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Keeping and Introduction of Fish (England and River Esk Catchment Area) Regulations 2015

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Keeping and Introduction of Fish (England and River Esk Catchment Area) Regulations 2015.

Relevant document: 13th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, in introducing these regulations I disclose an interest as owner of a stretch of a tributary of the River Thames and an interest in a lake used—among other things—for fishing.

Diseases and parasites of fish in the wild can, of course, adversely impact fish stocks. Non-native invasive fish species also pose a significant threat to native species through predation and competition as well as being potential carriers of diseases and pests, with additional potential impacts on the biodiversity of habitats. These present risks to the environment and to commercial and recreational fishery waters, so the stocking of fish into inland waters for recreational angling and other purposes has to be balanced with appropriate safeguards for aquatic environments.

Under these regulations a new permitting scheme will enable the regulatory body and the Environment Agency to adopt a risk-based approach to managing the introduction and keeping of fish in our rivers, lakes and waterways. This will reduce burdens on the angling and freshwater fisheries sector and help promote growth in the rural economy. The legislation, subject to the approval of Parliament, will be made under Section 232 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. These regulations would repeal Section 30 of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 in relation to England. We will shortly also modify the Prohibition of Keeping or Release of Live Fish (Specified Species) (England) Order 2014 so that its scope excludes inland waters, to prevent the duplication of legislation.

The proposed regulations introduce a new permitting scheme which would replace the existing legal requirements to obtain the consent of the Environment Agency for each separate introduction of any fish into inland waters, and to obtain a licence for the keeping and release of non-native fish in inland waters. These regulations would make it an offence to keep fish or introduce fish other than in accordance with a single permit granted by the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency will also have the power to impose conditions on the permits relating to matters such as the number of fish introduced and minimising the risk of fish escaping from inland waters.

The new permitting scheme will enable the Environment Agency to adopt a risk-based approach to managing the introduction and keeping of fish. Under this proposal, species that are high-risk are given greater scrutiny while the movement of low-risk species will be allowed to take place more freely. This is a significant improvement on the current system. The Environment Agency will also be able to revoke and vary permits if information comes to light that changes the level of risk the fish pose to the environment. The regulations also provide more effective enforcement powers to enable the Environment Agency to remove illegal non-native fish where they are found in rivers, lakes and waterways.

The Government consulted on these proposals both in 2009 and as part of the water and marine-themed Red Tape Challenge in 2012. As explained in the accompanying Explanatory Memorandum, most respondents supported the proposals. These regulations would produce a small annual saving for industry and additional savings for the Environment Agency.

The Keeping and Introduction of Fish (England and River Esk Catchment Area) Regulations 2015 will also apply to the Border Esk region of Scotland. Freshwater fisheries are best managed on a river basin catchment basis, and England’s Environment Agency has managed fisheries in the Border Esk region for many years. Under similar arrangements, Scotland manages freshwater fisheries in the River Tweed catchment, which is shared with England. The Scottish Government are fully aware of these regulations, which maintain this policy approach, and are in total support of them.

In summary, the Government consider that the approach set out in these regulations will provide a more efficient and risk-based way of protecting local fisheries and biodiversity. They will reduce the regulatory burdens on the angling and fish trade industry. To this end, I commend these regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the regulations before the Committee today. I declare my interests as a farmer in Cheshire—the River Weaver defines the farm’s boundary on one side—and as a co-owner of a holiday home in south-west Scotland with fishing rights, although I do not personally partake in the catching of little fishes. I know that there have been many expressions of anxiety concerning the Scottish Government’s upheaval of the governance and jurisdiction structure of inland fishing in Scotland, but that is not a subject for debate today.

Nevertheless, as far as these regulations are concerned, it is good to see that co-operation between the Scottish and United Kingdom Parliament is healthy and continuing. As the Minister stated, these regulations replace the current controls on placing fish into inland waters with a new permitting system, requiring all introductions and subsequent keeping of fish to be permitted by the Environment Agency. Transporting fish for introduction must also be permitted. The main objective should be achieved, which is to support the economic value and growth of the angling sector while ensuring adequate risk-based protection for the aquatic environment from risks associated with the use of invasive non-native fish species. Such high-risk species will be given greater scrutiny, while low-risk fish movements will be allowed to take place, as the noble Lord said, much more freely, albeit against the background of full disease control and other measures the Environment Agency will rightly be concerned with. That a permit is not necessarily set in stone for all time but will run until varied is surely the right approach.

Your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee inquired why the department had taken so much time since the public consultation concluded in March 2010 to come forward with these quite modest and uncontroversial regulations. It is interesting that the answer was that the election in 2010 gave rise to the regulations having to be fully evaluated against the new Government’s priorities, and that further delay then flowed from the requirement to reconsult under the water and marine Red Tape Challenge initiative. It is very fortunate that the noble Lord brings these regulations before the Committee today, a mere few months before maybe further inevitable delay as a result of the much anticipated change of Government at the general election next May.

I ask the Minister to provide comfort to the Committee. Is he confident that, following this change in licensing, there are adequate plans in place to deal with any outbreak, emerging disease or damage that could result from any eventuality in the future? Are there enough resources to remove any introduction from the environment affected and to tackle any problems resultant from illegitimate action or trade? I note that one of the contentions expressed in the consultation was that this new scheme might lead to an increase in illegal activity.

Can the Minister also confirm that the threshold of 0.4 hectares set for the size of the inland waterway will remove any inclusion of garden or domestic ponds from these regulations? I understand that the Committee may need to look further, in due course, at another regulation covering trade in ornamental species.

I note that in the regulations there is no mention of cost recovery. Indeed, paragraph 53 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that at present there are no charges for the issuing of consents and currently no intention to introduce these charges. Nevertheless, while the size of the cost savings from the introduction of this new scheme is very small, and the costs to business and administrative costs are largely immaterial, can the Minister comment on whether the Environment Agency will necessarily look at cost recovery to every service it provides and how it will assess whether to introduce cost recovery in each instance? Meanwhile, I am happy to support the regulations.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, for his helpful and positive points on the regulations. As he points out, we are committed to protecting our environment, including the native fish and fauna in our rivers, lakes and waterways, while at the same time reducing burdens on industry, where these have been identified, in line with our invasive non-native species framework strategy for Great Britain.

The noble Lord asked three questions. First, in relation to the introduction and keeping of fish in garden ponds, I confirm that the statutory instrument will apply to inland waters such as lakes and rivers, which includes small lakes and large ponds over 0.4 hectares, as he said. The keeping of non-native fish in ponds below that size will be regulated through the Prohibition of Keeping or Release of Live Fish (Specified Species) (England) Order 2014. However, he will be comforted to know that the keeping of common non-native ornamental species such as goldfish does not require a licence.

The noble Lord also asked about cost recovery. In the first year of the scheme, the costs to the Environment Agency will modestly increase. Savings will take effect fully in later years, while future funding decisions will be for the next comprehensive spending review. That is about as far as I can go today. As time goes forward, we will look at cost recovery in different areas. No decisions have yet been made and there will be more consideration of that issue.

Lastly, the noble Lord asked whether I was confident that adequate plans and resources were in place to cover outbreaks of diseases. He puts his finger on one of the most important matters that we address in Defra. We constantly keep an eye on this and, indeed, Ministers meet regularly to discuss it with representatives of all the various bodies that help us with animal and plant diseases, invasive non-native species and so on. We try to look at these matters holistically and in the round. We now take a more strategic approach than we did in the past and I am confident that we have a comprehensive plan and resources in place to do that. Of course, that is not to say that we will never face another disease or pest again, and the business of Defra is in responding to crises. However, in this regard, I can say that this new risk-based permitting scheme, managed in an effective and efficient way by the Environment Agency, will ensure we continue to protect our local fisheries and the environment while allowing the angling and fish trade industries to flourish.

Motion agreed.