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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the UK fishing industry.
I felt it was important to hold this debate in the run-up to the last Fisheries Council that the Minister, my hon. Friend George Eustice, will attend and have a voice in. We have heard lots of debates in this place about what will happen to fisheries policy once we leave the European Union in March 2019. As is normal, we should have a debate about what the Fisheries Council will decide this year.
Before I move on to the Fisheries Council, I would like to set the record straight. We have heard many people in recent times quote the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, implying that it welcomes the deal that is on the table. I want to quote the federation’s chief executive, Bertie Armstrong:
“We have made it very clear since the referendum in 2016 that anything other than full, unfettered sovereignty over our own waters would be crossing a red line for the fishing industry.
Despite the stated wishes of French president Emmanuel Macron, which we know are shared by the other large fishing nations, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, we should give a clear and resounding ‘Non!’
to the idea of guaranteeing continued access.
Access and quotas must be negotiated…not carved up in advance.”
I do not think those words describe some of the things we have heard attributed to Bertie Armstrong in the main Chamber in recent times, and I wanted to set the record straight.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this debate. Bertie Armstrong also said, when giving evidence to the Fisheries Bill Committee last week, that the fisheries were put into the transitional arrangements because there were four or five countries that would have blocked a transitional deal otherwise. He was probably right about that, but the question for him, and—indeed, for the Minister and Prime Minister—is, if that was the attitude to the transition, what will be different come the final deal?
I completely agree. I think Bertie’s words have been taken out of context and misquoted. He went on to say:
“The link between access and trade breaches all international norms and practice and is simply unacceptable.”
When the European Union negotiated our terms of entry, it was very keen to get access to the United Kingdom’s then 12-mile limit—it was not until 1976 that we had a 200-mile limit—but that must end. The weak words I have heard about us negotiating with our European partners are completely wrong, because under international law we have control. We should decide how much surplus our fisherman, other member states and other nations—it is not just member states of the European Union—are allowed to take. British fisherman must be treated fairly.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she accept that Bertie Armstrong and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation do not speak for the whole of the Scottish fishing fleet and the Scottish fishing industry? The industry is multifaceted, particularly in my constituency on the west coast of Scotland, where fishermen entirely depend on getting unfettered access to their live catch and getting that on to European tables.
I completely agree with and respect the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has specifically been used by various people in the main Chamber as a way of backing up their point, and has thus been misquoted. I felt it was right to put on record that what has been attributed to it in the past was not the full story.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. We both talk a lot to Bertie Armstrong—I spoke to him on Monday. In the quote she repeated, she is absolutely correct about what Bertie Armstrong and other members of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation have said: nobody is taking anything for granted, and we must continue to fight our case in future negotiations. Bertie Armstrong and others have come out in support of the withdrawal agreement, but only in as much as it gets us to that next phase. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do not accept that. Having spoken to him myself, I know he has not said that he respects the withdrawal agreement completely. That is why I wanted to put on record that what we are hearing in the main Chamber is not the whole statement.
I do not want to focus on subjects that we can discuss in other debates, so I want to address the Council of Ministers, which is due to meet later next week—the Minister might correct me on that. We need to realise that this is a very significant Council of Ministers meeting, because it is the last time our Fisheries Minister will actually have a voice at the table. Even if there is an implementation period, although he will attend future meetings, he will not have a voice. It is extremely important that we all realise that.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that really important point. In Brixham, in my constituency, fishermen are very worried about choke species with cod, which they cannot avoid catching. I wonder whether she feels the same about cod fisheries?
Absolutely. I wanted to point out what Bertie Armstrong had said, wholly and solely because, off the south-west coast, in areas VIId and VIIe—or VIIb to VIIk, actually, which is the whole of the south coast—UK fishermen have a tiny proportion of the EU total allowable catch. They get something like 8% of that quota, compared with 80% for our French counterparts. That is what causes the concern and the problems, because if there is cod on the ground, fishermen cannot stop the cod swimming into their nets, and many have to be discarded. What happens when fishermen catch a net full of cod? They cannot land it, but they cannot throw it away either. That is a good illustration of the problem with the landing obligation under the top-heavy bureaucratic common fisheries policy.
I have mentioned the south-west and area VIIe, but I want to point out to the Minister some of the proposals that are on the table for the North sea stocks. I understand from the National Federation of Fishermens Organisations that the proposals are for a 22% reduction in whiting, a 33% reduction in cod and a 31% reduction in haddock. What will the Minister do to rebalance that?
If all the fish, using zonal attachment, were available for the British fishing fleet to catch and land from when we leave the European Union—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said that we will leave the common fisheries policy on March 29 2019 at 11 o’clock in the evening—it would certainly benefit the United Kingdom and our economy. We should look to redress the imbalance that has been heaped on the industry for more than 40 years.
Other hon. Members want to speak, and we have only a short time for the debate, so, in summary, I wish to hear what the Minister will do at the Council. Will he send a message to our European partners that when the United Kingdom leaves on March 29 2019, we will honour our obligations under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea and the United Nations fish stocks agreement—particularly article 62—and set quotas in a sustainable way, as is our obligation, but make available to other nations only the surplus of fish that the UK fleet cannot catch? It will be interesting to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say at the end of the debate. I will finish now, because I promised other hon. Members who want to contribute that I would speak only for a short time.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who introduced the debate extremely well, for being concise and for giving other hon. Members a good chance. I call Brendan O’Hara.
I, again, congratulate Mrs Murray on securing this extremely important debate. Had it not been for events elsewhere, which I fear have conspired against us, it could have made the front pages tomorrow morning.
All hon. Members who represent fishing communities know the importance of the industry—not just to those directly involved in the catching and processing side of the business, but to the overall economic wellbeing of our coastal communities. The fishing industry in my constituency has undergone great changes in the last few years and would be almost unrecognisable to someone who fished the waters of the west coast of Scotland a few decades ago. Back then, herring was the mainstay of the local industry, but changes to technology and a focus on new species has seen a move away from herring towards prawn and scallop fishing.
Today, freshly caught high-quality Argyll and Bute seafood is in demand across the world, particularly in Europe, as I said earlier. I am delighted that the fishing industry remains a mainstay of our local economy. Of course, in Argyll and Bute we also have a thriving fish farming industry, which includes award-winning halibut producers on Gigha and salmon from Argyll, which boasts the prestigious Label Rouge, awarded under the most stringent criteria by the French Ministry of Agriculture.
As well as praising and promoting the excellent produce, I want to highlight some of the issues and challenges facing boat owners, skippers and producers on Scotland’s west coast. What I am about to say will come as no great surprise to attentive hon. Members, because I said it last year—and, I believe, the year before that.
Despite being raised by MPs representing the west of Scotland and Northern Ireland for many years, the issue of access to crew persists. It is problem that only the UK Government can fix, but they have chosen not to. Once again, I ask the Government to relax the rule and allow non-European economic area crew to work on fishing vessels that operate inside the 12-mile limit on the west coast. One look at a map of the west coast of Scotland shows that the 12-mile limit extends vast distances into the Atlantic. Few inshore vessels can or will travel that distance, but they are told repeatedly that they cannot recruit professional international seafarers from countries such as the Philippines or Ghana, and can use only UK or EU nationals to crew their vessels.
Last year, I highlighted the case of Jonathan McAllister, a skipper from Oban who was struggling to find suitable crew. He eventually found a crew of EU nationals from Latvia, who worked so well as share fishermen that they were invited back this year. In May, Mr McAllister contacted me again to say that one of the Latvian crew members had been refused entry to the UK and had been detained and questioned about the non-filing of a tax return.
Those allegations turned out to be utterly baseless, but on that basis, the crew member was detained at the Dungavel detention centre, pending his deportation to Latvia. That EU national, an experienced professional seafarer who had come to work legally in Scotland, was detained for seven days before being released without charge. He was then able to join his shipmates in Oban freely, but at what cost to Mr McAllister’s business?
The entire crew have already said to Mr McAllister that, regardless of the political situation in the UK, they will not return in 2019, so he will have to find yet another crew. Even when our skippers jump through the hoops the Home Office set for them, they are still penalised. It is little wonder that so many are totally scunnered and are seeking a way out of the industry.
Access to crew is just one issue affecting the west coast fishing industry. Last week, I met the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, which represents 65 boats, including mobile and static vessels. We met principally to discuss the Fisheries Bill, but we also spoke generally about the health of the industry on the west coast of Scotland. Naturally, Brexit and anything that would adversely affect the association’s ability to export directly into Europe was a huge concern, as over almost four decades our west coast fishermen have perfected getting their catch out of the water and delivering it fresh to some of the best restaurants in Europe in a matter of hours. Reports of six months of disruption at the ports post Brexit would be absolutely catastrophic for its members.
Another area of huge concern on the west coast is the possibility of having to work within a different regulatory framework from colleagues in Northern Ireland, who, because of the backstop protocol, would essentially retain unfettered access to the single market and the customs union. It is worth remembering that Northern Ireland is just 12 miles from my constituency, so we fish in the same waters for the same catch. Indeed, on a clear day, I reckon I could see the house of Jim Shannon from the edge of my constituency.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not alone in having that.
My constituents, who voted overwhelming to reject Brexit in the referendum, could face economic ruin by being placed at a severe competitive disadvantage to their Northern Irish colleagues. That is completely unacceptable. If the UK Government can arrange for one part of the United Kingdom to remain in the single market and customs union, they can do it for Scotland. It is utterly essential that the health of the west coast of Scotland’s fishing industry is not sacrificed by Brexit.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the catastrophic implications of our crashing out with no deal and no transition, particularly because of the extreme friction that would cause at the borders? It would certainly affect my fishermen and I wonder whether he feels the same.
The effects of crashing out are absolutely unthinkable. However, I have to say that being put at a competitive disadvantage by the current withdrawal deal would be equally catastrophic, although it might be a slightly slower catastrophe. That is why a deal that, ideally, keeps us in the European Union, but at least keeps us in the customs union and single market, is absolutely essential for the future wellbeing of the industry in my constituency.
I expect that we will hear much about the common fisheries policy during this debate. It is a ridiculous argument to say that anyone who opposes Brexit or who would choose to remain in the EU is automatically a diehard supporter of the CFP as it is currently constituted. I would say most forcibly that the UK fishing industry never required the upheaval of Brexit; all it required was for a Government of whatever hue at any point in the last 40 years to stand up for it and not cede to Europe everything that Europe asked for, simply to gain an advantage elsewhere in negotiations.
I am really shocked to hear that. Despite being personally involved in the fishing industry for the last 40 years, I have not been able to find a single fisherman who supports the CFP. However, what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that he wants to stay in the CFP by staying in the European Union. Does he agree? If he does not, he needs to put that on the record now. The two go hand in hand.
“I voted to remain. I fought for remain. If there was another vote tomorrow, I would still vote remain.”
The extension of the hon. Lady’s argument is that Ruth Davidson is a supporter of the CFP, which I think Ruth Davidson herself would argue with. There is nothing to say that remaining and seeking to reform the CFP are mutually exclusive: they are not mutually exclusive. We can remain in the European Union and we can fight to reform the CFP.
I will return to the hon. Lady in a minute.
All that would have been required was for some UK Government in the last 40 years not to throw the fishing industry under a bus, but the UK Government have had no cognisance of the importance of the fishing industry. Now, the CFP is regarded as some sort of totem that people can coalesce around.
I suggest that the hon. Lady has a look at Hansard, because it is actually quite difficult, until the very recent past, to find a Conservative politician arguing against the CFP.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain to us why the previous leader of the Scottish National party, who was formerly the Member for Gordon and before that the Member for Banff and Buchan, actually put a Bill before the House to withdraw from the CFP. If what the hon. Gentleman is saying is absolutely correct, he is disagreeing with his former leader.
I do not think I am disagreeing with my former leader. What I am saying is that one can remain within the European Union and have a reform of the CFP—
The CFP is a political decision and it can be reformed. If consecutive UK Governments had not sacrificed everything, including the fishing industry, to get where we are, we would not be in the situation that we are in now.
I remind all Members here in Westminster Hall that in our 2017 manifesto we committed to either fundamental reform of the CFP or its complete scrapping. And it was in 2004 that the former party leader, who I think was the Member for Banff and Buchan at that time, introduced a private Member’s Bill calling for the scrapping of the CFP.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Since the 1970s, it has been the Scottish National party that has opposed the CFP. We have opposed it; we have sought its reform; and any record in Hansard will show that that is the case.
The fishing communities across the UK did not need Brexit to thrive and survive; they needed a Government who cared and put their interests first. I look forward, with certainty, to the day when that Government is an independent Scottish Government, who will look after the interests of all our fishermen and not throw them under a bus at the first opportunity, as has been the case in the United Kingdom throughout the years of the CFP.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and I will try to be as quick as I can.
Fishing at least has been, if it is not now, the lifeblood of constituencies represented by hon. Members around this Chamber today. Under the European Union’s common fisheries policy, we have seen many smaller fishing constituencies—and, in some cases, not so small fishing communities—reduced to a mere shadow of their former glory. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that, regardless of how else we might feel about Brexit, the CFP is a discredit to our coastal communities that we must take every possible opportunity to redress.
My own constituency of Banff and Buchan has fared relatively well in the last few decades, Peterhead being the largest whitefish port in Europe and Fraserburgh the largest port in Europe for nephrops. Although those ports survive, overall activities are not what they once were. As we look forward to a “sea of opportunity”, it is not only those brave fishermen who go out to sea to catch the fish who stand to benefit. We must also see an expansion in our capacity to process the product. We need to improve infrastructure and transport links, and perhaps invest in chiller facilities at one of the Scottish airports to help facilitate the export of fish further afield than the EU, such as north America and the far east.
An expansion in our ability to catch more of our fish in our waters will also see a benefit to those services and industries that support the fishing sector: boat building, maintenance and servicing are just a few examples. One local fisherman told me recently that when his boat is in for annual maintenance and he berths it in dry dock, he provides work for around 40 different contractors, mostly from around the local community and certainly from around north-east Scotland. The more fishing opportunities that we have, the more active our fishing boats will be, and the better things will be for the wider coastal communities and the economy.
I think that the figure produced by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is that something in the region of 40% of the fish in our waters are caught by the UK fleet. I think the hon. Gentleman is a supporter of the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement and deal. What share does he expect the UK fleet will have at the end of the day if that agreement is implemented?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course, there is nothing in the withdrawal agreement that specifically states that any shares will be given up. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall said earlier, we should start from the default position of, “We have full access and that is our access to negotiate in the annual negotiations going forward.”
I will move on. The Scottish demersal sector has performed reasonably well during 2018, but the prognosis for 2019 is less buoyant, given the reduction in total allowable catches for some of our key commercial stocks, such as North sea haddock and cod. The TACs for the jointly managed stocks with Norway, which were set as a result of negotiations that have been concluded, have already been listed by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall.
The TACs for stocks such as anglerfish, hake and so on are due to be set at the December Fisheries Council. Such reductions, at a time when the landing obligation is due to come fully into force, could be problematic to say the least. The reduction in North sea cod could make it a choke species for the fleet. The landing obligation is explicit in the demand that catches of all regulated species must be landed ashore. Once the quota of North sea cod is exhausted, the fleet will be required to stop fishing for the other major species, such as haddock, whiting, saithe, hake and anglerfish.
There is a significant and real risk that tens of millions of pounds of fish could go uncaught as a result. I ask the Minister to give some clarity today about the action he will take to avoid early closure of our fisheries. What discussions has he had with the devolved Administrations on this matter?
There is real concern about the number of non-UK vessels operating in the Scottish sector, mostly in the waters around Shetland, as Mr Carmichael will appreciate. A recent analysis carried out by the industry set the numbers of vessels catching whitefish as follows: 19 UK- based but foreign-flagged vessels; 12 Spanish vessels; 33 Norwegian vessels; eight German vessels; 27 French vessels; and 23 Danish vessels—a total of 122 vessels. To provide some scale, the Scottish fleet has only about 85 vessels targeting whitefish. Does the Minister agree that an influx of foreign vessels at this level is unsustainable for stocks and clearly unfair to our fishermen? What does he plan to do to protect our stocks from being plundered by foreign vessels?
Finally, as Brendan O'Hara mentioned, access to non-EEA crew continues to be an issue for a number of our vessels, given that they are prohibited from operating within 12 nautical miles of the shore. Non-EEA workers enter the country to work on a fishing vessel using a transit visa, the current definition of which allows vessels to operate out of the UK without entering a foreign port, so long as they stay outside of 12 miles while fishing. The skipper of a vessel is required to demonstrate to the overseas British embassy that his vessel has operated for the previous three months outside of 12 miles; only then will the fisherman be granted his visa.
The situation has led to a number of vessels being sold due to crew shortages, particularly on the west coast of Scotland. We have made several representations on a cross-party basis to the UK Immigration Minister for the 12-mile restriction to be removed, so that every segment of our fleet can get access to the same pool of labour. There are currently 4,900 full-time fishermen in Scotland, of which over 800 are non-EEA. Given the current plight of our vessels when it comes to finding suitable crew, I ask the Minister to push for that 12-mile restriction to be lifted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Sir Henry, and I congratulate Mrs Murray on securing what has become a useful annual fixture in the calendar, ahead of the Fisheries Council that the Minister is now very familiar with. I will take this opportunity to remember and commemorate all of those who go out and fish for the benefit of their communities and the whole country. Those people are in what is still the riskiest occupation in the whole of the country, and they deserve our thoughts and our thanks for the work they do, as does the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I notice that a small situation occurred off the coast of the hon. Lady’s constituency in recent days, when the RNLI was required to go out and rescue a French vessel that broke down. It is not just those directly involved in the fishing industry, but all those associated with maritime activities, who deserve our thanks.
I wholeheartedly support what the hon. Lady has said. Will she also recognise the work of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, which not only provides support for UK fishermen, but also those from other member states who find themselves in trouble or hardship off the coast of the United Kingdom?
Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and she is right to recognise the work of that organisation. I will also take this opportunity to remember our colleague and former Member of this House, Margaret Curran, who has been very unwell. She used to make valuable contributions when she was an elected Member, and we are the poorer for her no longer being in this House.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall was assiduous in pointing out how important this Fisheries Council is going to be: this will be its final meeting, and will set the tone for all our future fishing relationships. The general nature of fishing lends itself to becoming quickly adversarial over territorial and quota disputes, but there is an enormous amount of room for generating good relations with those countries that have traditionally fished alongside UK vessels. We might not like it, and the fishing industry of the UK might not like it, but even if we eventually are in the driving seat, taking back control of our waters—that is language that I do not like to use, but that is what is hoped for within the industry—so that we can decide who fishes, where they fish and how much they fish for, we will still require good relations in the future, because we do not want to see any conflict or aggression over borders or quotas. I cannot see how this House could possibly wish to encourage any kind of negativity or conflict over those issues, which is why it is all the more important that the Minister sets the tone and the boundaries of expectations going forward.
Brendan O'Hara said that successive Governments have failed on the CFP, and have not taken a strong enough stand. I suspect that the Minister may wish to dispute that, given his endeavours in recent years, but it seems that the selling out of the UK fishing industry in the withdrawal agreement is history repeating itself a little bit. There is no guarantee in the withdrawal agreement that anything will change: the Minister has said that for the next two years, he does not expect a great deal to change, and beyond that, we really do not know. The withdrawal agreement is wholly unsatisfactory to an industry that is looking for more certainty, and for a redress—a rebalance—of the inherent unfairness that they see as having been inflicted on them for a number of years.
I recognise that other hon. Members want to contribute to this debate, so I will just touch on the east coast specifically. We have traditionally had a very different industry from that of the south-west or Scotland: we were a deep-sea area, with deep-sea fisheries that were going into Atlantic waters—although the people of Whitby and Bridlington will no doubt say otherwise, because their fleets were much more inshore and smaller. The instrumental thing for Grimsby, about which I cannot get a satisfactory answer from the Government, is our relationships with Iceland and Norway. We will still want access to those waters, so what will be the impact of the European economic area and European Free Trade Association agreements that Norway and Iceland have with the EU? How will that affect the UK once we have left the EU? That is if we actually leave—it is all looking decidedly ropey today. How will that affect those agreements? That is why I urge the Minister to continue those good relations, because we will still need good relations with those countries and with the EU if we are to continue the relationship that we have at the moment.
I am going over time—sorry, Sir Henry. I will just say that to some of those larger fleets, as UK Fisheries Limited has said, for the east coast of England, Brexit means that
“UK fishing opportunities, including access and quota, will only be traded if there is a reciprocal benefit to the UK and that there will be a fairer share of the fish in UK waters allocated to UK fishermen. This has the potential to correct the current situation where fishing vessels from the East Coast are prevented from going to sea due to lack of quota, while those from other countries can continue to fish. There are, however, a number of threats that are particular to the fleet based in the area.”
I will write to the Minister with more detail, if that is okay, to allow colleagues to make their contributions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Murray on securing this debate. I also congratulate hon. Members on the way in which we have worked together to give everyone an opportunity to speak. I will do what I can to stick to the time I have.
It is good to be able to discuss this issue before next week’s Fisheries Council, and there are a few things about the European Commission that I would like to raise on behalf of fishermen in and around west Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly. First, bass has been a contentious subject for a few years now. As has been said before, bass is not the biggest share of the fish we catch, but it is a premium fish that is part of all aspects of fishing in west Cornwall. Will the Minister provide some clarity on measures to manage the recovery of bass stock? Have they been effective? Where are we today? What does he expect going forward?
The Commission’s recommendations for next year appear to plan to increase the take for bass for those that target bass, but to continue to restrict the landing of dead bass caught as bycatch. That makes no sense to me. When I have had the opportunity, I have argued that if bass is caught as bycatch and is dead, it makes no sense to discard it, particularly when the Commission wants to fully introduce the discard ban next year. What can anglers expect in and around west Cornwall? What can the inshore fleet and the over-10s expect for bass next year and going forward when we hopefully have more control over how we manage that species?
The Commission’s intention is to fully introduce the discard ban or landing obligation from
Moving on from the Commission, I want to do some blue-sky thinking for the inshore fleet. In Cornwall and my constituency, we have a number of small ports. Newlyn is the fourth biggest port for fishing in the UK, but the small ports and communities rely heavily on the inshore fleet. When we are free of the common fisheries policy and the London fisheries convention, there is a real opportunity to look at how the inshore fleet can help to revive coastal communities and sustain a supply of good-quality fish in the local community. We can also supply a training opportunity and training ground to bring fresh blood into the industry. We have heard how difficult it is to attract new people into fishing. They see no future in it, yet the inshore fleet provides a real opportunity to train safely, learn the craft and move on to a bigger vessel, if that is what they want.
It would be good to talk openly about what can be done for the inshore fleet. Because of the restrictions they already face with the weather and the size of their vessels, people are restrained in how often they can catch and what they can catch. There is a real opportunity to look away from quotas and look at how the inshore fleet can revive communities and the sector.
UK fishing is complex. We have heard today how diverse it is, but we have four key areas. In my constituency, we have the over-10s; the under-10s and the inshore fleet; a mixed fishery—bycatch and discards are a real challenge, because they catch what they never targeted—and sea angling, which is a significant part of our local economy. As we move beyond the common fisheries policy, there is good reason to respond to the asks of the industry. In Cornwall, the fish producers have asked the Government to set up a formal advisory council to guide policy and promote collaboration from Government, devolved Administrations, regions and the industry. It is imperative that the industry sits around that table.
Melanie Onn discussed the challenges of dispute resolution. The fishing community in my community and across Cornwall has asked the Government to set up a dispute resolution mechanism to address differences across the regions, the devolved Administrations and international fisheries so that we do not have years and years of problematic disputes that prevent people from fishing for a living and from providing good nutritious food. Will the Minister give some indication as to whether those two requests—the advisory committee and the dispute resolution mechanism—are being considered seriously?
I thank Mrs Murray, who spoke, as she often does, with authority and with knowledge and experience of the fishing sector. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to participate in this debate and for going ahead with it—by the way, that is not something we can trust in any longer with the business of the House. The fact of the matter is that we are discussing this issue because it is of such importance. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions this morning, and I look forward in particular to the responses of the Minister and also the shadow Minister, who has deep knowledge of the issue.
I represent the fishing village of Portavogie. It is the second largest fishing village in the whole of Northern Ireland. It used to have 130 boats in the harbour. A person used to be able to cross the harbour without touching the water, just by walking across the decks of the boats. That is no longer possible, as the number of boats has reduced to 75. Why is that? It is due to EU bureaucracy and red tape. There are other key issues, including crew. The fishermen and fisherwomen of Portavogie look forward to leaving the EU and to being unfettered and free. Boy, we cannot wait. We look forward to that occasion.
Leaving aside the fact that this will be the last EU Fisheries Council at which the United Kingdom plays a full role, it is far from business as usual. Previous EU decisions dictate that fish stocks will be managed, by 2020 at the latest, according to the principle of maximum sustainable yield. The Minister knows the issue well. Importantly, the EU’s landing obligation, or discard ban, will be fully implemented from
With those factors in mind, the landscape for this December’s negotiations in Brussels will be complicated enough, even without Brexit in the background. In the Irish sea, fishermen will always contend that there is room for improvement with fisheries science. We need to put on record the commitment of Northern Ireland fishermen to that science. Discussions are ongoing to utilise the industry’s assets to expand acoustic surveys of the demersal species in the area, which have been valuable in changing the perception of Irish sea herring in particular. We are working with nature, and sometimes what goes up comes down. That is a flaw in the concept of maximum sustainable yield, which argues that all stocks can be maintained at a maximum level. Nature just does not work like that. It is not straightforward by any means.
The industry has accepted the scientific advice for the most economically important fishery in the Irish sea for Northern Ireland, which is nephrops—prawns. Portavogie prawns are renowned the world over. They are exported across Europe. They are a brand name, and it is important to put that on the record. Any change to the total allowable catch should reflect the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which includes scientific assumptions on survivability.
To be specific, our aim should be for a TAC that reflects the landing figure plus dead discards. That principle has been accepted for other species with high survival rates. The result should mean a percentage reduction in TAC that is in the low 20s, not the 32% advocated by Brussels. Again, I express some concern. We met the Minister last week, which was most constructive and helpful, and I thank him for that. We met the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, the Irish Fish Producers Organisation and my hon. Friend David Simpson. I look to the Minister to address the discrepancy and make a commitment on that.
The TAC for whiting is the top priority for the Irish sea in 2019. Of all the TAC issues, Irish sea whiting has some rather unique issues and is a priority. The Commission has proposed a TAC of 612 tonnes for next year, solely to cover the bycatch in the nephrop fishery. The fishing of the nephrop fishery by the UK fleet outstrips that of the Republic of Ireland by a factor of four to one, which again underlines its importance. That approach is unlikely to win support from the Republic of Ireland. Its application of the Hague preference would see it secure more than half of the quota in a fishery where it takes about 20% of the catch. We do not share the faith that some have that the Republic of Ireland would be willing to apportion the Union quota on the grounds of need without using it as a swap currency to extract other quota species from the UK. The conclusion is that we need to aim for Irish sea whiting to be treated uniquely, by making it a temporary prohibited stock—in other words, removing it from the list of TAC species.
The imposition by Ireland of the Hague preference mechanism continues to hang over quota allocations. As the United Kingdom leaves the common fisheries policy, the Hague preference will no longer apply to Irish sea stocks. That outdated quota distribution methodology will fall, and at the very least UK fishermen in the Irish sea will immediately recover the one third of their quotas for cod, whiting and plaice that they have annually handed to the Republic of Ireland, and which the Republic of Ireland has gratefully accepted, despite its feigned economic and social concern for the community in Northern Ireland.
That feigned concern extends to the hard sea border that the Dublin Government have erected and maintained against fishermen from Northern Ireland. The Minister knows the voisinage agreement very well, and I do not need to go into the issue in any detail. It was among the issues highlighted in the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The recommendation was clear: encourage the Dublin Government to resolve their side of the reciprocal agreement, or face the UK’s withdrawal from that agreement. Interested parties in the Republic of Ireland talk about the noise coming from Northern Ireland on the issue, and they have every right to acknowledge it. However, they should not forget that about 40% of the fish and shellfish captured by the Irish fishing fleet come from UK waters.
It should be left to the United Kingdom’s fisheries administrations to decide how quotas are allocated. Quotas are a massive issue within each jurisdiction, reflecting the different nature of the fishing fleets in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are better together; let us work together on this matter as well. The Fishing (Access to Territorial Waters) Bill recognises the principle of equal access by UK-registered fishing fleets to all UK waters.
Increased TACs, be they as a result of decisions made at the December Fisheries Council or of a new fisheries agreement with the UK, will be pointless unless we have the ability to catch the fish. That comes back to the key issue of crews, which the Minister and Members know about. Filipino crews are consistently dependable. They come to work, do the business and commit themselves totally to it. We spoke to the Minister about that last week, and I know he shares our concerns, as does the shadow Minister. We look forward to some help in persuading the Home Office to put those fishermen into the skilled category, thus enabling them to become part of what we want for our fishing fleets across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As the Minister prepares to wish his EU opposite numbers “bon voyage” at the end of next week’s Fisheries Council, we send him good wishes in his endeavours. He has proven himself to be a friend of the industry in Northern Ireland and the whole of the United Kingdom. His judgment, and that of his officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and the Departments in Scotland and Wales, is fundamental to securing a deal that is in the national interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. We look forward to a sustainable result.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate Mrs Murray on securing the debate, but observe in passing that it is somewhat unsatisfactory that we are in Westminster Hall and limited to 90 minutes on a Wednesday morning. This debate was traditionally part of Chamber business, and happened in Government time. I understand the reasons why it was taken out of Government time, which I think were sound. However, it was always the understanding that time would be available, and for us to have to rely on a ballot for the annual fishing debate is unsatisfactory. I hope the Minister will make representations to those in charge of business management within Government to ensure that we are not put in this situation again.
As I listened to Brendan O'Hara talk about Alex Salmond’s Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill, I reflected on the fact that it was when the hon. Member for South East Cornwall was here lobbying on behalf of that enterprise that I first met her. It is worth reflecting on the fact—I say this as the last man standing who was a sponsor of that Bill—that the argument advanced by the Conservatives who supported Alex Salmond’s Bill was that it was perfectly possible to come out of the common fisheries policy while remaining in the European Union.
Times change, and arguments of a different nature seem to be advanced these days, but it is worth putting those historical accuracies on the record. Also on a point of historical accuracy, Deidre Brock said that Alex Salmond wanted to abolish the common fisheries policy. That was a tweak that I introduced; originally, Alex Salmond’s Bill was for withdrawal from the common fisheries policy. Personally, I was never persuaded that that was possible, but it is all largely academic and of historical interest these days.
The Fisheries Council, to which the Minister will travel next week, is the last that we will know in the current set-up. It will be interesting to see what we are able do this time next year if we are out of the European Union but still part of the common fisheries policy, as the transitional arrangements would suggest. It will not be an easy Council. The Minister is aware that the scientific advice, especially in relation to North sea cod, is challenging, and that will produce a difficult outcome. I am sure he will argue with some force and vigour that the interests of our fleet should be maintained. I wish him well in that enterprise. I would be interested to hear how he anticipates advancing that argument this time next year, when we will not be at the table. As the hon. Member for South East Cornwall said, we will not have a voice.
Ahead of that, there is, today and tomorrow, the EU-Faroes bilateral in relation to pelagic stocks. The apportionment allows the Faroese fleet access to 30% of the mackerel in EU waters—something of a misnomer, because they are essentially Shetlands waters. We have been burdened with an exceptionally bad deal. It allows us access to 30% of the stocks in their waters, but frankly 30% of quite a lot can hardly be compared with 30% of very little, which is essentially what we get out of the deal. Will the Minister tell me what he has done to influence the progress of the talks and to ensure that the interests of the pelagic fleet in Shetland in particular are better treated than they have been in the past, and how he anticipates such an arrangement will work in the future?
Other hon. Members spoke about the need for visas for non-EEA nationals. I led an Adjournment debate on that on
“work as a joined-up Government.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 644, c. 1084.]
I wonder how that work as a joined-up Government has been going; it does not look particularly joined-up from where I see it today. However, it is of enormous importance. As the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said, it particularly affects the inshore fleet, but it also has a serious effect in relation to the bigger boats in the whitefish and the pelagic sectors.
Essentially, to get round the lack of proper working visas, fishing crews are having to come in on transit visas. The welfare issues surrounding that are well documented. The real difficulty is that it leaves fishing skippers having to fish where visa regulations allow them to, not where they know they will find fish. Eventually that will have an impact on safety—we all know that. That is why the issue cannot be kicked down the road any more. The subject commands attention on behalf of fishing communities represented on both sides of the House. I have been on delegations with the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As we come to the end of the year, I say to the Minister that if he is genuinely part of a joined-up Government, we need to see a resolution to this issue.
I have had my six minutes, Sir Henry—I could talk for an awful lot longer. I leave a minute, which I hope might be given to the Minister, if the Front Benchers can maintain good discipline, so that we all have an opportunity to intervene on him when he speaks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Henry. I pay tribute to Mrs Murray, whose long-standing commitment to the cause of fishing safety is a badge of honour and who is commendably tireless in her pursuit of a safer environment for people who work in the industry. She clearly has a very personal knowledge of the fishing industry; her personal loss means that she speaks with profound understanding of what is so often at stake for so many of the crews who go out to bring back fish. I cannot imagine what it takes to continue to campaign, as she does, for a better situation for them.
I speak from a less personal standpoint, but I absolutely acknowledge the nature of the task that the fleets face on each trip out to sea. I also recognise the unrelenting nature of the job and the difficult economic circumstances that face the fleets and the communities that depend on them. The uncertainties attached to working in the industry, onshore as well as offshore, must only be heightened by the chaos that dogs the Brexit process. I have to say that things are a little calmer in this Chamber today than they have been in the main Chamber over the past couple of days. Staid and sober consideration of the issues before us is certainly a better way to proceed.
I commend the hon. Lady for what she said about the comments quoted from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. She made the important point that those words have been taken out of context and misquoted; I commend her honesty, and I hope that when hon. Members discuss these matters in the future, they will hear her wise words. She and other hon. Members also spoke about the Fisheries Council meeting next week—the last time the Minister has a voice at the table. A very important point arising from the flawed deal that the Prime Minister may or may not have negotiated is that the fishing industry will have lost the opportunity to influence and guide decisions made at that Council. The hon. Lady made a doughty challenge at the end of her speech for the Minister to provide clarity on the issue, particularly on aspects that relate to her constituency and its interests. Her points were well made and I look forward to the Minister’s response, as I am sure we all do.
My hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara shared stories about the difficulty that the hostile environment approach to immigration has caused for access to crew, a point made by hon. Members across the Chamber. He also raised vital concerns about the advantages to be enjoyed by Northern Ireland under the arrangements in the current withdrawal deal and gave us some spirited discussion about the vexed issue of the CFP. I am sure that that spirited discussion will continue long into the future.
David Duguid reiterated my hon. Friend’s call to relax the tight restrictions on non-EEA crew members, which are causing big problems. Melanie Onn called for the maintenance of good relations with other countries—a really important point that I appreciate her making and heartily endorse. She also noted that there is no guarantee that anything will change under the current deal or that it will address the inherent unfairness that fishers see in the current system.
Derek Thomas called for clarity about the details of the deal that may be negotiated as a last roll of the dice at the Fisheries Council—possibly the last deal of its kind to be struck with the EU. He also spoke about the potential for inshore fishing, although I would argue that that could be done under a willing Government whether or not the UK retains its EU membership. Jim Shannon, as always, spoke up for his constituents and raised some specific questions for the Minister, who will be very busy in his reply; I had better be as brief as possible, so that there is time for those questions to be answered.
I thank Mr Carmichael for his helpful clarification of the circumstances surrounding the Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill. He also raised the issue of future deals for pelagic species and asked what the Government will do about the growing crisis in the availability of fishing crews, the resulting restrictions and their impact on safety.
It has been noted that the variety of our fleets and the differentiation around the shores and across species make it difficult to describe the industry as a single entity. Each part of it has different priorities. Scotland’s creel fisher-folk, for example, tell us that their product has to get to market alive, so one of the biggest threats to their continued profitability is congestion at border control. The industry could die along with the catch if the M26 becomes a lorry park. Those concerns have to be sorted out in advance of Brexit day.
Access to the EU market is essential for Scottish fleets, which should not be in a less advantageous situation than any other part of the UK. We will be losing access advantages as it is, since we will no longer have automatic barrier-free access to the world’s biggest marketplace in the world’s most affluent continent. There are something like 1,800 shellfish boats in the Scottish fleets; it is a significant source of employment offshore and has significant onshore economic impact.
The concerns of pelagic and whitefish fleets may be slightly different but they, too, require open markets. Around three quarters of the fish and seafood landed is exported, while around two thirds of the fish and seafood we eat is imported. Trade with the EU is essential for the fishing industry. We should probably see whether there is some kind of organisation that we can join that would allow us free access to those markets and keep food imports at a reasonable price—if only we could think of one.
There is a cruelty for our fishing fleets in the fact that they will be trapped in the CFP after we leave the EU and will therefore still have to comply with the rules after we have lost the ability to influence them. So much of what we heard before the referendum was simply untrue, but that is one of the cruellest tricks of all.
A host of other questions about Brexit and fishing are still unanswered, not the least of which is how the European maritime and fisheries fund will be replaced. The development of the fishing industries around these islands may be hampered if we do not have a replacement ready to go. The improvements to the boats, including health and safety improvements, that such schemes fund are important, but so are the shore-based improvements, and the environmental spend is of incalculable value.
We also need to know about access to the labour market for the industry. Like agriculture, the work of onshore fisheries in Scotland depends to a large extent on EU migrant workers, so closing us off from them will damage the profitability of the industry. I know that some Members of Parliament are dead set on ending freedom of movement, but the argument is about what to replace it with.
Some have argued that we should look at the Australian system; if I can don my outback hat for a while, I reckon that there is a new Australian scheme that might just fit the bill. The Australian Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs says that his Government
“is working to improve our immigration program to better match the needs of specific locations”.
The Northern Territory and south-west Victoria will have immigration schemes that allow in agricultural workers and hospitality workers to service the industries that desperately need them. The schemes, known as designated area migration agreements, will allow permanent residency in those areas, provided that people are willing to remain there for at least three years. I suggest that such a scheme would be helpful to the food production industries in Scotland and should be considered by any Government who value the contribution that those industries make.
We may or may not be leaving the EU soon, and we may or may not be getting a vote on it at some point, but it is high time we had a serious chat about how we want to protect our fishing communities and how we enhance them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank my neighbour from the far south-west, Mrs Murray, for introducing the debate so well.
I join in the tributes to all those fishers who have lost their lives since our last annual fisheries debate. Since I was elected last year, we in Plymouth have lost two trawlers at sea, with a death on each boat. I pay tribute to all those who risk their lives in the most dangerous peacetime activity in Britain to catch the fish that we have on our dinner plates. I also pay tribute to those who keep our fishers safe and supported: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, HM Coastguard, the Fishermen’s Mission, the Royal Navy and a group that is so often overlooked—the family and friends of fishers, who provide the support network, encouragement and understanding, and without whom the industry would not work.
I speak not only as shadow Fisheries Minister, but as an MP who represents Plymouth—a proud and historic coastal community with 1,000 jobs in fishing, both in catching and in processing. We have not said much about processing today, but it is a vital part of our fishing industry.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the processing sector, which employs approximately 5,000 people in my constituency and is intrinsically linked to the catching sector. It should not be forgotten in these debates.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The question we need to ask about processing is where the fish will come from in the future. We need to ensure that fish can be imported and exported with the added value that comes from processing, creating more processing jobs in the UK rather than putting the jobs we have at risk.
Fishing was the poster child of the leave campaign. It is one of the few industries in the entire UK—if not the only industry—that could be better on day one of Brexit than before it, but only if tariff-free access and frictionless trade can be achieved, in terms of making sure that we can export to our important export markets. I am no fan of the common fisheries policy—that has been briefly discussed here—and it needs to change and reform, but whether we are in it, or without it, we need to make sure that our fishing is more sustainable, both economically and environmentally, for UK fishers.
There are big challenges for fishing, which have been discussed today. The Fisheries Bill currently in Committee smacks of legislation that has been hurried out to reach the exit deadline. It needs many amendments. Derek Thomas spoke passionately about the advisory council and dispute resolution mechanisms, and I am grateful for that. I can see why the Whips kept him off the Fisheries Bill Committee, because, sadly, the Conservatives on the Committee voted down an amendment on the dispute resolution mechanism yesterday. More lobbying of the Minister to encourage him to bring back amendments at Lords stages will be gratefully received.
We have seen that fisheries is a fraught sector, particularly with devolved Administrations now potentially having to come to a common arrangement. Does my hon. Friend share my dismay that in Committee yesterday both the Scottish National party and the Tories voted down or abstained on the crucial amendment on having a dispute reconciliation measure?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I think it is best to create a dispute resolution mechanism before there is a dispute. We should have such a principle in the Fisheries Bill and I hope the Minister will reflect on that as the Bill progresses through its various stages.
Big promises were made to fishing by the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove—a key Brexiteer—during the referendum,. They have not been matched by delivery. There is an inherent risk behind many speeches from hon. Members here: the fear is that fishing will be further betrayed in the withdrawal agreement and what follows after. We only have to look at the promises made by Ministers, right up until they U-turned, on removing fishing from the transition period, to find good evidence on why fishing has every right to be concerned about the promises it is receiving at the moment.
I fear that decisions above the Fishing Minister’s pay grade will betray fishing further as the negotiation continues. I wish him the best of luck in steeling the nerve of those people further up the Government food chain, to make sure that fishing is not further betrayed. Labour has tabled a significant number of amendments to the Fisheries Bill to make real the promises from the leave campaign and seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start afresh and create truly world-class, sustainable fisheries, following our exit from the CFP.
I turn briefly to the issue of quota, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned, including my hon. Friend Melanie Onn, Jim Shannon. Under the existing system, ownership of quota has become increasingly consolidated in the hands of a few.
I anticipate that the hon. Gentleman will move on to fixed quota allocations; before he does, I hope he will acknowledge that those allocations were introduced under a previous Labour Fisheries Minister. Another mess also created under the same Minister is why the under-10-metre fleet finds itself in the position it does today. I will name the Fisheries Minister at the time—it was Elliot Morley.
I am always grateful for interventions from my neighbour. I suggest she reads the memo from the Fisheries Minister in Committee yesterday that said that this is about looking forwards, not back. Frankly, there are enough reasons to say that fishing was screwed over by a Conservative Government; I do not think it is appropriate to go into—
Okay, I withdraw that—I beg your pardon, Sir Henry. Fishing may have been betrayed by Conservative Governments in the past. Let us look forward, not back.
Labour wants smaller boats to be given a greater share of quota after Brexit. Small boats are the backbone of our fishing industry. They are the small and medium-sized enterprises of the sector. If this were any other sector, we would be talking about SMEs and multinationals, but we do not do that in fishing—we simply do not apply that phraseology. If we did, I think the tone of the debate around our fishing sector would be very different. Let us back the SMEs in the fishing sector. Let us make sure that the small-scale fleet, which generally uses low-impact gear, has a better environmental impact and, importantly, employs more people, gets a greater share of quota: 6% of quota and 49% of the workforce at the moment is not an equitable share.
In addition, we also need to make sure that more fish is landed in UK ports. Labour wants a requirement that at least 50% of fish caught under a British quota is landed in British ports, supporting the coastal communities—be they in the far south-west, the east coast or up to Scotland—and making sure that we can get the additional jobs that come with landing, processing and selling that fish, whether for consumption in the UK or for export. We want to make sure that we have more of it. It is a travesty that, at the moment, so much fish caught under a UK quota is exported immediately to foreign countries and not landed. We need to preserve that economic link.
I want to spend a moment on marine safety; we have an opportunity to talk more about that. Fishing is the most dangerous peacetime activity in the UK. We need to make sure that in any redistribution or reallocation of quota that may come from leaving the European Union, high standards of marine safety are embedded in every single quota allocation. That is precisely why we need to do more to make sure that EU and UK fishers obey the same high safety levels. Sadly, that is again something that the Minister decided to vote against in Committee yesterday.
We also need to do more to spread the best practice we already have. In Plymouth, a lifejacket scheme gives fishers better equipped lifejackets, to enable them to do manual handling in front, with a personal locator beacon. When someone goes overboard and the personal locator beacon is activated, it takes the “search” out of search and rescue. That is really important, and will help save lives when boats capsize or when people go over the side. When the worst happens, it will help with the retrieval of a body so that the family can bury that fisher. We need to be aware of just how dangerous fishing is. The Minister and I have had lots of conversations about the PLB and the lifejacket scheme and I will continue to have conversations with the Department for Transport to make sure that it happens.
I echo the comments from Mr Carmichael, who was passionate and correct in the view that this debate should be held in Government time. He heard me make that point yesterday, and he made it with much more force than I did in Committee. There is cross-party agreement that this annual debate should be held in Government time and in the main Chamber to give it the prominence and importance that it deserves—not only to our coastal communities, but to our politics. In many cases, fishing is about politics and identity just as much as it is about our coastal communities.
There is a great opportunity to create a better system for fishing—more economically and environmentally sustainable, safer for those people who are fishing, and adapted to the changing nature of our marine environment, especially with the effects of climate change. It is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. I pledge to the Minister that if he wants to work constructively, in a co-operative, cross-party way to improve the Fisheries Bill, which needs improving, the Opposition stand ready.
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.
My hon. Friend will understand that that is a live discussion. Some countries believe that it should still be along the lines of relative stability. We do not believe it should be, since that compounds the problem.
The alternative solution is to put more stocks on what is called the prohibited list. People are not allowed to target or catch them, but if they accidently catch them, they can be discarded. For understandable reasons, the Commission is reluctant to do that. It would be preferable to find an alternative solution using bycatch provision.
I turn now to the points raised by other hon. Members. A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend David Duguid and the hon. Members for Strangford and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), raised the issue of non-European economic area labour, which is important to crew some of these vessels. They will understand that that is an issue for the Home Office, so if they are talking to Home Office Ministers, they are talking to the right people. I undertake to talk to my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office again after this debate to see whether we can make some progress on this issue.
Will the Minister take from this debate our strength of feeling? When he speaks to his ministerial colleagues, will he advocate on behalf of those of us who desperately need this law changed?
As I said, I undertake to talk to my ministerial colleagues about that.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made the important point that, although we are leaving the European Union, we will still have annual fisheries negotiations with all our neighbours, just as Norway, Iceland and the Faroes do now. We will want to maintain good relations, and will rejoin the regional fisheries management organisations as an independent coastal state. I know that trade is very important for her constituency, but there is often a misunderstanding here. Although Iceland and Norway are in the EEA, the EEA agreement itself does not cover fisheries trade. Fisheries is outside the EEA trade agreement, but there are a number of separate preferential free trade agreements and what are called autonomous tariff rate quotas to allow tariff-free fish from Iceland and Norway, and even from the Barents sea and places such as Russia, to enter the UK. We are confident that we will be able to roll those preferential trade agreements forward.
My hon. Friend Derek Thomas raised the important issue of bass. We have led the discussions on it for a number of years. Last year, we argued against the overly restrictive bycatch provision for trawlers, and for some provision for the recreational sector. We believe that the science has moved our way on that, and we will be arguing that again. The idea of an advisory committee is interesting. We already work with the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, and we are looking at whether we can involve the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities in some of our thinking ahead of the December Council.
Finally, Mr Carmichael raised the issue of the EU-Faroes deal. I can tell him that when we leave the EU, it will be a UK-Faroes deal, and we will not have the problem of British interests being traded away for other EU countries’ interests.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the UK fishing industry.