[Relevant documents: The Sixth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, on the Future for UK Fishing (HC 122) and the Government response thereto, First Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2005–06 (HC 532).]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Tony Cunningham.]
It gives me great pleasure to open our traditional annual fisheries debate. I am grateful both to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the business managers for enabling us to adhere to the recent convention that the debate should be held before the important December Fisheries Council. That allows hon. Members to make points of particular interest to their constituents, and me to take them on board before entering the negotiating rooms in Brussels. I know that hon. Members are extremely grateful for that opportunity.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early in his speech. This debate is important in the context of the Council and the Government's position, but would not it be useful to have another parliamentary debate before the EU-Norway negotiations? Although there are things to be decided at the forthcoming Council, the framework and the total allowable catches have already been set in the negotiations with Norway. It may be useful for the Minister and Parliament to engage before the EU-Norway negotiations.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the EU-Norway negotiations are important. They were successfully concluded last week. My officials put a great deal of work into them and most, if not all, of the United Kingdom's main objectives were achieved. Whether Parliament can find time to have a debate every year before the EU-Norway negotiations is a matter not for me but for the House. However, it is open to hon. Members to request such a debate, or even to apply for one in Westminster Hall.
Total landings of fish from UK vessels increased last year. They are now worth about £510 million to the UK economy. Our exports of fish and fish products were also up, valued at around £880 million. The pelagic sector, which relies mainly on herring and mackerel, continues to do well, as does the shellfish sector. The importance of nephrops, more commonly known as prawns, continues to grow as a proportion of the UK's total catch. However, some other species are still in decline, or their stocks remain at dangerously low levels, most notably cod.
The UK also has a substantial fish processing industry that continues to go from strength to strength; in all, it is worth about £1.5 billion a year. I am pleased to report again, not least because of the benefits to our nation's health, that fish consumption in the UK is still growing.
This year has reminded us of the dangers faced by those involved in the harvesting of the sea's natural resources. Indeed, commercial fishing continues to be the most dangerous of occupations.
I have already raised that matter not only with the Irish Minister but with the European Commission. I understand that the Government of the Republic of Ireland are working on proposals that, I hope, may go some way to dealing with the hon. Gentleman's concerns.
This year has reminded us of the dangers faced by fishermen. Losses of UK vessels amounted to 27, of which 22 were lost at sea, and there have been seven fatalities involving fishermen. I am sure that the sympathy of the whole House will go out to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives at sea and as a consequence of harbour accidents.
I echo the Minister's sentiments about the dangers that are faced by the fishing fleet in our waters and elsewhere. Does he share my concern, and will he speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport, about the new search and rescue helicopter contract, which is currently held by Bristow's and operated in my constituency from Sumburgh and elsewhere? There are concerns both about the helicopters that are to be used and the transfer of staff who are currently operating the helicopters. Will he convey to his colleagues in the Department for Transport the serious concerns in the fishing industry about that contract?
The Minister says that many stocks are under pressure but, as he knows, all white fish stocks and indeed others are to some extent being dictated by the cod recovery plan. Therefore, even if a stock is in robust condition, because of the attachment to cod in a mixed fishery, it can have a very low quota estimate. Is there not a case for a full review and public examination of the cod recovery plan, taking into account recent scientific evidence on climate change and other factors, which perhaps can look to establish a plan that does not discriminate against other fisheries in pursuit of an attempt to recover cod in the central North sea?
I certainly agree that it is sensible continually to review our fisheries policy, not least the cod recovery plan. In tactical terms, it would be a mistake, however, for the UK Government to argue for an earlier review, because I suspect that that might open up a number of proposals that the hon. Gentleman would find much less attractive than the status quo. We are, however, constantly trying to satisfy ourselves that the plan, which has not had long to work in fisheries calendar time, is right. At the December Council we will argue very strongly against further pain being inflicted on the UK fleet—I will deal with this issue in a moment—including the important Scottish white fish fleet, because in our view we have yet to give the plan enough time to work. So to call for a review of it would not serve our interests well.
Given what the Minister has just said, will he therefore oppose any future plan to ratchet up the cod recovery plan?
We accept that the cod stock is still very low in historical terms and does not show any sign of recovery. However, it is our very strong view that the United Kingdom has done more than any other member state to reduce effort on cod, and the Commission accepts that. We have reduced it by some 62 per cent. since the cod recovery plan came in, so in our view it is other people's turn to take a bit of pain.
This year has also been a very important one for the development of fisheries policy. In June, my colleagues in the devolved Administrations and I published our response to the Prime Minister's strategy unit report, "Net Benefits". That response, "Securing the Benefits", sets out a framework for the development of fisheries policy around the UK and how we will change for the better. I followed up "Securing the Benefits" by publishing a detailed action plan, "Charting a New Course", in October. This plan sets out how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will deliver the commitments made in "Securing the Benefits" in England. These actions will help to deliver a more sustainable and profitable sector.
We have already made progress in delivering these commitments. "Net Benefits" recommends that fisheries management take more account of recreational sea angling interests. We recently launched a consultation on proposals to increase the minimum landing size of bass, in recognition of anglers' strong interest in this stock and of pressure for a bass management plan. These proposals could provide real benefits to all interested parties by increasing the overall value of landings and by allowing more fish to spawn. We have also increased the representation of recreational angling interests on the sea fisheries committees.
The documents that I have just mentioned, together with our response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's report, which we anticipate making in the spring, set the tone for how we will address the challenge of achieving the sustainable exploitation of marine resources that we all want to see. This is a major and global challenge that we must not underestimate.
It is with the aim of achieving real integration of the management of human activities in the marine environment that the Government are now preparing a marine Bill. The Bill will introduce a new framework for the seas—based on marine spatial planning—that balances conservation, energy and resource needs. We need new approaches and better arrangements to replace systems that have grown up piecemeal over the years and do not meet current needs.
Our coasts and seas are biologically productive and support a wide range of marine life, but they are coming under increasing pressure through development and exploitation. Fishing is one among many developing industries operating in this extremely important but delicate natural environment. Any new legislation will have to recognise the importance of all those interests, as well as the need to protect the environment in which they operate.
The fishery to which the hon. Gentleman refers has been closed for the past two or three months because of the collapse of the stock. The UK will certainly argue very strongly in the December Council for continuing measures to protect the sand eel stock.
We want a framework that helps us to use our marine resources in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive way, in order to conserve ecosystems and to achieve maximum environmental, social and economic benefit from the marine environment. We wish to promote and encourage environmentally sustainable use of natural resources to ensure long-term economic benefits and sustainable employment.
The Government have also listened very carefully to the concerns expressed in the royal commission's report about the environmental effect of bottom trawling—an issue that I take extremely seriously. The UK's position is that where there is no competent regional fisheries management organisation or arrangement, we now favour a moratorium on deep-sea bottom trawling in known areas of vulnerable or high biodiversity.
There have been one or two other important developments this year that I should mention before turning to the detail and to our priorities for the December Council. Modernising and streamlining fisheries management has been another priority. In October, I launched the new Marine Fisheries Agency, which is formed from the sea fisheries inspectorate and other delivery teams within DEFRA. Separating policy and delivery functions in this way will strengthen our ability to provide a professional and efficient service. This change goes hand in hand with improving compliance, so that we can secure an industry that is profitable in the long term.
Another high priority for the Department is the better regulation initiative. Rules are necessary to manage the fisheries, but the combined effect of current controls on fishermen is to impose too great a burden on them. We need to cut back on red tape wherever we can, and I am very pleased that DEFRA has linked up with the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations in a joint project to identify what changes we can make. Working with the NFFO, we have already proposed to the European Commission a number of changes that should be made to EU law. We have pressed Brussels for an effective action plan to cut burdens on fishermen, and the Commission has promised to provide its ideas at the December council.
Given that the Minister has been talking about ecosystems and the health of fish stocks, can he tell us about the consequences of the 1998 ban on the dumping of sewage in the North sea? Has there been a noticeable improvement in the marine environment, and is he satisfied that other EU countries with North sea coastlines are complying with that regulation?
Yes. That regulation has had an enormous impact on the quality of our marine environment; indeed, the measures that the UK and other countries have taken to deal with sewage in a more sustainable way have contributed to our seas being cleaner than at any time since the industrial revolution. But there are other pressures, which are still growing. One reason a marine Bill is so important is that it will enable us to take an overall, holistic approach to the management of our marine environment. That is an enormous challenge, given that most of what happens occurs underwater and is invisible to the human eye. Nevertheless, we are talking about a very important resource for our country.
Before the Minister moves on to the Fisheries Council, will he comment on a point of detail concerning the pelagic fleet? A scheme has recently been developed through which white fish licences can be aggregated into the pelagic sector. That is obviously a very good thing for the five boats that have such licences, but the other 15, which will not have time to acquire such licences and aggregation, are to some extent being discriminated against. At first sight, this scheme therefore appears to discriminate against some fishermen and in favour of others. Will the Minister have a look at this issue and see whether the time scale can be extended, so that all boats can be treated on equal terms?
I certainly will examine this issue. The decision to which the hon. Gentleman refers was subject to extensive consultation over a number of years and was taken with the support of fishing industry representatives. But I undertake to write to him or to say a little more about this issue at the end of the debate.
Another issue flagged up in "Net Benefits" is problems with the current quota management system, which is regarded as confused and confusing. I agree, and in response we initiated a major programme earlier this year to reform our quota management arrangements. The programme is being undertaken in collaboration with the devolved Administrations and in full consultation with the industry. The plan is to deliver changes by 2008. They will bring clarity to the use and transfer of quota, while recognising the impact on vulnerable communities and on the small vessel fleet.
In addition to effective management of quota, the fishing fleet must be of the right size to take advantage of fishing opportunities in a sustainable way. This balance of capacity and opportunity is particularly relevant in the western channel, where the Commission proposes further restrictions to protect flatfish stocks. In addition, our economic modelling of the south-west beam trawl fleet, which targets these stocks, suggests that there is some overcapacity. I have therefore asked for an assessment of capacity across all fleet segments so that I am in a position to take a strategic view of how best to achieve a fleet structure that is sustainable in the long term. On the basis of that work, and in the light of the conservation needs, I will be actively considering further decommissioning in England and Wales in 2006–07.
The fear, certainly in Grimsby, is that in the process of decommissioning—unfortunately, some Grimsby owners want to decommission, because the industry is not profitable—preference will be given to the south-west, especially the beam trawlers, which are heavy users of fuel. The problems of the whole nation, and particularly of Grimsby, need to be taken into account and the aid should not be focused only on the south-west.
I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will take a holistic approach to the capacity situation. He is right to highlight the problem caused to particular sectors of our industry by high fuel prices, but I suggest that they are here to stay. If we are to achieve a sustainable and profitable fishing fleet in the long term, it makes sense to take such considerations into account when considering decommissioning. I will certainly bear in mind the representations that my hon. Friend has made and will no doubt continue to make on behalf of his constituents.
For the second half of this year, much of our focus has been on delivering a successful UK presidency of the EU. Further progress in engaging stakeholders has been made through the setting up of regional advisory councils. The UK has been a key player in this process, and under our presidency we have seen the launch of both the pelagic and the north western waters RACs. Those new RACs have already provided advice on the annual quotas regulation. The established North sea RAC has also made significant developments, including providing advice on the Shetland box that has directly influenced European policy. The RACs are now planning to advise on key Commission policies, such as maximum sustainable yield, over the coming year.
We have also achieved agreement on measures to restore and maintain healthy fish stocks. We agreed a recovery plan for southern hake and nephrops in the Cantabrian sea and western Iberian peninsula, and technical conservation measures for the Baltic sea were agreed last month in the Council. Both will be of long-term benefit to fish stocks.
One of our other objectives is to improve decision making under the CFP, with better stakeholder involvement, and we hosted a constructive meeting on that at the October Council to consider possible changes to working methods for adoption of the annual fisheries total allowable catches—TACs—or what most people refer to as the fishing year. We now expect the Commission to make concrete proposals for changing the fishing year in the spring.
While the Minister is talking about improving the way in which those issues are dealt with, will he consider how advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is released? The run-up to the Council is always a difficult time for fishermen, but this year advice was released from ICES that haddock stocks were plentiful. Within a week we were told of a proposal for a 40 per cent. reduction. I appreciate that that reduction has been scaled down since, but it caused much anxiety to fishermen, who feel as though they are on a rollercoaster ride.
I should point out that the reduction was successfully negotiated by my excellent officials, but the hon. Gentleman has a point. That is one of the reasons why we wanted to put the issue on the agenda for our presidency. Although there is general support in the Council for some change, countries do not necessarily agree to the same changes, depending on their own interests. However, I am confident that a more sensible fishing year will emerge from the process, with maximum periods between the receipt of the scientific advice, the Commission's proposals and the need to agree them in Council. We also need to bear in mind the need that some people perceive to inject some discipline into the process, which is one of the few advantages of having the Fisheries Council in the run-up to Christmas.
The Minister talks of building a better process, but does he agree that the RACs need to be allowed to grow and build so that eventually those affected by decisions in, say, the North sea are the ones who make the decisions about what happens there? That would result in more buy-in to the proposals and more cohesion.
I hope that that will be the case. It is worth pointing out that those organisations are only a year old. Many people were cynical about how effective they would be, but they have been proved wrong. Already, for example, the North sea advisory council has done some excellent work, produced some very good papers, engaged constructively and effectively with the Commission and managed to keep together in one body diverse interest groups with, on the face of it, different views of what we should do in the North sea. That is no mean achievement.
We also co-hosted a seminar with the Commission on fisheries partnership agreements with third countries—often poor African countries—and agreed a series of actions to ensure that those third countries' fisheries are not unsustainably exploited. That is not a major issue of concern in this country, although it should be. My concern was that in the past many of those agreements were not properly monitored, with the result that a renewable resource for some of the poorest countries in the world was being unsustainably exploited by some of the wealthiest nations, including members of the EU.
We also successfully resisted attempts to end the moratorium on commercial whaling at last year's International Whaling Commission in South Korea. We highlighted the cruelty involved in whaling. Our challenge now is to encourage more conservation-minded countries—all hon. Members have a role in delivering this message on their travels—to join the IWC, which has been subject to a vigorous recruitment campaign in recent years by the Japanese and their pro-whaling allies. We must be serious about that challenge if we are to defend our simple majority on the IWC.
The UK has also taken even more of a leadership role on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on the high seas. The high seas task force, which I chair, is due to report on combating IUU fishing in March next year. We are working with other countries and external bodies to support the implementation of that report.
Will the Minister comment on salmon stocks, especially the interception of migrating salmon off the west coast of Ireland? That is particularly damaging in view of the fact that Ireland received a grant from the EU to promote rod-caught salmon and tourism, but that country continues to grant licences for salmon that would otherwise end up in English rivers, especially in the south-west.
I am happy to repeat what I said in answer to the same question from Mr. Walker. I do not think that Mr. Heathcoat-Amory was in his place at the time. We share the concern that he expresses about the effect of Irish drift-net fishing on salmon stocks and I have raised the issue personally with my Irish counterpart and the Commission. My understanding is that the Irish Government are also well aware of the level of public concern in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere and are considering what measures they may take to help to address those concerns.
The main priority of our presidency has been successfully to manage the December negotiation of the TACs and quota regulations for next year. Our primary objective will be to ensure that a balanced agreement is reached that respects the CFP's objectives of securing sustainable fisheries and the protection of the marine environment. We will aim to maximise economic opportunities for the UK industry within that context and seek to protect the viability of vulnerable sectors of the UK fleet and the interests of particularly fisheries-dependent communities. The latest scientific advice should mean that the Council can agree increased TACs for western monkfish and for nephrops. But there are likely to be some tough decisions needed on those stocks that are not doing so well, including North sea, west of Scotland and Irish sea cod, and a number of flatfish stocks. The scientific advice also highlighted the challenges faced in managing vulnerable deep-water species. Some industrial fisheries, such as North sea sand eels, continue to be severely depleted. Again, this year, I and my officials have gone to great lengths to ensure the active participation of the industry in discussions in the run-up to the Council. We have been ably assisted by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who will sit in the UK chair for the Council. We will continue to keep in close touch with the industry up to and during that meeting.
Our analysis of the Commission's earlier proposals was that they would have cost the UK about £25 million, or 5 per cent. of the value of UK landings, but hard work by my officials has turned that around to a small increase of 1 per cent., as things stand at present, in the value of TACs next year.
I echo the Minister's comments: I am delighted that there is a full day's debate on fisheries, giving the industry its due importance. Like him, I begin by offering our condolences and sympathies to relatives of the fishermen who were lost last year. According to figures from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, 24 fishing vessels were lost and, sadly, nine crew members died last year. Preliminary figures for this year show that there have been five deaths. We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the brave men who risked their lives every day to supply us with one of our most popular and healthy foods.
The industry should be providing prosperous and sustainable long-term employment in some of our most remote communities—I emphasise the word "should". Two years ago, having visited only one serious fishery, which was in the Falklands, I took on shadow responsibility for fisheries, so I made it my job to visit the fishing communities on our coasts. It has been a huge pleasure and privilege to learn about the industry and the communities that depend on it, but it has also been deeply sad and depressing. Whether it was Whalsay in the far north of the Shetlands—where the nearest railway station is Bergen—Peterhead, Stornoway—in the western isles—Whitby, Hastings, Plymouth or Brixham, an appalling picture of the desolation of our marine environment and the destruction of our fishing communities emerged.
One example encapsulates the problem. In Fleetwood, which I have visited on several occasions, there was a fleet of 140 vessels in the 1960s; today, there are five. I met an engineer who used to employ 60 people; he now employs one fitter. There is no clearer example of the insanity of the current system than my experience when I sailed overnight in the trawler Kiroan. The owners fish for plaice in the Irish sea. They are allowed 22 days fishing per month with 80 mm mesh, at which they are viable, and only 17 days if they use the more environmentally friendly 100 mm mesh, at which they are unviable. I asked them to use both mesh sizes and they trawled twice during the night. The 100 mm net came up twice with two thirds saleable adult fish. Twice, the 80 mm net came up absolutely bursting—almost too full to pull on board—with 90 to 95 per cent. of tiny baby plaice, which were all dying.
I told the Minister about that a year ago, yet when I went back to Fleetwood this autumn I was astonished to learn from the same fishermen that 80 mm cod-ends are still being used, with 80 to 90 per cent. discards. The owner of the Kiroan told me:
"Things have never been worse. Nothing has been done over the past eight years to make fish stocks better. The position on cod is worse than ever due to tiny mesh sizes."
It is hard to understand how intelligent, sane human beings can enforce such a policy. He went on to say that the Faroes and Norway have bigger mesh sizes, and those problems do not occur. That is my central point. We do not have to inflict that damage on our marine environment.
In the past two years, having already seen order and prosperity brought to the Falklands by local control, I have also made it my job to visit successful fisheries. I visited Norway, the Faroes, Iceland, Newfoundland and New England and I am flattered that the Minister trotted after me to some of those successful fisheries. Yesterday, I spoke to Oli Breckmann, who is a Conservative MP in the L'gting, the Faroes Parliament. By contrast to what we have just heard, my notes of the conversation spring off the page:
"Cod stocks are improving as food is improving. Coley is fishing well. Fish prices are improving and there is a buoyant mood in our industry. We are confident that cod is recovering. Haddock is OK. There is very little grumbling amongst our fishermen. Fishermen's incomes are considerably improving. We expect to improve our tax due to higher volumes and higher prices. It is absolutely ludicrous for the EU to be cutting our capacity. Here, we are improving capacity and efficiency, discarding old vessels"— not fish—
"and buying new ones. Four new trawlers have recently arrived from Iceland so we are dumping old vessels."
They are opening some areas near the shore to summer fishing of flatfish, as the fish were "dying of old age", and using selective gear to let cod escape from the top. They maintain a discard ban and the most important thing is to land everything. The sand eel fishery has been stopped as the fishing industry did not want to restore it.
Mr. Breckmann reckoned that fishing was responsible for about 10 to 20 per cent. of mortality in the Faroes and confirmed that the industry is self-regulating. That is popular with fishermen. There is collaboration between fishermen and scientists. Above all, they know that cod numbers are decided by phytoplankton and protoplankton, which depend in their turn on temperature and salinity.
A few weeks ago, I talked to Höskuldar Steinarsson of the directorate of fisheries in Reykjavik. He said:
"Things are going well without a doubt".
Yesterday, I talked to Paul Howard, executive director of the New England fishery management council. Their policies of days at sea in closed areas have led to a huge revival of fish stocks and improvement in the marine environment. I give one example that is easy to understand. Closed areas have led to scallop landings increasing from 12 million lb in 1996 to a projected 43 million lb in 2005 and 78 million lb for 2007. In the USA, 20 fish species have been removed from the over-fished list in recent years.
On the basis of many weeks of travel and long hours of discussion with people who run successful fisheries that actually improve the marine environment, we published a Green Paper in January, describing how our seas should be managed for the benefit of the nation. There is not a single original idea from me in the paper; it is a compilation of the best practices that I have seen working in other fisheries. Our policy objectives are clearly set out:
"Our policy is to manage the sea fisheries in UK waters in such a manner as to safeguard the natural environment; to rebuild and preserve our fish stocks and wildlife; to maximise the economic value of exploitable stocks, both in the short and in the long term, commensurate with the natural resource available and the environmental impact of so doing; to create a stable, equitable framework within which the fishing and allied industries can operate, including the recreational fishing sector and tourism; generally to protect the interests of the United Kingdom."
We set out a management framework with a series of tools and controls that have worked effectively in successful fisheries. The most important is effort control based on days at sea instead of fixed quotas. The immediate effect of adopting an effort control system to conserve fish stocks is that Government bodies, scientists and fishermen will be relieved of having to administer the labour-intensive and unpopular system of quota control. For many fishermen, it also relieves them of the double burden of having to deal with the EU imposition of quota controls and days at sea, with a significant reduction in bureaucracy.
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which reported a year ago, stated:
"We recommend that the UK Government should move towards managing fisheries on the basis of effort controls."
The two best examples that I saw of such controls were in the Faroes and New England, where days at sea have completely rid fishermen of any incentive to cheat and land black fish and have broadly eliminated the hideous problem of discards. Above all, fishermen are co-operating with scientists. That is fundamental. In the UK, I am afraid that there is still a poisonous distrust in many areas between the scientific establishment, environmentalists and fishermen. The key gain is accurate data—that is fundamental because there is such a high level of discards and black fish landings that neither the Government, ICES or the EU commission know exactly what is going on. They are flying blind.
My hon. Friend is right. This is a complete scandal, and the facts are unknown. I cited the example of Fleetwood, where I saw 90 to 95 per cent. of tiny baby plaice being discarded. If they had been allowed to grow, with sensible mesh size regulations, they would have become commercial fish. Most fishermen tell me that they believe that more fish is dumped as pollution than landed for human consumption, and a large number of those fish must be saleable, commercial fish. I have heard that some beam trawlers in the south-west dump 20 boxes of cod a night because they do not have the quota for it. The lesson from the Faroes and New England is that if those fish are landed, we know what is going on. Bluntly, we do not know what is going on now because there is such a level of discard and black landings. Having accurate data is an absolute basis of any management system, and my contention is that we do not have accurate data.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of accurate data—it is a very good one and we have all suffered over the years because of the lack of accurate data—but he has twice mentioned that a lot of black landings are going on, although, as he says, we do not know that. I caution him that it does the interests of our industry and our Ministers in representing our industry no good to make such wide statements about the level of black fish landings.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment, but I am reporting what I found on my travels. It is common to every quota system that quotas inevitably lead to discards and black landings. That is an ineluctable fact. The point of our policy is that we have seen that where days at sea rules have been introduced—I think that this is the third time that I have said so—there are fewer black landings and fewer discards. That is the most fundamental gain, and accurate data are produced. The royal commission said:
"Our view is that a discard ban should be introduced. Under such a scheme, all fish caught should be landed."
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman's travels may have taken him to the major pelagic fish factories in Norway, where the nearest fisheries inspector will be well over a day's travel, perhaps two days' travel, away. From his travels or perhaps just from intuition, can he say what that might mean, for example, to the percentage of herring and mackerel going into such a Norwegian pelagic fish factory?
I have been to Oslo and Bergen, but I cannot speculate on those questions because I did not discuss them with the people there.
I wish to return to the closed area proposals. Closed areas were also endorsed by the royal commission, which regards them as
"a vital tool in the conservation of the environment", and they have been used successfully in each of the fisheries that I have mentioned. New England closes as much as 33 per cent. of its fishing grounds—an area of 8,000 square miles. We would certainly encourage a system of no-take zones, particularly in spawning and nursery areas, which are biologically sensitive, or in areas with corals or reefs, which might be exploited by divers or those with tourism interests. There is also a case for temporary closed areas.
Again, I have been struck by the speed of response that is available to those countries that run independent fisheries systems. In the Falklands, each vessel is required to report its catch every night by satellite. If a vessel that is after squid runs into too many hake, a message will be sent to it overnight requiring it to steam on for a few hours to avoid an excessive by-catch. In Iceland, messages are sent by radio within hours of a vessel reporting running into juvenile fish, and announcements are made on all the radio stations requiring vessels to stay clear. Such instant management is impossible under the system from which we currently suffer.
The hon. Gentleman has been indicating his view of the merits of independence. Is it still Conservative party policy that Britain should withdraw from the common fisheries policy?
Given the leader of the Conservative party's pledge to jettison unrealistic, extreme policies based on dogma and his failure in his leadership campaign explicitly to support the Tory policy of attempting to withdraw from the common fisheries policy, is the hon. Gentleman absolutely certain that his new leader supports that policy?
It is very interesting that the first time that the Minister jumps up, he avoids the technical details that would improve our marine environment and gets into tittle-tattle. I was delighted by both of our leadership candidates. As Anatole Kaletsky reported last week in The Times, my right hon. Friend David Davis said that he
"would return national powers from EU level", which would have included fishing, and my hon. Friend Mr. Cameron said that he
"would reverse EU control of fisheries policy and withdraw from employment and social policies."
On numerous occasions during the campaign, my hon. Friend stressed employment and social policies—and my word, fishing certainly comes into that category. I can assure the Minister that we are all Cameronistas now.
The Minister does not want to talk about the detail, but I have often brought the use of selective gear and technical controls to the House's attention during our numerous sparring matches in European Standing Committee A and at other times. The obtuse attitude of the Commission and the Government to the possible gains from using selective gear is extraordinary. Selective gear is quite simple—it is designed, to quote one scientist, to "surgically extract" a species from a mixed fishery without affecting any others, and many techniques can be used. As Mr. Salmond has said many times, it is ludicrous that when our haddock stocks are at a 30-year high we are letting such catches go to waste and concentrating entirely on cod.
I have visited Manomet in Massachusetts, which is the world's leading research centre for selective gear. I have told the Minister about the details when he asked me about them behind the Chair. We could use those techniques. The Manomet centre has managed to separate cod and haddock with an 81 per cent. success rate. It has separated cod from flat fish with a 100 per cent. success rate. When the Minister leads these discussions in Brussels, will he please get his colleagues to understand the environmental benefits of using selective gear, because many of those techniques are not allowed by EU regulation?
We would also opt for a rigorous definition of minimum commercial sizes. Ideally, we would like a commercial size to be set to ensure that mature adults are able to survive at least one and preferably two breeding seasons without being caught. We would ban industrial fishing. I am pleased that that is one of the lessons that the Government and the Commission picked up and, very late in the day, the sand eel fishery was closed. However, as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has said, it was
"unprecedented action to close the North Sea sand eel fishery . . . but this was not implemented until July, when the season was over and the Danish fleet . . . had already returned home."
Internationally important seabird populations have suffered widespread breeding failures, partly owing to climate change, with warmer seas altering the plankton cycle, thus reducing the availability of sand eels, which the RSPB describes as
"a vital food source for seabirds."
That makes it doubly important that the industrial fishery for sand eels should not worsen the situation.
I want to make a friendly intervention this time. Many hon. Members have sat through fisheries debates over the years and there has been virtual unanimity among most fishing MPs to ban the industrial fishery. Yet, year after year, ICES produces the most extraordinary figures—many hundreds of thousands of tonnes—for the permissible fishery. Is it not passing strange that, after all those years, the welcome decision has now been made to close the sand eel fishery? Does that not bring into question the nature of the scientific advice that, year after year, against all experience and all common sense, has suggested that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fish could be swept from the North sea and elsewhere?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is extraordinary that it has taken so long for the message to get through, but we must be grateful that the authorities have got it at last. It is not just a question of depriving haddock and cod of a food source; there is a considerable by-catch of juvenile commercial species. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I will come later to the grave doubts that I have about the scientific basis for the whole policy.
We would set up a completely different system for management and the creation of fishing plans. The idea is drawn from my experience in the States, where the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act sets the strategic framework. A diverse group of people serves on regional councils to devise the policy and, above all, enforce it. Commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and environmentalists—all those with a local interest—take decisions and debate matters. Apparently, the debates can get very rowdy and the police have been called on some occasions in New England. There is a strong tradition of local democracy and accountability there and, of course, the town meeting goes back to the 18th century.
There is great merit in having the activity managed as locally as possible by those who really understand it. We would want all local producers, processors, marketers and, above all, recreational fishermen to be involved. It is extraordinary that although we have 1 million recreational fishermen who spend £1 billion a year on their activity, they are totally excluded from making decisions on what could be a really exciting and expanding sector of the economy. We would expect such people to have full influence when recreational angling gives significant value to a fishery. There are 17 million sea anglers in America who sustain nearly 350,000 jobs. It is bizarre that this country excludes such an important group, which could grow and benefit our marine resources. We would like more to be done on marine ecosystems.
I am not quite sure whether I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, but he seemed to be implying that the Government were ignoring the interests of recreational fishermen. Was he listening at all to my earlier remarks? Perhaps he would like to associate himself with the proposed consultation on the increase in the minimum bass landing size as a sign of his commitment to recreational fishing.
We have made it absolutely clear in our discussions with recreational fishermen that we would not stop at bass. We would like minimum landing sizes for all species to be increased. I know that the focus—the battering ram—is bass because there will be great value in that. Decisions will be taken in Brussels, but I do not understand how the interests of recreational fishermen will be represented there. However, account is taken of such interests in America because of the regional councils. There are 5 million recreational anglers in Florida and they are directly involved in submitting their own information and contributing to the debate. Above all, they are involved in enforcement. For example, it is compulsory there to report every landing—hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fish are landed by recreational anglers. The current system does not allow such a thing to happen.
On research, we would like far more emphasis on the impact of climate change and natural phenomena such as the north Atlantic oscillation, because such matters affect phytoplankton and zooplankton, which ultimately determine fish biomass. Such matters have much more influence on our fish stocks than fishing effort.
"The speed at which cod grow is very dependent on water temperature. Average bottom temperatures account for 90 per cent. of the observed difference in growth rates between different cod stocks in the North Atlantic".
Temperature affects the condition of cod and the speed at which they become sexually mature.
The report says that a sustained 1°C change in average bottom temperatures would lead to rapid and serious change here. It is reckoned that:
The report shows the dramatic changes to the cod population that would occur if the temperature rose by 2, 3 or even 4°C. It states that future warming would lead to cod spreading even further north, but no account of that seems to have been taken at any stage of the deliberations.
The problem is confirmed by an entirely independent fishing expert, Menakhem Ben-Yami. He is an Israeli skipper who has worked for the Food and Agriculture Organisation and advised on fisheries throughout the world. He has made several interesting comments. He said:
"Illegal fishing and misreporting are direct results of wrong management, which in turn is the product of flawed science. Scientists are unable to properly assess stocks, or make reliable predictions, as long as they apply the present methodology. Current models are unable to represent marine fishing reality. They are innocent of ecology and ignore environmental factors, such as multi-annual, cyclic and semi-cyclic climatic fluctuations affecting the populations of fish and their prey and predators.
Even with the best information, they would be based mostly on statistical-mathematical manipulation of 'guestimated' values. It's 'garbage in, garbage out'."
Menakhem Ben-Yami proposes:
"Fishery science needs a major shift . . . back to on-board, at-sea biological research that would enable management steps in step with the life history of the species fished".
"on-going monitoring and analysis, considering all possible correlations between environmental factors and fish populations."
Tellingly, he says:
"When a multi-species fishery is managed by the weakest species, you reinforce the biomass of the prevailing species that often compete with the weakest one over food and habitat. Those species, say, whiting, haddock, in this case, with their large populations, simply benefit from the management applied to the cod, and thus makes its recovery even more difficult."
To pick up on the earlier comments made about the scientific basis of the proposals for the total allowable catches this year, the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations has said:
"It is now widely acknowledged, not least by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, that the scientific underpinning for setting quantitative limits on catches is for many stocks wobbly. The number of times the words 'uncertainty' or 'unreliable data' are used confirms that. There is a vicious cycle of poor data, weak assessments, low TACs, leading to weak compliance or discarding. This does not apply for all stocks or all areas but there is sufficient grounds to question the scientific underpinning for many quotas."
As before, we have the standard Community instrument—this one is called COM(2005) 617 final. It is dated
"fixing for 2006 the fishing opportunities and associated conditions for certain fish stocks and groups of fish stocks, applicable in Community waters".
The Commission claims:
"The annual fishing opportunities Regulation is the main instrument of our conservation policy under the Common Fisheries Policy."
It says that the regulation has become "increasingly complex"—it is certainly right there—and that that is mainly due to the recovery plans.
The Commission's contention is:
"Fishery resources are, in many cases, overexploited".
In the litany of woes, there is only one main reason for that: "excess fishing". It says nothing about food supply, other predation, climate change or plankton variations. In the Commission's book, the matter is black and white. It also takes a swipe at member states for "poor enforcement".
There is a weary predictability about the matter. The Commission is again looking to a
"longer term approach whereby the level of fishing is gradually reduced to long-term sustainable levels", with a "decline in fishing effort" and
"reductions in the catching sector in terms of number of vessels and/or in the average fishing effort per vessel".
However, as the Minister said, the UK has already reduced its effort in the main cod fishery by 67 per cent. through a combination of decommissioning and effort control measures.
What is going to happen is that the Minister will disappear for three days and nights and a vast amount of detail will be decided without proper consultation. Commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, environmentalists and anyone else who might exploit the marine environment will not be involved. Something like the 887 pages of detail that I have with me will emerge—we got a further 17 pages on the day that the matter was last considered in Committee.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although the people who he listed will not be involved in the negotiations, member states that are completely land-locked will be? Does he think that fishing will be their priority in the negotiations?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend Mr. Goodwill is in the Chamber, because having someone who is really interested in fishing present to speak on behalf of Scarborough and Whitby is in stark contrast to the situation last year. He is absolutely right that decisions will be taken at the Council by nation states with no real interest in fisheries, no real understanding of fisheries, or any background in fishing. Buccaneering countries with real agricultural interests, such as Hungary and Austria, will be present, but those interests will be traded off with deals on other people's fishing interests. That is not the way in which things should be run. In reality, there are 887 pages of detail somewhere in the Commission, which, in fairness, the Minister cannot possibly understand. Last time there were two big slips, although I do not blame him for that.
The hon. Gentleman remarked on the former Member for Scarborough and Whitby, who served in the House before the general election. He was not a member of my party and I have no interest in the politics of Scarborough and Whitby, so I shall not get involved in that. However, the hon. Gentleman referred to him in a way that was, frankly, unworthy of him. The former hon. Member always attended and spoke in fisheries debates. He and I were usually boxing and coxing for the last speech, trying to get in after the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman had, as seems still to be the practice, taken so long. The hon. Gentleman should reflect on that.
I am perfectly happy to apologise if the hon. Gentleman thinks that I cast a slur on the previous Member for Scarborough and Whitby. My point was that when I went to Scarborough and Whitby, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, the new Member, introduced me to fishermen and we had a most interesting discussion because of his real interest in the subject. I did not mean to cast an aspersion on the previous Member, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will shortly draw my comments to an end. I do not intend to plough through the 887 pages of the documents.
I do not blame the Minister for this, but there were two serious slip-ups last year. One was in the North sea, when a complete muddle led to fishermen buying 120 mm nets when the regulation was intended for the Baltic. The other was in Trevose, where there was a muddle over a closed area. Those serious problems for British fishermen were not even mentioned in the enormous bundle of documents.
It is no wonder that the chairman of the Icelandic bank, the largest investor in fishing businesses around the world, has made it company policy not to invest in any Russian or EU fishery because of the arbitrary political nature of decision making. No other fishery in the world is run quite like ours and none is run quite so badly as ours. The CFP is a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster. It is beyond reform. Our policy is to establish national and local control.
I welcome the debate and the opportunity to raise once again inshore fishing in Morecambe bay and the need to change legislation so that there is proper regulation of shellfishing and a national licensing scheme.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for recently meeting me and Steven Atkins, the chief executive of the North Western and North Wales sea fisheries committee, along with Margaret Owen and Mark Hamer, who sit on it. Margaret and her husband Trevor have fished in Morecambe bay for many years and are well aware of the dangers posed to inexperienced strangers who cockle out in the sands of the bay. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for the generous amount of time that he allowed for us to apprise him of our concerns about health and safety, damage to the natural environment of Morecambe bay, the loss of taxation revenue, and fishing and the depletion of stocks.
My hon. Friend is aware of the dangers of Morecambe bay, with its fast rising tides and shifting sands. Indeed, he was the first politician to visit it after the terrible tragedy in February 2004 when 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives in appalling circumstances. People who live around the bay value its beauty, but they are well aware of the need to take great care when venturing out on to the sands. It can be treacherous for those who do not have local knowledge of the tides and the shifting quicksands. Indeed, the Queen's sand pilot, Cedric Robinson, who has been leading walkers safely across the sands for more than 25 years, recently told the BBC:
"for strangers to come into the area and go cockling, it is dangerous".
I share his view completely.
The cockle beds that surround Morecambe have been closed since April 2005 by the North Western and North Wales sea fisheries committee. Legislation allows it to close beds to protect cockle stocks, but not to close them to protect human lives. That is crazy and unacceptable. The law must be changed to take health and safety concerns into account.
The closure of the cockle beds was warmly welcomed by me, the police, the coastguard, the lifeboat, the parish councils of Slyne with Hest and Bolton-le-Sands, Lancaster city council and, indeed, the local fishing community. I am pleased to note that the sea fisheries committee has not reopened the beds. However, a cockle bed further down the coast at Fleetwood reopened yesterday. My concern is that the beds will reopen and that, without proper regulation, they will once again put people's lives in danger. When the Morecambe bay beds were open for cockle fishing, the lifeboat had to be called out on numerous occasions to help cockle pickers who were in danger. In fact, the lifeboat locally became known as the "cockle taxi". People cockling were taking serious risks with their lives and were often unaware of the danger in which they placed themselves.
The problem is that Morecambe bay is a public fishery, so just about anyone can go cockling when the beds are open. A permit scheme is in operation across the bay, but again, anyone can apply for a permit by providing identity and a national insurance number. When the beds were open, hundreds of permits were issued. It is alleged that many people obtained permits to fish who were in receipt of state benefits and were not declaring their income, and that others gave bogus or fake national insurance numbers. Although several million pounds-worth of cockles were collected from the bay, I am sure that many cocklers did not pay taxation on their income.
As the sea fisheries committee has limited resources and there is only a small number of fisheries offices to deal with enforcement for a huge area, proper checks on permits did not take place. There also appeared to be problems with sharing information across Departments as a result of the Data Protection Act 1998. The weakness of the permit scheme is that just about anyone with a national insurance number and identification can apply and be granted a permit, regardless of their total lack of knowledge of health and safety issues in the bay or, indeed, of any knowledge of fishing.
The Minister knows that the situation is different for fishermen who go out on boats on Morecambe bay, because they require qualifications. There is, however, no restriction on the number of permits issued when the beds are open, which can lead to over-fishing and a depletion of stocks over a short time. Also, no charge is made for issuing a permit. The sea fisheries committee says that it is unable to charge, to restrict numbers or to link the permit to health and safety considerations because of the outdated fisheries legislation. The committee also voiced concerns to my hon. Friend and me about resourcing issues relating to law-enforcement activities in Morecambe bay.
The solution is simple: we need to change the legislation, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, to allow a proper licensing scheme to operate. A restricted number of licences should be issued to the bona fide fishermen—those who depend on fishing for their main source of income and who pay taxes on that. They should have first preference to hold licences for shellfishing. A charge should also be made for every licence issued. The fishing community supports that because if they paid for a licence, the regime would almost become self-policing because it would ensure that people who did not have licences were reported to the relevant authorities. That income could go towards employing more fisheries officers to deal with enforcement. A licence should not be issued to anyone who has not taken a short course on health and safety and obtained a certificate of competence. I understand that the sea fisheries committee could organise such courses relatively easily. Small changes to legislation are required, but they could make Morecambe bay a much safer place to harvest cockles and lead to long-term sustainable shellfishing in the bay.
I have talked specifically about Morecambe bay because it is the public fishery about which I have the most knowledge and because it can be so dangerous. However, I am aware of similar problems in other coastal areas, such as the Dee estuary, where a licensing scheme could also be helpful.
Surely the hon. Lady would not look for a licensing scheme in a cockle fishing area unless actual cockle fishers in that area were in favour of the scheme.
Yes. Obviously, there would have to be consultation, but such a scheme would represent progress as it would ensure that people could work safely in the dangerous environment of Morecambe bay.
As well as health and safety issues, many of my constituents have been appalled by the environmental damage to Morecambe bay. When the cockling beds were opened, they were fished on an industrial scale. Rubbish and netting were left behind by cocklers, and many old vehicles were abandoned in the middle of the bay. I went out with the lifeboat crews on the hovercraft, and saw the problem for myself. It is a beautiful bay, and in the middle of it are several vehicles. They are in the sand and covered by water. Those abandoned vehicles pollute the bay and present a hazard to fishermen who work in small boats should their nets become entangled with the vehicles.
As my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, the problem is that no agency or Government Department appears to accept responsibility for the removal of the vehicles from the bay. I have tabled several questions to various Government Departments but I have not been able to establish who is responsible for their removal. I would be most grateful if my hon. Friend were to make inquiries and write to tell me who has that responsibility. It may be helpful for him to know that so far the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency, the police and the local authority have all denied any responsibility. I do not know which organisation will be the last to disclaim responsibility.
I hope that the Minister will carefully consider what I have said in my brief contribution to the debate. I look forward to hearing his response when he winds up.
It is a pleasure to follow Geraldine Smith to whom we should pay tribute for her tireless work on cockle fishing in Morecambe bay and for the changes that she has brought about. I am much persuaded by what she has said, particularly about abandoned vehicles. I am used to dealing with abandoned vehicles in fields in Cornwall, but to have vehicles abandoned in Morecambe bay seems ridiculous.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute, once again, to the annual debate on fisheries. I pay my respect to the many fishermen who day by day risk their lives. We also remember those who have lost their lives during this year in pursuit of their livelihood.
Later this month, the Council of Ministers will once again have its work to do. It is right that we record the many issues that are facing fishing communities in the UK, some of which have already been raised. Ministers will again decide on the quotas for commercial fish stocks in each and every member state. Too often in previous years decisions on quotas and total allowable catches have been more about short-term political priorities than about informed science and decisions reached after proper consideration and consultation involving the fishing industry.
The UK's presidency of the EU leads some of us to worry that the Minister, in trying to undertake his role as chair of the relevant committee, will pull his punches on behalf of UK fishermen. He has not done so in the past, and I hope that that practice will continue. I also hope that he can assure us that he will go into the negotiations fighting for the UK's interests. Seemingly, other countries have had no embarrassment in doing so on behalf of their fishing industries when they have been in the chair.
We want the 2006 quota regime to be based on sound science and sustainability—sustainability not only in terms of fish stocks but of the industry itself. We are mindful that stocks of many species remain at a critical level, despite a number of beneficial changes that have been introduced, including those relating to mesh sizes. Still, however, not enough young fish are being allowed to grow to maturity, with a consequent continuing decline in some fishing opportunities.
The penalties that are exacted upon those who buy and sell black fish are punitive, and this is having a real effect on the incidence of such fishing. It is, however, obviously difficult to measure the trade in black fish. It is a practice that none of us can condone, and I am pleased to note that there is some evidence to suggest that that activity is beginning to be reduced.
The cod recovery plan was well-intentioned, and originally we all supported it, but it is not working. Before any further reductions in quotas or efforts are considered, I suggest to the Minister that there should be a full review of the current plan. It should address especially the issues of by-catch and discards, and data. Merely going on with more of the same, but at an even more draconian rate, is unlikely to improve stocks to the extent that we would all wish.
We certainly need much better information on by-catch and discards. Some recent improvements need to be factored into scientific assessments relating to new data on that, but some scientists are a little behind.
The lack of any real quality data is at the heart of the scientific debate and of the difficulties that scientists face. Will my hon. Friend suggest to the Minister that using our own fishermen productively to create such data and to help in its capture would be a positive way forward?
That is an excellent suggestion, and one that has been considered in the past. The means by which that data will be collected and the arrangements governing inspectors on ships and on other vessels are yet to be established.
The Government have funded to the tune of £5 million what are called fishery starts partnerships, which are doing exactly what has been suggested. The data on which the recommendations are based are themselves based not only on research that has been undertaken in the seas but also on real catch data.
I thank the Minister for that helpful response. Informed data—that which is robust and clear—is at the heart of decision making, or at least it should be.
Does the Minister envisage any cap on the effort in the haddock fishery? Will he tell us what perhaps he might be arguing for in the Council meeting on UK interests? The Commission has submitted its proposals for TACs, and he will know that there is considerable concern about haddock, especially in connection with the bilateral negotiations with Norway. Will he confirm that the bilaterals still take place between officials and that there is no direct ministerial involvement? Perhaps he might comment on whether he thinks that there should be such involvement.
We welcome the continued development of the regional advisory councils, which we have supported over many years. We hope that those councils will develop somewhat more rapidly to take on more of a management role rather than merely an advisory one. Even in that role, however, the councils have not been given sufficient time to respond properly to the Commission's proposals. It is vital that the RACs are in possession of information and are aware of proposals in good time for them to respond. Will the Minister, in future, insist that they receive information in good time so that they might respond in a proper manner?
We are delighted that at long last sand eel industrial fishing has been stopped. We assume that that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. Does the Minister expect that the issue might be raised at the Council meeting, with a date for its recommencement? Perhaps he will comment on that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if that fishing were to be restarted, the test that must be applied is one that enables the industry to demonstrate that the fishing can take place without damage to the stock levels of other species, rather than simply taking the approach that has been adopted in the past by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—ICES?
I quite agree. Earlier, Mr. Salmond suggested that the scientific evidence had been available for some time. How that argument held sway at such a late stage has never been explained, but clearly an explanation will be required if there are any proposals whatsoever to reopen the fishery.
Last week, Commissioner Borg indicated his intention to introduce new proposals, and began by stating that much of the scientific evidence on which proposals are based is often weak and, in some cases, non-existent, due to poor or non-existent landing data. What plans does the Minister have to improve that important data to achieve more informative decision making? Scientific underpinning for the setting of quantitative limits on catches is clearly not solid, and if we fail to include proper data that will only continue. Once again, the Commission and member states will be almost blind when they make important decisions on the livelihoods of many people and the economic future of many communities.
The hon. Gentleman has been generous in accepting interventions. Does he agree that we can have all the agreements in the world, but we cannot do anything without policing to deal with foreign trawlers that fly different flags and use different names to land as many fish as they like on the same vessel? That is the big problem. Whatever fine words we use, we need to take action.
I agree. The implementation of the agreement and the way in which it is enforced are at the heart of many problems and cause frustration among fishermen who try as far as possible to keep within the regulations.
Given that the Minister will be chair the Council meeting, may I ask what the UK presidency has done in the past six months to ensure that TACs and quota decisions are made on the basis of sound science and in full consultation with the fishing industry? We hold a fisheries debate every year, and the Council meets every year so it is sensible for information to be made available over a reasonable period. However, at this time of year, things are squeezed into a few weeks, often resulting in some people being unable to provide the information that, quite properly, they want to contribute to the debate. I welcome the Minister's confirmation that a marine Bill will be introduced. It will be a significant piece of legislation for fishermen and will provide extremely important measures on use of the sea, including spatial planning and environmental degradation in some areas. We therefore hope that it will be introduced at the earliest opportunity. It would benefit significantly from pre-legislative scrutiny, as the Animal Welfare Bill has done.
I, too, think that we must not forget sea anglers. In Cornwall, sea angling contributes a great deal to seaside activity, as I am sure is the case in many resorts with significant recreational and commercial sea angling operations. As appears to be the case in other countries, sea anglers should be included in discussions so that they can play a role in the constructive governance of UK fishing. Once again, the Minister will have considerable responsibilities at the end of the month, and we wish him well. UK fishermen have responded to many challenges, including the recent hike in fuel charges and so on, that have been inflicted on them. However, I hope that he realises that there remains a genuine belief that other countries are less robust in their implementation of EU policy. We would not wish UK fishermen, particularly in the south-west—I know they are very much in the Minister's sights—to be penalised once again because of the inadequate enforcement by other European states of TACs and quotas, which constitute the only available framework to address both the environmental and commercial aspects of fishing.
May I begin by joining criticism of Mr. Paterson for his unwarranted and unfair attack on Lawrie Quinn? As chairman of the all-party fisheries group, I can testify that Lawrie Quinn worked long and hard for the cause of fishing, particularly in his constituency. I accept that the hon. Gentleman would wish to welcome a new Member to the House—that election, however, was decided more on the issue of fox hunting than on fishing—but it is not legitimate to do so with an attack on the newcomer's predecessor, who is missed by Labour Members and who worked vigorously and diligently for the cause of fishing. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman was sincere when he withdrew the aspersions that he cast on Lawrie Quinn.
In the parliamentary life-cycle, it is traditional to hold a fisheries debate at Christmas, which could be regarded as a Christmas party—usually a depressing one—for the industry and MPs from fishing constituencies. To be fair, it is our only chance to say what we would like for the industry and to brief the Minister before he goes to Brussels for the Council meeting. On his return, he usually says that he could not secure what the industry wanted, but gained the best deal that he could from the negotiations. We always end up with less than we want.
This year, two factors complicated the position. First, timing has been a problem. Commissioner Borg adopted a new approach, and suggested that he would provide advance notification of what he wanted to achieve in December. Even though he was not required to provide figures, the general principles of such a statement would have provided a useful basis for discussions, particularly those with Norway that effectively set total allowable catches. After a suspension last year, those discussions were delayed this year so, in addition to the fact that Commissioner Borg's prediction has not been forthcoming, we have had to wait for a last-minute decision, which has put the industry and ourselves at a disadvantage.
Secondly, I fear that the British presidency has been a handicap in certain negotiations. We are so anxious to bend over backwards to secure an agreement and conciliate people that we do not assert our national demands and interests as vigorously as the Dutch did when they held the presidency. They used their position ruthlessly to gain what they wanted on fishing. Why do we not do the same? Our civil servants are brought up in the best tradition of British sportsmanship—probably in an arcane game such as cricket—and they always want to be fair to the poor continentals, particularly at a time when we have to show leadership. However, that is not what the industry wants or needs. We want a vigorous assertion of our demands and interests.
Is the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the all-party fisheries group, saying that the Minister is not ruthless enough? Does he not recall that at a meeting of the group at the beginning of the presidency we instructed the Minister to be ruthless? Is he saying that he has disobeyed us and kowtowed to unreasonable demands elsewhere instead of ruthlessly asserting his position?
I am not up to the clever techniques of Scottish politics because I am a decent, inhibited English Member. I think that the Minister has done an extremely good job and been effective in pushing our demands, and particularly effective in maintaining close and continuous contact with the industry, to listen to what it wants. I am not criticising the Minister, but I am criticising a position which makes a British Government who are in a difficult situation in Europe more accommodating than they might otherwise be, because they have the presidency and want to show responsibility. It was certainly not a criticism of our Minister.
I understand the image that the hon. Gentleman is painting. The picture of the Minister as a sporting loser is about right, but is he not going into the conference chamber naked? Are his hands not tied? As the House can see, I am making the image more colourful by the moment. The truth is that the Government as a whole do not prioritise fishing. It is traded off against other countries that do prioritise it. We do not value fishing highly enough. Is that not the truth of the matter?
I shall not attempt to reply to that. The loser image was a description of my own position and sporting instincts. I was not saying that our Minister was a loser. I was saying that the difficulties of combining the presidency with arguing for national interests make the British Government more inhibited because of their instinct for fairness and conciliation. I go no further than that. I am not entering into the old in and out argument, as the hon. Gentleman may want me to.
I am sure that the new leader of the Conservative party does not want to recruit dinosaurs, and on this issue I am one. I believe that, from a fishing perspective, we would do better having national control over our own waters. That is a goal that I still support and work for. It is true that we would still need to co-operate, but we would co-operate and consult from a more powerful position if we had such control. We would act with more muscle.
As we are now arguing about the cash return on Europe, particularly the rebate, and asserting the fact that the common agricultural policy costs us dear and benefits France, it is important to point out that the common fisheries policy also costs us dear. The policy was stitched together at the last minute to get access to British waters. As the evidence produced from Scotland shows, civil servants were told to regard the fishing industry as disposable.
Expendable. That was disgraceful, but it was accepted by the late Sir Edward Heath in his passionate desire to get into Europe. We got a worse deal than was justified. We made the biggest sacrifice. We have had the biggest loss of catches, and the total amount of fish taken out of British waters by European vessels will come to a huge total—measured in billions—added to which is the cost of the run-down of the British industry and the run-down of fishing communities. So there are very heavy costs which need to be taken into account in the financial argument that we are involved in.
The industry has been blighted by the common fisheries policy. The English industry has borne the brunt of the cuts—substantial cuts, more than we should have taken and more than have been necessary in any other country. I can become positively elegiac when I consider the position of Grimsby, which in the days of fishing in Icelandic waters and big fishing in Norwegian waters had a powerful fishing industry as Britain's and perhaps the world's premier fishing port, and I see the present shrunken state of the industry, with owners who have invested in the industry now asking why decommissioning money cannot be channelled to them because they cannot fish profitably and want to get out. That saddens me, but I have put their demands to the Minister.
How does the hon. Gentleman view the fact that the Republic of Ireland is building boats yet our Northern Ireland fisheries are asked to decommission? Quotas and the tie-up schemes are decimating our industry, yet across the border we see a vibrant fishing industry compared with Northern Ireland in particular and the rest of the United Kingdom in general.
I did not intend to reach Grimsby via a detour to Northern Ireland, but I agree. The problem for fishing communities such as mine and other communities in Northern Ireland and Scotland is that if the cuts go on, the critical mass of the industry will be insufficient to support the facilities needed to keep it going.
After the huge vessels that have been built in the Republic of Ireland, that is more than welcome.
With regard to critical mass, we have already had a report on the east coast fisheries industry which suggests that one or more of the white fish ports there will have to close. We have seen what has happened in Lowestoft.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Minister, who is extremely vigorous and ruthless, could be persuaded to lay before the House an examination of the capacity in the Irish white fish fleet over the past 10 years, compared with the capacity in the fleets of England, Scotland and the other countries of the United Kingdom?
That would be interesting to know, and it would be interesting to have it reinforced by figures for new build in other European countries, particularly that financed by the European Union in Spain. The figures make me envious, so reading them will be a form of masochism, but it is necessary information that should be provided to us.
When the industry shrinks to a level below the critical mass, we need to take measures to support it—for example, to keep a regional industry going by buying licences and track records to keep them in the area, otherwise the Scots poach the lot. I do not want to sound contentious towards my colleagues in Scotland, but that is what has been happening on the east coast.
When we pressed for some measure of financing to allow the fishing communities to keep quota locally, we were referred to the regional development agencies. They initially took a firm line that they were not allowed to give support to the industry because it was against European competition rules. The only support that was offered was for health and safety measures, which would have enabled the Grimsby industry to purchase millions and millions of plastic helmets for fishermen to wear. We saw the Minister in August and I hope that he has put that right. Yorkshire Forward, for instance, is still too slow to provide the help that is necessary, and is unadventurous in keeping catching capacity in the area so that we have no further shrinkage.
I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sub-Committee inquiry into fishing, which produced a very good report. The report emphasised the need to move forward through co-operation and devolving power from Brussels to the regional advisory councils. The Sub-Committee backed the approach developed by the strategy unit, which resulted from the Prime Minister's intervention. The Government reply to the report was lethargic and did not indicate that the issue was being pursued with the necessary dynamism. It did not address the concern that if we are not going to provide the direct aid that the industry wants—I still think that the industry should receive it—we must be vigilant in order to prevent others from providing it to their industries, which returns us to the Irish Republic and Spain.
There have been attempts to reopen the issue of whether there should be investment in new vessels and new capacity. Such investment should have ceased and that position must be maintained, but the Government must safeguard our industry against other industries that receive support.
Conservative Members endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments. When I attended a meeting in Northern Ireland, strong words were used to criticise the handing over of money to the southern Irish. There is no place for subsidies—the lesson of Newfoundland concerns the grotesque damage caused by excessive subsidised capacity. In our paper, we make it clear that there is no role for subsidies.
I wish the hon. Gentleman joy in announcing the Tory policy of no subsidies for the fishing industry, which in my view requires a measure of Government support to perform the necessary transition—in particular, it needs the Government to be vigilant on subsidies to competing European industries. I am worried about fuel subsidies, which have recently become an issue in France. They are a traditional French reaction to a difficult situation, and they are totally unacceptable, because our industry is subject to the same costs. If our industry is not subsidised, nobody's industry should be subsidised.
The slower approach than I would have liked has left the industry to seize the initiative, which it has done because it wants to co-operate. The RACs resulted from not only the importance placed on them by the strategy unit, but the importance attached to them by the industry, which has committed itself. They have been handicapped by the lack of advance information on the Commission's proposals. If they had received an indication of the Commission's proposals by the middle of the year, they would have been able to develop plans on how to apply them and to make suggestions on what should be done. However, they had to work in the dark, and the timetable was put back to a November meeting, which did not achieve as much as it should have done because it did not have the material to bite on.
My hon. Friend Mr. Paterson is right about the difficulties for the industry in long-term business planning and investment, because the policies change year by year. Because the industry does not know where it stands, it cannot invest, but that does not seem to be the case in Ireland. In 1973, the total catch by the Irish fishing fleet was 78,068 tonnes; by 2003, it had risen by 195 per cent. Somebody is doing well within the EU, and it is not the UK—it is, as Mrs. Robinson has said, Ireland.
The problem in this country is that the fishing industry has never been big enough to be a powerful influence on Government. It is more powerful in Scotland, and it exercises more influence on the Scottish Executive than it does on the UK Government. Smaller countries with bigger fishing industries focus more intensely on the issue and can achieve more.
The building of ever bigger and more powerful vessels goes against conservation. We need older and less efficient vessels, such as those in Grimsby, because their catches are much less damaging environmentally. What has happened in Ireland is bad for the industry and bad for conservation. It is unfortunate that the machinery in Europe is so cumbersome that it does not allow us to stop such practices immediately.
There is a case for re-organising the fishing year, which is out of kilter. We should bring forward what the Commission wants to achieve and hold earlier talks with Norway to set total allowable catches. We should also revise the scientific advice, which is increasingly questioned. It provides a freeze-frame of the previous year, so it may well be out of date by the time that judgments are made on it—it is published in the middle of the year, and the decisions are made in December.
I agree with the evidence put forward by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and others have acknowledged that the scientific underpinning for the catch limits is wobbly. The number of times that the words "uncertainty" or "unreliable data" enter into those calculations means that we should not base tough judgments and restrictive measures on them.
The fishing industry and I welcome the fisheries science partnership. That welcome innovation by the Government allows fisheries vessels to undertake DEFRA-funded research, which has been very successful in making the scientific advice more practical. Given the wobbly scientific underpinning, decisions on restrictions and cuts are based on inadequate information. The industry is right to protest against the proposals on cuts, because it has been slowly ratcheted downwards by that process. We need a better organisation of the year and more information to allow the industry to become more involved in taking the necessary decisions.
We must take a long-term view of how to reach sustainable catch levels and a sustainable industry, but the Commission is still motivated by a short-term view. I was disappointed when Commissioner Borg's promise on advanced information about the Commission's objectives was not fulfilled. Unless we receive such information, the RACs cannot work effectively, because they need to take views on what the Commission is proposing in order to allow their own views to be taken into account. Those views should be enforceable, so we do not want advisory councils; we want regional managerial committees to determine the targets for their area and the means of reaching those targets—in other words, how to limit catches, if they are to be limited. What the industry wants is right. We must move on to the future by co-operating with other countries, through the RACs and more powerful bodies that will succeed them, and with scientists and Government. That is the only way in which we will achieve a sustainable industry.
I am grateful that some of the industry's demands have been taken into account and that it has been consulting so effectively. More power to that process, because the industry needs to be brought much more into it. The industry's aim, like that of the Government, is sustainability. It might be necessary to give it more financial support than the Government have been prepared to give. However, there is a common aim that will be achieved by better organisation of fishing in Europe, with more flexible management instead of blanket bans and the cod fish recovery programme.
We need more temporary closures of areas and more selective measures taken vigorously through the RACs. We need the ban on industrial fishing for which we have been asking for years. I was delighted to hear from the Minister that the effective ban on sand eels and pout will close down much of the industrial fishing, which has been an abomination. I could never understand the scientific advice on which it was maintained. Licensing will deal effectively with the black fish industry. The industry grumbles about the regulation involved, but traceability and registration are the only effective way forward in that respect.
That brings me back to the main issue that faces us: cod recovery. It is clear that the cod recovery plan is not working, yet it inhibits the rest of the industry, because what it can catch is geared to it. Haddock is more plentiful and can still be caught, yet it is not allowed to be caught because of the coupling with the cod recovery programme. The industry wants a full review of the cod recovery programme in 2006. I would go further, although it grieves me to do so, because Grimsby has always been a cod port. The time may have come for us to recognise the fact that cod stocks are not going to recover. In the North sea, the decline was mainly caused by over-catching. That has brought stocks to the point where it is questionable whether they will survive. There is also the problem of climatic effects and the warming of the waters, which was mentioned by the Opposition spokesman.
Frankly, we do not know in scientific terms whether cod stocks will recover if the cod recovery programme is maintained. If they are not going to recover, that is an end of it. Let us remove that ratchet, which is screwing down on the rest of the industry, and give up on cod. Certainly, the Canadian experience indicates that there will not be a recovery. When cod stocks reach a particularly weak point, predators come in and eat the eggs and the whole environment becomes more hostile. We may have reached that point.
I am not qualified to evaluate whether the warming of the waters will be countered by what is happening to the gulf stream. I am affected by that only to the extent of bathing from Cleethorpes beach, and I am not qualified to assess the effect on fishing. However, there is a process that is driving out the cod. It might be as well to recognise that and to say that we are not going to engage on a ratcheting process which is screwing the rest of the industry down on the basis of a cod recovery programme that will not succeed, especially as we could achieve the same objective by other means— for instance, geographically focused measures on cod taken by the RACs.
That brings me full circle to the argument on whether we are in or out of Europe. I hope that the Conservatives' position is not changed by the rush to the middle ground—or middle waters—that the new leader seems to be embarked on, and that they will maintain a position that is important, because it is an assertion of our national rights. Whatever position is taken, the transfer of power needs to be away from Brussels and down to the national and regional levels so that the industry can shape its own future and has the necessary powers to do so. That is the only way in which to achieve the sustainable industry and sustainable targets that we really need and should be the basis of our discussions today.
I commence by saying a few words about Lawrie Quinn, my predecessor. Mr. Quinn was a very hard-working MP. As Hansard shows, he regularly attended these annual fisheries debates.
When my hon. Friend Mr. Paterson visited the constituency, he witnessed real anger in the fishing community. Some of the anger was directed at the Member of Parliament, but I suspect that it should have been more rightly directed at successive Governments who have failed to deliver for the fishermen of the north-east coast, and even more at the European Commission, which has failed to deliver a common fisheries policy securing, in the words of the Minister, sustainable fisheries and the marine environment. We have had 22 years of the common fisheries policy, which has not delivered those objectives. How much longer do we have to wait to realise that the solution to the problem is that which Conservative Front Benchers, and Mr. Mitchell, suggested?
Fishing was a central issue during the election campaign. I am pleased to say that I had the warm support of the fishermen, not least because in one of the debates at Whitby community college before the election proper started, my predecessor said that not many people were involved in the industry any more—the implication being that it therefore did not matter. I must make it clear that every one of my constituents matters, not least the fishermen. We have a vestige of a once-great industry, but we must hold on to it. There is no point in having a cod recovery plan if, when it does recover, we have no industry to capitalise on the harvest of the seas.
My constituency includes the two fishing ports of Scarborough and Whitby. People from Scarborough rarely agree with people from Whitby, but one thing that they do agree on is that the fisheries policy promoted by this Government and, I am sad to say, the previous Government, has not worked. Last week, at Hull Crown court, 10 Whitby skippers and two Whitby trawling companies pleaded guilty to 55 charges of not properly recording fish landings. The accused represented 90 per cent. of the Whitby fleet. For three months during the late summer and autumn of 2003, only 50 per cent. of landings were recorded. They were fined £122,800. I must make it clear that there was no suggestion of fraudulent activity in relation to the Inland Revenue; in fact, tax was paid on all the fish landed and harbour dues were paid on the fish that came into Whitby harbour. In fact, DEFRA spent £21,000 on forensic accountants to try to determine whether any fraud of that kind might have been committed.
I must stress that the people involved are not wealthy men. Evidence given to the court revealed that the income of the skippers was between £8,000 and £20,000. The highest-paid skipper involved in the case earned one third of the salary of a Member of Parliament—without the generous pension provisions, I hasten to add. The biggest fine was levied on Arnold Locker of Locker Trawlers. Twenty-one offences involving seven trawlers resulted in Mr. Locker being fined £52,500. I am told that similar offences in French ports would have resulted in warnings being issued.
Fishermen such as Mr. Locker, who is the chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, faced a terrible choice at the end of 2003: break the rules or go out of business. They faced a 65 per cent. cut, due to the recovery plan, and they had already invested in more quota and new vessels. Mr. Locker had a £1.5 million overdraft because of such investments in the future of the industry. The Whitby fishermen have also invested in the young people there. We have the best training in the country for fishermen, because the Whitby fishermen have faith in the future. There are also problems relating to days at sea and the increasing pressure on them.
I must stress that those fishermen are not dishonest men. They are decent men who have been driven to dishonesty by the common fisheries policy. We have seen 22 years of failure of that policy, in which stocks have crashed and employment has gone down. Those fishermen are the people who would be in the lifeboat if someone got into trouble in their yacht off the east coast and needed rescuing. They are not criminals; in many cases, they could be called heroes. The common fisheries policy is the problem, not the solution. While I cannot condone anyone breaking the law, I think that we can all understand the desperation that they would feel when faced with the loss of their business and their home, and perhaps with the family breakdown that could result from that.
What made the fishermen in Whitby even more bitter was the fact that—no disrespect to the Scots—they knew that the Scots had been given a £50 million package to tide them over, consisting of £40 million for decommissioning and £10 million in interim aid. That worked out at £14,000 per vessel per month, or roughly £50,000 in cash to tide each skipper over. Skippers in the north-east of England got none of that money. In Northern Ireland, 16 vessels together received £900,000 to tide them over, and fishermen in Wales also got assistance. But England, for once the poor relation—
Indeed. England got nothing. Mr. Locker sold four vessels. One went to Northern Ireland—surprise, surprise!—and three went to Scotland. That enabled him to reduce his borrowing and to keep going. As I said earlier, there is no point in having a cod recovery plan if there is no industry in England left to capitalise on it.
Skippers and fishermen in Whitby feel that the science that is being used is in many cases not robust. I can understand why it is important to have figures that can be compared from year to year. However, much of the light tackle that has been used for the past 40 years to sample the stocks does not perform in the same way behind high-powered trawlers as the old tackle did. May I suggest to the Minister that we have a few years in which the two different types of tackle are used in parallel, so that we can also use modern fishing methods to sample the stocks? In that way, we would be able to pass the figures on from one year to the next.
I was going to say that the industry in the north-east had been decimated, but we know from our Roman history that decimation was what happened when a legion had not lived up to the standards of the empire and one in 10 of its soldiers were taken out. The situation in the north-east is worse than that. I have here the employment figures in UK fishing for the two years in question: 2003 and 2004. In Scotland in 2003, the figure stood at 5,276, and in 2004 it was 5,275—almost the same. In England and Wales, the figure for 2003 was 6,270, and in 2004 it was 5,665, a reduction of 9.6 per cent. But in the north-east of England, the figure for 2003 was 695, and for 2004 it was 192. That represents a reduction of 72 per cent. in employment in the east coast fishery. That is worse than decimation; that is one in three people going out of the industry in one year because of the effects of the cod recovery plan.
I thank the Minister for attending a meeting in August that was facilitated by Mr. Mitchell. I presume that the "Great" in "Great Grimsby" refers more to the football team this season than to the fishing industry in that once great fishing port. During his speech, I could not help thinking that perhaps we should have sent him to Brussels to negotiate on our behalf, as he seemed to be talking an awful lot of sense—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"]
The meeting that the hon. Gentleman facilitated at DEFRA in August was attended by our fishing leaders, including Mr. Fred Normandale, a Scarborough fisherman, and we tried to come up with a way of facilitating some aid for the Yorkshire coast fishermen within the rules. Yorkshire Forward said that it would make £500,000 available to the industry over two years, and it was suggested that that money could be used to fund mandatory safety equipment. I understand the arguments of additionality in this context, because if something is mandatory, there is no real gain for the taxpayer in giving people money to do something that they have to do anyway. However, the industry and Yorkshire Forward thought that that would be at least one way of levering some money in to help the industry. The Minister was very helpful and listened to everything that we said at the meeting, but I am sad to say that, so far, no money has been made available.
So, what is the future for the fishing industry on the east coast? Looking back over the debates on the issue, in which my predecessor spoke every year, I see that there was never any good news. I wonder whether there will be a future for the industry. On the bright side, we have seen a renaissance in shellfishing. The port of Bridlington is now entirely a shellfish port. It has been suggested that we are fishing our way down the food chain: we have caught all the big fish and now we are going for the small stuff. The fleet in Scarborough has been switching over to shellfish, and there has been some investment in jobs on shore. Whitby scampi is also becoming famous.
There is a company in Whitby run by a gentleman called Mike Russell, the coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat, and he knows everything there is to know about lobsters. Everything that I know about them I have learned from Mr. Russell, and he has not told me half of what he knows. Whitby has developed a thriving export market to Spain, but I was interested to hear that only the good lobsters go there. A lobster casts its shell because the meat inside its body is bursting to get out. Those are the lobsters that we send to Spain. When it has cast its shell, it goes off somewhere to hide for a couple of weeks because it is particularly vulnerable at that time. When it comes out again, it is very hungry, so it goes into the first lobster pot that it sees. However, at that stage, it is not crammed full of meat; its shell is in fact quite empty. Those are the lobsters that we tend to eat in Britain. It would be uneconomic to transport those lighter lobsters to Spain anyway. When right hon. and hon. Members visit Spain, they should make sure that they try the lobster, as there is a fair chance that it has come from my constituency. If they visit my constituency, however, they should not pay over the odds for a lobster, because the chances are that it will be one of the outgrades, which, although tasty, do not have as much meat in them as those that they will find in Spain.
The brown crab is not as abundant as it once was. Whitby fishermen are developing a market in Spain for the velvet crab, however, which is much smaller—it has a diameter of perhaps less than 10 cm—and used to be thrown overboard or destroyed because it was predating on other species that fishermen wanted to catch. Before the election, there was an interesting culinary evening to which local people were invited to sample the velvet crab. I suspect that velvet crabs will not catch on in Whitby, however, because tackling one involves an awful lot of work for not too much meat.
Until a lorry arrives from Spain that can carry a full load of 25 tonnes, the problem posed by the velvet crab is storage. Currently, velvet crabs are being stored offshore in nets, which causes the problem of crabs predating on themselves. There is also the problem that if the seas are particularly rough when the lorry from Spain is scheduled to come, the fishermen cannot go out to retrieve the crabs. I am therefore pleased that Scarborough borough council and Yorkshire Forward are working together to get a quayside storage facility for velvet crabs, so that the fishermen can capitalise on something that they once thought worthless but is now becoming a useful source of income. I hope that that will go ahead in the next few months. I also hope that a local businessmen will get a franchise on that operation, because under the tendering rules it will have to go out to widespread tender. I am sure that we would all be disappointed to see that go to a large multinational company. I know that the borough council has that in mind.
On the bright side, Whitby also has a vibrant shipbuilding industry. It has a long tradition of shipbuilding, going back to the days of Captain Cook and before. The Parcol yard, which is on the banks of the River Esk, run by a Mr. Jim Morrison, is doing a good trade selling boats, mainly for the shellfish industry, to the Shetlands and Scotland. It seems to be the Scots who have the money to buy the boats. I was pleased to visit the yard shortly after the election, to see the tremendous work going on there, and to see that the tradition of shipbuilding is being carried on in Whitby, which is not the case in many of our traditional shipbuilding ports. Several people have said to me that it detracts somewhat from the traditional, picturesque view of Whitby, but Whitby can be successful only if it is a truly working port, with working fishermen and people working in the shipyard.
I invite the Minister, when he has time on his hands, which I am sure is not too often, to come to my constituency. I assure him that he will get a warm welcome. If the weather is inclement, we will take him either to the famous Magpie restaurant, where the queues snake around the block, or to Trenchers restaurant, which, many people contend, serves better fish and chips, although it is not as famous. If the weather is clement, I am sure that we can sit on the quayside and eat fish and chips out of the paper in the traditional way. He will then be able to hear first hand what the Whitby fishermen have to say, and he will experience the frustration and anger that they feel. They are proud men, who have worked for many generations in the industry, and who would like their sons and grandsons to go into that industry. Their real concern is that no industry will be left in two, three or four years if assistance is not forthcoming.
The frustrations of those fishermen are generally directed at the rules with which they must contend. I commend the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire in examining successful fishing communities such as that in the Faroe Islands. It has used long-lining and automatic baiting to catch the big fish and leave the little fish in the sea. We should also consider what Iceland did to take control of its waters and rebuild its industry. Norway, too, has a vibrant industry—a couple of boats from Whitby fish in Norwegian waters and have seen how stocks are recovering there.
I am saddened that, in future, we will just see more of the same—more of the medicine that, in my view, is poisoning the patient. Surely now is the time for a different prescription, and for considering how we can take back control of our waters. I do not talk as a little Englander. I was, I am almost ashamed to say, a Member of the European Parliament for five years before entering this proper—as the Chief Whip told me—Parliament. I understand the difficulties of getting agreement in the Council. I understand how, with the presidency, the Minister's hands will be even more tied than normal. I understand the difficulties of trying to negotiate about fish with Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians, who could not care less about the North sea or fishing in general, but who will negotiate and build coalitions with other countries, such as Spain and France, if they can get what they want on the agricultural front. It is somewhat bizarre that agriculture and fishing can be traded off against each other. I must declare an interest as a farmer—I am responsible for supplying the chips to go with the fish. It is disappointing that the fishing industry often seems to be the poor relation when the Council decides the way forward, and that fishermen often get the rough end of the deal.
Fishermen who have pleaded guilty to breaking the law have no confidence in the rules that they are being asked to apply. They have no confidence that what they are being asked to do will deliver a vibrant and forward-looking industry in the future. I am sure that they do not like throwing dead fish back into the sea—we have heard about 90 per cent. by-catches—as they realise that by doing so they are polluting the marine environment, not contributing to it. If we had a system whereby days at sea were controlled, and fishermen had to land everything that they caught, the industry would feel confident that what it was doing would deliver a future and the sustainable fisheries that the common fisheries policy was meant to achieve.
I commend the programme set out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire, and I hope that it will at least form the basis of a way forward. While I know that it has been said that negotiating an opt-out would be impossible, surely, for the sake of fishermen in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north-east of England, we must try to build a future based on the confidence of the people who must implement the rules, not on a plan in which, in my opinion, the industry has no confidence. It is no wonder that so many fishermen, unfortunately, are ignoring the rules.
I want to associate myself with the comments made by Mr. Carmichael and my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell regarding the criticism made by Mr. Paterson of Lawrie Quinn. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was very gracious—he did not have to make those comments. It strikes me, however, that there are many physical similarities between him and Lawrie, and I do not think that I have seen them in the same room. Perhaps Lawrie is back in the House, in which case he is warmly welcomed. [Laughter.] He is on the wrong side of the House, but he is welcome.
I understand that Lawrie worked hard on behalf of the Scarborough and Whitby fishing industry and always participated in the annual fisheries debate. I felt that the comments of the hon. Member for North Shropshire were unnecessary, and made a mockery of the new Conservative leader's claim that we would see an end to "Punch and Judy politics". That's not the way to do it.
Like Mr. Goodwill, I am making my first contribution to the annual fisheries debate. I hope that it will be the first of many, and that during my time in the House the fishing industry of the United Kingdom, and that of Hartlepool in particular, will go from strength to strength. As it is my first fisheries debate I hope that, before I speak of the challenges facing the industry in Hartlepool, the House will indulge me for a moment so that I can briefly set out the history of the fishing industry in my constituency.
Fishing has a long and proud history in Hartlepool. Before the industrial revolution and the rapid expansion of the town, it was predominantly a fishing settlement. The town received its charter in 1201 from King John, not only because of its military and strategic importance as a port against the French, but because of the strength of its fishing fleets and the regular town market's influence on the commercial activity of the north of England.
The harshness of the sea and the difficulty of making a living injected a great deal of character into the local people. In his "A History of Hartlepool", written in the middle of the 19th century, Sir Cuthbert Sharp expressed himself vividly:
"The inhabitants of Hartlepool consist principally of fishermen, a hardy race: their manners are courteous and civil, especially towards strangers; their mode of life and thinking is characterised by stern and unbending independence. They are in general sober, and their luxuries seldom extend beyond the indulgence of fine white cakes. They marry early, have in general large families, and their wives are universally the purse bearers."
Reading that, I know that I have Hartlepool blood flowing through my veins.
Sir Cuthbert went on
"The women perform the most laborious part of the occupation on shore. They are seen to be on the beach waiting the return of the cobles and carry the lines home; the task of baiting is performed by them, and they likewise have to procure the mussels from the scalps".
Within living memory—although not mine—it was possible to leave the pub, "The Fisherman's Arms", and walk on to the fish quay, where a fishwife, shawl on her head and knife in her hand, would give people a cod slice from her pram while they waited. That was a good meal, certainly on a Friday.
Sir Cuthbert's comments were written just before West Hartlepool was established. Because of the rapid expansion of the town through the industrial revolution and the growth of heavy manufacturing, we as a community have not been as reliant upon the sea and fishing as other constituencies may have been. Nevertheless, in the oldest part of Hartlepool, the headland, we still have a strong and proud fishing community that catches fish that is renowned for its quality. Not for nothing is Hartlepool fish served at the tables of the finest seafood restaurants in the north of England. Some, such as Ocean and Big Mussel—along with Don Bee's and Verrall's fish-and-chip shops—are in Hartlepool itself. We have a high quality industry with high added value, dating back for many centuries. I want to make sure, during my time in the House, that it remains sustainable and profitable in the long term.
In the summer, I met representatives of the Hartlepool fishing community. They raised concerns with me, which I passed on to the Minister in the form of written parliamentary questions. The four broad themes that I raised in those questions form the basis of my speech.
I asked the Minister about the use of larger mesh nets as a means of enabling younger fish to escape and repopulate the seas. I was trying to ascertain the long-term viability of fish stocks in the North sea, particularly cod. Cod has been the staple catch of Hartlepool fishermen for centuries, but today's fishermen confirm from experience that there has been a massive decline. That was reiterated by the Minister in a reply during last month's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. I understand that if we take a baseline of 100 for the year 1963 in the North sea, current cod stocks amount to about 25.
Fishermen in my constituency vehemently deny that the shortage has been caused by overfishing. Quotas have been too low for too long. The fishermen, many of whom have been at sea for decades, tell me that they detect a change in the habits of the cod. Essentially, they are migrating further north, presumably to find appropriate plankton for food. Evidence on the ground—as it were—seems to support research done in the past few years, which suggests that global warming, and a subsequent reduction in the supply of appropriate plankton, is having a knock-on effect on cod supply. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby that the shortage has not necessarily been caused by overfishing; it could be due to environmental changes.
I am familiar with the arguments about environmental changes and their impacts, and indeed I have advanced many of them in the past. My difficulty, which the hon. Gentleman may now share, lies with increasing evidence of a growing stock of young cod along the east coast, such as we last saw in, I believe, 1996. That demonstrates that neither the hon. Gentleman nor I, nor even any of the clever scientists, really know what is happening. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is now imperative for the spawning grounds to be protected at all costs?
I entirely agree. I want to go on ensuring that the Hartlepool cod fishing industry has a vibrant future, and it is vital to protect as much of it as possible.
There is an absolute need to link the study of the maritime environment with the fishing industry—although I bear in mind the observation of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that scientists really do not have a clue about stocks—to determine how the UK fishing industry can adapt to the effects of a changing environment. I hope that the Marine Bill, which the Minister mentioned, will reflect that. It causes me some concern that the Prime Minister's strategy unit has said,
"the UK whitefish fleet is too large to be profitable in the long term . . . we estimate that reductions of at least 13 per cent. of whitefish capacity is needed to ensure long term profitability".
I urge the Minister to manage the process of downsizing extremely carefully, to ensure that fishermen and the infrastructure in the Hartlepool industry are not adversely affected.
Given what has been said, I understand that fishermen cannot catch stock that is not there. That brings me to my next point, which concerns diversification—not only in the industry, but in interests outside fishing. My fishermen tell me that there is a massive stock of shellfish, particularly prawns, in the North sea off the coast of Hartlepool. We are currently developing the velvet crab industry, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. I hope that the Minister will take that into account when considering the negotiation of total allowable catches and quotas in Europe that will permit the fishermen in my constituency to continue to make a living.
My area in the north-east is all too familiar with the dangers of failing to diversify. The collapse of heavy manufacturing industry in the 1980s, for example, had a devastating effect on communities in my region, and we are only now beginning to pick up the pieces. The town of Hartlepool is regenerating itself as a major tourist and leisure destination, supported by our jewel in the crown, a world-class marina. I do not wish to see the fishing industry in Hartlepool "Disneyfied", as I want it to remain a true, real and vibrant industry, but I think there is an opportunity to expand the role of fishing within the leisure and tourism sectors. There are plans, for instance, for a fish restaurant on the Kafiga landings at the headland, which should give an additional boost to tourism.
The Minister may recall that in his reply to my question about diversification in the summer, he mentioned that his Department tasked regional development agencies with boosting rural economic development. While I welcome that—particularly as I was employed by One NorthEast—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby that RDAs could do more to stress the importance of fishing ports. Will the Minister tell us in his winding-up speech what additional pressure he is placing on relevant development agencies to boost the fishing industries in their areas?
The Minister also mentioned in his reply that the new EU grant scheme for fisheries, under negotiation in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, would from 2007 include powers to grant aid for diversification from fisheries. I should like to know what progress is being made and whether the recent debate in Europe on the future of the EU budget has had any impact on that work.
May I mention the increase in fuel prices in recent months and years? Other Members have mentioned that, too. It is having a huge effect on fishermen, as well as others. When I raised the issue with the Minister, he mentioned that DEFRA officials have met representatives of the fishing industry to discuss the increases in fuel prices and how the industry can respond. I would be grateful if the Minister could give the House an update on those discussions.
The Chancellor's pre-Budget report this week mentioned an increase in tax rates on oil companies. I know that there will be a long queue of interested parties who would like to get their hands on that increased tax revenue, but does the Minister think that additional support will be provided to those in the fishing industry whose margins are extremely tight? Fluctuations in fuel prices can mean the difference between profit and loss.
Another factor in ensuring profitability is bureaucracy. That is seen by the Hartlepool fishermen as a major concern and something that takes them an inordinate time to process. I found the Minister's reply to my written question on the matter in the summer extremely helpful. He stated that reduction of bureaucracy and simplification of the legislation was a huge priority for his Department. I welcome the improvement in application procedures for the fisheries grant scheme.
The Minister also mentioned in his reply that work is going on between his Department and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations on a joint research project to identify specific reforms. I think that he mentioned that in his remarks today. I welcome that and look forward to the industry, particularly that in Hartlepool, reaping the rewards. Also, simplification of EU law is seen as a priority for this country's presidency of the EU, and I understand that an action plan is due by the end of the year. I would like to know from the Minister what progress has been made on that.
Hartlepool has a very long tradition of fishing. I want that to continue and, indeed, to thrive and expand. I hope that the Minister will take on board, when he goes in to bat for Britain in the EU in the coming days and weeks, the concerns of Hartlepool fishermen to ensure that we have a vibrant industry in the years and decades to come.
I congratulate the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)—who gave an insight into his local area and the wider scene as regards European affairs—for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) and for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), from whom we heard a few fishy stories.
On behalf of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, I would like to share a few thoughts with Members, which I trust the Minister will take cognisance of as he prepares for the Fisheries Council. I also hope that he will encourage his colleague at the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Rooker, to attend with him to bat for Northern Ireland fishermen and to do his best to put forward the case for local fishermen in Europe.
I also hope that, following my remarks, this House will better understand the problems that the industry is facing and the few opportunities that it has. Some of those problems are common to all regions within the United Kingdom. I understand the frustrations that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby expressed. I can assure him that those frustrations are felt by Northern Ireland fishermen, especially as the Irish Republic Government seem to secure a more favourable outcome from the talks and negotiations in Europe than the UK Government do on behalf of fishermen in Northern Ireland. There are some issues that are unique to those who fish and depend upon fish in the Irish sea.
Sea fishing is maintained all around Northern Ireland's coastline, but the main commercial activity is centred around three fishing villages, namely, Portavogie in the north, Ardglass in the middle and Kilkeel in the south of the County Down coast. The fishing industry is in reality the community in those villages, and the community is the fishing industry. The two are inextricably linked. Therefore, we can understand what a decline in that industry does to the community. Before I refer to some of the recommendations that those fishermen would like the Minister to take cognisance of, let me give hon. Members some background.
Traditionally, the industry sustained itself and the fish stocks by being able to conduct what was known as a mixed fishery, targeting three main stock groups. For about a third of the year, the fleet would target herring; for another third of the year, it would target whitefish; and for the final third, it would target nephrops, or prawns. Then fisheries managers intervened. Back in 1980, temporary closed areas were introduced in the herring fishery. Twenty-five years later, those temporary closures are still with the industry. One might ask, what has resulted from those temporary closures? For the vast majority of fishermen, the herring fishery disappeared. The local fleet then had to divert its efforts to the remaining fisheries: whitefish and prawns.
Then, at the beginning of the 1990s, the fisheries managers decided that too much effort was being exerted upon the whitefish stocks. Reduced TACs in the Irish sea were the order of the day, but those were compounded in 2000 by the first so-called cod recovery programme to be implemented in EU waters. The temporary area closures were complemented by the imposition of effort controls in 2004. The Irish sea remains the only EU waters where so-called cod recovery combines area closures with effort control.
In 1999, there was a fleet of over 40 Northern Ireland trawlers targeting whitefish for most of the year. Today, the number of trawlers targeting whitefish can be measured in single figures. Consequently, white fisheries managers now give lip service to the mixed fishery model. In fact, the traditional mixed fishery in the Irish sea, which served both the stocks and the industry so well for decades, has been managed into a single species fishery.
Prawns are by far the most important single species to the entire local fishing industry, both at sea and onshore, accounting for more than half the value of all fish and shellfish landed in the Province. Prawns are the bedrock of the local fish processing sector. They account for the vast majority of fishery exports to Europe. That sustains most of the processing sector jobs and has a worth of over £70 million annually to the local economy. Yet despite the fact that fishery managers have cornered the industry into the single species fishery, they are still not happy—they want to go further. How much further can they go?
I am led to believe that the Commission is minded to impose additional management measures on that industry. There are rumours about further reductions in the number of days prawn boats spend at sea. Additional unproven technical conservation measures in the TAC persist and are counter to the science on that stock, which confirms what fishermen have said for years—if anything, the size of the prawn stock is on the increase.
Many fishermen hold out for the future; they look for a new dawn. Fishermen, it should be remembered, are just like everyone else—they are business men; ordinary people desiring to make a living. Each owns assets worth several thousands, if not millions, of pounds. Does anyone really believe that if fishermen did not think that there was a future in fishing the Irish sea, they would be continuing to invest in the industry, despite the problems? I congratulate those who have maintained that hope and encourage Government to defend them in the negotiations in the Fisheries Council later in December.
Fishermen want to safeguard fish stocks—after all, they are their future. Our local fisheries organisation is currently managing various projects, utilising European Union and national funding, that are designed to improve the selectivity of fishing gear. In partnership with local fisheries scientists, they are conducting an attempt to identify simple measures that can be used by the local prawn fleet to minimise discards in its prawn trawls. Fishermen are developing a new partnership with local fisheries scientists to improve data, which, in turn, will improve the science and should improve fishery management in the area. Those are commendable exercises. Fishermen are working with scientists and others in the industry and the Department to try to achieve goals.I simply hope that, in the meantime, the forthcoming Fisheries Councils do not scuttle that work by imposing more meaningless measures on the local industry.
In relation to the forthcoming Fisheries Council in Brussels and with specific regard to quotas, I am informed that EU scientists have advised the Commission to increase the Irish sea plaice quota by 250 per cent., but that the Commission is set to order a 15 per cent. decrease. Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Government to investigate the scientific evidence on which the Commission intends to base the decision?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and simply direct her question and her information to the Minister and press him to take the point seriously and investigate it now, before the Fisheries Council meeting.
I ask the Minister to take account of the current fuel crisis, which is affecting the industry. Hon. Members must be aware of the problems that increasing fuel costs have caused. Some member states have assisted their fishing sector on that but, typically, the United Kingdom has not.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the United Kingdom should operate a similar scheme to that in France, whereby the Government supply fuel to fishermen at about 22p a litre? When the price of fuel falls to below 22p a litre, fishermen pay the higher price. However, in the interim the scheme gives fishermen guaranteed prices and they know that they can plan their businesses.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. France is supposedly regarded as the great European, yet it always finds a way around European legislation, whether it affects farmers, fishermen and so on. We simply ask for a level playing field in Europe. If that is good enough for France, there is no reason why it cannot be done. Ministers often tell us, "We can't do these things." How can the great European leaders of France do them? If the French Government can do it, why cannot it be done to save our industry at a time of crisis?
The fuel crisis is in danger of overarching all the issues that I have mentioned. The industry could be crippled soon. What more could be done? I make a plea to the Minister to ensure that the forthcoming Fisheries Council bears that major socio-economic issue in mind when it reaches its decision for 2006. The fishing industry cannot sustain the imposition of any further cuts—in for example, quota and days at sea—or the unworkable technical measures. They must be resisted.
I believe that there are those in the industry who feel that there is a future. I ask hon. Members to join me in asking the Minister to ensure, through the negotiations, that he and his colleagues in Europe give our fishermen that future.
I should like to associate myself with some of the earlier comments about fishing and the attendant dangers. I have known several people who lost their lives fishing, including people with whom I was at school, and I am therefore well aware of the courage and drive of fishermen. That should not be underestimated.
I declare a slight interest in that I have been fishing. Ten years ago, I fished with static nets, west of Uist, in a boat called the Dawn Ann. Two years ago, I was lobster fishing, which Mr. Goodwill mentioned. When lobster fishing, if one sees a good lobster that is going to Spain and one knocks its claws off, it cannot be sold. We also fished brown crabs and the violent little velvet crab. I admire anybody who eats velvet crabs. I am sure that they are tasty and they should command a higher price. I hope that they will in the run-up to Christmas.
As I said, many friends of mine fish. Many are successful fishermen who were given the right chance at the right moment and found themselves in charge of boats at a young age. When given such an opportunity, many young island men have made a great success of it. I hope that the Under-Secretary is mindful of the need for continued support to ensure that, in future, we experience the same success.
On my island, the Isle of Barra, we have the tremendously successful company, Barratlantic, which employs many local people. Many people with whom I went to school work at Barratlantic. Fishing is therefore the bedrock and foundation of my island and my communities. It is interesting to note that many people have come over from the Czech Republic and Poland to work in our factory. It is especially encouraging to witness the good relations that have consequently been established. Many co-workers from the islands have been on holiday with their colleagues in the Czech Republic and Poland. I especially welcome that sort of development and friendship, and the way in which the island people work with those who come to work in their midst.
I welcome the increase in the nephrop-prawn quota in the coming year. The Western Isles fishermen are pleased with that. It means more jobs and, I hope, greater prosperity.
Scotland has approximately two thirds of UK fish landings. With population factored in, that makes fishing 20 times more important to Scotland. Scotland has around 127,000 square miles of the European seas. I am mindful of the comments of Mr. Mitchell, who said that smaller nations are more aware of their fishing and fishery needs. Mrs. Robinson highlighted that in practice, when she spoke about looking over the border to the Republic and seeing new boats at Killibegs and similar ports.
With 127,000 square miles of European waters, one imagines that Scotland would be a bigger player in Europe, but it is not and that is unfortunate. The negotiations have already been framed this year in the talks with Norway, which is a power to be envied. It is an independent nation with excellent relations with Westminster. However, Norway negotiates with the EU directly, and when Norway frowns, the EU trembles.
It is useful to highlight the problems that underpin our annual debates on fishing. Recently, the Prime Minister, while abandoning the rebate, has tried to attack and target the common agricultural policy. Perhaps he should have looked at the common fisheries policy. Have the Government looked seriously at the pros and cons of replacing the CFP, which has many problems, with other fishery structures? Of course, no one is saying that we should not have international negotiations on and co-operation between fisheries, but should it be on the current basis? Instead of this horse-trading, would it not be better for nations to be up-front with each other? For instance, why, west of the Hebrides, where there is no overlap, are France and Spain hoovering up many of our fish? I leave that with the Minister.
Consensus at this time of year is difficult to find and the consensus in the Chamber is that the run-up to Christmas is not the right time for such negotiations. I should not be surprised if after a tiring and pressing three days, Ministers make mistakes. As my hon. Friend Mr. Salmond said, their robustness and ruthlessness might decline somewhat by the end of such long negotiations.Consensus is also emerging on the cod recovery plan. It is not doing what it says on the tin—it is damaging other fisheries. It needs a public re-examination and cod needs to be separated from other fisheries.
When the plan fails, we go back for more of the same medicine from the same source of advice—even at a time when many feel that cod are migrating to colder seas. The demand for a 30 per cent. increase is unrealistic, and if it is not achieved, cuts will come into play for other species. Now is definitely the time for a full re-evaluation. The Minister might say that it is tactically the wrong time, but it is strategically the right time for fishermen. We need to do away with the annual emotional rollercoaster ride that is caused, in the main, by the failure of the CFP. This year, there are projected cuts of 15 per cent. for cod, 13 per cent. for haddock, 15 per cent. for saithe, 15 per cent. for whiting and 2.5 per cent. for plaice. The latter figure is attributable to the particular interest of the Dutch in plaice; they are lobbying quite fiercely in that regard. The CFP clearly has knock-on effects for many other fisheries.
I hope that our Government will push hard for the industry during the negotiations. I point out, particularly to the officials, that any reference to cricket should go. Given that we are in the driving seat—that we have the presidency of the EU—we should make absolutely sure that we are doing the best for our fishermen and getting the best deal. I want to be able to tell my communities that things are going well and that fishing will be looking up in the next few years, not down.
I am also concerned about the cut in pelagic fishing. I know the owner and crew of the pelagic vessel, the Prowess, which operates in the Outer Hebrides, and I hope that that cut will be offset by the increases that scientists say could be made in other areas overseas. I hope that the Minister will look at this issue and ensure that the pelagic cut is not as currently framed.
I wish the Minister well and I hope that the officials will be mindful of my earlier cricket reference. Would it not be better if the Minister were at the top table in Europe with the ally of an independent Scotland, rather than being without one?
This is the fifth annual fishing debate that I have taken part in since being elected to the House and the issues raised are depressingly familiar. They include the usual background of the failure of the cod recovery plan and the knock-on effects for other species. The aims of our fisheries policy should be to create the conditions in which stocks at risk can recover, and to maintain stocks at safe biological limits, so that we avoid the need to take drastic measures to save a particular species. It is also important to ensure the continuing viability of the industry both at sea and on land, and in the many local communities that depend on it.
There is little doubt that the common fisheries policy as currently structured has failed. It has failed to achieve any of its key objectives or to conserve fish stocks, most obviously of cod. I agree with those Members who say that a full review of the cod recovery plan is required; imposing more of the same measures has little chance of success. We need to move away from the annual round of negotiations and horse-trading in Brussels at this time of year. Ideally, we should move toward a system of regional management committees.
The current policy has failed mainly because it is far too centralised and run from Brussels. Decisions are taken in a forum that is far too remote from the fishermen and others affected by such decisions. Whereas the Norwegian delegation at the EU-Norway talks allows its fishermen into those talks, other European fishermen are kept outside. Before Sweden joined the EU, Swedish fishermen were able to take part in the talks; once Sweden joined, they were ushered out of the room. We need to involve fishermen much more in these discussions. I also agree that we need to look at the fishing year; the current system leads to a very rushed series of negotiations at this time of year. There seems not to have been time even to involve the existing regional advisory councils fully in that process.
Withdrawal from the CFP, while it may be tempting, is not a serious option. It was not clear from the comments by Mr. Paterson whether it was still the Conservatives' policy to withdraw from it unilaterally. I thought from his last remark that that was still their policy, but he may be preparing the ground for a U-turn by Mr. Cameron.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Mr. Cameron has already started that U-turn? It was reported, when he made his brief visit to Scotland during the leadership campaign, that he said that there were more important issues in Europe than fisheries policy and he was no longer committed to withdrawal.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that at one of the leadership hustings in Aberdeen only 15 people turned up?
Were they charging for admission?
As I was saying, withdrawal from the CFP is not an option. Fish swim across national boundaries. They spawn, feed and get caught in different parts of the sea. National boundaries are only artificial lines on the map, drawn halfway between countries, and are not boundaries on which we should base a fisheries policy.
At European level, we need an overarching policy. However, within that policy, management of fish stocks would be best carried out by regional management committees, which would involve local fishermen, scientists, representatives of Government and other stakeholders. I hope that the new regional advisory councils will develop into regional management committees with real power. I am sure that such committees would manage their local fish stocks far better than the present system.
I now wish to say a few words about this year's negotiations. As part of my preparation for this debate, I consulted fishermen in my constituency. The main fishery in the waters off my constituency is prawns. In fact, the prawn fishery is now the most valuable fishery in Scotland. There is universal agreement that prawn stocks are healthy, although it is true that in certain areas, at certain times, there is a more than negligible cod by-catch. However, the cod spawning grounds have been identified and a box has been drawn at the entrance to Clyde, partly in Scottish waters and partly in Northern Ireland waters, in which trawling for prawns is prohibited during the cod spawning season from
The views of the CFA on the cod by-catch are backed up by a written answer that I received from the Minister's predecessor, now the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, as long ago as
"We have already reminded the Commission of our view—substantiated last year by detailed scientific analysis—that curbing nephrops fishing brings minimal benefit to cod."—[Hansard, 7 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 584W.]
Given that longstanding scientific advice, I do not understand why the Commission still insists that further restrictions on the days at sea for nephrops fishing are required as part of the cod recovery plan.
This year, there was some good news from the Commission in that it proposes an increase of 39 per cent. in the west of Scotland nephrops TAC. It is very important that the Council agrees to that measure. Last year, the published scientific data showed that the nephrops TAC for the west of Scotland could be increased by 30 per cent. without any risk to cod stocks, but only a much smaller increase was allowed. I am pleased that this year the Commission has taken the scientific advice and proposed a much larger increase.
The association is also concerned that the European regulations are complex and often change drastically from year to year, which makes it difficult for fishing businesses to plan ahead. The association makes a plea for simplicity and continuity in the regulations. Sometimes, due to their circumstances, individual fishermen suffer greatly from the regulations. The association gave me two examples of such hard-luck cases. I plan to write to the Minister about them in more detail, so I shall only summarise them.
The owner of a scallop boat wants to convert his vessel so that he can fish for queen scallops, but the scallop-fishing gear on his boat falls outside the regulations. Queen scallops also fall outside European regulations but the gear that he requires to fish for them is caught by European regulations designed to minimise cod by-catch. Because he has no record of prawn fishing in 2002, he cannot to convert his gear, yet the local association tells me that it would be almost impossible to catch a cod with that gear.
The second case involves a Campbeltown fisherman who bought a vessel from the North sea white fish fleet in 2002 with the intention of converting it to a prawn trawler and using it in the west of Scotland zone. However, just after he bought the trawler the new days at sea regulations were published, whose effect is that the days at sea applying to that vessel are not the days at sea that apply to the west of Scotland nephrops fleet, but the much lower number of days at sea that apply to the North sea white fish fleet. I am not sure of the logic of imposing days at sea restrictions for a species in one zone that were meant to apply to a different species in a different zone. That fisherman was caught out by regulations that did not apply when he bought the vessel, but had retrospective effect to the time before he bought it. That appears unfair to what must be only a small number of fishermen. The fishermen's association told me that as the regulations are European, the Scottish Executive have no flexibility, so I hope that the Minister will investigate those cases.
Other Members have referred to angling. Angling at sea and in salmon rivers is an important industry and sea management measures can affect it. It is important that the angling industry is allowed to participate in the management of fish stocks.
In conclusion, I live in hope that future debates will be held against the backdrop of a cod recovery plan that has been seen to work and that the regional advisory councils will have been translated into successful regional management committees, so that this annual, pre-Christmas Brussels horse-trading will be a thing of the past.
It is a pleasure to be back in this little club of ours—the annual fishing debate. We have some new members this year. I especially enjoyed the thoughtful contribution from Mr. MacNeil, and also the contributions of the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill). I commend the latter for his generous comments about his predecessor. When I heard that Lawrie Quinn had lost his seat, I mused on the fact that it would deprive us of our annual update on the life and times of Mr. Arnold Locker. I am delighted that we have not been deprived of that, although I am distraught to hear that Mr. Locker has hit hard times. I look forward with some anticipation to next year's instalment, when I hope that his fortunes will have taken a turn for the better.
This is one of the least febrile of the fishing debates that I have attended. It has been much less fraught and heated than some of those we enjoyed in years gone by. There are perhaps a couple of reasons for that. First, I give the Minister credit for the fact that when he went to Brussels with the UK delegation last year, for the first time in my experience he managed to take with him—metaphorically, if not literally—the fishing interest. He was much better at listening to and taking on board the views of the fishermen who were then in Brussels. As a result, they obtained a much better deal, which has better support from the industry.
Perhaps one of the reasons why we are less hard on the Minister this year than in years gone by is that he is not responsible for the industry's most immediate and pressing concern: the cost of fuel, which is becoming a real difficulty for many fishing boat owners in my constituency whose boats operate on the very margins of profitability. I do not yet know—I can only wonder—the effect of the Chancellor's reference in the pre-Budget statement to increases in duty on red diesel. I never quite understand how the red diesel rules work in the fishing industry, but if there is any such effect, the situation will only get worse. Even if there is no such effect, the situation will not get any better. I contrast that, as other hon. Members have done, with the situation in France and Spain, whose Governments have been able to give their fishing industries some support by one means or another.
I reiterate my concern, which I expressed to the Minister in an intervention, about the contract for search and rescue helicopters, one of which is based at Sumburgh airport in my constituency. I am now due to meet the director of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency tomorrow—the meeting had been scheduled for
There are unresolved issues about the suitability of the aircraft, but I return to the point that I also made to the Minister that it is essential that the terms and conditions of the existing staff are transferred when the new contract is awarded. It is the skill, courage and expertise of the crews of those helicopters that is vital. The reason why that is of such concern to the fishing industry in particular is that barely a month goes by in my constituency without a fishing boat getting into trouble and ending up being towed into Lerwick harbour, and the helicopter at Sumburgh, Oscar Charlie, frequently plays a crucial role in the rescue. If we do not get that contract right, I very much fear that the commencement of these proceedings in future years will feature even more tales of loss of life and injury.
I want to say a few words about the cod recovery programme, which has been with us for a number of years. Of course, on one side of the equation is the reduction in effort and on the other is a growth in cod stocks. We have met our targets on the reduction of effort. That has been an exceptionally painful process, especially in heavily fishing-dependent communities such as Shetland. I have lectured the Minister on the reduction in the Shetland white fish fleet in the past, so I shall spare him it today. The reduction has been massive, but there has not yet been any substantial evidence of a recovery in the stocks of cod. However, I enter the caveat that all hon. Members have applied today—which is, of course, that exceptionally wobbly science seems to be associated with fisheries.
I remind the Minister of the point that I made to the hon. Member for Hartlepool: there seems to be some evidence of a good recruitment of young cod along the east coast of the United Kingdom. That is not unknown; there was a similar situation in 1996, or perhaps 1995. Unfortunately, as a result of the fishing practices at the time that involved smaller mesh sizes, especially for the nephrop sector, the immature class was slaughtered. We now have a window of opportunity, albeit a small one. The spawning grounds with immature cod must be identified and protected, because this might be our last chance. We can only speculate on the impact of climate change on cod stocks, but if we have the opportunity to improve the situation, we must not allow it to pass.
I add my voice to those of other hon. Members who have said that this is a point at which we should be reviewing the cod recovery programme. We must examine the targets that have been set. Is a 30 per cent. increase in the spawning stock biomass year on year realistic or achievable? Is the time frame in which we should achieve the targets realistic? Should we now be considering a more evolutionary approach?
When we review the cod recovery programme, there must be a central role for the regional advisory councils, especially the North sea regional advisory council. The Minister must be aware that when the RACs were set up, they were greeted with a degree of scepticism—I think that he used the word "cynicism" earlier, but I hope that "scepticism" is nearer the mark. It is fair to say that the jury is still out on RACs in fishing communities and the fishing industry. However, there is a need to nurture the RACs for the benefit of those of us who hope for a regional or decentralised structure of fisheries management.
I was most concerned to hear today from the lobby from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations that the November meeting of the North sea regional advisory council was not given the figures on which the Council will make its judgment in December. There was not even an oral report to the Council from the Commission. If RACs such as that for the North sea are ever to do the job that the Minister and I would like them to do, they will need rather better treatment than that. I suggest that the first step towards giving them better treatment and improving their standing and stature would be to task them with the review of the cod recovery programme in the North sea.
I want to say a few words about black fish landings. I note that Mr. Paterson has returned to the Chamber, so I caution him about the terms in which we all should speak about the matter. It is exceptionally difficult to make estimates about the situation—it is like proving a negative. The problem is more acute in different parts of the country at different times of year due to the circumstances that arise because of different quotas that are set. Any bold or sweeping statement will almost inevitably be out of date by the time that it is made, yet will be damaging to the wider interests of the fishing industries of the United Kingdom.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the two Shetland-based fishermen who pleaded guilty to landing illegally 7,600 tonnes of fish in Denmark without declaring it to fisheries officials, fixing log sheets and making £3.4 million in the process could be described as being involved in black fish?
I have no difficulty in saying that that would generally come under the term of black fish landings. The hon. Gentleman refers to the Altaire case, which I have followed closely for obvious reasons as both gentlemen in question are my constituents.
In the Altaire case, the criminal justice system and the confiscation procedures have been rigorous and have been followed. If that case is cast up to the Minister when he pleads our case in Brussels, he can point to our criminal justice system and confiscation procedures and say, "We have been rigorous. We have made our policing work." If there is an absence of similar cases in other jurisdictions within the United Kingdom, that should not be taken as evidence of their not having a problem; rather, it should be evidence of the fact that they are less rigorous in policing fisheries. I asked the Minister about that not long ago in Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, and he has spoken about it. I hope that the case in my constituency and that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby will be taken as evidence of the fact that we are rigorous in our policing and that such cases are not necessarily indicative of any wider problem.
It has long been my view that we are among the most enthusiastic of enforcers of fisheries law. I remember discussing that with the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, who took the same view. Having worked in the criminal courts as a solicitor and having acted in many fish landing cases, I have a great deal of sympathy for many of the skippers who get caught out. Very often, it is the result of mere sloppiness. On occasions, it is because the nature and complexity of the fisheries regulations with which skippers are expected to comply is such that it would be barely safe to set to sea without first completing an LLB; people need to be qualified lawyers before they can be expected to find their way around the full range and complexity of the regulations. However, I did not come across many solicitors queuing up to go to sea during my time as a practising solicitor—indeed, I have not come across many since I came into the House. That might be why cases continue to arise.
The Minister finished his speech more abruptly than I thought he would. I had hoped that he would come on to say a few more things about the upcoming Council. Again, I echo the comments of other hon. Members about the fishing year. I commend Commissioner Borg for being prepared to say that he will consider it. Along with that—this thought came to my mind as I listened to Mr. Mitchell—we should revisit the question of multi-annual quotas. No matter what point in the year we pick to set the quota for the next year, it still leaves the industry able only to plan one year ahead. I know of no other industry that would allow its businesses to organise things in that way. There has to be a longer-term vision for the industry, especially when—hopefully—stocks across the border are more stable. That will allow for proper financial planning, which, frankly, is next to impossible as things stand.
I should also pay tribute to Commissioner Borg for his performance as commissioner, which is infinitely to be preferred to that of his predecessor. I was privileged to lead a delegation of fishermen from Shetland and Orkney to meet him in April—I suspect that I would not have got within a country mile of his predecessor—and he was open with them, he engaged with them, he listened, and he was sympathetic. That is a significant advance. He has undertaken to visit Shetland, or the northern isles, in the course of next year, and I hope to see him. I know that he will be most welcome. I am delighted that Ross Finnie will be visiting Shetland next week to take the soundings of the industry. I pay tribute to the way in which Mr. Finnie, my colleague, has taken the time and trouble to engage with, to listen to and to advance the case of Scotland's fishermen.
The proposal to which we have not given sufficient attention is that of days at sea. As I understand it, the proposal of the Commission, in the round, is a reduction from 108 days to 104. That in itself will be highly problematic for the white fish fleet in my constituency. The situation is even worse than it might at first have appeared. I am told that in the past year, fishermen in my constituency on white fish boats were able to take advantage of an extra 12 days that was made available to them. That was one day a month, as a result of the elective measures on administrative penalties. We still have the administrative penalties as part of the regime, but there is no question about the days that go with them.
When the Minister replies, will he tell me that he will give some priority to ensuring that the carrot-and-stick approach is still on offer and that he will not return home from Brussels without the extra 12 days? If he fails to do so, the white fish industry in my constituency will be left 16 days a year down from an already exceptionally low base. That threatens the viability of the more marginal boats in my constituency.
May I strengthen the resolve of the Minister on the haddock quota? It is proposed that there should be a 13 per cent. cut, which will cause severe hardship. I accept that some progress has already been made, but a 13 per cent. cut—an improved position though it may be—will cause exceptional difficulty. There are the difficulties of science, and the haddock supply highlights that better than almost anything else. Last year, on the basis of the data available to ICES, the spawning stock biomass for haddock was calculated at about 400,000 tonnes. At the EU-Norway talks earlier in the year, that same data was remodelled to give a spawning stock biomass of 280,000 tonnes. That shows the exceptional difficulties that one experiences when assessing the credibility of the science that is available on fisheries stocks. When the remodelled figures were produced, one could hear in Shetland the glee from Norway. There was no doubt that Norway's hand would be significantly strengthened in the EU-Norway negotiations.
My final substantive topic is industrial fishing. Like every other Member, I welcomed enthusiastically the closure of the industrial fishery this year. I note with exceptional pleasure the recommendation that there should be a zero total allowable catch for sand eel and pout. There is no doubt in my mind that industrial fishing of the sort that we have seen for so long is the antithesis of sustainable fishery. If evidence is needed of that, the Minister need not just have regard to fish stocks, where there has been an impact. Along the cliffs of Shetland and Orkney, the sea bird population has been decimated. I recall speaking to constituents on Foula earlier this year, who were broken-hearted given the way in which the breeding stock of the various seabirds has disappeared in recent years. Like fish stocks, breeding stocks for birds, once lost, are difficult to restore.
Hon. Members have suggested that, as president, the UK is in danger of playing too fairly. There has been talk of cricket—a game about which I know little and care less. I acknowledge that there is a balance to be struck when we assume the presidency, but we should not allow our role and fairness as president to damage our own industry and national interests. Instead of taking cricket as his model, may I commend to the Minister a splendid game that is played every year in my constituency on Christmas day and new year's day called the Ba'? [Interruption.] No, it is the Ba', and it is played in Kirkwall in Orkney.
Three hundred grown men—perhaps more—play a traditional ball game in which they take a ball from the market cross in the centre of Kirkwall either up the town or down the town, where the game ends in the harbour. It lasts for hours. When the Ba' went up on new year's day, it was almost dark. It is a tremendously spirited game that is keenly contested. Less generous observers have described it as a rolling breach of the peace. May I suggest to the Minister that, if he wants to train his officials, he could send them to take part in this year's Ba', rather than sending them to play cricket? They would be most welcome—I have no doubt that the fishermen in my constituency who play in the Ba' every year would be most interested and would give them the closest possible attention in the middle of the scrum.
This is an important debate. In case people are wondering, I do not represent a fishing port, but my constituency is dependent on good-quality fishing stocks. We have good fish and chip shops in Chorley and good restaurants that serve quality fish. We also have good supermarkets, as well as Chorley market, where the stalls specialise in wet fish. My constituency therefore has a great history of selling quality fish. We must ensure that there are fishing stocks around the UK and successful fishing ports, so that fishermen can go out and secure the catches that my constituents need.
I have tabled early-day motions 945 and 1108, which express concern about illegal fishing and other fishing practices. The cost of illegal fishing is about £680 million. Spanish fishing vessels buy a flag of convenience from a landlocked country—other countries are involved, but Spain is one of the worst offenders—and use it to get round the rules on trawling, which is not acceptable. The country of origin does not take action against such usage, so the problem must be dealt with quickly, as it is a major burden for our fishermen. They are playing cricket—a great game—but while they play by the rules, other countries, especially Spain, abuse them. We must stop that. We expect the Minister to take action against illegal fishing and abolish flags of convenience.
Another problem is Spanish vessels putting out long lines and capturing sharks off the coast of Ireland, Scotland and Norway. That is a tragedy and is having a great effect on the sharks that used to live there quite happily. Spanish vessels put out a long line and, to get best value from it, the line can be out for weeks. Lines have even been known to be out for months. Not only does that devastate the shark stock in the area, but because the vessels do not come round often enough, half the catch is allowed to rot on the line and is eventually discarded. We must deal with that problem too.
I hope the Minister will take action. We know that the fishing vessels in question are Spanish. We know that marine experts in the United Kingdom are concerned, as are their Norwegian and Irish counterparts. We have heard a great deal today and we expect a great deal. Progress can be achieved. I know the Minister takes on board his responsibilities. When we go forward, I want to know that we will have a strong voice, a positive voice and a supportive voice for the fishing industry around the UK. We need to take action against other nations that are operating illegally.
I want the Minister to ensure that the good people of Chorley can expect Chorley market to keep selling a variety of quality fish that has been landed legally by fishermen around the UK, and to ensure that we have long-term fish stocks. That is what it is about—ensuring that we have a fishing industry for the long term. Let us not let other people plunder our stocks. Let us nurture them, and let us look after the fishing industry that has served us well for hundreds of years. Let us not lose that, and let us ensure that quality fish continues to come to Chorley.
I welcome the full-day fishing debate and congratulate the Minister on having secured it with the Whips. It has given us the opportunity to listen to Mr. Mitchell in full flight, and to Mr. Carmichael, whose contributions to such debates are usually truncated, but on this occasion he managed to give us the full range of his extensive knowledge of the industry.
The debate also allowed us to listen for the first time to my hon. Friend Mr. MacNeil—[Interruption.] That is the Western Isles, for the benefit of Mr. Hoyle. Na h-Eileanan an Iar is the parliamentary constituency. It is said that in the run-up to election night, I practised for some time in the expectation that we would win the constituency. Expecting to be challenged on its pronunciation, I am assured by my Gaelic friends that I managed to carry it off with reasonable aplomb, as though I had been doing it all my days.
We welcome my hon. Friend to the proceedings. He is, as far as I know, the only working fisherman in the House. He is also the only working crofter in the House. Some people in the Western Isles would say he was the only worker in the House. It is useful to have in our debates someone who has done the job, done the business—done the fishing that we debate and care about. All of us who represent fishing constituencies care about the industry. There is no prouder boast in politics than to say that one is a fishing MP. It is an industry to which we owe our dedication, not least because of the fatalities and casualties—the real price of fish, as the Minister rightly reminded us as the start of the debate.
I shall make five points of detail before drawing a few broad conclusions to reinforce some of the arguments that other hon. Members have made so expertly in the debate. First, as I have said to the Minister, I am concerned about the aggregation of white fish licences in the pelagic sector. The hon. Member for Chorley has discussed flagged boats, although I am not certain whether flags of convenience are the same in the fishing industry as they are in the merchant marine.
The pelagic fleet in England is very small and consists of only two boats, both of which are flagged and both of which are Dutch owned. Given that we are generally hostile to flagged boats, it is amazing that such interests always seem to come out on the right side of any decisions. I have never understood why that outfit has such lobbying power—perhaps it advances its arguments expertly or perhaps DEFRA officials listen especially acutely—but it has come out on the right side of a change in the pelagic sector.
I accept that there are other winners in the sector, but there are also potential losers. I know that the Minister will treat with great seriousness any change in regulation that might discriminate—no doubt unintentionally—against one fisherman as opposed to another, because the public purse has paid a heavy penalty for perceived discrimination in regulation. I hope that the Minister will examine the matter to see whether a measure can be found to ensure that all boats in the pelagic sector are given equal opportunities in the changes on aggregation.
Secondly, as the Minister has said, at a time of scarce fishing opportunities it is important to maximise any opportunities, so I am therefore puzzled by the western mackerel quota. After a few years of precautionary reductions, advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea suggested that there was scope for a 15 per cent. increase in catch, but the Commission advises a 5 per cent. increase. Will the Minister elaborate on why that apparent opportunity has not been seized in a difficult year?
Thirdly, there is the question of who holds quota in the industry. It is self-evident that at a time of economic pressure on the industry, we must ensure that all available returns from fishing are kept within the fishing sector and, so far as it is possible, that no finance leaks elsewhere. Because of the downturn in the white fish sector, decommissioning and the huge pressure experienced by my constituents and many others around the coastline of Scotland and elsewhere, the banks inherited a substantial part of the quota. Of course, the banks did not fish themselves and rented out the quota to working fisherman, which represents a further leakage of returns from the industry.
Earlier this year, I joined a delegation from the producer organisations to visit the Royal Bank of Scotland, an organisation that has done incredibly well since I ceased to be its economist a number of years ago—I am sure that I helped to build the foundations for its future success. In conversation with the Royal Bank of Scotland, I argued that it is not stable in the medium term for financial sector institutions to own quota and make revenue from renting it to the industry.
I note with pleasure that the Royal Bank of Scotland recently sold its quota to fish-selling offices in Scotland. Personally, I would have preferred the quota to go the producer organisations, but none the less the quota is back within the fisheries sector. Some quota is still held outwith the fisheries sector, and people who are no longer working fisherman also hold a lot of it. Does the Minister have a view on whether it would be better consolidated with people who are pursuing a licence to fish, which would prevent the leakage of revenue out of the sector? Many other financial institutions still hold quota, and I also wonder whether the Minister has a view on that.
My fourth point has already been well made by Mr. Carmichael, so I will not go through it again. However, I emphasise the importance of not cutting days at sea—an effort limitation—as a result of quota arrangements with Norway, because such a cut would be extremely prejudicial in the medium term. The Minister did not mention that point in his initial remarks, so perhaps he will let hon. Members know his attitude to potential restrictions on days at sea as a result of the negotiations.
Finally, I turn to fuel costs. At the Fisheries Council earlier this year, before the UK took over the presidency, the vast majority of fishing countries expressed concern about fuel costs, and the Commission was asked to investigate the possibility of fuel price protection for the fishing fleet. Other fishing fleets have some degree of protection; France has been mentioned. After his latest oil tax hike, the Chancellor of the Exchequer expects to have £12 billion in revenue from the North sea. Next year, he may even surpass in cash terms the all-time record for that set by Lord Howe in 1984. I was with a delegation that went to see the Chancellor earlier this year, when we talked about this and other matters. In such circumstances, one might think that the fishing communities—the people who sail round the oil rigs and platforms producing this enormous wealth and largesse for the Chancellor—would be tiny beneficiaries of the enormous funds from the black black oil that are filling Brown's black hole. At the very least, the Minister should give a guarantee that our fishermen will not be at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other European fleets as regards fuel costs.
I move on to some general observations. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby returned to one of his favourite themes in trying to explain the importance of the priority of fishing in negotiations. He does that extremely well. Over the years of the common fisheries policy, some negotiating countries have attached an enormous priority to fishing. One thinks of Spain and, more recently, of the Dutch. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the famous memo written in 1971 by a Scottish Office civil servant, which says:
"In light of Britain's wider European interests they"— the Scottish fishermen—
That memo was released under the 30-year rule. It was written in the course of negotiations that took this country into the then Common Market. The fisheries policy emerged from those negotiations at the very last minute. It should be said in defence of that nameless civil servant that he was not saying that the interests of Scottish fishermen should be expendable, but commenting bitterly on the attitude of the Foreign Office in the negotiations. Neither the Scottish Office nor the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as it was then, could make any impact on the Foreign Office, which was obsessed by getting the agreement signed.
My hon. Friend observes that when the Conservatives took us into the European Union fishing was considered expendable. When he hears that the new leader of the Conservative party reportedly said that there are other things in Europe more important than fishing, does he fear that he may be thinking along the same lines?
In the immortal words of the new leader of the Conservative party, "I agree". After listening to today's exchanges, I say that we should bring back Punch and Judy, which was infinitely preferable to the love-in between the Prime Minister and the new Leader of the Opposition. I am told that it is the new politics, but I predict that after three weeks there will be a public demand for the return of Punch and Judy.
My hon. Friend Mr. Weir is absolutely right. The Conservatives have been, as it were, caught amidships by the transition of their fisheries policy. I see no anxiety on the face of Mr. Paterson. He has obviously received some instruction since his earlier contribution. Of course, we all offer him our best wishes for retaining his post over these next few desperate hours. No hon. Member has travelled further in the interests of the fishing industry than he has over the past few years. Norway should be his next port of call, so that he can see the practices and procedures there.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made the important point that priority was all, in regard to how countries deal with their fishing industries. I am not making a personal criticism of this Minister or his predecessor, both of whom, on account of their longevity in post and knowledge of the industry, have been substantially preferable to many of the Ministers who came and went before them. I have always found the present Minister most amenable and co-operative when listening to the concerns of hon. Members. However, it is a reality that fishing will never be an overwhelming priority for this country in the way that it is for other fishing countries within the CFP.
The hon. Gentleman says that fishing will not be an overwhelming priority for Britain, but the fact is that Britain has one of the largest fisheries—if not the largest—in the European Union. Fishing forms a much more significant part of our economy than it does in other countries of the European Union.
As one would expect. None the less, the priority that it is given here is dwarfed by that given to Spanish fishing interests and those of other nations.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said earlier, fishing is about 20 times more important to Scotland's economy than it is to that of the UK as a whole, bearing in mind their relative sizes, and sometimes it acquires 20 times the importance within the body politic in Scotland when the subject is debated. I think I am right in saying that the first defeat of the Scottish Executive in the Scottish Parliament was sustained on the fishing issue. It is difficult to imagine fishing severely denting, if not breaking, the Government in this House. None the less, it was the issue that mobilised people to defeat the Government in that first term of the Scottish Parliament. That shows the relative scale of the priorities involved.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby is the chair of the all-party fisheries group and has long experience of the industry. I am hoping to take part in enough of these fisheries debates to rival his record, but I think that he has made more contributions to them than the rest of us combined. He was absolutely right to make that point about priorities.
I want to talk about the rebate that was agreed at Fontainebleau. There have been stages in the history of the fishing industry at which it has been quite clear that certain countries—Spain, for example, but others as well—were building up their fishing fleets. I must caution the Minister not to give us the impression that the Irish decommissioning scheme will result in the Irish capacity following the pattern of the capacity in the white fish fleet in the United Kingdom. When he publishes the figures, they will show that exactly the opposite is the case. Ireland was another country that managed to exercise a substantial ability to modernise its fleet. In this country, however, our white fish and nephrops fleets have gone from being the most modern in Europe 25 years ago to being among the more elderly fleets over the piece, certainly in those sectors of the fishery.
One of the reasons for certain countries building up their fleets was their ability to access European funding. However, when we, as fishing MPs, argued for parity and comparability, we were told that under the Fontainebleau agreement, such funding would not be cost-effective because 87p in every pound would come off the UK rebate. Fishing was not the only industry that came up against a Treasury blockage as a result of the Fontainebleau agreement; the rebate has been a two-edged sword for many industries in this country. Perhaps now that the agreement is under negotiation, DEFRA will find a way of unlocking the funding that has long been available to other countries.
The Minister might say that this is not the time to build up capacity in the fleet. It might be the time, however, to make available grants for extremely fuel-efficient engines. That would be both environmentally friendly and extremely cost-effective at a time of high fuel prices. Other mechanisms apart from grants and help to build up capacity can therefore be used, and I hope that the Minister will explore them.
Lastly, one of the nubs of the debate has been whether it is tactically inept, as the Minister claimed, or strategically necessary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar explained and argued, to revisit the cod recovery plan. I take the Minister's point that he is in the middle of the current negotiations. Many of us would make the point to him, however, that if we are signed up to the 30 per cent. increase in cod, year on year, and if, as much of the scientific evidence accumulating tends to indicate, that will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve—if it is correct that conditions in the central North sea are by and large no longer amenable to cod as a stock—no amount of instruction from the European Commission will persuade cod to return in large numbers to that ground. That might or might not be the case, but there is a disconnection between the weight of building scientific evidence on this matter, the ICES and the cod recovery plan, which has apparently been set in total isolation, without reference to that body of evidence.
If we cannot meet that 30 per cent. target year on year, every single year, regardless of the state of other stocks, we will find ourselves negotiating from an extremely difficult position. Whether the haddock biomass is 300,000 or 500,000 tonnes, it will not matter in the sense that the quota suggested for haddock will be lower, not as a result of the haddock biomass but because of its attachment to cod in a mixed fishery. Many of us therefore think that revisiting the cod recovery plan—in public not in private, with the weight of accumulated scientific evidence taken into consideration—should be a strategic objective, to consider whether the variety of stocks can be detached from one another. Otherwise, I fear that Ministers will face an uphill battle for the foreseeable future when success is presented as turning a 20 per cent. cut into a 10 per cent. cut as opposed to allowing fishermen to exercise the full fishing opportunities that should be available to them.
If the Conservative party has been caught amidships in the transition of its fisheries policy, that is a great pity. No one, if they were starting from now, would have devised the common fisheries policy that we have at present. It is self-evident that any fishing country will have to embark on national and international agreements. It is also self-evident, however, that those that do so—the Faroes, Iceland and Norway—are a great deal more successful than those that are locked into the common fisheries policy. Whether or not the Conservative party is departing from national control, neither I, nor the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, nor the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is doing so. Those of us who care about fishing have a substantial argument in that regard, and we shall continue to pursue it.
It is an immense pleasure to speak once again in the annual fisheries debate, particularly as there are so many familiar faces. The debate has the feel of a reprise, with all the charm of familiarity if not the excitement of novelty.
I begin where Mr. Salmond, who always speaks with great authority on these matters, ended—to say boldly that the common fisheries policy has been a disaster. We would be less than honest if we did not start from that point It has been a disaster in terms of economics and ecology.
The economics are clear. The common fisheries policy is estimated to cost about 1 billion ecu a year, if we take into account Community and member state funding, to support production of something like 7 billion ecu a year. That does not make economic sense.
As for the effect of the common fisheries policy on our own industry, the story is a sad one. It is extraordinary that an island nation, a country with a seafaring history, can no longer harvest cod from the North sea. In the year of my birth, 1958—I know that it is hard to believe that I have reached the age of 47; Members must be asking "How can this callow youth possibly be 47?"—no one would have imagined that we would be in such a position.
Whatever statistics we consult, and according to almost any criterion, the CFP's performance has been disastrous for the British fishing industry. I plucked some figures from the Library. Not 47 but just 20 years ago, there were 22,224 fishermen in the United Kingdom. In 2004–05, there were 11,559. During those 20 years, the number has halved. As for the size of the fishing fleet, in 1985 there were 7,920 vessels; now there are a little over 6,500. Let us now consider employment in the fishing sector as a whole. A fall of 49.8 per cent., almost 50 per cent., has been disastrous for many east coast fishing ports, a number of which are no longer fishing ports. In many of those proud towns the deep sea fishing industry has all but collapsed, and on the Lincolnshire coast the fishing industry is in a sorry state compared with the position of earlier generations. It really is not good enough for the Minister to do what he will undoubtedly do when he sums up the debate and adopt the position adopted by his predecessors—one of simply managing the decline.
If the hon. Gentleman had been courteous enough to be present at the beginning of the debate and had heard the opening speeches, he would have learned that the value of landings and the total value of our fishing industry have risen in the last two years.
No; I am making a case for better-informed speeches and more courtesy in the House.
It is hardly an example of discourtesy to point out that the fishing industry has declined—in my judgment, tragically and profoundly—over the past 20 years. As I said earlier in an intervention, I do not entirely blame the Minister or his predecessors. I repeat that, too often, they have gone naked into the conference chamber because they have not had the support of the Government as a whole for the prioritisation of the fishing industry. I do not think that the Minister should be so defensive. He is saddled with a job in which he cannot achieve the objectives that he may well wish to achieve because of the prevailing policy, the CFP, and the stance of his party. As his hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell observed, the fishing industry has never been a priority for the leading members of their party.
The industry's decline has left it, in certain respects, beyond the point of regeneration. Some parts of it have declined to a point at which they will never be able to regain the momentum and scale that they once enjoyed. That would be bad enough but, as I have said, we have also seen an ecological disaster. The latest information that we have, which has been mentioned already, is that cod stocks in the North sea, the Irish sea and west of Scotland are set to remain well below minimum recommended levels, and the advice is therefore zero catch. We are told that whiting stocks in the Irish sea are also thought to be in poor condition, and the advice is that there should be the lowest possible catch until the stocks have a chance to recover. It is true that haddock stocks are in rather better shape, as the Minister knows, but there is the difficulty of mixed fisheries, to which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan referred.
No one would deny that the ecology of the North sea and the other seas around our coast have been severely damaged by the CFP, which for the great bulk of its life allowed industrial fishing, a subject that has been raised relentlessly in the House—it is raised every year when we have this debate. I am pleased that the end of industrial fishing seems to be in sight—it has finished temporarily and, we hope, for good—but it may be too late. Some species may have gone beyond the point of recovery. The effects of industrial fishing may have been so profound as permanently to change the ecology of the seas that have been fished so ruthlessly.
I know that there are other factors. Climate change, warmer waters and the movement of fish stocks have to be taken into consideration, but it is undeniable that the scandal of industrial fishing, which was allowed to continue within the framework of the CFP, has done untold damage and that the Minister and previous Ministers have been warned about that by hon. Members on both sides of the House, year on year.
The criticism above all others that I have of the CFP is that it has been crude in the way it has balanced fish stocks and fish take. The principal instruments of control have been restrictions on effort and discards. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire, to whose remarks I was listening attentively, suggested that there were better ways of dealing with the important balance between what we take from the sea and the maintenance of adequate and healthy stocks. He talked about the technical advances that have taken place and that can be applied, and about the need for effective science. We have heard again from the Minister that there is co-operation between the industry and the scientists and that needs to be built on. I would point to the virtues of closed areas, long recommended by some hon. Members. They were examined as long ago as 1998 when I was on the Select Committee on Agriculture, and advocated by me when I was shadow Fisheries Minister, prior to my hon. Friend's tenure. However, they were never pursued with the vigour that they should have been under the CFP. There are many ways in which the balance between fish take and fish stocks can be achieved. We have not got that formula right.
It appears that the best way of achieving that is by having more local control of fishing. I do not think that this has to be a dogmatic issue. We do not have to be myopic in our view of Europe to take that line. I think that most good Europeans now take the view that we need to deconstruct the CFP and examine other ways of dealing with the issue. On the grounds of practical considerations and evidence, we now need to think afresh and more laterally. We need to look at the experiences of countries that have had successful and thriving fishing industries, including the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway, and to learn from what they have got right. Our industry, restricted as it has been by the CFP, has, sadly, got it wrong. That is not the fault of the fishing industry or fishermen. It has happened because of what they have been obliged to do, often against their instinct and knowledge. There is nothing that fishermen like less than discarding healthy fish. It is against all that is in their bones and breeding. A more lateral and imaginative approach, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire articulated so well, is therefore desirable.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. Whatever the Minister might think, I was an extremely good shadow Fisheries Minister, but my hon. Friend is better. He is a better shadow Minister than me on this brief. As has already been said, he has toured the country—
Indeed, the Minister is right. My hon. Friend's travels have not been limited to the United Kingdom. He has toured the world in his efforts to learn about fishing, listen to those in the industry and help to articulate their concerns and hopes. He has devised a strong Conservative policy based on that knowledge. I therefore pay tribute to his work, which was reflected in his powerful contribution to today's debate.
I do not wish to detain hon. Members longer than necessary. The arguments have been well rehearsed and made. We could discuss the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire and others raised about, for example, investment in the industry. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was right to compare the modernity of the Spanish fleet with that of ours. However, those points have already been made.
We look to a new sort of politics and a new era. The political climate is changing. We may be on the cusp of something exciting with the advent of my hon. Friend Mr. Cameron as leader of the Conservative party. In that spirit, we need to be bolder about our vision for the future of fishing and how we can deconstruct the CFP. We need to be more creative and imaginative about reversing the decline over which successive Ministers have presided. I hope that the Minister will accept that suggestion, which is made with the best possible will, and take it seriously as he goes to the Council. I hope that he tells the representatives of the other countries there that enough is enough. We cannot gain by pretending that the current system will work. We must be honest enough to accept that we must start again and return fishing to local and national control.
I am pleased to make a short contribution to this important debate. My constituency has a long history of fishing through the fishing port of Arbroath and the small communities of Auchmithie, Lunan, Usan, Ferryden up to Montrose and across the border into Aberdeenshire.The history of Angus's association with fishing is reflected in the fact that we have two of the oldest lifeboat stations in the country. As the Minister rightly said at the beginning of the debate, fishing is dangerous and many people have lost their lives in the fishing industry.
In Angus, the traditional industry concentrated on white fish, especially haddock, but was also involved with fishing for crabs and in fixed salmon netting, especially at the mouth of the River Southesk. Much of that industry has now disappeared. A fishing industry remains, especially in the port of Arbroath, with a smaller industry in Montrose, but the rest of it has largely vanished over the years.
However, my area continues to have a strong fish processing industry, which is building up after many years in the doldrums. My hon. Friend Mr. Salmond visited my constituency shortly after the general election to open an extension to the fish factory of R. R. Spink and Sons, one of the manufacturers of the world-famous Arbroath smokie. For many years, the smokie was effectively not made because there was not enough haddock to do so. That has changed in recent years and the industry is expanding and finding new markets. If hon. Members go to Sainsbury's in Victoria, they will find some R. R. Spink products on its shelves. I thoroughly recommend that they do that and enjoy an Arbroath smokie for their tea.
Mr. Goodwill said that the Czech Republic, Poland and other eastern European nations have no interest in fisheries. Interestingly, in recent years many Czechs, Poles, Slovaks and other eastern Europeans have come to work in fish processing factories in Arbroath, Aberdeen and many other areas. They are making a significant and very welcome contribution to Scotland's fish processing industry. So although the Governments of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia may not have a particular interest in the continuing strength and health of Scotland's fishing and fish processing industries, many of their citizens do.
There are several issues that I should like to draw to the Minister's attention. In an earlier intervention, I raised with him the question—it has been mentioned by several Members—of the scientific evidence issued this year by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. As I pointed out, we were told that cod was in danger—no great surprise there—but that haddock stocks were healthy, as our fishermen have been arguing for many years. ICES had previously said for many years that haddock was in as much danger as cod, but our fishermen challenged that advice; they said that it was not true and that there were plenty of haddock in the sea.
When ICES scientists finally accepted that point of view and said for the first time that haddock were plentiful, that was a cause for some joy among Scotland's fishing communities, for whom haddock, not cod, is their main catch. They were very pleased that the scientists seem finally to have seen the light. Imagine their horror, therefore, when the ICES recommendations for quotas for the coming year were released a week later. It recommended a 40 per cent. cut in the haddock quota, which would be absolutely disastrous for the Scottish fishing fleet. I accept that during subsequent negotiations the recommendation was reduced to 13 per cent., but such a cut will still cause a great deal of difficulty for our fishing fleet.
The point is that there is growing cynicism among fishing communities. They feel that a game is being played with this scientific evidence. Scientists know perfectly well that whatever they recommend will be negotiated down by the Fisheries Council. They are deliberately recommending cuts that they know will never happen, and which are much greater than are needed. However, that causes huge anxiety in fishing communities and it is perhaps time for some transparency in this regard. This time of year is a rollercoaster ride for fishing communities. In the run-up to each Christmas—as ICES releases a report and we negotiate with Norway before the Fisheries Council meeting—a cloud of black depression descends on those communities. They do not know what position they will be in by the new year, or whether they will even have an industry by then. The recommendation for a reduction in days at sea will also create many problems for our fishing fleet, which is already working to very tight margins.
The situation is not helped by the fact that there is much misunderstanding of the nature of such scientific evidence. Greenpeace, an organisation that I normally have a great deal of time for, issued a report on fishing and, as a result of it, some Members—led, I believe, by Norman Baker—tabled an early-day motion calling for fish to be removed from the House of Commons menu. Among the species specifically mentioned was haddock, but as I have pointed out, haddock is plentiful. Such misinformation—the assumption that all species are in danger—is causing a lot of the difficulties. We have to accept that in certain areas there is a problem with some species, particularly cod. As has been pointed out, there is a lot of evidence showing that climate change, rather than overfishing, is responsible, and that the fish have moved to the colder waters of the north. In fact, the Icelanders and the Faroese do not seem to be having the same problem with cod.
Is it not pathetic that a Europhile party should suggest that we try to reduce demand for fish by taking it off the menu in the House of Commons, when it will not challenge the problem of the common fisheries policy because it might reflect on their Euro-enthusiasm?
That is a fair point. The CFP is part of the problem, but I repeat that not all fish species are in difficulties. We should think about how to deal with that issue. Members will by now be aware that I shop in the Sainsbury's in Victoria—
Well, I am ever hopeful, but I have had none so far.
I am great fan of fish. I love haddock and, indeed, most Scots will eat haddock rather than cod. But if one goes to Sainsbury's and opens the freezer—sadly, one cannot get fresh fish there, but perhaps the manager is listening—it contains plenty of frozen fish, but very little frozen haddock. There is a lot of frozen cod, in all shapes and forms, from nice pieces to fish fingers containing a little cod. However, we must also look at eating habits. If some species are in danger, we should point out that others are not. I appreciate that much of the cod in the freezer may not be sourced from UK waters, but that is still an interesting point.
I mentioned that fishing was once a strong industry in my constituency. I grew up in Arbroath and I remember a teeming port and fish market. It is all gone now. At the last count, only six or so boats operated out of Arbroath. However, as Mr. Wright mentioned earlier—he is no longer in his place—many fishermen have diversified into other areas. In my area, the council has turned part of the port into a marina for yachting, and it is very successful. Many of the smaller fishermen have diversified into pleasure trips or chartering out their boats. However, they have run into another problem. Under the EU rebated fuels directive, there is an issue of how often the boat is used for commercial and other purposes. I took that matter up with the Inland Revenue and the particular problem that my constituents had was solved, but if we are to encourage fishermen to diversify such matters have to be sorted out, so that they do not jump out of the frying pan into the fire.
As Mr. Carmichael mentioned, fishermen are having great difficulty with the cost of fuel. They are working on tight margins and the ever-increasing cost of fuel impinges on those margins. For once, it is not the fuel duty that is the problem because they can use rebated fuel—red diesel. The problem is the cost of the actual fuel. To be fair, most of the recent rise in fuel prices has not been in fuel duty, but the fuel itself, and that has caused great problems. There is a large fish processing industry in my constituency, but the markets are mostly in the large urban areas. The cost of fuel works through the chain. The fishermen have to get their fish to market—very quickly in the case of fresh fish—to ensure that it is still saleable. In areas such as Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the lobsters and crabs that are caught have to reach the market very quickly and the cost of fuel is a huge burden on the industry. It is the same for those who make smokies and other prepared fish in my constituency. They have to get them to Sainsbury's in Victoria, and that adds to the cost. The cost of fuel has a serious impact on fishing and fish-related industries, especially those in rural areas, which is where most of them are situated.
The Minister was criticised for his cricket analogies by my hon. Friend Mr. MacNeil and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I do not share that complaint. Cricket is a growing sport in my constituency. A couple of years ago, Arbroath junior cricket club beat clubs from all over England to win the junior championship.
My hon. Friend will note that Scotland's recent triumph in the International Cricket Council trophy means not only entry to the cricket world cup but that we are now 12th in the world.
Order. Fascinated as I am with cricket, the House will know that I would not necessarily argue that it should be in order in this debate. No doubt Members who want to pursue that interest will find that they can sublimate it through the all-party cricket group.
With that advertisement, I shall move back to fishing, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Fishing is important to my constituents, as it is to the whole of north-east Scotland. We are concerned about the proposals for a reduction in quotas and days at sea. I wish the Minister well in his negotiations in the Fisheries Council and hope that he returns with a good deal, otherwise our fishing communities will yet again face serious problems in the new year.
Mr. Hayes, who I was shocked to discover is even younger than me, mentioned the position of the CFP. The change in Conservative policy is interesting. Mr. Paterson did not deny the remarks attributed to his new leader, who, on the same day as he ditched Conservative policy on the Scottish regiments, also apparently ditched his party's long-standing policy on fishing. That is a shame, as the CFP is at the root of many of the problems. We and many Labour Members are opposed to it, and even the Liberals have concerns about it—I shall put it no higher than that. The CFP has been a disaster for Scottish fishing. It was brought in under a Conservative Government and Scottish fishing has suffered ever since.
This is the first time that I have had the privilege and honour to take part in a fisheries debate. I shall use this opportunity briefly to place on record my view that it is time for the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union's common fisheries policy.
It is time for an independent British fishing policy made to suit the local interests of our country. I agree with much that has been said in the Chamber this afternoon. Much has been said with more eloquence than I could put it about the failures of the CFP. Members have told us that after decades of the CFP there are fewer fish and fewer fishermen, and that fishing fleets have dwindled. Other Members spoke about the high cost of the CFP to the taxpayer. By almost any measure the policy has been a failure.
In my constituency, there was a thriving fishing industry before the Europeanisation of our fishing policy. Before I was born, many people earned a good living from the sea, but that has almost all gone. The fish, the fishing fleets, the livelihoods have all disappeared. If I am honest, I must say that that happened under Governments of both parties. Something is fundamentally wrong with the way we manage fisheries in this country.
In response to some of the sedentary comments made by Scottish National party Members, does my hon. Friend agree that any political party that has supported membership of the European Union or its forerunner the European Economic Community must take its share of the blame? That includes almost all the political parties represented in the House.
I agree. I am here not to score points or to make cheap partisan political points, but to talk about what we can do to ensure that we have a proper fishing policy in the interests of the people who live on this island.
As was said very eloquently earlier, fish do not stop at arbitrary boundaries. Fish do not recognise arbitrary divisions on a map. That is certainly true, but by Europeanising member states' fishing policies and by pushing power away from member states and putting it into the hands of unelected, unaccountable quangos in Brussels, the democratic dynamic and the democratic scrutiny of policy have been removed. That is the fundamental reason why the common fisheries policy has failed. We can talk about the detail, the quotas and the changes that can be made; we can tinker and try to improve things, but without that democratic scrutiny, the CFP will always get it wrong.
It is said that that which no one owns, no one will care for, and the member states have lost ownership of their fisheries policy, so the people who are left caring for it are not accountable to the people whose livelihoods depend on the sea—fishermen. We need to push power away from the unelected quangos in Brussels and move it down not simply to the member state but beyond. Again, there is agreement about that. It is no coincidence that countries with successful, thriving fishing industries—Iceland and Norway—have retained their capacity to make their policy independently. They have much to teach us.
Policy should not be simply shifted down to member states as an end in itself, but as a means to the greater end of localising control. In Essex or Scotland, people could have local control over fishing policy in their areas, but the first step, the prerequisite, is to push control down to the nation state.
Scotland is not a county; it is a country. Scotland already has control over its internal fisheries policy. What it does not have is the right to representation in international negotiations. Even if a Cabinet Minister is the Scottish Fisheries Minister, he will still be outranked by the Minister who is sitting by the Dispatch Box.
I am well aware that Scotland is a country, not a county, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention.
Our aim should be to localise control over fishing policy. I hope that, one day, I will take part in a debate much like this when a majority of hon. Members will agree that it is indeed time to leave the CFP and that we will vote to make that happen. I hope that we do so before it is too late and before we have finally ruined our fish stocks.
First, I apologise for arriving late for the debate, but I was unavoidably detained. I did not wish any discourtesy to my hon. Friend the Minister or to the other hon. Members who have spoken. I want to say a few words about the common fisheries policy.
Luton, North is not a port—not too many trawlers ply the North sea from my constituency—but I work on the basis that an injury to one is an injury to all. Damage to colleagues who represent our fishing industry and those who work in it is damage to us as well, and we want to act in solidarity with them. The CFP has undoubtedly damaged the interests not only of the UK, but of all. Establishing a policy that leads to the depletion of fish stocks everywhere can benefit no one in the long run. With perhaps the largest fishing grounds in the EU, the UK has a role in preserving fish stocks and ensuring that they are maintained at proper levels for the benefit of not only the UK but everyone else in the EU and, indeed, elsewhere.
As fish stocks are depleted in EU fisheries, we go further afield and deplete fish stocks off the coast of Africa and elsewhere. That can benefit no one in the long run, so we must work collectively to ensure that fish stocks are preserved. However, that does not mean that opening fisheries to everyone would be the way forward. We should allow individual member states and countries to defend their fisheries so that they can ensure that their fishermen and economies benefit from them. Such an approach would benefit the world's fisheries in the long run.
We have undoubtedly lost jobs, fishing fleets and fish as a result of the common fisheries policy. Joining it was a mistake, so negotiating an opt-out, as we did with the single currency, would have been enormously beneficial to not only Britain and our economy, but the European Union in general.
I agreed strongly with much of what Mr. Carswell said. Norway has large fisheries that go right up to the far north in the Barents sea and elsewhere. Norway has looked after its fish stocks. Although fish are capable of swimming from one area to another—they do not observe national boundaries—if I were a cod or a herring, I would probably choose to stay in Norwegian waters rather than British waters because I would stand a chance of living longer before being eaten or made into fishmeal. Nevertheless, the Norwegians have defended their fisheries better than we have.
I often say to the minority of Norwegians who want to join the European Union, "Given that you have enormous fish stocks that are being well husbanded and oil as well, why do you want to join because there is no doubt that the European Union would want your oil and fish, and it would not last very long if you did join?" People might challenge my view, but I have not received a good answer to that question during my many discussions with Norwegian colleagues—I am vice-chair of the all-party group on Norway. Perhaps the rest of the North sea benefits from Norway because as fish swim over boundaries, some of the fish that we catch today might have swum out of Norwegian waters, where the fish are well looked after.
It might help the hon. Gentleman's argument if I say that 80 per cent. of Norwegian fish are caught in cross-border areas that are covered by the straddling stocks agreement. That shows that bilateral agreements between sovereign countries to manage stocks work extremely well.
The hon. Gentleman's point suggests that there are ways of doing things that are more sensible than the common fisheries policy.
Only this week I was talking to friends from the Norwegian Government and the Norwegian embassy. They have had problems due to Spanish fishermen invading Norwegian waters. They have had to nudge the Spanish fishermen out of the waters to ensure that their fish stocks are not taken. Those fishermen know that there are good fish stocks in the area and that if they can trespass a little, they can get bigger catches.
The common fisheries policy is not sensible for anyone. We should not have joined it and it is most damaging to us. In the long run, I hope that we can withdraw from it and adopt a more sensible approach. I strongly believe that if individual member states were responsible for looking after their own fisheries and fish stocks, it would benefit not only those member states, but all the European Union and, indeed, all people who depend on having good fisheries. There will always be ups and downs if we carry on in such a way. I am pleased that there have been improvements in fish catches recently, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, but that is an increase from the low base that has arisen due to the common fisheries policy. Despite the increase, I suspect that we catch nowhere near the number of fish that we caught when stocks were plentiful.
I am not trying to put forward a nationalist or chauvinist view, but a sensible view. If we were responsible for our own fish stocks, it would benefit everyone in the European Union, including ourselves, our fishermen and our people who, like me, enjoy eating fish from time to time—regularly, in fact. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear in mind the general view among hon. Members that the common fisheries policy was a mistake and that we should move towards a world in which we are responsible for our own stocks. A more sensible approach would benefit not only Britain, but the European Union as a whole.
It may help if I remind hon. Members who were not in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate of one or two facts. Those in the Public Gallery and elsewhere who have listened to us might have the impression—the wrong impression, as most hon. Members with a great depth of knowledge of the industry know—that the industry as a whole is on its last legs and everything is a disaster. It is not. As I said, and as one or two hon. Members acknowledged, the nephrops sector, the processing sector, the shellfish sector and the pelagic sector are doing well. There are, of course, difficulties in some of those sectors where stocks have come under pressure, and I shall come on to that.
I start by addressing the comments of Mr. Salmond, partly in recognition of the special and disproportionate importance of the fishing industry to Scotland. He and other hon. Members asked whether the role of the UK presidency will have a restraining effect on my ability, or that of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Jim Knight and our officials, to negotiate in Brussels.
I think that the cricketing metaphors began before you were in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They related to how Ministers and officials negotiate in Brussels when they have the presidency. I can reassure Mr. Carmichael, who I gather is no cricket fan, that neither am I. However, I do play tennis and occasionally croquet. Perhaps that is why the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan described me as vigorous and ruthless, qualities that one may well associate with tennis on the one hand and croquet on the other.
Let me reassure the House that the fact that the UK holds the presidency does not prevent us from making strong arguments on the UK's behalf and in the UK's interest. I was grateful for the remarks of those hon. Members who follow such matters closely when they acknowledged that we have got a couple of pretty good deals for the UK in the past two years. As I said to Mr. Hayes, that is part of the reason why, despite problems in some sectors, the economics of the fishing industry have improved slightly.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and others raised the subject of grants and high fuel prices. As long as Labour are in power, the UK will not have short-term fixes for the problems of the fishing industry. We believe that the measures taken in France and Spain are illegal and we expect the Commission to take action against them. I can probably be more unpresidential about that in a month's time.
It will not be in the long-term interests of our fishing industry or the Irish fishing industry—I have spoken to the Irish Minister about this and he shares my concern—to allow some countries to develop what is undoubtedly an unlevel playing field. If we did not have a common fisheries policy, we would need to have lots of bilateral negotiations. One of the advantages of it is that we have a mechanism to enforce a level playing field. If the CFP is to retain its credibility, it is essential that that level playing field is enforced.
We are prepared to consider the suggestion by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan about modernising and helping the industry to develop engines that are more fuel efficient. There is no doubt that the likely long-term level of fuel price will have an impact on the industry. I am interested in long-term solutions, not short-term solutions that put off implementing more difficult solutions further down the road. I am sure that that is what France and Spain are harbouring up for themselves with the measures that they have taken.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and other Members have said about the review of the cod recovery plan. I do not want to add anything to what I said at the beginning of the debate on that issue. At this stage in the presidency, a couple of weeks before negotiation, I would not want to announce that that is a policy that I would favour, but it is something that I am prepared to think about. If we fail to reach any agreement in December, which is always a possibility—the meeting is held in December in order to try to focus minds and to help to reach an agreement—there is always the possibility of a fall-back position, not only for us but for other member states and the Commission.
I hope that no one will think that there will be any simple and easy solutions to the stock of cod in the North sea. My hon. Friend Mr. Wright raised an important point—it has been raised with me by several other hon. Members—in asking whether climatic change may be having an impact. I sense that there is a temptation on the part of one or two Members who have taken part in the debate to believe that climate is playing a major role so that we can make the decision to abandon cod. I am not in the position yet where I am prepared to contemplate what some people have called a "sod the cod" policy—I do not know whether that is unparliamentary language, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That would be a disaster for biodiversity in the sea. Some point to what has happened across the Atlantic off the grand banks of Newfoundland, where cod has pretty much disappeared and has been replaced by a valuable prawn fishery. The long-term impact of the big change in the ecosystem is unknown to anyone. All of us who care about sustainability and the marine ecosystem should be concerned to ensure, if it is at all possible, that we maintain that system as far as we can and protect it from harmful human activity.
Ecosystems change. Fishing activity changes as do fishing patterns. I made the point recently during a meeting that we used to have a strong shrimp fishery in the Fladden. It is now a massive prawn fishery. That change has taken place only during the past 10 or 15 years. Not all changes are bad. Can the Minister give us a time scale on his welcome agreement to consider the idea of a grant for fuel-efficient engines, which would be a significant response to the enormous pressure of high fuel costs on the fleet? Is there a time scale, and how will he make the information available to right hon. and hon. Members?
I was going to refer later to the issue of the future European fisheries fund, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool. However, as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it, I will deal with it now. The time scale is not in our hands, as we depend on an agreement for a replacement to the financial instrument for fisheries guidance—FIFG—scheme, which runs out next year.
The House should be aware that something that concerns me about enlargement—largely, enlargement has been in the UK's strategic interest—and should concern others who care deeply about sustainable fisheries is that the process has shifted the balance of view within the EU away from the conservationist approach. Substantial pressure is being exerted by the southern European countries, in alliance with the eastern European countries, to reopen some of the issues that we managed to close in the 2002 reform, a reform which I think was welcomed by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. It phased out, for example, the iniquitous awarding of grants by some countries to build new boats, to which several hon. Members have referred.
It would be a retrograde step if we were to renege on those earlier commitments made as a result of the 2002 reform. One of the possible compromise areas is that we may be able to reach agreement with enough countries to maintain the ban on the use of grants to build new boats, while considering initiatives to improve fuel efficiency and to help the environment. That will not be in our hands. We had hoped to get an agreement on the new European fisheries fund during our presidency because we were worried that any agreement would be a step backwards from the 2002 reform, which we are not prepared to contemplate. We would rather wait until we are liberated from the presidency so that we can advance that argument more clearly.
Before the Minister moves on from white fish—he may be about to—to what does he attribute the decline of cod? Is it the record of industrial fishing and the effect that that has had on the ecosystem, is it environmental change and the changed water temperature, or is it the result of inadequate conservation measures? Have these factors affected cod stocks? Once the Minister has given us the reason, perhaps we shall be able to come up with a proper solution.
One of the challenges for Governments around the world who wish to establish good and sustainable fishing policy is that there is uncertainty about the science. The overwhelming bulk of science, with the exception of a small number of mavericks, accepts that the single biggest impact on cod is over-fishing. There is no doubt about that. A role may be played by climate, and the hon. Gentleman is right that there has been a northward shift in species—it is not just cod that we are talking about—as we are now catching more exotic species off the south-west coast. However, just because climate is impacting on a species, it does not necessarily mean that one can fish it harder and solve the problem. That is not the case—proper controls are needed on over-fishing, otherwise stock will be written off.
If over-fishing is the explanation, how, in a mixed cod and haddock fishery in the same area of the sea, can there be a record low for cod and a record biomass high for haddock? Would over-fishing not affect both species, rather than just one?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is not a record high any more. That was the case a year or two ago, and it was dependent on a single year class. Recruitment to such a class can make a huge difference to the biomass. I do not want to go into further technical detail, as I do not wish to detain the House much longer, and I wish to respond to many points made by hon. Members.
Has the Minister not made the case for environmental effects by highlighting the appearance of species in the south that are not usually seen there? Does that not underline the argument that the cod are migrating north?
I was not arguing that there was a lack of evidence that the cod were migrating north. Fisheries scientists would agree that an overwhelming body of evidence suggests that over-fishing has had the biggest single impact on fish stocks. We need to inject some reality into our debate. Hon. Members who have participated today tend to represent fishing communities, but there are other interests that wish to protect the marine environment. While it is important that they talk to their fishermen, they should also talk to environmental organisations and the scientists who wrote the Royal Commission report, which is an important international report on the state of our seas in this country and elsewhere. They will find that there is general global consensus, with the exception, as I said, of one or two mavericks, that the single biggest impact on fish stocks is over-fishing by human beings.
I am grateful for the Minister's measured response to my initial intervention, which led to further interventions. If over-fishing, or what I described more generously as inadequate conservation measures, is responsible, can we conclude that the approach of the CFP, which has largely been about effort management and discard has been ineffective for conservation? Should we not have looked long ago at the proposals advocated by my hon. Friend Mr. Paterson, including technical changes, closed areas and a different approach to spawning grounds, as they would have been more effective? According to the Minister, what he calls over-fishing is the problem, but is that not the responsibility of the CFP?
I shall come on to that later. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that the existing system is based on effort control. In fact, that is the system advocated by Mr. Paterson. There is some effort control in the current system, but it is mainly based on quotas. There is a debate about whether that is the best system, and we will discuss that later.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan asked a number of specific questions. I shall write to him about the aggregation of licences, as I am afraid that I have not been able to obtain the information that he requested. However, to repeat my earlier assurance, this is an issue on which there has been consultation, and the industry has been involved. He asked about the proposed increase in the mackerel TAC, and wondered why there was a difference between the scientific advice and the increases of 15 per cent. and 5 per cent. That TAC was the result of the EU-Norway agreement, so it is now fixed. Some TACs—I shall come on to haddock in a minute—are officially agreed in December, but are effectively dependent on the EU-Norway agreement. That TAC was the result of the negotiating of Norway, which did not want an increase in the TAC at all.
On the question whether quota should be released by banks, we are, as the hon. Gentleman knows, undertaking a major review of our quota management system and we are involving the industry in that. I should be pleased if the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring a delegation of industry representatives to talk to me or my officials to feed in their views as to how that should be taken forward. That will be an important element in putting our fishing industry on a sustainable footing in the long term.
As we have said on numerous occasions, we will resist the proposal for a cut in days for the white fish fleet. However, as I said earlier, other countries have not taken the same amount of pain as we have on cod recovery. They have not even provided the Commission with proper data. There may be scope for further tightening of the cod recovery regime in respect of such countries. Any impact that that may have on the UK fleet will, I hope, be more than offset by the very large TAC increase that we expect to get for prawns. I shall come to the details of that shortly. I know it is of great interest to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.
I mentioned the issue of fuel costs.
The Minister will recall that in my contribution I mentioned the 12 days at sea that were obtainable as a result of the administrative penalties elective measures. Can he confirm that he will fight to retain those days, which are extremely important?
I will check up on that and write to the hon. Gentleman. That relative increase was also connected with the reduction in the effort on cod that we had already made. We persuaded the Commission and that has not changed, so I do not anticipate any problem but I will check with officials after the debate and write back to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland also raised the subject of the search and rescue helicopter. I addressed that at the beginning of the debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, had discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport about that today. I am sure he will be happy to update the hon. Gentleman at an early opportunity.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned frontloading, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell. Frontloading is a horrible piece of jargon that means trying to do as much work as possible before the December Council so that one does not end up dealing with a lot of detail at the last minute through days and nights and inevitably making mistakes.
I thank the Minister for his time. If any concerns emerge over the next few days about the change of the helicopters at Stornoway and in Orkney and Shetland, may I count on the Minister to be diligent within the Government in representing the concerns, particularly those of fishermen?
It may be more useful for the hon. Gentleman to go through the Scottish Executive, but if he wants to make representations to me about the matter, of course I will pass them on to ministerial colleagues.
I accept the criticism made by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that there has not been as much frontloading this autumn as we had hoped, but there has been some and it has made a difference. For example, we have managed to secure agreement on technical measures in the Baltic, which will be significant for the long-term sustainability of the fisheries there. We have also had useful policy discussions on principles in advance of the December Council. The timetable for the science reporting, the Commission's proposals being made, and Governments, industry and other bodies being able to make representations about those has improved somewhat.
As was pointed out, we are not in a position this year where we do not have an EU/Norway agreement. We have one, and it is a very good agreement. I congratulate my officials, as I should have done earlier, on their hard work. Still acting as UK fisheries officials under the presidency, they have also had to deal with difficult technical negotiations in Brussels involving all the other 24 member states. Some hon. Members have covered fisheries issues for a long time in the House. It would be a brave hon. Member who described himself as an expert in the UK fishing industry, but to become an expert in a few months on the fishing industries of 24 other countries is quite some feat, and my officials have done an excellent job.
The Minister has pointed out that the negotiations are detailed and technical. Does he therefore feel that there is scope to involve fishermen's representatives on the EU side in those negotiations? The Norwegians directly involve their fishermen in their negotiating team, and bringing the expertise of those who must cope with whatever is agreed with Norway into the negotiations might help to bring fishermen onside and engage them in the process.
There is always scope to consider whether we can do a better job involving the industry and other interested parties early in the process, which is one of the rationales behind our putting the matter on the agenda, getting it debated and obtaining a commitment from Commissioner Borg to publish in April an action plan on the review of the fisheries year.
Mr. Reid has mentioned including representatives of the fishing industry in the negotiating team, but I am not a great fan of sub-contracting such negotiations to anybody. In September, we failed to reach an agreement on conservation in the Mediterranean, and one of the member states with a strong interest had its industry representatives in the salle d'écoute watching proceedings. Such negotiations are supposed to take place between Ministers and behind closed doors, so that horse-trading can go on. Such negotiations can be reduced to Ministers with no officials, which happened in the sugar negotiations in the week before last. It sometimes takes political will and courage to reach an agreement on a difficult subject, and it is not necessarily sensible to conduct negotiations with people who have a strong interest one way or the other looking over one's shoulder or even watching on television.
It is important that we keep in close touch with our industry, and there has been a sea change in DEFRA's approach. The Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department has also improved its act in recent years on involving and informing the industry. It works closely with the industry to establish the industry's priorities and to deal with the Commission's proposals as they are made, so that we can get the best possible deal for the UK industry that is also based on sustainability.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland also raised the issue of industrial fisheries. The current recommendation is for a continued closure, which has been welcomed on both sides of the House, with a monitoring catch of around 25,000 tonnes and a review part of the way through next year—25,000 tonnes might sound like a lot, but last year's TAC was 660,000 tonnes. The new quota is a huge improvement, and it has been a long-term aim of successive UK Governments. It is nice that it has been achieved, although I wish that it had happened a little bit sooner.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute also raised a couple of constituency cases and said that he would write to me about them, and I look forward to those letters.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar—
That was too fast. If this will not offend his constituents too much, I will call his constituency the Western isles.
The hon. Gentleman is very gracious.
Like a number of other hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman raised the importance of nephrops and prawns. Twenty years ago, few people would have said that the UK nephrops industry would easily be the most valuable part of our fishing industry in 2005. The health of the nephrops stock, which is being exploited sustainably, is one reason why the fishing industry is doing well. Thanks to some chivvying by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, other SNP Members and others, we have established fisheries science partnerships to evaluate the evidence, which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan always said was there, on an increase in the TAC. My officials have been very successful in doing that this year. The Commission proposes a 39 per cent. increase in the TAC in the west of Scotland and a 31 per cent. increase in the North sea. I am sure that that will be welcomed by fishermen and their parliamentary representatives in all constituencies with an interest in the matter. It will also be of great interest to Northern Ireland Members, who are no longer present, because some Northern Irish fishermen fish in the west of Scotland.
We are also arguing for an increase in the TAC in the Irish sea. As there has not been a similar fisheries science partnership there, the Commission does not propose any increase; indeed, it proposes a decrease. We will argue against that. It does not make sense to argue that the stock in the west of Scotland is doing well enough to allow a 39 per cent. increase but say that there should be no increase at all in the Irish sea. We will also argue for an increase in the plaice TAC in the Irish sea. One of the reasons why the Commission is recommending a reduction, despite the fact that that stock is in extremely good shape at the moment, is that it argues that there is a relationship with cod. We do not accept that. We will argue for a 20 per cent. increase, which will be of great benefit to the industry, not least in places such as Fleetwood, where people feel that they have had a very raw deal in recent years.
Mr. Weir made some sensible remarks about scientific evidence. I have already described some of the ways in which we have been working with the industry. In recent years, we have spent about £5 million on fisheries science partnerships. That has not only helped to improve the quality of the science but enabled us to negotiate better deals for sectors of the industry. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that certification is important. He is right to point out the error of whoever suggested that haddock should be taken off the House of Commons menu. Anyone who knows anything about fisheries could have told the person who made that decision that haddock is in good shape. Indeed, we should be encouraging people to eat a lot more of it. I sometimes wish that my kith and kin in the south of England had the same taste for haddock as people in the north and in Scotland. It would help cod if we southerners were automatically served haddock with our chips instead of cod—although most of the cod that we eat comes from sustainable fisheries in other parts of the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby, as well as talking about front-loading and other issues that I have already covered, asked about the grant for safety in his part of the world. Following the meeting that we had, I made it clear to the regional development agency that there were no reasons why that money could not be granted. It is now up to the RDA to decide whether it thinks that it is value for money. As far as we are concerned, it is free to make the grant. The subject was also mentioned by Mr. Goodwill.
Mr. Breed was one of the few Members to talk about the importance of enforcement. I welcome that. If I can put it in terms that Members who represent fishing communities will understand, if we are to negotiate good deals in Brussels and elsewhere, we must be able to convince the Commission that our system is solid and sound. It helps us to get good deals if we can produce evidence that we are enforcing the rules.
That leads me to a point that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby made when he talked about a case in his constituency. I hope that he would not expect me to comment on any individual case, but I stress to him and to other hon. Members that the illegal catching of black fish is theft, pure and simple. It is theft of a natural resource and theft from other fishermen. If we do not get a handle on it, we will lose out in negotiating good deals for the hon. Gentleman's constituents and those of other Members. Such catching will also lead to a depletion of stocks, and we all know what that means. It is bad for the fishing industry as a whole, bad for the environment, and bad for the communities that the hon. Gentleman represents. I hope that all hon. Members would stand up for good enforcement and support the very important work done by our enforcement officers, many of whom are former fishermen, in difficult and sometimes very hostile circumstances.
May I reinforce the point to the Minister that we should make more of the fact that we do enforce the law rigorously, and that the penalties imposed by our courts are among the highest in the European Union? Will he make that point to our European partners?
Yes. I do not have them on me, but I would commend to hon. Members the tables showing the relative enforcement and fine levels. The figures are not quite as black and white as the hon. Gentleman suggests; we are about middling in how well we are doing. We are doing a lot better than we did in the past, however. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby said that he doubted whether French fishermen who had committed a similar offence to those committed in his constituency would be similarly fined. I am sure that he is aware, however, that France has recently been fined €20 million for not enforcing fisheries policy correctly, and that the threat of a €56 million fine every six months hangs over that country—this involves the national Government—if it does not get its act together. So the idea that we are the only country that punishes people or follows the rules is not strictly true.
May I take the Minister back to the Altaire case, which we spoke about earlier? Not only was a substantial fine imposed—just short of £100,000, I think—but about £1 million was recovered under the confiscation procedures set out in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That involved a civil recovery. Will the Minister ensure that such money is taken into account when these so-called league tables are being drawn up? It, too, constitutes a penalty.
I will certainly draw that to the attention of the officials in my Department who are responsible for drawing up the league tables.
I associate myself absolutely with the comments made by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall. The improvements in enforcement that we have made over the past few years have resulted in better compliance, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will agree that that can only be good for the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby also said that some parts of the industry, such as the shellfish sector, are doing very well. I have also hinted at that, as have other hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman extended a kind invitation to me to visit his constituency. I have actually been there—I am sorry, it was before his time—but I shall certainly bear his invitation in mind. I happen to love lobster, and I only regret that the best lobster that his fishermen catch go straight to Spain. I believe that we as a nation could do better in adding value to our fisheries' product. Near to my constituency in south Devon, the best crab in the world and very good lobster are caught—I had better not say that it is the best, but I am sure that it is as good as those caught in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It is a terrible shame that 90 per cent. of them are exported straight away, alive, in saline tanks to France and Spain. I believe that we could add some value to those products in this country, as well as encouraging our own consumers to buy and eat more of them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool made an excellent contribution. It is great to have a Member for Hartlepool who is obviously interested in the fishing industry on behalf of his constituents. I hope that he will not be embarrassed by my saying that he asked a number of perceptive and intelligent questions. Widening the scope of fisheries grants is already one of our objectives, and will be as we consider the reform of the European fisheries fund, to which I referred earlier. He also asked about the action plan on the simplification of fisheries rules. As I said in my opening speech, we expect Commissioner Borg to say something about that at the December Council, and the matter can then be taken forward. We have taken that issue very seriously, and it is an area in which we have worked closely and productively with the fishing industry.
My hon. Friend Geraldine Smith reminded the House of the tragic events in her constituency involving the drowning of a number of Chinese cocklers. I commend her for her excellent hard work on drawing the issue to the attention of my ministerial colleagues and me at the time, and on her persistence in trying to ensure that decisions will be taken and measures put in place to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future. As I made clear to her when she last came to see me, I have said for some time that the Government would support the local sea fisheries committee if it wanted to bring forward a regulating order. I also acknowledge, as she did in her remarks, that the Government's proposed marine Bill will provide a good opportunity to modernise fisheries legislation, including giving powers to manage local fisheries in the way that she describes. I hope that she and other hon. Members who are interested in the marine environment will take an active role in the development of that Bill.
I echo the Minister's comments about Geraldine Smith, who, after that terrible incident, did a tremendous job in bringing the problems to the attention of the House and the Minister. She also played an active part in the gangmasters legislation. Conservative Members would certainly support a licensing regime in Morecambe bay and measures to help the sea fisheries committee.
That is very helpful.
On the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale asked about abandoned vehicles, I am afraid that I do not have a definitive answer yet, but I have sought one. My officials' advice was that we thought that local authorities were responsible, but that there may be an issue as to whether that applies if vehicles are in the middle of the bay.
The answer that was given to my parliamentary question was that local authorities were normally responsible, but that because such vehicles were in the middle of the bay, they were not responsible.
Perhaps that is another issue that we can deal with in the marine Bill, if we need to wait that long.
My hon. Friend says from a sedentary position that she has not tried them. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has given her a constructive idea, which I am sure that she will follow up, and perhaps I can help her on that, too.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire made a number of suggestions based on the experience that he has gleaned on his extensive travels. I hope that his travel has been carbon-offset—there has certainly been a great deal of it. Now that climate change is to be a major priority for the Conservative party, too, I am sure that its travel will be carbon-offset. I am not sure that I would necessarily reach all of his conclusions, however.
It is important that we learn from good practice in other countries, but it is not always easy to make direct comparisons between countries such as New Zealand or Iceland, which basically lie surrounded by large expanses of ocean, and the United Kingdom, which is close to the rest of the continent and has fisheries that we have traditionally shared with other countries, long before the common fisheries policy and the European Union were invented. We have had wars with some of those countries over fisheries, which hon. Members often forget. If there are no rules or means for negotiation and agreement in relation to the exploitation of such a valuable resource, and no institution to apply those rules when some countries do not obey them, to which I referred in relation to the huge fines being levied on France, all sorts of new challenges are faced.
I am still not convinced by the attraction of the hon. Member for North Shropshire to the Faroese system, which relies solely on effort control. I do not want to bore the House again, but were we to introduce effort control in the North sea now to protect cod, no fishing would go on, because the effort would have to be set so low, because cod stocks are so low, that fishermen would not be able to catch any of the other species. In the highly complex, mixed fishery of the United Kingdom, we need to be cannier about our system. As I said, a review is going on, and a mixture of effort control and quota management, perhaps with individual tradeable quotas, might be the answer, although we have not made a firm and fast decision on that yet. We need to be a little more imaginative and canny, as we have a more complex fisheries reality than some of the countries to which he referred.
I know that the Prime Minister's review, for instance, mentioned the background to individual transferable quotas approvingly, but before proceeding along those lines will the Minister consider the concentration of the industry that has resulted in just about every fishery where the system has been introduced? Will he reflect on whether it is compatible with the family-based companies that exist in many areas on the coastline?
That is an important point, and we will certainly include it in our discussions with the industry. The hon. Gentleman may wish to talk to officials about it, or bring others to discuss it with them. That need not happen, however. Iceland, for example, has introduced measures to protect small boats. In Iceland there has been consolidation between the big boats and the small boats; it is the boats in between that have tended to go. However, there are mechanisms to prevent the consolidation to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and to protect fishing in vulnerable communities. We have said repeatedly that those are two of our objectives. We do not want a system that resulted in a few big boats in small fishing ports that then died out.
I take issue, slightly, with the way in which the hon. Gentleman reported what was going on in the Faroes. I am advised by officials that the official view of the Faroese Government is that the cod stock is not in very good shape at present. It is as low as it was before its collapse in 1990, and is considered to be "at risk of reduced reproduction". The official view of the Faroese Government is that effort has remained too high, and will have to be reduced.
I do not think that there are simple solutions to fisheries management. I think that there will always be difficulties and challenges, because there are difficulties and challenges in all systems. One aspect of the debate that I welcome is the fact that, by and large, it has been so informed, and that views have been expressed that can be fed into the Government's review of quota management. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will continue to show an interest.
I now come to the thorny issue of the common fisheries policy, which was raised by members of all parties, including mine. Unlike the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, I had hoped that a new Leader of the official Opposition committed to fighting the Government on the centre ground and to jettisoning eccentric policies based on dogma—Mr. Cameron—would have taken the opportunity to send his fisheries spokesman to the House to announce a rethink. The hon. Member for North Shropshire did not quite do that. Like some of his hon. Friends, he repeated his party's official commitment to trying to withdraw the UK unilaterally from the CFP, a policy described by Mr. Curry as "unwise and undeliverable". When the former Conservative party chairman Chris Patten was asked about it, his response was
"Is this the real world?"
However, I thought that the hon. Gentleman repeated his party's commitment in slightly less arduous and categorical terms than usual at the end of his speech. I hope that there is still room for movement.
I have studied the quotation from The Times to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and other comments that the new leader of his party has made about the issue. They are slightly different from a commitment to trying to negotiate unilateral withdrawal from the CFP. The hon. Member for Witney told Anatole Kaletsky that his party wanted to
"reverse EU control of fisheries policy."
I suggest that there is a significant difference between the two policies. It could be argued that regional advisory councils represent a partial reversal of control. I hope that that becomes more of a reversal.
In a second.
The hon. Member for Witney said that he did not believe that the CFP had worked well. I do not think that any Member believes that it has worked well, but we do believe that it is reformable and should be reformed. As the environment editor of The Daily Telegraph wrote recently in an excellent book on fisheries, if the CFP did not exist something rather like it would have to be invented. The hon. Gentleman went on to say
"We can do more to conserve fish stocks through local management and bilateral agreements."
In a sense, my hon. Friend has half-answered the question that I was going to put. He elides the two issues—the irrationality of the common fisheries policy, which is undoubted, as it is not a sensible policy, and the difficulty of withdrawing from it. That may be a politically serious problem but one cannot argue that the CFP was and is still a sensible policy.
I just said that I did not think that anyone in the House would describe the CFP as having always been successful. It has got better. The reforms of 2002 have been a significant improvement. As I said, in the past two years, they have led to growth in the fishing industry in this country, to increased incomes, and to better landings for most species, but there is always room for improvement.
I do not think that the official Opposition's policy is sensible. I hope, and expect, if the hon. Member for Witney is serious, that they will review it. A policy that is futile is never a sensible policy. As my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins acknowledged, it would not be possible to withdraw from the common fisheries policy without withdrawing from the European Union. We would have to persuade every other member of the EU to support us—the decision would require unanimity. Repeatedly, when we have asked the Opposition to name a single country—not all of them, but a single one—that would support the UK's withdrawal from the CFP, they have not been able to do so. That indicates the futility of their policy. It is never sensible for a party that has ambitions to govern, as the official Opposition now apparently do, to hang on to futile and ridiculous policies.
I did not say that. I said that it is important that we reform the common fisheries policy. It is being reformed and it can be reformed further. I also quoted a gentleman who is not naturally a Labour supporter, who writes for The Daily Telegraph and who wrote an important book on fisheries a year or so ago. He went through all those arguments, listened carefully to the views of the official Opposition and concluded that, if the CFP did not exist, we would have to invent something like it and that, if we want to manage our fisheries sustainably off the north-western coast of Europe, with many nations with differing fishing interests in a complex mixed fishery, we have to have some institution where those deals can be made and enforced.
The hon. Gentleman generously, I think, given the position of his Government, has said that the common fisheries policy has not been a success and is in need of reform. How would he measure success? What criteria would he use to judge whether it had become successful? When does he expect it to become successful? Is success the regeneration of the British fishing industry, not to the degree that we have seen in the past couple of years, but to a significant degree? Is success a proper balance in the ecology of the North sea and the other seas around us? What is his measure of success and when does he expect to bring us the good news in a fisheries debate that it is a success?
I am reluctant to give the hon. Gentleman a history lesson on the common fisheries policy but, briefly, the biggest mistake that it made was to coincide with the so-called "gadoid outburst". The hon. Gentleman nods, so he knows what I am talking about. That led to a massive expansion of the fishing fleet not just in this country but in all the EU countries, often, as hon. Members have pointed out, funded by the taxpayer. That was a huge strategic error. We have been paying the price for that ever since.
The reform that we agreed in 2002 was significant. It did not go as far as we would have liked. The UK constantly pushes for more reforms, but the ultimate test of whether the CFP is a success is to get our fisheries on to a sustainable level for the long term. That is the objective of this Government, and I do not think that having a futile debate about the legality of withdrawal from the CFP is the way to do it.
The Minister when he opened the debate recognised that there would be far more efficient management of this complex fishery if only those countries that had a direct interest in fishing in the North sea were involved in the final negotiations. However we reach it, that has to be the goal—that we manage the fishery in the North sea with those countries that have an interest in the North sea and not with countries that no longer have an interest.
That is exactly why the UK has supported the regional advisory councils. We want their role to grow. By the end of our presidency, we will have successfully established two or three. However, the hon. Gentleman should not get the impression that landlocked countries such as Hungary play a major role in the Fisheries Council. The other member states would not take it well if Hungary or another landlocked country without any obvious interest in fisheries scuppered a deal. They tend to go with the presidency compromise.
We must have international agreements on fisheries and therefore there will be a common fisheries policy—that does not follow. However, does the Under-Secretary agree that the most telling aspect of our debate was the uncharacteristic silence at key moments of the speech of Mr. Paterson? He is in a difficult position because he has to interpret the mind of the new leader and perhaps he does not know it yet. None the less, the silence spoke volumes.
In this case, I welcome the silence because I interpret it as a sign that there may be change afoot.
Let me briefly respond to the points of my hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle about illegal fishing on the high seas. That is an important issue and the Government take it seriously. He may already know that Britain chairs—indeed, I chair it—the High Seas Task Force, which comprises six nations: New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Namibia, Chile and Britain. It has the specific job of examining the problem. We will publish our report in March with a concrete action plan for further measures, including flagged vessels and problems such as bottom trawling.
Next year will be an important year at the United Nations for international fisheries, because it will review its fisheries agreement. The UK should play a leading role in trying to wake up the world to the seriousness of what is happening on our oceans.
Earlier, I mentioned the impact of human beings on the oceans. There is no doubt about that impact if we examine the international position. Overall, stock levels are about a 10th of what they were 100 or more years ago, because humans are getting much better at catching fish. They are much more efficient, build bigger boats and catch more fish. On the high seas, there is weak governance and little control, little reporting and little, if any, enforcement. We all need to address that.
Sustainable fisheries and the protection of our marine environment go hand in hand. I hope that most hon. Members agree that we have had a useful and constructive debate. If I failed to respond to any specific points, I will write to hon. Members.
I am sorry that the Under-Secretary believes that it is a bit of a trial to give way now when he has given way throughout his speech to hon. Members of all parties. I asked him about shark fishing and the problem off Ireland and Scotland. Will he look into that in future?
I shall happily do that. I looked a little pained when I gave way because my tone of voice made it obvious that I was about to finish, yet my hon. Friend still intervened.
I welcome his intervention. That is it.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.