Thank you, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Murray on introducing our annual fisheries debate.
A number of us in this room spent a full day in Committee yesterday debating the Fisheries Bill. Immediately after this debate, at 11 o’clock, I am giving evidence on fisheries to the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee. This afternoon, at half-past two, I am giving evidence on fisheries to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and tomorrow we have another day of debate on the Bill. So it is very much a diet of fish for me this week, and rightly so. For our fishing industry, this is a critical time of year, when fishing opportunities are set.
Our fishing, aquaculture and processing industries are worth around £1.5 billion a year to our economy. They employ 33,000 people and have incredible significance to many of our coastal communities, not least, as Melanie Onn said, those where much of our processing is done.
Fishing is also, as the shadow Minister, Luke Pollard pointed out, one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. The risks that fishermen take to put food on our table are something that we must always acknowledge. I am sad to say that, during 2018, six fishermen from this country lost their lives in the course of their work. I am sure we all send our condolences to the families involved.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has campaigned on safety issues for a long time, alongside his constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, who herself was affected by a personal tragedy in this area. Partly due to my hon. Friend’s lobbying, there was an announcement in this year’s Budget that a new fund would be created to invest in safety equipment to improve the safety of our fishing vessels. That is an important step forward, but we must remain constantly vigilant.
The focus of today’s debate is predominantly on the December Agriculture and Fisheries Council, which is taking place next week, and that is what I want to focus most of my comments on, although I recognise that it is taking place in a wider context. This is the last December Council for which the UK will be a member of the European Union. There is a live debate about the nature of the withdrawal agreement and any implementation period as we depart from the European Union. As I mentioned earlier, the Fisheries Bill is going through Parliament at the moment. The Committee debate began yesterday, and we have another day ahead of us tomorrow. The Bill sets out all the powers the Government need in order to take back control of our exclusive economic zone, to license foreign vessels, to prohibit them from entering our waters to fish in the absence of a licence, and to set fishing opportunities and quotas. As we leave the European Union, we will become an independent coastal state again. We will represent ourselves in negotiations with our neighbours, including the Faroes, Iceland, Norway and the rest of the European Union.
I return to this year’s annual negotiations. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, this year, in most of our waters, the position is undoubtedly more challenging as far as the science is concerned—in the North sea, in particular. The EU-Norway deal has now concluded, but the science was very challenging on a number of key stocks. There have been some significant reductions in the EU-Norway deal, with whiting down by 22%, cod down by 33% and haddock down by 31%. It is important to recognise that, over the past three years, there have been significant rises in those stocks, as the science was positive. Just as we will increase the fishing opportunities when the science allows it, we must be willing to take the difficult decision to reduce fishing opportunities when the science demands it.
It is not all bad news. There has been an increase in saithe, which is up by 18%, and plaice, which is up by 11%. The proposal for anglerfish in the North sea is plus 25%, western hake is plus 27%, and megrim in the wider area is up by 47%. There are some positive notes this year, but the overall background is challenging.
This year’s Council will be dominated by one issue: the problem of choke species, which I want to spend most of my comments reflecting on. We are in the final year of the introduction of the landing obligation. That means that, next year, every species must be covered by the landing obligation. That presents major challenges for parts of our fleet, notably cod in the Celtic sea, for which the recommendation is for a zero total allowable catch; west of Scotland cod and whiting; and Irish sea whiting, which Jim Shannon mentioned.
The problem we have had with the landing obligation is that, although progress has been made, lots of species have been put on and the working groups have identified survivability exemptions and other approaches, the most difficult issues of all have been left till last, for understandable reasons. We are now confronted with those difficult decisions. There have been a number of problems with the roll-out of the landing obligation. First, the original plan was to have interspecies flexibility, so if someone ran out of quota for one stock, they could use another. In practice, that can be done only when species are within safe biological limits. Paradoxically, when people most need to use interspecies flexibility, they are least able to because of that requirement.
Secondly, although the working groups have made progress, not every member state is as enthusiastic about this approach as we are. We have not made as much progress as we would have liked. For instance, the UK argued that we should have cameras on boats. Other member states frustrated that, which has made it difficult to get reliable information about the discard uplift.
Finally, the discard uplift in the quotas for the species under the landing obligation has continued to be allocated along relative stability lines, and that has been a major problem for us. The discard uplift has not been allocated to the sections of the fleet that had the greatest problem with discards; it has been allocated along relative stability lines. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall pointed out, relative stability gives the UK a very unfair share of fishing opportunities, and means that the problem of choke species is particularly acute for some of our fleet.
The UK Government set out in our White Paper and the Bill a new approach to tackling the issue of the landing obligation and discards, with the idea of the creation of a national reserve of quota that would underpin a system in which we would charge a super-levy on over-quota stocks and fish that vessels would land. There would be the maximum possible financial disincentive on fishermen to avoid those stocks, but if they could not avoid them, there would be a means that allowed them to land that catch, subject to a levy.
In around March or April this year, we recognised that the working groups were not going to make sufficient progress in identifying solutions to the problem of choke. I met Commissioner Vella in July, and we set out some early proposals, and officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been working with Commission officials ever since. The Commission has now proposed something akin to the British idea set out in our Bill. It calls it a “Union pool”, and it is similar to our national reserve idea. It is modelled along British thinking and will create a pool of quota that can be used to support a bycatch provision on problematic stocks, particularly those with zero TACs.