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Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Bill Hl

Volume 448: debated on Monday 20 February 1984

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7.19 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [ General power to prohibit sea fishing in specified areas]:

Page 2, line 8, at end insert—

("( ) Before making any orders under this section the Secretary of State shall consult such bodies representing inshore fishing interests as appear to him to be appropriate.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I move this amendment hoping to meet the wishes of the Government. As I remember, at the last stage an amendment creating some form of consultative committee was put forward by myself, and it was only turned down very reluctantly. I felt, by the Minister of State, because he thought that it went fairly wide and was not exactly in the right words. He said he almost wished there was some power in respect of an advisory committee. He later went on to say that he did not quite mean that, that it was something else, but he was going to have an advisory committee.

The point is that here we are giving the Secretary of State very considerable blanket powers over the industry, both in respect of what may be local problems and in respect of what may be national problems. All the Secretary of State has to do is make an order to prohibit or ban fishing in areas which are wide, or not so wide, or to except certain kinds of fishing, Indeed, he has a general power of exception from any power that he seeks to exercise. All this he can do without consulting anyone. He is unfettered and untrammelled. He can just act on whatever strange advice he gets, perhaps from his officials, or he may even have had a nightmare, and can proceed to a regulation. That is as the statute stands. He is under no obligation to consult anyone.

It is no good the Minister saying that the Secretary of State will consult. According to the statute the Secretary of State does not need to consult. I remember legislation that we have had in the past week about tourism. The Secretary of State has to consult, not people in Scotland but people in England. I noticed that recently there was a Bill about education concerning, I think, grants and awards. Lo and behold there was a whole paragraph about consultation! Surely, when one is dealing with what may be the livelihood of very worthy people round the coast of Scotland—people who are very touchy indeed about central government interfering with things that they could settle themselves, and certainly on which they have a point of view—we really ought to include a paragraph saying that before any of these regulations are laid or come into force the Secretary of State should consult the appropriate fishing interests.

I cannot answer for the impeccability of the draftsmanship, but the Minister might like to know that I lifted the clause completely from a Government Bill that was going through the House last week. I think it will meet the needs of the industry and the innermost wishes of the Minister of State that we should put in this power that:

"Before making any orders under this section the Secretary of State shall consult such bodies representing inshore fishing interests as appear to him to be appropriate".

That gives him full legal coverage, and he need only consult those interests that he thinks are important. I could not have done better myself in drawing up a way to protect the Secretary of State from the legal consequences of what he might do. I beg to move.

My Lords, I hope that the Government will consider this amendment favourably. As the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, said, it may not be perfectly drafted. I would have drafted it a little wider and extended the scope of consultation to other bodies besides the inshore fishing industry, if there are bodies representing other elements of the fishing industry. I think they could be consulted, too. But that is a minor matter.

The point is that from the very beginning I have felt that the necessity for this Bill is doubtful. I believe agreement could have been reached between the various fishing interests. They have shown no great enthusiasm for the Bill, but it is absolutely essential that the Government should carry them along with it. It could well be disastrous if the Government begin making orders which set the static fishermen against the inshore fishermen. The Government may say, "Of course we shall not do that. We are eminently sensible men", and so on. But they have been known to rush prematurely into such things. I cannot see that they will lose anything by accepting a clause of this nature. After all, if consultation is with only such interests as appear to the Secretary of State to be appropriate it gives him extremely wide tolerance on what bodies he is likely to consult.

It may be said that the whole thing is subject to statutory procedure in Parliament. But we all know what that means. Candidly, it may receive extremely little consideration. Local fishing industries may suddenly find that an order has been made before they wake up to what is happening. As I understand it, no time is laid down. It is simply the time that the procedure takes to go through Parliament. We are talking about small groups of men round the coast who are not in daily touch with the Scottish Office and who may well find that they are faced with an order before they understand what is happening.

Therefore, I hope that the Government will accept the amendment. It is a reasonable amendment. Everything put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, is always reasonable. He is notorious for his goodwill and for his anxiety to please. In this case he has gone out of his way to make this an amendment which the Government can accept.

In all seriousness, I cannot see what the Government will lose by accepting the amendment. It will reassure the industry, which is worried in case it is forced into a position which it does not want, if the Government are not going to move without consultation. I do not believe it is enough for the Government to say, "Of course we shall consult". If that is the case, there is no reason for not writing it into the Bill.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, is to be congratulated on his efforts to protect the interests of the fishing industry. Indeed, I am just afraid that if we accept the amendment the fishermen will not in every case benefit to the extent that he intends. I also note the support given to the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond. I know that it is his intention also that the industry should be protected and assisted in every possible way. However, I can assure the noble Lord that we have the interests of the industry equally at heart.

The Secretary of State has amply demonstrated his good faith in the consultation process in the legislation which has already been enacted and in the dealings which he has had with the fishing industry. In Committee I gave a number of examples of the close relationship which has built up between the Government and the fishing industry—a relationship which has developed over the years and as a result of which extremely difficult and sensitive negotiations with the European Community reached a successful conclusion. These were not negotiations and consultations with the industry which were achieved by means of statute: they were consultations which took place on a totally voluntary basis, to which both parties gave a great deal and listened a great deal, and then acted upon the result of their deliberations.

Noble Lords may say, "If negotiation is so easy and if the Government are in favour of advisory committees, why should it not be necessary for the Secretary of State to consult them, and why not write this into the legislation?" There are perfectly good reasons why it is better that it should not be written into the legislation. For example, as far as the fishing industry is concerned the question of the spirit of this amendment is not one to which I take exception. I accept the spirit; but we are arguing about whether it is better to try to achieve the best means of consultation by means of trust between advisory groups of people, advisory committees, and the Government, or whether we want to write it into statute.

I believe that one of the difficulties is that sometimes time is of very great importance. It could be that there is a dispute, for example, between two fishing interests; let us say between the mobile gear fishermen and the static gear fishermen. It might be necessary for the Secretary of State, in the best interests of everybody concerned, to close a particular area. If by statute he is required to consult, that cannot be done immediately. I think that at Committee stage the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, suggested that there could be consultation by telephone, but that is not always possible. More people than might be available on the telephone may need to be consulted; some might not be available by telephone. It might be necessary to convene a meeting. All this takes time. In the meantime, the Secretary of State would be unable to act because it had been written into statute that he has first to consult.

I think that there is little between us as to what we aim to achieve. The difference is that we believe that it is better to achieve the result by means of consultation with advisory committees on a purely voluntary basis, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, is suggesting that the requirement should be written into statute. For that reason, I cannot accept his amendment and I hope that he might consider withdrawing it.

7.31 p.m.

My Lords, I like the spirit of the Minister of State. He says that all governments have been good over consultation. I could tell him quite a lot of things about the failure of governments to consult, or to consult the right people. The amendment suggests no formalisation. It just says that the Secretary of State has to consult. It does not say that there will be a standing or advisory committee on any particular problem. It may require a different set of people. It just says the people who are appropriate in respect of the particular regulation.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that there is no time for consultation and at the same time that the Secretary of State might prefer to consult in a particular way. If there is no time for consultation, nobody will be consulted and the Secretary of State will act without advice—which is a very foolish thing for a Secretary of State to do. How many times does that arise? The last time the Minister covered himself by talking about an emergency. Quite frankly, emergencies do not arise. An emergency to the Scottish Office is something that has been hanging fire for at least five years. I can rememnber that I was sent a paper by officials and they wanted a decision within two days, but they had been sitting on it for five months. Probably the emergency exists only in the minds of the officials. If the business is carried on properly, there is plenty of time to consult. I am not satisfied that that is a very good excuse.

I think that if the Minister asked the industry he would be told that it would prefer to have this provision. The Minister talks about matters in relation to negotiations with the EEC. The Secretary of State would have been a foolish man if he had not been in touch with the fishing industry, because it was watching every single move not just by this Government but by other governments; and it is still watching. It is not yet entirely satisfied in relation to quotas.

The provision is written into the Bill that the Secretary of State has to consult the British Tourist authority. Again, we know that he would do that anyway. Last week we dealt with legislation on education which said that the Secretary of State must consult in respect of something or other. That is where the words came from.

I took note of the point made by the noble Lord. Lord Grimond. I think that he is right. I hesitated over whether to use the term "fishing industry". I thought that I had better narrow it as it is an inshore fishing Bill. But if there is consultation going on outside, the Secretary of State can consult any other interests without a mandatory requirement.

I think that this is an amendment that the Government cannot afford to pass up. They will probably hear about it elsewhere. I hope that they will. There is so much timidity about the Government at the present time that I begin to despair. I know that the Minister of State is new to the Scottish Office. He was a private secretary or a Whip there at one time, I believe. He should know a little more about it than to talk about failing to exercise the power that he has. He does not need a regulation before he can exercise his power. All he has to do is to get up and say "Yes", and to tell the Secretary of State that a whole crowded House insisted that this amendment be accepted.

My Lords, I do not know whether I am in order in saying one word in view of what the Minister has said.

My Lords, the noble Lord is in order as long as I have not sat down.

My Lords, the noble Lord has not sat down and I am very glad to hear it. I am much obliged to the noble Lord for not sitting down. May I then put this point to him? Not only is he quite right, of course, about the emergency, but does he not think it a little alarming that the Minister particularly referred to a dispute and said that the Secretary of State might have to act very quickly because of a dispute? I accept the noble Lord's view that it is very unlikely that he would have to act very quickly in any degree; but I thought that the Minister's argument was going to be that certain of the orders were so obvious and so widely accepted that it was unnecessary to consult. But a dispute is exactly the time when he should consult. If he is going to override a genuine dispute between two sections of the industry without consulting either, then I really think that they have some reason to be nervous about this Bill.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. It was a point that I had thought of but I did not feel that I should prolong what I was saying. I have only one thing more I want to ask about. I have asked the question more than once. What is the nature of the statutory instrument by which the Secretary of State is to exercise these powers? Will Parliament see it at all? Will it have a chance to debate it either on an affirmative or a negative Motion? We should have had an answer to this a long time ago. I suggest that Parliament will not see the orders again. If Parliament is not to see them again, it is all the more important, surely, that the fishermen should see them and give the proper advice at the right time. Everything builds up to the importance of the Government doing this kind of thing.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, for keeping going long enough for me to get the little message that comes on these occasions. The order is seen by the joint committee. I apologise: before I began to speak again, I should have said, "By leave of the House".

The consultation takes place considerably before that. Indeed, as I explained, considerable consultation has already taken place about the location of static gear and nursery areas. The proposal which the Government have put forward is by no means final. It can he changed in accordance with the wishes of those who are involved locally. It is the desire of the Government that there be consultation if changes are to be made at any future time. That is the answer to the noble Lord's question.

I am afraid that I still do not accept the arguments which the noble Lord has put forward. I believe that what we are doing is better for the industry than what the noble Lords. Lord Ross of Marnock and Lord Grimond, wish us to do. For that reason, with regret, I am unable to accept the amendment.

My Lords, despite the fact that in this whole crowded House nobody has supported the noble Lord, and the fact that he now tells us that Parliament will not see the orders again, I shall withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—( Lord Gray of Contin.)

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.