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[Albert Owen in the Chair] — Backbench Business — Fisheries

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:17 pm on 2nd December 2010.

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Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 3:17 pm, 2nd December 2010

Indeed. I also want to gently warn the Minister against changes in quota and I will give two examples. A number of years ago, when I was able to take part in the fisheries debate, I spoke about the cuts to the cod quota. At the time, North Shields fishermen were heavily dependent on the prawn quota, and warned that there would inevitably be displacement, with boats coming from Scotland and Yorkshire. That is exactly what happened to the prawn grounds off the Northumberland coast. In areas such as the Farn Deeps, off the coast of the constituency of Sir Alan Beith, there has been great pressure on the prawn grounds. As a result, there have been declining catches over the past four to five years.

The second unintended consequence of changing the quotas is that we end up with the terrible situation of discards, which many hon. Members have spoken about this afternoon. Fishermen who reach their quota of mixed fishes have little chance to do anything other than throw the fish back. Discards are obscene, and environmental madness. I hope that the Minister will reaffirm that discards will be a priority in the reform of the CFP, and that at long last we will do something about the situation.

There is a sense of urgency about the reform of the CFP after 2012, and I hope that the Minister will bear three things in mind. First, we need a long-term approach, rather than an annual quota. The North Sea Regional Advisory Council Advice to the Commission mentioned a 10 to 15-year plan. That was based on the experiences of multi-annual arrangements with Norway, which have proved a better way of conserving stock than the annual quota negotiations in which we take part.

Secondly, we must ensure that policy is led by science, and acknowledge that disputes do not necessarily come from the science itself and the views of fishermen, but rather because of the way in which the science is interpreted, particularly by the Commission. That leads to fishermen's suspicion that the Commission is not prepared to listen to the other side of the argument.

The third point has already been made, but I want to emphasise the importance of environmental considerations. During debates on fisheries-this may happen at the great debate in the Council-there is a danger of always seeing fishermen and scientists on opposite sides in a great battle to see who can dominate policy. The fishermen I know are passionate about the maritime environment; they choose to work and make a living in it, and if it was simply an economic matter, it would not make sense for them to continue doing that. Therefore, we should pay tribute to the contribution that fishermen make to the debate on environmental matters.

Most fishermen I know support the marine protection areas, but it is reasonable for them to ask why we are rushing to put those areas in place by 2012. They also recognise the pressure on our energy resources, and acknowledge that offshore wind farms will be an important part of renewable energy. Again, however, it is reasonable to ask what the effect will be of an offshore wind farm that runs from St Mary's in the north of my constituency to Blyth. That seems to squeeze the fishermen out of areas that would otherwise be potential fishing grounds.

I conclude by mentioning another aspect of the Minister's work. His job is not only to go to Europe and argue the case for UK fishermen, but to argue the case within government. Regional development agencies have not been universally popular in everything they set out to do and, not surprisingly, they have not been universally successful. However, One North East in the north-east was getting a good reputation and winning the respect of many fishermen, even those who were sceptical about the political process. I argued with One North East about the need for a regional fisheries policy. After the south-west, the north-east is the most important English region for fishing.

We got support for projects such as the restoration of the west quay in North Shields, and the general regeneration of the fish quay. However, one early effect of getting rid of RDAs and reducing funding was the ending of a grant to the seafood training centre in North Shields. Perhaps naively, part of my response was to go to the local authority and ask what it was prepared to do, since we understood that local authorities were going to be the basis for local enterprise partnerships. It told me that all it was able to do was facilitate discussions about the centre, and that there was no money. The result was that the centre downsized and went to Amble in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. His gain is very much our loss, although I understand that the centre is pretty much a shadow of the operation that existed in my constituency. That was an example of a response to a situation. We know about the difficulties in public finances, but hitting the traditional skills, and the safety skills being taught at the centre, had an unintended consequence on an already hard-hit fishing industry.

I shall conclude simply by saying this. Between 700 and 800 people in my constituency are still directly or indirectly employed as a result of the fishing industry. Like me, they look to the Minister-I wish him well-and to the Government to do everything that they can to ensure that their jobs survive.