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Cockling: Dee Estuary

Volume 613: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Christopher Pincher.)

Cockling in the Dee estuary is an industry that makes an important contribution to the local economy. Natural Resources Wales issues 53 full licences each year for the cockle fishery on the Dee. Last year 250 tonnes of cockles were landed there, producing a value of half a million pounds. The value of United Kingdom exports as a whole to other European Union countries was £4.2 million in 2015, with most of the exports going to the Netherlands and France. It is therefore important for us to protect the industry and the livelihoods that depend on it.

For the past year, my office has been in contact with local cocklers who have been hugely concerned about what has been taking place between Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency in England. I held a meeting with both organisations in my constituency office, at which it was agreed that the Environment Agency would be the first port of call for the cocklers on the English side of the river, and that it would raise the cocklers’ concerns with Natural Resources Wales. This a question of democratic accountability, and the process governing responsibility for managing the cockle beds of the River Dee raises important issues.

My hon. Friend mentioned the 53 licences. Many people worked those beds for years, as did their fathers and grandfathers before them, and were not given licences, unlike many others who had not worked the beds before.

That is an interesting point. I certainly know that a number of families in my constituency have been involved in cockling for a great many years.

My constituents feel that the Environment Agency is not representing them adequately, and that, as Natural Resources Wales is an agency of the Welsh Administration, its responsibility is obviously to people in Wales rather than those in England. They have spent months making requests for access to the accounts showing the fishery costs, which have been released in a piecemeal fashion. They have made repeated requests to see the full accounts, but have been provided with only a summary, which has led them to conclude that the fishery is not being managed properly.

My constituents believe that they are being overcharged for their licences because Natural Resources Wales is not acting in a cost-conscious or effective way. They are concerned about the lack of scrutiny of NRW by the Environment Agency and the lack of attendance by EA representatives at meetings, and that is clearly an issue. After submitting numerous freedom of information requests, they were given sight of a document: references from the minutes and papers of the partnership board meetings to Dee Services and transfer of functions. The Partnership Board executive summary of 6 October 2015 states:

“NRW are under pressure from fishermen (who fish the Dee River Cockle Beds), for a meeting. NRW would like EA representation at this meeting but local EA staff are unwilling.”

The Environment Agency apparently pays £18,000 a year to Natural Resources Wales to manage the cockle fishery, but, according to my constituents, that figure never appeared in the accounts before 2015. I should like the Minister to tell me exactly how much the Environment Agency has paid Natural Resources Wales in each year since 2012, and how much scrutiny the Environment Agency is giving to how the money is being spent. The lack of oversight of the way in which money is spent is of real concern.

Last year I asked the Minister what enforcement measures the Department had undertaken in relation to illegal cockling on the River Dee, how many prosecutions for illegal cockling had been brought in each year since 2010, and how many prosecutions had been successful. The Minister replied:

“All cockle fisheries within the Dee Estuary are controlled via the Dee Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 2008. Enforcement of the Order is a matter for Natural Resources Wales (NRW) as grantee of the Order.

Defra does not have information pertaining to the specific enforcement measures taken by NRW on illegal fishing occurring within this fishery.”

My follow-up question is this: why does Defra not have that information? It is paying NRW to manage the fishery, so it should have some interest in how the money is being spent.

More importantly, not only are my constituents paying for bailiff activities via their licence fee, they have also been told that it will pay towards unsuccessful prosecutions. I have asked the Minister how much the Department has spent on the management and enforcement of cockling rights in each year since 2010 and what information the Department holds on equivalent spending by the Welsh Government. The Minister’s response was to state:

“DEFRA does not hold this information.”

Why does it not hold this information? Last year the cockle beds were closed for quite some time, so I ask the Minister what discussions have taken place with the Welsh Government on, first, the management of fish, mussels, cockles and other seafood stocks in the river estuary; secondly the reasons for the closure of the cockle beds in the estuary; and, thirdly, the projected date for the reopening of the cockle beds?

The cockle industry is also important in my constituency. With advances in technology and environmental science there is great potential, but does the hon. Lady agree that ensuring that the jobs of local fishermen continue must be the priority for future legislation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and he makes a good point: it absolutely is important that we protect the jobs of those currently engaged in the industry, as they have been for generations.

To return to the Minister’s response, he stated:

“Fisheries is a devolved matter, and the Dee Estuary is a cross border fishery which is managed by the Welsh Government and Natural Resources for Wales for the Welsh part of the estuary. For the English part of the estuary, fisheries management is covered by my Department, the Environment Agency, the Marine Management Organisation, and the North West Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority.

However, Natural Resources for Wales (NRW) has responsibility for managing the cockle fishery in the Dee Estuary (on both the Welsh and English sides) as grantee of the Dee Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 2008. NRW has taken the decision to not open the fishery this year due to insufficient stocks. It has suggested that it may be opened in July 2016 should sufficient stock be available. I have not had any direct dealings with counterparts in Wales within the Dee Estuary fisheries management context or specifically in relation to the closure of the cockle beds.”

Does the Minister believe it is fair for NRW to charge cocklers the full licence fee for a season when that season amounts to only a few days? Cocklers are not doing this as a hobby; this is their livelihood, and if they are unable to access the beds they have no income. The cocklers are concerned that under the bird food modelling system used by NRW, a closed season will become the norm but they will still be expected to pay for a full licence and eventually be driven out of business by this cost.

My hon. Friend will know that on my side of the River Dee Welsh cockle fishermen who live in my constituency face the same pressures. I have written to Natural Resources Wales about the issue but have not had satisfaction either, so she has my full support in asking for rebates on the full price of the fee for seasonal work.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point: this issue affects fishermen on both sides of the estuary.

I remind the Minister of his own words in relation to farming. He said that

“farming has always been a risky business because of the weather and price volatility. Farmers want to earn their profit from the market but they need a helping hand when things go wrong.”

Are the River Dee cocklers any different? Figures provided to my constituents show that costs for managing the fishery have escalated since 2012 and staff time attributed to the cockle fishery has gone up. I ask the Minister to get the breakdown of what staff time is being allocated, for example, for administration and the cost of bailiffs. I also ask the Minister to look into why, when the fishery was closed for the majority of last season, figures obtained by my constituents show that £87,000 was allocated for staff time? Who is doing what, and why is the Environment Agency not providing any scrutiny of this figure?

Last year I asked the Minister how much revenue had been raised from licence fees for cockling in the River Dee estuary in each year since 2010 and the figures showed a big leap from 2012-13. In 2010 £51,584 was raised, in 2011 it was £52,576, in 2012 it was £52,576, and then in 2013 it increased to £68,900, and remained this figure in 2014. Will the Minister clarify whether this increase was due to a rise in the number of people using the fishery or to an increase in license fee? I would also like to know whether it is the intention of the fishery to become “self-sustaining” at any point as this could be achieved only either by massively increasing the licence fee, which would merely drive people out of business, or by increasing the number of licences, which, again, would drive people out of business and cause considerable environment problems. The lack of financial transparency must be addressed. My constituents have repeatedly asked Natural Resources Wales questions about its spending and charges, but they feel that it has failed to answer them adequately. Apparently, NRW has indicated that a financial manager would address those points, but that has not been forthcoming so I therefore put these questions to the Minister.

According to my constituents, the fishery’s financial records are not adequate and contain numerous omissions and expenses that do not seem credible to my constituents, such as £20,000 running costs for an amphibious vehicle that was supposedly used only for cockle survey work, which would have amounted to just a few days each year. What work was that vehicle carrying out?

Does my hon. Friend agree that all accounts from NRW and the Environment Agency on the Dee estuary and other cockle beds should be fully published and readily available? People should not have to make freedom of information requests so that we can all see exactly what is going on.

My hon. Friend makes an important point on behalf of Welsh and English cocklers. My constituents have raised pertinent questions, and they have every right to ask them and to be provided with answers if they feel that questions have not yet been responded to, or avoided altogether. They also ask for the necessary support from the Environment Agency, which again they feel has not been forthcoming.

My south-Wales constituency has—or had—a great cockle industry in the Burry estuary. The constant complaint from cocklers at the moment is that although the estuary is badly managed by Natural Resources Wales, which is part of the Welsh Government, they still have to pay full licence fees. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is about time that the Welsh Government started taking a real interest in this issue?

As an English MP I am acting on behalf of my constituents and asking the Environment Agency, and the relevant Minister, to respond to my points, but I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises that issue.

The Minister recently campaigned for the UK to leave the EU, and he asked:

“Is it better to have control and the ability to decide? Or, is it better to exchange that control for a seat at a table where you may, sometimes have some influence? I believe there is a special value in having the ability to act, to decide and to get things done. Where we have control we can bring clarity and consistency.”

Having made that point, his Department is nevertheless happy to pass responsibility to another administration. That is fine, but there should be some scrutiny of that administration since we have a vested interest in its effectiveness. How can the Minister be confident that English cocklers are getting a good deal, or that the Environment Agency is looking after their interests? Who will be the arbiter if Natural Resources Wales goes ahead and pursues a policy that we as English MPs have no influence over, and how can our constituents feel adequately represented?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this important debate. This issue has impacted on my constituents and those of many hon. Members here today for a number of years, and sadly it has highlighted the injustices that can be created when devolution fails to address the important question of cross-border accountability. My hon. Friend has already set out some of the history behind this matter, and the Dee Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 2008 set the regulatory framework and was the product of many years’ work. I believe that the intentions in that order have been allowed to erode over time and—critically for my constituents—there seems to be enormous difficulty in establishing direct accountability for decisions made under the auspices of that framework.

My hon. Friend has eloquently set out many of the problems faced by her constituents and mine as a result of the transfer of responsibility for the Dee estuary to Natural Resources Wales—problems that the Environment Agency has been aware of for some time, but is seemingly unwilling or unable to act on. It was therefore remarkable that in the latter part of 2015 the Environment Agency proposed a new regulatory order to reflect current management arrangements, and that Natural Resources Wales take over sole responsibility for the Dee. It seems from that proposal that there has been no acknowledgement of our constituents’ genuine concerns about the way the arrangement is currently working. Furthermore, if a regulatory order is required, are current arrangements operating without lawful authority because they have not yet been the subject of such an order?

The issue of accountability has come to a head because of the implementation by Natural Resources Wales of what is known as the bird food model for determining quotas, which was imposed on the estuary without consultation. That represents a dramatic departure from previous systems, and has put the livelihoods of many fishermen in jeopardy. There appears to be no proper mechanism for my constituents to challenge this decision, which they regard as a substantial departure from the management plan agreed under the regulating order of 2008. It will not be possible in the time available tonight to dissect the issues that my constituents have with the model, save to say that they very much doubt that they will be able to earn a living under it, and that it is a model that is not being adopted anywhere else in England.

Given that this represents such a substantial departure from the previous practice, I have to ask whether the decision to proceed with this model has been authorised in accordance with the law. Paragraph 3 of the original regulating order gives the Environment Agency the right

“to impose restrictions on, and make regulations respecting, the dredging, fishing for or taking of cockles within the limits of the fishery.”

Hon. Members will note that the regulation refers to the Environment Agency, not Natural Resources Wales, hence my question about NRW’s capacity to make these changes. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer these questions satisfactorily tonight.

I should make it clear that before we called for this debate our constituents had been trying to resolve these issues through various channels, as my hon. Friend has described. My constituents have also tried to address the issues through the parliamentary ombudsman in England, who said the following:

“Unfortunately, we cannot look at your complaint about the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because your complaint relates to the management of the cockle beds on the River Dee Estuary which is the responsibility of Natural Resources Wales. As your complaint is about restrictions placed on cockle fishing on the River Dee by Natural Resources Wales we believe that the organisation responsible for responding to your complaint is Natural Resources Wales.”

So off we went to the ombudsman for Wales. What did he say? Well, he noted with characteristic understatement that the new bird food model had

“had an effect on your capability to maintain a sustainable income”.

He went on to say that he was not suggesting that the use of the bird food model had not had a major impact, and that while he felt that there could have been consultation on the new model used by Natural Resources Wales, he could not look into the actual methodology used. He made a recommendation that there should be consultation if the model were due to change again, but a consultation in the future will be no good if the fisherman have already gone out of business by that point. This is the nub of the issue. My constituents have had a system imposed on them without consultation. It is entirely unfit for purpose and it is destroying their livelihoods, yet there seems to be no legitimate route through which they can raise their concerns about it. Where is the accountability in this situation?

Various other issues raised with the Welsh ombudsman were not dealt with on the basis they were not part of his jurisdiction and would have to go back to the parliamentary ombudsman in England. We also raised questions about the running costs, and we were referred to the Wales Audit Office. I agree with the point that was made earlier: we should not have to chase around various organisations to get answers to these questions. The details and facts should be readily available for anyone to see. Does this not sum up the lack of clarity and accountability in the arrangements? Why should my constituents have to be passed from pillar to post trying to get answers when their livelihoods are on the line? My hon. Friend has asked a series of highly pertinent questions tonight on behalf of her constituents about the way in which the estuary is currently being managed. I, too, have asked questions to which I hope one person—the Minister—can provide satisfactory answers.

I have spoken in the past about the fact that the rigid lines of devolution do not reflect the reality on the ground in the north-west of England and north Wales. Our economy works as one, huge numbers of people live on one side of the border and work on the other and our transport links are hugely interconnected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson)—whose constituency can be seen across the River Dee—has many constituents who work in my area, and I have many who work in his. The Borderlands rail franchise, which runs through my constituency and into Wales, is up for renewal, and I hope that a way can be found to ensure that passengers from both sides of the border have a voice in that process. But the problem we are discussing tonight is something else. It is happening now, and it is driving my constituents out of business. It is mired in myriad different bureaucracies, none of which seems to be accountable for its actions.

The Environment Agency might have outsourced the day-to-day running of the estuary, but it should not be able to outsource its responsibility to my constituents who have been let down by this abrogation. So I ask the Minister to look into the details, to find a management model that respects the environment but also crucially allows people to earn a living and, most of all, to devise a governance arrangement that does not hide behind national boundaries but instead allows my constituents to have a single transparent and accountable body that acknowledges the existence of legitimate interests on both sides of the border.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this debate and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). Both have been heavily involved in trying to raise their constituents’ concerns.

The cockle fishery within the Dee estuary is managed through the Dee Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 2008, a regulating order giving exclusive rights to manage the fishery resource. In 2004, the Environment Agency made an application under the Sea Fisheries (Shellfish) Act 1967 to the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers for a regulating order in respect of cockles in the Dee estuary to grant them a right of regulating a fishery for 20 years. As the fishery straddles the border between England and Wales, the application was progressed jointly by the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers, and a single order was made for the designated area.

The 2008 order was created to enable the Environment Agency to carry into effect and enforce regulations and restrictions relating to the dredging of, fishing for and taking of cockles within a designated area of the Dee estuary. The order allowed the Environment Agency to manage and conserve the wild fishery by the use of licences to control the number of people who fish there and make regulations and levy tolls for the benefit of the fishery. Unlicensed persons are excluded from the regulated area except for individuals taking no more than 5 kg of cockles daily by hand for personal consumption. That is similar to how inshore fisheries and conservation authorities would manage cockle fisheries in their waters. For example, the North Western Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority would manage its cockle beds via a byelaw, with permit holders fishing only during an open season based on the IFCA’s stock assessments.

Natural Resources Wales took on the functions of the Environment Agency Wales in 2013, including the regulatory responsibility for the 2008 order. NRW currently acts on behalf of the Environment Agency to deliver their statutory functions for the English side of the 2008 order. While NRW and the Environment Agency are joint grantees of the 2008 order, NRW manages all operational and management aspects of the order. That arrangement is enshrined in a service level agreement between NRW and the Environment Agency.

Before the 2008 order, the cockle fishery operated on a boom-and-bust cycle, with the beds often shut for a few years owing to very low cockle stocks. Once stocks had built up, the beds would open, but that would often result in hundreds of cocklers operating on the beds, resulting in stocks sometimes being cleared out quickly—within days or weeks—and consequently the beds being closed for several more years in some cases. From 1996, the beds were closed except for brief periods in 1997, the years 2001 through to 2003, and 2005. Since the introduction of the 2008 order, the beds have opened every year and have provided up to six months’ lucrative employment for 53 licenced cocklers. Additionally, during a bumper year, the fishery could be opened to a number of short-term non-renewable licence holders issued on a points system, using the NRW stock assessment to estimate the total allowable catch.

NRW estimates that licensees can earn somewhere in the region of £20,000 to £40,000 during a six-month season, depending on variables such as the cost per kilo of cockles. In 2013, 545 tonnes of cockles were landed and the fishery was worth an estimated £650,000, and 2014 was a bumper year with approximately 1,500 tonnes landed, giving an estimated value of £1.5 million. The cockling season was shorter in 2015 with just 250 tonnes of cockles landed, giving a value of £500,000. The amount of cockles landed and their value therefore varies from year to year.

The cockle season usually opens in July for six months and is subject to harvest limits derived from stock assessments that take place between April and July. Carrying out those stock assessments is one of the key costs covered by the licence. In 2015, early concerns over stock levels meant that the fishery was not opened until 21 September, but NRW reduced its annual licence fee in recognition. This year, the Dee estuary cockle beds opened on 1 July.

Fifteen licence holders are located in England and the remaining 38 in Wales. Many of the English licence holders have expressed concerns about the management of the fishery, which resulted in a letter of complaint to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales about NRW earlier this year. It does, however, make sense for a single body to be responsible for the management of the Dee cockle fishery. It is not practical for the estuary to be divided in half between English and Welsh authorities, as the England-Wales boundary runs through the middle of some of the beds and cockle stocks move around the estuary. That means that in some years the English beds are heavily stocked and Welsh beds have no stocks, and vice-versa. Performing surveys, liaising with cocklers and carrying out enforcement would all be more complicated and less efficient if two management bodies were involved.

Following the complaint about the NRW to the ombudsman regarding the management of the fishery, its resulting decision, given in May, was that the complaint should not be investigated. I do believe, however, that there must be a good level of quality consultation and dialogue between the NRW and those affected by its management decisions. I understand that there is a Dee Estuary Sea Fisheries Liaison Group, which meets regularly and includes both cocklers and the NRW. I am aware that the most recent meetings of this group were held on 12 May and 17 June, and that an annual general meeting of licence holders was held on 23 June, with five attendees from interested parties. I am unaware of any contentious issues being raised at this AGM.

The hon. Member for Wirral West raised the issue of EA attendance. During the past year or so, the EA has increased its frequency of attendance at these meetings. Following today’s debate, and the points she and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston both made, my officials will reconfirm to the agency my belief that it should attend all these meetings in future, in order to represent the views of their constituents. I also understand that they met the EA in January 2016, together with local licence holders. The licence holders were given contact details of EA staff who could assist should they have concerns, and the EA has said, when I made inquiries, that it has not received any concerns to date but it stands ready to assist should concerns be raised directly with it.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of licences and the transparency of licence fees, and I should point out that that was looked at by the ombudsman. To clarify the position, the 53 licensees pay an annual fee to the NRW, which is currently set a £1,500. In the previous three years, it had been set at £1,300, but it was reduced in 2015-16, in part owing to the season being shorter than usual. I am told that in 2015-16 the fishery cost the NRW more than £100,000 to regulate, with the cost primarily being made up of salary costs for liaison, surveys and enforcement. There are also some capital costs associated with equipment, hire of boats and so on. In 2015-16, the licence fee brought in £63,000, because of the reduction, and the EA therefore contributed the shortfall of £18,000—an additional £20,000 was made up in grants from NRW. So there is a shortfall, but there is transparency on the costs of the fishery.

The hon. Lady also asked how the licence fee is calculated, and I have been given a wonderful formula:

A is the annual number of working days on survey, enforcement or administration, B is the staff cost per working day and N is the number of licences. So a transparent formula is used, and I have been given the figures that she requested. Secondly, she made a point about prosecutions for illegal cockling. Although that is a responsibility of the NRW and the Welsh Government, I can confirm that at the end of last year I had a conversation with Carl Sargeant, the then fisheries Minister in the Welsh Government. He discussed his concerns about enforcement on this fishery and checked whether I was happy for certain actions to be taken. So we do discuss these issues.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the changes that were made to the bird food model. I am told that two different approaches have been taken. Previously, the West model was used, under which some 4,500 tonnes of cockles had been set aside, particularly for oystercatchers, whereas under the new Stillman model, which was introduced, that figure went up to 6,900 tonnes. But there are also some advantages to that model, as the West model would not allow any exploitation of the fishery unless there were at least 100 cockles per square metre.

In conclusion, hon. Members have made some important points, and I hope I have been able to reassure them that we take this issue seriously. I have asked the EA to attend all future meetings, and I hope that this clarifies some of the points that they have requested.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.