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Scotland Act 1998 (Specification of Devolved Tax) (Wild Fisheries) Order 2017

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2017

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Scotland Act 1998 (Specification of Devolved Tax) (Wild Fisheries) Order 2017.

My Lords, the reason for making this order, laid before the House on 14 September 2017, is to grant the Scottish Government a limited and specific power to raise a levy on wild freshwater fisheries for the purposes of the management, conservation and sustainable development of those fisheries. The order relates to reforms being undertaken by Scottish Ministers to support the management and conservation of wild fisheries in Scotland.

The Scottish Government commissioned an independent review of wild fisheries in Scotland in 2014. One of its conclusions was that the Scottish Government should have the power to adopt appropriate management tools, including the flexibility to change the way in which income is raised for fisheries management, currently done through a fisheries assessment levy applied to salmon fisheries at a local level. Consequently, the order will give Scottish Ministers the power to make regulations imposing a levy on the owners, occupiers or users of wild fisheries, or owners or occupiers of the right to fish in wild fisheries.

The Scottish Government intend to use this power by introducing related provisions to their Wild Fisheries (Scotland) Bill that will provide Scottish Ministers with the power to set, collect and retain fishery assessment levies in circumstances where they do not approve the fishery management plan developed at a local level. The levies in question are considered by Her Majesty’s Treasury to be taxes and are, therefore, outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

In order to introduce a Bill into the Scottish Parliament with provisions on tax, the Scottish Government require an amendment to be made to Part 4A of the Scotland Act 1998. An Order in Council, under Section 80B of the 1998 Act, is the mechanism through which Her Majesty may amend Part 4A so as to specify an additional devolved tax.

We have agreed to devolve this power on the basis that it will be applied only to a levy in respect of the conservation and management of freshwater fisheries. This will not have a significant impact on businesses in other parts of the UK, but we consider that this measure will support the UK Government’s ability to meet their international conservation commitments. I beg to move.

My Lords, again, I thank the Minister for his full explanation of the order. As we have heard, it would provide legislative competence for the Scottish Parliament to bring forward provisions on specific taxes relating to wild fisheries in Scotland.

The order will amend Part 4A of the Scotland Act 1998 to provide that taxes on specified persons to fund expenditure on the conservation of freshwater fish and their habitats, and the management or regulation of wild fisheries, are to be devolved taxes. The Scottish Government commissioned an independent review of wild fisheries in 2014 to consider how this magnificent Scottish resource can be protected and managed sustainably into the future.

The order will allow for an intended wild fisheries Bill to be brought before the Scottish Parliament to include powers for the Scottish Government to raise levies on the owners, occupiers or users of wild fisheries if they deem it necessary in the future. These provisions have been approved by HM Treasury, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and members of the cross-party Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in the Scottish Parliament. We are content to support the order so that these issues can be scrutinised fully in the Scottish Parliament.

I ask the Minister: what consultation are his Government undertaking with Scottish Ministers to ensure that the package of reforms undertaken on these natural resources in Scotland either do not materially affect or are beneficial to wider conservation and natural planning efforts across the whole of the UK? We hope that the Scottish Government will work with members of all parties in Scotland to ensure a sustainable future for these natural resources and for communities right across Scotland.

My Lords, I suppose I should begin, like everybody else, by sucking up to the Deputy Chairman and the Minister and saying how pleasant it is to be here with them. I do not remember this ever happening in this Room before, but the House of Lords exists to be pleasant and I am delighted to join in welcoming them here. In fact, a few moments ago the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, made a quite gratuitous and kindly reference to me, no doubt anticipating that I might give him support if there were a vote. In fact, I would not have done, but nevertheless the atmosphere of pleasantry is something I am happy to continue.

I have a purely personal interest in this matter, in that I fish occasionally on the Tweed and more regularly on a loch in the Scottish Borders, which I will return to in a moment. I think the Minister will agree that this order is somewhat unusual in that it is predicated on a Scottish Parliament Bill that we have not yet seen. That makes it a little difficult to understand but none the less, in principle, we will support it. That is presumably why the Sewel convention does not apply in this case, because it is bestowing more powers on the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act. Like the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, I would like to hear a little more about the consultation that the Minister has had with colleagues in the Scottish Government about how this is going to operate.

I have two questions about the order. The first relates to the amendment of Chapter 7 of the Scotland Act, on page 2 of the order. It states:

“This subsection applies to taxes on the … occupiers ... of the right to fish in wild fisheries”.

I operate a syndicate on a loch in the Scottish Borders. One of the members of the syndicate is the former sheriff, who will certainly be breathing down my neck if we do not get this right. Does that mean that when I pay, as I do, a handsome sum to His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch for the right to fish on his loch, that makes me an occupier of the right to fish in the waters? In other words, am I, in supporting this order, liable to find myself subject to taxation in future?

My second question is one that I anticipate my noble friend Lord Beith is about to ask. Fisheries in Scotland are governed under legislation that was passed way back in the 1950s. In the case of the Tweed, Scottish legislation covers the south bank; in other words, people operating in England are subject to Scots law in this peculiar circumstance. I wonder whether this order applies to them as well.

My Lords, my noble friend did not realise quite how far the provision he has just cited extends. Legislation, particularly the Scotland Act 1998 (River Tweed) Order 2006, embraces the whole of the Tweed district, which includes all the tributaries of the Tweed and tributaries of the rivers which are tributaries of the Tweed, whether they are in England or Scotland. Of course, many of them are in England, such as the Till, for example. The Tweed river system has always been managed as a single system, which makes a great deal of sense. It would be odd to do it otherwise.

However, there are some problems inherent in this, as there were in the 2006 order. The Minister said that the Bill will not affect other parts of the United Kingdom—I hope I am not quoting him wrongly. If that is the case, it will be an interesting reversion to the previous way of legislating in this area. My initial assumption was that this order might affect all the tributaries of the Tweed. The basic question is: can somebody have a fine or levy placed upon them by the Scottish Government when they are not only resident in England but the activity to which the levy relates is wholly in England? Can someone who is the owner or occupier of a fishing right on, say, the Till, be required to pay a levy by the Scottish Government?

There may be a perfectly good case for them being required to pay that levy, but if there is, that surely should be a decision on which the United Kingdom Parliament—the only Parliament which represents England—should continue to have a say in future. It seems constitutionally repugnant for the Scottish Parliament to be able to pass laws or impose levies in England, just as it would be repugnant now under devolution to do the reverse in this area. That is what I would like clarification on as I think something of a wrong turning was taken in the 2006 order, and I do not want to see it repeated in subsequent orders, such as the one we are considering today.

I thank the Minister for his cogent explanation. I declare an interest as the spouse of the part-owner of a west coast river.

There is great concern among those involved with district salmon fishery boards on the west coast of Scotland that this clarification of the law is intended to cover a deeper purpose. We currently pay what used to be called fishery rates, or sporting rates. That money is returned to us in the form of support for the district salmon fishery boards. In general terms this has been a very satisfactory arrangement and has allowed the employment of marine biologists to assist riparian management and so on. The concern is that this measure in effect allows the Government to separate the two strands and use that money as part of the general tax pool, and then return what they wish to the district salmon fishery boards, which will thereby over time suffer attrition that may well be a downward trend. Will the Minister therefore give an assurance that all money raised by this measure will be returned to the district salmon fishery boards or their equivalent?

I thought the last order was complicated. I will try to do justice to the questions. I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, and others. The noble Lord rightly asked what consultation has been undertaken. There has been significant collaboration between the UK and Scottish Governments over the impetus behind this approach. Noble Lords are right to note that there is no Bill as yet, but the argument underpinning this approach is that in due course there will be. This is in anticipation of that. We have international obligations on behalf of the salmon in a river, which the UK Government are taking very seriously. The recognition here is that the administration of that will rest with the Scottish Government in this instance. We will continue to ensure the outcome of that management is carefully considered so that we can move forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, also asked about consultation. I hope my response answers his question. He asked whether he will be paying the tax, or whether the Duke of Buccleuch is the individual. Helpfully, I have the answer to that, I believe, on two pieces of paper. No, the Scottish Government do not intend to change the existing process to collect the salmon levy locally. The Scottish Government have ruled out the introduction of other taxes. However, these powers will future-proof wild fisheries management, ensuring that Scottish Ministers have the levers at their disposal should new evidence or circumstances merit the introduction of new taxes on the users, such as through a rod licence. The answer is no at the moment, but if a rod licence comes in it will be yes. I hope the noble Lord is okay so far.

The noble Lord, Lord Beith, asked quite a detailed and important question. I remember many years ago when I was a geography student that one of the big challenges was to try to determine exactly where tributaries were because it depends on the season, the rain and so on. Scottish legislation will be subject to the rules of legislative competence in Section 29(2)(a) of the Scotland Act, so English fisheries cannot be taxed. I think that answers his question quite clearly.

That is very helpful. I thank my team very much; that was exactly the answer I was looking for in that instance. Good.

The noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, asked an important question as well. The answer to where the money will be spent is that the salmon levies will be utilised in the district in which they are raised. I hope that gives some comfort to him in that regard.

I think those are the answers to the questions noble Lords posed. I hope that that is satisfactory.

Motion agreed.