12 July 2007

Fanciful nonsense

"The UK coastline is shared between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland - all with major fishing industries. So the notion that Scotland should have the sole right to speak for the UK on fisheries matters is fanciful nonsense."

Thus spake Rhona Brankin, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, on Alex Salmond's proposal that Richard Lochhead should be able to represent the UK on Fisheries. Let's take a look at what she's said more closely. Until now, representing the UK on Fisheries has always been the job of the UK Fisheries Minister. He has had the de facto 'sole right' to do so. (And there's a thought, he might have the sole right, but does he have the cod right and haddock right? Boom boom.) The problem is, with the UK coastline being shared, and fisheries being devolved, the term 'UK Fisheries Minister' isn't totally accurate.

The UK Government has a Fisheries Minister. Or rather, it has a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose responsibilities cover "marine and fisheries, rural affairs, landscape, local environment quality." His name is Jonathan Shaw, by the way and he's also Minister for the South East. Therefore, as a Fisheries Minister in the UK Government, he's referred to as the UK Fisheries Minister. Except he only has responsibility for Fisheries in England. Now, I'm not suggesting he be referred to as the 'English Fisheries Minister' as there is no 'English' Government. Perhaps 'Whitehall Fisheries Minister' would be more appropriate.

Rhona Brankin has got lost in the terminology. As well as Shaw, there is, of course, Richard Lochhead, who she shadows. Wales has (at the moment) a Minister for Sustainability and Rural Development, which, with fisheries having been devolved to the Assembly at the start, I imagine includes fisheries. It's Jane Davidson for the moment, but I wouldn't mind betting that this ends up in Plaid's hands once Rhodri Morgan is well enough to draw up the new Coalition Cabinet with Ieuan Wyn Jones. Northern Ireland has a Department for Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Minister in charge is Michelle Gildernew.

So the question Rhona Brankin ought to be asking but hasn't is this: with Jonathan Shaw only responsible for fisheries in England, why should he have the sole right to represent the United Kingdom on fisheries? What gives him priority over Lochhead, Davidson (or her successor), or Gildernew? Any of them could, theoretically, do the job, but it's the Scottish Government that is the first to suggest it. Why dismiss it out of hand as 'fanciful nonsense' that a Minister for only one part of the UK should represent the whole when that's been the case since devolution?

Rhona Brankin doesn't get it. At best, she has got lost in the terminology, and seen 'UK Government' and 'UK Minister' as the best person to represent the whole of the UK, when in reality, that Minister only has responsibility for part of it. At worst, she has missed the point of devolution, the idea that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have Governments and Ministers of their own, who are no better or worse at putting the case across than anyone at Whitehall, and agreed that despite fisheries being devolved, the UK Government should still call the shots on this matter and any other matter on the European stage. I hope the worst isn't true. It would be especially sad for a former Scottish Executive Minister to have missed the point of the very concept that gave her her job.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments about the lack of understanding about devolution. The real issue, however, is not who sits in what chair at the negotiations - but what they say do! Evidence suggests that MInisters from all parties - Con, Lib, Lab and SNP - want to ignore science and grab as much quota as they can for "their" fishing interests. The real tragedy, therefore, is that they all sell the marine environment for political brownie points - and the SNP gets its support in the NE by promising to be worse! Who represents the real public interest here??

julie said...

Fish quotas ain't as simple as that. Scottish fishermen have complained for a long time about Norway's fishing for sand eels; this is what cod eat. There is a big shortage of cod, and despite quotas being imposed on fishing cod, the numbers continue to dwindle. But norway is still fishing for sand eels (they are used in cat food) and in an ironic twist, Scottish boats that have been put out of business, go to yards in norway to be broken up. There's a lot to talk about.
By the way, does Alex Salmond smoke?
Sorry, couldn't resist that..

Ted Harvey said...

You're right about Rhona Brankin not understanding the developing post-devolution scenario (or it's maybe that she does not want to accept it, like most of the Labour elite?).

Alex Salmond has played a blinder on this. If the UK Government refuses to let that part of the UK with the biggest interest in the issue be the negotiation leader, this will play badly in Scotland where it will be seen as peevish and discriminatory posturing on the part of the Westminster Government.

If the UK Government concedes the point, valuable international-level experience and profile will be won for the Scottish Executive - but, much more importantly, there will be an assertive and informed voice carrying forward's Scotland's legitimate fishing interests.