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Brexit: Fisheries Management

Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement is as follows:

“Can I begin by paying tribute to the hard work of the Ministers and especially the civil servants of our country’s negotiating team, who this weekend concluded an agreement on the nature and length of the implementation period which will help us to prepare for life after Brexit? Taskforce 50, on behalf of the EU and our own team of dedicated civil servants, secured an agreed text which will now go to the March Council of the European Union, and after that Council at the end of this week, the Prime Minister will update the House on Monday.

The House will be aware that there are important legal and technical questions relating to fisheries management which mean that it occupies a special position in these negotiations. Both the EU and our own negotiators were always clear that specific arrangements would have to be agreed for fisheries. Our proposal to the EU was that, during the implementation period, we would sit alongside other coastal states as a third country and equal partner in annual quota negotiations and, in making that case, we did so after full consultation with representatives of the fisheries industry. We pressed hard during negotiations to secure this outcome and we are disappointed that the EU was not willing to move on this. However, thanks to the hard work of our negotiating team the text was amended from the original proposal and the Commission has agreed to amendments to the text which provide additional reassurance. The revised text clarifies that the UK’s share of quotas will not change during the implementation period and that the UK can attend international negotiations. Furthermore, the agreement includes an obligation on both sides to act in good faith throughout the implementation period. Any attempts by the EU to operate in a way which would harm the fishing industry would breach that obligation and, of course, these arrangements will only apply to negotiations in December 2019. We are at the table as a full member state for negotiations in December 2018 and, critically, in December 2020 we will be negotiating fishing opportunities as a third country and independent coastal state, deciding who can access our waters and on what terms for the first time in over 40 years.

It is important that we use this transition period to ensure that we can negotiate in 2020, as a third country and independent coastal state, to maximise the benefits for our coastal communities; that we can control who accesses our waters and on what terms; and that we manage our marine resources sustainably. And we are already looking at a range of data to support consideration of future fishing opportunities, including the nature of catches and zonal attachment of stocks in the UK exclusive economic zone. There is a significant prize at the end of the implementation period, and it is important that all of us in every area accept that the implementation period is a necessary step towards securing that prize. For our coastal communities, it is an opportunity to revive economically. For our marine environment, it is an opportunity to be managed sustainably, and it is critical that all of us, in the interests of the whole nation, keep our eyes on that prize”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but he will know that the Secretary of State made great play of how he would fast-track our rights to fish in our own coastal waters on EU exit day and outside of EU constraints. The fact is that he has now been overruled by others in the Cabinet, which has accepted this deal. That is why we have real concerns that, despite the Secretary of State’s promises, he will be overruled again and again—for example, when the Cabinet is confronted with the choice of new trade deals, or retaining future animal and food quality standards.

The Secretary of State has made a number of promises that are now open to question. Can the Minister clarify who exactly in the exit talks is leading the negotiations on fishing? Can we be assured that those negotiators will now be more honest with fishing communities about their negotiating position in the future? What guarantees can the Minister give that at the end of the transition period, our fishing rights will not be traded away for some other economic priority? What steps will the Government take to provide immediate support for those coastal communities who are bitterly disappointed by this decision and who, as we know, are already suffering acutely from economic hardship?

My Lords, along with my colleagues in the department we share the disappointment that the noble Baroness has suggested, but of course the UK share of quotas will not change during the implementation period and we will be attending the international negotiations. This is an extension, and the implementation period is due to conclude in December 2020, so that during that time we will be in a position to advance the things we think are absolutely right and to ensure that we fish in a sustainable manner. This country has been in the lead on that and we want to ensure, through our negotiations not only with EU members but with other independent coastal states, that the fisheries in this part of the planet are sustainably fished. That is a very important prize for us because the seafaring communities of this country are vital to us and, as I say, the changes that our negotiators have been able to secure are valuable because there is certainty. However, now we shall work on the access that we will have as an independent coastal nation, which I think is a very strong prospect for the future.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer. This issue has caused a great deal of unrest and anger among Scottish fishermen. It had been anticipated that the UK would withdraw from the common fisheries policy on the day after leaving the EU. Indeed, the Government promised that they would take back control of the UK’s fishing waters after Brexit. While Michel Barnier and David Davis may agree that the transition period is a decisive step, I fear that that view is not shared by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. Bertie Armstrong of the SFF has expressed the view that the Scottish industry does not trust the EU to look after its interests. Is the Minister surprised by his reaction? Why have the Government sold the fishing industry short by agreeing to this transition period? Can the Minister confirm that there has been consultation with the industry and that it was satisfied with the outcome? Are the Government prepared to let our fleet continue to be governed by rules in which our Government have had no say, and what is the Secretary of State doing to achieve a sustainable supply of fish and to avoid depleting numbers?

Trust takes a long time to build but it can be destroyed in a moment. How are the Government going to restore confidence that they do indeed have the best interests of our fishermen at heart?

My Lords, it is in the national interest that we have a vibrant fishing industry and we support fishermen in all parts of the United Kingdom. I heard Bertie Armstrong on the radio this morning and the accusation about the implementation period and the year. Interestingly, he also said that it was ironic that, regarding those parties which do not wish to leave the common fisheries policy because they do not wish to leave the EU, we would never be in a position to have the negotiation we will have when we leave the CFP. We will have access to our own waters and we will be able to decide that access for ourselves based on the science. It is important to ensure that we fish our waters sustainably and that we base our judgments on the best scientific advice available.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that what is clear—according to my understanding on both sides—is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed? Once you get to that position and you have a transitional arrangement, it is inevitable that there will not be any changes in the meantime. But the most important part of my noble friend’s Statement is the confirmation from the EU that there will be absolutely no attempt to change the present arrangements and that the Government will stick to their determination to improve the situation once everything is agreed.

My Lords, my noble friend is right about the arrangements for the deal, but clearly the negotiations will take time. As my noble friend has said, it is important that the UK share of the quotas will not change and that we are continuing on that basis. It is clear that there are enormous opportunities for UK fishing fleets across all parts of the kingdom, and that is a positive position. That is what we will be turning our energies towards achieving.

My Lords, the Minister is correct to be cautious about this very complicated matter. Most people know that 75% of all fish caught in United Kingdom waters is exported and that, conversely, most of the fish consumed in our fish shops, our restaurants and at home is imported. There is an important deal to be done here. The vacuous promise of taking back control has been exposed, as my noble friend pointed out. We need access to other people’s waters just as they need access to ours—otherwise fishing will grind to a halt in many of our communities. The idea that British vessels will fish only in British waters and everyone else will be excluded is for the birds—or perhaps I should say for the fish.

My Lords, this is a complicated matter. It obviously involves considerable negotiation and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Fisheries Minister will be or have been visiting the Faroe Islands, Norway and other countries—because, as the noble Lord said, we all fish in each other’s waters. The principle of this is that we must fish in a sustainable manner. That is what we all need to achieve and that is what the British Government will be seeking to achieve.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm the point made by my noble friend Lord King, given the disappointing news that is coming out of the fishing negotiations? In the Brexit negotiations nothing is agreed until everything is agreed—and if, at the end of the day, the total package presented to us is unsatisfactory we will not accept it.

My Lords, clearly Her Majesty’s Government are seeking a deal and an arrangement. As is plainly obvious, at the end of the day this will involve a huge amount of work and we will all need to see how that goes. Our intentions are in good faith. We want there to be a deal. We think that it is in the interest of this country and, indeed, of the EU 27 that we come to a reasonable, responsible deal.

My Lords, the Minister has on three occasions, I think, emphasised the fact that the quotas will remain the same during the transition period. From my recollections of times past, during the December negotiations one of the most important arguments and discussions was on the size of the total allowable catches to which the quotas apply. What will be the role of British Ministers and officials in the 2019 discussions on total allowable catches?

My Lords, I was very clear about the UK’s “share” of the quota. Obviously that goes back to the issue of sustainability. As the noble and learned Lord will know, at the Council there is a discussion about catch sizes on the basis of proper consideration of the analysis of the fish stocks. This is why I precisely said “the share” in the 2019 Council—I said it specifically for that reason.

My Lords, is there anything that would disbar Her Majesty’s Government from giving financial assistance to fishermen and their fleets during the transition period if our friends in the EU are grossly unfair in the negotiations?

My Lords, as I have said, there is already agreement in terms of the implementation period. Both sides have agreed that they will act in good faith during the implementation period and, clearly, if there was a breach—I repeat, if there was a breach—of good faith, that would be a serious mistake. But in the end this is part of an honest adventure to try to get the best deal we can for the country.