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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:37 pm on 2nd December 2010.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 4:37 pm, 2nd December 2010

It is a great pleasure to address the annual fisheries debate for the first time. That delight is slightly diminished by the fact that England did not win its World cup bid. However, that disappointment will be temporary, whereas the disappointment that fishermen face every day over the fact that their industry is being decimated is beyond comparison.

I thank Dr Whiteford for leading the charge in securing this debate. I was delighted to accompany her when she put her case to the Backbench Business Committee. I suggest to colleagues that on the first Monday of November next year, we all go to the Backbench Business Committee and secure the rightful place for this debate in the main Chamber. Mr Doran points at the Minister. He will have voted, I think, for the Backbench Business Committee's reforms. I understand that in the Wright report, it was decided that the Committee would take on the role of allocating debates, such as the annual fisheries debate. As often happens in politics, voting for something sometimes has unintended consequences. However, this is the reality for this year. For next year, we should all club together and go to the Committee.

I want to congratulate my constituent, Mr Wightman, who has come to London for this debate. He had, I believe, a successful meeting with the Minister earlier. He fishes from a boat called Maximus out of the port of Lowestoft, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend Peter Aldous. I pay tribute to him for sitting through this debate when he could be out fishing instead.

Fishing may not be the biggest industry in my constituency, but it is an iconic one. The whole area to the north of my constituency is called Sole bay, and for a good reason. It includes places such as Aldeburgh, Southwold, Dunwich, Felixstowe Ferry and other places such as Orford, which have a different kind of fishing. I am surprised that no Member has yet claimed to have the best fish and chips in their constituency, so I will make my bid for that. Although the Minister came to my constituency to look at coastal erosion and meet some fishermen, sadly, we did not have time to stop for fish and chips. If he comes again, I will make sure that that will be our first port of call.

I pay tribute to local fishermen and councils for their efforts, with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and our MEPs, to secure significant investment to upgrade the fishing facilities in Southwold harbour. We secured a grant from the European fisheries fund. If colleagues have not had the opportunity to do so, I recommend it. It is a good source of financing to keep our industry going.

Ultimately, however, what will keep our industry going is not fancy facilities but the ability to fish. It is a great irony-hon. Members might remember this as a classic pub quiz question-that the only foodstuff not rationed during world war two was fish, but today we are debating the rationing of fishing. As has been said, it is likely that the total allowable catch will decline in the next agreement, even though the Minister, who has been outstanding during his short time as Fisheries Minister, will fight the good fight. I wish him well.

The fishing fleet in my constituency is an inshore fleet. As has been said, that is substantially the highest proportion of the fleet, with a tiny amount of quota. I know that Commissioner Damanaki has recognised the important cultural role that fishing plays in coastal communities. It enhances the social and economic fabric as well, which should not be underestimated. Different experiments in managing fisheries have been undertaken. It would be worth while for the Minister to go back and look at some of the trials in the eastern sea area to see what worked and what did not.

In a way, I did not appreciate the importance of fishing to my constituency until that became clear in the summer, when fishermen were suddenly prevented from fishing. Although I should not use unnecessary hyperbole, the consequences in terms of the community's reaction, never mind the fishermen's, were absolutely astronomic. Again, I pay tribute to the Minister, because I know that he worked exceptionally hard to get the quota swaps. I understand from my hon. Friend Laura Sandys that the fishermen's subsequent quota was higher than last year's, thanks to the Minister's good efforts. Although I do not have the data to back that up, I believe it to be true.

Discard rates have been mentioned, as has the distortion of quotas by the fact that discard rates are automatically calculated in. That seems somewhat ridiculous. Discards happen, as has been said. I am interested to hear about Project 50%, to which my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston referred. I hope that the Minister will consider ways not so much to improve efficiency as to reduce discards, especially in our inshore fleet.

On a slightly different subject, other barriers to fishing include marine conservation zones or offshore wind farms, both of which are prevalent off the coast, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney will know. Natural England and other organisations have been proactive in engaging with fishermen on the issue. I believe that my constituent has been involved in helping map out areas where fishermen can still fish. However, as he convincingly pointed out to me earlier, they are effectively doing it blindfolded, because they do not know what the Marine Management Organisation is doing in its plans for sustainable management. It should be a round-table discussion rather than a bilateral one.

Views differ on offshore wind farms. Developers seem to suggest that wind farms provide a haven for fish and are therefore good things. I am not convinced by that, but at some point during the summer, I am due to visit a wind farm, and I hope that the company will allow me to bring along a fisherman as well. Fishermen in my constituency have made a relevant point about the operational effectiveness of the MMO. I am conscious that that is a new organisation. However, I understand that the leadership and directors have already changed on a regular basis. That brings into question the credibility of the leadership of the MMO. Instead of being focused on internal matters, it should focus on fish and fishermen. I do not expect the Minister to criticise the MMO, but perhaps he will reflect on and express his view of its first months of operation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and other hon. Members said, it would be useful to have a discussion about how we can devolve the management of fisheries locally. I shall give an example. The people to whom I spoke in the summer suggested that it was all well and good for the MMO to say, "Right, you can now go and fish cod," but it said that when there were no cod there; they had already moved on. It is that inflexibility that concerns people. The fishermen know what they are doing. I appreciate that the MMO must have a process for deciding what can be fished and for closing different areas and so on, but those decisions seem to be completely unlinked.

There is a joke in our part of the world that there are more "policemen" dealing with fishermen than there are real policemen dealing with criminals. That is an interesting set of priorities. As has been said, there is another distortion in relation to leasing of quotas, which are a valuable commodity. In the past, Governments have boldly adopted the notion of trying to get leaseholders to become freeholders, with some element of compulsion. Although I appreciate that such decisions cannot be made on the back of just one or two conversations, perhaps the Minister will take that into account when considering this issue in future.

Fishing is an inherent part of our country's heritage. It is an inherent part of what makes us special as an island. It is an inherent part of the good foodstuffs that we should be encouraging people to eat every day. I am proud to serve a coastal constituency. I recognise the excellent contributions made by other hon. Members. I am sure that although the Minister is not from a coastal constituency, there are plenty of fishermen in his area, even if they fish just for recreation.

Fishing is one of our most important industries, but it has been treated shamefully under the common fisheries policy. Hon. Members have asked whether we need a common fisheries policy. I believe that it has been a disastrous experiment, and one of the things that one learns as a scientist is not to keep doing the same experiments and expect to get a different result. It is a case of what could be; we need to take it forward in a new way. We do not rely for our defence solely on the European Union. In fact, we do not at all; we use NATO as the appropriate organisation for that. It seems ridiculous to constituents that landlocked countries have a say on fisheries in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council.

Perhaps there is an opportunity to move forward with people outside the European Union and have a fisheries council just of fishing countries, which work together to make a difference. Who knows what the future holds for fish? I hope that it is a thriving future. Some policies seek the restoration of fish stocks, but the same policies also result in the decimation of the fishing industry.