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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not know the answer, so I shall have to write to the noble Lord. From recent debates on driving roads in Belgium across battlefield sites, my impression is that we have no powers—in fact, I am sure that that must be the case. Where there are battlefields in which British troops were involved, we would express our views to those concerned.

Sand Eels

2.58 p.m.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is carrying out its assessment of the North Sea sand eels stock. It will be published after review by the Advisory Committee on Fishery Management in October, when we will consider whether further EU management action is needed. It is too early to say how the run of grilse has been affected. However, grilse have been particularly and worryingly absent in rivers in south and west England. It is very unlikely that west coast salmon are affected by the availability of sand eels in the North Sea.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, the Minister is obviously not a fisherman. If it is too early to say whether the grilse will arrive, something very odd is going on. Is it not totally irresponsible of the EU to allow factory fishing of a species that is so low down the food chain, as a result of which we are seeing pressure on the numbers of young salmon, cod and haddock? Surely we should take action on the precautionary principle to end the factory farming that threatens to empty our seas of a vital resource, and on which rural and coastal communities depend.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord has heard me confess that I am not a fisherman. However, the point that I was making was that it is not clear whether the decline in the sand eel population is affecting the return of the grilse. One of the problems is that the population of sand eels goes up and down very dramatically season by season, whereas it appears that something different is happening, not only in the areas

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where the sand eels have declined, but in other areas such as the west coast, where the fishing of sand eels cannot be the cause.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, are not the Government really dragging their heels on this? Back in 1999, the fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley, visited the Isle of May and was struck by the plight of kittiwakes and puffins. It is not just fish: birds are affected, as the Minister said. The problem goes very low down the food chain. Four years on, the Government seem to have done nothing. Is there no sense of urgency to stop this industrial fishing?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, a number of measures have been taken. The issue of sea birds was dealt with by the Government and some eel fishing has stopped off the north-east coast. In addition, the north-east coast driftnet fishery has been greatly reduced. A scheme introduced after some very difficult negotiations to reduce the number of driftnet fisheries taking the eels and the bycatch, including potentially salmon, is in place from this year. There is a continuing issue in relation to the industrial fishing of sand eels that we raised with the Danish industry in particular. However, the connection between that and the apparent severe decline in returning grilse and the salmon fisheries is not proven and may well be due to other causes.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that sand eels are the staple food of some sea birds, notably puffins, whose numbers may also collapse if the seabed is intensely scraped by fishermen? That would be a pity as puffins provide much amusement from their comic features and behaviour.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we are all in favour of puffins and of ensuring that they have an adequate food supply. However, the problem is that the population of sand eels varies very drastically year by year apparently naturally, or in reaction to previous over-fishing, and is not correlated with the apparent level of fishing. Its effect up the food chain is not necessarily related to the level of fishing that has taken place in any given area. It is something, however, that we, the European Union and the international bodies are keeping a very close watch on.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, is it not unacceptable that the Government are only keeping a close watch on the situation? My noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean asked for a moratorium. How long will we have to wait? I sympathise with colleagues who have asked about the effect of the problem on wildlife, but the businesses and futures of many people, especially up in the North, are in jeopardy. When will the Government do something about it?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I have been trying to explain, the population of sand eels, of which there are billions, appears to go up and down every year. The

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issue of the returning salmon appears to be a more generalised problem—a very serious one—that is not solely confined by any means to the areas that are fished for sand eels. As I said, the west coast, Ireland, Iceland and France have all seen a serious decline in returning grilse, which at present does not appear to be a mere delay but an absolute and quite severe decline. That is more likely to be related to climatic conditions than to the fishing of sand eels in one particular location.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the Minister tell us something about negotiations with the Danish Government on the matter? The Danes have enormously competent vessels that have been scraping the bottom of the sea for anything they can find to make fish meal. It is generally accepted that they can do great harm to all the species that live on sand eels.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, persuading the Danish and other industries affected to cut back would require us to be able to establish the detrimental effects on wildlife or commercial fishing. The problem is that the evidence has not yet been established. That is why we need this further assessment which the international bodies are now conducting.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, when the Minister says that the evidence has not yet been established, let us forget about the other species, what about the sand eels? This year there has been a catastrophic reduction in the number of sand eels being caught simply because they have scraped them off the bottom and they are destroying that population. Urgent action is required.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the sand eel fishing season has finished this year and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, is certainly right that the number of sand eels in the North Sea appear to have significantly declined. That is not unique, however, in the population cycle of the sand eel. However, the assessment post this season will make it clear whether more restrictions on the fishing of sand eels will be necessary and will need to be dealt with both bilaterally and with other member state governments at EU level. We need to make a full assessment. That will be available in October and we will take decisions in the light of that.

Government Communications Strategy

3.8 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they will announce the name of the senior civil servant who will take responsibility for the non-political aspects of government information and communications strategy following the departure of Mr Alastair Campbell.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, on 3rd September the Prime Minister published the

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interim report of the independent Government Communications Review Group. The report makes recommendations about the organisation of government communications at the centre.

The House will be pleased to hear that the Government accept the group's recommendations in full. These include the appointment of a new permanent secretary, government communications, based in the Cabinet Office, and the appointment of a permanent civil servant as the Prime Minister's senior official spokesman who will be the deputy to the new permanent secretary.

There will be an open competition for the post of permanent secretary, government communications. The intention is to get this process under way shortly.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Lord President agree that it is very important that senior civil servants have the confidence to say, "No, Prime Minister", as well as, "Yes, Prime Minister"? For that, it is equally important that selection is on merit and on the basis of political neutrality. I take it that his remarks give us those assurances. Would the new post also be strengthened by a Civil Service Act, which would guarantee that senior civil servants had the capacity to give unbiased advice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the points made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, are extremely important and well founded. It is important that senior civil servants should maintain their independence, and perceived and actual objectivity. The permanent secretary will be a permanent civil servant. She or he will be selected by an open competition supervised by a panel chaired by the first Civil Service Commissioner. I hope that that reassures, not only the noble Lord, but your Lordships generally.

On the question of the Civil Service Act, I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and my noble friend Lord Sheldon have adverted to this on a number of occasions. I hope that what I am about to say finds favour with your Lordships. The Government commit themselves to publishing a draft Bill for consultation on a Civil Service Act once the Public Administration Select Committee's proposals for a Civil Service Act have been published.


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