legally, and he said that he had increased resourcing to ensure that the gendarmerie were able to deal with future issues by increasing the number in that particular area. I sought a similar assurance on the second occasion we spoke after the negotiations last Friday, and I have reiterated the importance of this in the letter that I have sent to him today.

We have made it clear that we stand ready to assist the French authorities if they wish. It is not unknown or unusual for officers from the Marine Management Organisation, for instance, to carry out joint work on board French vessels, and there are instances where such work is appropriate. The French authorities have not currently taken up that offer but, as I made clear in my statement, it remains on the table.

The hon. Lady asked about compensation, and we have been working hard to get an agreement. From the beginning, we have been consistently clear with the French Government that we have no legal basis to instruct or tell our fishing industry not to fish in that area, and neither have we ever done so. We were also clear with our fishing industry that we would not have told people not to fish in those areas, but the industry itself voluntarily chose not to fish there during the period of negotiation. That rightly recognised that, because negotiations were ongoing, it would be helpful to avoid further altercation. The industry took that choice, but now that talks have broken down, we must ensure that the French authorities enforce the industry’s right to fish in those waters.

The hon. Lady asked about our defence of fishing interests, and I say simply that I have done this job for five years and have a good rapport with our industry representatives. We have held discussions and worked closely with them on this issue, and representatives from the UK fishing industry have attended meetings that we have convened. We have used data from the Marine Management Organisation to support and underpin the evidence base behind requests made during those negotiations. We have very much stood up for the interests of our industry, and helped to support it and to find a resolution to the dispute. As we leave the European Union—this is a much broader topic—we will become an independent coastal state again, and we will conduct annual fisheries negotiations in a new UK-EU bilateral on some of these issues. As an independent costal state, we will have control of access to our waters, and we will negotiate the share of the total allowable catch.

The hon. Lady spoke of preparations for leaving the European Union. Although the National Audit Office report highlighted some concerns, it also recognised that DEFRA is dealing with a huge body of EU law. Indeed, it gave the Department a lot of credit for the progress we have made in many areas. We are already making preparations on fishing, including by holding meetings and discussions with countries such as Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands about future arrangements. The MMO is carrying out detailed work on issues such as fisheries enforcement and how needs may change, and to ensure that we have the capacity to deal with any increase in catch certificates that may be required. Many of those issues relate to the much broader topic of our leaving the common fisheries policy and becoming an independent coastal state again, but for the time being, the UK Government are doing everything they can to support our industry in this dispute over scallops.

UK vessels have no access to scallops anywhere within French waters inside the 12-mile limit, which is very much in contrast to the position of French vessels that have access to waters within the six to 12-mile limit in the UK. Will the Minister reiterate—there has been some misunderstanding about this—that our vessels were fishing absolutely legally at the time of these disgraceful attacks? I welcome his assurance and talks with his opposite number, as well as his offer of assistance, but Brixham fishermen would like further reassurance that, when they fish in those waters, perfectly legally, measures will be in place to ensure their safety.

I entirely agree with and understand my hon. Friend’s point. Much of the scallop fishing industry is based in Brixham in her constituency. She is right to say that the contested grounds are outside the 12-nautical mile limit—they are approximately 20 miles off the French coast and therefore not in French territorial waters. She is also right to say that in some areas the French fishing industry is able to fish in the UK’s six to 12-mile zone. She will be aware that the Government have already given notice, under the terms of the London fisheries convention, to withdraw from that agreement and negotiate access arrangements afresh.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

This is a very disappointing outcome. I urge the Minister to get back around the table. We cannot have the same situation occurring next year. It is really important that, despite there being no outcome from this round of negotiations, he does not give up but keeps trying to ensure that an agreement with France is found. The fishing industry is incredibly important to Scotland. Can the Minister assure us that the Scottish Government will be involved in any future negotiations, so that our voice can be heard and our interests protected? He talks about moving towards Brexit and the sovereignty that we will apparently have over our nautical area. On negotiations with the EU about fishing rights post Brexit, will he assure us that any bad feeling created over this situation will not spill over into those negotiations?

In previous years, Scotland’s voice has not been heard and the Scottish Government have not been given the right opportunity to have their voice heard in the negotiations, despite fishing being so important to Scotland. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that Scottish Government Ministers are involved in the negotiations?

There are a number of points that I would make. As I said in my statement, I still hope that, even at this late stage, the French industry will agree to take up the offer to put in place the agreement for the over-15 metre vessels that has stood the test of time for the last five years. It is not too late to do that. Indeed, the inward transfer of effort that they would make to enable this deal to happen is effort that would generally go unused, were they not to use it for this purpose.

I can also confirm that, when it comes to our annual fisheries negotiations, we go as a UK delegation. Alongside me in the trilateral meetings with the European Commission and the European presidency, I have representatives, including the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland fisheries Ministers. We have a well-established convention that, on issues that affect Scotland specifically, it tends to be the Scottish Minister who leads on those elements of the negotiation.

The final point I would make about the negotiations on leaving the common fisheries policy is that this side of the House believes the decision to leave the European Union was right. We are going to respect that and implement it. That involves leaving the common fisheries policy, an issue on which I know the hon. Lady’s party has mixed views.

The Minister will be aware that the bay of Seine is not the only potential flashpoint in the waters of European Union member states. What assessment has he made of the potential for other issues of this sort arising elsewhere? In particular, what is he doing about the Voisinage agreement between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, which, as I am sure he appreciates, has real potential to cause some difficulty in the not-too-distant future?

My hon. Friend is right that there are other areas where there is potential for this. Sometimes we wish to designate marine conservation zones and we require the support of other countries to do that. There is sometimes an issue around farmed deeps. None of them, however, has resulted in the strength of feeling that we have seen around the bay of Seine and that we saw in 2012.

At the best of times, fishing is the most hazardous peacetime occupation. In the years since I left school, no fewer than five men who were with me at Islay High School have lost their lives while making their living at sea. That is why the sort of behaviour we witnessed on 27 August is simply unforgivable. When the Minister speaks to his opposite number in France, will he impress upon that Government that we expect them to ensure lawful behaviour by their fishermen, and that this Government will do everything to protect the right of our fishermen to make their living lawfully, as they were doing?

The right hon. Gentleman is right, and we have made that point to the French Government. It is worth noting that the French Government condemned the violence and acted quickly to increase the resources available for policing the area and enforcing lawful fishing activity.

As I understand it, it is crystal clear that the law and moral right are on the side of the British fishermen in this case. If the fishing is taking place outside French territorial waters, why can the Royal Navy not accompany our ships back into those fishing grounds? If we have fishery protection vessels and Type 23 frigates permanently positioned in the channel, surely the Royal Navy should be at sea with our fishermen to protect their livelihoods.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making, but these waters are outside French territorial waters but within the French exclusive economic zone. It is absolutely the responsibility of the French authorities to police and enforce fishing activity in their waters, just it is for our authorities to police fishing activity in our own exclusive economic zone.

To reassure the UK’s fishing sector of the Government’s commitment and responsibility to the industry, including in the event of further such disputes, we need the fisheries Bill. When can we expect to see it?

Will my hon. Friend join me in praising the admirable and restrained way in which the UK fishing industry has acted under extreme provocation?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I made clear in my statement, I commend the way in which our industry has behaved and the constructive approach it has taken to these talks. It is regrettable that there is not an agreement yet, but I hope there might still be one.

I love a dish of scallops with some butter and garlic, but can I eat it with a clear conscience? I support the right of the British to fish if they are legally allowed to do so, but some of the news about the fishing method used in this case suggests that it may be deeply damaging to the marine environment. Is it not time that we not only started to get on better with the French—after all, they are our allies and fellow members of the European Union—but looked again at fishing methods that involve scraping the bottom of the ocean and destroying the marine environment? Will the Minister instigate a commission to look at such methods?

We already have restrictions on where certain types of gear can be used, as well as technical regulations and specifications regarding the required features for bottom-towed trawler gear used for scallops. There are some regulations in place, therefore, and we keep them under review. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this method of fishing can be damaging, but it is also the main method that we use for species such as scallops.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the French recognise the UK’s legal right to fish in the bay of Seine, and that it is the duty of the French authorities to protect British boats that are legally fishing there?

I can absolutely confirm that. The French Government have confirmed to me that they recognise that English vessels have a legal right to fish in those areas, and that they recognise their responsibilities to enforce fishing activity in their economic zone.

I have to declare an interest, because my daughter and her partner operate a fishing vessel out of Porthdinllaen. Given how this violence augurs ill for future relationships with EU countries’ fishing fleets, what discussions has the Minister had with Welsh Government colleagues about the protection of scallop beds and other non-quota species in Welsh waters?

Many of the technical regulations that would be introduced in the inshore area are the responsibility of the Welsh Government, who already have the freedom to introduce such technical restrictions. With a devolved issue such as fisheries, we work very closely on all such matters. That includes reaching a shared approach to international discussions, as I mentioned earlier, with the Welsh and Scottish Governments and the Northern Ireland Administration.

The Minister has already said that the British boats were in those waters entirely lawfully, and that the French authorities should have prevented violence. I saw some reports suggesting that there was a French police boat on station in the vicinity when the incident occurred. The Minister said that he had put pressure on the French authorities to act. Are there any legal mechanisms, via either the European Court or any other institution of the European Union, that can require the French to take action to prevent outrages of this sort?

Within the European Union, there is the European Fisheries Control Agency, which has a co-ordinating role in respect of the enforcement functions of all member states. On those countries that are not in the EU and our future agreements, arrangements for mutual agreement on enforcement are a common feature of international fisheries negotiations.

This incident surely reinforces the case for the strictest regulation and monitoring of all sea fishing, so will the Minister assure us that such events will never be permitted to occur in Britain’s historic fishing waters when we have left the common fisheries policy?

When we have left the common fisheries policy—I know that the hon. Gentleman has campaigned for that, alongside a number of Conservative Members—we will become an independent coastal state, and there still will be annual negotiations on fisheries. Disputes of this nature probably will not go away, because we have them occasionally whether we are in the EU or outside it, but we must always strive under international law to resolve our differences and secure mutually acceptable regulations.

The sight of boats from Torbay being attacked while lawfully fishing on the open sea was as shocking as it was unacceptable. The sea is not a place where the law does not apply. It is right to be talking to the French authorities about securing peaceful outcomes and stopping confrontation on the sea, but has the Minister also spoken to his counterparts about the possibility of using the criminal law to deal with those who use violence against our people?

As I said earlier, decisions of that sort, including decisions to bring prosecutions, are very much a matter for the French enforcement authorities, and I know that they will be looking closely at some of these issues.

It is obviously right and proper that our fishermen are allowed to fish in safety and within the remit of the law, but what reassurances can the Minister give to fishermen—the Government are on this never-ending prism of having to Brexit no matter what—about the post-Brexit process for negotiating with the European Union? Can he also reassure the agriculture and farming industry? The National Audit Office is saying that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not ready for Brexit, so what is he going to do about it?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we already have comprehensive arrangements for reaching agreements on fisheries with countries that are not in the EU—with the Faroe islands, with Iceland and with Norway—so we know the methodology. There is the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, which we will rejoin, there is the North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation, which we will also rejoin, and there are other international forums.

It must have been terrifying to be rammed and pelted with rocks and smoke bombs. Will the Minister reassure the House that the safety of British fishermen will be paramount in the Government’s considerations and actions, and that aggressive and dangerous acts directed at the British fishing fleet will not be tolerated?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As I said in my statement, we regard safety at sea to be paramount, and that has been our key message to the French authorities since this incident occurred. Indeed, I restated its importance in my letter to Stéphane Travert today.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to make his statement, and also for the meeting that we had on Monday to discuss this matter.

The safety of our fishermen is vital. Fishing vessels from Northern Ireland were present at the first incident, on 27 August, fishing in legal grounds. Fishermen in boats from Portavogie, in my constituency, are intending to go into those grounds before the end of this month, as they do each year. Will the Minister assure me that our boats will be given safe passage and that their security will be protected? Will he state clearly and unequivocally that their safety and security will be guaranteed?

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I have made it clear that this is the responsibility of the French authorities, the grounds being in the French exclusive economic zone, but we have underlined the importance of the matter to the French authorities, and they have agreed and recognised that and have condemned the violence.

It is fair to say that the whole country stands with our fishing industry, which acted entirely properly, and is appalled by the violence. The Minister talked a bit about his discussions with his French counterpart. Can he say anything about any discussions he might have had at EU level?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we envisage resolving such issues ourselves in the future without having to go to the EU to do so on our behalf. Enforcement is an issue for national enforcement authorities, so at this point it is not appropriate for the EU to get involved, but if there were a failure of some sort with the French enforcement procedures or authorities, that would be a matter for the European Fisheries Control Agency.

Does the Minister believe that one way to solve this impasse might be for the French to lift restrictions on their own smaller boats fishing in this region?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is an option. In the absence of being able to put back together the agreement for the over-15 metre boats, we have suggested to the French Government that they consider ending the current restrictions earlier than normal.