– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:36 pm on 30th October 2002.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 2:36 pm, 30th October 2002

The next item of business is the statement by Ross Finnie on fishing. As the minister will take questions at the end, there should be no interventions during the statement.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 2:37 pm, 30th October 2002

I am grateful for the opportunity to make this statement on fisheries. Let me make it clear from the outset that neither I nor the Scottish Executive has any intention of presiding over the destruction of the Scottish fishing industry. That is why, two weeks ago, I gave an undertaking to the industry, which I reiterate today, that we will work with it to ensure a sustainable Scottish fishing industry. I believe that, together, we can find an alternative to closing our fisheries.

I want first to deal with the background, which, on the one hand, centres on the scientific evidence and advice and, on the other hand, on the European negotiating process. As many members are aware, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, has recommended widespread closures. In order to allow severely depleted cod stocks to recover, it has suggested no fishing for cod in the North sea, to the west of Scotland and in the Irish Sea. As members know, cod is caught alongside other species. ICES has therefore also recommended that no fishing for haddock or whiting be undertaken in those areas,

"unless ways to harvest these stocks without bycatch or discards of cod can be demonstrated".

ICES has also implied severe restrictions in the fisheries for nephrops, plaice and sole, with

"stringent restrictions on the catch and discard rates of cod, with effective monitoring of compliance with those restrictions".

I have four observations to make on the scientific advice. First, I think the recommendations are clearly a measure of the scientists' concerns. I am talking about the question of the evidential basis upon which those concerns are founded. I believe that we must take those concerns seriously.

Secondly, the scientific advice makes it clear that it is not only the cod stocks that are in difficulty but also haddock stocks, which are even more important to the Scottish industry. ICES has suggested a 40 per cent reduction in fishing effort to safeguard haddock. Cod is the extreme example of a more general problem and a warning of what might happen to other stocks if we do not find a scientifically credible alternative to closures.

Thirdly, we must be clear that the scientists do not rule out continued fishing for species other than cod. From a purely scientific point of view, closure would appear to be the preferred solution. However, the scientists also suggest industry-initiated schemes to reduce cod catches and the appointment of independent observers to ensure accurate catch reporting. Those are important suggestions. Other vital Scottish stocks such as nephrops are perfectly healthy. Given the scientific evidence that I put to the Commission last year on behalf of the Executive, it is ludicrous to suggest a reduction, far less a closure, of our nephrops industry.

Fourthly, we must recognise that the science has not fully factored in all the recent Scottish initiatives, such as this year's decommissioning scheme, and other conservation measures that Scottish fishermen have adopted. That must be done.

The second element in the background is the negotiating process within the European Union. The ICES advice is only the beginning of a process. It informs the negotiations within the EU and between the EU and Norway. However, those negotiations will be based on the Commission's formal proposals, which we have yet to see, and it will be the Council of Ministers that finally agrees any package, in December at the earliest.

I also have four observations on the EU process. First, Commissioner Fischler has already suggested that the choice is likely to lie between zero quotas—or closure—on the one hand and on the other a seriously improved cod and hake recovery plan. On Monday, he said that an alternative might be "multi-annual management plans with very significant reductions in fishing effort, strict enforcement of closed areas and improved control".

Let us be clear about this. If Commissioner Fischler reads his own statement, he will find that wholesale closure is not the only game in town.

Secondly, the common fisheries policy has clear environmental and socioeconomic dimensions. On that basis, the Commission has to pursue an outcome that is realistic in socioeconomic terms and that recognises the potential impact on the people who work in our fishing industry.

Thirdly, other member states have much to lose, and because the Council of Ministers makes the final decision, the Commission will have to pursue an outcome that is politically realistic.

Fourthly, all member states will have to play their part. As a result, I will be engaging directly with them to ensure that the Council of Ministers agrees to something that is realistic, equitable and effective. The decision is too important to be left to the unpredictable whims of the Commission.

As far as the process is concerned, I want finally to consider what the EU is driving towards. The cod and hake recovery plan published in draft last December contains various ingredients. For example, it envisages technical measures, quota controls, closed areas and effort control. The last is an understandably controversial measure, as it forces boats to restrict their fishing or even to tie up in port for a certain number of days. The Commission appears to envisage a 40 per cent reduction in effort. The suggestion is that, as an alternative to full-scale closure, Fischler may now propose a more significant reduction in effort.

Against that stormy background, let me turn to our response and where we should go from here. I reiterate that I reject the wholesale closure of the Scottish fishing industry as politically unacceptable and economically ruinous for Scotland's fishing communities. However, the clear message from the scientists, even just looking at the trends, is that if we pursue a business-as-usual approach, the day of reckoning could simply come later as white fish stocks continue their long-term trend of decline. Doing nothing is not an option.

However, I will not allow the destruction of the Scottish fishing industry by a Fischler fiat, and nor will I see it destroyed in a few years' time because we did not respond to the long-term trend set out in the scientific evidential basis. Together, the Executive and the industry need to develop alternatives to closure. We have already done valuable collaborative research, in particular the so-called partnership work on the impacts of various technical measures. We need to take that work further and propose specific measures to reduce cod bycatches in other key Scottish fisheries. We shall do that urgently and in close co-operation with the industry.

We cannot rule out difficult decisions. At the October council, I made it clear to the industry that there must be a flexible toolkit of management measures. I do not want a one-size-fits-all approach, but we cannot at this stage rule out effort control as one of the possible management measures. That remains my stance, and in all the circumstances and in the face of all the evidence, I think that it is a reasonable stance.

Of course, we must acknowledge that significant reductions in fishing effort do not come cheaply. We have already made a start. The recent £25 million decommissioning scheme has probably reduced the fishing effort on cod by around 10 per cent. The industry's introduction of larger mesh sizes has also had a beneficial effect. I insist—and I will continue to insist—that any outcome reached by the Commission must take those measures into account.

The problem is complex. We can solve it only in close collaboration with the industry, with which we have already begun a series of meetings. It will require good will on the part of all concerned if the meetings are to succeed. Understandably, emotions are high, but I know that good will exists. Together we will construct a package of measures to prevent wholesale closure. The package must respect the evidential basis of the scientific advice and the experience of fishermen—including their recent stock survey and our collaborative partnership work on technical measures. The package must also command the support of other member states that are affected.

I am committed to producing a sustainable future for the Scottish fishing industry and to finding viable alternatives to wholesale closure. There will still be difficult decisions to make if we are serious about reversing the long-term trend of stock decline. However, I believe that sustainable fisheries can be achieved. Achieving that goal is imperative for the thousands of people who earn their living from fishing—from Lerwick in the north, down the west coast, down the east coast to Eyemouth and the many Scottish communities and businesses ashore that they help to support. I know that it is a goal that all parties and all members will share. I look forward to their constructive support as we progress in the coming weeks.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I remind members that there will be a debate on this important matter tomorrow, so I will be all the stricter about demanding questions to the minister this afternoon.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I welcome the minister's commitment to oppose a blanket closure of Scotland's fishing grounds. However, action and achievements speak much louder than words.

Our fishing communities are seething and ready to fight back following the events of last week. If the threat to their future is not lifted, last year's protest will pale into insignificance. The fishing communities will not take any lectures from the European Commission when it is the politicians and a common fisheries policy driven by the likes of Franz Fischler and his cronies for the past 20 years that have inflicted so much damage on the industry.

Will the minister give a commitment to our fishing communities and to the Parliament that he will seek officially to lead the United Kingdom delegation at the forthcoming European negotiations, which are the most important ever for Scotland, where most of the white-fish sector is based?

Will the minister tell Parliament whether he plans to introduce the necessary investment for further conservation measures, such as the tie-up schemes, which remain on the table but have so far been rejected by the Government?

Will the minister also tell us whether he has contacted his counterparts who represent other fishing communities in north European nations, with a view to building alliances to protect the future of our fishing communities?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I think I welcome Richard Lochhead's support for the Executive's position of fighting whole-heartedly to protect the Scottish fishing industry.

There will be occasions when the Scottish Executive leads the negotiations in Europe and there will be occasions when we do not lead them. To protect the Scottish fishing industry, it is vital that the message, theme and drive of every one of the UK votes are 100 per cent behind the Scottish fishing industry. I intend to ensure that they are. It is crucial that there is no dubiety about the UK's position in Europe of securing the long-term sustainable future of the Scottish fishing industry. As Richard Lochhead knows, Scotland represents 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the UK fishing industry. I have ensured that a clear commitment to the Scottish fishing industry is the position of the UK delegation in any discussion on fishing that takes place in the next few months.

The next question was on additional funding and, with all due respect, I think that that is a little premature. I have given a positive undertaking to work with the industry to examine the range of options. We need the most flexible toolbox to examine both the evidential basis of the scientific advice and the huge amount of material that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and others have produced, and to arrive at what we believe is a practical alternative scheme. When we do that, the Executive will address the issue of how those alternatives are to be funded.

At the most recent fisheries council meeting and at the previous one, I met some of my counterparts who are engaged in the North sea. As I indicated in my statement, it is my intention to ensure that we have engaged with all the key players in the North sea, all of whom have a responsibility to deliver an alternative package in the interests of their industries. From my perspective, any package must ensure the interests of the Scottish fishing industry.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I am glad that the minister says that he will not preside over the destruction of the Scottish fishing industry. I am also glad that he says that he will listen to the fishing industry representatives, who should be at the forefront of the management of stocks. It is they who know the waters and they who have long maintained that whenever water temperatures rise, cod stocks fall.

Has the minister asked why Franz Fischler is suggesting closure this year, when he did not do so last year, when stock figures were worse? Does he agree that the common fisheries policy has been a miserable and catastrophic failure of management, which has damaged and continues to damage the Scottish fishing industry? Does he agree that a change is required and that restoration of national control and management of our own waters are the best way to conserve stocks and save thousands of livelihoods in the Scottish fishing industry?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

It is always unusual to have the Tory party's new policy of leaving Europe announced in the middle of such an important statement. Perhaps Mr McGrigor should reflect on that. He is well aware that the common fisheries policy is currently being reviewed because there is unanimous recognition that it is not working. That is why it is being revised, and I do not think that we have to debate or argue that point. What is much more important is that, in the reform of the common fisheries policy, we secure all the objectives that are crucial to the Scottish fishing industry. As Mr McGrigor is well aware, the key questions are relative stability, the impact of the Hague preference and looking after the Shetland box. Those are crucial matters.

Most important of all is the issue to which Mr McGrigor alluded—the involvement and engagement of the fishing industry. The reform will not necessarily meet its deadline date of December. Therefore, we are trying to set a precedent of ensuring that, in reaching an alternative to Mr Fischler's proposals, we work hand in glove with the industry. That is the undertaking that I gave three weeks ago, and I stick to that.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I am sure that the minister will agree that Scottish fishermen have no confidence in Franz Fischler, particularly in relation to his selective use of scientific evidence and his failure to take account of what has already been done in Scotland since 2001. Does the minister also recognise the growing despair of the fishermen of Fife, who feel that their problems are not being listened to? Will he give an undertaking that he will challenge the failure of Franz Fischler and the European Commission to accept that there is little or no bycatch from the prawn fishing from Pittenweem or Eyemouth, that the prawn fishery is sustainable, and so that there is no case whatever for cutting or closing Scotland's prawn fisheries?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I agree with that. I shall simply reiterate what I have made absolutely clear: there is no evidence that the prawn fisheries in Mr Smith's constituency in the east neuk of Fife, in Pittenweem and in other prawn fisheries, including those on the west coast, result in a bycatch. As I said in my statement, we produced ample evidence to demonstrate that point and it is ludicrous for the Commission to suggest any closure of the nephrops fishery.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Does the minister agree that, at this of all times, the Parliament must keep a united front? Does he agree that the last thing that the Scottish fishing industry needs is the narrow constitutional wrangling of the nationalists? Will the minister give— [Interruption.]

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Will the minister assure us that he will rise above such wrangling and continue to work closely with the Scottish fishermen to seek a solution to the difficult position in which we all find ourselves?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I have no intention of becoming embroiled in any constitutional wrangling—the issue is far too important. I will focus solely on devising, in close collaboration with our fishing industry, a strategy as an alternative to the current measures, which suggest the closure of the industry. I repeat that such measures are politically and economically totally unacceptable to the Executive.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

The minister said about the scientific advice that he received on genetically modified crops:

"If I turn around and say no and reject the advice I got, I've got no integrity. I'm just going with the wind."

If, after account has been taken of technical changes to nets and other technical advances, of the reduction in the size of the fleet and of the scientific evidence from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, the scientific advice is still that there should be a short-term closure of the cod fisheries, will the minister listen to that scientific advice?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I made things clear in my statement, but I will elaborate on what I said. The scientific report is in two clear parts. First, there is the evidential basis. I have made it absolutely clear that it would be folly to ignore the evidential basis about the long-term trend in stocks. However, Robin Harper and I know that, every year, the scientists project what their measures might be. As Robin Harper rightly suggests, a range of elements is not taken into account. There is something of a one-size-fits-all approach to Europe. No account has been taken of elements that the Scottish fishermen have acted on, nor has the decommissioning scheme been factored in. It seems entirely reasonable that we and fishermen in Scotland should take seriously the evidential base and produce alternative proposals that avoid the cataclysmic closure of fisheries. I am not sure that sustainable development can be defined as something that destroys whole communities.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Does the minister agree that fishermen in Scotland have led the way in implementing and proposing conservation measures, including the fitting of escape panels and the introduction of larger mesh sizes? Does he agree that it is at best anomalous and at worst disgraceful that fishermen from England are still using the smaller size of meshes? What will he do about that?

I am pleased that the minister recognises that it is ludicrous to suggest that there should be a reduction in our prawn fisheries. There is no threat to prawn stocks—indeed, they are plentiful. Does he share the view that he expressed a week or so ago that there should be a reinstatement of the reduction in the nephrops quotas and that nothing has changed because there is no significant cod bycatch?

The scallop industry also faces closure as a result of amnesic shellfish poisoning. Will the minister give an assurance that, before the Ecodredge report and other research that should be available by next spring are available and analysed, no measure will be introduced in respect of either ASP or technical conservation measures?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I made it clear in my statement that I recognise that Scottish fishermen were in the van in introducing 80mm square-mesh panels, which have led to 110mm and 120mm panels. They are to be given credit for that. I also made it absolutely clear that there is no evidence to support the suggestion that the nephrops catch should be reduced. Indeed, we have tendered our view to the European Commission in seeking the 10 per cent reinstatement and negotiations are continuing.

Fergus Ewing raised a number of technical issues in relation to scallop fisheries, which are difficult to address in a short time. We must be careful. In a sense, the Food Standards Agency is the relevant authority. It is not for me, as the minister with responsibility for fishing, to instruct the closure of scallop fisheries—the Food Standards Agency does so on the ground of public health. I do not think that it would be proper for me to intervene on a matter of public health if that is the advice of the Food Standards Agency Scotland.

We have gone out to consultation on the conservation measures. I will take full account of all the responses before coming to a decision.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I welcome the minister's statement. Is it true that scientific evidence shows that the cod biomass has increased in 2002 in comparison with 2001? If that is the case, it may show that some of the measures that we have taken are working. Will he ensure in his negotiations in the European Union that other countries adopt those technical measures, and will he push for further exploration of other measures such as separation panels?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The figures in which I am particularly interested relate to the long-term trends. There is evidence in the ICES report of increases in elements of the cod stock. What is much more worrying is the long-term trend of its decline. Whether the relationship between the measures and the increases is one of cause and effect is an issue that we want to examine. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation has produced survey data on work that it has carried out on measuring the uptake of quotas and trying to relate that to what has been going on in respect of adopting technical measures. I am not able to respond definitively.

On the point about other countries adopting such measures, I made it clear that that is one of the matters on which I want to engage with my opposite numbers in other member states who have an interest in the North sea. It is important that all of the fishermen in the North sea, who are most affected by such matters, must be engaged. We must ensure that whatever comes out of the fisheries council is done on a level playing field. There can be no suggestion that measures will be imposed on a Scottish fleet that will not be taken by other member states.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I welcome the change in tone in the minister's statement today. As long as he stands up for Scottish fishermen he will have the support of members across party boundaries in the Parliament.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Except for those in the SNP front row.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

He will even get support from me, Jack.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

But not from those in the SNP front row.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I draw attention to the meeting that will take place next week between Norway and the European Union. It is important that we achieve momentum in gaining support for new proposals and overturn the initiative that Franz Fischler has taken. Will the minister tell us what arrangements he has made to represent Scotland's interests and the interests of Scotland's fishermen and the fishing industry more widely during the talks next week?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

First, I am not sure that there has been any change of tone. I have never at any stage, in any place or at any time talked in support of a wholesale closure of the Scottish fishing industry. Let us be clear about that. I have taken some time to warn about possible difficulties that were arising, but I have never shared the view that there should be wholesale closure.

Secondly, the discussions have essentially taken place at official level. From a United Kingdom point of view, the basic proposition on how the talks are to be conducted and what we seek has been set out. That is entirely consistent with what I have set out this afternoon. The difficulty that we have is that although yesterday's statement by Commissioner Fischler was profoundly unhelpful, members will have observed that he is awaiting results, which I think he said are due on 11 November, before he comes forward with the proposition against which the fisheries council will have to react. That is not a terribly helpful position, but we will have to work to reverse the proposition when the final details come out.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

Does the minister agree that all stakeholders in the industry must be fully involved in developing our strategy? The fishermen's organisations and the fish processors' organisations must work together with the Executive. It is not only fishermen's jobs that are at risk, but thousands of jobs downstream throughout Scotland.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I agree. I am sorry if I gave that impression. I was talking about the essential nature of putting together the first element of the package. Clearly, before we go very far we must engage with all sectors of the industry.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

We back the minister's comment that he will be judged on the outcome. Will he say what scientific evidence has been gathered on the factory harvesting of sand eels and pout in the North sea and the effect of that on the breeding grounds for cod and haddock?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I cannot give absolute details on that because I do not have the insight of the report, but I know that predation is one element that the report takes into account. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the Executive have put a number of such issues to scientists to get greater clarity. For example, there is a suggestion to permit increased industrial fishing for herring. As herring seems to be a feed stock for the very cod that we are concerned about, there is clearly a possibility of an inconsistency. That is one element that we want to bottom out with the scientists.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Will funding be available from Europe for conservation measures that are short of the folly that Fischler has suggested?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The answer is no, given the way in which the funding arrangements between the United Kingdom and the European Union operate. However, the financial instrument for fisheries guidance permits member states to spend money on a range of options. At the end of the day, given the Fontainebleau arrangement, any funding arrangements that emerge will have to come from domestic resources.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

That concludes questions on the minister's statement. I have taken careful note of the names of members who were not called, in case they wish to speak in tomorrow's debate.