[Relevant documents: Council Document 5051/00: Consultations on the Common Fisheries Policy after 2002; Council Document 7426/00: Multi-annual guidance programme for fisheries; Council Document 12504/00>: Common Fisheries Policy: Community contributions towards control inspection and surveillance; Council Documents 14061/00 and 5140/01: Fishing in Greenland Waters;Council Document 13941/00: A proposal for a Council regulation (EC) fixing for 2001 the fishing opportunities and associated conditions for certain fish stocks and groups of fish stocks, applicable in Community waters and, for Community vessels, in waters where limitations in catch are required.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Touhig.]
It is traditional to open the annual fisheries debate by reflecting on the dangers faced by our fishermen at sea. I am afraid to say that last year was particularly bad for accidents that involved fishing vessels. Some 39 vessels were lost and provisional figures show that 33 fishermen lost their lives in 2000. Those are very bad figures, and I am sure that the House will join me in extending our deep sympathy to the relatives and friends of all those who have been lost. Safety is clearly an important issue, and I intend to say a few words about the Government's response to it.
Hon. Members will know that it is customary to hold the fisheries debate before the December Council, which decides the total allowable catches and quotas for the following year. They will also know that it was not possible to hold the annual debate in December last year for two reasons: first, because the Commission was delayed in producing the proposals; and, secondly, because of the timing of prorogation. The Scrutiny Committee had to react in record time to clear the Commission's proposal, and I appreciate its efficiency.
I am glad that a full debate took place in Standing Committee in December. It provided an opportunity to focus on TACs and quotas for 2001. The Committee expressed interest in holding the traditional annual debate early in the new yea], to cover a full range of issues. I made it clear that I recognised that the annual fisheries debate is important to hon. Members who represent fisheries constituencies, as well as those with a more general interest in the subject. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has arranged a full day's debate, which follows on from a two and a half hour debate in Committee. Fisheries issues have been well served by this year's arrangements. Given the serious issues that the fishing industry faces, that is right and proper.
Hon. Members will want to focus on TACs and quotas, but we also have an opportunity to review other developments in fisheries policy over the past year, particularly the serious status of depleted fish stocks, especially cod, and our measures to deal with that. It is also important to look ahead and see where our fisheries policy is going.
Hon. Members will know that cod stocks are in a bad shape this year. There are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that we are at the bottom of the cod cycle and the temperature of the North sea is rising. The principal reason, however, for the decline in fish stocks is overfishing. We cannot ignore that fact or the fact that there have been constant improvements in catching efficiency and, indeed, in the management of stocks.
In the past, there was a reluctance to take tough decisions. On the issue of poor enforcement, the European Commission is taking action against the United Kingdom for the over-fishing that took place between 1985 and 1988, and from 1990 to 1996. Indeed, only two of the 11 years in that period were managed to quota by this country. We have to take account of such issues, along with the serious problem of black fish landings before 1997. I am sorry to say that the United Kingdom faces reference to the European Court of Justice because of the failure to keep to quotas in those years. However, it is unfair that this Administration, who have not exceeded our quotas since 1997, should have to face the criticisms in the court. We shall, of course, defend our position robustly.
As usual, we faced a very tight timetable. Commission proposals for TACs and quotas for 2001 were issued late and the December Council was held a week earlier than usual. That created extra pressure to react to the very stringent package of proposals. The poor state of many of the main stocks and the scale of the quota cuts recommended meant that we had to consider even more carefully than usual how to react. Indeed, I set up several special meetings with the industry to talk through the proposals and to listen to its views I recognise that the process of setting TACs and quotas for all EU stocks at the December Council each year is not ideal. The late delivery of the Commission's proposal makes it hard for national Parliaments to scrutinise them as they should, and this year was no better than previous years. The process also causes enormous uncertainty for the industry, particularly when steep cuts in TACs and quotas are being decided. I have great sympathy for the industry in these unsatisfactory circumstances, which occur year after year. We must find a better way of doing things, and we are raising that point with the Commission.
One possibility is to set TACs and quotas under a multi-annual management strategy for each stock. That already applies to most of the stocks that the EU jointly manages with Norway. The Commission has produced a paper setting out how that might be achieved and outlining the preparations that would be needed. Further discussions on this option will take place this year under the Swedish presidency and the UK will be at the forefront of seeking improvements to the system.
Last year, we pressed the Commission to urge the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—ICES—to accelerate its advice. Earlier receipt of advice would make a major contribution towards avoiding the present end-year logjam, and we hall continue to urge ICES to take that step. Although it was not able to respond last year, this year it hopes to finalise its advice two or three months earlier. I am sure that that will be welcomed by the fishing industry, which will have time to consider the advice in detail.
Last year, the industry faced the harshest scientific advice and cuts in quotas ever. This year, the situation was yet more difficult. First, the ICES advice was the most severe ever, recommending stringent cuts in TACs for a large number of stocks. In a number of cases, it recommended setting TACs as low as possible—for example, for cod in the North sea, Irish sea and west of Scotland and for Irish sea whiting and northern hake.
Secondly, the Commission went beyond the scientific advice, proposing even more stringent cuts than those recommended by ICES for stocks that are caught with cod and hake. For nephrops and flatfish, it recommended a 20 per cent. cut in fishing. Such a cut was not recommended by ICES.
The UK has always followed a science-based policy and has taken positive action to preserve stocks when necessary—for example, putting in place last year's Irish sea cod recovery programme. We continue to take scientific advice seriously, but we are not willing to go beyond it as the Commission tried to do in its proposals. I made it very clear to the industry that we would follow the scientific advice even when that meant making difficult decisions. It is hard to justify going beyond such advice, even if it is linked to a mixed-stock industry. We raised that point in the Council.
I accept the hon. Lady's point. Displacement is an issue if areas are closed. As she will appreciate, it is a year-on-year recovery programme. Therefore, we consider the details each year, and we can adapt or change them. We also consult the industry and consider the consequences of our actions. I shall certainly take that point into account when we start to look at year 3 of the recovery programme.
I recognise that the Commission's justification for going further than the scientific advice was to protect cod when it is taken as a by-catch in many fisheries. Cod stocks in the North sea and the west of Scotland are at risk of collapse, as hon. Members are well aware. Hake stocks are also in a poor state. Many other stocks are now also assessed as being either outside safe biological limits or fished at excessively high levels.
Taking measures to enable cod stocks to recover is a key priority, but that should be done through carefully targeted measures to reduce fishing effort, protect spawning cod and juveniles and improve the selectivity of fishing gear. Those are all proposals that the industry itself strongly supports.
Although tough decisions had to be taken and negotiations were difficult and protracted, the outcome of the Fisheries Council was balanced. It is true that the cuts in TACs and quotas will hit the industry hard, particularly after the cuts that were applied last year. We cannot ignore the science, but where there was scope for pulling something back, we did so.
The UK successfully argued that the proposed cuts in some cases went beyond the science, and we achieved smaller cuts than the Commission had proposed, while still respecting the scientific advice, particularly for flatfish and nephrops.
The Minister has rightly said that the quotas situation is very severe. The cod recovery plan, although certainly necessary, will severely restrict opportunities for fishing. We know that the finances of many of the white fish processors are very fragile. The Minister has previously responded to arguments for financial assistance by saying that he rules nothing out. Will he be in a position today to rule something in, because the industry badly needs encouragement and assistance?
There are consequences to the recovery programmes. I understand that and I concede it to the industry. As the hon. Gentleman correctly said, I have told the industry that I do not rule anything in or out at this stage. I shall say more about that during my speech.
Although we have a full day's debate, which I am sure hon. Members appreciate, there is a time limit on speeches. I have a great deal to get through, because it is a very difficult year and there are complex arrangements. I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I hope that hon. Members will understand that I want to make progress.
As long ago as last October, and before, the Minister told me that he was giving serious consideration to taking action in respect of light-dues and satellite monitoring costs. The position of fishermen in my constituency is absolutely desperate. Does the Minister accept that urgent action is needed, and will he now announce action on at least those matters?
I said that I would mention that during my speech, and I shall. There are issues that we need to consider.
The Minister is introducing the debate with characteristic moderation and understanding of the issues. Does he accept that the mood in the industry is sombre? Indeed, there are those who say that morale in the fishing industry has never been as poor as it is now. The Minister mentioned effort; effort and resources are clearly out of balance. What consideration is he willing to give to a decommissioning scheme, taking account of the value of the boat, its track record and the value of its licences?
I am willing to consider decommissioning schemes, but they have consequences; while they have positive points, they also have negative ones. I am also well aware of the impact of decommissioning, particularly in the regional context. However, at this stage we rule nothing in and nothing out. Decommissioning schemes are very costly and we do not have the money within the MAFF budget to cover them at this time. I want to make that very clear to the House. I shall touch on how I propose to address these issues in the context of my remarks.
In the Council of Ministers we brought about the changes that I have described, which the industry welcomed. We also clawed back quotas for haddock, whiting and nephrops, and for flatfish stocks in the North sea. The cut in the hake TAC was reduced from 74 per cent. to 41 per cent. Again, that cut was not based on the ICES advice; we went far beyond that. Our quotas were improved also because The Hague preference was applied to a number of stocks here I considered it to be in the UK's national interest to invoke it.
As result of those changes, the total UK quotas agreed were some 40,000 tonnes higher in cod equivalent terms than in the Commission's proposals, not the 4,000 tonnes mistakenly reported in a written answer on 19 December on the outcome of the Fisheries Council.
It was clear that the Commission would not support the invoking of the Hague preference on North sea cod this year, for a number of reasons. First, it was possible that, like last year, the industry would not be able to catch the full quota that we would have gained. Last year I was severely criticised by the industry, but it did not manage to catch the quota agreed at that time.
Secondly, the Commission was resisting all The Hague preference invocations on stocks subject to new recovery programmes. That meant that the Irish were not able to invoke The Hague preference—to our detriment, incidentally—in the case of western hake.
Hon. Members should be aware that The Hague preference is available only by virtue of political agreements, even though it is well constructed and an integral part of relative stability. When The Hague preference is applied, it clearly has impacts on the overall outcome of negotiations.
This year's settlement on North sea whiting has been unpopular with the industry. I entirely understand that, and I shall try to deal with some misunderstandings about it. The Commission originally proposed withholding from the allocated TAC 9,270 tonnes to cover whiting catch in the industrial fishery, principally the pout fishery. It argued that the level of by-catch regularly exceeded the 1,500 tonnes allocation decided in the three previous years. That meant that the TAC was constantly being breached.
I argued that that proposed allowance was excessive, and I was supported by our only ally on the matter—the Danes. They provided data showing that the Commission's proposal for a by-catch of almost 10,000 tonnes was not justified by the catch and bycatch figures.
In the closing minutes of the Council, I succeeded in getting 4,125 tonnes deducted from the by-catch allowance and awarded in full to the UK human consumption quota, using The Hague preference. That leaves a by-catch allowance of 5,145 tonnes, which is unallocated. There were claims that it had been given to the Danes, but that is not how the system works. The bycatch is unallocated by the Commission and it is in line with the ICES advice.
The Commission thus had some scientific justification for increasing the whitefish by-catch on the industrial pout fishery. I differ from the Commission, however, in my view, which I made clear, that human consumption fisheries must take precedence over industrial fisheries. If a problem arises, the industrial fisheries should be scaled down, not the human consumption catch. That is an issue to which we shall have to return in the Commission, and I intend to do that. Hon. Members may be pleased to hear that despite the pressure, the industrial pout fishery will be excluded from all the closed areas in the cod recovery plan.
Dr. Norman A.Godman:
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has just said. I was about to ask him whether industrial fishing would be excluded from the closed areas. What will be the outcome of the common fisheries policy review? Will industrial fishing be dramatically reduced? It has a disastrous effect on commercial fishing stocks.
My hon. Friend knows more than anyone in the House the impact of the industrial fishery on the North sea. He will also know that I have consistently argued for tighter controls on the industrial fishery. I shall comment on that on more detail in a moment.
The North sea cod recovery plan has rightly attracted a great deal of interest. We know that North sea cod stocks are in poor shape and that something dramatic had to be done to protect them. The industry recognises that, as hon. Members know. It is no longer enough simply to cut TACs, although that must be part of the measures to reduce effort. Hon. Members have raised the matter over the years, so I am glad that the Council agreed on the need for a North sea cod recovery plan.
I was a little surprised at the industry's initial reaction to the minutes of a working group in December, which I had not seen. The minutes came from the Commission and reached the fishing industry before I saw them. They were based on discussions between officials and the Commission, and were not a firm proposal for some recovery plan that had been drawn up before the industry had had a chance to comment. Although I welcome the press release today from the World Wide Fund for Nature, which has supported the recovery plan—it is a good outcome for the fishing industry—I should have hoped that WWF would ask me what the situation was, before it leapt to conclusions. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) raised the matter with me directly: I took immediate steps to ensure that that was not the case and to reassure the fishing industry, which I did within two days.
If the Minister remembers, I raised the matter when I sent him the minute, but I accept that he took immediate action once it was drawn to his attention. Will he, in turn, accept that the Scottish industry was right to be upset, angry and disconcerted by the contents of the original minute, whether official or unofficial, as the proposals would have been devastating for the whole Scottish fishing industry?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, had that been the recovery plan, it would have been devastating. At that stage, however, ideas were being thrown out and options were being considered before they were put to the test with industry involvement. That is what happened, and that is exactly how it should have been. The initial proposals were not fair.
The first stage of the cod recovery plan has now been agreed and will be put in place. It has been agreed in principle with remarkable speed with Norway, which is an important partner. It will be in place from 14 February until the end of April and will cover more than 40,000 square miles of the North sea. Those areas will be closed to all whitefish fishing to protect cod at spawning time, and the closures will be located in the north, east and south of the North sea.
A map showing the location of the closures is being deposited in the Library of the House for Members to look at. They are being introduced using the Commission's emergency powers on conservation matters. The Commission has consulted North sea member states and their fishing industries in developing those powers. I very much welcome both that and the direct involvement of the industry in putting the cod recovery plan in place. I have always believed that the plan will be effective only if it is accepted by fishermen as credible, which is the point made by the hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan. It is a realistic measure, which makes a positive contribution to the long-term sustainability of the North sea cod stock. I believe that the plan achieves those objectives.
In the process, we have learned a great deal from the way in which we implemented and developed the Irish sea cod recovery plan. The UK was instrumental in ensuring that fishermen were directly involved in advising on appropriate technical conservation measures and the selection of closed areas to protect spawning fish. The setting up of the Irish sea and North sea recovery plans is an important and exciting development in terms of adapting the common fisheries policy in future. It includes regional elements and involves the industry by allowing it to use its expertise in applying measures for its benefit. Those plans are now seen as a model for the development of other recovery plans: work on northern hake stocks is going on and work on west of Scotland cod will start shortly. The industry's involvement is crucial.
I was in regular contact with the industry and my own officials throughout the negotiations. Of course, there were concerns, such as those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on how the closures would impact on the beamer fleet in his constituency, and those concerns were taken into account. I know some of my hon. Friend's local fishermen are not happy with the outcome because beamers have been excluded from the closed areas. However, in the Irish sea cod recovery plan, we excluded Belgian beamers from the closed areas. It is difficult not to be consistent in our approach. However, I am glad to say that blocks are available for beamers from my hon. Friend's constituency to give them fishing opportunities while the closures are in place.
I am sure that hon. Members accept that the emergency closures are only the first part of the cod recovery programme, and that we must look at other issues. Thus the closures can be seen as only the beginning of the process, not the end.
I welcome the Minister's recognition of the vital role that fishermen's organisations played in getting the answer right this time. They benefited from the fact that emergency procedures were applied, which allowed them to deal directly with officials. Does the Minister accept that, in future, we shall be back to politics and nations again? Is he optimistic that we can achieve real zonal management and real reform of the CFP?
Yes, I am. In the United Kingdom, we have spent a lot of time talking to other member states and believe that there is a lot of common ground on that kind of approach. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to the Swedish Minister—Sweden, of course, takes over the presidency of the Council for the next six months. A Green Paper on CFP reform will be issued under the Swedish presidency in 2002. The Swedes are very supportive of the kind of approach that I have outlined— a region-based approach involving the industry. I believe that we can make progress by continuing to advance that issue.
Before the Parliamentary Secretary moves away from the Irish sea cod recovery programme, will he confirm that the inshore fleet at Fleetwood was not initially consulted? For many weeks, its boats were the only ones that were tied up. Beamers were fishing offshore for their quotas, including plaice and flatfish, but were taking a huge by-catch of cod at the same time. They were bought off by being given an extra channel quota, for which our fisherman had to make room. Is it not time to award compensation to the Fleetwood inshore boats, as it is they that suffered? I saw the other day a quotation from Mr. David Armstrong, who said that he was never in favour of an Irish sea cod closure in the first place.
I shall be glad to do so. During the first year of the closure, we put observers on to the beam trawlers to examine the impact of beamers in the Irish sea. We discovered that those in the Fleetwood area were not taking a significant by-catch. Indeed, the main concentration of spawning cod in the Irish sea was on its western side, where this year's closures have been made. We obtained the Commission's agreement for exploratory voyages to be made by the Fleetwood inshore vessels during the closed period, to assess the impact of the inshore fleet, its by-catch and its effect on cod stocks. We found from those surveys that its impact was minimal, so it was exempted for year two of the closure programme—an exemption that would have applied even if we had made closures on the east side of the Irish sea.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that he listened to the Fleetwood fleet and to the local fishermen who came to MAFF to meet him and his officials? Was it not in response to their requests that he put the scientists on the vessels to provide a much clearer idea of the by-catch and of the impact of the closure both on the inshore fleet and on the beamers?
My hon. Friend is right. Not only did I receive that delegation, which she organised and led, but I recently visited her fishing port, where I spoke face to face with fishermen. They welcomed the fact that we had amended the recovery plan in the light of their views. Indeed, we have recently gone somewhat further by suggesting to the inshore industry the use of existing sea fisheries committee powers to introduce a horse-power limitation within the six and 12-mile limit, to provide more protection for the inshore fleet. We are dealing with the problems, and I think that the Fleetwood fishing industry accepts that.
Before the Parliamentary Secretary moves on from the cod recovery programme, will he confirm that, if North sea cod closures apply from mid-February until the end of March, the diversion of fishing capacity could have serious consequences for nephrops fisheries? Unless adequate compensation is provided to the cod fleet, there may be a disastrous effect on the prawn fishing industry in other parts of the North sea.
The outcome of the recovery plan for our nephrops fisheries was good, as the main prawn fishing areas have not been closed. The fisheries, will, therefore, be open. I appreciate that there is always the risk of displacement. We will consider that carefully, but let us examine the results before we do so.
Hon. Members have mentioned aid. We cannot directly subsidise the fishing industry and I do not believe that the fishermen themselves want to end up with a subsidised industry. Financial issues must, however, be taken into account. They include the impact of high fuel charges, although such charges have fallen in recent weeks in terms of world price changes. As I told the industry, we needed to secure agreement on recovery plans and gain an indication of the consequences, issues and problems that we might have to face, one or two of which have been mentioned by hon. Members.
After completing that process, we will meet to discuss the priorities and assessments that must be made. That meeting has been arranged for 30 January. It will provide an opportunity for the industry to put its point of view and to inform me of the priorities that it wants me to consider. Such proposals will include decommissioning schemes, which we will discuss.
We must also evaluate the impact, because there are many imponderables. For example, a rise in fish prices as a consequence of reduced catches would limit the impact on the industry. We cannot predict that; it may happen in different ways in different areas. However, there is no point in trying to make a case to the Treasury with figures that are plucked out of the air. We must consider the purpose of the money, what it will achieve, the outcome and the way we will spend the money. The only justification for such an approach is tackling some of the long-term structural problems in the fishing industry. It is appropriate to consider those problems and to spend public money on them. We must discuss the matter, consider it thoroughly and make the case, which must be detailed and properly presented.
The Minister has committed money for a compensation scheme for the oft-maligned north-east salmon drift net fishery. Will he assure us that, if the scheme gets under way, with private finance matching the large sum of money that he has promised, it will be genuinely voluntary and that no licence holder will be required to participate in it if he does not choose to do that?
I give the right hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that the scheme will be voluntary. The Ministry's agreement is based on a voluntary scheme. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations supported the scheme on the basis that it was a voluntary buy-out. It is also conditional on match funding from the private sector and riparian interests.
I agree with my hon. Friend that fishing does not want to be subsidised. Perhaps it is unique among European industries in that. However, it wants to survive, and it will not do that without some form of support. It is therefore ludicrous that we continue to press charges on our industry that European industries do not have to bear. They compound the problem of survival. For example, the Irish are paying a subsidy to take scientists on board vessels for exploratory trips, whereas the British industry is charged for that. It is also charged light dues, and harbour dues are higher for our industry than for any other competing industry. The burden of charges must be considered with the problem of subsidy.
My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for the fishermen whom he represents. I accept that some charges in the United Kingdom are different from those in other European countries. However, some costs are considerably lower in the UK than in other European countries. When we discussed fuel and the French package, the French Minister complained of unfair competition from the UK because of our low social taxes and the lowest corporation taxes in Europe. There are two sides to the argument. I know that my hon. Friend appreciates that.
For probably the first time, I agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). Although it is true that French support is only marginally higher than support in this country, Irish support boat for boat, or compared with gross national product, is 10 times our support for fishing. The Minister must give some commitment to a step change in the Government's attitude to support for a natural resource industry. It has a fundamental claim to support in times of crisis.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman compared the United Kingdom to a similar-sized country, such as France, and pointed out that the total support that both countries provide is similar. Of course, I shall consider the issues that he mentioned. I accept that there are matters to be considered in relation to our support.
However, I emphasise that we provide financial support. We have announced a package under the financial instrument for fisheries guidance funds. They are structural funds, which are adminisered by the Scottish Executive in Scotland and by MAFF in England. The schemes cover a range of support for the industry. However, I accept that they are not adequate for dealing with some of the issues that the industry wants to tackle. That is why we must consider our case, which must be carefully argued and properly costed. We must also have a clear idea of what it will achieve.
I want to move on from subsidy to investment. What about a one-off investment in sustaining the fishing grounds to match the catching power that the Government license? Our children and future generations could then eat fish that are caught in our seas, and we would not have to import them.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. There are schemes such as labelling, for example, to promote sustainability, but there are farther issues that we, and the industry, need to explore.
I want to make progress now because, although we have a generous amount of time for the debate, I am aware that there is a time limit on contributions from Back-Bench Members. We have dealt with the recovery plan in some detail, and quite rightly so. Despite the difficulties that the industry is facing, it is one of the most encouraging signs that we have achieved this international co-operation, and achieved such a degree of industry involvement in putting the measures in place. It could be argued that they should have been introduced a long time ago. Nevertheless, we are addressing the matter now, and we are making progress. I welcome the contributions of all involved.
I shall deal with some of the other events of the past year. We have gone out to consultation on a shellfish licensing scheme. That is an important step in trying to manage the potential for increased effort on shellfish. Hon. Members have made the point about displaced effort, for example. There are mixed views on the scheme from some sections of the industry, but the overwhelming view from the shellfish sector was supportive of this approach, as was the recommendation of the industry conservation working group. We are, therefore, consulting on a measure that has been proposed and supported by the industry.
To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), hon. Members are aware of my concern and that of the industry about industrial fishing. I was pleased that we made progress last year on the closure of a sand-eel fishery off the Northumberland and Berwickshire coasts. That closure was linked to seabird reproductivity. The impact of the closure will be monitored, and scientific assessments will be carried out.
I am also pleased that there was a bilateral agreement at the December Council between the United Kingdom and Denmark to examine the impact of industrial fishery TACs and by-catch. I pay tribute to the Danes on that issue. I have been a lone voice on industrial fishing in the Council of Ministers, but the Danes—who have a principal interest in the industry—have taken a very responsible attitude to the matter. They have always said that, if we could demonstrate scientifically that there was a problem, they would address it seriously. I pay tribute to their approach.
The joint study will consider possible reductions in the size of the sand-eel TAC, and adjustments in by-catch arrangements that would reduce the allowances of by-catches of fish for human consumption. The Danes have invited UK scientists to sail on their vessels as part of those studies, and they have also extended an invitation to the UK fishing industry. I welcome that.
We are carrying out a study on the implication of by-catches in a wide range of fisheries, not only in connection with cod and hake. At the December Council, the Commission undertook to introduce proposals to revise TACs, particularly in the nephrops sector, if we could demonstrate that the by-catch was limited. That would mean that we could increase the nephrops quota in the North sea and the Irish sea by 10 per cent. if we could demonstrate that the by-catch take was very low. We are currently working with the Commission on that, and we hope to make progress as quickly as possible.
The proposals on deep-water species put forward by the French were not accepted by the December Council. We shall return to that issue in the following year. In relation to deep-water species, TACs are not necessarily the right answer, because there is an issue of effort management involved. Furthermore, as this matter concerns an international fishery, we need international regulation. Introducing regulation limited to the EU would allow vessels from non-EU countries to continue working in those deep-water fisheries. We shall pursue that issue through the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission.
We want much more effective management and control of fisheries policy, and we support proposals from the Commission to ensure that equal standards of enforcement and control are applied across the EU. We have also been reviewing the operation of fixed-quota allocations, which are in their third year. They have been an advantage and have brought benefits, but it is right to review them and to obtain the views of the industry.
On the inshore fleet, I am glad to say that, through prudent management, we have been able to keep the majority of our fisheries open to the under-10m fleet on an annual basis. We shall continue to pursue that objective despite the reductions in quota, and try to give the inshore fleet as much protection as we possibly can.
I have, however, to flag up the fact that there has been a sharp increase in the construction of vessels of between 9 m and 10 m. That has been a matter of concern and is the reason why we have monthly catch limits in the nephrops fishery in the North sea. We have to watch the situation very carefully. If there is increased effort in the sector, I would have no hesitation in taking further action to restrain activity. Fishermen as well as managers have to bear responsibility for their actions, and they know that if they increase effort in a particular fishery there will be consequences for all fishermen concerned.
Is not the problem that, very often, fishermen in historical fishing areas such as my constituency of Hastings and Rye are being invaded by people from other areas with more powerful vessels who purchase licences from hobby fishermen? If there is to be a reduced effort, should not decommissioning apply also to the small, under-10m fleets?
I am prepared to consider any case that the industry makes, although decommissioning of the under-10m fleet is not a particularly attractive proposal for all types of reasons. I have met fishermen in my hon. Friend's constituency, at a meeting that he organised in Hastings. He will know that at that meeting we issued a national consultation document that included a proposal on restricting the adjacent areas into which the inshore fleet is able to move, to stop large movements of vessels putting pressure on fish stocks. Those proposals were generally not accepted by the United Kingdom under-10m sector, and I accept the industry's views.
My hon. Friend will also know that another very important change resulting from the meeting that he organised was in the so-called rule-beater issue—in which fishermen cut off bits of their fishing vessels to make them under 10 m, but bolt them back on again after their vessels are measured. He will be pleased to know that we have given those people one year to ensure that their vessels are either permanently under 10 m or, if they are over 10 m, to get a proper licence. The time limit has expired and that practice is now prohibited in the United Kingdom.
We are also taking action to ensure that engine horsepower is correctly registered and licensed. We are making good progress on that.
As hon. Members will be aware, we have implemented in the United Kingdom economic link conditions for flagged-out vessels. I am very glad to say that those conditions have resulted in a significant increase in landings in the United Kingdom and in significant extra quota, which has been returned by flagged out vessels for the use of UK fishermen as a contribution towards their economic link conditions. Significantly, the number of foreign-owned vessels in our fleet has dropped sharply, and continues to drop, from more than 160 vessels in 1997 to fewer than 120 now. The trend is still downwards.
As hon. Members will also be aware, we have introduced new enforcement measures that are having an effect in improving enforcement.
I am very pleased to say that, as hon. Members will know, we have announced a £1.5 million package to fund safety training courses. We considered how to apply money within the United Kingdom fishing fleet, but the feeling was that safety training and a safety culture must be the top priority so that we can deal with some of the safety problems. We shall therefore be providing safety updates for experienced fishermen who have been exempt from basic training requirements; courses on accident prevention and risk awareness for all fishermen; and a training package for new entrants that encompasses current basic safety training in sea survival training, first aid and firefighting, and introduces basic training in risk awareness and accident prevention. With the money that we are committing, there will be no charge to fishermen for the courses.
We are also pursuing the fish industry strategy that was recommended by the Agriculture Committee. We hope to receive the strategy by the end of this month and make it available for discussion with the industry. The next high-level meeting, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Agriculture Minister, will be announced shortly. It is an opportunity to consider the strategy issue.
We expect information on the common fisheries policy review to be available probably in March. It is an opportunity to consider the future of the common fisheries policy and to discuss the type of changes that hon. Members and the industry feel are appropriate. We have had a good discussion on it.
Does the Minister accept that what we are engaged in is not a review of the common fisheries policy, but a report on the operation of the common fisheries policy to date? I gather that the report is to be published shortly, but in any case it has to be published by the end of this year. Is not the Minister misleading the House by again repeating the notion—
I unreservedly withdraw any such imputation, Mr. Deputy Speaker I think the Minister would accept, however, that there is a difference between the words "review" and "report". What we are getting is a report on how the industry has operated under the common fisheries policy. We are not being given an opportunity to change the fundamental principles of that policy, whatever the Minister or anyone else may say.
That is simply not correct. This is an opportunity for a full review of the common fisheries policy and for the introduction of changes, and there will be a debate. The Green Paper will present options, and although the report will to an extent specify how the policy has been operated, that is not to say that we cannot argue for changes in the United Kingdom—and we will argue for changes. I believe that there is support for the changes advocated by us and, indeed, by the fishing industry, and for the excellent joint proposals of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.
I hope that this also serves as an opportunity for the Conservatives to explain just what their proposals are. We would be very interested to hear an explanation. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) is a decent man, with a balanced view of the common fisheries policy—although his heart is not always in what he says about it. I hope he will explain what the Conservatives mean by "national control". Will it mean, for example, that all European Union vessels will be excluded from UK waters? Will quota be confiscated for vessels that have fished in our waters for as long as we have? If so, how will it be distributed?
What will happen if the Council of Ministers, surprisingly, does not agree to proposals that must be agreed by a unanimous vote because they require a treaty change? In that event, would the Conservatives withdraw from the European Union? I know that there are sensible voices in the Conservative party—though not very many—that do not approve of the proposals. I was interested to read the comments of Struan Stevenson MEP, the UK Conservative spokesman for fisheries in the European Parliament—or perhaps he no longer holds that post, following the publication of his letter. It refers to contributors who
argue for the repatriation of the CFP, failing to mention that such a step would indeed require a change of the Treaty, if not our full withdrawal from the EU.
Is that Conservative party policy?
Struan Stevenson also says:
I find it tedious, however, to listen to those who repeat the same old half-truths and obfuscations in a bid to promote withdrawal from the CFP as a viable option.
Let us stop playing word games and join together in fighting for the sensible devolution of fisheries management to the people that matter—the fishermen themselves.
That, to me, seems not very far from what the Government and, indeed, the industry advocate.
If the Conservatives go for national control, what will happen to our vessels fishing outside our national waters? I urge Members to look at the map of the cod recovery programme, which shows that nearly all the principal areas of cod fishing in the spring—the most important areas for the cod-fishing industiy—are outside our territorial waters, adjacent to Germany, Denmark, Norway and Belgium. I should be interested to hear an explanation of what "national control" means, and I think that the industry would as well.
Although much of the news has been bad, I believe that the fishing industry has cause for optimism. It is wrong to use the common fisheries policy as a scapegoat for all the industry's problems. It has its weaknesses, and there is a case for change, but if we use it simply as a stick to beat the European Union with and as an excuse for our industry's failings—and it must be said, for Government failings in the past—we do the industry a disservice. Worse than that, if decisions are taken that cannot withstand a challenge in the European Court, we shall end up in a situation similar to that resulting from the Factortame judgment. To date, the Government have had to spend £10 million in compensation for an illegal decision taken by the previous Administration.
The hon. Gentleman's comments show the difficulty the Conservative party is in. He does not recognise the fact that the Conservative party signed up to the European Union and therefore has to accept the rules that go with that. Illegal decisions cannot be taken, because they have consequences. His party signed up to the treaties, so the least he can do is recognise that those treaties bring legal obligations.
The bright side of the current situation is that there has been unprecedented involvement of the industry in dealing with those conservation issues. There is a new realism in the fishing industry and in the Council of Ministers. There is real dialogue on conservation and sustainability of a kind that did not exist before, and that represents an opportunity for genuine change in fisheries management in this country and in Europe. Fisheries management should not be an issue for political knockabout.
In the past, Ministers have ducked tough decisions, but I have made it clear that I have always been prepared to be open and honest with the industry and the House. When tough decisions have to be taken, I will take them. However, I want the industry to be involved and I have made sure that it has been involved. We cannot go it alone on conservation in European waters when we share waters with so many countries and we need to manage so many fish stocks.
We need that co-operation, and I believe that co-operation is there to be fostered both in the Council of Ministers and with the fishing organisations of other member states. Let us build on that good will; let us build on what we have achieved so far in relation to the recovery programmes; let us face up to our responsibilities and our national responsibilities; let us stop looking for scapegoats. Finally, let us try to work together to give this country's fishing industry what it deserves: stability and a sustainable future for its prosperity and for the strength of our coastal communities.
I begin by offering our condolences to the families of those fishermen who have lost their lives at sea during the past year. I hope that the next year will be a lot safer for those who risk their lives every time they go to sea. I thank the Minister for honouring the commitment that he gave in European Standing Committee A: when we were discussing total allowable catch and quotas, he assured us that he would attempt to make room in the new year for the main annual fishing debate.
The Minister said that fishing was not a subject for political knockabout, but at the end of his speech that is exactly what he indulged in. It is nice to be called a decent chap and all that—[HON. MEMBERS: "That was the knockabout!"] That was the knockabout, but fishing is incredibly important to many of our communities. Although it could be argued that it is not as important as many other industries in terms of percentage of gross domestic product, it is certainly paramount for those involved and for many coastal communities.
It is surprising that in a speech lasting almost an hour, the Minister hardly referred to the common fisheries policy. He hardly referred to the position in which we find ourselves only two years before fundamental changes may be made. I listened carefully, and not once did he refer to a plan to sustain our fishing fleet and fishing industries in their present form. The problems inherent in the CFP are indeed coming to a head, with the recent scientific advice on declining stocks in European Community waters and the recent decisions on the cod recovery programme in the North sea.
The European Commission Green Paper on the CFP review is due this spring, as the Minister said. Indeed, I understand that its publication is imminent. Under article 14 of the basic CFP regulation, the Commission is required to produce a report on the CFP by the end of the year. That will be the basis for the final decision on changing the CFP by December 2002. In that context, these are a crucial two years for the fishing industry in the United Kingdom.
The fishing industry throughout Europe faces considerable problems, some of which were alluded to by the Minister. Those problems occur not only in this country, but in other countries in Europe. Here, it seems that the industry receives precious little support, either financial or political, from the Government. Declining fish stocks and slashed quotas are not the only difficulties, important though they are. To those must be added the massive hike in fuel costs and the costs of regulation and red tape to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) alluded.
If the industry's spokesmen are to be believed, massive changes are on the horizon through job losses, tie-ups and bankruptcies. So serious is the industry's plight that many fear for its viability in the short term. Perhaps that is the game plan. Multi-annual guidance programme 4 failed to achieve reduced capacity, but that will indeed be achieved over the next year by the imposition of draconian cutbacks in TACs and quotas.
There is a real fear, backed by considerable evidence, that fleet reductions will be disproportionately higher in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. It seemed to me and to many others that the initial proposals from Brussels for the closed zone in the North sea under the cod recovery programme could not have been better designed to decimate the Scottish fleet if Brussels had started out with that aim in mind.
Against that backdrop, the House of Lords European Union Committee published its report entitled, "Unsustainable Fishing: What is to be done with the
Common Fisheries Policy". It did not take the Committee long to answer its own question and identify the problem. One of the first paragraphs concludes:
The CFP, in place for the past 17 years, has totally failed to achieve its fundamental objective of ensuring that fishing capacity and effort is consistent with self-sustaining fish populations and food chains.
Fishing effort has continued at an unsustainable rate despite repeated warnings from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas and reports from Committees of both Houses of Parliament.
The report continues:
These warnings have been largely ignored for the last decade primarily because of a lack of political will in the Member States of the European Union.
It is interesting to note the choice of words that follows, because it represents a damning indictment. We are told that the policy has not "partially", "frequently" or even "usually" failed, but that it has "totally" failed to achieve its fundamental objective of matching effort to resource. That must indeed be the fundamental objective—otherwise why set the TACs and the quotas each year?
The words "lack of political will" sum up the problem. Of the 15 member states sitting round the Council table, two have votes but no fishing industry. Each national Minister is judged on how much he or she can squeeze out of the deal. I almost said "negotiations", but I thought better of it. Quotas are set artificially low, then Ministers return home in triumph as the limits are increased. We have all done that—Conservative Ministers as well as Labour—and the duplicity and disingenuousness has finally come home to roost. If the CFP has not got it right in 17 years, how much longer should we give it before we accept that it will never work in its present form?
The derogations will end in December 2002, so there is an opportunity to achieve a fundamental change. Change is definitely coming; it has to. On that, everyone is agreed, but that change might take a direction that runs counter to British fishing industry interests, much, I suggest, to the surprise and chagrin of those working for those interests.
The hon. Gentleman made a very interesting point about duplicity and misinformation, of which he said Conservative Ministers had been guilty in the past. I often suspected as much, but I had never heard it admitted so openly. Would the hon. Gentleman care to name the Conservative Ministers guilty of that duplicity?
The hen. Gentleman knows exactly what I meant. The negotiations in Brussels are normally based on the amount of fish quota that Ministers can obtain or extract for their fishermen. The Ministers then return waving a piece of paper and claiming victory. The basis is wrong, and Ministers from all countries play the same game.
The problem lies in the legal framework of the treaties. Since we joined the EEC in 1972, successive versions of the acquis communautaire have enshrined the words "equal access". When Spain. Portugal, Sweden and Finland joined—in 1986, and later—they signed up to that wording, and that is what they are expecting. To that end, the House should note the vote on the matter two days ago in the European Parliament. I shall return to that later.
Contrary to the view in some quarters, the CFP did not start in 1983, although to be sure, what started then was a form of the CFP. Everyone agrees that the six and 12-mile inshore limits are derogations that can be extended after December 2002 by qualified majority voting in the Council. But the concept of "relative stability" as currently applied must be a derogation also: it must be a temporary deviation from the principle of "equal access".
There is considerable self-delusion in the industry and in MAFF on this matter. In its written submission to the House of Lords report, MAFF stated:
All the major elements of the CFP will be rolled over automatically beyond 2002 unless there is a Commission proposal to change them.
However, if the Commission, as the guardian of those treaties, has to find a way of accommodating the principle of equal access, there is no automatic rollover of the current relative stability. Given a fixed—or should I say shrinking?—total allowable catch, the only way to make room for the fishermen of Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland and the countries queueing up to join the EU will be to take share from those who currently enjoy it. That means that countries currently enjoying quotas will have to have it those quotas reduced. To share a cake among a greater number of recipients requires that each receive a smaller portion.
The Minister—no doubt advised and prompted by MAFF—gives the impression that all will be well. He says, "Stick with the present line, trust the Council and the Commission and the UK industry will be safe and its future secure." He gave that assurance to me in the debate in European Standing Committee A just before Christmas.
On top of the huge reductions in quota for many species announced for this year, we now have the decision in the cod recovery programme to shut down vast areas of the cod-spawning fisheries in the North sea. That will affect the catching of all species, not just of cod, during the closure period.
The measures will have a devastating impact on the UK fishing industry, and especially on the North sea ports. Unless the proposal is managed correctly, it will simply force fishermen in the North sea ports to target other species. They have to live and to pay the mortgages on their boats and houses. Their turning to other species will, in turn, prove devastating to the stocks of those other species.
The hon. Gentleman has spoken for 10 minutes. He has described the problems facing the UK industry and set out the problems of cost, but he has not said what the Tories would do to rectify them. He has described the problem of quota reductions, but has not said what the Tories would do with regard to the quota settlement at the end of the year. He has also described problems with the CFP, which all hon. Members agree exist. When will he come out and make a statement of Conservative policy on those matters? What do the Conservatives believe should be done?
The hon. Gentleman should be patient, as I shall come to that presently. If I have time, I shall also cover the Liberal Democrat policy—such as it is.
Given the present parlous state of the industry, what do the Minister and the Government plan to do? We know that the Minister's plan A is to go gently, not rock the boat, and let the CFP find its own solution, but where is his plan B? We heard precious little today about his plans to secure the future of the UK fishing industry. All we got was more waffle, along the lines of, "We will hold discussions with the industry. Structural support might be considered. We cannot promise anything." The industry has had enough of promises and discussions. It needs action and some support.
There is wide agreement in the industry that drastic action is needed to rebuild stocks, especially of North sea cod, to a sustainable level. The need for that recovery programme is not disputed, but its implementation might be open to question. How does the industry survive while the programme is in place?
The Sea Fish Industry Authority estimates that the total value of white fish landings last year was about £275 million. Any major reduction—say, of 40 per cent.—would drastically reduce the income of the British fleets. The NFFO and the SFF have suggested to me that a support package of £100 million each year over the next three years would
put the fishing industry on its feet on a profitable as well as an economically sustainable basis.
That is not a huge amount of money in the scheme of things. It is a substantial sum, but not out of balance in the context of the saving of an important industry, with thousands of jobs at stake. The point has been made already that such support could be seen less as a subsidy and more as an investment—the Minister referred to the recent report from the World Wide Fund for Nature that espoused that view. With the right conservation measures and sustainable fishing effort, our fisheries have the potential to be many hundred per cent. more productive, and the tax yield from an industry operating on the basis of that sustainable resource in the future would be a good return for the Treasury on the investment.
It would be harsh and unfair to expect British fishermen to bear the brunt of the draconian conservation measures without some short-term support. The measures will go beyond the closed areas: no doubt there will be closed seasons, increased mesh sizes and more selective fishing gear. All of it will be designed to bring about a reduction in the fishing effort.
The hon. Gentleman's remarks about being willing to support the industry have a rather hollow ring. During 18 years of Conservative Governments, the fishing industry and its organisations and representatives constantly pleaded for Government support and financial aid for restructuring and decommissioning. In the 1980s, the only money ever provided was for a decommissioning scheme, but it went to the owners, not to the industry or the workers. The only alternative offered to providing money was limiting days at sea, because that was cheaper.
I understand that there were two decommissioning schemes, and substantial money was given in grants to the fishing industry over the years. One of those grants was the safety grant, which this Government removed when they came to power. So the hon. Gentleman's argument, taken in the round, is groundless.
I agree that the amount of money that I suggested is substantial, but MAFF's budget this year promised £26 million to the pig industry, and not a penny has yet been paid. If nothing has been paid at the end of the financial year, that money will be lost. Moreover, more than £200 million was promised to secure a future for the farming industry. By our calculations, only £100 million of that has reached the pockets of the people it was intended to reach. It is clear that there is money even within MAFF to help with some of the problems that I have highlighted.
Support is needed at the local level, as well as on the larger scale. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) intervened earlier on the subject of the fleet in his constituency. I was in Hastings recently, and I know that fishermen there face a total ban on cod fishing later in the year, as the new targets and quotas for area 7 will have been fished out by the time the traditional period for cod fishing comes around in November. There will be no compensation available for that fleet.
I met hake fishermen in Newlyn only the other day. They are facing bankruptcy by the end of the year because of the 41 per cent. reduction in the hake quota. They cannot catch anything else, but there will be no compensation for them either, even though they have contacted the Minister to discuss the matter.
The Minister mentioned Fleetwood, and made great play of the success of the Irish sea cod recovery programme. That was a disaster for Fleetwood fishermen, who were tied up for 11 weeks with no money and no social security, only to be told now that that was not really necessary in the sector to which they had access. These are inshore boats; they cannot sail very far offshore. The Minister knew that. To the fishermen's chagrin, outside Fleetwood were two beam trawlers fishing for so-called plaice and flatfish quota but catching huge quantities of cod. If they were not, why were they moved down to the south coast and given a Dover sole quota, one of the most precious quotas that can be obtained?
I was in the Tamar estuary where dredging is taking place under the raft Ministry of Defence proposal, and the material is being dumped on fishing grounds off Ramer Head. Those are spawning grounds, and the fishermen are rightly asking where the compensation is for taking away a much-needed fish resource. It seems that joined-up government is not taking place, and that the MOD and MAFF are not talking about this.
The dredging spoil on the Tamar, which has been dredged before, is being deposited in an area that is designated for dredging spoil. I am surprised that the fishermen in the area have not, to my knowledge, contacted MAFF to express their concern, because I would be only to willing to reassure them.
As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman has promised £100 million every year for three years. I think that the House would be very interested to know whether he is making a firm £300 million commitment.
The Minister knows that I did not promise £300 million over three years. [Interruption.] No, I did not. I said that in correspondence with me, the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation had said that by their calculations—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should listen more carefully. That is what the NFFO and the SFF said the industry needs to continue a sustainable business over the three years. The Minister has apparently not had the same letter as I have. His communication with the NFFO seems worse than mine.
Let me get back to the subject of the Tamar estuary. The Minister says that he has not had representations from fishermen. In fact, they wrote to him before Christmas and have not had a reply. This is yet another instance of fishermen's lives being put in jeopardy and their receiving no consideration or compensation from MAFF.
Let us come on to the Liberal Democrats' policy and see what they believe in.
I wish to make some progress. One of the big ideas being floated at the moment as a way of managing the common fisheries policy in the near future is zonal or regional management. That policy is espoused by the Liberal Democrats. Although the Minister alludes to it now and again, he has not so far said, nor did he today, that it is the Government's policy.
The idea came from a study at Hull university, which was jointly commissioned by the NFFO and the SFF. It built on the idea of zonal management committees, originally put forward in 1998. What is proposed are regional councils, supported by advisory committees, whose proposed management measures would be rubber-stamped by the Fisheries Council. The advantages of the new model are said to be greater involvement by fishermen; greater flexibility to respond to stock levels; more rapid response on conservation measures; greater ownership of the hard conservation choices; and, with a greater vested interest in long-term resources, greater acceptance of more stringent enforcement measures. On balance, that looks like a sensible programme.
The proposal was examined in depth by MAFF officials and evaluated in the middle of last year in the internal paper to the Minister entitled "2002 Review of CFP: State of Play and Next Steps", which delivered a damning indictment of the proposals. Interestingly, the Minister has never communicated those conclusions to the House or to the industry in anything like such direct, clear-cut and honest terms. Yet the advice to the Minister in the document about zonal management is:
It will be important to explain to the industry that changes of this kind are simply not negotiable.
The paper concludes:
While contributions to the regionalisation debate are of course welcome, the study does not really take us any further forward… As it stands the model proposed would require treaty changes to operate…would require major changes to the present institutional and legal framework of the CFP…
We should remember that this is Liberal Democrat policy as well. The document goes on:
It shows only the most minimal understanding of EU institutional structures and why things are as they are…No consideration has been given to the clear reluctance of the Commission and Member States towards this approach
It concludes—and this is the clincher—
Such ideas are, therefore, in the main, non-starters.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us later what Conservative party policy is in relation to fishing. We will be most fascinated to hear it.
In describing the policy of the NFF and NFFO at the Tory party conference, the hon. Gentleman said that they were barking up the wrong free. He clearly does not support what the industry is saying in this regard. We are quite capable of defending our own policy, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will at some stage tell us what on earth Conservative party policy is.
The hon. Gentleman is being very selective in his presentation of the document. It is an internal memorandum from experts on the procedures of the European Union, commenting on a report drawn up by people who are not. I have always made it clear to the industry that some aspects of the proposals are more achievable than others. Aspects that would require a treaty change—which would require unanimous agreement—are clearly very difficult. There are no two ways about it. However, that is not to say that we cannot achieve much of what the industry is arguing for. Ultimately, this is advice given to me, and I make judgments on the basis of it.
The Minister has not shed a great deal more light on that policy, although he has said that treaty changes are not impossible. However, he has not come clean about the issue today, and he did not come clean about it in his evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on 25 October last year. Nor did he come clean in his response to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) in the fishing debate in European Standing Committee A in December.
At first, when the Minister gave evidence to the Select Committee, he was upbeat when responding to questions about CFP reform. He said:
I would not be afraid of arguing really quite radical steps in terms of regionalisation and zonal management …
The Minister's response to a question put later by Lord Perry of Walton, as to whether he was persuaded that it would be wrong to advocate zona management being devolved from Brussels, was disingenuous to say the least: He said:
It depends whether it needs a Treaty change or not …
The Minister had been told by his officials months earlier that zonal management would require treaty changes. Why was he not forthright with the House of Lords Committee, and why has he not been forthright with us today?
Furthermore, there is no mention in MAFF's written evidence of the need for treaty changes. It says that a strengthening of the regional perspective, involving the stakeholders in fisheries management, can be achieved within the current EU legal and institutional framework. It cites the Irish Sea cod recovery programme as an example of such regional co-operation. However, enough has been said about that programme for us to realise that it is nothing but an imposition from Brussels—made in the usual way, with little consultation on the ground and no say from local communities and fishermen. Certainly, no power was put into their hands.
As the ideas of the NFFO and the SFF on zonal management are non-starters, one is left querying what MAFF really meant by "strengthening the regional perspective". If truth be told, what MAFF and the Minister mean—he has not demurred—is that zonal management will simply be a talking shop that has no power whatever and will have a purely advisory and consultative role under the umbrella of the Fisheries Council. The final say—the real power—will remain with Brussels, as we witnessed only this week when that power was exercised over the cod recovery programme.
That is not reform of the CFP—and certainly not the radical steps hinted at by the Minister. The regional—or zonal—plan will do nothing to solve the problems of discards or of declining fish stocks. New conservation measures will not be facilitated if all decisions remain with the Council. The problems of equal access and non-discrimination post-December 2002 will not be addressed.
The hon. Gentleman relies heavily on MAFF officials. What is it about the performance and achievement rate of MAFF officials in fisheries negotiations over the past 20 years that convinces the hon. Gentleman that they are unerringly accurate? For example, did not MAFF officials advise the previous Conservative Government that the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 would be legal?
The NFFO and the SFF are not promoting ideas about zonal management solely for altruistic reasons. The proposals for each zone allow member states with quota in that zone to form the committee and to take decisions—the current share-out of total allowable catch under the principle of relative stability would be solely at the discretion of the members of that committee and would be a way of cementing the status quo.
How would such an arrangement get around the principle of non-discrimination—especially for Spain and Portugal? How would it stand up to a challenge in the European Court? How does it sit with the huge majority vote in the European Parliament only this week to end discrimination and allow equal access? That majority backed the equal access principle for the CFP post-December 2002.
What is more worrying is the fact that the Parliament threw out three important ingredients of the current arrangements: relative stability; an amendment on protected areas, such as the Shetland box; and the zonal management proposals. All those amendments were voted down. There was also a refusal to confirm the six and 12-mile limits that are so close to the hearts of the Minister, the Government and the Liberal Democrats.
I realise that that was not a vote of the Council—nor did the proposals come from the Commission or fishing industry interests as a whole—but it offers a significant pointer to the way things are going and must have come as a body blow to the UK industry, which has been promoting zonal management and has set a bottom line at current relative stability.
Anyone who believes that MEPs from countries with a strong vested interest in promoting equal access—Spain and so on—were not lobbied and briefed by their respective Governments and fishing industries is living in cloud cuckoo land. Although that vote is the first real salvo, the impetus and momentum are clear; it may already be too late to change direction through rational argument.
There is unprecedented demoralisation in the fishing industry. Fishermen are looking down the barrel of the bankruptcy gun. Livelihoods have been ruined; families are under great tension; and the industry has a deep sense of grievance that yet again it has been hung out to dry—that it is an expendable force.
The Minister constantly denies that there is a crisis in the industry, but that is not what I hear on the ground. It is time the Government followed the advice of the House of Lords Committee report and admitted that the CFP is a complete failure and is in need of such fundamental reform that it would be wholly unrecognisable.
If the Government will not make radical proposals and if the Liberal Democrats will not produce workable proposals, we will. This is what the hon. Member for St. Ives has been waiting for so patiently. The only way to bring about those vital conservation measures—so necessary to yield a sustainable resource—is to have national control over our own waters. When we return to Government, we shall establish that control; that will effectively put an end to the current CFP arrangements. In our determination to achieve that goal, which has been expressed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on more than one occasion—
In our determination to achieve that goal, we shall not take "no" for an answer. In achieving our aims, we rule nothing in and nothing out. The CFP will no longer exist in its pure form once national control has been established. The policy will no longer be common to EU waters, nor will it retain the equal access principle at its heart.
At the beginning of the debate, the Minister made great play of the fact that he wanted to hear what our policy was. I refer to his words when he was in opposition. He said:
We believe that the CFP should be radically reformed to allow us far greater autonomy and—
wait for it—
national control of fishing waters within our country's limits… We must say that the current situation is unacceptable and that there is a better way which meets the criteria of the CFP, but which gives all member states greater national control and a better way of managing fish stocks leading to a sustainable fishing industry. If we do not meet that objective, we will have no fishing industry.—[Official Report, European Standing Committee A, 23 July 1996; c. 25–27.]
Will the Minister tell the House how his statements in 1996 differ markedly from what I just said?
The words of my hon. Friend the Minister cited by the hon. Gentleman seem perfectly consistent with the arguments for regional and zonal management. I have been pondering the Opposition's policy. Yesterday, Europe—which the hon. Gentleman seems to dislike intensely—made a decision to ban fishing in certain parts of the North sea for three months. His policy would ban it to UK boats for ever. Can he explain that?
That is not the policy. If the Minister meant what he said in 1996, national control must mean control principally by the nation state; there is thus, in effect, a veto on what happens within its fishery limits—however defined. In answer to some of the Minister's questions, we are not saying that, under a policy of national control, countries with historic fishing rights in those waters will not continue to have those rights. We are saying that they will fish under licences and regulations determined by the national Government. That is national control—it is not zonal management.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to respond. The policy is still nonsense; if we assert national control, countries that allow our vessels to fish in their waters will do likewise unless we reach agreement about their vessels and our vessels—in which case, we are back to a CFP.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is complete nonsense. Decisions on the CFP are taken by the Council of Ministers in Brussels—that is where the final power lies. In 17 years, the CFP has proposed barely one sensible conservation measure. Fishing stocks in EU waters—if I can call them that—are in their current plight because the right decisions were not taken at the right time, under the voting powers of nation states—perhaps with a Mediterranean interest—which did not want the mesh size and technical gear changes that we now believe are so important. Not before time, the Scottish fleet has introduced square mesh panels and that is a step in the right direction. However, for 17 years, those sensible decisions have not been made under the CFP; now that there is a crisis in cod stocks, quotas are being slashed right across the board. That is because the right conservation measures were not introduced early enough. To come back to the hon. Gentleman's key point about co-operation, we would co-operate in the same way as we do with Norway now. We have a bilateral arrangement that works perfectly well. There is no reason why such arrangements should not be achieved in the future.
The zonal management idea has merit in terms of management, not control, of the fish stocks in areas such as the North sea. I can envisage co-operation between nation states with a vested interest. There may be well be agreements between the states to manage the zone in a sensible way. It is a question of where the real power lies. In the end, the power has to be vested—it seems to me and to my party—in the national Government. Although there could be co-operation and agreement, the veto would be important. If ideas were put forward with which a state did not go along, that state could veto them and adopt its own conservation measures under its own control.
No, I shall finish now. The CFP has failed and must be replaced by a system that has at its heart the primary objective of conservation in order to secure a sustainable resource for future generations. We believe that our proposals stand the best chance of meeting that objective. How will future generations view us if we allow one of the richest sea resources in the world to be pillaged to extinction, all through a lack of political will? That, in our opinion, would be not only criminal but immoral.
It is a triumph and an achievement to have our first full day's debate on fishing for many a year. It is a shame that so much of the time has been wasted with a 40-minute speech in which nothing was said at all. This, along with the debate in the European Standing Committee in December, is the best opportunity that we have had to discuss fishing for many years. It is a pity that fishing has had to come almost to the brink of extinction to give us that opportunity.
Today's debate is not just the regular discussion of the Council meeting and ministerial approaches to it. There is a crisis of survival in the industry. It has been identified in the documents that are pouring out from many sources. Fishing News has headlines such as "North sea madness!" and "Whole industry could disappear". The House of Lords Committee has conducted an inquiry into unsustainable fishing. Most telling is a World Wide Fund for Nature report entitled "Choose or Lose: A recovery plan for fish stocks and the UK fishing industry". I commend it to my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that he has already seen it, but it is the basis of a good, sustainable approach to developing fishing.
It is at this time that we see how we have reached crisis point as a result of the halting, inadequate response up to now of Governments of both parties and of the Commission. I do not intend to enter the argument about the common fisheries policy, much as I would like to. It is a diversion from our discussion this afternoon, but there is no doubt that we are in this situation as a result of its inadequacy. Although it proclaims itself as a conservation policy, it has not been effective in conserving fish stocks. It has involved deals, political negotiations between states, and doling out stocks that were not there. It is a political, not a conservation, policy. It has lurched from feast to famine. It is enforced by an inadequate system of quotas, and it is inadequately policed and controlled, especially at the ports of landing in Europe. I therefore have no confidence and the industry has little confidence in the CFP.
The CFP also seems to favour the interests of some countries, especially Spain. It is interesting to note that when Spain does not have access to Moroccan fishing waters because the Moroccans want to develop them for themselves, the Spanish fishermen laid up in consequence are paid by a combination of Spanish Government funding and European funding, which we are financing. Such a benefit is never extended to British fishermen.
I hope that the whole House is listening to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the Catalonian fleet. In the view of many of us, such an approach is absolutely necessary as a short-term measure before we go on to a longer-term structural approach.
I can only second that observation. That policy shows the way. It shows what a national Government determined to defend the interests of their fishing industry can achieve in negotiations, in contrast with what a Government can achieve when their fishing industry is not at the forefront of their concerns. In that sense, Scotland will be in a stronger position than the United Kingdom, where fishing represents a smaller part of the interests of which the Government must take account.
The stocks are now on the brink of collapse, and political failures are compounded by a natural conservation problem. I do not know about the effects of temperature changes on the migratory and breeding habits of cod, but they clearly have a part to play. They have been compounded by the inadequacies of the policy.
The United Kingdom brought the richest fishing grounds to the European pool. I do not wish to provoke the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), but we gave them away to a CFP. We have most to lose. Our stocks have been pushed below levels at which they can produce an economic return on a sustainable basis, which is what we should aim for.
Europe is not yet dealing adequately with the crisis. Yesterday's cod closure is welcome. I think that the proposal came from the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. However, industrial fishing for sand eels is still allowed to go on, which must be destructive of the marine environment and the ecology in which cod breed. An increase in mesh sizes for hake in the Bay of Biscay has not been imposed because of the power of Spain and France in that area, yet hake stocks there are crucial to hake stocks everywhere else. That is damaging to the interests of fishermen in the south-west.
My hon. Friend the Minister told us that the pout fisheries will be excluded from the closed areas. I am delighted to hear that. The Commission proposed a mesh size of 140 mm. We have not accepted that, but it would be crazy if we had larger mesh sizes for cod and the vessels were competing with industrial boats with 20 mm meshes in the same waters. Although it will be excluded for the period of closure, pout fishing will come back after that period, with the same effects and the same damage.
The Commission also proposes to increase the allowance for industrial by-catches. My hon. Friend the Minister fought an effective fight against that, but it was insane to propose an increase in the industrial by-catch of fish caught for fish meal to be fed to pigs and for salmon farms when that fish could go for human consumption. That represents a distorted perspective that shows no concern for the well-being and development of the industry.
I second the proposals made by the SFF. We should have a complete ban on industrial fishing at this stage of the crisis. It is still damaging the ecological system and the food chain in our waters and we cannot have proper conservation without dealing with it.
The Commission should have adopted square mesh panels. It is a delight to see that the Scottish Executive have made them mandatory on Scottish vessels and English vessels fishing in Scottish waters, but they should be mandatory on all vessels. It should be a European policy. In Scotland, such action has substantially reduced the catch of juveniles. The SFF estimates that that catch has been reduced by 20 to 40 per cent. That is welcome, and the policy should be applied universally.
The problem is that the Commission and the Council deal with broadbrush measures. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister has given his unremitting and consistent support to sectional, regional and zonal management measures. Such measures should involve all the stakeholders in those regions because they can work only if the regions co-operate with one another and have an interest in policing themselves.
The NFFO's and SFF's sensible views, about which the all-party fisheries group was told yesterday, represent the basis for moving forward. So how do we move forward? First, we must work with the industry. Interestingly, when oil prices increased, the Government set up a forum to deal with the road transport industry. The Scottish Executive have now set up a working party to deal with the industry, and such arrangements are needed in Britain. That is not a criticism of the Ministry or my hon. Friend because he has assiduously consulted the industry. He has listened, consulted and visited more than any Minister of whom I have had experience in a long association with fishing. However, structure is needed to bring in the industry's voice.
Secondly, finance is required. Again, my hon. Friend has been a Minister of maximum good will, but minimum money. MAFF has its own financial problems, but the cutting of fish safety grants was a very retrograde step, which destroyed people's faith in its perception of the importance of fishing. The real problem is not so much with MAFF, which has limited funds, but with the Treasury, which takes a negative approach and does not recognise the benefits of fishing.
My hon. Friend refers to the Treasury's response, but does he think that it might not be a negative response, but an ill-informed response and that it is incumbent on all Members who represent fishing communities to ensure that the Treasury is better informed so that the issue can be corrected?
I would not want to be critical of the Treasury under its current management, but it does not rush around looking for opportunities to spend money. It has certainly had a blind spot in respect of fishing, but the question is how long it can get away with that blind spot. The serious criticism is that it has been reluctant to draw down the European money that is available. There is a reluctance to use the Fontainebleau formula and provide matching funds for European money. The WWF calculates that, between 1995 and 1998, the United Kingdom found 25 million euro to release 124 million euro, while Spain put up 389 million euro and drew down 1.15 billion euro—a stark and disastrous difference.
I am afraid that the Fontainebleau agreement works very much against this country's interests. The small print, negotiated by the Baroness Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, works against this country because, although the rebate was agreed, we cannot gain access to European money. Any money that we get from Europe is deducted from the rebate and, as a result, we have to find the bulk of the money ourselves. That disadvantage is unique to this country, but we have to live with it.
I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes, but if the money is unfortunately not available from Europe, there is a greater pressure on national Government to put up the money that we cannot get from Europe because the industry still needs financing. The money has to come from somewhere, so someone must provide it. Many of the sales to quota hoppers took place because of our reluctance to invest in decommissioning early enough, for example, and people were in a desperate financial position.
Most of our fishing competitors in the North sea and other British coastal areas have some form of aid or subsidy. As usual, the French led the way, but pressure produced a response: not a direct fuel subsidy in every case, but ways were found to get around the problem that were acceptable to Europe—but nothing happened here. That is disastrous because those industries are being better financed and subsidised to survive and to compete with our industry, which is more exposed to financial pressure than they are.
We need a firm, clear and comprehensive recovery programme to produce sustainability and to bring the stocks and the fishing effort into balance, so that, as the stocks increase, so can the effort. That demands money. The inevitable consequence of leaving things to market forces is that people will sell their quota and licences to those best able to buy them—the foreigners, who are being subsidised to keep their industry going. The industry will be sold off bit by bit.
We need to restore fish stocks. The WWF gives an interesting example, showing that with proper conservation, control and investment, the return from catches in the channel could be 1,500 per cent, more profitable than the current effort, in which too many vessels catch minmal quantities of fish, pressing on diminishing stocks. "Invest now; benefit later" has to be the slogan. Some of the money will have to come not only from Europe, which has never done justice to fishing in the way that it has to agriculture, but from the Treasury. We need a comprehensive plan to save and develop fishing.
We have to wake up to the fact that the fisheries are a national resource and that communities depend on fishing. We must wake up to the disastrous social and economic costs of closing down fishing. One job at sea supports 12 jobs on shore. Such matters cannot be left to market forces in the way that they are now. We cannot knock the heart out of the fishing communities. We cannot knock the heart out of Grimsby, which faces problems because of restructuring in the food industry generally and can do without further job losses in fishing.
The programme must be comprehensive and sustainable; it must finance not only decommissioning, but investment. Sustainability will not be achieved for five—perhaps 10—years, so the industry needs a steady flow of finance to ensure that it can plan and think ahead. The programme must be worked out quickly, in consultation with the industry.
I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words. I hope that I may be forgiven if, instead of dealing only with the present, I look back into the past a little. However, I cannot refrain from making one remark about the present. I was interested in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), especially in his statement that his colleagues propose—if they are returned to Government—to withdraw from the fisheries section of the European Community, and, if they cannot do so fully, they will leave the Community altogether. Many of us have seen that coming, and it is good to have it put plainly so that the press and everyone else knows what we are facing. I might add that it also gives a complete assurance that they will never again be returned to power.
Well, I can return to earlier matters, not because I have no proposals to make but because so much of what happened in the past has immensely damaged the attitude towards this country and the Community. I have a clear example of that. An article under the headline, "How Heath betrayed our fishermen" says:
One of the murkiest episodes in the history of Britain's involvement with the European Union was Edward Heath's surrender of the richest fishing waters in the world as the price of UK entry into the Common Market.
There could not be a greater lie about the proceedings of our membership of the Community. Every item that Christopher Booker quotes is unjustified. For example, he says that article 38, which is the basis of our membership in this respect, is illegal. That is not the view of the Commission, the Community or any lawyer who studies it seriously. However, he has decided to promote a completely unjustifiable opinion that is bound to deceive many people who read it and who will wonder why we are acting illegally.
No, I am sorry, but I do not have time.
Why would I have done what Christopher Booker suggests? I was born by the sea; I lived by the sea for 60 years; I swam in the sea; and I fished locally. One year, I won the local fishing championship. I fished for six hours, between 10 and 4 o'clock, and caught 146 lb 12 oz of the best cod. I do not know how many Prime Ministers can say they did that, but it is all on the record. That has been my life for a long time.
I have no desire in any way to damage fishing or anything connected with the sea. I represented my country internationally in ocean racing for three years, and we won the first event completely. Those experiences are all very dear to me. People who argue that I wanted to break up the fishing industry and lose the benefits of it, especially for those whose lives were based on it, could not be more wrong.
As for the action that we took as a Government, we must look back a bit, in particular to the first years of office when the emphasis was on deep-water fishermen. That is forgotten now. It was only in the second half of the 1970s that people thought about inshore fishermen, for the simple reason that we had thrown away everything with regard to offshore fishermen. We had tried to hang on to offshore fishing for as long as we could. Indeed, we put in the Navy to protect the fishermen around Iceland, which it did, very successfully. After a rather stuffy dinner at No. 10, I arranged with the Icelandic Prime Minister that we would only put so many ships in at a time. Of course, our chaps were clever enough to be able to fish continuously, and we did not lose anything. We got almost the same amount of fish—in fact, in one case, we got more than we had ever landed before.
The 200-mile limit was then introduced, which put an end to that activity. I wanted our people to fish in deep waters elsewhere. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Joe Godber, did a great deal to help them. We made plans. It was useless fishing off the coast of west Africa because the Russians were there in full strength, so we thought about fishing off the west coast of south America.
We sent out the exploratory force. It reported that, although the water was deep, there was ample fishing territory. The only problem was that the product was rather unsightly and, therefore, fishermen would have had to take with them the equipment to chop off the nasty fish heads and scrape off other bits, so that they had beautiful fish when they landed. However, we could not persuade them to do that, so that part of our fishing fleet just disappeared.
The emphasis naturally moved to the home fleet. By that time, we had negotiated with the Community, but the matter of fishing was not settled in time for my agreement with President Pompidou, which settled everything for our future. There have been arguments about the common fisheries policy since 1963.
The argument that the policy on fishing was produced to do us in could not be more fallacious. The French battered away to get the matter settled. It was not finalised until almost Christmas, when I had finished my talks with President Pompidou. We managed to get 10 more years of our existing policy, and we made the most of it.
No, I am short of time.
It is clear from the figures how successful that policy was. In 1970, there were 21,443 fishermen. In 1975, there were 22,134. By 1985, there were 22,224. That proves that what we did was right. It produced results. There can be no justifiable criticism of that. I am prepared to take responsibility for everything I did and the 10 years of fishing that we got, but I cannot be responsible for what happened after 1985, although Mrs. Thatcher negotiated and got almost the same arrangements for the next period.
More changes are now required. I do not question that; I rely on the wisdom of those people who have the power and authority to produce changes that will benefit us and the fishing industry, and that should satisfy the country. We must kill unjustified lying nonsense, which is continually poured on to the British people and the rest of the world.
I think the right hon. Gentleman knows that I had brothers fishing in Icelandic waters during the fisheries dispute between the United Kingdom and Iceland. The Icelanders always believed, and still do, that his Administration and the Wilson Administration behaved in a high-handed way towards them with regard to their very important fisheries stock. On the right hon. Gentleman's negotiations to enter the European Economic Community, a widespread belief still exists in the fishing communities that he and his officials did not pay enough attention to the concerns of the fishing communities.
Some people in Iceland might believe that we were tough, but we did not think so. I gave the Prime Minister of Iceland a good dinner, but he would not give me everything I wanted, so we had to put in the Navy. We finally reached an agreement and, fortunately, we did not lose much.
In the later period, deep-sea fishermen had lost out and the inshore fishermen saw their chance. They realised that they had to get everything that they wanted worked into an agreement. That was entirely understandable. I did not question it and we did our best to enable that to happen.
My close association with the sea, and my love for it and all those people who work on it, is unchangeable. I am proud of what we did for fishermen. It is monstrous to have articles, such as the one to which I referred, published week after week. They damn everything that we did and are based on lies. I am surprised that a respectable Sunday newspaper should publish such an article. I am glad that we are able to have the debate and I wish the Government well in what they do.
The speech of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) was valuable. I read the original articles, and he has illuminated some issues for me. That is one positive thing to have come out of the debate.
We normally have our annual debate on fishing just before, or in the middle of, our debates on Europe. Fishing debates always have a frantic quality and they have not been satisfying in all the years that I have attended them. We argue about the crisis that the industry is about to face because of the quota discussions, and we have the usual arguments about Europe, which have become a bit tired. The debates always follow that pattern.
The fact that we are having this debate about a month after the annual round of quota discussions is helpful. We are having a much more measured debate, which is exactly what the industry needs. It faces very difficult times, and it is important that we make a proper assessment of the issues without the usual pressures being placed on us. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and to the business managers for holding the debate at this time. Perhaps we could think about having it at this time of year in future.
Another interesting thing to come out of the debate is the further illumination of the Conservative party's policy on the fishing industry. I have already had a chance to have a go at the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), so I shall not say too much about its policy, particularly given the comments of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup. Perhaps I should shut up and leave Conservative Members to deal with their own problems.
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire tried to convey the fact that he was close to the industry: he has done a national tour, visiting ports and talking to fishermen. As far as I know, he has not been to Aberdeen yet, but he is very welcome to come at any time.
We always get that from the nationalists; I shall ignore that comment.
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is as aware as anyone that all sectors of the fishing industry—both the catching and the processing sides—face a crisis. The policy that he spelled out today would turn that crisis into a disaster. If the Tory party were to achieve a unilateral declaration of independence for the North sea fishing industry, a disaster is precisely what we would have. That fact, at least, has emerged and it is important that we and the fishing industry have heard it.
All those who speak in the debate will refer to the problems that the industry faces. Its biggest single problem is a shortage of fish. We could spend all day arguing about the possible reasons for that, but I doubt whether we would discover the true ones. There are a variety of reasons for the problem.
Yesterday, the European Commission announced an agreement on a cod recovery plan, which is important for several reasons. It will present the industry with further problems, because job losses will inevitably result from the restriction on fishing efforts. However, the plan recognises that this country and other European countries need to build a sustainable fishing industry. It is clear that we were not heading in that direction and that emergency action was necessary. We got that yesterday. It is important to see the plan as emergency action, because it is a short-term measure. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that a long-term strategy was necessary for the industry's future.
It is important to avoid too much talk of a crisis. The industry has a good future so long as we put in place measures that will enable it to get over the immediate crisis and to develop sustainable fisheries. We should not talk down the industry.
It is also important to recognise that all sectors of the industry face problems. The main concern in my constituency is in the fish processing sector, which is struggling to deal with the reduced numbers of fish available. In north-east Scotland, two major processing firms have closed in the past few months with the loss of a couple of hundred jobs and we face more closures. That serious problem has several aspects, which we discussed in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall recently, so I shall not go into detail now. However, Members with an interest in fisheries know just how serious the problems are.
Every crisis and every difficulty present opportunities. People in the industry may find that comment a bit harsh and brutal, but I believe that the industry has opportunities now. I can see no better time than the present for tackling the industry's problems. Everyone accepts that our catching efforts far exceed the supply of fish and that rationalisation is needed. According to my politics, the word "rationalisation" is nasty—it usually means job losses. We have to face and accept that prospect, but the Government must accept that they have a responsibility to play a part.
The way ahead was set out by the Select Committee on Agriculture in its report of 1999. Its valuable survey of the industry and the direction in which it pointed us—it called for the development of a long-term strategy—are fundamental to the industry's future. No other business with which I have been connected has to cope with the fact that it does not know the supplies of raw material that it will have for the following year until the December of the previous year. The figures come out at the end of December and are implemented on 1 January. The industry must plan on that basis, and I do not know how any industry could cope with that. Something has to change.
I shall not set out specific ideas about what we could do, because the principle is important. We know that people will leave the industry anyway because of the crisis in supply, so we should take this opportunity to adopt a principle that will cushion the impact by introducing a long-term strategy.
My hon. Friend the Minister said that the Sea Fish Industry Authority has been asked to respond to the Select Committee's recommendations. We know that he will receive the response next week, but it is unfortunate that we did not get it before the debate as it would have made the debate much more worth while. I do not criticise my hon. Friend for that. As he told us in a European Standing Committee in December, the timetable was planned some time ago. It has not been a secret. None the less, having the response would have made the debate more meaningful.
We need to move on from examining the causes and effects of the crisis to considering how we shall deal with them. We have the short-term cod recovery plan; the next stage is to introduce a plan for zonal management that will provide a cushion for the industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby intervened on my hon. Friend the Minister and referred to the sense of injustice that our industry feels at the treatment that other European Governments give to their fishing industries. From my discussions with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and those on the processing side of the industry, I know that those grievances are strongly felt. For example, Spanish fishermen are paid not to fish off Morocco while an international dispute is debated. In a recent meeting with the SFF, I learned that the Irish Government had started to pay fishermen to take scientists on research trips that would have been carried out anyway. That is one way of providing help to the industry and, although it might be a back-door method, it has been welcomed by Irish fishermen.
The SFF contrasted that approach with the treatment that it received when a public scientific institution sent it a letter saying that the institution would be happy to involve the federation in research if it paid £50,000. Such a contrast is hurtful.
It certainly was not MAFF, but the letter was from a publicly funded institution. That is a sign of the pressure that it is under, too. While a longer-term strategy is being considered, it would be interesting to see how the Government could use their imagination to put our fishermen on a par with those in some other countries.
As we have a short time in which to speak and I have only a few minutes left, I shall refer to the key elements of any long-term strategy. First, it must be genuine and must involve the whole industry. No strategy worthy of its name would be effective if it dealt with only one part of the industry. That is a special plea by me for the interests of the fish processing industry.
It is also important that the strategy be a UK plan. I am a Scot and I represent a Scottish constituency, but I think that it would be extremely damaging to the industry as a whole if either the Scottish Executive or the UK Government produced plans that dealt with only one part of the Kingdom. It is important that there be a level playing field, that we talk about a UK strategy involving the whole of the UK industry and that it be long term. It must also be the start of a rolling process, rather than being just one fix which is forgotten about until we are in our next crisis.
A key element of any long-term strategy must also be Government support; there must be an element of financial support. When I hold discussions with the industry it draws a comparison between one part of the food industry, fishing, and another, agriculture.
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire mentioned some of the figures that the SFF has come forward with. He spoke of £100 million. The first figure that the SFF mentioned to me was £75 million, but then the processors spoke of £100 million and so the SFF said £100 million. It is clear that the figures are not properly worked out yet, as the federation accepts. It may be less and it may be more than the figures that we are talking about.
The figures will be worked out properly only when, if there is to be a decommissioning scheme, the Government have made it clear what sort of decommissioning it will be. Will it be a decommissioning of boats? Will it be a decommissioning of licences or quotas? Those are the sort of questions that need to be sorted out round the table in discussions between the industry and the Government. However, financial support of some sort is necessary.
There are other examples which MAFF can examine to see how the Government can engage with the industry. I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby about the Minister's involvement and engagement with the industry. Nobody could have done more. However, things can move along much quicker when structures are put in place to formalise a relationship. They can energise an industry.
My other major local industry in Aberdeen is the oil industry. Two years ago, the Department of Trade and Industry established the oil industry taskforce. Those in the industry entered it with a certain amount of scepticism, but they now talk about their relationship with the Government. Every oil company involved in the North sea makes a tremendous investment in the process, which is now called "Pilot". We see it as the future of the oil industry in the UK, because that is exactly what is being debated: encouraging companies to become more competitive, sharing expertise and experience, and making sure that everyone sings from the same hymn sheet. That is the sort of strategy that the fishing industry needs.
Following the comments of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran), I agree that this is a very welcome opportunity to debate longer-term issues facing the fishing industry. Those hon. Members who look forward to the occasions when we can debate fishing matters in the House may feel that we could replicate this pattern in future years—prior to the quota negotiations, debating them in a European Standing Committee, and then having an opportunity afterwards to look in more general terms at important issues facing the industry. I congratulate the Minister on persisting—with other hon. Members, including Back Benchers—so as to secure this time, which enables us to debate what is happening and the many challenges facing the industry.
There is some optimism that negotiations in Europe will allow fishing nations to look at a multi-annual approach to quota setting, which other Liberal Democrat Members and I have been pushing for for some time. Given the crisis facing the industry and its stocks, there is acceptance now that we need to stick robustly to the real science in terms of stock assessment. Many of the criticisms of the outcome of the negotiations are that the science was not stuck to, and that we needed a more sophisticated settlement to take into account the patterns of fish and fish stock decline in waters around this country and elsewhere.
The Minister gave us some reason to hope that there is wider political agreement that we can negotiate with some optimism the establishment of a regional approach to the management and empowerment of regional committees on the common fisheries policy. Despite scorn from the Conservative Benches, that has widespread support in the industry and among most sensible and right-thinking people who are genuinely concerned about the industry. That, too, gives reason for optimism.
I welcomed the very illuminating contribution of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), particularly his prediction that the Conservatives will never come to power again, particularly if they support certain policies. Whether their spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), was trying to dance around the subject or not, the right hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head: those policies are what the Conservatives really believe in, and they will never be given any semblance of power until they can be taken seriously on an important issue such as fishing and come up with practical proposals.
I would have welcomed a contribution from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that elucidated to the House and the country what the Conservatives really believe. We heard their description of the problems in the industry, its costs and the problems with the quota settlement, and their criticisms of the long-held Liberal Democrat policy of establishing regional management committees. They are entitled to make those criticisms, but we heard no proper elucidation of Tory policies.
The Minister has been managing his ship with great care. My criticism of him in this Parliament is that in the main he has been acting in a piecemeal fashion, dealing reactively with problems as they come along. The fact that he has now accepted the Select Committee's approach and that we can anticipate learning shortly the strategy for the longer-term future of the UK fishing industry is welcome.
Problems have arisen on the Minister's watch, however. Some have been solved, or partly solved, but overall on the question of fish resource, which is fundamental to the industry, there has not been good news. I am not saying that the Minister is responsible for removing those fish, but the fact is that at the end of the day fish stocks have declined, in some cases to a perilous state, so that radical action is now required—action that those concerned about the industry will very much welcome.
Very serious problems face the industry, both the catching industry and the processing sector, to which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central referred. Stocks are in decline. I think we all agree that quotas are too blunt an instrument to use simply to manage the future of the fishing industry. The Minister described in helpful detail the stock recovery programmes, which are among the challenges that we face. I hope that shortly after the Green Paper from the European Commission is published, the House will have a chance to debate the reform of the common fisheries policy. That will be an opportunity to discuss what can be achieved politically in Europe. Given the views expressed by the industry and most hon. Members, we should push for a decentralised and empowered regional approach. I hope that we will be able to develop that.
There is a growing interest in the use of technical measures, such as closed areas, closed seasons and mesh sizes, which would enable the industry to target its fish more selectively, by size. The Minister referred, for example, to the problems facing hake fishermen, who face this year a devastating 41 per cent. cut in quota in the area 7 western approaches.
As the Minister knows, a larger mesh is used by British—mainly Cornish—fishermen fishing in area 7 and catching prime hake, whereas Spanish fishermen fishing largely in the Bay of Biscay and operating under the same quota need to catch 200 times as many fish to achieve the same market value, because they use a smaller mesh. We need a more sophisticated approach to allow us to target fish more effectively across European waters.
When the Minister sums up, perhaps he will deal with the difficulties that are likely to arise from the Scottish Executive's decision to impose square mesh panels in its fisheries, although that requirement has not been imposed around the rest of the UK coast. The industry in Scotland welcomes the decision, but there should be an opportunity to examine whether the use of more selective gear could be taken up throughout the UK.
On the problems facing fishermen in my area, Cornwall, the Minister has looked into the issue of fishermen who have gone off-quota to non-quota species—for example, the tuna drift net fishery. The Minister and Europe rightly took a strong line on the problems of cetacean by-catch in that industry.
The hon. Gentleman may know more from conversations with his scientists, but I understand from the industry that research in this country and abroad has demonstrated that the use of pingers can be effective. If cetacean by-catch can be reduced to almost nothing through that approach, I hope that the Minister will be prepared to reopen negotiations on the closure of that fishery. That would help fishermen in the south-west, who are under great pressure as a result of the reduction in stocks.
Much has been said, mainly by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, about Liberal Democrat policy. I welcome the fact that he has taken the time to study some aspects of it. The policy was published some six years ago at a party conference, and had been worked up over the previous 15 years. When it was launched, the policy, which the hon. Gentleman rightly described as a devolved approach to the CFP, was met with derision from other political parties, of course, and from the industry.
We have continued, in a measured way, to push the merits of the policy, refining it as we went along. It is interesting that, as other hon. Members have described, the industry has come up with its own policy proposals, which almost exactly mirror the original Liberal Democrat policy. The industry describes its policy as zonal management, and we describe ours as regional management.
I do not want to take any credit away from the hon. Gentleman, but we should acknowledge that the first politician who pursued the policy and took it through the European Fisheries Committee was the late Dr. Allan Macartney, from the north-east of Scotland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his lesson in history, but whether the policy was developed in separate vacuums we shall have to investigate. Whoever claims credit for the origin of the policy—whose gestation, as I said, was many years before its publication—it was met with great derision when it was published. Perhaps the late Dr. Macartney found that, too. However, it is now the only realistic game in town.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Is he telling the House that the Liberal Democrat policy that he has been expounding is the same as the proposals from the NFFO and the SFF? Does he believe that that zonal management policy or regional policy will require treaty changes, and would he agree with that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. His colleague, Struan Stevenson, was one of the Members of the European Parliament who issued a joint statement from the European Parliament Fisheries Committee hacking zonal management proposals. I do not know whether Mr. Stevenson will he taken away and given a stiff talking to, or whether Labour Members will call him Nigel. The joint statement called for
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire continues to ask from a sedentary position whether treaty changes will be required. If we are to achieve such a change, it needs widespread political support, which the Conservatives do not have. It needs widespread political support, and not only across this country. All sensible people support it. Clearly, it has received widespread support in the European Parliament from all parties, including, oddly enough, the Conservative party.
Why is the hon. Gentleman finding it difficult to answer the perfectly straightforward question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), and say whether his proposal requires a treaty change? Surely, the answer is yes or no. Will he give the House that answer?
It will be interesting to see what the European Commission comes up with in its Green Paper next month. When we are in a position to see what it believes will have widespread political support across European member states, we can begin the negotiations on what kind of treaty change, if any, will be required. However, we are more likely to get the kind of change that most rational people believe is required for the future of the fishing industry if we have more widespread political support across Europe.
We are also seeking to secure continued derogation for the six and 12-mile limits around these shores, and to make those a permanent feature of the common fisheries policy. We have pressed the Minister on those matters, he has taken them on board and I very much welcome his approach. We would certainly encourage him to achieve those ends if possible. It would also be welcome if, through his offices, it were possible to outlaw industrial fishing. I am pleased to hear that his negotiations with the Danes are making progress.
The Conservative spokesman had an opportunity to lay out his policy and justify it to the House. He clearly has not persuaded the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who has experience of being in government and taking decisions with all the responsibility of power. No doubt, when the Leader of the Opposition spoke at a fringe meeting at the last Tory conference, he got the pulses of the rank and file racing when he claimed that the Conservatives were "going the whole way" and taking back full national control of the industry.
That statement was not from any Back Bencher, but from the Leader of the Opposition. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, commenting on the proposals of the NFFO and SSF—which were discussed earlier—said those organisations were
barking up the wrong tree.
He believed that the answer was to take back national control. Clearly, as I have already pointed out, that view is not universally shared across the Conservative party—[Interruption.]
Yes, "barking" is the word. The advice that I read out to the Minister from his own MAFF officials concerning regional policy, zonal policy, the NFFO and the SSF proposals stated that those proposals are a non-starter. Treaty changes are possible, but the hon. Gentleman did not give a straight answer, yes or no, to my question about whether the Liberal Democrats would support fundamental treaty change to empower those regional and zonal management arrangements. To have any power to do anything, treaty change would be needed.
We should get down to brass tacks and look at what Conservative Members are proposing now. Every time they utter a word on the issue of fisheries, squadrons of flying pigs take off all around the country. Moreover, if we look at their record, in 1983 they negotiated our quota share and botched that. They failed to grasp opportunities to invest in the industry throughout their period in power, when other European nations were investing in their industries.
The Conservatives presided over the biggest loss of licences to flag-of-convenience vessels ever, and they cost the country what could eventually be £100 million—money which could be invested in the industry—in compensation to foreign-flag companies, which were thrown off the register following the botched Merchant Shipping Act 1988. They negotiated Spanish access to western waters six years before they needed to.
If the hon. Gentleman is going to defend the Conservative record or apologise for it, I should be glad to give way.
What was botched was the advice that the previous Government either received or took. Clearly, whether they received or took it, they botched the matter. They knew what the situation was at the time and what was likely to happen. Now the Conservatives are operating on the entirely fanciful notion that they can pull out of the common fisheries policy.
The hon. Gentleman may like some information. We know what the Stevenson policy is in the European policy, and we know that it is not what we might call the Moss policy in this place. In the Scottish Parliament, the Tories are fully behind the Stevenson policy. Does the hon. Gentleman know what the Conservative party's policy on fishing is in the Welsh Assembly?
I would make a choice there. If we can determine the development of the Conservatives' policy on fishing by their behaviour and comments today, although I do not know what their policy is in the Welsh Assembly, I would guess that it is probably for the birds.
This is a serious debate about the future of the fishing industry. The industry is at a point of crisis and needs to make sure that any future plans ensure that sustainable fishery can continue in the long-term future. We need a sustainable fishing industry and sustainable stocks, and we need to make sure that our processors have output supplies.
Already in this debate it has been mentioned that WWF has produced an excellent policy proposal, which is certainly worth serious consideration in future discussion. Adopting an approach that involves a recovery plan for both stock and the industry will take concerted effort and will require, as WWF indicated, investment rather than subsidy. WWF is not simply playing with words, as it is a question of investing in the future. The costs attached to that policy are unclear, and, having discussed them with WWF, I am currently undertaking inquiries to try to get an indication of what they are likely to be. I would welcome the Minister's comments and advice on that.
Even if that policy were to cost in the region of £0.5 billion over a five-year period, as it would establish a sustainable fishing industry in the long term, all parties—and I shall certainly ask Liberal Democrat Treasury spokespeople to do this—should look seriously at whether it is an investment that the country is prepared to make. We need to look seriously at how we will haul ourselves out of the crisis that the industry is in at present. I look forward to future opportunities to debate that.
It is with pleasure that I participate in this debate on an important and serious issue. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for visiting Fleetwood again and for showing his willingness to come and listen to the concerns of the whole fishing industry—not only fishermen but the onshore operation and all the other elements that are involved. My hon. Friend impresses everybody with his knowledge of the industry and with his commitment to seeing what is happening on the ground and in the seas.
I want to restate some of the issues that were raised with my hon. Friend during his visit and about which the Fleetwood Fish Forum has written separately to him. They are important and we want them to be addressed, as there is huge strength of community feeling about the industry. We have heard some references to the House of Lords report on unsustainable fishing, which is an interesting document. Paragraph 4 of the report speaks of the relatively minor economic importance of fish in the national economies of EU states and of its disproportionate impact on coastal communities.
I agree with that view. In my constituency, 1,000 jobs are at stake in a small town. The issue is not just about jobs. It has to be looked at in the historical context of a town that started as a fishing village and grew into the third largest port in the country. That town has now seen its fishing industry decline. We all want to halt that decline, to rebuild the fishing industry and to protect what we have. Paragraph 85 of the report proposes the following objective for reform of the common fisheries policy:
To expand and make more accessible socio-economic restructuring and support for fishing communities where fishing capacity is reduced, and to introduce short-term transitional assistance to alleviate the immediate economic consequences of the introduction of more rigorous conservation measures.
Yes please. That sums up the feeling in my constituency exactly.
The Fleetwood Fish Forum is unique, as it brings together catchers, processors and merchants, as well as representatives of the port authority and the local council. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) said, it is vital for all elements of the fishing industry to come together and try to ensure the continuation of a viable industry. Although those elements sometimes have competing interests, they are forming a united force in Fleetwood and arguing the case together.
The Irish sea cod recovery programme is now in its second year. Lessons should be learned from its first year, especially as we are now considering the introduction of similar policies in the North sea. Last year, the closure of the fishing grounds came with short notice and caused serious problems for Fleetwood. Those problems affected not only the inshore fleet, which was tied up, but the merchants and processors. If less fish is being caught, less will be landed, less will be sold in the auction hall and less will be processed. In other words, everybody is affected.
That is not to say that my local fishing industry did not agree that something had to be done. As has been pointed out, the main problem is the shortage of fish, which must be dealt with. However, that must be done without destroying the industry. Any programme must ensure that there is an industry that can take advantage when cod and other fish stocks recover.
First, why is there a fish shortage? It is largely because of overfishing. Secondly, when cod goes, it does not always come back. What occurred off the coasts of Canada and Iceland shows that, once cod is overfished, it disappears for ever.
In a way, that intervention makes my point for me. The Irish sea has been overfished for a long time, but that is not all; it is now being fished by vessels that were not working in the area 50 or 100 years ago. Giant beamers are scooping up everything from the sea bed, after which nothing is left. That is why I shall go on to speak about technical measures such as horsepower limitation.
I noted with interest the remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) about the inshore fleet in Fleetwood. When last year's closures were announced, I spoke to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who agreed to meet a delegation representing the Fleetwood fishing industry. We raised several issues with him, including the effect on the inshore fleet of tying up vessels. I also raised with him the matter of compensation, as I have since done in correspondence. I understand that none of the nations involved in the Irish sea cod recovery programme paid compensation to their vessels.
This afternoon, however, we heard the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire refuse to say whether a Conservative Government would pay compensation. That is not what some people in my constituency are saying, so I shall take that message back to them. When my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary received the Fleetwood delegation, he listened to its concerns and introduced changes to the Irish sea programme. I am very pleased that the eastern Irish sea has remained open in this year's programme and that Fleetwood's vessels have not been tied up.
One issue remains to be clarified: the scientific advice on which the Irish sea programme is based. As my hon. Friend said, he agreed to put scientists on some of the vessels to examine the effect of their activity on cod and some of the other stocks. He will know that there is a dispute between my local fishermen and scientists about some of the scientific data and about the impact on cod of the beamers' efforts in catching plaice and sole. My local fishermen certainly believe that sole and cod are being adversely affected by some of the fishing practices of the powerful beam trawlers from Belgium and the Netherlands. Such trawlers may catch female sole before they have reached breeding maturity, and also have a significant cod by-catch, which includes juvenile and breeding cod and so affects the fish stocks' ability to recover. I fully support the Fleetwood fish forum's proposal to increase mesh sizes above the current 80 mm level, as well as its request for more scientific trials to establish the impact on remaining stocks of fishing by the beamers.
As I understand it, last year's trial occurred in April. I am told that the cod had by that time been dispersed in the Irish sea. The main cod season in the area seems to be February and March. If that is the case, it is vital for an independent and properly supervised trial to occur at that time in order to assess the impact on cod and other stocks of plaice and sole beam trawling.
The fishing community is now much more willing to listen to scientific advice. In the past, the fishermen have often relied on their anecdotal accounts of where the fish are, where they are spawning and how many of them there are. Scientists have provided other accounts of fish stock levels, and the industry is now more willing to accept a scientific analysis of the basis of fish supply. It is important for us to continue to reassure fishermen in respect of the scientific advice on the basis of which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and his European Community colleagues make their decisions. I hope that he will consider conducting a trial that is seen to be independent and to be dealing the cod at the time when, according to fishermen, they are present.
The adverse impact of the closure on my fishing community prompts me to urge my hon. Friend to consider mesh sizes and horsepower reduction as more effective conservation measures. When my hon. Friend came to Fleetwood, we discussed with him the possibility of a horsepower restriction on a box inside the 12-mile limit. That would benefit the inshore fleet and be a good start in conveying the message to fishermen that such measures need to be examined. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to consider the matter further and offer some reassurances.
Other hon. Members have referred to financing the fishing industry. Like them, I have read the WWF report that was published last year. It makes some interesting points, as does the more recent Select Committee report. We need to consider financial support not only for fishermen but for the onshore industry, which needs to examine modernising port infrastructure. Many facilities in the port in Fleetwood were designed for a time when we had a large distant-water fleet. That fleet no longer exists, and we need to consider the port infrastructure. However, the funding is not available to help us to do that. European Union structural funds are available through the financial instrument for fisheries guidance, but it is difficult to find the necessary matching funding to access it.
Paragraph 94 of the Select Committee report states that no further support should
be available for the modernisation and renewal of member states' fleets.
That is all right for member states that have already accessed funds and modernised, but our vessels in Fleetwood are 25 to 30 years old. They need modernisation and support to enable them to compete when the recovery plan makes fish available for them to catch. I understand the problems of scrap-and-build, and of replacing low horsepower vessels with more powerful ones. I have already argued that I do not support the concept of having much more powerful vessels in the Irish sea. However, I urge the Minister to consider the sort of help that can be given to the ageing British fleet. My constituents believe that they are at a disadvantage when compared with other European countries. They would like to compete on a level playing field.
Paragraph 93 of the Select Committee report states:
Funds for new vessels should be generated from the industry itself.
How? The equity in many vessels that fish from Fleetwood has reduced as quotas and catches have reduced. Those vessels are no longer a viable proposition. Fishermen cannot go to a bank manager and say, "Please give me money", when that manager has seen from television reports that the fish are not there to catch. Where will those fishermen go? We must consider the efforts that we can make in the short and medium term to support our industry so that it can compete and fish for the stocks that we are trying to protect for the future.
Despite all the difficulties, there is still optimism in Fleetwood. People continue to work together; they want to do that, and they offer positive solutions. They do not throw up their hands in horror and say, "Oh dear, we're all going out of business. We won't accept scientific advice or new technical measures, and we won't work together." The opposite is true. They want to work together, consider technical measures and what they can do to help the industry to succeed. Hon. Members should encourage them to do that.
Last year's WWF report mentioned financial help. My hon. Friend the Minister said that MAFF has no money. I shall back his attempts to get money from any other source because that is important.
I shall sum up, because other hon. Members want to speak in this important debate. Total allowable catches and quotas do not protect breeding and spawning grounds; they do not help to redress the imbalance—
The Minister will not be surprised and is doubtless pleased to hear that I did not agree with all his comments. However, he began by rightly drawing attention to the fishermen who died this year. We always have such an exchange, and it is no empty or idle formula. Those of us who know something about the fishing industry appreciate that it is a desperately dangerous way of earning a living in this day and age. The Minister was right to draw attention to that at the outset.
It is inevitable in such debates that we consider the past and the future. We have heard many references to the history of the matters that we are discussing. That is necessary, because we can begin to work out our policy for the future only by understanding the past. Any fisherman who passed through London and decided to come to the House today to listen to the debate would ask two questions. First, he would ask, "How did we ever get into this position?" Secondly, he would ask, "What is to be done about it?"
My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) referred to an article in The Sunday Telegraph on 14 January by Christopher Booker. My right hon. Friend took strong exception to it, and I can understand his view. The same argument has been used by authors other than Mr. Booker, and my right hon. Friend has a remedy in law, if he wishes to take it. However, parts of the article should be considered because it did not consist only of argument. The implications of two quotations should be considered.
Mr. Booker used the 30-year rule to find several documents that are available to everyone. He discovered that Ministers and officials used an ominous phrase to describe what they were about to do to the British fishing industry. On attempting to defend it, they said that it was not worth wasting "limited negotiating capital" on it. If the implications of that are not sufficiently severe, the article quoted a memo from the Scottish Office on 9 November 1970. It stated:
in the wider UK context they—
must be regarded as expendable.
I am grateful to Mr. Booker, but it does not take access under the 30-year rule to reach that conclusion.
On the morning of 13 December 1971, the late Geoffrey Rippon gave away control of our national waters. In the afternoon, he made a statement to the House of Commons to say that he had achieved the opposite. The exchanges in Hansard are worth reading. After Geoffrey Rippon's opening address, which set out his great triumph in protecting British sovereignty, he was quizzed by several Labour and Conservative Members. The most searing comment was made by Lord Healey, who said:
First, is it not clear that anyone who studies the Minister's statement will be unable to agree with him that the agreement that he has reached on fisheries is not a purely transitional agreement
giving no guarantees whatever after 1982? Is it not the case that the Minister has abandoned the undertaking to secure continuing arrangements subject to a review in which Britain would be able to veto any changes in these arrangements? Yet these are undertakings that he gave to the House in the last debate, and, indeed, at his own party conference a few weeks earlier.—[Official Report, 13 December 1971; Vol. 828, c. 54.]
Lord Healey said that within minutes of the announcement about the common fisheries policy.
In the same year, a White Paper was circulated to every house in the country. I was younger and more innocent then, and had not appreciated the role that irony plays in such matters. The White Paper stated:
There is no question of Britain losing essential sovereignty.
No question at all—we had just lost it. I understand the way my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup feels about the brief but turbulent period of his premiership all those years ago. However, his judgment on those times is not universally shared in the House or the country. Many believe that the historical record shows that some people thought, perhaps entirely genuinely, that their actions were worth taking. Many years after he left the House, Geoffrey Rippon was asked why he did not explain in the afternoon what he had done in the morning. He said that it was because he would never have got it through the House of Commons. There were then, and there still are today, those who find "Ode to Joy" a more comfortable tune to march to than "Land of Hope and Glory". That may be difficult for a Conservative to say, but it is also necessary.
One of the things that Mr. Booker said—the Minister has said it too, and the Liberals will always say this sort of thing, because a tendency to do so will always out—was that the Tories were not entitled to criticise what has gone on in the past, and that they should not be allowed to do so because of the historical record. It is necessary, sometimes, for political parties to admit that they got it wrong. Until the Conservative party was able to admit that it had got the common fisheries policy wrong, it was in no position to make constructive proposals about how to rectify the matter. That is why it was necessary for the Conservative party to come to terms with what was done all those years ago in 1971.
It might seem that what was done in 1971 could exonerate the Labour party. In addition to the comments that I read out from Lord Healey, others were made on the issue by Lord Shore—Peter Shore, as he then was. Judged at that time, one might say that the Labour party was in a position to criticise. However, it has now adopted the same agenda. In saying that the common fisheries policy not only constitutes the problem but contains the seeds of a solution, it is adopting the big lie that was perpetrated all those years ago. We are therefore entitled—latterly—to brand the Labour party with that.
The Labour party now argues that the CFP in its present form has within it, in some peculiar way, the seeds of redemption for the fishing industry. It does not. The common fisheries policy is based on the proposition of discard, and the proposition that millions of fish may be thrown back into the sea, dead, every year. In 1998 alone, an estimated 45 million saithe were thrown back. That was not a mistake or a misapplication of the common fisheries policy, but specifically because of it.
Other abominations happen within the common fisheries policy. The House often discusses under-age fish being caught under the terms of the CFP. People who do not know the history of the policy believe that we should be able to introduce technical measures to deal with that. However, the reason that certain species of fish are caught under-age is because it is written into the CFP arrangements that that can be done. The Spaniards like eating under-sized fish.
The rape of the fishing grounds by industrial fishing has not happened by accident. It is all about the common fisheries policy. It is the inevitable consequence when a country that owned four fifths of the waters of what is now the European Union gives them away under equal access provisions, and receives in return two fifths by volume, or one sixth by value. That is what we get when countries with no interest in fishing—indeed, they need not even have a coastline—are entitled to invoke the principle of equal access. That is the business that we are in.
The one date that the Minister did not dare to mention was 2003. I can well understand that, because many people think that we are dealing with the full effects of the common fisheries policy now, as bad as it is. However, that is not the case. Those of us who have examined this issue know that we are operating under exceptions to the CFP, and the consequences of that will come home to roost in 2003. If that happens, there will be total equal access to our waters. I do not know what shabby deal the Minister has already struck to ensure that he will not have to admit to the House that such total equal access is in place. However, the price demanded will be very high.
If we examine the history of this matter, the reasons behind it, and the agenda of setting up a Greater Europe, and consider what has happened to our fisheries since then, we cannot say that the common fisheries policy can possibly come to the aid of our fishermen. There is only one solution to this problem, which the Conservative party has, to its credit, finally grasped. That is the concept of national control.
The Minister and his royal satraps, the Liberal Democrats, may chortle away about some Conservative MEP. I do not know how these things are done in the Labour party—nothing at all is done in the Liberal party—[Interruption.] I will say this to the Minister, because I would rather deal with the organ grinder. It is not MEPs who establish party policy in the Conservative party. That is done by the leadership of the party. I understand why Ministers scratch around trying to attack a policy that they know is the right one, resulting in their coming up with the names of obscure Conservative MEPs. However, if that is the best that the Minister can do, it is not good enough.
The hon. Gentleman may recall that, in the European Standing Committee, we raised the issue of the culling of seals. On that occasion, I quoted the leader of the Conservative group in the European Parliament, who has visited my constituency. He suggested that Conservative policy was to cull seals because of their effect on fish stocks. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether that is Conservative policy, or does he stand by his earlier comment about how policy is formulated in the Conservative party?
Fishermen all over the country, including the west country, are seeing their whole way of life devastated and destroyed, yet the hon. Gentleman thinks that he is making a clever point by talking about seal culling. That is contemptible.
The reason that national control can work is not because it will be conceded by Europe. Of course, it will not be—any more than Lady Thatcher's original budget rebate was conceded. That rebate was not negotiated. It came from a Government and a Prime Minister who had the confidence to say what they meant, and to believe in what they said. They were prepared to say, "This matters to us desperately, and therefore we are going to have it."
There is no possibility of the Labour Government approaching fishing with that degree of resolution, and anyone who doubts the forecast need only look at the history books. In the dying years of the previous Conservative Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry)—then the Minister responsible for fisheries—made it clear that, to deal with quota-hopping, he was prepared to say that no other progress could be made at any other treaty negotiations until that point was conceded. He said that because, belatedly, it mattered that much.
At the time, the then Leader of the Opposition said that the issue mattered to him that much as well. He also said that when the Labour party won the election, his position would be the same. What happened? When Labour came into office, Ministers said that there was no support for their position, so they would give in. The issue did not matter enough to them. The fate of the British fishing industry matters enough to us that we shall not take no for an answer.
Even a debate as serious as this must have its lighter moments, so I shall turn for a moment to the Liberal party. It does not understand that its policy—which it claims is the policy of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations—has been comprehensively rubbished by the Government. The Government, not the Liberal Democrats, would have to lead with such a policy.
The Minister is looking through his papers and cannot find the submission put to him by his own civil servants, saying what they thought of the Liberal party's policy. I will send him a copy later. I have many such documents, if he ever runs out. However, it was scathing in saying that the policy could not work. For the Liberal Democrats to say that they had the paper commissioned by people who did not know what they were talking about is not on.
If we carry on applying the CFP, we shall have to come back every year for more of the same. More dead fish will be slung back in the sea and there will be less hope for the British fishing industry. What is need is a party that has the guts to admit what it did wrong in the past and to face the consequences of that. We also need national control, and that cannot come a moment too soon.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. I was also pleased that the business managers and the Minister listened to what many hon. Members said in the Standing Committee about the need for a debate. Our procedure on this occasion needs to be closely looked at for future reference, as it is much more businesslike and removes some of the fireworks that have appeared in previous debates.
I am speaking on behalf of the fishing communities of Scarborough and Whitby. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) decided to concentrate on the history of the situation rather than the future. I represent a community in Whitby that had a tendency to look far too much to the past rather than the future. However, my fishing community—just like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble)—which includes fishermen, fish merchants and other producers, has worked together to create a forum that looks after the interests of the north Yorkshire coast. That community is very much looking to the future.
As the Minister knows, I am keen for him to visit Scarborough and Whitby soon to meet people who would like an opportunity to engage him on the subject of the industry's future. There is great optimism among people working in that vital part of my community.
In an intervention on the hon. Member for Teignbridge, I touched on the issue of the amount of fish taken by seals. When the Minister comes to Scarborough and Whitby, my local fishermen will want to raise that issue with him. I hope that he will take this as early notice of one question that he will be asked, and that he will seek scientific advice to deploy when the occasion arises. I understand that, in the House of Lords Select Committee report, Lord Jopling said that seal culling is vital to preserving fish stocks in the North sea. It is a problem around the British coast and I hope that the Minister will give it serious consideration.
I have been told by the fisheries forum in the north-east of Yorkshire that about 1,000 of my constituents are involved in the fishing industry, which plays a vital part in the area's economic life. Indeed, who would ever think of Whitby and Scarborough without thinking of its sea fish and the beautiful scenery in the port area? Although we are in many ways a community that has been declining since about the 1860s, those who work in the industry have innovated and literally changed tack, going out to look for other fish stocks and other ways of making a living.
The Minister will recall that I raised in correspondence with him the important issue of recreational fishing, which brings considerable extra revenue into the Whitby community. I am sure that that issue, too, will be raised with him when he visits—as will the salmon fishery on the Esk and, especially, the shellfish industry in my constituency.
The shellfish industry is a recent notable success, but that is due partly to the environmental catastrophe affecting our cod stocks. The northward drift of cod, combined with increased North sea temperatures, has given juvenile shellfish a better chance of survival. Some marine scientists say that a shellfish's chance of reaching maturity have increased to about 50 per cent. Consequently, the shellfish industry is flourishing, mitigating some of the effects of lower landings in the area. In recent years, landings at the ports of Scarborough and Whitby—unlike those of my colleagues from the Aberdeen area, which has had 40 per cent. reductions—are down by about 16 per cent.
The primary argument has been put strongly in today's Yorkshire Post. One of my constituents, Mr. Arnold Locker, the managing director of Lockers Trawler Ltd., of Whitby, has eight cod boats. He said that, because of yesterday's announcement, in the next year those cod boats will switch to catching prawns. His decision demonstrates the spirit that exists at the Whitby quayside, where people in the private sector are innovating and going forward.
Arnold Locker employs 56 crewmen and 40 people in a cod-processing factory. The Yorkshire Post rightly reports that morale is at rock bottom and that there is real difficulty in persuading and motivating crews to go out together to earn a living in the North sea. Mr. Locker said:
we've had to change from cod to prawn and it's going to cost me £1 million in gear, a cost which will have to be borne by everyone, owners and everyone.
It's a very worrying situation because we're still waiting for the technical measures to be announced on mesh size for nets which will dictate whether or not we can go for prawn.
Mr. Locker's statement epitomises the type of story that I have been hearing regularly from my constituents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) clearly said, there can be no other industry that has such difficulty in forward planning. I should like to take this opportunity to welcome the Minister's preference for multi-annual targeting and a more structured long-term strategic approach to managing our industry.
I have noticed in the past few months that there is a new attitude among those who work on the quayside, those who want to go to sea and those work in Scarborough and Whitby's fish processing companies. I think that there is a growing realisation that solutions will be based on an international response. Although the cod recovery programme has been welcomed, the welcome comes with a small caveat. We desperately need transitional support for people such as Arnold Locker, so that they can implement the changes necessary to sustain work and businesses in communities such as those in Scarborough and Whitby.
Those communities are very remote from the main centres of our country. The community that I represent has qualified for objective 2 structural funding because of the decline in our fishing industry and its failure since the second world war. We have to change, set up partnerships and go forward. I still believe that there is a role for the regional development agencies it that process. The Minister may be aware that, over the Christmas period, I had meetings with the Yorkshire Forward RDA to try to persuade it to take a greater and more comprehensive interest in the serious economic needs of Yorkshire's relatively small communities. Such an interest is vital to the communities that I represent.
The impact of yesterday's announcement was summed up by Mr. Ian Duncan, the secretary of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. Last night, in conversations with people from Scarborough, I was asked to quote him in the debate. He said:
We were expecting to lose a leg. Yesterday we lost a foot.
That summarises the feelings of people in coastal and fishing communities around the country. An amputation is occurring in the industry.
The Government are making real efforts to launch a concerted attack on social exclusion and poverty in many communities. However, if they do not act in areas such as Scarborough and Whitby, we shall be wasting good objective 2 funding and innovative action. Without that action, jobs will be created for the long-term unemployed in some areas, while the 1,000 people working in the fishing industry in my constituency will continue to face problems.
The current situation is not in kilter. I urge the Minister and all hon. Members who represent fishing communities to follow the initiative that I and other members of the all-party fisheries group are promoting to lobby and to argue the case for fishing communities with the Treasury. If there were ever a need for a joined-up approach, this is it.
I commend to the Minister a document that I think he mentioned himself—the World Wide Fund for Nature report entitled "Choose or Lose", by Malcolm McGarvie and Sarah Jones and published in December 2000. It deals with the recovery plan for UK fish stocks, and I consider it to be a very learned report. The executive summary provides a good blueprint, if taken in conjunction with the document produced by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, entitled "Zonal management: a new vision for your fisheries".
The report shows how the fisheries industry can be sustainable. It is, as I have said, a blueprint for what should happen after we have completed the five or so years of the recovery plan—a plan that is being brought about through international partnership, international effort and the good offices of the Minister, who has argued the case for a sustainable industry. Sustainability, however, cannot be delivered by the industry or the fishing communities alone; it will require the help of the Treasury—of central Government—through whatever mechanism is necessitated.
I told my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) earlier that I did not think the Treasury was taking a negative attitude. I think it is taking an ill-informed attitude, and that it behoves us all to fill the vacuum.
I understand from the document released in Brussels yesterday that the plan must be implemented by 1 May 2001. Some weeks remain to us, but there is a missing component, which is not in the control of the fisheries Minister: we need a certain approach from the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—indeed, an approach from Departments across Government. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether any innovation is taking place at the highest level of Government, and whether the effects on remote communities are being considered.
The parallels are clear. These strike me as being similar to problems that have faced the coalmining community, or indeed the steel industry's problems in the Minister's own town of Scunthorpe. We need a national initiative—a UK across-the-board initiative. The key partners, along with central Government, local government and regional agencies, must unite in producing a sustainable plan that is properly funded.
The Minister visited my constituency several times in a different capacity—as countryside Minister. If he does so again we can promise him an interesting and challenging day. I hope that whenever that day comes—in the next few weeks, perhaps—he will address some of the issues that I have raised.
As it is Burns night, I have spent most of my time here trying to find a quote from the bard that would sum up the Minister's opening speech. I came up with Burns's "Epistle to Robert Graham". Graham represented Dumfries in this place in the late 18th century. The poet wrote:
Pity the best of words should be but wind.
That is appropriate, because these were the best of words. The Minister is the first fisheries Minister in living memory, or at least in my memory, who has known much about the industry, and that is to his credit. If his knowledge is not translated into action, however, all his fine words will serve the industry and our fishing communities no better than his predecessors, who knew and, perhaps, cared so much less.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) summed up the position. I find that our paths are converging increasingly, which no doubt worries both of us. He said that the Minister was a Minister of maximum good will but minimal money. What I want to do is persuade the Minister that that maximum good will should be translated into maximum financial support during the difficult period ahead.
I want to concentrate on the cod recovery plan, before saying something about the future of the common fisheries policy—if, indeed, there is one—and how that future can be sustained not just north but south of the border. As was appropriate, the Minister began by paying tribute to those who have lost their lives at sea. That should remind us all that this is a special industry full of special people and special communities, to whom we owe a special obligation.
I would not argue that the economic pressures on the industry and the safety issues are always directly related. Many fishing incidents are not due to economic pressure. However, the combination of younger skippers and older boats going to ever more distant waters is increasingly dangerous, and economic pressure is a factor in the safety concerns to which the Minister rightly drew our attention.
The cod recovery plan is, of course, much better than the original. I have the infamous "sausage" here, whose design may or may not have been drawn up by David Armstrong. Some say that it was drawn up by a MAFF official, no less. In any event, this map would have decimated the Scottish fishing industry. There is no doubt about that. It is the one thing on which I agree with Tory Front Benchers: the map could have been designed to aim not a sausage but a dagger at the heart of the Scottish industry.
Here we have the new—as of yesterday—corporate company plan: a much more sensible plan, which owes much more to the contribution of fishermen themselves. However, as has been said by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, it involves not minimal but substantial sacrifice—the sacrifice of fishing opportunities over the coming months in the short term, let alone what will happen over the next five years.
A phenomenal amount of effort has been involved. If we had been told a few years ago that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the NFFO would come up with a plan involving the closure of fishing areas and the unilateral pursuing in Scotland of the square mesh panel as a conservation device, we would have found it difficult to believe. Yet all Members now receive letters from the various environmental organisations saying that the fishermen are right.
All the efforts of the leaders of the fishing industry, especially in Scotland, to carry their members down the line of conservation will be reduced to nothing unless the cod recovery plan is supported by an economic recovery plan for the fishing communities.
The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but he seemed to refer, in relation to the £100 million, to "plucking figures out of thin air", as if attacking the industry for talking it in terms of such a sum. The Minister shakes his head. I do not know whether he is denying the quote or trying to redress what he said.
Why should such a sum be regarded as out of the question? The Conservative Government had to compensate vessels sailing under flags of convenience to the tune of £100 millon. The Government obviously and rightly regard the west midlands car industry as a strategic industry, and several hundred million pounds has been offered to major car companies to sustain employment. Fishing employs 25,000 people in Scotland and, I suspect, about the same number south of the border. It is a major strategic resource-based industry and it is entitled to look for roughly similar financial support in current circumstances.
If the Minister was saying that he wants to see more detailed projections, fair enough. If he was dismissing out of hand an economic claim for such support, that was fundamentally wrong, given the economic sacrifice that will be made. Although he did not use the phrase, he meant that the Fontainebleau agreement had been an albatross round the neck of the fishing industry over the past 15 years. He was absolutely right, and he and I long argued with Tory Fishing Ministers about that very point. He was correct that, under the terms of the agreement, 71p of every £1 given in aid to the fishing industry would be funded by the UK Exchequer, but that still seems to me a net gain of 29p in each pound. That should therefore be pursued.
The industry has been caught on the rough end of the Fontainebleau agreement and the rough end of the UK rebate. Given that billions of pounds have come back to the UK Treasury over the past 15 years as a result of the agreement, and given that fishing, by the Minister's own admission, has suffered under that agreement, is not the industry entitled to ask, "Shouldn't we get a fraction of that money, which has been acquired to our detriment?" That is why I should be delighted to be part of a cross-party delegation to the Treasury. I hope that we can make that very point and that we shall have the Minister's support in making it.
The economics of the industry are fragile, but the Minister must act, and act quickly, on one area. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) said that one of his boats, deprived of the opportunity to fish for cod, will switch to prawns if it can afford to regear. That will not be the only cod boat that diverts to other fishery, whether for other white fish species or prawns. More boats in Scotland pursue prawn fishery than any other fishery. If major white fish boats divert to prawn fishery, the knock-on effect will destabilise it and will progress, species by species, as the diversion of effort causes chaos in the industry.
The Minister must respond to that. There is no point in waiting to see if that happens, saying, "It might not, and fish prices might go up." It is going to happen. The Minister was told by one of his own Back Benchers that it is happening in his constituency, and I can tell the Minister that it will happen in mine. This is a classic example of when a compensated lay-up scheme should be employed as a short-term measure for the next few months. I have not suggested such a scheme as a long-term policy, but emergency lay-up must be used to restrict effort and to allow the cod recovery plan to take emergency effect. The Catalonian fleet is laid up at European expense and, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby pointed out, at ours. This is precisely the time at which to employ such a device.
I do not mind the Minister taking time to think about decommissioning, although I do support it. I remember the decommissioning money in the early 1980s disappearing up the Humber; I remember the disaster of that decommissioning scheme. I remember, too, that it so poisoned the view of the Tory Minister responsible that he blamed everyone apart from himself and refused to introduce a decommissioning scheme in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was sensible to do so. He must find a way to act now to stop the effects of boats diverting to other species. If he does not do so, all the sacrifice, or a greater part of it, made under the cod recovery programme could destabilise other scarce white fish and prawn fishery. He must respond to those concerns.
I have heard it said—not by the Minister, but by other Ministers in another Parliament—that things are perhaps not too bad, in that although quotas are much lower this year, catch was lower than quota for many species. That overlooks a frightening point. The finances of the white fish boats and many white fish processors have been shot to pieces. Young lads in my constituency go to sea for £10,000 to £12,000 a year. The Minister noted the danger of a life at sea; such remuneration will not keep people in the industry.
The processing sector has long paid low wages in many factories, and they are certainly not getting any better. Those of us with processing factories in our constituencies know that there is pressure on overtime, which many people needed as part of their substantive pay. It is no longer there. There is already pressure on low-paid workers. The industry's finances are in a severe condition. One cannot say that conditions will not get any worse than last year. They probably will, but last year crippled the industry's finances. That is why I say that an economic recovery plan must address those points. It must support and encourage the catching sector and the processing sector.
There are many ways to calculate the overall support given to the British industry, compared with the industries in other European countries and in relation to the size of the fleet. The Minister says that the French Minister often moans to him about tax, but I asked the Library of the Scottish Parliament last week to relate the financial transfers into the fishing industry to the size of a country's national wealth. That is a realistic way to look at the matter, and the figures are overwhelmingly clear.
On that basis, Ireland's support for its fishing industry is 10 times the UK support level. The support given by Portugal and Spain is six times the UK level. Support in Denmark is five times the UK level, and in Sweden and Finland it is twice the UK level. The support in France is only marginally above the UK level. Those competitive fleets and industries enjoy far greater support than ours.
The Minister said that the industry could expect to receive money through the financial instrument for fisheries guidance budget, but that is a mere 1 per cent. of the budget for rural affairs in Scotland, never mind the total budget for public spending. I am sure that the situation south of the border is no better. It might even be worse.
The fishing industry has not had its hand in the public purse or received substantial financial support. It is in deep trouble, and is entitled to financial support over the next few difficult months, and over the longer term.
That brings me to the future of the common fisheries policy. I shall not join in Conservative attacks on the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), but a Scottish Office paper released under the 30-year rule responded to a demand for a meeting by one of my predecessors, the former Member of Parliament for Aberdeenshire, East, Patrick Woolridge-Gordon, by stating that, in the wider UK context, fishermen must be regarded as "expendable".
It is not a figment of fishermen's imagination that the industry has been traded away for other UK objectives. That has been a clear pattern over the past 10 or 15 years in European negotiations, such as those on enlargement of the EU and accelerated Spanish access to the west coast. The industry wants priorities to change.
The CFP can be sustained only if there is equivalent funding with other competitive fleets, and if the Government give our industry as great a priority as the Danes and the Spanish give their industries. If the Minister is not prepared to do that, I shall quote him another few lines from the same Burns poem that I mentioned earlier:
Lord, send a rough-shod troop o'Hell
O'er a'wad Scotland buy or sell,
To grind them in the mire. I am sure that the Minister would not want to be ground in the mire by his refusal to offer support for an industry in its time of need.
It is pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn). I make no apology for echoing some of the points that they raised.
I want to speak briefly on behalf of the fishing community in my constituency, principally in North Shields and Cullercoats. North Shields is an important fishing port in terms of the region that it serves and forms a significant part of the employment base in my constituency. An estimated 450 jobs depend on fishing in North Shields. That number is small when compared with some of the figures quoted by other hon. Members, but the jobs are important to us none the less.
It is stating the obvious to say that the announcement on closed areas in the North sea will prove very difficult for fishing communities, especially in the short term. Ironically, however, there will be a sense of relief in parts of North Shields. I understand that there was a proposal from some of our colleagues in Europe that areas adjacent to the north-east coast would be included in the list. I am delighted that the British delegation argued strongly against that, and that that will not now happen. That is the right decision—otherwise relatively small boats from North Shields would have been pushed further and further afield, making safety more of an issue. However, the measures proposed on closed areas will have a significant impact on fishermen the length and breadth of the east coast.
I listened with great care to comments from the Opposition Benches. I am to some extent sympathetic to and certainly acknowledge the concerns of fishermen in their hostility to the common fisheries policy. The CFP appears to have very few close friends, which is why it is in need of such radical reform next year. However, we should not take lectures from the Conservative party, which signed up to it in the first place and were in office for most of the time it has been in operation.
I understand that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) came to my constituency at the end of last year. I say "understand" because he did not do me the courtesy of telling me that he was coming. He must have warned the fishermen, though, because they immediately put out to sea. I understand from press reports that he gave the clear impression that any future Conservative Government would pull out of the common fisheries policy. As I understand it, he has effectively repeated that statement today.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of national interest and national control, yet he complained that the shortcomings of the common fisheries policy in the past were due to states fighting for their national interests on quotas. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) quoted, as an authority, the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), a former fisheries Minister, and I am quite prepared to accept his words as quoted. However, the hon. Member for Banbury further said that people cannot argue for repatriating agriculture and fisheries policy without recognising that that would effectively mean withdrawal from the common agriculture policy and the common fisheries policy and that that is achievable only by withdrawal from the European Union. That is evidence that while bandwagons look like tempting vehicles in opposition, they do not make very reliable ones in government.
As a Government, we have a responsibility to the fishing community and the 450 jobs in North Shields. We also have a responsibility to the wider community, and withdrawal from the EU would put at risk 60,000 jobs in Tyne and Wear alone.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example. In a month's time, Atmel will reopen the Siemens factory in my constituency, creating 1,000 jobs in the short term, and we hope that the figure will double over the next few months. Atmel came largely because we are a member of the European Union. My point is that we must do what we can for the fishing community but, at the same time, there must be a balance.
The fishing industry will face problems when it comes to the closed areas. The fishermen who I talk to do not hesitate to use the word "crisis". As we have heard, in some areas, the fish are simply not there for the taking. In the North sea last year, only 80 per cent. of the cod quota was actually found. If the fish stocks are simply not there, this is not an academic argument about whether we have the right to take fish. In accepting the emergency measures, we have to make sure that when they have come to an end—successfully, we hope—we have a sustainable UK fishing industry. As the House of Lords Select Committee report pointed out, there is no certainty about the ability of the marine eco-system to put right decades of damage, or the speed with which it might do so.
Like the fishermen of Scarborough and Whitby, North Shields fishermen have always had to adapt to difficult and dangerous circumstances. As one fishermen told me recently, "If we can't take cod, we take haddock." However, the extent of the quota cut and the closed areas will inevitably lead to competition for other species, thus adding to the pressure on prawn fisheries—as my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) confirmed. We need short to medium-term help while stocks recover; in the longer term, we must address the imbalance between fleet and stock capacity.
North Shields fishermen complain to me about increased compliance costs—I suspect that they have always done so. However, as the situation gets more difficult, it is harder for the boats to survive. For example, the cost of a Maritime and Coastguard Agency survey is about £70 an hour; for a fairly small boat that means an up-front cost of about £1,500. There is no longer an inspector at North Shields, so a journey has to be made to Glasgow or Hull.
Light dues, which I understand were introduced by the Conservative Government, can be between £3,000 and £4,000 a year. Some fishermen find it difficult to accept the dues; they argue that equipment already installed on their boats means that they do not need the lights. Nevertheless, they have to pay the dues.
The relatively high costs of fuel have been mentioned. No doubt it is true—as we have been told—that it is illegal to subsidise fuel. As has been pointed out, however, the French, the Italians, the Spanish and the Portuguese appear to find ways around that.
There are costs in complying with safety standards. I do not want to give the it impression that fishermen do not care about safety or that they want to cut corners—of course they do not—but the want to know that, if the costs of safety compliance are high, help may be available to enable them to cope. Such costs might be as much as £10,000 or £15,000 for a fairly small boat.
There are also the costs of training grants, although my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has already reassured us on that matter.
The costs I have given may appear to be quite small individually, but added together they mean that an awful lot of fish would have to be caught before a boat could make a profit. I realise that my hon. Friend has heard these concerns before, so I underline the point made by other hon. Members: perhaps the Treasury should be listening—as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) implied.
As well as helping fishermen ride out the storm and remain in the industry, we need to take a longer view. That might mean considering help for fishermen who need to or want to leave the industry. There is an imbalance between fleet and stock capacity that could well be addressed by a properly funded decommissioning scheme. There is a case for compensating boat owners, but it is just as important that we consider compensation and alternative employment opportunities for the people who work on the boats. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred to the review of salmon drift-net fishing in the north-east, which recommended buying out the remaining 71 licences in order to conserve salmon stocks—funding for which appears to be available.
I hope that the Treasury will realise that there is an urgent need for transitional aid, and that the structural funds of £60 million already pledged for the next few years will find their way to other regions as well as to the south-west. Fishermen are not subsidy junkies—nor am I—but, as times get harder, there is a strong case for help.
If a factory in North Shields employing 450 people was in danger of going out of business, and if that was symptomatic of a problem in a countrywide industry, I should want measures to be implemented. I should want a taskforce both to save those jobs that could be saved and to help people who no longer had a future in that industry to make a transition. I strongly support the message from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) about the success of the oil and gas taskforce and what could happen if there were a similar structure for fisheries. It would also give us the opportunity of bringing in players such as the regional development agencies to address issues of regeneration and employment onshore as well as at sea. As an island nation, we have made alarmingly little investment in our coastal communities, and that includes fishing.
The story is not all bad. We have some good things to say about the time that the Government have been in office. My hon. Friend the Minister has negotiated robustly for better than anticipated deals on quotas. We can point to the success of establishing the economic link between vessels and ports. We have targeted European funds at coastal areas affected by the decline in fishing and for the first time, the whole of my constituency qualifies. However, in the current difficulties experienced by our fishermen, it is time that we stepped up our efforts.
Given the prospect of an early general election, this may be my last opportunity to take part in a fisheries debate. At the risk of sounding somewhat immodest, I think that I can take some credit for having put the fisheries issue higher on the political agenda than it was at the beginning of the last Parliament. Hon. Members who follow these debates cannot pretend that they no longer know what the real issue is. The real issue is European integration.
The full implementation of the common fisheries policy—in other words, equal access—is an essential component of European integration. The consequence for British fishermen is that many more of them have to be driven off the water. The industry is facing its biggest-ever crisis, but still Ministers and right hon. and hon. Members repeat the mantra of reform, which I have been at pains to explain in earlier contributions to fisheries debates is simply not available.
There has been time enough for change, but in point of fact very little has changed. Fisheries debates follow a regular pattern. The Commission proposes drastic quota cuts; the Council of Ministers dilutes the cuts; fisheries Ministers return to their countries claiming victory, just as our Minister claimed victory this afternoon when he said that he had achieved a 40,000 tonne reduction in the quota cuts. Year in, year out, that is the well-trodden path.
Let us be in no doubt where all this is leading. It is leading to the introduction of a permit system controlled from Brussels. The cardinal principle of the CFP is equal access to the common resource, and that principle will not change. It is enshrined in the treaties. Like other fundamental principles of the CFP, it will not be altered or amended by the report, often erroneously referred to as a review, due to be published shortly, but in any event not later than the end of the year.
At the heart of this issue lies the question, "To be or not to be?" Are we in favour of equal access or against it; in favour of the CFP or opposed to it? If sufficient hon. Members so wished, they could say no by amending or repealing in part or in whole the Acts of Parliament that have translated Community law into national law. Whatever hon. Members may think of that proposition, there is no escaping the fact that they and they alone, together with Members of Parliament who have gone before them, are responsible for the present situation. By their votes in this place, they have brought the British fishing industry to its knees. It is no excuse to say that the treaties were signed under royal prerogative so Parliament could do nothing about them.
What about the prerogative of Parliament itself? In fact, in the final analysis, the votes of parliamentarians caused the terms of the treaties to be put on to the British statute book. It is no use our railing against the outrageous dumping of more fish back into the sea dead than are landed, when it is the votes of right hon. and hon. Members, past and present, that have allowed that to happen. It is no use objecting to Spanish-flagged ships when the House has repeatedly voted to keep the CFP. It is no use criticising the Commission's latest proposals when hon. Members have, with few exceptions, voted to put the Commission in the driving seat and, indeed, to keep it there.
Throughout such debates, regardless of who has stood at the Dispatch Box, truth has been at a premium. Lest anyone should doubt my word, let them read the revelations in The Sunday Telegraph on 14 January in an article by Christopher Booker, written following his access to the papers relating to Britain's negotiations to join the EEC that were released recently under the 30-year rule. What hon. Members have imposed on the British fishing in the past 25 years is death by a thousand cuts.
Sadly, I can make little distinction between the parties. The honours—if that is what they are—are equally divided. The Minister is passionate about animal welfare, yet he presides over the most wanton and unnecessary holocaust that nature has ever experienced—the enforced dumping back dead into the sea of more fish, much of it perfectly saleable, than is landed. However, he is not alone in having on his conscience the guilt for endorsing a policy that, in its final form, will from 1 January 2003—this point was made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)—result in further cuts in the British fishing fleet and the creation of a single European fishing fleet, catching fish in European waters on European permits. That is not the accidental consequence of European policies; it is the deliberate intention of those policies. It is what the German Foreign Minister was talking about in London only yesterday—European integration.
Hon. Members with fishing constituencies are bound to argue about the detail of the CFP, but if we concentrate on the minutiae, we shall lose sight of the fact that, in the final analysis, it is a collectivist policy that has failed comprehensively. It has failed the fishermen and the processors. Above and beyond all else, it has failed to conserve fish stocks, as confirmed by the recent House of Lords report.
Hon. Members have a simple choice: either they believe that competence for this important industry should remain in Brussels; or they believe, as I do, that competence should be returned to the Westminster Parliament. That is the question, and it is high time that right hon. and hon. Members faced reality and told those in the fishing industry where they stand. I have no doubt that competence should be restored to the Westminster Parliament and that decisions on fisheries should be made by the fishermen's democratically elected representatives in the House. What we have now is not merely a democratic deficit, but a total denial of democracy. As the newly elected chairman of the Freedom Association, I find that totally unacceptable.
The difficulties facing the catching and processing sides of our fishing industry have multiple causes, but with appropriate co-operation we can alleviate the present crisis. The crisis has multiple causes, but there can be no doubt about the main cause—the depletion of certain fishing stocks. There are many reasons why fish stocks have been depleted, but, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, the main one is the over-fishing of specific species and some of the marine life forms lower down the food chain. The appropriate comments have been made about factory fishing. Black fishing has contributed to the problem in the past, but we have now successfully reduced it significantly.
There are other factors in the reduction of fishing stocks, including warmer waters—possibly as a result of global warming—the effect of predation and the common fisheries policy. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the policy is flawed. Indeed, I must agree with the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) on one issue—and one issue alone: it is an appalling waste to dump a scarce and precious resource back into the sea.
The reduction of fishing stocks is not the only problem. Fish offal is also a concern, especially the price of fishmeal and its possible contamination with polychlorinated biphenyls. There are additional costs for waste water and regulations. It has been recognised that there should be no reduction in regulation as far as quality and safety are concerned. We have all learned the terrible lessons of BSE. However, there is a desire to minimise bureaucracy, and we should do everything that we can to satisfy that. There are also worries about exchange rates, fuel prices and other matters that are not exclusive to the fishing industry.
The scale of the reduction in fishing stocks has to be recognised. The average tonnage per vessel decreased by approximately 28 per cent. in 1998–2000. It is estimated that for 1998–2001 there will be a reduction of more than 40 per cent. Catching has an immediate knock-on effect. It is reckoned that for every one job offshore, there are four jobs onshore. Reductions in fishing stocks will have a significant impact on the secondary fish processing industry and an even heavier impact on the primary processing industry. We need short-term measures to meet the crisis, but we also need a medium and long-term policy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) said.
Some of the solutions need to be international. The Tory Front Bench's mixture of unilateralism and bilateralism is a little bizarre. At best, that would be a barren policy and, at worst—as the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) so eloquently put it—it would be a policy for leaving the European Union altogether. Implicit in the intervention that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) made on my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), and explicit in what the hon. Member for Ludlow said, was the idea that many Tory Members would like to leave the EU.
I am pessimistic about an international solution for climate change. It will take a long time for the changes that were agreed at Kyoto to take effect. They are—in many ways—too little, too late. What is worse is that there is a deep pessimism that the attitude of the President of the United States, his new Administration and Congress could be a terrible block to international progress on climate change. We must hope that they will engage in dialogue with the rest of the world.
I am much more positive about stock conservation. The cod recovery plan, which was agreed yesterday, is good. The decision to abandon the Banff and Buchan sausage and instead to fish in boxes in the eastern sector is a positive step. I also welcome the restriction of the spawning season. Those arrangements have partly been the product of the co-operative and positive attitude that has been taken by both sectors of the industry and the organisations that represent them, in co-operation with the Government and the Scottish Executive. That approach has had other positive effects.
Scotland's adoption of the square mesh panel has been mentioned. It is estimated that it has led to 20 to 40 per cent. less catch of juvenile fish stocks. That has to be good and we must encourage that system of fishing to spread to other countries.
Co-operation, dialogue and positive attitudes extend not just across industry, the Government and the Scottish Executive but, as has already been said, to nongovernmental organisations, such as the WWF, and to other groups such as local councils. I pay particular tribute to Aberdeen city council, which, with other councils, has done a lot that is positive for the industry. I know that the processing industry is grateful for the assistance that the city council gave it to help to resolve the waste water problems that the industry had with the local water authority.
However, the basic point is that the amount of fishing will have to be reduced. I utterly agree with my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) that, if the amount of fishing is reduced, we should not concentrate on fish that are for human consumption. There must be a reduction in the amount of fish that goes into fishmeal and there is a strong argument for banning factory fishing in sensitive areas.
There will be massive reductions in the tonnages of fish caught. That means that there must be decommissioning. That can be done either through a reduction in the number of boats that fish or through a reduction in the number of licences that are held. However, I recognise that decommissioning will have an effect in my area and that there will be a reduction in the 200-odd vessels that operate off the north-east of Scotland.
The fish processing industry must also be restructured. I have already said that that is likely to affect the primary processors more than the secondary processors, although there will be an effect on both. Secondary processors can—and usually do—import materials that have also had primary processing work carried out on them. Although there will be reductions in both branches, we must retain sufficient capacity to allow for expansion if and when stocks improve.
Assistance should be provided for decommissioning, structural change and, where necessary in certain areas, with retraining and job creation. However, we should concentrate on giving aid to those vessels that have modernised and the processors who have invested to add value and to comply with market quality.
My hon. Friend the Minister asked whether the industry would want to be subsidised, and it gave a clear answer at a recent meeting. It said, "No, we don't want subsidy in the sense of continued subsidy, but we are looking for a one-off investment." It also used another powerful argument. It said that one of the arguments for subsidising farming—an industry that is heavily subsidised—was the need to preserve the countryside culture from which we all benefit. It argued that fishing is vital to maintaining our coastal culture, from which we all benefit and which is vital to the amenity, leisure and tourism facilities of this country.
Although I argue for financial investment, I am reluctant to specify exact sums. I notice the problems that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) got himself into. However, I am reluctant to add to his embarrassment because I owe him a great debt of gratitude. He was responsible for forwarding to me my mobile phone bills for several months.
The problem came about because my bills were happily being sent to Malcolm Savidge MP until the computer of the firm sending them decided that MP was my surname. It decided that the first letter of Savidge would be my middle initial, so it started to send bills to Malcolm S. Mp. When the bills were seen by the staff in the House of Commons Post Office, they decided that Malcolm S. Mp was more likely to be Malcolm Moss than Malcolm Savidge. The problem went on for several months, because it took a long time to persuade the staff and the computer to change their minds.
As I said, I do not want to add to the hon. Gentleman's embarrassment, but when he referred to the sums, he was almost as embarrassed as he was when he referred to national zones and the possibility or impossibility of treaty negotiations. However, he was certainly not as embarrassed as he was when he was devastatingly criticised by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup. None the less, the hon. Gentleman was embarrassed when he said that the fishing industry should receive £300 million and someone asked whether that was another Conservative party election promise to add to the £16 billion that it has already promised.
For the second time, I rise to confirm that I did not say that we were committing £300 million to the fishing industry. Those are the figures communicated to me, and no doubt to the Minister, by the NFFO and the SFF as their estimation of what is needed to sustain them through the interim period. I made no comment on that, but the Minister certainly has not commented either.
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman did not say that he would commit himself to it. He could see it being added to the £16 billion gap in the Budget. Immediately a haunted look came over him, and I thought to myself, "He is haunted by the spectre of the shadow Chancellor." I would not wish to specify a sum, but I hope that the Treasury can look sympathetically on a one-off investment in the industry. I believe that by giving not just financial assistance, but all the other assistance that the Government are giving to the industry, we can continue fishing's vital role in our culture, our employment, our economy and a healthy life.
To summarise my basic theme, I believe that through co-operation involving the industry and its representative bodies both internationally and nationally—with the Scottish Executive and their taskforce action group at the government level; with local councils; and with the other interested bodies—fishing can come through the present crisis and continue to make a vital contribution to our national life.
I am very pleased to take part in this debate, which has been excellent. I agree with those who say that, compared with the usual end-of-year total allowable catch rants that we all have in panic-stricken mode, trying to deal with details from Europe at the last minute, this is a much better way of dealing with the matter.
The way in which the Minister introduced the debate was exemplary, and we are all grateful for that. It does not diminish the difficulties facing the industry, but the Government cannot be accused of running away from the arguments. It is right that we should acknowledge that.
I also subscribe to the view that tribute is due to those who go down to the sea in ships and do business in big waters. I was disappointed, as I am sure the Minister was, by the number of fatalities this year. We all share that disappointment, and I am sure that the Government are doing all they can. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said, the figures remind us all that the industry is a hazardous one.
To make a Scottish point at the beginning of my speech, I think that the unique kind of industry that we have, based on share fishing and share fish boat ownership, embeds the industry in coastal communities in a way that is perhaps not matched in other parts of Europe. The future of coastal communities is deeply and closely related to the future success of the industry. Therefore, it is particularly important that we get it right.
I think that the difficulty the industry is in now is as great as it has ever been, but there is some ground for optimism. I am worried because some of the banks are beginning to lose confidence in the industry's middle-term and longer-term prospects. We cannot ignore that.
One of the principal and most optimistic lessons that we can learn from the past few weeks is that when the industry obtains access to the decision-making process at the highest level, it can make a positive difference. I hope that that lesson will be learned at all levels. I know that the Minister has been trying to promote that idea recently. It has been demonstrated over the past few weeks that the way in which the cod recovery plan has been amended for the better is almost directly attributable to the industry's participation at the decision-making tables of the Commission, which augurs well for the future. It gives the industry confidence if it feels that it will be able to continue to operate at that level and timeously; getting into the decision-making process at the right time is very important.
In today's debate, the industry must be looked at in two different ways. We need to address the long-term approach and the short-term necessities. I agree with all those who said that conservation and sustainability must be the paramount concern in the long term. That involves measures such as the five-year cod recovery programme. I hope that the negotiations are brought to a successful conclusion in the coming weeks and months, and that the June Fisheries Council produces an agreement which everyone can support and use to move forward with confidence.
On the unilateral decision by the Scottish industry to introduce square mesh panels, we have been arguing about those in debates such as this for at least 12 years. It is a great tribute to the Scottish industry that is has decided unilaterally to introduce such mesh. It is still early days, but I believe that the results will show the decision to have been a positive contribution to stock conservation.
Despite the strictures from the official Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, I believe that zonal management has a crucial role to play in future, and that the industry shares that view.
Those are the key issues that we need to address. I shall make one or two brief points about the short term. I agree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. The cod conservation closure from 14 February through to the end of April is another tribute to the industry, whose leadership is taking a huge risk in trying to argue with the membership that that is the right way to go.
The Government and the Treasury should provide backing through limited public finance. Of course, such things must be worked out carefully. One cannot wander into the Treasury with fag-packet calculations. The Minister was right to say that. The industry has some work to do, to calculate the finance that is needed in the short term, but if the cod closure is to be successful, it must keep the cod fishing capacity out of the other sectors of the North sea, otherwise, as was said earlier, there will be an inevitable and destructive impact on the nephrops fishery, which will be impossible to control in a sensible way.
For the fishery around north Northumberland and the east Berwickshire coast, it would be disastrous if some of the big boats that had been prosecuting a cod fishery in the recent past turned to nephrops fishing in an uncontrolled way. That would be devastating for ports such as Eyemouth in my constituency.
The Minister is right to gather further details of what is needed. Money is always short, although the Treasury is probably in a better position now than it has been in recent years when we have had fishery debates. That is a factor that must be taken into account. In the short term, some kind of compensation measures must be put in place to finance a successful cod closure from February to the end of April.
Decommissioning is essential. If the figure of £100 million is decided on, that is a fair price to pay, especially considering the Fontainebleau rebate that we have had—since 1986 we have had to pay £2 billion a year less. That is a huge sum of public expenditure that we have not had to pay. When the fishermen see the balance sheet in the fisheries account over that period, they are right to seek such sums, with a view to achieving a balanced catch and a real biomass stock balance in future.
Not for the hon. Gentleman.
I return to the nephrops problem that we have on the south-east coast, if I may so describe it. There is no danger of a 3 per cent. white fish catch in the prawn fishery prosecuted from ports such as Eyemouth. That may not be the case it in other parts of the North sea, where there may be a question about the by-catch, which obviously has to be taken into account. It is essential that the Minister does the necessary work to check the logbooks so that we can argue a case for removing the 10 per cent. restriction on the TAC.
If that can be done, if money can be put into short-term compensation for the cod closure; if, in the longer term, we look at decommissioning; and if the industry is involved in all of those decisions until June and beyond, the Government will have gone some way towards making the best they can of what the industry faces at the moment. I do not think that there is any doubt that urgent measures need to be taken if the future of the industry is to be protected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) has sat on my notes—[Laughter.] I am sorry, I shall try to compose myself.
I had intended to concentrate on onshore fishing. Inevitably, in a fishing debate, the majority of the discussion has been about the catching side. I do not want to repeat many interesting points that other Members have made, to which, I am sure, the Minister will respond. Instead, I should like to pick up some of the comments made by the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). I tried to intervene twice in his speech but, despite my bright red jacket—a nice tartan that I am wearing specially for Burns night—I obviously did not catch his eye.
Like several other hon. Members, I waited with bated breath to hear the Tories' solution to the fishing crisis. I listened carefully throughout the speech of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. At first, I thought that the solution would be compensation for fisherman because they could not fish stocks that have been lost. However, as he developed his theme, and as he replied to hon. Members' questions, it was obvious that compensation was off the cards. After all, had compensation been a good idea, surely the Tories would have used it in the 18 years in which they were in power.
I remember problems with herring fishing in the late 1970s, and I do not recall compensation ever being offered to fishermen then. Indeed, one complaint that we get in Aberdeen, particularly from processors, is that many skills in gutting and filleting herring were lost when those fisheries closed. Moreover, there was no help from the Government at the time. So compensation is not the Tories' solution. Eventually, the hon. Gentleman came out with it and said that they would return the waters around Great Britain to our national control—talk about locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.
The Tories had 18 years to find out whether that was the solution to the fishing industry problems, so surely they might have come up with it before. I was trying to intervene on the hon. Gentleman because I am still puzzled as to how returning the waters around Britain to national control solves the crisis of there not being enough fish. Do the fish who are presently in British waters say, "Alright, chaps, the British have control. We can now breed lots and grow very fast so that we will be there for the fishermen to catch"? Will fish spawning outwith British waters say, "Alright, chaps, let's go over the border into British territorial waters, where we will be under the British Government's control. We want to be there for all of the British fishermen to catch"?
I know that I am being flippant but, for the life of me, I cannot understand why returning the seas around Britain to national control is a conservation measure, as the hon. Gentleman said. That is not the case, as our conservation and restocking needs are far more complex and must be dealt with through a more multi-faceted approach. No one simple answer exists; rather, a range of measures are needed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has been listening and that he will provide help to the industry on that basis.
It is by ensuring that the industry helps itself, along with help from the Government, that the current circumstances, which almost resemble the boom and bust of the fishing industry, will come to an end. We must end conditions in which there are plenty of stocks of a particular species in one year, but virtually none three years later. We must ensure a sustainable fishing stock to help the on-land processors, who are my main concern.
My constituency probably contains most of the fish houses in Aberdeen. Some 1,500 people there have jobs that depend on the fishing industry. They work predominantly in onshore operations. Ironically, many of the fishermen who lived in my constituency and who have not yet retired now work on oil supply vessels. Although there are fewer fishermen in my constituency than there were previously, many highly skilled and dedicated fish processors remain. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) pointed out that such workers are often on low wages, but their pay is now being further squeezed because less piece work and overtime are available.
Fish processing is a highly important industry in my constituency. I appreciate that neither my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, nor the fishermen, nor the fishing industry can magic the fish out of the sea and that a sustained and long-term strategy will be necessary to get them back. I am concerned, however, about the loss of skills and jobs in the short term. Some gutters in Aberdeen who will lose their jobs in the coming year because of fish shortages might go and do other jobs, but many of the women in such jobs are in their 50s and might decide that they are too old to find alternatives and take early retirement instead. Such people will be lost to the fishing industry. When the fish stocks have recovered, in three, four or five years' time, the skills of such workers will have been lost. That is my primary concern. I want to ensure that short-term help is available to ensure that people get through the difficult times.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central spoke about the need not to talk down the industry. I agree with him on that point. Yes, a crisis exists and I do not want to play it down, but we must not talk only about the difficulties of the fishing industry. If we never talk about its potential, we run the danger of losing it for ever. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) made a valuable point in that respect. When a fishing boat owner goes to the bank for money to reinvest, the banker might say, "But there are no fish; why would I give you money that will go into a black hole?" Inevitably, such a cycle will become difficult to escape, which is why I am keen for us to consider the industry's future potential.
Why do I have that optimism? Partly because the fishing industry does not resemble other industries. Some industries in this country, such as the coal industry, have ailed and almost disappeared. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) spoke in his maiden speech yesterday about the loss of the iron industry. The great Carron ironworks were situated in Falkirk, which was an iron town in 1971 but no longer has an iron industry. Such industries ailed because there was no market for their goods. They lost the markets that kept them viable.
That does not apply to the fishing industry. People continue to eat fish; they want to eat fish. Perhaps we have not encouraged them to eat a variety of fish, and there may be a great deal more work to do. However, fish is a sustainable and renewable resource. If we can survive the short-term difficulty, the industry could again be vibrant and feed the people. People will always need to eat, and we must ensure that there are always fish for them.
The fishing industry has a future because fish is perceived by many people as a healthy food. Oily fish in particular contains vitamins and essential nutrients. Many people who are worried about eating beef after the BSE crisis now eat fish. Some who describe themselves as vegetarians in the loosest sense eat fish as part of a balanced diet. People who object to some forms of animal husbandry, such as factory farming, know that fish are at least allowed to swim freely before they are ultimately caught and processed.
No one has made the point that perhaps the industry should work with the Department of Health and the Health and Community Care Department of the Scottish Executive to promote different sorts of fish as part of a health campaign. Part of the cod industry's problem is that cod and chips is still most people's choice when they go into a fish and chip shop in England. In Scotland, the choice is haddock and chips, which we call a fish supper—the fish is always haddock unless we specifically ask for something different. Perhaps we need to educate the palates of the British people so that they accept, eat and enjoy a range of fish.
I was interested in the comments of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) about the search for other deep-sea fishing grounds. He said that some were found off the coast of Africa, but fishermen would not go there because the fish were ugly. They were perfectly good fish, and a different way of presenting them had to be found.
There is a job to be done, but we cannot do it if, in the short term, there are no fish for the processors in my constituency to process. Consequently, skills can be lost; retaining them is crucial. The processors realise that some restructuring is necessary and that they must consider the size of some fish houses and companies. They do not bury their heads in the sand, but appreciate that changes must take place. They are willing to work with the Government to ensure that restructuring happens. Again, they are looking for support to see them through that transitional stage.
I am worried about one of the results of the drop in quotas that has been negotiated this year. Black fish had virtually disappeared from the north-east of Scotland. However, I have it on good authority that, three weeks after the new quotas were introduced, black fish were beginning to reappear. That is worrying. Lack of supply has led some people who would never have touched black fish because they did not approve of dealing in them to consider doing so. They have to make a hard decision between dealing in black fish and the survival of the company. That is an especially worrying aspect of the shortage of supply. I hope that it will not happen, because it would be detrimental to everyone and would do nothing for conservation of stocks, which is crucial for the survival of the fishing industry.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. We have reached a crisis point, but there is a future. If we can get through it with Government help, and that of various other agencies working locally, there is a great future for British fish.
I echo the gratitude that has been expressed for this full day's debate. Perhaps it was not planned that way, but, fortuitously, things have probably turned out the right way round for a change.
In a moment, I shall focus on the key issue facing the Ministry, the Treasury and the fishing industry. First, I shall mention a few of the technical measures. When my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) talked about the square mesh, I noticed that the Minister reiterated from a sedentary position that that provision was definitely coming. However, that was also said in European Standing Committee A. when we debated the fishing industry. I wonder whether anything has changed to bring its implementation any closer.
Obviously, it would send the right signals if we could apply the same conservation measures throughout United Kingdom waters. That would strengthen the Minister's armour when he was trying to persuade colleagues in other countries that such a measure was an appropriate way forward. I welcome the fact that the industry has taken such an initiative and recognised that these technical and practical measures are important to conserving fish stocks and bringing benefits to the industry.
My next point has hot been discussed in the debate so far. A great deal of concern has been expressed about the history of the problems, and about what happened 30 years ago in setting up the common fisheries policy. I detect from some of the briefings to the all-party group that what happens in the North-West Atlantic Fisheries Organisation will have more bearing on some of our fishing grounds and the conservation of stocks when the boundaries of the international 200-mile limit change, and Rockall will no longer be part of the UK mainland. Does the Minister have a view on how that organisation is developing, how it views conservation and what its potential is for achieving conservation through its negotiations?
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) rightly mentioned processing, given the importance that it has for her constituency. There are also processing interests in my constituency, and they are affected by whatever happens in the fishing industry. We have also had an excellent debate in Westminster Hall, when the industry was focused on for the first time.
My constituency interest is not confined to the fact that fishing is carried out from small ports there. The nature of the economy and the community in north-eastern Scotland is that we all sink or swim together. Fishing forms a major part of the economy in the north-east of Scotland, as well as of the Scottish economy as a whole. What happens to fishing is, therefore, extremely important to us.
Fishing does not, perhaps, hit the radar so much across the broad scope of events in England, but the Government must recognise that it is an important industry in many coastal communities. Michael Park, of Scottish White Fish Producers, said that we have already had the highland clearances, and if the Government do not grasp how serious the problem is, there could now be a danger of coastal clearances. In communities where 50 per cent. of the people are dependent on fishing, if that 50 per cent. lose their livelihood, there will not be much left to keep the rest of the community alive. We need a strategy from the Government on the survival of those coastal communities in this new era of fish conservation.
There have been three prongs to what has happened so far. The quotas have been set, and are now part of the process. Recognising the declining stocks, the quotas clearly had to come down, as one could not share out more than was available to be caught. We have now taken the step of introducing emergency measures, and the industry is working with scientific experts and with officials to try to produce a scheme that achieves the goal of emergency conservation.
The Minister has recognised the role that the industry has played in those arrangements, which may be a precursor showing what zonal management could be about. As I think he realizes, however, further action will require more serious political negotiation between nations, and the issues are not simple. We therefore need to continue trying to reform the common fisheries policy and to formulate a common agenda. Unfortunately—as a general election is looming, and because of the issues at stake—I do not think that such an agenda will emerge from today's debate. Nevertheless, if the United Kingdom cannot agree on what is in the best interests of our industry, it will be difficult to convince and negotiate with colleagues in other parts of the European Union on the best way forward.
A key point emerging from today's debate—Hansard has to go to the Treasury; the Minister could take it there himself to make the point—is that hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who made the same point, believe that greater Government investment is the foundation of restructuring the industry and creating a sustainable fishery. We have to match catching power to the fish available. We have to understand that, without that balance, there will not be a sustainable future for United Kingdom fishing.
The financial issue highlights the great dangers of unilateral action in Europe and special opt-outs. The legacy of Fontainebleau for our fishing and farming communities has been to deny them an awful lot of the support that has been available to their competition. We are in a free and open market, but for those industries, we have tied our hands behind our back with the Fontainebleau agreement.
In the good years, the Treasury has pocketed the Fontainebleau rebates. However, just as some motorists agree to pay a lower premium in return for accepting a greater liability should there be an accident, the Government and the Treasury will have to accept the consequences of the Fontainebleau agreement rebates which they inherited from the previous Government.
The crucial point made at the all party fisheries group meeting on Tuesday was that Treasury funding should be regarded as a one-off capital investment to protect our nation's natural resources and to make it possible for our communities to reap a long-term return.
Another point that was very strongly made at the meeting was that to fish, one needs a licence, a boat and a quota. Although there are concerns that previous decommissioning schemes never resulted in effective decommissioning, that situation has changed. If licences are removed, there will be fewer people putting their efforts into catching fish. The Government now have that mechanism to pursue an effective and targeted decommissioning policy, so as to get the balance right.
As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said, in the immediate short term, to avoid the diversion of effort to other stock, we need immediate implementation of a lay-up scheme such as the set-aside schemes that operate in agriculture when there is overproduction. We need that type of scheme in the fishing industry to strike the right balance and to ensure that the measures which have been so effectively negotiated really deliver. Agreement to such a scheme would be a very productive outcome of a meeting with the Treasury.
The all-party group is seeking a meeting with the Treasury. Older hands say that the Treasury will never meet us and say that we have to go through the Minister. However, as the Minister said, he does not have the money. The Treasury decides where the money comes from. Everyone says that one cannot treat the Treasury as a bottomless pit. However, the Treasury has to listen to a case involving an industry that is in crisis and transition.
What is the alternative to decommissioning? Some Ministers might say that the market will sort out the industry: fishermen will go out of business, sell up and disappear. However, their licences will still exist and have a residual value. If boat operators facing serious financial problems—or even bankruptcy, in the most draconian side of the market—sell their boats, what happens? The boat and the licence go on the market, where they are bought by someone willing to pay a price at which they think that they can make a living. So the boat will still be out there with its catching power, licence and quota, still chasing fish. It is an ever-decreasing circle. As the numbers stop adding up for the new boat owners, they will go bust and put their boats and licences on the market at a lower price.
Without decommissioning and the withdrawal of licences to reduce catching power, a balance will not be struck or sustainability achieved. Cod stocks may not recover. Nevertheless, we have to ensure that catching power is appropriate to the recovery measures.
In my earlier intervention on the Minister, I made the point—he may have missed it—that the investment should be made by the current generation who got it wrong in managing their fisheries, so that future generations have a fishery on their doorstep. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South spoke of a sustainable fishery that constituted, in environmental terms, an extremely sensible way of providing protein and other valuable nutrients for our families. It is important to sustain an industry in this country rather than importing fish. After all, if there is a demand for fish and we have taken all our own fish, we must import them.
All Aberdeen Members today said that we should not talk down the industry. If the Treasury gets it right—if the money is there to be invested, and to balance catching power with a sustainable level of fishing stock—we shall have a chance of creating an economically viable, self-sufficient industry with a long-term future. The industry has not relied on subsidy in the past, and we do not want it to ask for subsidy in the future. We want it to sustain generations to come, both in terms of fishing activity and as steward of natural resources in the seas for which we shall continue to have responsibility.
I feel doubly fortunate in being able to speak in the debate. For one thing, I was absent—in a Committee—for most of it, and I apologise for that. My other piece of good fortune results from the fact that Conservatives have taken so little interest in the debate that there is time for others to speak, even this late in the day.
I agree. I merely thought it important for my constituents to know how great an interest the Conservatives took in the debate. Certainly, when I popped in now and again there were virtually no Conservatives present. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman at least is here to hold the fort on behalf of his once great party.
I wish to speak briefly on behalf of the small boat fishing communities. I am thinking especially, of course, of Hastings and Rye, which has an inshore fishing fleet of about 70 small boats measuring less than 10 m—but about 1,000 jobs depend on that fleet, which works against all the odds. The Hastings fleet is still the largest beach-launched fleet in Europe. It is a tough job pulling those boats into the sea, but for centuries people have done it because they want to, and because it is their tradition. As for Rye, it has a tidal harbour providing a small window of opportunity, allowing the fleet to go out and come back once a day. Life is not easy for those inshore fishermen, but they do what they do because it is their tradition and, above all, their living.
There has been comment about my hon. Friend the Minister, but I pay tribute to him. He has devoted enormous attention to what is perhaps just a small corner of Britain. Certainly, Hastings and Rye has benefited from his intervention on a number of occasions. As was said at the outset, he has made efforts to ensure that above-size boats do not steal my constituents' quota. In Rye, his recent announcement of support for a £1.6 million fishing quay has further demonstrated that he and the Government are keen to act for the benefit of an industry which, although not significant in general terms, is significant to us despite constituting a minority within a minority in terms of numbers. On behalf of my constituents, I welcome the Government's support, which contrasts so markedly with the Conservative wailings which, over many years, achieved nothing at all.
It is important however to distinguish between the concerns of small inshore fleets such as that of Hastings and Rye and those of the rest of the industry. There are common concerns of course, which have been mentioned at length, but small inshore fishermen are a special case. As a minority within a minority, they have need of friends. Owing to the nature of their small under-10m craft, they are non-nomadic, which means that they have to catch their fish within 20 miles of port.
Hastings fish market, which is perhaps a good barometer of events over the past few years, says that in 1999 its fishermen unfortunately had the lowest catch on record. Last year was even worse. Increased fuel costs have caused the fishermen problems, but that has nothing to do with the Government—although those from another party have suggested otherwise, quite wrongly. The fuel cost problems, added to the collapse in landings, mean that the fishermen have real difficulties that need to be addressed.
A former Member for Hastings and Rye said that the constituency had only 1,000 fishermen, but there are now even fewer. However, the importance of fishermen to the Cinque port towns of Hastings and Rye cannot be measured by the number of people directly engaged in the industry. If it were not for the fishing village in the old town of Hastings, the net shops would fall into disrepair. I invite hon. Members to visit Hastings; it is wonderful to see the net shops in the old town, which has so delighted visitors over many years. I hope that it will do so for many years to come.
The fishing industry is the reason why the tourist industry is so vibrant. Likewise in Rye: if not for fishing, why would the harbour stay open? Furthermore, if it were not for fishing, pleasure craft would not be able to take advantage of the harbour. In both towns, the fishing industry and the fishing fleets are central to the prosperity of the tourist trade and their survival is important beyond the industry itself. Fishing is an integral part of the fragile economy of Hastings and Rye. The Government have done a great deal to regenerate areas such as Hastings and Rye, so it is all the more important that we do not lose such an important industry.
Let me make it clear that the fishermen of Hastings and Rye are true conservationists. The have fished the channel since time immemorial and know what they can take and what they should leave. The greed of the industrial sector has effectively stolen my constituents' birthrights. Be that as it may, they accept the need for total allowable catch and quota reductions, as long as they are fair and effective and as long as provision is made for their survival in the medium term. They are supported in that by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.
This country's fishing industry has never looked for subsidy, and much has already been said about that. However, I believe that it is looking for investment, as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) said. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister could impress on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor the fact that if just a little more cash could be made available, and if that investment were capital investment, the golden rule would not be broken. Making money available would represent investing in the true capital of our nation, because that is what the fishing industry is.
Perhaps the time has come for a manifesto for the inshore sector, as represented by my constituents in Hastings and Rye and fishermen elsewhere in the community. In recent weeks, I have been particularly encouraged by the decision of Paul Joy and his colleagues in the Hastings and Rye Fishermen's Protection Society to join other inshore interests, from Denmark and elsewhere in the Community, to seek common cause with similarly affected groups.
In December, a meeting was held in Denmark—it is nice to think that the fishing industry is prepared to look Europewide for solutions—and a 17-point plan drawn up. Although I do not have tune to go through those points in detail, three specific demands were made: for larger mesh sizes, which have been discussed; for a significant reduction in industrial fishing; and for small boats to be included in any decommissioning scheme that may be introduced. With regard to mesh sizes, local fishermen tell me that they already use 100 mm nets rather than the permitted 90 mm. Despite their plight, they acknowledge the importance of that size, and there is a need for action in the CFP to incorporate that most important aid to conservation.
Secondly, the hoovering activities of the industrial sector in the central North sea are ambushing the cod that would otherwise reach the channel, including the juvenile fish that would be tomorrow's catch. These powerful industrial fishing interests must be curbed.
Thirdly, if decommissioning does have a part to play in effort reduction, the small boat sector should be included. Hundreds of licences are sold on, often to new entrants to the market or to entrants who in the past may have been decommissioned from another sector. The past failure to include small boats in decommissioning has caused an increase in the number and efficiency of the boats chasing ever-decreasing stock. Many of the licences are held by hobby fishermen. When the licences are sold on, the effect of not removing them from the market is to increase the number of professionals who, with their more powerful machines, often take more than is allowed.
I also want to make special pleadings for the fishing communities in Hastings and Rye. My understanding is that area 7(d), which covers the eastern channel, is allocated a quota for the whole Calendar year. That works to the disadvantage of the fishermen in my constituency. Locally, cod may normally be caught only in January, and then again in November and December. After January, the cod move down channel. Because of the way the quotas work, my constituents fear that their quota could well be exhausted before they are able to attempt further catches in November and December. They want the quota in area 7(d) to be split up by a monthly ration, so that there will be something left to be caught at the end of the year; that might not be possible with reduced quotas.
My constituents understand the need for a Europewide solution to their concerns. I find it regrettable that Conservative Members should utter misconceptions that might mislead people in my constituency. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) visited my constituency last week. As a result, my fishermen believe that Conservative policy would be to withdraw from the CFP or to carry out fundamental renegotiation. I see that the hon. Gentleman nods, so clearly that understanding is justified.
Whom would those negotiations be with, however? Of course there is a need to renegotiate within reasonable parameters, but talk of "fundamental" renegotiation—given that not a single other Conservative party in Europe is prepared to embark on that—in fact means withdrawal from the EU. That much was admitted by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), the former Conservative fisheries Minister, some time ago. As representatives of the NFFO have recognised, cod spawning grounds, for example, are located off Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. How would unilateral action by the UK help in terms of affecting the cod supply chain?
Many of my constituents would agree with the Opposition that they would like to leave the EU. Given the pressure on their livelihoods, at least in the short term, I can understand how that might seem a profitable suggestion. However, it would not be good for the nation or the fishing industry. I therefore hope that special account will be taken of the particular needs of the inshore fishing fleet in the negotiations that will soon follow.
Unlike the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster), I have been present for most of the debate, although I missed the beginning. However, I should like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a very interesting speech.
I am sure that the Minister would agree that this has been an interesting day. I am only sorry that I missed the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, but the grossly inconvenient rearrangement of the House's business on a Thursday means that one cannot both have lunch and hear the opening speeches in a debate at the same time. Given that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the leader of our august party, was speaking at a Press Gallery lunch today. I felt that that was where my priority lay. That meant that I have missed my slot until now, at 6.20 pm. I hope that the House will forgive me for not being here at the outset.
This has been a high-quality debate. Some regret was expressed that more Conservative Members were not in the House. However, the only point of putting in for a debate is if one is likely to be called. One can sit here, day after day, and never get called.
One problem is that of 529 Members of the English Parliament, 10 have spoken, but six of the 72 Members representing Scottish seats have spoken. It is constantly true in this House that when Scottish Members speak—many of them put in for a debate and three Members representing Aberdeen constituencies were called—English Members do not stand a good chance of being called to speak. That is why the Benches behind me are not full this evening.
I would have given way to the hon. Gentleman, but bearing in mind that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) refused to give way to me a few minutes earlier, even though he had nine minutes left, I am sure that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) will understand why, on this occasion, I will not give way.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It might be helpful to clarify that who is called in debates is a matter for the Chair and not for individual Members. If Members wish to speak in a debate, they should put in, take their chance and see if they are called. If more Scots Members put in to speak because English Members are at a lunch for their party leader, such a decision surely ties the Chair's hands.
It is for the discretion of the Chair as to who is called. The Chair will always try and ensure that there is a fair representation. It is also, of course, the responsibility of Members to set their order of priorities when it comes to attending their engagements outside the Chamber or being present in the Chamber.
That is why I have been here for the past four hours, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is why the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye saw his priority as being in Committee. I am sure that you will agree, however, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is not right for the Chair to decide what priorities Members have. We have many priorities, such as Select Committees and Standing Committees.
I am glad that you have reminded me that the House is waiting to hear what I have to say, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Every December for as long as I have been in the House, we have a debate on fish. Last December we did not, because the Government decided on a late Queen's Speech. I am sure that it was not organised in that way to avoid the fish debate in December. However, for years we have had a debate on fish before the Minister goes to Brussels. It centres on how much quota British fishermen should receive. The Minister waves goodbye, with a Union Jack, and fights for the highest quota for fish. Amazingly, every Minister I can remember comes back saying that he has done a wonderful job. The current Minister, who I think does a very good job, came back, like all former fisheries Ministers, saying that he had done a good job. He has carried on the tradition that the House expects from fisheries Ministers.
It is worth remembering that Britain has contributed 80 per cent. of fish resources and is allowed to catch only 13 per cent. of that amount. The waters around Devon and Cornwall support more than 2,000 fishermen, working on 875 boats of all sizes, catching £75 million worth of fish. Their activity, in turn, supports 8,000 ancillary jobs. Over the past 10 years, there has been a 12 per cent. fall in the amount of fish caught in Devon and Cornwall. Over the same period, the number of fishermen has dropped by 17 per cent. Enforcing regulations on the industry costs more than £45 million a year to British taxpayers.
I am sure that the House would like to be reminded that my constituency has the second largest fishing port in England and Wales—Brixham; that one of the most fruitful fishing grounds for crab and lobster lies off the south Devon coast; and that many people in my constituency are employed in the fishing industry.
Every year, we debate how much fish and which particular species we should be allowed to catch. Although 17,500 British fishermen—mostly in northern Scotland—catch most of the British cod quota, they manage to catch only 60 per cent. of the 81,000 tonnes allocated. I focus on cod as a benchmark of the damage caused to our country's fish stocks since we joined the CFP; it illustrates that the raw material is no longer available.
We are on the brink of an ecological disaster. The development of new technology for catching and storing fish—coupled with the use of huge diesel trawlers, powered with winches and wide nets—has contributed to the problem. Iceland realised that there was not only an ecological problem but an economic issue; that led to three cod wars—in 1958, 1973 and 1975. Iceland has unilaterally extended its territorial waters to protect its cod stocks.
We have sophisticated sonar and satellite technology to pinpoint fish; high-tech, floating freezer factories scour our seabeds, hoovering up fish for processing. Cod symbolises what is happening in our seas. It is no longer simply a question of quotas when our Minister goes to Brussels—the fish are no longer in the seas to be caught. The question is how to sustain a fishing fleet, providing a living for British fishermen while also providing a living for the Spanish, the Belgians and the Dutch. That is what the debate is about. How do we look after English fishermen and how do we look after the Spanish, the Belgians and the Dutch? I hope that I am allowed to mention the Spanish, Belgians and Dutch even though they are not in the House.
It is only too evident that there are not enough fish to go round for our fishermen and for those of other European countries. We can argue that the scientists are right. Climate change, the environment, north Atlantic oscillation, the shift of the gulf stream, pollution, predation by seals and a host of factors have contributed to our vastly dwindling fish stocks. Industrial fishing of sand eels and species at the bottom of the food chain removes food for higher species, such as cod and haddock.
Alternatively, we can consider the unacceptable practice of other Enropean fishermen—especially the Spanish, who insist on flooding the market with baby fish. Each netful of baby fish caught before maturity is enough to destroy a full month's quota for a Brixham crew.
Joining the CFP appears to have made matters worse for British fishermen, with laws declaring that the waters of member states—including British territorial waters—are regarded as common resources to be fished by all. Our waters contain 80 per cent. of western Europe's fish stock. In the 1980s, the European Union parcelled out new common resources by allocating quotas to each country, setting out how much of each species the fishermen of each member state were allowed to catch. Over-fishing has gone on for more than 20 years, aided by the development of increasingly sophisticated equipment.
The issue is embodied in the cod crisis. In 1992, the Canadian Government implemented a ban on cod fishing in Newfoundland, throwing 40,000 people out of work. Eight years later, cod stocks have still not returned to 1980s levels; hopes have fallen that they ever will. Cod has been superseded in the oceanic league tables by species such as skate and dogfish.
One way forward would be for the waters around the British coast to be repatriated so that Spanish, French and Dutch trawlermen are excluded and we could manage our own waters for our own fishermen. Another way would be to consider a moratorium similar to that in Canada—to replenish stocks by establishing the equivalent of a national park on the seabed. However, like the Canadians, we may find that it is too late to recover our stocks. Under the CFP we appear to have witnessed the slow death of the British fishing industry. We need now a radical and visionary approach to resuscitate the fishing industry and restore the ecological balance of the waters around our coast.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will reply to the debate.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) who, when he got down to the substance of his speech, made a telling contribution that I found interesting. He had some powerful arguments to make.
Most hon. Members have agreed that this has been a useful debate. The case was made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that holding the annual debate at this time of the year made much more sense than holding it in the run-up to the total allowable catch and quota negotiations, simply because at this time we are less frantic about arguing for our fair share and our quotas. We have had a more balanced debate tonight, and certainly one that was more far-reaching and important, given events elsewhere, than a simple debate about TACs and quotas.
There has been some disagreement about whether the industry is in crisis, terminal crisis or not in any crisis. Certainly, fishermen throughout the United Kingdom say that the industry is in the most difficult financial position that they can remember. That point was referred to by many hon. Members.
Most of the debate was about diminishing resources and fish stocks and, of course, the real socioeconomic problems faced by the fishing industry and its associated industries. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) spoke at some length about the fish processing industry in her city on which the measures that we have discussed will have an impact.
Given these most challenging times to the fishing industry, fishermen throughout the United Kingdom will be at first mildly astonished but later angry that, in this the major fisheries debate of the year, we have heard nothing from the Government about how the industry is to be sustained during the implementation of the conservation programme. Speech after speech made reference to the need for support during that period, and it behoves the Minister to respond positively.
It was interesting that the Liberal Democrats came out with a nice argument. It is the first time that I have heard it because the Fontainebleau arrangement is criticised by most other parties. The rebate that we have enjoyed for many years is now stored up in the Treasury coffers ready to be spent on sustaining and helping out the industry. It is a reasonable point to make. At any one time, rebate moneys will be available for the Treasury to dispose of as it sees fit.
Unfortunately, we have not heard much about the real causes of this sorry state of affairs. In the words of the House of Lords Select Committee, the blame lies fairly and squarely with the CFP, which has failed over 17 years to match effort to resource. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) said, the problem is not just over-fishing, although that has of course been a contributory factor. A policy of single species quotas has automatically led to discards of perfectly marketable fish. That has happened for the 17 years that the CFP has been in place.
There is no agreement on technical gear and mesh net sizes. We pay tribute to the introduction of square mesh by the Scottish fishermen. It is a courageous leap, but elsewhere such measures are not being adopted, and the CFP has failed to bring in sensible conservation measures of that type during the 17 years that it has been in place. While we are on the matter of under-sized fish, I pay tribute to the Minister because I know that he was appalled at last year's negotiations when the minimum landing sizes for a range of species were abandoned or reduced. That cannot be right if we wish to sustain the fishing resource.
The Commission's Green Paper on the future of the CFP is due very soon, but it is vital that the debate on the CFP's future begins sooner rather than later. However, we have heard nothing about the Government's views on that review. Are they wedded to the equal access principle? Are they determined to maintain the derogated six to 12-mile limits? Are they concerned about the impetus to equal access shown by the European Parliament vote earlier this week? Does the Minister not have a view on any of those matters? I hope that he will answer some of those questions in his response.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) that we have an obligation to fishermen to spell out the real position. No one is saying that we shall pull out of the EU. The hon. Members for Aberdeen, North and for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) suggested that that was our policy, but it is not, and those who say that it is are repeating a fallacy. However, it is important to suggest the probable outcome of the CFP review—it will involve lower quotas for United Kingdom fishermen and a diminished industry.
Zonal management has been discussed at length. We do not reject zonal management out of hand—[Interruption.] The NFFO and the SFF are to be commended for trying to find a more sensible way to manage resources within the CFP. They want to empower the zonal committees so that they can take the decisions on conservation measures that they think necessary and have been avoided in the CFP hitherto. However, if the concept is to be more than just a talking shop, treaty changes will be necessary, as the officials stated in their advice to the Minister.
Neither the Government nor the Liberal Democrats have said unequivocally that they will press for such treaty changes to give real meaning to their policy of devolving effective power to zones or regions. If treaty changes are not forthcoming, there is every chance that equal access will finally make the finishing tape, with the inevitable consequence of a reduction in United Kingdom fishing quota.
There was strong consensus in the debate on the banning of factory fishing. [HON. MEMBERS: "Industrial fishing."] I mean industrial fishing by factory ships, which many of our inshore fishermen think is obscene. I recently returned from Cornwall, where local fishermen are banned from fishing in the mackerel box. However, Danish industrial ships are ploughing up and down and they must be catching huge numbers of mackerel as a by-catch, but no one does anything about it.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South spoke about a long-term sustainable resource for the United Kingdom, and we entirely agree with that. Drastic conservation measures are needed now precisely because the CFP has failed to introduce measures to prevent fish stocks from being depleted in the past. The House of Lords Select Committee report used the words, "Totally failed." They are its words, not mine. To answer the hon. Lady's question about conservation, the whole point of national control is to be responsible for proposing conservation measures, such as those that have been unilaterally introduced in Scotland. Those measures should be in place throughout the North sea because of the reasons that they have been introduced there. Those involved in the CFP cannot agree about that, although it has been discussed for 18 years.
No, I want to finish the point, and I did not give way to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South when she tried to intervene in my opening speech. After 17 years, something a little more drastic needs to happen if we want to introduce the much needed conservation measures that will yield the sustainable resource that the hon. Lady mentions. Under those measures, we would determine the conservation measures, the technical measures, the mesh size and the fishing effort. The people fishing in those waters would have to abide by those regulations. That is simple.
On our fleets fishing in other waters, our reciprocal arrangements with Norway work perfectly well, and there is no reason why they should not do so in future.
I am finishing now.
The Minister has been asked many questions about the support and subsidy given to the industry. He is indeed a good listener, but as many hon. Members have said, it is time for some answers.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I agree that we have had a good debate. I am pleased by the number of hon. Members who have participated. I understand why some of them like the format so much that they want to make it permanent. First, I was cross-examined for an hour by extremely well-informed Members; then we had a one-and-a-half-hour debate in Committee; and we have now had a seven-hour debate on the Floor of the House.
There have been many contributions. We heard from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), from the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), from my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) and for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg)—an impressive full hand from Aberdeen—and from the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George).
I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) that I have received a letter from the Fleetwood Fish Forum and will follow up the sensible points that it raises. We also heard from the hon. Members for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). I must pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who made a most detailed speech. He has obviously been spending a great deal of time with the fishermen in North Shields. From what he said, I suspect I know who they are.
If the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) was indeed making his last contribution to a fisheries debate, I have to tell him that I shall miss hearing what he has to say. I do not always agree with him. [HON. MEMBERS: "Always?"] Well, I never agree with him, but he has been a consistent attender who has put and argued his case. I acknowledge that and respect his view.
Contributions were also made by the hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn).
My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) referred to fishermen in his constituency who have expressed an interest in monthly catch limits as a way to manage quota There are problems with managing quota on the south coast. At the moment, it is managed by the Ministry as part of the non-sector and sometimes we close down the fisheries to hold quota back for the winter and summer fisheries. I shall be only too happy to consider any representation that those fishermen may want to make on monthly catch limits. I will have to consult other fishermen, but I am always willing to consider management ideas that come from the industry. My hon. Friend is welcome to make a submission.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) is an old hand at fisheries debates: he has participated in many of them and represents a substantial fishing port.
It was interesting to hear the Conservatives' view. I think that I detected a slight hint of a U-turn towards the end of the debate Perhaps their policy on fisheries is going the same way as their policy on cannabis and on the tax cut guarantee which has quietly disappeared.
We need to address the way in which we manage the industry and consider the future of the common fisheries policy in 2002. The fishing industry is dynamic. It never stands still; it is always changing and adapting. Huge innovation takes place within the industry, but that makes it more difficult to manage. For example, within the past 10 years, the size of the fleet has decreased, but catches have increased. The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned Brixham and the south-west ports, which are landing more now than they were before the common fisheries policy was introduced. That is all part of the problem of pressure on stocks, and issues of management are involved.
I listened carefully to what hon. Members said about Council negotiations Ministers attend those meetings and argue for the best case for their fishing industries, which is understandable. If a Minister gets extra quota, it is also understandable that he will want to return to his country and mention it. He certainly will not want to come back and admit to having less quota than when the negotiations began.
However, the days of making gestures are over. It is not acceptable to try to force the Commission to change its policy because people think it has asked for unreasonable cuts. The last Council meeting was the toughest of the four that I have attended since I became the Minister with responsibility for fisheries. It was clear that the Commission was not keen on conceding anything and, in some cases, it was right to take that approach. I made it clear to the fishing industry in our pre-Council meetings that I was not going to argue for paper fish—fish that do not exist. I would not do that last year for cod, and I was criticised. However, I will not argue for paper fish or for quotas that are unsustainable.
There has been a welcome change in the Council, which means that we will not achieve dramatic changes to its recommendations because they are increasingly based on scientific advice. The Commission is increasingly reluctant to depart from such advice and, by and large, Ministers in the Council—there is always the odd exception—are increasingly prepared to accept scientific advice and take a realistic view. That is right and proper. The House of Lords published a good report, but it did not acknowledge the change that has taken place in recent years which makes it more difficult to achieve changes at the Council because it is more realistic.
The argument about national control is partly one of definition. In my definition, we already have national control over enforcement measures that we can introduce in our own fleet; over the way in which we apply licensing restrictions; and over licensing aggregation to stop technical creep within the fishing fleet. We have enormous autonomy under the CFP at present. I support that, and I also support the regional approach to fisheries management. There is nothing contradictory in my position.
I recognise that achieving radical change—to the concept of national control spelt out by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire—would require a treaty change. The report from MAFF officials to which the hon. Gentleman referred was an analysis of the original concept of zonal management as produced by Hull university. That report did not relate to the proposal that came out of the NFFO and the SFF, which was different from the original recommendations made by Hull university. It was very different and much more realistic about what can be achieved.
In theory, one can change a treaty Indeed, I have been involved, as a Minister, in getting a treaty changed. We were able to change the treaty of Rome, because the issue was relatively non-controversial. It changed the definition of farm animals from "animal products" to "sentient beings". That was a small and not particularly controversial change, but even that took a bit of arguing. However, that is very different from arguing for a change that would in effect lead to the repatriation of fishing limits and to the breaking up of the CFP, in the case of which one would have to obtain unanimous agreement.
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire suggested that agreement could be reached by the mere fact of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) saying that we would get a change. I am sorry to disillusion the hon. Gentleman, but other member states are not as impressed as he is with the right hon. Gentleman's powers. Not only is the suggestion from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire not credible: it is wrong to give false hope to fishermen when one cannot deliver such policies.
The Minister told the House that there is a fundamental difference between the earlier Hull university report on zonal management and the final submission from the NFFO and the SFF. If the reports were different, are his officials now saying that the NFFO's proposals for zonal management do need a treaty change or that they do not?
It very much depends on how one applies zonal management and what one wants zonal committees to do. I should make it clear that my view is that one can have a large degree of devolution and regional and zonal management within the existing framework of the CFP. That would not require treaty change. It is a question of agreement. This country has good relations with other member states, and we have been talking to them about these proposals. There is much common ground and, among the North sea states in particular, there is a great deal of interest in such an approach. We may not be able to achieve everything that is spelt out in the joint federation document, and the Federation would understand that. It may well be a step-by-step process, building on gains.
There is an argument for the Council of Ministers being the final accountable body. Although I am very happy to let the Mediterranean states sort out issues such as quotas and management within the Mediterranean, I might want to make comments about environmental issues, for example. We have a tiny tuna by-catch quota, but we get roped into tuna matters because, although we have a tiny quota, we have a very big vote in these negotiations. It is right that the Council should be the final body, but it is possible to have such approaches within the framework of the CFP that would not require treaty change.
I understand the Minister wanting to see off the Tory Front Bench, but he heard from his own Back Benchers and from other parties about the industry's urgent needs in both the short and the medium term. He knows that the all-party body is going to see the Treasury—if the Treasury will see us. Unless he addresses these points and gives us some indication, some encouragement and some hope, many people within, and particularly without, this Chamber will be very disappointed in him.
I have every intention of addressing those issues, because they are key issues. I have listened very carefully to the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I will not duck the issues; hon. Members would not expect me to.
I should like to finish dealing with the arguments about the CFP and what can and cannot be done. The final point I wanted to make concerned the common resource. "Common resource" is a very unfortunate term. I wish that it had not been included in the CFP, particularly because the concept of common resource has been superseded by that of relative stability. While it is true that there is equal access, that access counts for nothing unless one has the quota allocation.
Now we have relative stability, distributed among member states with their relative stability keys. We have a very good share of the principal stocks in the North sea that are of interest to us. We have some 80 per cent. of the total haddock quota. We have 50 per cent. of the cod quota—the biggest share of that. That will not change, and I predict that in the 2002 review, relative stability will not change. I also predict that we shall continue with coastal limits—the six and 12-mile limits. Those are fundamental issues within the CFP of interest to our fishermen, to us as a member state and to other member states.
What the Minister is saying is enlightening and very important. Given that his officials are to analyse the implications of zonal management, which is supported by the Conservatives' European fisheries representative, if they can fathom what the Conservatives' proposal is, will they look at the possible implications? That might also help to resolve a private difficulty within the Conservative party.
I am sure that when we understand exactly what the proposal is, my officials will be only too pleased to look at it in some detail.
The issue of the CFP is important, but the idea of withdrawing and negotiating is not credible. That is why when people say that the end result would be withdrawal from the European Union they are right, because unless we comply with the treaty obligations that this country entered into, there is no option but to withdraw. That would have devastating consequences for this country. In those circumstances, would we have had the important announcement today that Nissan is to invest millions of pounds in this country, with all the benefits for the car industry, related jobs and our steel industry? I am not so sure. Ninety per cent. of the fish catch of the south-west is exported to the European Union, enjoying the benefits of a single market, with no tariff barriers.
The cod spawning areas have been mentioned. They are crucial to our fleet and we have the largest quota, but they are nearly all outside our national limits. If we had no say in how the recovery plan would work, we could be severely disadvantaged if other member states chose to maximise their catch in spawning areas, which would have consequences for our fishing industry in the North sea.
Fisheries management must be on a pan-European basis. I am not saying that the common fisheries policy is perfect, or that it cannot be improved, but as the debate made clear, if we did not have the CFP, we would have to invent something very much like it for the purposes of fisheries management.
I have only five minutes, and I do not want to duck the issue of support for the industry.
There is undoubtedly a case for industry support. I questioned the sum of £100 million, not to disparage it but because I have no idea what it is based on or how it is supposed to be divided up. I do not know whether the bulk of it is for a decommissioning scheme or for other measures in the industry. I will have to speak to the industry about that. I will meet representatives of the English industry on 30 January.
Support for the industry will have to be delivered through the structural funds. Some funds are available, and if we can obtain more, they can be channelled through the structural funds to the industry. Structural funds are administered by the devolved Administrations. The Scottish Executive administer the structural funds for Scotland, and I administer the English structural funds.
There may be a case for a UK approach to the matter. I work closely with Rhona Brankin of the Scottish Executive. It would be sensible and logical for some of the issues to be addressed on a UK basis, but the administration of the schemes would be local. Hon. Members should not forget that there is a large local and regional element to the regional development agencies through objective funds, which can help onshore industries and can help restructuring by way of jobs and support.
Some of us remember the early 1990s, when for three years the Scottish Office was in favour of decommissioning, but when that was vetoed by the then fisheries Minister in London. Is the Minister saying that the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Executive or Scottish Government could choose to access the money currently available for lay-up schemes which is identified in Commission documents? Is that what the hon. Gentleman is saying, or is he saying that that is not possible?
I am saying that the regional funds are administered on a regional basis through the FIFG funds. Theoretically, there could be differences, and there are slight differences—for example, Northern Ireland has already announced that it will introduce a decommissioning scheme and it is using its funds for that. I know that that decision is welcomed by the Northern Ireland fishing fleet.
It is right and proper that there should be a regional approach, because there are regional differences among the fishing fleet, but there is also a case for a UK approach. I co-operate well with Rhona Brankin and the Scottish Executive in trying to address the issues together.
On tie-up grants, there is no comparison between tie-up grants and suggestions for a short-term closure of the fisheries that we are discussing, and what has happened in Spain. In Spain, an entire fishing fleet has been denied any fishing opportunities because of the closure of the Moroccan grounds. I am not sure whether that fleet will get back into those grounds, because the Moroccan agreement is not going very well. A large fleet and a great many jobs may have to undergo a decommissioning process in Spain.
I feel for people in the fishing industry, wherever they may be. People should not think that that fishing fleet has anywhere else to go. They should not think that because the fleet cannot get into Moroccan waters, it will appear in the North sea. I have seen those fishing boats, and there is no possibility of that. If there is no Moroccan agreement, that fleet is finished. We should not forget that.
The trouble with the tie-up grant is that it sometimes puts off difficult decisions. Also, it goes to the boat owners, not to the crew, and it could be seen as rewarding people who have contributed to overfishing by compensating them with state funding. It is not an altogether attractive proposal.
Nevertheless, I am prepared to discuss all the options with the industry. I do not rule anything out at this stage. I do not want to mislead people. Unlike the Opposition in relation to some of their policies, I have been very honest about what we can do in MAFF. I am prepared to make the case for the industry to address long-term problems and encourage long-term sustainability and stability in the fishing fleet. That is why I want to talk to the industry and am willing to make their case.
It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.