Lord Mountevans (CB)
My Lords, I note my maritime interests recorded in the register, particularly as a council member of Maritime UK, which brings together the UK’s major maritime trade associations, and as a trustee of Seafarers UK, the leading national maritime charity. Both organisations are concerned for the economic and social welfare of the UK’s coastal communities, not least fishing communities.
I shall not rehearse again the numerous positive features of the Bill, which your Lordships have heard about already, other than to say that I support it. It is an enabling Bill, and I am sure that many in the House will look forward to working with the Minister to achieve its desirable goals and others that have been suggested.
The Bill and what will follow offer a unique opportunity to address the severe challenges facing the under 10 metre fleet. This once-vibrant sector of our fleet used to supply fresh fish, employment—often in areas where few, if any, alternatives were present—and a sense of worth. There is a historical disparity in allocation of quota, in the form of fixed-quota allocations, which has seriously disadvantaged the smaller sector, which, despite making up 80% of the UK fleet by number, has access to less than 2% of our national allocation. I welcome the aims of Clause 25, which seeks to utilise social, economic and environmental criteria when allocating quota rather than continue to rely only on the highly controversial historical rights as a basis for allocation. I agree with the Fisheries Minister, George Eustice, who made clear in evidence to a parliamentary committee recently:
“As we depart from relative stability and have new fishing opportunities coming in, I do not think it makes any sense at all to compound the injustice of the FQA system.”
If I might make one suggestion to the Minister, an easy win for the under 10 metre sector would be for him to intercede to ensure that delays in granting the Coastal Producer Organisation the same rights and privileges as other producer organisations in the country are dealt with by the Marine Management Organisation. The under 10 metre fleet could then benefit from tailored quota management in the same way as the over 10 metre fleet currently enjoys. This could be profoundly beneficial to the fortunes of the small-boat sector.
Staying with quotas, it is clear that, in real terms, its effective privatisation has led to increased consolidation to the detriment of the small-scale fleet, which simply does not have the resources to compete with far better-resourced corporate bodies. There are some alarming figures out there: a recent investigation found that the five largest quota-holders control more than a third of UK fishing quota. Around half of England’s quota is ultimately owned by Dutch, Icelandic or Spanish interests. I have found, as I am sure have others, that the deeper one goes into this, the more complex the whole subject is.
On the basis of the above, I am concerned to see that Clause 27 promotes an annual auction of fishing rights. If the Government are looking at this approach as a method of generating revenue, surely a more equitable method would be simply to increase the levy currently attributed to the Sea Fish Industry Authority rather than effectively sell off a chunk of quota annually to the detriment of the great majority of the fleet, not least those who do not have the financial reserves to enter into an auction race and those new entrants where it has been recognised that a major impediment to their ability to enter the catching sector is the cost of quota. Such an auction would without doubt serve only to benefit already wealthy operators at the expense of other fishermen. and would ostensibly be open to resale or lease under the proposed rules, further underpinning the current imbalance in allocations.
In addition, Clause 27(3)(n) states that the regulations may include provision for
“the payment of compensation to a person who holds but does not use rights sold in accordance with the regulations.”
In much the same way as UK fishermen are regularly disenfranchised by the quota held by slipper skippers—those who have been awarded quota but lease it out rather than fish themselves—and quota traders, anyone other than genuinely working fishermen holding quota should arguably do so only on a “use it or lose it” basis.
On access to our waters by EU fishing vessels from January 2021, it is of paramount importance to the fishing community that, whatever arrangements the Government finally come to with the EU, the absolute red line for the UK’s inshore fleet is that the 12-mile fisheries limit is made sacrosanct. This move, together with the increasingly urgent need to develop, in the words of Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, world-leading fisheries management linked to a fairer and more equitable allocation of quota, would do much to begin to rejuvenate many of our coastal communities and the small-scale fishermen and women who support them.
The Bill and the welcome accompanying debate around the UK fishing industry afford a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for government and society to address some of the challenges that I and other noble Lords have noted. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, noted the dangers of this calling. In the past 10 years, 94 fishermen have died off the UK, 529 have suffered serious injury and 210 fishing vessels have been lost.
As noted by the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord Lansley, we must not overlook the importance and value of our distant-waters fishermen who fish the north Atlantic waters of the Barents Sea, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. In the context of the negotiations with the EU, it is vital that the UK retains access to these waters. At the same time, these countries will want continued access to the UK market for their fish exports. But as far as I can see, their interests are not addressed in the Bill. This may be appropriate, as the Bill seeks to address the opportunities of an independent state. Can the Minister say that their interests—essentially, continued access to the waters of Arctic Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands—will be assured? Their major concerns can be summarised as follows: a statutory requirement to consult industry, including the distant fishing fleet, in agreeing fisheries statements or in respect of bilateral or multilateral fisheries agreements; including in the Bill reference to the objectives and processes for UK participation in the future management of fisheries in the so-called northern external waters, and ensuring that the competent authority secures continued UK access to fisheries in respect of those non-EU coastal states with which the UK enters bilateral trade agreements.
I draw the attention of the Minister and the House to a forthcoming report from Liverpool John Moores University to be published by Seafarers UK. This follows the study, Fishing for a Future, which Seafarers published in 2018. That wide-ranging study covered multiple aspects of the industry and helped raise awareness of the safety, welfare and social issues affecting many of the UK’s small-scale coastal fishers and their communities among government and other policymakers. I commend the report, the final draft of which I hope I have seen.
Since I have the attention of a well-informed and very engaged Minister, I want to conclude with mention of some of the study’s recommendations. On the need for access to affordable credit, a proposal is made for a national credit union offer. A second proposal is for financial education for those employed in the “share fish” community; here, as with those employed in the gig economy, government clearly has a key role. Regarding PAYE, tax and national insurance, we recommend that charities, third-sector organisations and government departments initiate interventions to support fishermen where support and guidance with form-filling, assessments et cetera is required. To modernise share fishing, it is recommended that the larger-scale fleet more widely introduce employment status in its sector and that, within the smaller-scale fleet, a debate is had on the value of moving from a share fishing model to one based on co-operative principles. Finally, a national plan for the development and sustainability of small-scale fishing is proposed. This would need specific action to support the financial resilience and business success of small-scale coastal fishers.