Skip to main content

South-West Territorial Waters (Prohibition Of Pair Trawling) Order 2004

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2005

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.14 p.m.

rose to move to resolve, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to revoke the order laid before the House on 23 December 2004 (SI 2004/3397). [8th Report from the Merits Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I propose to speak to both this Motion and the second Motion standing in my name.

I am aware that this House only very rarely divides on Prayers to Annul, and to that end they do not necessarily imply that the individual making the Prayer is opposed to the policy contained in the order. Rather they are hooks upon which to hang a debate about a particular issue—the more so here because, given that the trawling orders are negative, they would not normally be debated. In that sense, opportunities to question the Government about their policies on the issue are few and far between. This Prayer offers me and your Lordships the chance of seeking clarification of the Government's intention on a most important issue.

I have to thank the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, which, in its eighth report, alerted me and your Lordships' House to the danger in the two orders. It states:
"These orders are drawn to the special attention of the House on the grounds that they give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House, and that they may imperfectly achieve their policy objectives".
That policy objective, to which I can hardly object, is based on the Conservative Party's fishing Green Paper, which sets out our oft-stated policy of managing the sea fisheries in UK waters in such a manner as to safeguard the natural environment, rebuild our fish stocks and marine wildlife.

So, in principle, I support the idea of reducing pair trawling for bass and the huge level of by-catch of common dolphins. The orders will penalise the UK's south-west fisheries while our partners in the CFP fish on. It is the other fishing partners who are causing the real damage outside our territorial waters, particularly the French effort in the Channel. The French effort, which is so huge and so damaging, is really where the problem lies. Ours is a small effort in comparison.

I will quote from the Merits Committee's report because it will make me succinct and my voice is not doing too well tonight. Paragraph 6 refers to.
"the option recommended, namely to take action on a UK basis, and then approach the European Commission to make the prohibition … DEFRA notes that in July 2004 it put the case to the Commission for the use of emergency powers for the closure the offshore pair trawl fishery for bass, and that the Commission did not accept this case. At paragraph 18, DEFRA states that, if the Commission is not persuaded by a new approach to agree that the prohibition be extended to other Member states. DEFRA 'would continue with the introduction of measures to apply to UK vessels only'".
Well, whacko. What fun. It may be fun for the officials, and fun even for the Ministers, but it is our fishermen's lives and our fishermen's livelihoods with which the Government are playing politics. The report continues:
"Paragraph 29 of the RIA summarises the results of a consultation process on the proposals, which was carried out over a three-week period in October and November 2004. It makes it clear that a number of objections have been raised to the action being pursued by DEFRA, including that 'many stakeholders are concerned that these measures are discriminatory as French and offshore fishery will continue where most cetacean bycatch is seen'.
We understand the importance of safeguarding the marine environment, including protecting dolphins against the damage caused by bycatch".
Hear, hear! So do we all.

The report continues:
"However, we question whether the policy being pursued by DEFRA through this Order will be effective in securing such protection since, as the RIA indicates, overall bycatch levels from the French fishery effort may well be higher than levels resulting from the UK element; and since there is a clear possibility that the Commission may not agree that the prohibition effected by the Order should be extended to other Member States".
Where are we then? The report concludes:
"We question again whether DEFRA's decision in the case of the 2004 Order, to proceed with a national prohibition before agreement at the European level, is an effective approach".

I remind your Lordships' House—I do so because I know that it will go into Hansard and be read outside the group that is here tonight—that this relatively new committee is a cross-party committee and that it has reached that conclusion jointly.

So while the French go laughing all the way home to the bank, our British fishermen stand by while the Government play politics with their lives and their livelihoods. The resentment that is building in the home fleet can be measured only by how I am approached when I go home. This is where I admit that, yes, this is close to my heart. This is my home fishery, my friends and family. It is very tough to be a pawn in this game.

I ask the Government to clarify some of the details in this order and to try to explain their thinking to me. What are the implications of the Government taking this unilateral action for the fisheries of the United Kingdom? What is the Minister's estimation of our European partners following suit? Is it worth sacrificing our own fleet to an ideal not shared by our partners in Europe?

Moved to resolve, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to revoke the order laid before the House on 23 December 2004 (SI 2004/3397). [8th Report from the Merits Committee].—(Baroness Wilcox.)

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Wilcox and agree with her on three matters. Unilateral action on a very small fishery is most unfair when competition from France, under Annex 1 of Council resolution 2371/2002, has access rights in the six to 12 mile limit. Greenpeace has sent me some briefing on this subject, which I quote:

"Last year, the Government announced a ban on UK pair trawlers operating within 12 miles of the UK coast. As very little trawling takes place within those 12 miles, and most of the fishing is done by French boats, Greenpeace argued at the time that this move would achieve 'nothing"'.
To put that into context, out of 6,700 fishing vessels in the UK, only seven pairs fished for bass in 2003–04.

My noble friend Lady Wilcox has indicated that there may be some merit in what the Government call a "stepwise" approach—I must say, it is a new word to me—which may not lead to agreement with other member states, particularly the French, any more than negotiations to date. I would like to hear from the Minister what those negotiations with the French, and perhaps other member states, were, to see whether there is any movement, or, if we take this stepwise approach, they are likely to follow us.

Having said that, and having agreed with those limited points that my noble friend Lady Wilcox has made, I concentrate my remarks on another aspect of this instrument. Why was it necessary to make this order on 22 December, lay it before Parliament on 23 December—when Parliament was not sitting—and for it to come into force on 24 December?

For clarification, I should declare that I am a Member of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, but of course I speak entirely on my own behalf. I cannot deny, however, that I have taken part in those discussions. The committee published its special report for the Session 2003–04 on 29 November 2004. In paragraph 57, it drew special attention to the 21 day rule convention. We comment on this again in our eighth report of the Session in paragraph 11. with regard to this particular instrument.

I am not convinced that, after noting the by-catch problem as explained in the explanatory memorandum as long ago as 2002, it was necessary to bring the order into force and break this convention so flagrantly. Did the department consider our report before advising the Minister to sign the order?

I know from the Explanatory Memorandum that the rather lame reason for bringing forward the order so urgently is because of the seasonal nature of the fishery. But why start consulting on it as late as October, as the EM states, if the problem was identified in earlier years, so that at least Parliament could have been given enough time to consider it within the 21 days? There is also a problem if the praying time of 40 days goes over the time that such an order comes into force—as in this case—as if it is successfully prayed against there may be pending prosecutions. That would be difficult both for the fishermen and, I suggest, the Government.

Can the Minister give the House a satisfactory reason why, when in this case no treaty date obligation is under consideration and purely unilateral action is intended that will not even cease pair trawling in the six to 12-mile limit, our fishermen were given absolutely no warning whatever to cease their activities virtually overnight? The EM states that the fishery closes for Christmas. Surely it cannot be so urgent, for the reasons I have explained, that 21 days should be given to Parliament to consider the order. After what our committee reported a month beforehand, it looks like a discourtesy to Parliament, to say the least.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is right to bring this matter to the attention of the House, although I do not agree with a lot of what she has said in moving her Motion. However, our debate tonight has demonstrated that the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee is proving to be useful in scrutinising delegated legislation that previously was not adequately examined. The reports of the committee do not use very often the phrase set out here:

"These orders are drawn to the special attention of the House".
When they do, Members of this House are obliged to ensure that the concerns outlined are raised on the Floor of the House and Ministers are asked to account for their actions. The committee has proved very useful and its reports are valuable.

We must consider two issues which stand at opposite ends of the argument about what should be done. The first is the substantive issue: many dolphins are killed each year as a result of pair trawling using very large pelagic nets. The number of dolphins being washed up in nets or found dead on beaches is a matter of great public concern. There is no doubt about that and the Government are right to look to see what they can do about it.

In passing, I also compliment those responsible for producing the regulatory impact assessment on this matter. It is a model of its kind in explaining complicated matters both clearly and simply. We are now all experts in Article 7 of Council Resolution 2371/2002 and Article 9 of the same. I am sure that the Minister carries such details in his head, but most of us have to rely on assessments like this one, which is very good indeed.

It is suggested that during the 2003–04 season, the number of dolphins killed as a result of this kind of trawl fishing was 439. That is a precise number and therefore probably not quite accurate. That is United Kingdom boats—we are told that there are perhaps seven pairs. The French have perhaps five times as many as we do, so the true total might be more than 2,500, including the French and UK boats. It is a significant slaughter of intelligent creatures, which we must take very seriously.

The second issue is whether the Government have tackled the problem in the right way, which is the issue that the noble Baroness raised. The Government have been under considerable pressure from organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace, and so on, as well as public opinion. My honourable friend Andrew George, who is the Member of Parliament for the far end of the southwest in St. Ives, and our fisheries spokesman, has put pressure on the Government to do something about the problem.

His advice is that banning that activity is not a disaster for fishing in the south-west. A good living can be secured, as it is in Cornwall, by using a line and hook to catch deep sea bass. The resulting product is much higher quality and much more marketable than fish that have been damaged in a trawl net. I am no expert but I am willing to take Andrew George's advice on that matter.

The Government are caught in a difficult situation. They tried, quite rightly, to get a European-wide ruling under Article 7 but failed to do so. They are now going under Article 9 and making a limited attempt to do something about it. It is a limited attempt because it covers only British boats and only 12 miles, whereas a lot of such fishing takes place well beyond 12 miles. The Government can then ask the European Commission if the action that has been taken can apply to other boats, especially French ones.

That is the only course of action now open to the Government. It may be successful or it may make little difference. The Government should be complimented on trying to do something about the problem. It may be that introducing the order the day after it was published and making it the day after Parliament rose was undesirable. Clearly that is undesirable. The noble Baroness asked the reasons for that.

I suspect that it is a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, and that the Government were not organised enough to do it properly and make the order earlier in anticipation of what would result from the consultation. Had they done so, they would have been accused of bouncing the consultation before the period had finished. You cannot win on such things.

In the circumstances the Government are in a difficult position. They are trying to do their best to deal with a real problem that must be tackled. In the unlikely event that the noble Baroness pushes the matter to a vote, I shall not support her.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing forward this very important issue. Had she not done so, I would have done so myself. With her great expertise and knowledge of this topic I am doubly grateful. I am even more grateful as for the past two weeks she has been very unwell, and she has nearly lost her voice. We are very pleased to see her in her place, although I am not so sure that the Minister will be so thrilled with her moving the Motion.

Noble Lords have raised some important and interesting issues and I await the Minister's response. I go back to the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee report, which says that,
"these orders are drawn to the special attention of the House on the grounds that they give rise to issues of public policy"—
I should like the Minister to comment on that—
"likely to be of interest to the House, and that they may imperfectly achieve their policy objectives".
Again, I should like the Minister to comment on that. As with the earlier orders, it is very easy for the Minister to respond in a general way and not to address the issues that are directly before us.

My noble friend quite rightly raises the issue of pair trawling. We would like to see it banned. Our party has certainly been pushing for this issue to be addressed. As my noble friend Lord Ullswater clearly stated, this is not a new problem. We have known about it for some time. The common fisheries policy has been highlighted in report after report. The great sadness is that no action has followed.

The Government are taking this step, and we support anything that will lessen the loss of so many wonderful and beautiful dolphins and porpoise. Greenpeace estimate that each year something like 10,000 of those wonderful beasts are killed unnecessarily. It is not a narrow issue; huge numbers are being killed.

I want to reiterate one or two points. I shall not go through each section of the report to which my noble friend Lady Wilcox referred. She has put the points very clearly, and although I had highlighted them, I shall leave the matter there.

As the noble Lord knows, Greenpeace has already launched a challenge in the High Court against the Government to save dolphins being caught. Greenpeace has filed papers that seek a ban on all fishing boats pair trawling for sea bass within 200 miles of the UK. That is the type of fishing which is responsible for more than 2,000 dolphins dying in the Channel every annual fishing season, and those are just the numbers in our area.

On the timing mentioned by my noble friend Lord Ullswater, I too had raised the issue of the sudden desire to bring forward a statutory instrument when the House was not sitting. It was introduced on 22 December, brought forward on 23 December and came into being in a very short space of time. I have to ask why. Why, when this problem has been known for so long, was it decided to push it through, like any bad news from this Government, when it is hoped that the House will not notice? I am sure that that is not true of the Minister, but it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. I believe that the Minister must answer that question very clearly today. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that he thought that was not intentional. Bad organisation, or whatever, is undesirable and I believe that that point should be answered tonight.

My noble friend clearly said that the Commission was not persuaded of the need to address the issue. What action has the Minister taken since it was turned down, and what action does he believe will be achieved at the end of the day? Is he willing to accept that it will have a detrimental effect on UK fishermen? In my view, it certainly will.

I want to draw to the Minister's attention the enormous amount of work undertaken by my honourable friend Owen Paterson in recent months on our fisheries policy. He is very concerned and supportive of the stance that we are taking tonight and he, too, wants answers to this imperfect way of trying to achieve policy objectives. We, the Conservative Party, support the idea of reducing pair trawling, which we would like to see banned for environmental reasons, for the benefit of both recreational and commercial fishing, particularly as regards bass, which is predominantly fished by using rods and lines. We respect the value and importance of bass and believe that it is a waste of a resource for it to be fished by pair trawling.

The problem with these regulations is that British boats are not really the problem. It is, as other noble Lords have said, the French boats that are causing more damage, but this statutory instrument does not address that at all. Again, I would like to know from the Minister what negotiations he or his department have had directly with their French counterparts. If the problem predominantly lies with them, then surely there should have been some discussions.

In 2003, the Royal Society said that European Union politicians were gambling with the health of the remaining European fish stocks, and that it was an outrage. I reiterate that.

We have spoken on many occasions about the state of the fishing industry and of our fish. Will the Minister comment on why the Government decided not to bring in a marine Bill, but instead to pursue a hunting Bill? One would have saved and protected animal welfare, albeit fishing, whereas the other certainly does not protect any animal welfare. A marine Bill was welcomed and supported on all sides of the House. It would have addressed this very issue.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Wilcox for so clearly identifying the issues before us tonight. I hope that the Minister will answer these direct questions and not say that he will write to us later. There has been enough notice. I hope that he is able to answer. My thanks to my noble friend; she has brought an important issue before us tonight.

My Lords, while I do not entirely thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for raising this issue, I am grateful that she is here tonight and in reasonably good voice. We have had an interesting debate.

Let me point out two or three things about the debate. First, everybody recognised that there is a problem with dolphin, cetacean, by-catch. We should do something about that. Secondly, everybody recognised that although it would be better to do something on a Community basis, the UK Government have some responsibility. Thirdly, everybody recognised that pair trawling is not a desirable practice in these fisheries. There is rather more common ground in this debate than might have been assumed at the beginning.

Perhaps I may explain the Government's position—which ends up looking bizarre because we are planning the introduction of statutory instruments to ban UK vessels from participating in a fishery while other member states are allowed to continue.

Our research first identified a problem in the pair trawl fishery in 2001. We have been trying to make progress in reducing the by-catch. As I suspect the noble Baroness knows, we have invested a fair amount of research money in trying to find a system of separation, a grid that would limit that by-catch. It appeared that that device might have the potential to reduce significantly the number of dolphins caught by the fishery. Regrettably, those experiments were disappointing. They showed clearly that the exclusion grid would not present an early or immediate solution to the problem.

There is long-term potential for a solution, as Community legislation now requires observer schemes to be set up, particularly for pelagic fisheries. The data collected from those, once undisputed, could lead to Community action. However, that review will not take place until 2007–08. On the basis of the data we have available, and certainly with the assumptions on the French catch as well, there is a significant threat to dolphin stocks and numbers.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, the RIA made it clear that as this is a fishery where the majority of vessels are from other member states, if we take the total fishery, Community action would be desirable. We applied to the Commission in July 2004 to use those provisions for an emergency closure of pelagic pair trawl fishing for bass in the English Channel. We felt that we had presented the Commission with a substantial case, given all the scientific information that had been assembled by the UK.

But, as has been said, regrettably the Commission did not accept our case or regard it as sufficient for an immediate closure. It acknowledged that considerable efforts were being made to try to find a solution and we are continuing to pursue these options with the Commission.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, indicated, there is a considerable and wide concern, not least in the south-west, about the effects of such fishing on the dolphin. It was necessary, therefore, in default of a Community approach, for the UK to consider what we could do ourselves at least to limit the damage that was being caused. To demonstrate that, we decided to use what are, effectively, the only powers available to us in the CFP, and to take action within the 12 nautical mile zone of the south-west coast of England, in our own territorial waters, to ban the practice for this year's fishing season.

The timescale gave rise to problems, to which the noble Viscount and others have referred, which meant that, reluctantly, we had to breach normal etiquette of the 21-day rule. But the fishery season starts around November and continues through to spring. It was therefore considered that, given the end of the consultation period, we should try to bring in the ban as early as we could within a season that had already started. If we had left it until well beyond Christmas and 21 days into January, we would have lost another month of the season.

At the same time, we had applied to the Commission to have the UK ban extended—which the Commission would have powers to do—to all pair trawlers in that 12-mile zone. Under long-established arrangements, France and Belgium have historic rights of access to this zone and, although there are only a limited number of French vessels making use of those rights, there remained the potential for them to make greater use of the zone. They form a larger element than the UK vessels.

We made it clear that this would be an interim step in moving towards a co-ordinated Community-level project but, even on that limited basis, the Commission was not prepared to accept the extension to non-British trawlers. We were disappointed that it was not prepared to do so but we still considered that we would do what was within our powers—and for which the Commission's permission was not required—and that was to limit fishing in that form in the fishery for UK vessels.

Obviously this is not a particularly satisfactory position. It is not one which endangers the south-west fisheries or the Scottish fisheries, which are also involved in this—Scottish boats fish in that area—to the extent that some people are claiming. Nevertheless, it is, in one sense, discriminatory and aimed at UK vessels. But the UK vessels are the only ones which, under the rules of the CFP, we can limit within this area.

It is important to recognise that although the Commission has rejected immediate action in this area it recognises the problem. It is therefore legitimate for us to say, whether or not we use the term "stepwise"—it is not a term which trips off my tongue either—that this is the first step in establishing, first within the British control zone and then within the whole of the fishery, a move to limit all boats from trawling in this way, with its knock-on effect on dolphins and other species.

If there is a step that we can take, we should take it. We have taken a step. It is a very limited step but we believe it demonstrates our determination to do something. It is one which, for all the criticism from all sides, it is essential for us to take if we are to convince others to take it.

The noble Baroness, and others, asked what the French were doing about this matter, and what stage our negotiations with them have reached. My colleague Ben Bradshaw has raised this issue directly with the French—he is capable of raising things very directly—but there has been no satisfactory response at the moment. If we are not going to reach a bilateral arrangement with the French our best bet is, therefore, to go through the Commission, which is more sympathetic. Yet the Commission is not prepared to take immediate action until it has more evidence. We are working on establishing the further evidence we need.

This is therefore a limited step, which we can carry out ourselves. It is not the most desirable position; it is a step in the right direction. The noble Baroness, along with the Merits Committee and everybody else, is quite right to say that this will not deliver the full objectives of the policy. Yet it is a step towards achieving it. In defence of the policy, it is possible that scores, or several hundred, dolphin might well survive as a result of this intervention—even if we do not extend it to other boats or areas. Demonstrating that we are prepared to do so—and continuing to gather the evidence—should help convince the Commission, first, to allow us to ban other vessels in that area and, secondly, to move to a Community level decision to ban that method of trawling, which is so detrimental to the dolphins in our waters and the waters of the Community.

I fully accept that the position is not an utterly satisfactory one, but we have taken action where we can. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will not press her objection here tonight.

My Lords, I am grateful to those who have joined in this debate, particularly my noble friend Lord Ullswater. I realised only halfway through his speech that the noble Viscount was on the Merits Committee. I had not really looked to see who was on the committee, although I knew it was cross-party, which I found to be very favourable. I want to thank my noble friend for a point he made. I had not picked up the speed with which everything had been done; I can quite see that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would be generous in saying that it was a cock-up rather than anything such as the speed with which the fishery acted, or whatever else we might like to call it. It is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The Minister has gone out of his way to explain how this came about and what is being done. The one thing he has made no mention of is the morale of our own fishermen. Yes, it is wonderful to save the dolphins. Frankly, if we all committed suicide at the same time, then the environmentalists would have their way. Yet the best of all possible worlds does not really exist. If, when we took our evidence to the Commission it said "No, not yet", then I really am sad that we walked away and said "So what, we are going to do it our way—and the only way we can is to do it to our own fishermen, at home".

The long term effect of this upon our fleet—not only the south west fleet, but the Scottish fleet—is a bad one. Science and fishing have gradually been coming together—gradually understanding each other and knowing what they need to do; first, to save their livelihoods and, secondly, to get the balance of the sea right. Every time we take a step forward it is wonderful. But to act unilaterally when we ourselves catch so very little of this by-catch, is awful.

Yes, it is awful to have dolphins caught. Yet I really take no joy in this. These orders are shameful. So it is with no joy at all that I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.