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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to an annual fisheries debate after several years of the Trappist-like silence that comes with ministerial office. I congratulate those Members who persuaded the Backbench Business Committee to allocate time for this timely debate. I welcome the Minister to his new role and to his first annual fisheries debate. I also welcome my hon. Friend Mr Bain to his new responsibilities.
Like every speaker today, I want to place on record my disappointment at the fact that the debate is not taking place on the Floor of the House in Government time. That is not only my view, but the view of fishermen I spoke to at the weekend, who said that that is an indication of the lack of importance that Government attach to the fishing industry. I say "Government" rather than "this Government" because the problem is not just with this Government. There is a view that successive Governments have let the fishing industry down.
That is no criticism of the very good things that the Labour party did when it was in office or of individual Fisheries Ministers; in my time in office, we were well served by Fisheries Ministers. In their own ways, the former Members for Scunthorpe and for Chatham and Aylesford, my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw and my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies were committed to the job that they had, and they did it to the very best of their ability. I do not want to blot the current Minister's copybook too early, but I am hearing good things about him, too, and I sincerely wish him well in one of the most difficult posts in the Government. It is one of the few ministerial jobs that hardly any Back-Bench MPs envy because they recognise how difficult it is. In the previous Government, my right hon. and hon. Friends worked within the straitjacket of the common fisheries policy, just as the current Minister does. That policy has overseen the managed decline of the fishing industry, and it has not been done well.
There is a fishing fleet in my constituency, mainly based in North Shields. It consists of one boat that is over 10 metres long and about a dozen boats under 10 metres. Unusually, the infrastructure associated with a fishing port is still there-we have engineers, buyers and the fish market, as well as the excellent work of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, under the inspirational leadership of Peter Dade. We have the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and until recently we had the coastguard, although unfortunately no more. There have been recent developments in a series of regenerated buildings, and a number of excellent restaurants that make the fish quay a vibrant place.
Those in the fishing industry, however, find survival increasingly difficult and look to the Government-of whatever persuasion-and to Parliament for a lead and support. The annual fisheries debate is held before the Minister goes to the Fisheries Council, where the fishing quotas are essentially set. To the outsider, that appears to be a kind of international maritime game of happy families, where quotas are swapped but nobody comes out particularly happy at the end. From those quotas, fishermen in our constituencies must make their livelihood and live within the regime that has been created.
Fishermen in my constituency want reassurances that the Minister will get the best possible deal at the Council. In particular, I want to mention the whiting quota, which has already been referred to. I understand that there is a proposal for a 15% cut in whiting, although that goes against the view held by fishermen I know who tell me that stocks are relatively good. Far from a 15% cut to the quota, they were hoping for an increase of about the same amount. The Minister and his officials should not be swayed by the idea of an unused quota held by the Norwegians being a sign of limited stocks. It is not as simple as that. If there is a cut across the board, or a particularly severe cut to the whiting quota, it will be difficult for some fishermen to survive.