Both sides of the Christmas break have seen intense activity at Westminster as the Fisheries Bill, the first piece primary fisheries legislation for decades, passes through the parliamentary process. The central purpose of the Bill is to provide UK fisheries ministers with powers to set quotas and control access over fishing in UK waters, when the UK leaves the EU - and therefore the CFP.
In contrast to a febrile, not to say toxic, atmosphere elsewhere in Westminster, there is something like a cross-party consensus that these powers will be necessary, post-Brexit, as it would be irresponsible to leave a vacuum. The Bill also provides quite wide delegated powers to UK fisheries ministers to amend fisheries law retained from the CFP. Ministers would also use delegated powers and secondary legislation to provide for an adaptive and responsive future UK fisheries policy. This would contrast starkly with the CFP’s cumbersome and dysfunctional decision-making processes. In this too there seems to be a broad cross-party consensus, but with concerns to ensure that there are safeguards to ensure that such discretionary powers are not used in a capricious or perverse way.
Outside these central themes, the Bill is heavily shaped by the devolution settlement. The settlement inarguably makes fisheries management in the UK infinitely more complex and vexed, especially when there are different complexions of government in London and Edinburgh. The main vehicle for cooperation between the devolved administrations – joint fisheries statement – is an untried and untested concept with plenty scope for ambiguity and future conflict.
Likewise, in English fisheries, the Bill provides for powers to auction quota that are novel and likely to be controversial when it comes to implementation. Perhaps less controversially, the Bill provides new ways of mitigating chokes caused by the application of the landing obligation to mixed fisheries.
Given the wide recognition that the Bill is a necessary piece of enabling legislation that will allow the UK to manage its fisheries outside the CFP, the main focus of proposed amendments as the Bill passes through the various parliamentary stages, has been on various add-ons sought by MPs. These have varied from the useful, to the pointless, to the potentially damaging. There is a danger that poorly thought-through amendments and a tendency to seek to overload primary legislation, could, if allowed, replicate the CFP’s rigidity. The Government, so far, in committee stage has fought-off the more potentially damaging of these amendments.
The Bill is now about to face scrutiny and possible amendment in the House of Lords before returning to the Commons for a final vote.
The Federation, working with parliamentary specialists, Connect, has:
- Supported the main purpose of the Bill
- Provided written and oral evidence to the Bill’s Scrutiny Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee
- Provided comprehensive briefing materials to MPs of all relevant parties
- Met and briefed key players in the legislative process
- Built on our two successful lobby day events, each attended by over 60 parliamentarians
- Met with House of Commons library staff, whose role is to provide objective briefing materials to MPs
- Sought a limited number of amendments including:
- An advisory council to inform ministerial decisions
- A dispute resolution mechanism to deal with conflicts between the devolved administrations
- Highlighting the anomaly through which the English fishing sector is denied equivalent representation at ministerial level
The Government rightly puts sustainable fishing at the heart of the Bill’s objectives and affirms its commitment to manage our fisheries in line with the maximum sustainable yield principle. The arbitrary 2020 MSY deadline has correctly been dropped, mainly because it is unachievable and scientifically illiterate but also because it is an impediment to the practical, sustainable, management of real fisheries. The biomass of individual stocks can slip below MSY for environmental reasons affecting recruitment, and often do. The application of MSY in mixed fisheries often requires trade-offs to secure different but equally important objectives (for example, reducing discards/avoiding chokes or mitigating socio-economic impacts).
MSY is a valuable aspirational marker but as a legally binding straightjacket, it undermines sustainable fisheries management. As a warning, it should be carefully noted that if the MSY objective had been applied as a rigid, legally-binding, requirement at the Council of Ministers in December, most demersal fisheries in Western Waters would now be closed, with frightening consequences for fishing businesses and fishing communities.
It is important therefore that the Fisheries Bill contains realisable objectives and avoids superficially desirable but catastrophically naïve legal requirements.
The Bill now passes to the Lords and the Federation will be continuing its work by meeting with key figures in the House of Lords and by providing detailed briefing on the purpose and detail of the draft legislation, as required. The Lords’ role is that of a more deliberative, amending role, and so it is equally important that there is a good understanding amongst legislators of the central issues and legislative pitfalls.
Overload and Counterweight
The main danger with the Bill lies not so much with the proposed legislation but with ill-considered add-ons. The lesson was well learnt with the CFP, that overloading primary legislation delivers a cumbersome and inflexible system, incapable of addressing obvious errors, or dealing with new information, including formal scientific advice. In dealing with dynamic natural resources and a dynamic fishing industry, this rigidity has been disastrous within the CFP. As de facto fisheries managers, the Government has learnt this lesson well and foresees an important role for secondary legislation which can be amended relatively rapidly to meet new contingencies (as well as redefining retained EU fisheries law). All those concerned with practical implementation, rather than superficial posturing, will support this approach. In granting wide discretionary powers it is important to have necessary counterweights. Parliamentary scrutiny of secondary legislation will be important but equally, future fisheries policy should be informed by knowledgeable and experienced individuals in the form of an advisory council. The Government has not yet accepted this although there seems to be wide cross-party support for something to be put in place.
This is the most important piece of domestic fisheries legislation to have passed through Parliament for 30 years. As such, the Federation has devoted a great deal of energy and focus in ensuring that its central powers are adopted, and that it is not deformed by ill-considered amendments. We have suggested a limited number of changes to the legislation.