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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:04 pm on 2nd December 2010.

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Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:04 pm, 2nd December 2010

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Owen. I pay tribute to Dr Whiteford for securing this debate. She spoke for everyone here when she said that this debate should take place on the Floor of the House in future so that we can give this subject the forum it deserves.

This is an important time for the industry, and I want to put the fishermen themselves at the heart of our considerations. I pay tribute to those who have lost their life or been injured in this dangerous profession. Fishermen work off a dangerous platform in a dangerous place, and too many pay the price for that. Bereaved families and many other parts of the fishing industry are wonderfully supported by organisations such as the Seamen's Mission and the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. I echo other hon. Members in paying tribute to them and to organisations such as the RNLI and the coastguard for their bravery and courage and for serving our marine environment so well.

We tend to approach this debate with a sense of groundhog day, as we trawl through the same old arguments. There is a general ennui or depression about the way in which we manage the system, but there are glimmers of hope here and there. What I have detected in my time, both as spokesman for my party when in opposition and as Minister, is that there are some reasons to be cheerful, I intend to put all my effort behind those chinks of light to make them wider and clearer as we progress in the months ahead.

We face a very difficult time; let us not pretend otherwise. If I am asked to present in a sentence my vision for this industry and for the marine environment, I would say that we take an ecosystems-based approach, which was referred to in the GLOBE document. Such an approach has sustainability at its heart-sustainability of the marine environment and the ecosystems that we need and value and from which we get so many services, and sustainability for the industry, and the communities that it supports. Members from all parts of the House have spoken movingly about communities in their constituencies which are dependent not just on the, sadly, too few jobs, but the families, the processing industry and all its supporting infrastructure.

When I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend Sheryll Murray-it was the first place that I visited when I was appointed as shadow spokesman-I saw an industry that was surviving. It has had its moments and difficulties, but it has the support of a fish market, merchants, chandlers and many others. If one of them were to go, how viable would be the remainder? That is something that I frequently find as I go round the coast of Britain.

As we embark on the next few weeks, with the December Council and CFP reform, I have to say that I am supported well in this difficult job by some very able officials, who have so much more experience than I of this sometimes Kafkaesque process. There is a great sense of unity across the devolved Governments. If people want an example of cross-party co-operation, they need look no further. We have a Minister from a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government working with a Minister from the Scottish National party in Scotland, a Sinn Fein Minister in Northern Ireland, and a Labour Minister in Wales. I am determined that we should approach this round with a sense of unity, because it is only by working together and being on the same page that we can achieve what we need to achieve. I am grateful to all of them and to their respective officials for their support.

I will rattle through some of points that were made and try to respond to them in the time remaining. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan led the way in calling for regionalisation and an end to the top-down management of our fisheries and the common fisheries policy. She finds a ready and supportive audience in me. Earlier this week, I was at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council. In a discussion between all the Ministers and the commissioner, everyone who spoke mentioned the need for regionalisation and an end to the current centralised system. In the same way, people often talk positively about long-term management plans, but the proof of what is said lies in what is done, particularly with the current reform process. I sense that among some of our European partners there is, to quote Hilaire Belloc, a desperate desire to

"always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse."

I do not think that anything can be worse than what we have now. We must have a decentralised system, and that is what I will be leading on in the reform process.

The hon. Lady represents the two important ports of Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and my two visits to her constituency have proved to me the importance of the fishing industry there. I value the clear way in which I was briefed about her fishing interests, and she was right-as were other hon. Members-to point out the affront of discards. Discards are first and foremost an affront to fishermen, and they are increasingly an affront to the public and the consumer. I was recently interviewed at Billingsgate market by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whom I congratulate on leading an important campaign to raise awareness of this issue. His questions surprised me, as he seemed to think that I would somehow be a Minister in a suit who would try to defend the status quo. He was surprised that I out-outraged him with my hyperbole and my opposition to discards.

We must look at where we can succeed. Some schemes have been mentioned today; the hon. Lady mentioned catch quotas, and others have spoken about Project 50%. My hon. Friend Dr Wollaston raised that issue, and on three occasions, I have heard the commissioner quote it as a shining example of what can be achieved. I intend to build on those important points.