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Fishing: France

Volume 815: debated on Monday 1 November 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reassure the UK fishing industry following the seizure of a UK vessel by the French authorities.

My Lords, I cannot comment on the specifics of this case, given that legal proceedings are under way. More broadly, however, we are disappointed at the French Government’s recent actions, culminating in threats that were issued on Wednesday. We have raised our concerns with the French Government and the Commission. The Government have been clear that, if these actions were to be taken, they would put the EU in breach of the TCA. Our approach to licensing has been reasonable and fully in line with the TCA.

I thank the Minister for his reply and congratulate our Prime Minister on his robust approach to supporting the UK fishing industry. Fishing businesses are rightly concerned that further escalation would damage them economically. Should the situation escalate and tighter custom controls and checks be enforced, what contingency financial support will the Government consider for the UK fishing industry until a permanent solution can be found?

The Government have sought to support the fishing industry through the difficult period of transition and are currently pushing roughly £100 million out of the door to support it, including, where possible, by moving it to sustainable systems of fishing. What we have here is a triangular issue between the UK, the Commission and the Channel Islands. It is a complex situation. We are sticking to the rules and we are absolutely clear about what we want to achieve to support our fishermen, and to deal with a problem that the EU has to reflect on as well.

My Lords, for some 450 years the Royal Navy Fishery Protection Squadron looked after our fishermen in UK waters and on the high seas, and generally did so keeping well below the political radar, without great spats between nations. The squadron is now down to three or four ships. Does the Minister believe that is sufficient to do the job asked of it? I do not and if he agrees, what does he think should be done about that?

I am lucky to have been out with the Fishery Protection Squadron when I was at Defra. It is the oldest squadron in the Royal Navy, and I have huge admiration for the job that the Royal Navy has done. However, it is only part of our measures to protect our fisheries, which include using aerial assets and satellite information. If the noble Lord were to go to the ops room of the Marine Management Organisation in Newcastle, he would see a real-time policing operation using state-of-the-art data collection, which is also very important to resolving this issue.

My Lords, on 17 August Jacob Rees-Mogg was interviewed about the consequences of Brexit and the Government’s TCA with the EU for the fishing communities. The interviewer said:

“The fishermen are angry, really angry, and if you drove from your constituency an hour and a half, two hours, south-west to Brixham market—I recommend you don’t at the moment—they really are jolly angry about the way it’s worked out.”

The interviewer was a certain Nigel Farage. Fishing communities north, south, east and west have already felt let down because of the Government’s negotiated deal with the EU.

Last week the Minister said that the Government were seeking urgent clarification from Marine Scotland regarding whether or not fishing vessels had the appropriate licences to be fishing within those waters. Can he update the House on where the fault may lie: with Marine Scotland, the UK Government, the European Commission or the French Government?

As I said, this matter could involve a judicial process and I do not want to prejudice that. It is being dealt through very close working between my department, the Marine Management Organisation and Marine Scotland. Discussions are ongoing—indeed, they are happening today—with the commission to try to resolve this issue.

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend would agree that it is essential to have harmonious relations with the French Government. Given that criteria are available for judging whether licences should be issued, is it not sensible to contemplate appointing an arbitrator to consider individual cases where there is a dispute and determine whether the criteria are met?

I am grateful to my noble friend. Licences for UK waters are issued on the basis of five reference years, and a French vessel has to prove that it has fished at least one day a year in four of those five years. On the basis of that, I think I am right in saying that we have issued 98% of all licences applied for by French vessels to fish in our territorial waters. So, I am clear that we are doing our bit to stand by the terms of what has been agreed with the EU. It is for them to resolve the allegations they have made and the circumstances of this particular dispute.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that the House would be in a better position to understand the facts of this extremely complex matter if only the Government had reported to this House and its committees what was going on—this issue has been brewing for several months now—and will he remedy that? Does he agree that this is a moment when it would be good if both Governments could put away their megaphones and do a bit of real diplomacy?

It is actually longer than that. I hate to disagree with the noble Lord, who knows so much about these matters, but I can remember a dispute in the Baie de Seine long before Brexit, so this has been a disputed area of fisheries. However, I can tell him that we are in the business not of escalating this dispute but of resolving it for the benefit of the fishing industry and the sustainable harvesting of marine benefits. There is no desire for this to be escalated any more. It is for the European Commission, as part of the TCA process, to address the accusations and threats made by the French Government.

My Lords, it is appalling how much this has escalated over the weekend. What conversations, if any, has Defra had with the noble Lord, Lord Frost, to urge him to help to resolve the situation? Exactly what urgent talks are taking place with Defra’s French counterparts to de-escalate the situation so that British and French fishers can get on with their jobs safely? Licences were mentioned; was the Minister saying that because of the judicial process he cannot clarify whether the trawler had the correct fishing licence? We need to know this and whether it was included on the list of licences given to the French. If not, why not? Is it not possible for the Government to publish the list to put an end to confusion?

On the vessel that has been seized, I cannot give the noble Baroness that assurance at the moment, but I can promise that we are working closely to find out some rather complex details that lie behind it. I can assure her that we are talking regularly across government and directly with the Commission. Madame Girardin, who is the French Minister, has the number of my ministerial colleague, Victoria Prentis, on speed dial. We will continue to talk to the Commission, which is the responsible body, to resolve this.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in congratulating the Prime Minister on his robust stance in the interests of British fishermen? As for those in this House who seem to think that the fault lies on our side, might he reflect on the remarks by the French Prime Minister that somehow Brussels should punish us for following the democratic wishes of the British people? Will he urge the European Union to stand up for democracy and against this kind of blackmail?

The Commission has a duty to abide by the trade and co-operation agreement and discussions are now taking place on that. I hope that all sides of the House have been disappointed by some of the rhetoric that has been coming our way. I am pleased that the Prime Minister had a thorough and open conversation with President Macron in Rome, and those conversations will no doubt continue in Glasgow.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the triangular relationship between Great Britain, the Channel Islands and France. Can he explain that relationship to us? Do the Channel Islands issue their licences entirely autonomously? Can they be overridden by the UK? How is the process co-ordinated between the Crown dependencies and Her Majesty’s Government?

Your Lordships will grumble if I go on too long and into too much detail but, broadly speaking, to give the noble Lord an example, Jersey has issued licences to 113 French vessels for access to Jersey waters, with 166 applications for non-vessel monitoring system vessels—the smaller ones—and further applications are being considered. That is done directly with them and the Marine Management Organisation is very much part of that conversation. There are other Channel Islands which also issue licences to French vessels.

My Lords, I think we can probably understand that the Minister does not want to publicly escalate the issue, but none the less there were comments, reportedly from the French Government, that Britain should be punished for leaving the European Union. Perhaps diplomatically, in private and gently, he could point out to his French counterparts that no punishment from the European Union now could compare with the damage to our coastal communities that was caused during our membership of the European Union and the common fisheries policy.

I have been quite surprised by the attack line on this from members of the Scottish National Party in the other place. They seem to want to revert to the common fisheries policy and to find blame somewhere on our shores, which the facts—in response to the disappointing threats from certain people in France—have highlighted.

My Lords, having heard the right reverend Prelate’s supplementary question, I cannot wait for the sermon. Would it not be sensible, in an attempt to defuse this to a degree, for Victoria Prentis to use her speed dial, sit down with her opposite number and try to come to a sensible conclusion? This is being escalated out of all proportion.

It is actually for the European Union to resolve this—it is the other party. If any member state of the European Union were to try to breach the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement, that would be a matter for the European Union and its legal offices to address.

My Lords, the Minister has talked about a judicial proceeding, and the Foreign Secretary has talked about taking legal action. Will the Minister tell us which courts he envisages using?

I was referring to a vessel that has been seized, against which there are allegations of fishing illegally. I do not want to comment on that, because that could be the basis of a judicial process. There is, in parallel, a mechanism within the TCA to resolve these sorts of disputes. But we hope we can deal with it as friends and neighbours rather than going to law.

My noble friend asked the Minister which court, and I am afraid I missed the answer in the noble Lord’s reply.

I was explaining that the vessel that has been seized may be the subject of a judicial process, which I would not want to prejudice. It is in a port in France. There are other mechanisms for resolving trade disputes within the TCA, which I am sure the noble Lord is aware of.

My noble friend mentioned a judicial process. Since when did the French presidential election become a judicial process?

I am sure my noble friend will understand if I do not get involved in impending elections in any other country.